Monthly Archives: January 2014

Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – a sort of prologue

Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – a sort of prologue

When I started the challenge, I thought that #1 The Lord of the Rings was the title of the first volume in a trilogy. I was corrected by a friend: it refers to the whole trilogy. Starting to read, I was corrected again. It’s not, says my edition, a trilogy but actually one novel told in six books, commonly split over three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

I’m not a fan of Tolkien’s works, as you’ll have noticed from my review of The Hobbit. From my prejudiced and unhappy viewpoint, it seems unfair that he not only got the top spot, he did it with three (or six, depending on your perspective) books disguised as one. I had to drag myself through The Hobbit, so I thought I’d help myself (and you) out by reviewing the books in chunks, as I read them. This means that although there are no spoilers in this post, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS in my Lord of the Rings reviews. Either that or I’ll have nothing to say by the end. 

In the beginning
I bought the three volumes of Lord of the Rings on Kindle, as they were £1.99 each at the time, and K wanted to reread them. I then realised I had to go and read The Hobbit, as the blasted thing is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings so it was a fair while before I opened the ebook. And then even longer before I got to the first chapter.

One advantage of reading a book on Kindle, is that the Paperwhite makes a good guess at how long you’ve got left in a chapter or the whole book. It’s easily tricked by appendices, but it’s pretty good overall. According to my Kindle, I had an hour of reading between the cover of my edition of The Fellowship of the Ring and the start of the first chapter. An hour! Fully 10% of the material in the book is before Chapter One. It’s partly a long discourse on who changed what when, partly Tolkein’s notes to the reader, and partly a long and involved history of the made-up travels of the non-existent original sources that are the imaginary fore-runners to this work of fiction.

Apart from a short ‘previously in The Hobbit‘, all this stuff should have been at the end of the last volume. It’s interesting stuff, but by no means essential. And, in his notes to the second edition, Tolkien spoils his own books. He tells you that so-and-so is bad and meets such-and-such fate, that this happens and that happens. I’ve played through the whole LEGO Lord of the Rings game, so I don’t care about spoilers at this point, but I also know enough to realise at least a couple of these things should have been surprising. So I’m already not happy with either Tolkien or his editor.

Getting to the first page was exhausting. I think I’ll break the six-book series into 7 posts, this being the first. I’ll launch into Book One, after I’ve had a nap and a third breakfast, hobbit style.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Our home in Oxfordshire

Our home in Oxfordshire

At the top of a green hill, looking down on a caravan site and two small lakes

 

This is our home in Oxfordshire. It’s the second caravan site we’ve stayed at near the city, and much more friendly. It’s also, as you can see, really rural. The site is part of a working farm. It’s a 20-minute walk to the bus stop, and the bus goes once an hour (if it feels like it) so without a car (we don’t currently have a car) it’s a bit isolated.

When I took this photo, I was following a footpath up over the hill and down to the next village. It meant going through fields of sheep and horses – no cows this time. The sheep were wary, the horses interested. I’m a little wary of having anything with teeth the size of my face sniffing my hair, honestly. I know that few animals harm humans intentionally, but there’s no way to spot the grumpy one having a bad day.

Posting this, I’m feeling a little nostalgic. I’m in Switzerland for a week or three, and being here, looking at that photo, it’s easy to forget that it’s from several weeks ago, and the interim has been rain, more rain, and winds strong enough to shake the van. When the weather’s that bad, I simply don’t go out. K has to go to work, and comes back soaking wet, and it’s not much fun all round.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I’d never heard of #33 The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet, which is a shame as I went through a phase of loving books like this. It’s not my usual fodder now, but I still rather enjoyed it and got through its 940 pages rather more quickly than I expected.

As the book opens, it’s 1123 and somewhere in southern England, Tom Builder is working on a new house for the lord’s son. His dream, however, is to build a cathedral and when the project ends, he and his family take to the road. In the mean time, a young monk has become the leader of his chapter, and is looking for ways to do more good in the world…

A very short summary
I didn’t have many preconceptions about the book, and I found that the way it unraveled was one of my chief pleasures, so I won’t say much more. Follett mentions in his author’s note that his agent described it as ‘a series of linked melodramas’, and that’s a good description. The book is at once very personal, following just a few families, and epic. By tracking these imaginary people, Follett can describe the whole process of building a cathedral in a level of detail that would be hard to sit through or absorb otherwise.

I don’t think it’s giving much away to say that the great European cathedrals lie at the heart of the book. It’s clear from the text that Follett has a great reverence for these buildings and is fascinated by them. They are astonishing buildings, and only get more interesting as you realise that they were built with very rudimentary tools. And it’s not just the physical tools that were basic – the intellectual and design tools available to the builders were very limited, too. With little more than a strong arm and a lever, they built these towering monuments that still exist a thousand years later.

Real history, fake history
Clearly, Pillars is historical fiction and it’s set in a period that’s far enough back that modern readers would struggle to understand the writings of the time, never mind the common speech. I believe that it’s impossible to write perfect historical fiction. I believe that anachronisms are inevitable and I don’t think authors necessarily need to try to avoid every one. However, I think they should be fair to the reader, and make it clear how authentic they have tried to make the book. Typically,a brief author’s note is enough for this: just to say if they’ve monkeyed with recorded facts particularly or done any extraordinary research.

Pillars takes place in the 12th century England which is not a period I’m particularly interested in. I can’t fact check Follett’s work beyond the very obvious. I will say that to me, it seems that he has done a significant amount of research, particularly into the physics, social and financial aspects of building a cathedral. He also gave me a clear understanding of the complex political backdrop to the whole thing. In the early 12th century, the succession to the English throne was in question, and civil war (not The Civil War) reigned.

While the facts seem accurate enough to hang a plot on, the language doesn’t. Everyone speaks much as they would do in a late 20th century novel, and there’s no real effort to reconcile the different languages used by different groups (English, Welsh, French, Latin…). I’d also guess that some of the attitudes and social circumstances are equally anachronistic. And, of course, a surprisingly large number of interesting things happen to a small group of people. It’s all par for the genre, and I can forgive a lot of an author who kept me interested in the challenges of cathedral building for almost a thousand pages.

If you can forgive the historical inaccuracies, I do recommend the book. I thought it was good fun, and a pleasant introduction to 12th century English life and politics. As a content note, apart from the historical issues, I will say that there are scenes of war, cruel violence and torture in the book. They’re not long, frequent or relished, though.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Despite my recent posts, we are still based in Oxford. K’s job is going well, and we’re still happily settled on our pitch. That doesn’t stop us fleeing the county at the weekend. This time, we went to Bury St Edmunds to celebrate another January birthday.

Bury is a pretty market town. It’s still got a proper market, with local farmers selling seasonal produce and traders selling an odd mix of stuff for a pound. The old town has some really old buildings and lovely little shops, including a few British chain stores that are almost extinct in the wild. They’ve cleverly developed a whole new shopping section at the edge of the town centre, so there are plenty of big, shiny new shops but they’re not mixed in with the old bits.

Very weathered column of stone

The ruins of Bury St Edmunds Abbey look positively geological. The abbey was built in the 14th century and destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. It’s a wet, windy area and the stone has been weathered through the centuries.

Ruins of Bury St Edmunds abbey

Compared with other abbey ruins, like Tintern Abbey or Riveaux Abbey, there seems to be less of the dressed capstone remaining (the smooth, nice looking outer shell). I imagine this was taken away and used to build something else, being a valuable material, and its lack probably explains the extreme weathering. The stones in these walls are flint, some of them have chipped and look lovely but are rather sharp.

Weathered ruins, almost look like natural rock formations

Beautiful in the sunshine, I think. There’s a play ground and an aviary (all free to enter) in the grounds as well, and there’s a really good yarn shop just a hundred meters or so away. Wibbling Wools is on Churchgate Street. If you come out of the main gate of the gardens, turn right and follow the road around for about 100m. Opposite the main gate is the Scandinavian Coffee House, which, somewhat ironically, does old-fashioned British tea room food.

The Green Mile by Stephen King

The Green Mile by Stephen King

I’d seen the film of #146 The Green Mile by Stephen King before I’d even heard of the book, which rather ruins it, I think. The novel is intended to be suspenseful and unpredictable. In fact, it was published in installments over several months, so its original readers would have had to wait a significant chunk of time before finding out what happened next. It’s nonetheless quite gripping, but I had no particular joy in travelling this story again and don’t think I’ll reread it.

The Green Mile is set in the USA, in the South, in the 1930s. The narrator, Paul Edgecombe, is chief guard in a prison block. His block only handles inmates condemned to death. In 1932, his block gets two new guests: Wild Bill, a white kid of 19, and John Coffey, an enormous black man charged with the death of two little white girls.

It’s Stephen King, but is it horror?
King usually writes horror with a supernatural element, but I’d say this isn’t horror. It’s got a supernatural element, true, and plenty of suspense, but it’s missing something. Perhaps the sense of immediate peril, as half the characters are locked up already, or perhaps its the human scale of the problems. Typically, in King’s horror stories the villain is supported by the supernatural and monstrously strong (physically or mentally). In The Green Mile, the characters are human, and the responses and solutions are human.

Another reason I’d hesitate to class The Green Mile as horror is the relative lack of gore. The last King novel I read was Under the Dome, which I did not enjoy at all. It’s 886 pages long, and most of it is as grim as the news on a really bad day. It’s a good example of how gory King can be when he wants. In The Green Mile, bad things don’t happen – several of the characters are on death row, and not without cause – but King doesn’t dwell on the gore.

Truth, justice and the electric chair
I couldn’t help comparing The Green Mile to To Kill a Mockingbird. They’re both set in the same period and culture, in similar geographical locations and both focus on black men accused of crimes by whites. Despite their similarities, To Kill a Mockingbird is far and away the better book. It’s better in every respect I can think of – tighter, better written, a more interesting story, a more interesting narrator, a more effective social commentary. It’s interesting to see where books I find similar place on the list. In this case, I’d say Mockingbird deserves its top-ten spot (#6) and The Green Mile is better off below the fold.

That said, The Green Mile isn’t a bad book. It’s not a brilliant book, but it’s not dreadful, either. I feel that it doesn’t do enough of any one thing to stand out. As an example, King mentions in the introduction that he didn’t do much research into the period and the place. It shows, sort of. The back story of the book is like a set dressing. It’s convincing enough for the purpose, but I really didn’t feel like I learned anything or could get in there and live.

The book has a supernatural element, which one of my friends argues has religious overtones. I didn’t really see it. Or rather, I saw it, but again, it wasn’t intense enough to matter, like a splash of apple juice in a glass of orange. Actually, that’s a reasonable analogy. I felt that the book was like a fruit juice cocktail. It was totally palatable and went down smoothly, but nothing really stuck out and I doubt I’ll remember much more now I’ve read the book than I did when I’d just seen the film.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

A weekend in Bath

A weekend in Bath

Tall, Bath stone (beige) buildings in sunshine

 

We’ve been back to our old stomping ground to celebrate K’s birthday and catch up with friends. We had an excellent weekend, but spent most of it inside, talking to people, so these are the only photographs I took of Bath looking pretty in the sunshine.

Above a modern shop front on Milsom Street, Bath, a very old, faded painted advert for a circulating library is visibleWe lived in Bath for 3 years, and had a great time there. We still have lots of friends in the city, and they’ll probably disagree with what I’m about to say, but then again they are familiar with my itchy feet! Personally, I think a weekend in Bath is about enough. It’s a charming city, but it’s small, full of tourists and often more focused on its genteel past than an interesting future. I think it gets a bit dull after a while, honestly.

There’s plenty to see in Bath, and the city centre is both compact and walkable. I do recommend a visit – just not a long one! It’s a great place to shop for quirky gifts and elegant clothes (what I think of as mother-of-the-bride clothes). The charity shops can also be a treasure trove for those with the patience to rummage, and there are some absolutely gorgeous restaurants. Our favourites were the Real Italian Pizza Company (which also has a Real Italian Ice Cream Company next door), Hong Kong Bistro and Yen Sushi. High tea at the Pump Rooms (as seen in Jane Austen) or Sally Lunn’s (home of the Bath Bun) are both good fun.

Any other suggestions?

 

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

As part of making 2014 the year of long books, I’ve just finished #25 The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. The Hobbit is not, on its own, a long book but it forms a prologue to #1 The Lord of the Rings. I’ve been informed by at least 2 of my favourite people that The Lord of the Rings means The Whole Trilogy, not just The Fellowship of the Ring, which makes it a very long book indeed.

The Hobbit is a children’s fantasy adventure story. Bilbo Baggins is the hobbit of the title. Hobbits are cosy, tidy creatures with hairy toes who rarely stray far from home. Caught up in an epic quest and taken along by 13 dwarves and a wizard to slay a dragon, Bilbo finds himself travelling far from home with unlikely companions and even missing a meal or three – a big deal for a hobbit.

I don’t like this book
I realise that a great many people do, and I can sort of see why. The Hobbit reminds me very much of The Magic Faraway TreeTolkien, at least when writing for children, has the same glossy style for his adventures. Nothing very bad happens to a named character, and everything is clearly going to work out in the end. If you’re a true hero, million-to-one chances come off nine times out of ten (as Pratchett describes beautifully in Guards! Guards!, in a section that is lampooning, it turns out, the end of The Hobbit).

The whole time I was reading The Hobbit, I kept looking for depth, and not finding it. The world building is terrible – nothing makes any sense, not the geography, the travel, the supplies, the economy. Despite the fact that the group is usually 15 strong, no one fails to offer them hospitality. A single man, living alone in the woods happily feeds them for half a dozen meals an then kits them out with a pony each to ride, a bow and quiver each, and food for a fortnight. I appreciate that he is a special snowflake of awesome power, but where did all this stuff come from? Who made the bows, and why does he have an arsenal lying around? Who saddled all these ponies? Who made the saddles? And given that this man doesn’t like hurting any animal, where did the leather come from?

Every time they stop, the wealth of a small township is showered over them. As a result, the questers can be heroically unconcerned with their goods, and lose an awful lot of stuff along the way. They never pay for anything, or trade, or do any useful work so why people are so willing to help I really can’t think. Presumably it’s because no one has any memory of last winter or any plans for the next. Everything is in an epic context, and the only events that matter are those that happened a hundred and fifty years earlier.

On race and gender and the working class
Do you know, I’m not sure that there’s a named female character anywhere in this book? I’m not sure there’s even a female speaking part, which is impressive given how much attention is paid to food. There aren’t any workers, either, unless you count the goblins and the dwarves. The entire story is that of some rich dudes going on a quest to get some more money, and getting a bunch of ordinary folk killed along the way. 

I’m also really not happy with how the different races are portrayed in this story. Even if we assume that Tolkien invented them all whole cloth, and that hobbits aren’t supposed to be one sector of humanity, elves another and goblins a third, it’s still pretty horrific. Entire races are either Practically Saints, Quite Good or Really Bad. If you’re at all bad, you have to be killed. In the book, the elves and the goblins have been at war for a very long time, and I can see why because the elves go and hunt the goblins. When they’ve nothing better to do, they hunt gobilns. When goblins have nothing better to eat, they eat elves. Now, out of those, which is worse? Hunting sentient creatures for food or for fun?

Moreover, everyone eats sentient animals, which I find horrific. Sure, dragons eat humans, but humans eat sheep and it turns out they can talk, although not in a human language, and wait at table. This book is an ethical mess, and I really can’t see that any of the characters come of out of it looking good.

It remind me of the sort of games I played as a child. The kind that’s described so well in Swallows and Amazons, where it’s clear who the main characters are (the real people pretending to be other people) and everyone else is less than a breath on the wind, as real or disposable as you like. The Hobbit is like two children playing “I kill a goblins with a single blow with my magic sword” gets the reply “well I kill two, no, ten, no a thousand goblins with my, um, with my mighty hammer”.

I didn’t enjoy The Hobbit and I don’t expect to read it again. That said, it was an interesting exercise as it so clearly provides a background to other works I’ve experienced and even love. Pratchett clearly knows this book well, and reacts to it in several of his works. A lot of roleplaying games and roleplayers act like they’re in The Hobbit, where certain creatures are bad and can be killed at will, and I suspect one of the origins of that is this series. Although, to be fair to Tolkien, mass slaughter is common in SF novels and action films too. But just because the other kids are all doing it, doesn’t mean it’s cool, OK?

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Hurrah for 2014

Hurrah for 2014

So the New Year has been with us for a week, and it’s wearing in well. I’ve decided to keep it, in fact.

I’m cautiously optimistic about this new year. It has the potential to be jaw-droppingly awesome or absolutely dreadful, and only time will tell. 2013 was a really mixed bag. Some things were pretty cool. For example:

Handknit socks with the Swedish flag pattern

Yeah, I made those. I am so chuffed with them – they’re the physical realisation of a knitting theory I’ve had in my head for a while. It took me ages to get round to testing it out, and I was so pleased it worked. Plus, I knit them with yarn I bought in Copenhagen, and K requested them because we spent a month in Sweden. I had never been to either country before, and I love visiting new places.

In total, I went to 9 countries this year: Switzerland, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Ireland and Spain. We drove through Belgium (accidentally, at least the first time) but didn’t stop. So that was very cool. I also got to explore the UK a bit more in the autumn. This year, I’d like to venture a bit further afield. Where’s somewhere you recommend I should go? Could be anywhere in the world, on my doorstop or on the other side of the planet.

We’ve been living in the caravan for over 6 months now, with the odd week away here and there. It’s still going well, but our poor van is showing a bit more wear and tear. It could really do with being dry docked, essentially, and having everything stripped out, scrubbed and put back. Not really possible at the moment – anything we take outside is likely to get waterlogged and/or blow away!

Oxford autumn mist

 

We’re still at the same site in Oxford as when I took this photo in October. K’s job is going well, and we’re pleased to be here. It’s a lovely site. That said, living in such a small space hasn’t always been easy. One of the things we’re discussing is whether we’ll continue doing this full time in 2014. For the moment, the answer is yes. but it may not be an effective long term solution. It’s been rough lately as all the wind and rain has kept us awake a lot.

I don’t have a clear idea of what 2014 will bring. I’ve got some secret hopes, some not-so-secret plans and a few good ideas. For now, all you really need is the few blog changes:

  • I’m aiming to read some long books off the Big Read list, so I won’t be posting Big Read reviews as often. 
  • I might post reviews of some of the other books I read or intermittent updates on the books I’m working through, to compensate.
  • I’m going to try to post more travel pictures. Current ones will be tagged ‘where we are‘. We are always somewhere interesting, even if it is the same as last week!

I’m open to your suggestions though, so if you always come for the travel photos, the book reviews, or really wish I’d write about something entirely different, leave a comment and let me know.