The Hobbit

In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit.

…something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. 
 
With this year’s release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it was one of my goals for 2012 to read J. R. R. Tolkien‘s book again.  The previous (and first) time I’d read it, several years ago, it had been to cheer me up after the super emotional ending of The Return of the King (the last volume of The Lord of the Rings).  I loved The Hobbit as a prequel to LOTR, but the more lighthearted storyline was difficult to appreciate at the time.

The plot, very simply, follows Bilbo Baggins, thirteen dwarves, and the wizard Gandalf as they embark on a journey to the Lonely Mountain, where they hope to kill the dragon Smaug and regain the dwarves’ homeland and immense treasure.  Of course, nothing ever goes exactly as planned.  There are many evil creatures between the Shire and the Mountain, and many warlike people with agendas of their own.  Bilbo’s own journey is one of self-discovery, along with the discovery of a magic ring.

Being able to visualize The Hobbit through photos from Jackson’s movie has really helped me view it in a context more similar to LOTR.  And, proportionally, The Hobbit may be lighter reading than LOTR, but for a fairytale there is still much to learn from and marvel at.  You don’t have to be a child, either – if you enjoy fairytales, fantasy, and/or adventure stories, I highly recommend The Hobbit5 out of 5 stars.

The pines were roaring on the height,
The wind was moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.

The Kiss and Other Stories

Shishkin DozVDubLesu 114

[I believe I read this 1915 edition, translated by R. E. C. Long, courtesy of Google books.]

Anton Chekhov was a 19th century Russian author well known for his short stories.  The Kiss and Other Stories contains fourteen of these, each like a vignette of a scene from Russian country and city life.  “The Kiss” is about soldier whose life is changed – or so he thinks – by an accidental kiss with a complete stranger; “Verotchka” is a story of unrequited love; and “The Runaway” is about a boy’s trip to the local hospital.  “The Muzhiks” is the longest story, detailing poverty and life in a Russian peasant village.

There is a lot to be learned from these stories, even if you have already studied Russian history.  Most of the stories were somber, either depressing and/or very thought-provoking.  It made me think how it is easy to do the right thing when your needs are met, but if your life is a continuous desperate attempt at survival, your entire worldview and moral standards are easily affected.  You can read about some of these characters and feel you’d never act the way they do, but the fact is, few of us could even imagine what it is to be born into those kinds of circumstances, let alone what we would be like if we were.

4 out of 5 stars. 

Four (more) short reviews

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane
The Remains of the Day 
Kazuo Ishiguro
4 out of 5 stars
This award-winning novel is about an English butler, Mr. Stevens, who takes a road trip in the English countryside.  Though he attempts to keep a travelogue, he ends up reminiscing about his father, his friendship with housekeeper Miss Kenton, and his former employer’s role in the Inter-War/WWII era.

The book is pretty good, but I enjoyed the Anthony Hopkins film more.  His portrayal of Mr. Stevens is really moving, whereas book!Stevens is harder to like or understand.

 
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Washington Irving
5 out of 5 stars
I knew the story already (from the Disney animated film), but it was a delight to read the original!  Ichabod is a rather egotistical, materialistic guy in the book, so one hardly feels sorry for him.
 
A Passage to India
E. M. Forster
 2 out of 5 stars
This book was really well-written, with some interesting depictions of the British Raj, but that’s about it.  I didn’t like the characters much, including but not limited to Mrs. Moore.  (By comparison, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a lot deeper and more vague, yet somehow easier to understand.) I’m not exactly sure what was the point of A Passage to India, although as an illustration it is ok.
Kafka’s Selected Shorter Writings
from ManyBooks.net
 5 out of 5 stars

This is a nice read for Kafka fans or readers who just want to sample his work.  The stories are very short (in fact, I believe the Gatekeeper story is an excerpt from The Trial).  Recommended if you have a half-hour to spare!

Weekend Quote: Bantering

“It is all very well, in these changing times, to adapt one’s work to take in duties not traditionally within one’s realm; but bantering is of another dimension altogether. For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate.”
– Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

This is from my second reading for British history class.  I had tried Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go recently and didn’t finish it, but this (more renowned) novel of his is really good so far.  It’s in the form of a 1956 travelogue by Mr. Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, during his road trip in the English countryside.

Overall, the characterization of Mr. Stevens is well-done, and it cracked me up to read of his attempts to reply with “witticisms” to his American employer’s jokes (but as for his characterization…why are Americans always portrayed as informal and jokey?).  Some may see Mr. Stevens as paranoid, but I feel the same way sometimes, truly terrified of having possibly said the wrong thing!

The book makes me even more depressed about the class system, though.  It seems like Mr. Stevens feels like he has to constantly prove himself worthy and constantly maintain “dignity.”  And I can see how somebody in his position could come to feel undignified or ridiculous, which is sadder still. 

Character Thursday: Mrs. Moore

It feels so long since I last posted!  Since school started, most of my reading time has been for school.  I read on the bus, at school, and at home, but there is always more…  Anyways, I managed to squeeze in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and The Hobbit (still re-reading).  For British history class, I also read E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India

Mrs. Moore was, to me, the main character of that novel.  I don’t know that I have ever read a book (apart from Miss Marple) where an elderly lady takes on such a huge role, and Mrs. Moore is even more unique because she does not actually “take on” any role.  She philosophizes, she talks, she visits India, but she doesn’t do anything.

At the same time, I felt that she was the reason the relationships between the other characters had substance to them. She has some strange influence over them, which is never fully explained.  Dr Aziz, a young Indian doctor, befriends her, but it is never described exactly what they have in common or see in each other.  Finally, her influence causes one of the characters to make a vastly important decision, where another character’s honor and career are at stake.

I’ve got to say that, for all that, I did not like Mrs. Moore (or the book, for that matter).  Her “powers” were vague and unsubstantiated, and I felt like the book promotes turning to people (e.g. Mrs. Moore), instead of God, for ultimate spiritual and moral guidance.  Also, it doesn’t help that Mrs. Moore takes a sort of indifferent view of morals altogether and hardly cares what happened or might have happened to her potential daughter-in-law.  This was what particularly stopped me from warming up to her character.