Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Good Man Is Hard To Find

Considered by many to be a master of short stories, Flannery O'Connor marks the end of the Southern Literary Renaissance that occurred from the 1920s through the early '60s. Along with other writers, including William Faulkner, Caroline Gordon, Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren and Walker Percy, O'Connor helped change the way that the South was portrayed in American literature. Her stories, stripped of nostalgia and sentimentalism, are portraits of raw human nature and the overwhelming need for grace. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories is a collection of 10 of these portraits that force the characters and the reader to see themselves as they really are and to accept their need for God.

The Plot:

Though the plot of each story is different, the basic themes and set-ups are the same. There are one or two main characters (usually backward, Protestant Southerners) who undergo drastic, even violent, transformations to reach divine grace. Other subjects like racism, poverty and even the Holocaust also make appearances.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers)

As someone who's main literary passion is 19th century British literature, I was a little hesitant to read these stories, especially considering some of the things that are associated with them (more on that later). Also, short stories have never been my "thing" so that was a bit of a put off as well. Despite all of this, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found between the covers. First off, O'Connor is a phenomenal writer. Her characters are complete and real and her insight into Southern culture is wonderful. The humor in the stories was also a surprise, and it was especially funny for someone who has lived in the South all of their life. Anybody who has ridden on I-95 can identify with the numerous signs advertising "Red Sammy's Famous BBQ" for miles before and after the actual location. And I found the fact that the Grandmother in the title story dressed up for the trip so that in case they were found dead on the side of the road, everyone would know that she was a lady to be hilarious, mainly since that reminds me of my own grandma. It was little comments like these that lightened up the overall tone of the stories.

Which brings us to the main reason that I hesitated in reading these at first. When you look up reviews for O'Connor's works, most of the words that are used are "violent", "grotesque", "dark" and "disturbing". Not being one for blood and gore, this initially made me nervous. But though dark and violent things happen to the characters, the stories themselves are not. O'Connor doesn't use the violence to sensationalise the stories, but rather as a way to open up her characters to Divine grace. In The Habit of Being, a collection of O'Connor's letters, she writes "The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism... when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror." Throughout these stories, O'Connor addresses the idea that being a "good country person" makes you good enough. Many of the main characters see themselves as better than other people (blacks, foreigners and poor people), yet still claim to be "good Christians" who give unselfishly. It is only through violence and darkness that they awaken to the fact that they, like every human on this earth, are in desperate need of grace.

That is probably the most prominent theme of all of the stories in this collection, though it was not always clear exactly how the characters came to that realization. I especially found A Temple of the Holy Ghost and A Late Encounter with the Enemy to be somewhat confusing. But most of the stories are pretty clear, with my favorites being The River and The Displaced Person.

If anything, O'Connor's stories should make you step back and think. I know that for me, it caused me to look at myself very hard and to see just what I am without the grace of God, and believe me, it was more grotesque, dark and disturbing than anything you'll find in the stories. So, if you're up for something different in your literary diet, this is something that I would recommend. You'll never look at yourself the same way again.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Lord of the Rings

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

After the successful publication of The Hobbit in 1937, J. R. R. Tolkien's publishers begged him to write a sequel. It took twelve years, but the result was what is considered by many to be one of the best novels of all time. Since its publication, The Lord of the Rings has become one of the world's most loved books, appearing on many surveys on favorite works of literature and setting the tone for almost all modern works of fantasy.

The Plot:

It has been many years since Bilbo Baggins returned from his adventure with the dragon. Now he is ready to go on one final adventure, so he leaves all of his belongings to his second cousin once-removed, Frodo Baggins, including the ring that he had "won" from the creature Gollum. Not long after, Gandalf the wizard discovers that the ring is in fact the One ring that, in the hands of the Dark Lord Sauron, could destroy Middle-earth. Now, Frodo must join with his fellow hobbits and the men, elves and dwarves of Middle-earth to reach Mount Doom in the evil land of Mordor to destroy the ring and defeat Sauron once and for all, before he himself is destroyed.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers!):

This story is one that I have heard so much about for many years but, for various reasons, had never gotten around to reading it. So, I guess the main question is, did it live up to my expectations? In a word, yes!

Though in the end, I think that The Hobbit was a more pleasant read (less complicated plot, fewer characters, faster pace, etc.), The Lord of the Rings certainly deserves much of the praise that it gets from critics and readers alike. One of the most amazing things about this book is that Tolkein didn't just make up a story, he created a world. His attention to detail shows forth in his meticulous creation of thousands of years of Middle-earth history as well as various languages, especially that of the elves. It was a little hard to pay attention to it all at first, but in the end, it is this detail that gives the story its richness.

One of the other great things about this story is how Tolkein manages to engage your emotions throughout the book. As I read, my emotions would often reflect what was happening in the story. From buoyant hope as the Fellowship set out to utter weariness as Sam and Frodo made the last push for Mount Doom, Tolkein was able to connect my emotions to his tale. Because of this, I felt that I was not simply a reader, but rather another ring-bearer.

I won't lie to you and tell you that this is an easy story to read, because it isn't. Reading The Lord of the Rings requires patience, perseverness and concentration. There are times when the book can seem unbearably long and dull. This is especially true concerning the many songs and poems found in the story. Though all are very poignant and lovely, there are a lot of them and by the end I was beginning to skim through them rather than really read them. The other thing than can make this difficult is the age at which you are reading it. I would say that the best age at which to read this story is during the mid-teen years, when you are mature enough to understand the writing and the plot, yet young enough to still have a fascination with fantasy. Though I certainly enjoyed and appreciated the fantasy aspects of the book, I don't think that I could fully identify with it and would often feel as if I was reminiscing rather than experiencing. As with The Hobbit, my main regret is that I didn't read it sooner.

Having said that, I honestly think that this is one of those books that everyone should read at least once in their life. It is not an easy journey, but it is certainly one worth making, no matter what age you start at.

P.S. It isn't necessary to read all of the appendices, but I would definitely read Appendix A since this gives the back story for Aragorn and Arwen as well as the fate of other members of the fellowship.

The Movie:

Not only had I not read The Lord of the Rings, I had not even seen the movies directed by Peter Jackson. But I have now emerged from the Dark Ages and viewed these Oscar-winning films. I was glad that I had put it off for 2 reasons. First, reading the book ahead of time certainly put a different spin on the movies than if I had seen them first. Secondly, I didn't have to wait a whole year to see what happened next!

As films, they are superb and as adaptations they are very good. Plot changes are minimal and understandable, and, most importantly, the spirit of the work remains firmly intact (unlike the new Chronicles of Narnia movies). The casting is also good with most of the characters being spot-on, especially Gandalf, Sam, Frodo and Gollum. There were a few things that bugged me, however:

-Aragorn's portrayal, especially in The Fellowship of the Ring. Instead of a man who was finally fulfilling what he had been preparing to do for his entire life, we have someone who is almost forced to take responsibility. To me that severely weakened his character and I lost some of the respect I had had for him.

-Arwen. She is barely in the book but she seems to be EVERYWHERE in the films. Every time you turn around she's there. It got downright annoying after awhile.

-Eowyn and Faramir. Faramir was probably my most favorite character in the entire book and Peter Jackson ruined him. We all know that Faramir is a much better man than his brother Boromir, but Jackson makes him just another guy with a complex. And poor Eowyn could have been developed much further if Arwen wasn't always there. Plus, Aragorn and Arwen are kissing every two seconds and all we get for Eowyn and Faramir is a smile? Give me a break!

-Portrayal of certain other characters and places. Elrond was definitely not what I had pictured him to be and neither was Rosie Cotton (a barmaid?). Also, Lothlorien (probably my favorite place in the book) was much different from the natural peaceful place of my imagination.

Ultimately, these are great films and even with these little problems they were great to watch, though I am not sure if I would have felt this way if I hadn't seen the extended edition. If you are going to watch it, that is definitely the version I would suggest since each film has about an hour of extra scenes and dialogue that help round them out.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Road Goes Ever On

From The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains of the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

From The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Happy Birthday To:

Leo Tolstoy
September 9, 1828

"Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself."

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Hobbit

On the surface, there is nothing really special about the vast majority of people who walk this earth. We move through life without distinction, doing the same things day after day. We are ordinary, commonplace and everyday beings. Or are we? What if there were something noble and courageous inside of us just waiting to get out? What if we were capable of many mighty things and were only waiting for the right time to do them? That is a question that is answered for Bilbo Baggins, the hero of J. R. R. Tolkein's classic tale The Hobbit: or There and Back Again.

The Plot:

Ordinary hobbit Bilbo Baggins leads a quiet, simple life at his home in the Shire. Adventures, you see, are not something that hobbits have. They do not often deal with anyone from outside the Shire, and they very seldom, if ever go very far beyond their own borders, and Bilbo is no exception. Then one day, the appearance of Gandalf the wizard as well as band of dwarves on his doorstep turns his world upside-down.

The dwarves are trying to recapture their ancient homeland and its vast treasure from the evil dragon, Smaug, and they are in need of a "burglar". Gandalf believes that Bilbo is just the hobbit for the job. Bilbo's first instinct is to refuse, but suddenly, his romantic and adventurous side ("something Tookish") begins to awaken in him. Before he knows it, Bilbo is off on the adventure of his life. Along the way, he will find a courage and strength he never knew he had, and set in motion events that will echo throughout the ages of Middle-earth.

My Review (Caution- Spoilers!):

Though The Hobbit doesn't fit into one particular genre, it is very close to children's fantasy stories such as George MacDonald's classic The Princess and the Goblin. The writing is relatively simple, there is an omniscient narrator and the hero (Bilbo) is someone that children can relate to. In fact, this book itself is a lot like Bilbo. On the surface, it seems to be an ordinary children's story, but underneath there are many things that make this book great.

First, Tolkein is a genius of a writer. His attention to detail, his understanding of human character and his ability to create, not just a story, but a world itself, all make this a fascinating work for both children and adults.

Second, The Hobbit provides some of the back story for Tolkein's impressive Lord of the Rings. Though you can read LOTR without first reading this story, it does lay a foundation for many characters that will be given much more detail in the later books (such as Bilbo, Gandalf and Gollum).

Finally, The Hobbit serves as a bridge between the literature of childhood and the literature of adulthood. It especially helps to fill that ever-present gap between ages 9-13 that is sorely lacking in good literature that will help prepare them for the works of Dante and Shakespeare.

Perhaps it was Rayner Unwin who summed it up the best. As the ten year old son of publisher Sir Stanley Unwin, he was the first person to write up a review of The Hobbit in 1936. Here is what he had to say:

Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exciting time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home — rich! This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.

Though I am no longer between the ages of 5 & 9, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and at times I liked it better than the more in depth LOTR. I only regret that I didn't read it sooner. So if this is one of those books that you have been putting off, don't wait. Read it now!

The Movie:

There is a live-action version of The Hobbit currently in the works. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson is acting as producer with Guillermo del Toro directing. There is speculation on which actors will be reprising their roles from Lord of the Rings, but the names that are being tossed around include Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Ian Holm (Bilbo), Andy Serkis (Gollum) and Christopher Lee (Saruman). It is supposed to be divided into 2 parts to be released in December 2011 and December 2012.

There is also a 1977 animated version of the story starring Orson Bean, Cyril Ritchard, Hans Conried and John Huston. It has been simplified from the original story, but it does include many songs based on many of Tolkein's poems. It has been YEARS since I have seen it, so I can't give any real opinion of it.

Trivia: The Hobbit actors Cyril Ritchard and Hans Conried both starred as Captain Hook/Mr. Darling in Peter Pan; Ritchard in the Broadway version and Conried in the 1953 Disney Version.