3.29.14 The Hobbit

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. 317/317.

Owl read me The Hobbit. Apparently I cannot read the Hobbit myself, because I have not read The Hobbit since I was eight and my mother last bothered to read The Hobbit to me. I then thought about reading The Hobbit for the next fifteen to twenty years. I even managed to cycle through owning several different editions of The Hobbit but I did not actually read any of them, perhaps because they were not as glorious as this giant golden version I am holding in my hands.

EXCEPTION: I can read ‘Riddles in the Dark’ in any form. I am that person. I am the person who waits for the best part of the book and leaps into the air with all their limbs waving and goes OOH MEE MEE MEE I WILL DO IIIIIIIIIT like it is a burden unto Ring Bearing and a golden retriever’s favorite tennis ball all in one. I fought off a group of kindly Medievalists to win that chapter in a group readaloud in grad school, and in my seventh grade Readers Theater class I competed for the honor of being a be a slimy, ill-socialized, murdering magpie of the murky depths in an actual head-to-head readoff against my scrawny nerd frenemy Devin DeCamp.

I also read it now. But mostly it was Owl, because I cannot read The Hobbit myself apparently.

Here is what I learned after fifteen to twenty years of not reading the Hobbit:

  • Elves are GOOFY BAD CHILDREN who sing songs almost entirely about how they are better than you and you are cold fa la la la la tra la la la la you will die and they never get old tra fa la tra fa la DON’T TRUST ELVES WHO TRY TO LOOK COOL, THEY ARE NOT COOL
  • Gandalf
  • BILBO IS SLY, BILBO IS SO SLY, BILBO IS JUST ONE SLY ENTREE WITH A HEAPING SIDE DISH OF PRAGMATISM Bilbo is who I feel I could be on my best day and is definitely who I am every time I play D&D, which infuriates people, I SHOULD POINT OUT TO THEM THAT BILBO IS PERFECT WHEREAS THORIN, TYPICAL D&D PLAYER, RASH, STUBBORN, AND INTERESTED IN UNNECESSARY FEATS OF ARMS, ENDS UP COMPLETELY DEAD
  • The best way to write about traveling is to say, “Bilbo felt that he had done this terrible thing x for years and would never again be happy,” and then it turns out he was there for a week, or “The lake men starved to death and were weary and sick in that time” and that time is like, two days, JUST TO MIX IT UP.
  • A lot happens after they meet Smaug, a perfect person who is the only important part of the book according to reduced book wisdom (mine), so it is surprising that there is more after him.
  • Fewer than the expected number of dwarves die. Hurrah! But some of them later move into Moria even though they have just established that it is full of goblins who hate their guts. NOOOOOOOOO.

I also learned as previously suspected that Tolkien has a sense of humor, and none of it has to do with snot. Peter Jackson, I’m looking at you. And then I am looking away, because YOU HAVE DONE HEINOUS THINGS TO THIS BOOK YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND. GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT

Five stars! THE HOBBIT.

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10 (?) MYSTERY WRITERS I LOVED AS A KID THAT MAKE ME WONDER WHY I DON’T STILL READ MYSTERIES

1. Marjorie Weinman Sharmat – Nate the Great series

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Nate is a tiny Sherlock Holmes for a young audience, born of the 1970s, whose Watson is a dog called Sludge. He loves pancakes. He is perfect. (Incidentally while I was Googling, I learned that Emily the Strange is a remarkable ripoff of one of Nate‘s minor characters. Thank you for solving that one, internet.)

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2. Donald J. Sobol – Encyclopedia Brown series

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Encylopedia Brown is known as Encyclopedia for his incredible ability to retain information no one else bothers to remember or even know. Possibly my favorite thing about his stories was that they were SHORT, which I always found incredibly satisfying to my distaste for delayed gratification. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from him was that if you carve your name onto a tree at ground level, it will not be WAY UP THERE fifty years from now.

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3. Wendelin Van Draanen – Sammy Keyes series

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SAMMY KEYES. The Veronica Mars of the late nineties midgrade set, the coolest of girls, the best of detectives. If you read Sammy Keyes and did not have a devastating crush on her I can only determine that you were a LOST AND EMPTY CHILD. Seriously, though, Sammy Keyes is. The. Best. And back in the day they had these great cover designs! I obsessed over these covers—why? Because they were perfect! Cool, sharp, and interesting. Distinctive. PERFECT.

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4. Crosby Bonsall – The Case of the Scaredy Cats,  The Case of the Dumb Bells, The Case of the Cat’s Meow

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NEIGHBORHOOD MYSTERIES. Crosby Bonsall’s mysteries are great, because they’re all about gangs of little boys being territorial and foolish and kind of bad at stuff, and then figuring out that SOMETHING WEIRD (not that weird) is happening and having to get together and fix it, squabbling all the way. They resent girls and little brothers, in the true fashion of a classically trained child male. Side note for non-obvious name: Crosby Bonsall is a lady writer.

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5. David A. Adler – Cam Jansen series

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Cam Jansen is called Cam short for Camera not because there are things wrong with her parents but because, like Encyclopedia Brown, she is preternaturally good at things. In her case, she is good at having a photographic memory! She uses it to solve mysteries and shuts her eyes and says CLICK! every time she needs to access a particular memory. I read approximately one billion of these books.

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6. Ellen Raskin – The Westing Game, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), and The Tattooed Potato and Other Mysteries

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No competition in my mind, The Westing Game is the hands-down winner of children’s mystery novels. It is smart, weird, uncomfortable, and perfect. It is actually a bit like the movie of Clue, although with fewer all around murders. In it, a high rise apartment building is constructed by a lake, under the eye of an old house. The master of the old house dies. All of the new tenants of the apartment building, hand-selected, find themselves in the will. All of them have secrets. One of them committed murder.

Side note: Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer attempted a similar mystery style, but for me completely fell apart by introducing some hand-waving mystical stuff at the end. No one gets handed anything they want in The Westing Game.

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7. Eve Titus – Basil of Baker Street series

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FAVE SHERLOCK HOLMES. Mouse Sherlock Holmes and his mouse Watson lifemate have different names from their inspirations because they live in Holmes’ house and are being the mouse versions of them completely on purpose. I have not read these books in a thousand years, and so I am afraid I cannot tell you for certain if Victorianesque mice are as rife with sexism and racism as Victorian men, but I had boundless respect for Basil as a young person.

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8. Gertrude Chandler Warner et. al. – The Boxcar Children

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The first Boxcar Children book was written by a schoolteacher and included important life knowledge such as: how to store your milk bottle in a running stream so it keeps cool. Later they get less “portrait of some uncomfortably unsupervised orphans doing mysteries and living in a train” and more “case of the week written by a hundred different authors,” but I ATE THAT UP. I don’t know how many of them I read. I got one from my teacher for Christmas in the second grade and immediately dropped it in a greasy puddle. I used to arrange all of them in rainbow order when I worked as a shelver at the library.

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9. James Howe – Bunnicula series

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The first Bunnicula book is co-written with Deborah Howe, and involves this poor dog being run around by this cat who’s freaking out because their people got a rabbit and the cat thinks it’s a vampire. The cat DOES NOT ADJUST WELL. After they figure out the rabbit isn’t going to kill anyone (and James Howe starts writing on his own) the cat has already developed a taste for mysteries, so he drags this poor dog (and a later, stupider dog, but not generally the rabbit, because rabbits do not go for this nonsense) on a bunch of other paranoia-driven quests.

A note to all authors: DO NOT FEED YOUR DOGS CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES.

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10. Franklin W. Dixon et. al. – The Hardy Boys series

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My dad kindly read me a few Hardy Boys books in this basic format and I spent the entire time screaming over words such as “chums” and the fact that I, who have always been incredibly bad at solving mysteries, generally knew what was happening. Let it never be said that there was a time when I did not like to read critically and with a smidgeon of rage.

3.28.14 The Wonderful O

The Wonderful O by James Thurber. 72/72.

Aaaaaaaaaargh I AM TOO TIRED. It is a children’s classic, this guy who’s afraid of the letter O comes to an island looking for treasure and he takes O-things away from the locals because he’s a big jerk who needs therapy.* The lack of o’s becomes problematic and then it comes back to bite him and we learn that LOVE AND VALOR AND HOPE AND MOST OF ALL FREEDOM are important things that we must always fight for.

THE WORST HEADACHE. NO CRIT. I like his essays better and I think I preferred The 13 Clocks so far as oddo Thurber kid books go.

*No, he does, for his pathological hatred of the letter O that was brought on by his mother’s traumatic death out a porthole. I’m not being flip or anything, just, the guy needs help. And not to do bad things.

3.27.14 The Little Prince

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery. Translated by Katherine Woods. 113/113.

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The Little Prince is a wistful French classic of youthful imagination, which has moved many to tears and sighs and has always been one of my mother’s least favorite books in the entire world. For real—it makes her rear back in visceral dislike—TOO SENTIMENTAL—and turn aside for the closest available source of literary comfort. And this from someone who loves Anne of Green Gables with a true, good, and permanent love.

So I did that thing you sometimes do when your genius librarian of a parent hates a book, and you Do Not Read It. Owl likes it, however, and I like Owl enough to have gotten married together, and here it was on our shelf, so I picked it up.

Here is the truth—

—I am ashamed—

I did not care.

I do not care about the aviator narrator’s existential grief at being touched in his heart by an ephemeral flower of childish purity a la Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Owl asked me DO YOU THINK HE DIES DO YOU THINK HE DIES about the Prince, but it turns out that I don’t think he lives or dies because I do not believe in him at all.

I do believe in the power of imagination, in principle, and I agree wholeheartedly that it’s better to avid sitting at a desk feeling crabby for your whole life. 

I also believe with my total conviction in the lamb that is technically just a drawing of a box which has been said to hold a lamb. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because the narrator couldn’t see the lamb, and therefore grease it all up with his ugly crying.

In my defense, the narrator messing things up is totally canon. He messes up like FIVE DRAWINGS OF LAMBS and makes the fox’s ears too tall. The guy doesn’t know anything. IRL the Prince is probably great. Get your act together with your gardening, Prince, and always wear body armor when riding a space snake. I know that’s kind of adult-ish advice, but it will be so much better for your tender self.

take care, mon petit prince ;______;

put the narrator in a box

3.22.14 The Black Cauldron

The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. 222/222.

Great news: TARAN DEVELOPS AS A CHARACTER and EILONWY IGNORES SEXISM AND COMES ON THE QUEST AND CONTINUES TO BE IRRITABLE AND MAKE SORT OF BAD METAPHORS, eg Eilonwy is still the best character ever.

But my big deal in this book is, Why the heck did you even bring that guy?

In this book, a bunch of wise and war-battered people are getting together to steal the world’s grossest cookpot from Arawn (who we may recall from The Book of Three and also The Mabinogion is the Welsh king of the land of the Welsh dead, alternately Annuvin or Annwn), who keeps using said pot to cook up zombies, aka, CAULDRON-BORN.

This kid Ellidyr, he’s a prince, he’s a jerk, he and Main Character Pig-Boy Taran start duking it out as soon as they meet, but also this Ellidyr, he is a giant jerk to everyone. He is rude to eeeeeeveryone. It is obvious from the minute all these wise war fellows start making their plans that he is going to figure out how to screw everything up, because he’s literally the worst, and proud of it. PROUD OF EVERYTHING, in fact. Way too proud. Viceproud.

But they still take him along, and he does screw things up, and eventually he runs off with his horse to find the cauldron himself and get glory or whatever, and he fails at that, but Taran and his friends (Taran has friends, due to not being an enormous jerk) DO find the wicked cookpot, and Ellydir shows up and practically dies of hate, and then he basically threatens, fights, and thieves them out of it. He makes them promise not to tell anyone they were the ones who found it because otherwise his glory will be all screwed up. So WELL DONE ELLYDIR, YOU HAVE SHOWN YOUR WORTH. He even manages to bring it to the ONE GUY in their plan who is secretly scheming to make a whole zombie army of his own and totally outdo old Arawn. (I don’t know how you can beat the king of Annuvin at dead armies, but whatever.)

And the WHOLE TIME I am like WHY. ARE. YOU. EVEN. ON. THIS. QUEST? WHO LET YOU COME ON THIS QUEST WHY ARE YOU QUESTING and it turns out that the answer is, he is there to throw himself nobly to his death into the wicked cookpot and solve everyone’s problems.

Ah, they reflect. Truly he became noble at the end.

It’s convenient that the one guy you can’t stand is just noble enough at the end to solve the problem of “who do we get to willingly die in a wicked zombie cookpot which is tragically the only way said cookpot can possibly be destroyed?” It’s great. But seriously, if I were Prince Gwydion, leader of men, maker of plans, I would have heard one word out of this kid and told him to wait outside until the war was over. Failing that, if I were Adaon, the extremely wise gentle extremely doomed adult leader of Taran’s  band, I would have wisely gently bopped that little jerk in the head halfway across the plains, and he would have taken a nap, and we would have booked it out of catching-up distance so fast.

WHO JUMPS IN THE ZOMBIE POT NOW, THEN? you ask. Well, I do not know, and that is why I did not write this book or get a Newbery Honor or whatever. I just write this blog.

3.18.14 The Mabinogion: Pwyll Prince of Dyfed

The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn and Thomas Jones. 24/273.

warnings: violence and accusations of baby-eating

My friend Tom wisely offered that the Mabinogion is great to read alongside the Dark Is Rising sequence, and incidentally it is as good if not better to read with the Prydain Chronicles (which are more overtly based in Welsh rather than English mythology).

I’m reading the Tom and Gwyn Jones translation, which is very thee and thou and is a classic unto itself. The Mabinogion is a set of 11 stories grouped into 4 branches. Some of it is Arthurian, but not all of it; the whole thing has exactly the kind of weird foolish courtly adventuring that medieval literature is super into.

HANG ON, LET ME CLARIFY: THIS STORY IS HILARIOUS AND GREAT

The first branch is just one story, PWYLL PRINCE OF DYFED. Pwyll is basically a guy who does a bunch of things you expect to go horribly wrong and end in death and despair, but for some reason he turns the tides of folklore and is perfectly fine.

For example: the first thing Pwyll does in his story is see Arawn, GOD OF HELL’s hounds take down a stag, chase off the hounds, and set his own dogs on the stag like maaaaaaaaaybe they caught said stag to begin with????? Arawn figures this out in about zero seconds and YOU WOULD THINK THAT WAS IT FOR PWYLL, YOU WOULD THINK YOU SHOULD NOT STEAL A STAG FROM THE KING OF HELL, but now! Arawn is just like, hey, man, let’s swap kingdoms for a year, you take care of this guy who’s bugging me—hit him once at a tourney BUT NOT TWICE—and we’ll call it even.

So Pwyll takes this amazing deal and goes to Annwn in disguise as King Arawn and everybody LOVES HIM there. You’d think there’d be trouble with the hot hellwife Pwyll has to get in bed with, like, that’s usually a slipping-up issue in folklore, BUT NO. Every day they’re bffs and every night Pwyll makes himself into this perfectly silent line of NO TOUCHING SLEEP MAN and it’s just not an issue at all. Finally the tourney comes around and you think MAYBE HE’LL SCREW THIS UP, but NO, he hits the guy once and won’t deliver a killing blow, and he and Arawn swap back places AND ARE BEST PALS FOREVER.

Then Pwyll’s friends are like, Guy you need to get some babies or something, and he is like OKAY. OKAY. BUT FIRST I WANT TO SIT ON THIS MOUND WHERE YOU EITHER GET BEAT UP OR SEE A WONDER. That sounds good, so they do that. He and his pals go up on the mound of hitting or whoa, and they keep seeing this woman go by on a nice horse, but no one can catch up with her. Finally he thinks to, IDK, go himself, and it turns out she would like him to win her from some guy.

The long and short of it is that he screws up a little but eventually ends up stomping the bad suitor into a bag and going HO HO OH IT IS BUT A BADGER /whack whack whack/, thus inventing BADGER IN A BAG, which is a horrifying Medieval game you should never play.* Then he and the lady Rhiannon, who is one awesome character, go off and get hitched.

Rhiannon has that Medieval NO BABIES problem, but provides one when pressured. Problem: the night it’s born her MANY LADIES IN WAITING all go to sleep and the baby disappears. They wake up and go OH CRAP, and decide the best solution is to put blood all over the queen and say she ate him.

It’s obviously nonsense but Rhiannon takes penance over trying to work it out because she finds all the ladies so frustrating.

Meanwhile, the baby is growing SUPERFAST in a noble house where they have paid everyone off to say he’s theirs. They get guilty when they realize it’s the prince, and that Rhiannon is stuck sitting on a stump telling everyone she ate her baby for seven years, so they give him back. Then he becomes king and the foster kidnappers are on retainer, and Rhiannon gets to go back inside, and everything is awesome.

AND THAT IS THE FIRST BRANCH OF THE MABINOGION

*It is: you put a badger in a bag, and then you kick it. That is the game. DARK AGES INDEED.