Friday, October 29, 2010

His formative years

Current book: The World According to Garp
Pages read: 1- 62

It's the middle of World War II, and Jenny Fields, a young woman with a rich family, decides that she doesn't really believe in society's values - that is, getting married to a suitable man - so she drops out of Wellesley, where her family sent her, and attends nursing school instead. She becomes a nurse, which she loves, and lives alone, which she also loves, but is constantly bombarded with innuendo from her family that she's sleeping around and wasting her life, neither of which is true. Eventually she decides she would like to have a child, but is still contemptuous of all men to the extent that, using a scalpel she'd gotten (legally) from the hospital, she slashed a guy who was sexually harassing her in a movie theater. (He was out of line, but still. Opened his arm to the bone and sliced his lip. Ouch.)

After some time, a nearly brain-dead ball-turret gunner, name of Garp, comes to the hospital for treatment. He can only say his own name, has no capacity for reason, and frequently gets erections and masturbates to orgasm wherever he happens to be at the time. One time, Jenny climbs on top of him and uses him as a sperm donor for the child she wants so badly. She gets pregnant, Garp dies of his injuries, and she's eventually fired from her job for being an unwed mother.

She has the child, names him T.S. Garp (no meaning behind the letters, except that Garp's rank was technical sergeant) and moves to a boarding school called Steering School where she works as a nurse. Jenny raises Garp at the school, and we see some scenes from his childhood: he almost falls off the roof after playing in a rain gutter, he gets bitten by the dog of another staff member, he generally wanders around the infirmary and talks to older boys. Jenny eventually becomes head nurse and slowly fills the infirmary with books, since she reads constantly. Eventually, Garp enters school at Steering, which he loves. One day, it becomes apparent that he needs to choose a sport to play, and his mother happens upon the wrestling coach and chooses that as his sport. The coach's daughter, Helen Holm, loves Jenny because she resembles her long-lost mother. Garp, while wrestling for all the years of his Steering career, slowly falls in love with Helen Holm.

That's where we are. Lots for 60 pages, really. I like it so far; it's very engaging, and I always love the "childhood at school" parts of novels like this. The narration is interesting because it's often interspersed with references to Jenny's autobiography, published later, and by excepts from things that Garp has written that offer a sentence or two of commentary on the situation. It's clear already from the story that Garp aspires to be a writer, and apparently his aspirations are going to come to fruition.

It's also oddly vulgar sometimes, which usually bothers me, but it seems to be passing just under the radar in this novel. He just tends to talk about erections, sperm, and other excreta more than is really necessary, but for some reason it's coming across as frankness rather than vulgarity in this book.

I think it's going to be a good one.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I'd take the seasick crocodile.

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 550 - 661 (end)

I'm not sorry to be done, I'll say that about it. The ending was pretty sensational, and I don't mean that in the nice way.

Just after the scandal gets cleared up, Tom Stark gets injured in a football game and ends up paralyzed. As a result, Willie Stark withdraws his deal with the crooked contractor because he feels he has nothing to lose and is, for the moment, politically untouchable. The contractor, who was in cahoots with Stark's Lieutenant Governor, "Tiny" Duffy, is displeased, of course. As a result, an unidentified caller gets in touch with Adam Stanton and tells him that Anne slept with Stark, and that's why he was given the hospital directorship. Stanton is so incensed that he assassinates Stark at the capitol building and gets himself shot and killed in the process.

Afterward, Burden finds out that Duffy was the one who called Stanton, and, while he does go to his office and threaten him, resolves to leave well enough alone about it, since Duffy has no future in politics anyway. Burden, in fact, has a dramatic change of heart, marries Anne Stanton, and decides to write his long-lost dissertation about Cass Mastern. Burden finally realizes that the past doesn't define the future, only provides a jumping-off point for it, that he's wasted his life up until now, and that he wants to make the world a better place.

In the words of the immortal valley girl of 90s California, "Gag me with a spoon." I mean, really, Warren? This guy, who has no moral fiber of any kind, and who we've seen, time and time again, make reprehensible decisions more out of apathy than anything else, who's written off both the women in his life because they didn't do exactly what pleased him, and who blackmailed the only man in his life he ever really respected - this guy turns it all around and is filled with the light of righteousness and truth? For fuck's sake, man, you can't just completely change your mind about everything you've said in the entire novel right at the end.

I don't know, maybe you can, and I should be happy about it, since I just whined about how I hate books that condemn humanity as worthless, but I wanted it to be more believable, in the end. I just don't know that there was enough reason for Jack Burden to have a change of heart. It's not as though there was any one event that could have changed my mind, I suppose, it's just that I needed to see some flicker of morality in Jack's soul at some point before the very end of the novel. It's like deus ex machina, in a way, or deathbed conversion - it doesn't mean anything when it's sudden and without reason.

Speaking of deathbed conversions, there was some sense of Stark having wanted to do right all along that sneaked* into the novel in this end bit. When he was dying, he told Jack that he wished it had all been different, and Jack reflected on the fact that sometimes good men act badly in order to achieve good. Warren seemed to be arguing not for the idea that the ends justify the means, but for the idea that politicians who have fallen prey to that logic are not necessarily bad, but are just trying to act within the limitations of the political system. That was the kernel of truth in this book, really, and the idea that I liked best in it. The political system seems designed, in a way, to cause moral compromise. A senator can never get the law that he really wants passed, because it will have to be tweaked and amended, defanged by the opposing party, and passed through a committee that will make more changes, so that eventually it will be barely recognizable. That, too, is a kind of moral compromise. However, I think Warren carries the idea a little far. I don't think Willie Stark is actually a sympathetic character, simply because we've seen him bully, both verbally and physically, too many people. You want to build a hospital? That's great, but it doesn't excuse the years of corruption and blackmail that stand behind your career.

I don't know what to say about it. It was one-sided, a bit rambling, and disorganized, but it had moments of truth and discussed the political system in a way that hadn't been done before it was written. The ending was a bit of flash-in-the-pan, but I'm not sure most people would object to it as strongly as I do. I'm slightly swayed by the fact that it won a Pulitzer (which I shouldn't be, since that's very emperor's new clothes of me), but I still don't think it's worthy of the list. It's marginal. I don't have a good answer.

*As a side note, did you know that snuck is actually not a grammatically correct past tense form of sneak? I learned that today, and, I have to say, I'm a little disappointed. Snuck seems much more illustrative to me. Alas.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Then my father is truly dead.

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 460 - 550

I grudgingly admit that Warren actually managed to surprise me with a plot twist. I'm still annoyed with him for being constantly and consistently depressing, but at least I got a moment of shock out of this book.

It turns out that Jack and Lois's marriage ended because Jack left Lois with no warning or explanation. (Jack's narration actually manages to kind of blame her for it, which is pretty spectacularly unfair, but he also sort of half acknowledges that he's in the wrong.) Anyway, shortly after that part, we find out that Anne Stanton never married, and always seemed vaguely disappointed in Jack. He resolves his conscience about his bad relationships by painting Anne and Lois with the same brush - namely, that of all women, whom he dismisses as needy and bound by social convention. (Whatever, Jack. What. Ever.)

Back in the present, Willie Stark's son, Tom, gets himself into trouble with a girl. In the usual way, she gets pregnant and then accuses him of being the father, and he denies it and says she sleeps around. This results in Stark trying to buy her off with pressure from her senator, namely the guy that Judge Irwin endorsed way back at the beginning of the book. So, of course, that means that Stark wants to pressure Irwin into withdrawing his endorsement unless the senator erases the scandal with Tom, and to do that, he wants Jack to blackmail the judge with the scandal he unearthed. Stark still doesn't know what it is, but he trusts Jack to deal with it. So, Jack, who, remember, used to admire Irwin, goes to blackmail him. Irwin refuses the deal, of course, and, after Jack leaves, shoots himself.

When Jack's mother finds out that Irwin shot himself after Jack visited him, she breaks down and tells Jack that Irwin is really his father. (Music sting! Honestly, it was really quite a shock, but it made sense in the context of Jack's mother's many husbands, so it didn't seem underhanded of Warren or anything.) Jack is remorseful, but not nearly enough, frankly, and still goes back to work for Stark. He refuses to do any more blackmailing, however. Stark's hand is forced by circumstance now that Irwin is dead, and he ends up having to give the contract to build his hospital to a crooked contractor in exchange for the erasure of Tom's pregnancy scandal. Stark is incredibly upset about it, what with the hospital being the one thing he was actually going to do right.

Jack is just so awful that I'm having a hard time mustering any emotional connection with the events of the book. Every time we learn something about his past, I feel like I'm supposed to be sympathetic to him, sorry for his loss of innocence or something, but it feels to me like he never had any innocence to lose. Maybe that's the point - that he's supposed to represent the inevitability of corruption and its inherent place in the human soul - but it's not working for me. The fall from grace is just so much more powerful. Warren took a stab at that with Willie, but he didn't give us enough evidence for Stark's initial goodness, either.

I'm just not cut out to read books where the message is that people suck and everything's awful. I fight it the whole way through, because I think it's untrue and even, sometimes, damaging. Also, it's not very nice first thing in the morning.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Objectification much?

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 373 - 460

All right, I'll admit it: I've been remiss in explaining the roles of a couple of characters because they kept being peripheral, but now I have to because they gotten important to the plot. This is what I get for cutting corners.

So, Adam Stanton, the hero-surgeon guy who was once Jack's good friend, is also the son of the previous governor, Governor Stanton. Adam's sister, Anne, was also good friends with Jack, and, there is an implication, had some kind of romantic relationship with him as well. This next section is mostly one long flashback that gives us details about the friendship and romance between the two of them.

After Jack finds out about the dirt on Judge Irwin, he tells Anne, who tells Adam, and both are devastated because it implicates their father, the former governor, in the scandal. As a result, Adam decides to take the hospital job that Stark has offered him, perhaps to make up for his father's corruption, or perhaps because he now sees the whole world as corrupt (and therefore doesn't mind Stark's hand in the business). Meanwhile, Jack finds out that Anne has had an affair with Willie and possibly manipulated him into offering Adam the job. This discovery launches Jack into a spiral of despair during which he drives across the country, stops in a motel, and gets drunk while he remembers his past.

In Jack's flashback, we see his blossoming relationship with Anne when they both teenagers, he in the summer after high school, she a year younger. They were simply friends at first, then found mutual attraction, and finally ended up almost having sex, but stopped just short of it. Adam was less than pleased to find his friend dallying with his sister, but didn't say much about it. The two planned to get married, but after several years of college, Anne lost interest in Jack, who was slacking off and had no ambition, and the relationship died. Afterward, Jack married Lois, who was nice to look at but not much else to him, and lived unhappily in the marriage for a while. That's where I had to stop, so I don't know how their marriage ended just yet, but I'm sure it did.

The way Jack talks about Anne is characteristic of that idea of the young, unspoiled maid who is attractive because of her potential for being spoiled. Once you have her, you won't want her anymore. It's a disturbing little paradox, really (and a pretty common one - look no further than your local mall and the dozens of available Catholic schoolgirl miniskirts), and one which Warren is playing up pretty strongly. There's a sense in it that Jack spoils everything he touches, or, more than that, that the world spoils everything in it.

The way Jack talks about Lois is, if anything, even more disturbing. He says, multiple times, that he is attracted to the "machine" of Lois, but not the "being" that is Lois. In other words, he likes the way she looks and the fact that she has sex with him, and that's about it. He often refers to her as an "it" in this part, and says things like, "when it opened its mouth to say words," in reference to her. Frankly, it's so offensive that it's difficult to read. I'm not saying Warren is a misogynist, because I think he's using the corrosive nature of this idea for a reason, but Jack sure as hell is. Lois is nothing to him but a tool to get over Anne - a toy that he thought would make him happy for a while - and he's proving it to us in the narration.

It's seldom that I've disliked a narrator as much as I dislike Jack Burden. He seemed vaguely human when we were hearing about his first love with Anne, but everything else he's done and is doing is almost cartoonishly reprehensible. I guess Warren's trying to make him the ultimate example of the ruination that is political corruption, but, once again, I think that nuance would suit better than extremity. I'd much rather seem him as an ambiguous character struggling with his morals than as the completely fallen man that he is. Even the scenes of his past never show him doing anything truly moral - he's just icky.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The road to hell

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 268 - 373

Hey, things are exciting in this bit because there is actually a glimmer of hope that not everyone in the entire world is completely beyond redemption! It's very, very faint, but it's there. I'll let you know where in the synopsis it comes in, because it might be hard to tell.

So, back to Cass Mastern. After killing his friend in order to secure said friend's wife, he and the woman have an argument about a slave that she sold. The slave had been in Mastern's family for some time, and the only reason his new mistress sold her was because she felt threatened by her beauty. Mastern heads off to go retrieve her, and in so doing, loses his mistress forever. He doesn't end up finding the slave, but does get in a fight, become ill, and then come dragging home feeling guilty for the whole thing. Afterward, he's a broken man, and ends up fighting in the Civil War and dying of a bullet wound. And the moral of all this, as Warren points out through Burden's narration, is that the world screws everyone over and makes him miserable. (Awesome. This is not, in case you were wondering, the glimmer of light part.)

After the Mastern bit, we get back to Burden's activities in Stark's employ, and follow him as he digs up dirt on the judge Stark was threatening way back at the beginning. He succeeds in finding out that the judge, Judge Irwin, once took dirty money when he was attorney general. As a result of the deal, a lawyer for the state lost his job because he tried to bring a suit against the company that was doing the lawbreaking. After appealing to the governor at the time (not Stark) and being told he'd better quiet down or risk even greater consequences, said lawyer killed himself. Burden hasn't yet reported this information to Stark, but will soon, and then, we assume, ruin Irwin's reputation with it.

In the meantime, Stark has been making plans to build a huge, free hospital in the state, and, lo and behold, he actually wants it to be politically clean. He wants to build it in order to do good, rather than just to make money and connections. (See the glimmer? An actual good intention!) Burden is given the task of convincing his old childhood friend, Adam Stanton, now a famous surgeon, to take on leadership of the place. Adam has, for now, refused, but the discussion is certainly not over.

As I said, it's kind of nice that Warren complicates Stark's character here with the sense that he actually wants to do some good, and isn't just completely, permanently corrupt. That said, it seems like Burden's going to strong-arm Adam into taking on a position he doesn't want, so it's not an entirely virtuous situation. But still, it's a helluva lot closer than we've gotten in this book so far.

I don't know, maybe I'm just naive as hell, or maybe it's that this book is too much a product of its time, but I guess I don't believe that everyone who's ever even come close to touching any aspect of politics has become part of a corrupt machine. That seems to be Warren's thesis, and I honestly think it errs pretty heinously on the side of cynicism. To be fair, some of that is a product of the narrative voice; Jack is supposed to be completely cynical himself, after all. But I think there's room for nuance that I've only just now seen evidence of, and I'm not entirely convinced is going to be pursued as much as I think it should be.

In other news, Warren used a word I didn't know: marmoreal. It means "like marble or suggestive of marble, especially as it relates to a sense of coldness or aloofness." From context, before looking it up, I'd decided the meaning ran something along the lines of "dignified and severe," so I was pretty close. (Although, honestly, part of me really wanted it to mean "like a marmot.") It's not often I have to look up a word, so I liked it, but I didn't like that he used it three times in as many pages. Have the wit to vary the tune, Warren.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lame duck

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: None

No pages read at all, and I didn't even cook anything, so I have no real excuse. Yeah, sorry.

On the subject of political novels, has anyone ever read a modern American political novel that was actually good? I know I haven't. Mostly they seem to stumble around, wallowing in scandal and poorly disguised commentary, until they come to unsatisfying endings. Unfair? Tell me how.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Violent tendencies

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 173 - 268

I honestly don't know how to relate to this book. It seems to be a series of confused recollections of various instances of corruption, but I don't feel like I'm really getting anything out of it or that it's moving the plot along.

I mean, for example, in this bit we see Willie Stark get his attorney general out of an impeachment scandal, and it's clearly underhanded, and then there's a bunch of reflection about it on Burden's part. At this point, I get that there are lots and lots of scandals, so listing each one isn't really doing a whole lot for me. His wife threatens to leave him. I guess that's new. Then we get the story of Jack Burden's doctoral dissertation, randomly, which is about the diaries of a guy named Cass Mastern, an ancestor of his, and his marital infidelities. He was a good guy, basically, who went to college and ended up sleeping with a friend's wife and then, eventually, killing the friend.

That's really all there was. I just...I don't know. I'm bothered by how often we're switching time periods and by how unimportant the information we're getting is. Everything just seems like a foregone conclusion, and it's obnoxious. If Warren hadn't started out with the utter corruption of Stark right at the beginning, it would be a lot better. The characters are all just so horrible. I want to punch everyone in the face.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Either I'm dead right or I'm crazy

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 70 - 173

Well, when I said "argue with the judge" yesterday, what I really meant was "try to intimidate the judge into changing his endorsement." Despite the fact that Governor Stark seems to have a great deal of power, he fails to get the judge to back down. Burden, the narrator, is disgusted at his own involvement; he used to know the judge well, and is ashamed of his own part in the political corruption. You wouldn't know it from the way he acts, but his narration is full of self-loathing.

After they leave, Warren throws us back to the beginning of Willie Stark's political career. It turns out he gets into politics by becoming treasurer for his county. While he's in that position, a vote comes up for a contract to build a new schoolhouse, and Willie insists that the county take the low bid (like you do). However, the county commissioner wants to give the contract to his brother's contracting firm (which has been accused of substandard building practices and also offered a higher bid), and gets Willie kicked out of office in order to do so. Willie is disgusted, of course, but later vindicated when one of the fire escapes crumples during a fire drill, killing three children and making Willie look the righteous do-gooder. Shortly thereafter, upon the request of some concerned citizens, Willie runs for governor. It turns out that one of the other candidates arranged Willie's run so that he'd split the vote of the first candidate's opponent, and when Willie finds out, he exposes the whole plot in a high-profile speech. Afterward, he spends the rest of the campaign time speaking for the opposite side, having changed his whole persona and political diction (formerly righteous, informational, and boring and now inflammatory, didactic, and exciting). Burden covers Willie on the campaign trail and takes care of him when he finds out about the scandal and drinks himself into a near-coma.

A few years later, Willie runs for governor in his own right and is elected. Burden gets fired from his newspaper for refusing to write articles that hold the party line (which is in favor of the other candidate), and, after a period of whiny unemployment, Willie hires him. To do what, you ask? Whatever Willie decides, it seems.

Right now, it sounds from my description like both Stark and Burden are upstanding gentlemen who are fighting for what's right. That's misleading, though, because their actions belie the undercurrent of cynicism in the book. Burden's narration is so damn jaded and hopeless that it seems like everyone in the world is corrupt. I know Warren's doing that on purpose, since it's retrospective and Burden, has, in fact, lived in a corrupt world for years, but doing it through that lens makes it seem like no one has ever been honest. Even Stark, in this early example of crusading for what's right, seems like he's dirtied by corruption; Burden never stops calling him a dupe, and a fool, and a blind, naive moron. It's fairly impossible, then, to sympathize with either of them. Burden's obnoxious because he's so bitter that he can't take joy in anything, and Willie's obnoxious because he's presented as either an idiot (in the past) or a tragic example of corruption (in the present). Can no one actually be good? It's like watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, only at the end, Mr. Smith just takes the graft money and screws the boy scouts out of their camp. Cheery.

I'm kind of annoyed by the dialogue, also. I don't know if it's just a product of the 40s, or what, but I find the way people speak to be stilted and unrealistic. It sounds like film noir or something, and I don't appreciate it as stylization, if that's what it is, so it comes across as affectation instead.

We'll see what happens, but it's hard to get into a book when you hate the narrator. And all the other characters, come to think of it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 1 - 70

Willie Stark, the governor of Iowa (I assume, because they keep talking about Mason City), is visiting his father at the former's childhood home. Our narrator, a journalist who works for Willie and goes by the name of Jack Burden, is accompanying him, along with Mrs. Stark and a couple of other flunkies. It's apparent from the description of Willie and his home town that he was raised as a simple country boy, and, now that he's gotten into politics, has become a fat cat who does whatever it takes to get what he wants. (I already kind of hate him. Actually, not just kind of. I already hate him.) After using his old, broken-down father and his father's old, broken-down dog for some photo ops, Willie takes Jack over to the house of a judge whom Burden used to know. That judge, as it turns out, has just endorsed a candidate for office of whom Governor Stark does not approve. Willie proceeds to argue with the judge about his choice.

That's as far as I got, which, honestly, doesn't seem very far for having read 70 pages, but there's a lot of description going on. Snippets of both Stark's and Burden's childhoods are sneaking into the narrative, as well as an account of their first meeting, years ago when Stark wasn't yet a politician. Warren's made a good, though perhaps not particularly risky, choice by tipping his audience off to the fact that Stark's political life has corrupted him. Now, instead of waiting in suspense to see if he'll give in, we're waiting in suspense to see what exactly his downfall will be. I wonder, too, if Warren's going to go beyond just the governorship and take Stark to the presidency. It seems fairly likely, based on the title , but it's probably not necessary for the portrait of corruption it seems we're heading towards; could go either way.

This book makes me wish I knew more about Watergate. It was written long before Watergate ever occurred, but I still feel like it's the most relevant modern political scandal I can think of. Warren was probably thinking about the general disaster that was 1920s politics in Chicago and elsewhere when he wrote the novel, but it resonates more for the modern reader when applied to recent scandals. Anyway, Watergate - I mean, I've got the basic gist of it, that Richard Nixon authorized illegal search and seizure of Democratic party records in order to improve his political position. But I know there's more to it than that, and that I'm missing information. More than the details, though, I wish I had a better idea of how Watergate affected the political climate of the U.S. at the time. What did it feel like to have the president disgraced? What did it feel like to know that the highest office in the land was one of the most corrupt? Sure, I was alive during the Clinton impeachment, but frankly, it was a kangaroo court that had nothing to do with actual corruption on Clinton's part, and it didn't seem like it undermined American political confidence much. I only assume that Watergate did, and that it really had an impact on everyday life. I could be wrong, though - maybe half the population ignored it, as they mostly seem to do these days. Well, that or scream crazy slogans and deny evolution. Apathy or insanity - it's hard to say which is worse. I've digressed, so I'll exit. More scandal coming soon.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What happens in Florence stays in Florence.

Current book: A Room with a View
Pages read: 158 - 211 (end)

Well, everyone spends some more time together, Cecil keeps being an asshole, and eventually George and Lucy find themselves alone together. George admits that he still loves her, kisses her, and tells her to leave Cecil. She's angry and resistant and denies him, but later in the evening realizes that he's at least right about Cecil. Lucy calls off the engagement, which Cecil handles fairly well, and she vows to go to Greece on a pleasure trip to avoid complications and gossip in England. Before she can leave, however, she meets George's father, who realizes that she loves his son, and he tells her so. His certainty causes her to realize the truth, and she vows to reconcile with George.

Forster skips forward several months here for the final chapter, and we see the two young people already married and vacationing, once again, in Florence. Lucy's family is, apparently, angry with her about their marriage, but she and George are, nonetheless, happy and full of hopes for the future.

It was a cute, cheery little novel with an undercurrent of cutting social satire. All in all, it was pretty enjoyable, but I'm not sure it was deep and moving, or even particularly memorable. I will admit that the portrayal of Cecil kept cutting me to the quick, though. Some of the reasons he's an asshole, as I mentioned before, are traits that I share with him, and it made me think about my personal flaws. I suppose that's a mark of good satire, really - that it results in self-examination.

Anyway, I wasn't blown away by the novel, and I don't think it really deserves to be on the list, but it's worth reading. It did have a bit to say about women not letting themselves be controlled and protected by men or their families, so that was nice, but honestly I think Forster was thinking more about being entertaining than anything else. Sometimes that has its place.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Breaking the fourth wall

Current book: A Room with a View
Pages read: 72 - 158

Well, the scandal is surprisingly unexciting, since all that happens is that George Emerson stumbles away in embarrassment and Miss Bartlett whisks Lucy back to the carriage. The whole party leaves, actually, since there seems to be a storm coming, but they do so without George, whom no one can find. They get back to Florence just fine, and, much later that night, George does, too. Lucy, pressured by Miss Bartlett, agrees to flee to Rome, the next stop on their tour, early the next morning.

At this point, the narrative jumps ahead a few months, to Lucy's home in England after she's returned. She has just gotten engaged to man named Cecil, whom she met in Rome, and who is clearly a jerk. He's incredibly snobby, but less about money than about intellectual prowess and high taste, which is, usually, just as obnoxious. Anyway, just after the engagement, the Emersons of the kissing scandal rent a nearby house. Lucy is conscience-stricken, not having told Cecil about said kissing incident, and she doesn't know what to do. Miss Barlett eventually comes up to stay at Lucy's for the wedding and adds the pressure of having the only other person who's aware of the scandal also present. To add to the trouble, Lucy's brother, Freddy, is becoming friends with George. Lucy, therefore, sees him oftener than she'd like and finds herself attracted to him (though she doesn't really realize it).

Well, it's honestly a bit silly. I mean, it's fairly well written, sure, but the subject material seems a tell the truth. If this book were translated into modern diction and jazzed up for the publishing trade, it'd be a pink paperback located on the "chick lit" table. Seriously. That does mean, though, that's it's pretty entertaining.

Cecil being a total snob without really being a snob about money is an interesting interpretation of class difference. He just sort of places himself in a higher intellecutal and cultural bracket than everyone else and gets peevish when they violate his sense of dignity. (Honestly, it hit a little close to home. I have tendencies that are not always unlike Cecil's. For example, there's a bit where Forster describes how Cecil sneers at Freddy while the latter is singing comic songs, and I was reminded, uncomfortably, of my inability to tolerate the broad comedy of popular movies like Anchorman, Superbad, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.) I was impressed that Forster thought to include a subtly different take on snobbery and hierarchy.

Also, one oddly glaring flaw occurs when Forster first introduces Cecil; he says something like, "We've come far enough in the story now that Cecil must be described." There's been no narrative presence at all up to this point, and frankly, I was annoyed by the sudden inclusion of one. You can't just turn to the camera and talk, as it were, whenever you feel like it. It has to be established early and continue throughout. Poor form, Forster. Poor form.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pond of Doom!

Current book: A Room with a View
Pages read: 9 - 72

Well, we're back to gawking at the idle rich, as we always do in novels from the period between 1800 and 1940. Gee, isn't it fun? Don't you just love observations about the privileged classes?

Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, are visiting Florence as part of a tour of Italy. Lucy is quite young and Charlotte has been engaged by Lucy's mother to act as her chaperone. They are staying in a pension, which is basically a rooming house with meals, and the story so far is pretty much about their interactions with the other guests. Everyone is, of course, English, but there are still snotty little cliques and vendettas within the pension. (Don't get the idea that this is something that's happening over a long time period, either, because it's maybe a week. But you know how alliances and prejudices are - they pretty much occur instantly. Especially if you're a snotty Brit.)

A father and son, Mr. Emerson and George Emerson, are also staying in the pension. Nobody likes them because they say what they mean. (No, really. They're nice, but completely without guile, and it drives all the snobby tourists crazy.) Ms. Lavish, who has been in Italy for a long time, is a stuck-up artist type trying to write a novel. She constantly goes on about "her Italy" and likes all of the most squalid parts of it. Mr. Beebe, a clergyman from Lucy's parish, seems nice enough, actually tolerates the Emersons, and tries to promote relations between all the guests at the pension.

Plot-wise, Lucy encounters the Emersons several times in her tours of Florence and has positive experiences with them, so is inclined to like them. After wandering around the square alone one day, she stumbles across a heated argument between two Italian men and ends up seeing one of them stab the other right in front of her. She faints, and, by chance, George Emerson is there to catch her. She begs him not to tell anyone about it, and he agrees. Later, the pension guests go on a driving tour together during which they get out of the carriages to take a stroll through the countryside. Lucy, alone, comes upon a hill covered in violets where George is standing. Seeing her overcome with joy at the beauty of it, he kisses her, at which instant her cousin Charlotte arrives as well.

My goodness, the scandal! I was reading the introduction to this edition and found that they described the novel as a "comedy of manners." It's fair in that it's certainly using manners and politeness as fodder for absurdity, but honestly, it's a good deal more cutting than that. The British tourists that populate the pension are cruelly caricatured versions of the rich, and we laugh at them accordingly, but it feels more spiteful than comedic. There's definitely some contempt on Forster's part for people who spend all their time looking at guidebooks and none of it actually experiencing their surroundings. That said, there's also a lot of contempt for people who set too much stock in experiencing the "authentic" and in so doing still fail to understand the places they visit. Honestly, Forster's main message seems to be, "For the love of God, just relax." Which, you know, is kind of fair.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Grey Havens

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Pages read: 313 - 385 (end)

Everybody goes to Rohan to entomb Theoden and celebrate his great sacrifice, and Faramir and Eowyn get engaged there (which is a little macabre, but whatever). Afterward, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, and the hobbits set off for Orthanc, where they find that Treebeard has let Saruman go out of pity. Legolas and Gimli depart at this point to travel through each others' homes, and Gandalf and the hobbits go on to Bree. There they find that things have gone downhill, and there has been unrest and economic trouble, though they don't know why. Gandalf leaves the hobbits to go back to the Shire on their own and deal with whatever awaits them.

In the Shire, a gang of thugs, under the leadership of one of the hobbits, supposedly, has taken over and done all sorts of nasty stuff. They've created a bunch of "sheriffs" and made them accost people on the street for speaking ill of "the Boss," stolen crops, built ugly and polluting buildings, and cut down a bunch of trees. Merry, Pippin, Frodo, and Sam are having none of it, and they immediately start cleaning the place up. They rally the hobbit population and move against the invaders, killing some and driving the rest out. After the majority of the rabble is gone, they go to find "the Boss," Lotho Baggins, to whom Frodo sold Bag-End when he left, but instead find Saruman, the instigator of the whole mess. Though Frodo tries twice to let him go, Saruman's servant, Grima, ends up killing the old wizard, and is then shot by hobbit archers. Afterward, they clean up the whole Shire, demolishing the ugly buildings, rebuilding homes, and replanting trees. Sam takes a special interest in the trees, since he is, after all, a gardener, and uses some of the sacred earth of Lorien that Galadriel gave him to help them along.

They live in the Shire for the next year or so, enjoying a great prosperity and their fame and recognition, and Sam marries his sweetheart and has a child. Frodo, however, never really recovers from his wounds, both mental and physical. Eventually he decides to go with Gandalf and the elves on the ships to the West, which is, effectively, dying. Sam, Merry, and Pippin see him off, and then return home to go on with the business of living.

Well, the reports were correct; the end was a bit anti-climactic. It wasn't as bad as I was expecting, honestly, but I do think it detracts from the major climax of the successful destruction of the Ring to have another significant event occur afterward. That said, Merry and Pippin are totally awesome when they ride into the Shire and meet with the new regime. They're basically just like, "I'm sorry, you wanted to do what? Arrest us? Mmm, don't think so. Swords and armor. Total awesomeness. We win." It's pretty great.

The final ending, too, when Frodo goes off into the West, is done poignantly and well. Tolkien knows how to write that sense of sadness, of grief and nostalgia, that you get from parting with a friend, but also from enjoying something truly important and emotional. His ability to make his reader feel grief is just as apparent in Sam's homecoming after Frodo has gone, when he describes Sam returning to his warm, firelit home, as it is when Frodo leaves on the ship. It's quite impressive.

All right, so, overall assessment time. You have to give Tolkien credit for doing something that had never been done before. Honestly, these probably have to be recognized as the first fantasy novels ever written, and certainly the first fantasy epics. (Yes, there's The King of Elfland's Daughter, but it's really a fairy tale, not a fantasy novel.) He created an impressively detailed world and he told a story that, in the end, was quite stirring. There are, however, major flaws in his writing. He was so focused, it seems, on the mythology and creation of his world that he failed to pay attention to creating characters to populate it, or to crafting his plot in such a way as to tell his story well. There's a great tradition in the English canon, though, of including books because they are groundbreaking, radically new and different in some way, and it's hard not to say that Tolkien accomplishes this.

I'm going to go with not worthy of the list, but just barely. I feel like they deserve a sidebar for being genre-defining, but the writing just doesn't warrant best 100 status.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I love weddings! Drinks all 'round!

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Pages read: 218 - 313

Sam makes it back to Frodo, due to the fact that all the orcs guarding him have fought amongst themselves and killed each other. Frodo is still alive, and Sam gets him up and dressed in orc's clothing, which Sam also dons by way of camouflage. They venture out into Mordor to get the Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it. It's rough going, and it takes days of miserable trudging across the blackened, smoking landscape. Frodo is half-dead with the dark poison of the Ring, and both of the hobbits are suffering from thirst and starvation. Gollum is also lurking about and following them from place to place. Finally, after having to march a considerable distance with a troop of orcs, they come to the mountain.

is so exhausted at this point that Sam has to carry him up, and, while doing so, is beset by Gollum. Sam manages to fight him off, but finds that Frodo is nearly mad with the Ring's power, and has put it on and gone upward himself to the open cracks on the mountainside. Gollum chases him and gets there first, and Frodo and Gollum have a last fight over the Ring. Gollum bites Frodo's finger completely off to get it, but in so doing loses his balance and falls into one of the cracks, destroying himself and the Ring. The task, therefore, is completed, and Sauron's great dark tower falls, his power destroyed. All of Mordor, in fact, seems to collapse in on itself. Sam and Frodo consider trying to leave, but it seems hopeless until Gandalf's giant eagle friends, having come for the battle, swoop into Mordor and save them.

The hobbits wake up days later in Ithilien, under the care of Gandalf and the elves. All the forces of Mordor scattered and fled when the Ring was destroyed, precluding the final battle for which the forces of men had girded themselves. The hobbits are great heroes, and Aragorn and the elves recognize them as such. In Ithilien, they are reunited with Merry and Pippin, Gimli, and Legolas, and marvel at the fact that they've survived and succeeded. Finally, they go back to Gondor, where Faramir and Eowyn have fallen in love, and Aragorn is crowned king. After a short time there, Arwen, Aragorn's elven love, arrives, and the two are married. Eowyn gives Frodo the gift of a pendant which will allow him to go west with the elves and leave the world, if he so desires.

Well, you may be thinking that it seems like the book is over and I haven't said (end) yet. That' true. The climax and a great deal of denouement have, in fact, occurred, and yet, we seem to be carrying on. This is considerably further than I got when I tried to read these books before, so I don't really know what the last chunk is going to consist of, but I have heard rumors. "Giant anti-climax" is pretty much what I've been told. I can't really see how it wouldn't be.

That said, the final destruction of the Ring is quite stirring, especially when the hobbits are rescued and the whole company of elves and men celebrates them for their great sacrifice. There's something about scenes like that. It's never the great sacrifice itself that's the most touching part for me; it's always the recognition afterward - the mourning or the celebration - that's the most affecting part. I also liked the fact that Arwen and Aragorn continually recognize the fact that the hobbits, and especially Frodo, are not simply going to be fine again. The fact that Arwen offers Frodo the chance to sail into the west with the elves is a fitting recognition of, basically, post-traumatic stress disorder. (Or, in gentler, less technical terms, the fact that you just don't go through something so massively difficult and frightening and exhausting and come out the same on the other side.) Too many fantasy novels forget that.

On the side of things I didn't like about this section, Sam's dialogue with himself about the suffering he and Frodo are going through and his devotion to his master is heavy-handed and ridiculous. It's partly because you simply don't speak to yourself the way Tolkien has Sam do it, and partly because it seems canned and trite, but it's jarringly unsuccessful to me. The other bit I've got problems with is Eowyn. She's pretty depressed after she wakes up in the Houses of Healing, as I mentioned, because she has not achieved the glory of dying in battle and because she sees little chance for further valor. She wanders around sadly for a while, and then, lo and behold, Faramir shows up, they fall in love, and everything's all better. She vows to be a healer and take care of people and things, and live with Faramir, who will have tamed a wild shield-maiden (no, I am not making this up), and there you go. Everything's just all neat and pretty and Donna fucking Reed. Seriously? Don't get me wrong; I recognize the transformative power of true love, having experienced (and still experiencing) it myself. But that doesn't mean you can use it to make your strongest and most excellent female character simply stop wanting everything that she wanted before. Damn it, Tolkien. I was really beginning to respect your treatment of Eowyn, and then you went and ruined it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Once upon at time...

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Pages read: None

A bit busy today, and my husband and I are leaving for a long weekend tomorrow morning, so there won't be another post until Tuesday.

In the meantime, though, I had a thought about these books in general that I found sort of helped me to better understand, if not enjoy, the writing style. If you think of them as examples of storytelling - actual oral storytelling, perhaps even epic storytelling - they make a lot more sense. The digressions to give the history of minor characters, the emphasis on the long, arduous nature of the travel, the unnecessary vignettes with odd or inexplicable conclusions - all of these are characteristics of oral epics. Add in the fact that Tolkien was a Beowulf scholar, and things suddenly seem to fit together better. Does that mean that they're well-written? Not necessarily, but it's indicative, at least, of some intentionality behind choices that might be considered ill-advised.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

No man born of woman

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Pages read: 139 - 218

With Rohan's aid, the tide of the battle turns in favor of Gondor, though the King of the Nazgul still wreaks havoc. Theoden seeks him out, but his dark powers make Theoden's horse panic and fall on him, mortally wounding him. Dernhelm, who now reveals himself to be Eowyn, is at Theoden's side, and, turning from his wounded form, engages the Witch-King. She cuts off his dragon's head, forcing him to dismount, though he laughs in her face and strikes a blow against her shield that breaks her arm. Merry, cowering up until now under the forces of darkness, stabs the Nazgul king in the leg, distracting him, and Eowyn takes the moment to strike a killing blow. Eowyn is struck senseless by his evil, and Merry, also wounded, stays by her and Theoden's body until Eomer comes. The rest of the battle is pretty much what you'd expect - a bunch of fighting - until Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli arrive by ship. (They took over the ships after using the army of the dead to destroy one of Sauron's waiting forces. Then, holding their oath fulfilled, Aragorn dismissed the ghost soldiers. It was less exciting than it could have been.)

After the major thrust of the battle, Eowyn is taken to the Houses of Healing, where Faramir, who Gandalf has rescued from death at Denthor's hands, is already ensconced. (Denethor, after Gandalf's intercession, and having gone completely mad, has killed himself.) Eventually, Pippin finds Merry, who's wounded and wandering around, and brings him to the Houses as well. They, along with many others, are suffering from the ill effects of the darkness of the Nazgul, and the healers can't help them. Eventually, Aragorn comes, and, in keeping with legend, is able to heal those afflicted by the darkness, due to his royal lineage. (Also, some herbs.)

Later, all of the leaders and heroes get together to talk about what to do. It's clear that this was only the first battle, and that there's a great deal more to come that the forces of men cannot possibly withstand. Because they still have hope that Frodo will destroy the Ring, however, they decide to rally their remaining forces and lead them to the Black Gate of Mordor in order to draw Sauron's attention away from the Ring. They do so, and, after a few days' journey, the army arrives at the gate. Sauron sends out a representative to talk, and he demands what amounts, virtually, to complete surrender. They refuse him, and a great host of orcs and trolls comes out to do battle.

Then, of course, we flip back to Sam in Mordor. He's still trying to get to Frodo, who's been moved (I think) to a different tower. Um, that's all.

The battle outside Minas Tirith is kind of anticlimactic. I mean, the part with Theoden and Eowyn is excellent, but then, afterward, the action kind of just peters out. They still seem to be fighting some of the opposing forces when Aragorn goes to the Houses of Healing, and then, afterward, they're just sort of done? I don't know. I didn't find it particularly satisfactory after all the buildup. Except Eowyn, because, seriously, she was pretty great. I was also pleased by how, after Aragorn heals her and she wakes up, she is not immediately convinced that everything will be ok. She still questions her ability to hope, and wonders what the future will hold. It's certainly true that she could just be thinking about the fate of Middle-Earth, but I think there's more to it than that. She has completed an act of great valor, yes, but what guarantees does she have that she will continue to lead a life of adventure and honor and not simply be relegated, once again, to the unsatisfactory role of a woman? It's nicely nuanced, and I appreciate the degree of realism it lends Eowyn's situation.

Also, man, did Tolkien have a thing for royalty-worship. I know that he was thinking of these books as a mythology for England, and it therefore makes sense that he'd base his system of government on a monarchy, but the idea that Aragorn actually has healing powers, simply because he is the king, is a bit much. It's just like scrofula. (Which, if you don't know, is a disease called, in medieval times, "the King's Evil," because it was thought to be curable by the touch of the king. Actually, it was an infection of the skin and lymph nodes from tuberculosis and was, until the 18th century, incurable.) Anyway, point being, it's very "divine right of kings," even though Tolkien takes care never to discuss god or gods at all in these books. Which, frankly, though I'm no huge fan of religion, is kind of a gross oversight. The idea that these people in this situation would have no religion at all, or never talk about it, is kind of absurd.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ere the sun rises

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Pages read: 70 - 138

Theoden and the Rohirrim, camped out along the route, get an urgent message to hurry to Minas Tirith because it's under siege. They commit to sending almost all of their forces as quickly as possible, and leave the next morning. Theoden, however, tells Merry to stay behind because he will be of no use in an actual battle. Merry is, of course, very unhappy about the idea, but luckily one of the Rohirrim, Dernhelm, takes pity on him and carries him along on his horse. (Dernhelm is suspiciously small and lithe and speaks very seldom and then in a rather softer voice than one would expect of a warrior. Who could he be?)

Aragorn succeeds in traveling the Paths of the Dead, though they're pretty much scary as all-get-out, and earning the allegiance and obedience of the vast hordes of ghosts that live there. He'll be bringing them along to battle at some point, though we don't know when.

At Minas Tirith, Sauron's dark forces are arriving to attack the outskirts of Gondor. Faramir returns, and Denethor, really ticked off that Faramir let Frodo and the Ring escape, sends him out on a suicidal mission to defend the river crossing outside of Minas Tirith. Faramir is wounded gravely and Denethor, maddened by his own grief and folly, gives up command to weep at his side and rave, eventually planning to burn them both alive. Merry, hearing his plans, runs to find Gandalf's help. Gandalf, meanwhile, takes over command of the forces of Gondor to try to hold off the orcs and sundry other evil forces attacking the city. In so doing, he comes face to face with the Witch King of Angmar, one of the Black Riders and a former king of men, who breaks open the gates.

Simultaneous to Gandalf's confrontation, the forces of Rohan arrive. They come by way of a secret path that one of the Wild Men showed them in return for a promise of future peace, and arrive just in time to attack Sauron's forces from behind, drawing away the attention of the Witch-King.

The best part of this bit is Theoden's arrival at Minas Tirith, which, frankly, is stirring and beautiful. Tolkien does a lovely job of making Theoden into a mythically inspiring figure, conferring on him the attributes almost of a god or legend, so that when he rides out in front of his riders, he is a shining, thundering warrior whose heart goes before his army, leading them onward. It's good stuff, guys, it really is.
"Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it...Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed."

Denethor's kind of interesting, too, in that he's a nice trope of the old man blinded by power, but he gets a little dimension when he realizes that he's responsible for Faramir's downfall. He's definitely a bit mad, but I like that his repentance only drives him to the even greater folly of despair, rather than causing him to suddenly turn it all around and be a good leader. That would be obnoxious and unrealistic, and I'm glad it didn't go that way.

Now that the preparations for battle are over and the battle has actually started, things ought to be a bit more exciting, I think.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What do you fear, my lady?

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Pages read: 23 - 70

I didn't get that far today for some reason, despite the fact that I read for the same amount of time that I always do. I think it's partly that the beginning of this installment is dragging, but I was also just distracted for no good reason.

So, anyway, as I said at the end of the last book, we're switching back to the other storyline for now. Pippin and Gandalf ride to Minas Tirith to speak with Denethor, the steward of Gondor. What about the king? Well, that'd be Aragorn, technically. It seems that, regardless of the fact that the men of Gondor have been kingless for hundreds of years, they've been content to let the steward rule the place as though he were king. (It's fine; I'm just impressed there hasn't been a coup or something.) Point being, Gandalf and Pippin see Denethor to try to impress on him the importance of men joining together and defending their lands from Sauron. Pippin, after relating the story of Boromir's death, swears an oath of fealty to Denethor by way of payment for Boromir's suicidal defense of the hobbits. Denethor seems odd and a little crazed, and Gandalf seems to mistrust him, but that's really about all we get out of the encounter. It is made clear, as well, that Sauron's force could attack Minas Tirith at any moment.

Meanwhile, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Theoden decide to take all of Rohan's forces to help defend Minas Tirith. Merry and Theoden and the Rohirrim head off one way, across the plains, to get to the city, but Aragorn, according to prophecy, must go by way of the Paths of the Dead. The Paths of the Dead are so called because they are haunted by the spirits of band of treacherous warriors who betrayed their oaths of loyalty; it is said that only Isildur's heir (Aragorn) can command them, and that he'll have the power to call them to battle in order to repay their debt of betrayal. Legolas and Gimli decide to go with him, and though Eowyn, Theoden's awesome warrior-woman niece (who's in love with Aragorn), begs to go, Aragorn refuses her. They head into the forbidding, cave-like tunnels.

Like I said, it's dragging a little. There's a lot of standing around and talking about things interspersed with warriors massing for battle. You might be thinking, "Hey, warriors massing for battle is exciting," but you would be wrong. It's sort of like listening to a business meeting, only they use the word valour more.

It's funny to me that Tolkien makes this big point about Eowyn wanting to take part in the battle and being discontent to remain only in the woman's caretaking role, but then he almost completely ignores female characters in the rest of the books. Galadriel is the only one with any substance at all, and everyone else is simply a backdrop to a powerful or interesting male. Even Eowyn is one dimensional and seems constructed to serve a purpose. I'm not saying Tolkien was a misogynist at all - let me be clear - I'm just saying that his big lecture about women being able to fight is undermined by his failure to recognize female characters as worthy of complexity and attention.

Also, there's a part with Pippin in Minas Tirith where he's shown around the place by a 10-year-old boy and they become fast friends. Though they have a bit of an argument at first when the boy assumes that Pippin is a child because of his small stature, it's clear that they get along well afterward. I bring this up because I feel like the treatment of the hobbits as men rather than boys is inconsistent in the novel. Tolkien want to make a big deal out of the halflings being heroes and even, in some cases, respected warriors, but he often shows them acting childishly or submissively to their companions. The fact that Pippin gets along famously with this little boy is one such instance, mostly because their interaction is not presented as an adult/child relationship, but rather as a meeting of equals. Merry fits this pattern, too; when he swears to Theoden to help him defend Minas Tirith, he says that Theoden will be his father. Why do men have a proprietary relationship with hobbits? I hate to go all English major on you, but it seems kind of post-colonialist to me. As I said, the idea of that post-colonialist influence is contradicted by the fact that Frodo carries the Ring and will be the great hero, but somehow there's a sense that men are still inherently greater, inherently more worthy of their own dominance and others' submission than is any other race.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Down came the rain and washed the spider out

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Pages read: 360 - 447 (end)

So, I was kind of wrong about Faramir taking the hobbits back to Minas Tirith - he actually just takes them to cave behind a waterfall on the way to Minas Tirith and then decides to let them go about their business. While they're discussing things, however, Gollum, who wasn't with the hobbits when they ran into Faramir's patrol, shows up again. Faramir's men want to kill him, but Frodo convinces them to spare his life. Frodo goes to get him and ends up coaxing him into coming into the cave, though Gollum feels betrayed when he realizes said cave is full of men. Anyway, Faramir realizes the importance of their quest and sends them on their way, though he warns Frodo that the path they're taking, through Cirith Ungol, has a very dangerous reputation.

Gollum leads Sam and Frodo to a huge stairway up a towering cliff, and they slowly climb it. At the top, they find themselves in a dark, foul-smelling cave, and, once they're sufficiently lost in its twists and turns, Gollum abandons them. They're able to get out with the help of one of Galadriel's gifts - a vial full of starlight - though they have to fend off the giant spider, Shelob, who makes her home in the cave. Just when they think they've escaped, Gollum returns to attack Sam while Shelob goes after Frodo. Sam successfully fights Gollum off and rushes to Frodo's aid. He wounds Shelob and the spider retreats, but Frodo has already been bitten, and appears dead. Sam takes the Ring, determined to finish the task, and sets out to carry on, but before he can, a group of orcs arrives. He overhears them say that Shelob has a poison that paralyzes her victims, and that Frodo is not, in fact, dead. Sam curses himself for his stupidity and follows the orcs, who have taken Frodo's unconscious form to a nearby tower. He doesn't quite catch them in time, however, and the doors of the tower are slammed shut before he can enter.

This book definitely felt as though it had more of an ending than the first one. I mean, it's not as if there's any real resolution or anything, but the cliffhanger works pretty well, I'd say. This section, where the hobbits climb Cirith Ungol and fight Shelob, is fairly entertaining. Tolkien seems to speed things up a little here in order to move the Ring toward Mordor a little faster. I realize that we're going to switch back to the storyline of the other heroes at the beginning of the next book, but it feels startlingly close to ending right now.

I find myself musing a little on the fantasy trope of giant spiders. First, let me just say that I am an arachnophobe, so I'm coming at this from a very particular perspective. (Well, I'm not that much of an arachnophobe, I guess. I'm what you'd call a functional arachnophobe, meaning I am able to deal with spiders when necessary, and they don't make me scream and panic. I strongly dislike them and do not want them to touch me or be in the same room as I am, but I can and will kill them and dispose of their bodies. I do, however, sometimes have nightmares about them.) I just think that giant spiders aren't as scary as everybody seems to think they are. Ok, they're kind of gross, I guess, but all the horror is taken out of them when you make them giant. A spider has to be small enough that it can be somewhere without your knowledge; that's what makes it creepy. When they get big, they're just outsized, almost comedic monsters. Now, surround them with hordes of smaller spiders, and then you've got something. Something completely terrifying.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The hobbits would approve.

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Pages read: None

Didn't read. Roasted a chicken, though, if it makes you feel any better.


A Clockwork Orange (5) A Good Man Is Hard to Find (4) A Passage to India (6) A Room with a View (3) A Separate Peace (2) Absalom Absalom (6) Achebe (5) Adams (3) All the King's Men (8) An American Tragedy (17) Atlas Shrugged (16) Babbitt (8) back from hiatus (1) baking (11) Baldwin (4) Baum (3) Bonfire of the Vanities (6) borderline (12) Brideshead Revisited (9) Burgess (5) Burroughs (1) canon (1) Capote (6) Cat's Cradle (3) Cather (19) cheesecake (4) Chopin (4) Conrad (5) cooking (25) Death Comes for the Archbishop (6) DeLillo (6) Dreiser (17) du Maurier (2) Edith Wharton (1) emergency (2) Ethan Frome (1) excuses (141) Faulkner (9) Felicia DeSmith (3) Finnegan's Wake (1) Fitzgerald (24) For Whom the Bell Tolls (3) Forster (19) Fowles (7) Franny and Zooey (2) Go Tell It on the Mountain (4) Grahame (2) Guest post (3) Hammett (2) Hemingway (5) hiatus (4) holiday (5) horrible (4) Howards End (6) In Cold Blood (6) In Our Time (1) Irving (6) James (25) Jazz (1) Joyce (1) Keneally (7) Kerouac (5) Kim (7) Kipling (7) Knowles (2) Lady Chatterly's Lover (6) Lawrence (26) Lewis (13) Light in August (3) London (3) Look Homeward Angel (9) Lord Jim (5) Mailer (7) Main Street (5) Midnight's Children (9) Miller (6) Morrison (1) Mrs. Dalloway (3) My Antonia (6) not a novel (4) O Pioneers (7) O'Connor (4) On the Road (5) Orlando (4) other books (7) page updates (1) Rabbit Run (4) Rand (24) Rebecca (2) recap (1) Rhys (6) Rushdie (18) Salinger (2) Schindler's List (7) Sinclair (6) Sons And Lovers (12) Sophie's Choice (10) Star Trek (1) Stein (5) Styron (10) Tender is the Night (10) The Age of Innocence (4) The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (5) The Awakening (4) The Beautiful and the Damned (8) The Bostonians (9) The Call of the Wild (3) The Fellowship of the Ring (5) The Fountainhead (8) The French Lieutenant's Woman (7) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2) The Jungle (6) The Lord of the Rings (16) The Maltese Falcon (2) The Naked and the Dead (7) The Naked Lunch (1) The Old Man and the Sea (1) The Portrait of a Lady (10) The Return of the King (6) The Satanic Verses (9) The Two Towers (5) The War of the Worlds (4) The Wind in the Willows (2) The Wings of the Dove (6) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (3) The World According to Garp (6) Things Fall Apart (6) This Side of Paradise (6) Thomas Wolfe (9) To the Lighthouse (3) Tolkien (16) Tom Wolfe (6) Triv (2) Tropic of Cancer (6) unworthy (33) Updike (4) vacation (2) Vonnegut (3) Warren (8) Waugh (9) Wells (4) Wharton (4) Where Angels Fear to Tread (4) White Noise (6) Wide Sargasso Sea (6) Women In Love (8) Woolf (10) worthy (25)