Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives

Gertrude Stein has long been the only Lost Generation figure I haven’t read apart from the bits and pieces required to prep for the literature GRE. Now that I’ve finished reading her Three Lives I’m not sure why I felt the need to push myself to sign up to read Stein for The Classics Circuit’s Lost Generation Tour; it’s not like I ever felt any draw to her work before this week.

For Stein, I can’t be bothered to take my research any further than Wikipedia (I’m tired of her, I’m tired of her, I’m tired of her), and all I have to say is: I don’t care if I’m joining the legions who “misunderstand” her work, I don’t care if I’m marking myself as a doofus whose appreciation of literature ends when it becomes hard to read, I just really don’t like Gertrude Stein even when it comes to what is probably the “easiest” of her works. I stand with James Thurber:

Anyone who reads at all diversely during these bizarre 1920s cannot escape the conclusion that a number of crazy men and women are writing stuff which remarkably passes for important composition among certain persons who should know better. Stuart P. Sherman, however, refused to be numbered among those who stand in awe and admiration of one of the most eminent of the idiots, Gertrude Stein. He reviews her Geography and Plays in the August 11 issue of the Literary Review of the New York Evening Post and arrives at the conviction that it is a marvellous and painstaking achievement in setting down approximately 80,000 words which mean nothing at all.

Anyway, let’s move on to the book…shall we? Three Lives was Stein’s first book, and is composed of stories about three women: Anna, Melanchta and Lena. The bulk of the book is given to Melanchta’s story, and maybe it’s a sign of my impatience and blah blah blah that I found this longest story (it runs over half the length of the book) so painful that I seriously considered giving up reading for good, and also fell asleep every time I started reading it. (Three Lives is a book that must be read in the upright position, preferably in the least comfortable chair you own.)

The lives Stein writes about are constricted in their view and scope. The first story, about “the good Anna,” sets this tone of small and relatively quiet lives. Stein doesn’t develop her characters in any traditional way I can think of describing, but uses repetition to set the terms through which we see her characters. So, “Anna led an arduous and troubled life”, and repeatedly we read, “Anna Federner, this good Anna, was of solid lower middle-class south german stock.” “The Good Anna” is concerned with Anna’s movements from employer to employer, a little with her private life and her tendency to be overgenerous with the money she has saved, about the collapse of her friendship with a woman who takes advantage of her money. There’s one description in this story that I love, when a dog Peter, “would retire to his Anna and blot himself out between her skirts”. Other than that and a vague interest in the way Stein used repetition (which maybe was revolutionary at the time, but now seems pretty standard), I didn’t find much of note in this story and I was vaguely relieved when Anna died and I got to move on to the second story.

That relief was pretty short-lived though. What can I say about “Melanchta”? This is the only story in the book about a black woman (or a “mulatta”, more exactly) and it made me so uncomfortable in its tone and the stereotypes it throws around. I am uncomfortable even writing about this, so let me just quote a bit and put this subject to rest:

Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress. She laughed when she was happy and grumbled and was sullen with everything that troubled. […]

Rose laughed when she was happy but she had not the wide, abandoned laughter that makes the warm broad glow of negro sunshine. Rose was never joyous with the earth-born, boundless joy of negroes. Hers was just ordinary, any sort of women laughter.

Rose Johnson was careless and was lazy, but she had been brought up by white folks and she needed decent comfort. Her white training had only made for habits, not for nature. Rose had the simple, promiscuous immorality of the black people.

Just, oh my god.

Add to this that Stein went truly nuts with the repetition, and you’ve got yourself a painful read. Again, Stein doesn’t develop her characters so much as she tries to create a lasting image of them through repetition, but here the repetitions are so extensive and unrelenting that I spent most of the story praying the characters would die soon so I could stop reading the same goddamn lines over and over again. (Also, about every other word in this story is “certainly”.) Let’s do another quote to kill this subject:

“I certainly don’t rightly understand what you are doing now to me Jeff Campbell,” wrote Melanchta Herbert. “I certainly don’t rightly understand Jeff Campbell why you ain’t all these days been near me, but I certainly do suppose it’s just another one of the queer kind of ways you have to be good, and repenting of yourself all of a sudden. I certainly don’t say to Jeff Campbell I admire very much the way you take to be good Jeff Campbell. I am sorry Dr. Campbell, but I certainly am afraid I can’t stand it no more from you the way you have been just acting. I certainly can’t stand it any more the way you act when you have been as if you thought I was always good enough for anybody to have with them, and then you act as if I was a bad one and you always just despise me. I certainly am afraid Dr. Campbell I can’t stand it any more like that. I certainly can’t stand it any more the way you are always changing. I certainly am afraid Dr. Campbell you ain’t man enough to deserve to have anybody care so much to be always with you. I certainly am awful afraid Dr. Campbell I don’t ever any more want to really see you. Good-by Dr. Campbell I wish you always to be real happy.”

Imagine, if you will, an entire novella written like this. Every sentence loops around on itself and when my reading wasn’t putting me to sleep I found myself entering a sort of trance that made it impossible for me to recall what characters actually said or did, though the knowledge that it probably wasn’t a whole lot was comforting. Towards the end Stein uses a little repetition that I find more effective, when she recalls passages from early in the story and circles the reader through time back to the opening pages of “Melanchta”, but the bulk of this story I found dull and impossible. Melanchta’s dealings with men, which is what the story concerns itself with, end only with her death. I am not sure I have ever been so relieved to see a character die.

The book’s final story, “The Gentle Lena”, is a return to the form of “The Good Anna”. Still repetitive but it’s a breath of fresh air (Stein goes in for repetition, I go in for cliches) after “Melanchta”. Like “The Good Anna”, “The Gentle Lena” is about a German girl, this time a young women who’s brought to the States by family. She works for some time, then is married to a German-American man, bears him three children, and dies while delivering the fourth. “The Gentle Lena” is the shortest story in Three Lives, and if you’re looking to read something by Stein I’d go for this story above the others because, well, it’s short, and fairly painless, if not particularly distinguished.

I feel like I should strive somehow to tie Gertrude Stein and her writing and her stylistic experiments into the larger scope of the Lost Generation this round of The Classics Circuit is looking at, but to be frank: I can’t be bothered. I am not sure when the last time was that I actually thought reading a book might kill me, but this one had me verging on death for a week and I’m glad I read it only so I can say I’ve read Stein and never return to her.

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Gushing: Roald Dahl’s Danny, The Champion of the World

It would be hard for me to choose just one of Roald Dahl’s books to label a “favorite,” but if I had to it would probably be Danny, The Champion of the World. When I was eight years old or whatever and read this novel for the first time I don’t remember being unduly impressed, but it’s a book that grows on me with the years. There are no witches, no giants, no speaking foxes, no chocolate factories, no glass elevators, just a father and his son, and that’s what makes this book so special. Unlike Dahl’s other children’s books this one is set firmly in the real world.

Danny’s mother died when he was four months old, and he’s since been raised by his father on a small plot of land on which they have a two-pump gas station, a one-car garage, and a gypsy caravan for living in. Danny starts school two years late, when he’s seven, because his father doesn’t want to send him off until he’s learned how to take a small engine apart and put it back together again; early on, his father says, “You know something, Danny? You must be easily the best five-year-old mechanic in the world” (15).

One night Danny wakes up to find that his father isn’t in the caravan, or in the garage, or in the outhouse. When his father gets home he reveals his greatest secret: that he’s a poacher and spent the night in Hazell’s Wood on an unsuccessful mission to steal a pheasant. The owner of Hazell’s Wood is this offensive, bloated, red-faced brewer who each year holds the best pheasant hunt in the country. It’s his one day of the year to feel important and liked by the people he wants to be in with, and for a bunch of very good reasons Danny and his father decide to pull off the greatest poaching expedition of all time.

Somehow the things I love about Roald Dahl I love even more when his story is so firmly set in our world. It’s not just that he can create these magical and awesome and funny stories about things like giants blowing dreams into children’s windows (the BFG makes an appearance in Danny, by the way), but that he can make the everyday seem just as funny and wonderful as a country full of loafing bone-crunching giants. Also that he never, ever censors this reality: I mean, he wrote this entire novel about a father and his son stealing pheasants. Of course Hazell deserves it – he’s the sort of person who digs tiger traps in his woods to catch poachers, risking breaking their necks to save his pheasants – and Danny and his father are clearly the moral victors here, but I can’t imagine most writers doing this.

Danny is a very funny book on top of all its other fine qualities, like when Danny tries to rethink poaching in the context of children’s games:

“Then how do we stop the keepers from seeing us?”

“Ah,” he said. “That’s the fun of the whole thing. That’s what it’s all about. It’s hide and seek. It’s the greatest game of hide and seek in the world.”

“You mean because they’ve got guns?”

“Well,” he said, “that does add a bit of flavor to it, yes.” (123)

Or when Danny is writing about his school and all its teachers, and brings up Mr. Snoddy, the headmaster:

He was a small round man with a huge scarlet nose. I felt sorry for him having a nose like that. It was so big and inflamed it looked as though it might explode at any moment and blow him up.

A funny thing about Mr. Snoddy was that he always brought a glass of water with him into class, and this he kept sipping right through the lesson. At least everyone thought it was a glass of water. Everyone, that is, except me and my best friend, Sidney Morgan. (103-104)

Of course Danny figures out why Mr. Snoddy has that inflamed nose and is such a careful hydrator!

Dahl gives us the good vs. bad, the poor vs. the rich, the first-time nine-year-old poacher being the one to figure out the Greatest Poaching Scheme of All Time, crawling around in woods, adventure, risk of “poacher’s bottom” (being peppered with buckshot on the retreat), but mostly this father-son relationship. Danny’s love for his father tumbles off every page of this book and I really, really love Dahl for writing this. And I’d like to thank whoever donated this book to my school’s library and made it possible for me to reread it. And I’d like to ask you to go to your library right now, this very second, and check out Danny, The Champion of the World: the greatest book of our time, or at least pretty high on the list.

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Classic Read: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

Lily Bart must be one of the greatest characters in American literature. In her Edith Wharton has created a woman who is rarely aware of her motivations, who prides herself a manipulator of people but lacks the attention span to carry any of her plans to fruition, who is presented time and time again with opportunities for love or a strong marriage, who treats with disdain those who fall outside of her social order but whose occasional disdain for that same social order prevents her from ever fully placing herself in any of her actions.

The House of Mirth, set in 1890s New York, opens as Lily leaves the city for a weekend. This trip provides a template of sorts for Lily’s life: looking for wrinkles in the mirror, balancing her checkbook, pursuing a wealthy young man but being distracted at the crucial moment by someone else. In this case, it’s her pursuit of Percy Gryce being derailed by the arrival of Lawrence Selden, a lawyer for whom she has some romantic feelings, whether she acknowledges them or not. Lily loses Gryce, of course, but until learning of his engagement to another woman remains convinced that she can pull the strings and charm her way out of her errors.

That’s the thing that is at once so endearing and frustrating about Lily: she never seems to believe herself out of control, even when the direction of things says so clearly that she is not in control. She has Gus Trenor, the husband of a friend, invest some money so that she can pay off her mounting bills, and too late realizes that the $9000 he gives her is his money, not hers; she is caught in the midst of a collapsing marriage and ignores the evidence that it is she, not the husband or wife, who will be thrown out of society, until it is too late and her former friends have cast her aside; she lives on the belief that she will be inheriting $400,000 from her aunt, failing to realize that her aunt has no reason to live by this plan the way she does.

Lily isn’t a bad person, but she is one who only ever does things halfway. The event that cements her fall from society, George Dorset’s realization that his wife Bertha is having an affair (a revelation that comes when Lily is accompanying them on a trip, acting somewhat unwittingly to distract George from his wife’s whereabouts and whatabouts), could have been salvaged if she only blackmailed Bertha Dorset with a packet of Bertha’s love letters she possesses. Again, frustrating: Lily believes herself too good a person to do this, until her fall is nearly complete and she realizes that using the letters is her only chance to salvage her position and marry. When another form of salvation presents itself in the form of George Dorset, who is willing to divorce his wife and marry Lily, she turns away, failing to understand that while such a match would be frowned upon by society, she would ultimately be in a better position than she is in without George Dorset at her side.

The same might be said of her relationship with Simon Rosedale, a social climber who proposes marriage just before Lily is invited on the Dorset’s trip. Rosedale is frank about needing a wife who will introduce him to those members of society he can’t reach on his own. It’s not until Lily herself is shunned by these people that she realizes the benefits a marriage with Rosedale could offer; but as with the letters, as with so many things, she realizes the need to act far too late.

Lawrence Selden, the lawyer, is the only man Lily ever feels something approaching love for, but their relationship is repeatedly thwarted by one or the other. Lily sees herself as a better person, or as having the potential to be a better person, when she is with Lawrence, but for various reasons – a tendency to believe gossip, the belief that he is too poor for the likes of Lily Bart – he avoids her for most of the novel.

This is a review not well-suited for someone who hasn’t read Wharton’s novel – writing these sorts of posts seems to be becoming a habit of mine. It’s hard for me to collect my thoughts on this novel, which was (if you are wondering) extraordinary for its portrayal of the inner workings of New York society at the turn of the century. It didn’t take much for a person to swiftly exit the upper echelons of that society, which is something that Lily doesn’t grasp for most of the novel. She always holds herself a little above the rest of society, unable to identify herself with those women, like Carry Fisher, who are “social fixers” and probably the closest approximation to what Lily herself is.

But gosh, gosh, gosh. This is the third book I’ve read by Wharton recently (preceded by The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome), and I like her more and more. Can this woman do no wrong? All writers should take some lessons from her on how to describe but not too explicitly.

Lily: She wanted to get away from herself, and conversation was the only means of escape that she knew.

Different people serve different purposes: Miss Corby’s role was jocularity: she always entered the conversation with a handspring.

Selden on Lily: …he said to himself, somewhat cruelly, that even her weeping was an art.

Mrs. Penisten: …she seated herself on one of the glossy purple arm-chairs; Mrs. Peniston always sat on a chair, never in it.

Lily on truth: “The whole truth?” Miss Bart laughed. “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe…”

Society and Lily: Society did not turn away from her, it simply drifted by, preoccupied and inattentive, letting her feel, to the full measure of her humbled pride, how completely she had been the creature of its favour.

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Reread: Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude

You’d think that Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude would get easier to write about after a third read, but it doesn’t. So, instead of a review this one will be a scattered collection of my thoughts on the novel.

  1. This novel has one of the greatest first lines ever written: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendìa was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (1).
  2. Márquez writes about a world that is heavy with time and its confusions and its progression or circular nature. Macondo, the town and time of the Buendìa family, sometimes exists outside of time, in a world that is “so recent that many things lacked names” (1) with progress and knowledge and the time of the outside world entering in the form of others: the gypsy Melquiades, Pietro Crespi, the train and the banana company. Macondo never feels a part of the world as much as it feels a place acted on by the rest of the world.
  3. Márquez’s characters experience “hereditary memory,” like the passed-down image of Melquiades:

    Aureliano, who could not have been more than five at the time, would remember him [Melquiades] for the rest of his life as he saw him that afternoon, sitting against the metallic and quivering light from the window, lighting up with his deep organ voice the darkest reaches of the imagination, while down over his temples there flowed the grease that was being melted by the heat. Jose Arcadio, his older brother, would pass on that wonderful image as a herditary memory to all of his descendants. (6)

    I’ve always loved this idea of memory being passed down in this way, and also how Márquez uses it in the novels – how characters, later on, will experience this image without knowing what it is or where it comes from, whose memory it is or that it is a memory at all, and how that circles the reader back to this early point in the novel. This may be what Marquez does best, inspiring the reader to loop across the novel’s time, with characters’ whole lives being revealed to us in a few sentences, as when we learn in the first line of the book that Colonel Aureliano Buendìa will one day stand before a firing squad, which colors our expectations of his future. (The Reading Ape gave a word and definition to this: telechronance, which is about perfect and captures the way Marquez reveals a whole life in a sentence, suggesting or revealing the future impact of a moment.)

  4. It’s not just hereditary memory that characters experience; they also actively remember their pasts, as when Amaranta wears a life-long black wrapping on her hand after Pietro Crespi kills himself, or when Fernanda turns “the royal regalia into a device for her memory” (369 – 370). These memorial devices don’t always seem necessary, though; characters are so tied with their pasts that the notion of a device for memory is nothing more than a formality.
  5. The first time I read this book I didn’t flip back to the family tree often, but this time I must’ve checked that page about a hundred times while I was reading. Hard as I try, I still can’t keep all the Aurelianos and Arcadios straight.
  6. So much like the way the reader is circled around in the novel is Pilar Ternera’s understanding of the Buendìa family history:

    There was no mystery in the heart of a Buendìa that was impenetrable for her because a century of cards and experience had taught her that the history of the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spilling into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axel. (402)

  7. Which Úrsala guesses at, too. (And she is by far one of my favorite characters from the novel – how she goes blind but keeps better track of where things and people are than anyone else, how she realizes the absolute sameness of her family’s daily routines, how no one around her realizes that she’s gone blind…) Okay, back to the quote which I wanted to get to:

    “Lord save us!” she exclaimed, as if she could see everything. “So much trouble teaching you good manners and you end up living like a pig.”

    José Arcadio Segundo was still reading over the parchments. The only thing visible in the intricate tangle of hair was the teeth striped with green slime and his motionless eyes. When he recognized his great-grandmother’s voice he turned his head toward the door, tried to smile, and without knowing it repeated an old phrase of Úrsala’s.

    “What did you expect?” he murmured. “Time passes.”

    “That’s how it goes,” Úrsala said, “but not so much.”

    When she said it she realized that she was giving the same reply that Colonel Aureliano Buendìa had given in his death cell, and once again she shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle. (341)

  8. Gosh, gosh, gosh. I love this book. When I was on vacation in January some people at the hostel we stayed at started going off on Márquez and the “cuteness” of his work. Whatever you might say about his work, it’s not “cute” and it’s not “light.” His writing is gorgeous, spider-webby, baffling, and I have no patience for anyone who blames the overwhelming sense (in North America, anyway) that reading a book by Márquez handles all “those magical realist writers from South America” on Márquez himself.
  9. There are some books I just need to quote from and gush about, and this is one of them.
  10. My page numbers are from the British Penguin Edition.
  11. Over and out.

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Classic Read: George Orwell’s Animal Farm

George Orwell calls Animal Farm a “fairy story,” which at first seemed an odd way of labeling the work but, now that I’ve finished, seems perfect.

It’s partly that a fairy tale is the best name for Orwell’s story, in which we don’t have characters so much as we have representations of characters, and partly that a fairy tale is the perfect means of couching Orwell’s political commentary precisely because characters don’t need to be “characters” or have distinct and developing personalities of their own.

It is, too, that Animal Farm has so well taken on certain attributes of the fairy tale in its own life as a book. This was my first time reading Orwell’s novel/fable/fairy story, but the book is one so ingrained in our literary and political culture that I was familiar with the story and its most famous line, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” long before reading it. As with the stories of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, Orwell’s is one you can be familiar with and reference even without having read it.

I’m not, generally speaking, interested in the intersection of literature and politics because the result of such marriages always seems so lacking to me. (Not a strong political commentary nor a strong piece of literature, but the bastard child of the two.) Again, though, Orwell’s labeling of his book frees it from the limitations of such meldings of politics and literature, because fairy tales by their nature don’t require the sort of strong characterization needed for a good work of literature. Orwell’s farm and its animals are so clearly stand-ins for people (the pigs Snowball and Napoleon being Trotsky and Stalin) or meant to encompass huge classes of people (the horse Boxer, who never manages to learn the alphabet past “A, B, C, D” but who works nobly and tirelessly for the farm’s goals) that he avoids the whole question of whether his characters are, well, well-characterized. They’re well-characterized in the way they need to be for this book, and that’s the beginning and end of it.

Animal Farm is especially interesting as a book that suggests how totalitarianism was viewed back when Orwell was writing. The popular view may not have been the right one, but as Russell Baker writes in the preface to the Signet Classic edition, Animal Farm helps to capture what it was about totalitarianism that led to decades of policies (I am thinking solely from an American perspective – give me a break, I grew up learning about the Red Scare and the domino theory and the Vietnam War) aimed at ending Communist expansion.

Animal Farm is a quick and affecting read, and one that’s doubly interesting for its own history as a book. Orwell chose well in defining his work as a fairy story and his writing, clean and simple, serves the story rather than announcing itself worthy of attention for itself alone. The prose is what it needs to be, what it should be, for this type of story. Animal Farm strikes me as one of those rare cases when subject and style are perfectly matched.

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Reread: Charles Portis’s True Grit

I’ve been out of Macedonia for a couple weeks on an awesome vacation, the kind so good that I didn’t want to come home and begin seriously considering abandoning the Peace Corps in order to keep traveling around Egypt. (I also went to Jerusalem and Jordan, where I had hoped to reenact Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade in its entirety.)

One of the last books I read before going (or maybe the last – at this point, let’s face it, I don’t remember and am too lazy to check my reading list) was Charles Portis’s True Grit. Although I’ve written about plenty of other things on this blog lately, I feel like it’s been all about Charles Portis – that everything I write has a Portisian undercurrent. “You think you want to read Never Let Me Go because the characters are so well developed? Forget that, read True Grit, which has probably two of the greatest characters ever written.”

If you’re familiar with True Grit it’s probably because of the new Coen brothers film based on the book. The novel is a short one, and in typical Portis fashion revolves around a quest, though it’s unique for its setting in time and place. The book opens with Mattie Ross describing the death of her father at the hand of, well, a hired hand, Tom Chaney. Mattie travels to recover her father’s body and deal with the business (buying ponies) he left incomplete, and to hire a marshal to help hunt down her father’s killer and bring him to justice. She selects Marshal Rooster Cogburn because she hears he is a man of “true grit,” and they are joined by a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, who has for months been hunting the killer of Mattie’s father.

I can hardly be an impartial reviewer of this book, because I am a raving fan of Charles Portis. He is one of the best writers in America, and that so few people are familiar with his work continues to torment me. He is funny but without ever appearing to try too hard, and in Mattie Ross he has probably written the greatest character, the greatest voice, ever. Just look at how she describes her father’s killer:

Tom Chaney rode his gray horse that was better suited to pulling a middlebuster than carrying a rider. He had no hand gun but he carried his rifle slung across his back on a piece of cotton plow line. There is trash for you. He could have taken an old piece of harness and made a nice leather strap for it. That would have been too much trouble.

Stepping back from the ledge of unconvincing if enthusiastic fandom, if only slightly…Ross is writing True Grit as an older woman, and Portis perfectly captures this crotchety tone of her voice, the frequent biblical references.

I had hated these ponies for the part they played in my father’s death but now I realized the notion was fanciful, that it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor evil but only innocence. I say that of these ponies. I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious “claptrap.” My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26 – 33.

Without straining it or making too pointed motions (“relationship developing here”) he shows how Mattie and Rooster gain mutual respect for each other – he saves her life, she buys him a headstone for his grave.

There’s really no way I can convince you to read this book, but please: read this book. You won’t regret it. You won’t regret anything you read by Portis. Some quotes, to do a better job convincing you than I can.

Captain Finch looked LaBoeuf over, then said to Rooster, “Is this the man who shot Ned’s horse from under him?”

Rooster said, “Yes, this is the famous horse killer from El Paso, Texas. His idea is to put everybody on foot. He says it will limit their mischief.”

Or another LaBoeuf focused one:

[LaBoeuf] said, “You are lucky to be traveling in a place where a spring is so handy. In my country you can ride for days and see no ground water. I have lapped filthy water from a hoofprint and was glad to have it. You don’t know what discomfort is until you have nearly perished for water.”

Rooster said, “If I ever meet one of you Texas waddies that says he never drank from a horse track I think I will shake his hand and give him a Daniel Webster cigar.”

“Then you don’t believe it?” asked LaBoeuf.

“I believed it the first twenty-five times I heard it.”

Man, does this make me want to read True Grit again.

Reread: Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring

As I’ve mentioned on here a few times – it being the only thing I have to write about, apart from how cold it is here* – I’ve been rereading The Fellowship of the Ring. This was one of those rare reads that happened not merely because I wanted to reread the book, but because it felt necessary to do so.

Believe it or not, I’m not going to write a whole post about the trials and tribulations of my life and how they drove me to what’s become a comforting book to me, but that’s pretty much what got me rereading Fellowship. That and how I was constantly humming the soundtrack to the film of The Fellowship, driving insane the volunteer who had to crash at my place for two weeks while we ran semi-final spelling bees around my town. It seemed the only way to quit humming the damn soundtrack would be to either stream the film (which would kill about a third of my December bandwidth) or reread the book, which I already had loaded on my kindle.

I didn’t stop humming the soundtrack, but I did get a few awesome dreams prominently featuring Samwise Gamgee out of it. And the big thing I was looking for, to escape from my dreary existence of running a noble Peace Corps project (and six spelling bees a day for two weeks), was there in force. What’s interesting to me now that I’ve finished the book is why I turned to Lord of the Rings in the first place for this sort of “comfort read;” because to face it, the book can be wordy and at times hopeless even though I know how things will end up. Why Lord of the Rings and not Harry Potter, if I was just looking for escapism?

It’s all in what Tolkien does so well. The book may be wordy, there may be more songs in there than I really want to read (and more songs in Elvish than I really want to skip over), the descriptions of the fellowship’s journey may at some points seem overly long for the relative lack of action, but all of these things serve in Tolkien’s world creation. What’s so comforting to me about the books is, I think, how complete the world is that Tolkien writes about. I’m hardly the first to observe this, but the depth of history and detail in his works, the sense that behind even a pair of names briefly mentioned there lies a complete history, makes the world of Middle-earth real enough that I can forget, occasionally, my own world of weekly showers and daily spelling bees.

The way the characters speak, sing, move through their world, all points to this history that Tolkien has mapped out. As when Elrond speaks of the Ring’s history at the Council of Elrond:

Of Númenor he spoke, its glory and its fall, and the return of the Kings of Men to Middle-earth out of the deeps of the Sea, borne upon the wings of storm. Then Elendil the Tall and his mighty sons, Isildur and Anárion, became great lords; and the North-realm they made in Arnor, and the South-realm in Gondor above the mouths of Anduin. But Sauron of Mordor assailed them, and they made the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, and the hosts of Gil-galad and Elendil were mustered in Arnor.

When characters begin to delve into history like this, there’s something almost biblical about the tone; the sense of a history so deep that it’s entered into myth and legend, remembered only by a few who are removed from the time of the world. Or, as Tolkien describes Galadriel, and elves:

Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.

It’s this tone that draws me in, my attraction to a world with a history so complete and yet so separate from our own, but also the simplicity that is at the heart of the story. There are characters who falter, who are not at all times good or pleasant: Boromir, Legolas during the early stages of the fellowship’s journey, Galadriel when she confesses how she has long thought of acquiring the Ring of Power, even Bilbo when he nearly fails to give up the Ring at book’s opening. But the story at heart is such a simple one, of the fight against a force that is undeniably bad, that it is comforting to sink into that tale of evil versus a good that is undeniably good for its opposition to Mordor.

As I wrote earlier, that I find the book so comforting is a little curious because it’s not, at heart, a comforting book. I know that Frodo will destroy the Ring with Samwise’s help, that they will return to the Shire, but there is also throughout a sense of the irreparable passing of time, of the way that things will never be the same whatever happens to the Ring, because of the Ring: that Middle-earth will be washed over by Sauron’s forces, or that the Ring will be destroyed and with it the last strength of people such as the elves of Lórien. And that, that is sad; because as we see from Frodo’s first glimpse of Lórien, the world is one that exists nowhere else, and one day soon won’t exist even in Middle-earth:

It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain.

I’ll be rereading the other two books of The Lord of the Rings, of course, but I wanted to write about it because my reading of Fellowship is so linked, now, to what’s going on in my life right now – which though nothing bad, is sometimes overwhelming and exhausting.** And reading these books, even though they are (I know, I know) really one book, deserves and requires more than one post, not least because of questions like how the films influence my reading (the book is, I think, more welcoming to me because of the films; Peter Jackson did such a good job pulling lines from the book that I can see and hear Ian McKellan when I read Gandalf), how that almost biblical tone makes the book feel a part of my history, and how Tolkien’s skill at world creation makes it possible for the book to take on that tone of lasting history that I find so comforting.

And then, too, there’s how the book opens, which seems to me as perfect a way as any can: “This book is largely concerned with Hobbits…”

* By way of example: my toothpaste froze; the bananas I had sitting in my “living room” got that funny refrigerated look to them; when I go to bed I do so with my coil heater a few feet from me, a bottle of hot water under the covers, long johns, and sometimes a hat and gloves depending on the night.

** But, hey! The spelling bee final is tomorrow, the library grant is due on Monday, winter break begins in about two weeks…