Review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

FairylandbyCatherynneValente.jpgWhat was it about?

While washing dishes one day, twelve-year-old September is suddenly whisked away from her home in Omaha, Nebraska to Fairyland by the Green Wind and the Leopard of Little Breezes. She befriends a wyvern named A-Through-L, saves a marid named Saturday, and goes on a mission to retrieve a sword for the Marquess, who is the dictator of Fairyland. September struggles to understand Fairyland, remember the Green Wind’s rules, and escape from the traps set by the Marquess. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente is the first book of the Fairyland series, which ended this year. It is an adventure in the tradition of Alice in WonderlandThe Neverending Story, and The Wizard of Oz. September goes on a quest to save her friends from the Marquess even though she’d rather return home to her mother.

What did I think of it?

This is a strange book. The creatures are odd and the rules of Fairyland are so unlike those of our world. I found it hard at times to follow the action and remember the prohibitions. The Green Wind gives September a list of prohibitions at the beginning of the adventure, but I must admit that I forgot them immediately after they were named. Still, the story was straightforward enough that a middle-schooler could reasonably follow it. I liked how it was hard for September to categorize the creatures she met. A-Through-L looks like a dragon, but he believes he is half-library (!). Saturday looks like a fairy, but he only grants wishes if he is forced into submission. We, like September, have to learn about Fairyland mostly from scratch. Our expectations are constantly called into question. The characters are multi-dimensional; nothing is black or white. It looks like the Fairyland series will break common fairy-tale tropes. I do worry though about the direction the story is taking. I was not fully satisfied with the twist at the end of the first book. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not the first fairy-tale adventure ever written. I have read plenty. Some I’ve loved (such as The Neverending StoryThe Little Prince, and Gulliver’s Travels) and some I’ve not liked as much (such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland). Late medieval religious and secular literature has also exposed me to quite a lot of allegory, so if an author employs allegory it better be good. I have very high expectations. I was not disappointed by the first book in the Fairyland series, but it didn’t wow me. It is simply too soon for me to tell whether I will love the series or not. I may need to reread the first book before continuing because (as I indicated) I forgot a lot of details.

Favorite Quote

“That’s what happens to friends, eventually. They leave you. It’s practically what they’re for.”

Review of Roverandom


What was it about?

A real dog named Rover is transformed into a toy by a wizard he offended. Two boys play with the toy until Rover manages to get away through the help of the sand-sorcerer Psamathos Psamathides. Rover (later renamed Roverandom) meets the Man-in-the-Moon, flies on the back of a seagull, and encounters a ferocious dragon all while searching for the wizard who transformed him into a toy. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantastical adventure riddled with wordplay and literary references.

What did I think of it?

Although Tolkien wrote Roverandom for his four-year-old son Michael, it was published after Tolkien’s death. Tolkien’s writing never ceases to impress me. He has a great mastery of the English language and creates such odd creatures. None of these elements were lacking in this book. However, it was very obvious to me that Roverandom was an unfinished, unedited work. At times, it was hard for me to follow Roverandom’s adventures. None of the characters were developed and there was no rhyme or reason to the magic in the book. It was quite a forgettable story. The illustrations were beautiful, but they were stuck in the middle of the book, so I didn’t always know what scenes they were supposed to depict. I also wish the editor had used footnotes instead of end-notes. I didn’t realize there were notes to the text until after I finished the story. If you are a Tolkien completionist then by all means read Roverandom. I am glad that I read it, but it definitely left much to be desired.

Favorite Quote

“Not every old man with ragged trousers is a bad old man; some are bone-and-bottle men, and have little dogs of their own; and some are gardeners; and a few, a very few, are wizards prowling round on a holiday looking for something to do.”

 

Reflections on The Lord of the Rings (Contains Spoilers)

I started reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time while in high school. There has always been a lot of hype surrounding the series, so I wanted to find out for myself what people love about J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. So, I picked up The Fellowship of the Ring and started reading. To my dismay, I did not understand a word of it. This was distressing because I prided myself on being well-read. After all, I had read A Tale of Two Cities as an eighth grader (but probably understood only 60% of it). I just couldn’t get into the story. The plot and language went way over my head. I expected The Lord of the Rings to read like the Harry Potter series, but they didn’t.

Because it is not in my nature to throw in the towel and give up, I decided to try reading The Fellowship of the Ring again a few years later. I finally finished the first book, but I still had no idea what went on. I knew that Frodo and his friends were trying to destroy an invisibility ring. That much was obvious. But there were so many different lands and names. I couldn’t keep track of them all. I never thought to consult the map of Middle-Earth that was so conveniently placed at the start of the book.

During my sophomore year of college, I visited the education library and embarrassingly admitted to the librarian that I found The Lord of the Rings confusing and dense. She suggested I start with The Hobbit, and so I did. People often ask on forums whether The Hobbit should be read before the trilogy. My answer is a strong yes! The Lord of the Rings is not really a plot-driven story. Tolkien created a world, and the more you learn about the world, the more you can appreciate the trilogy. That year, I finished reading Tolkien’s novels for the first time. But I didn’t fully appreciate them. While I enjoyed reading The Fellowship of the Ring, I could not wait for The Return of the King to end. Looking back, I realize now that I did not approach the books with the right mentality.

Frodo Baggins’ journey to Middle Earth is really a pilgrimage. People go on a pilgrimage to reach a particular destination like the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. But if the pilgrims are truly invested in the journey, what inevitably happens is that they come to discover much about themselves and about life. Frodo knew from the beginning that his journey to Mordor would be fraught with peril, but neither he nor his friends understood the sort of evil they were up against. Only Gandalf truly understood. In my most recent reading of The Lord of the Rings, I focused much on the characters themselves. Gandalf is wise because he realizes that he is not essentially different than Saruman. He knows that if he handled the ring, he too would fall under it’s influence. Gandalf does not think he is invincible. I was struck by Tolkien’s commentary on the nature of true wisdom. I have always loved Sam and Aragorn, but I noticed Pippin’s character development for the first time. At the start of the journey, he is quite a foolish, silly hobbit. Gandalf wants to strangle him because Pippin always seems to land the Fellowship into trouble. But while, in Gondor, so many others fall into despair, Pippin shows great courage and selflessness. Thanks to Pippin, Faramir is saved from death.

I have written much about the themes in Tolkien’s books in my previous posts. I did, however, leave out a discussion of the Catholic themes in the books. I did this for a reason. Tolkien was quite clear that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. It’s not even a thought supposition like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. There are Catholic elements in the trilogy because Tolkien viewed the world through that lens. For example, I do see the Virgin Mary in Galadriel and the Eucharist in the lembas, but it is wrong to say that The Lord of the Rings is allegorical. God is only mentioned once in the trilogy, and it is not clear who is supposed to be the Christ-figure (if there is one at all). I can’t deny, however, that the books have a special place in my heart because of the themes that are explored – themes that are much a part of my faith. Whether these themes are explored in similar ways in the other religions of the world I can’t say.

Remember that I said that I wanted The Return of the King to end the first time I read it. Well, this time around, I wanted more. In particular, I wanted to learn more about Aragorn and Arwen’s marriage. I tend to shy away from adult fantasy novels because they often include very graphic sex scenes. Even when the sex scenes are brief or not graphic, I usually find romance quite boring. But the romance in The Lord of the Rings is based on love and respect, not lust. How rare is such romance in the fantasy genre and how refreshing!  It is no secret that the love between Aragorn and Arwen was based on Tolkien’s love for his wife, Edith.

I can now say with absolute certainty that The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is the greatest fantasy series ever written. I am so glad that I did not give up on the books. They are truly a masterpiece!

Review of The Fellowship of the Ring

The FellowshipI read The Fellowship of the Ring for a Lord of the Rings read-along hosted by Robert @ 101 Books. I plan on reading Two Towers and The Return of the King by the end of August. My review for the first book of the trilogy is below.

What was it about?

The story starts with Bilbo Baggins preparing for his eleventy-first birthday celebration. Decades have passed since he returned from his adventure to the Lonely Mountain, but even at this advanced age, Bilbo, to the dismay of the Sackville-Bagginses, still hasn’t shown any sign that he intends on quitting Bag End. (Bilbo’s adventure is recounted in The Hobbit. I reviewed the book last month). Bilbo and the Sackville-Bagginses never did get on. Still, he knows that with or without an invitation the onerous family will be present at his party.

The hobbits love food, drink, and good cheer, and Bilbo’s party seems to far surpass their expectations – that is, until suddenly, while in the middle of giving a speech to his guests, Bilbo vanishes.

Back in Bag End, Bilbo removes the ring from his finger and prepares to leave the Shire. Gandalf, who had arrived for the birthday celebration and knows about the invisibility ring, convinces his friend to leave the ring to his nephew, Frodo.

On Frodo’s fiftieth birthday, Gandalf returns to Bag End with a strong sense that something is just not right.  Although Bilbo had not physically aged since his return from the East, he had confided to Gandalf that he was tired and in need of a long holiday. Bilbo’s behavior had reminded the great wizard of a creature who, for the past so many years, he had been pursuing all over Middle-Earth: Gollum. As it turns out, the ring is not just a magical toy. The evil Sauron of Mordor created this ring to rule over Middle-Earth. In recent years, Sauron has become increasingly aware of the presence of the ring, and if he repossess it, Gandalf knows that he will be unstoppable. Unless the ring is destroyed in Mount Doom, all of Middle-Earth will come under Sauron’s dominion. Reluctantly, Frodo and his friend Samwise Gamgee agree to take the treacherous journey to Mordor.

What did I think of it?

The Fellowship of the Ring is a a fantastic beginning to the trilogy. Frodo, like his uncle Bilbo, meets many strange and powerful creatures, but unlike The Hobbit, the characters in The Fellowship of the Ring are described in great detail. While there is a lot of traveling and fighting in the story, the emphasis is on the characters themselves. The ring is very powerful, and anyone (except maybe Tom Bombadil) could potentially come under its influence. There are many paths to Mordor, but not every path should be followed. Choice is a very important theme in the novel. Should they go home or should they go to Mordor? Should the ring be destroyed or used? Is the journey even worth it?

This was my fourth time reading The Fellowship of the Ring. When I was younger, I had great difficulty getting through the book. Tolkien describes Middle-Earth in painstaking detail and his narrative style is dense. Except for Frodo’s meeting with Tom Bombadil which I still feel is needlessly drawn out, I now think that most of the descriptions are essential to the story. During my latest reread, I was struck by the many similarities between the creatures living in Middle-Earth and ourselves. The characters react very realistically to the situations they find themselves in. As in our world, it is often hard to discern between good and evil.

I would like, once again, to turn your attention to this fantastic interactive map of Middle-Earth. It has helped me understand the world a lot more than I could from the books alone. If you choose to read The Lord of the Rings, I recommend you take advantage of this great resource.

Favorite Quote

[Frodo]: “[Gollum] deserves death.”

[Gandalf]: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

 

Review of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus

What was it about?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins with a series of letters between a man named R. Walton and his sister, Margaret, in which the former describes his desire to explore the North Pole. This young explorer is hungry for knowledge. He may not be an intellectual, but he has a “love for the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all [his] projects, which hurries [him] out of the common pathways of men.”

His ship sets out from St. Petersburg, Russia and is well on its way, when Captain Walton spots on the ice a man who is clearly on the brink of death. The man is quickly brought on deck where the sailors try to save his life. But the man has a pressing question. Had the captain seen a large creature on a dog sled? The man was in pursuit of this creature, and Walton notices that he is more distressed by its escape than by his present condition. Walton tells his friend about the expedition and his insatiable desire to master the elements. But instead of being impressed, the man howls that Walton is no better than himself – greedy, selfish, and mad. The captain is surprised that his friend doesn’t share his excitement for the expedition.

After a few letters, suddenly, the nature of the letters changes, and instead of describing his personal journey to the North Pole, Walton sends his sister a detailed account of the mysterious man’s life. This man is Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss scientist who, not unlike Walton, had an insatiable desire for knowledge. At the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, Frankenstein studied chemistry and aimed to impress his professors. He also had a dream to create a living, breathing human being. For two years, Frankenstein isolated himself from his family and friends and cared for nothing but the success of his dream project. One night, Frankenstein finally managed to create intelligent life. But this creature was nothing like the one the scientist had dreamed of creating. The creature Victor created was a monster who followed his creator all over the Earth, leaving death and horror in its wake.

What did I think of it?

What comes to mind when you hear of Frankenstein’s monster? Do you think of a grunting brute, arms straight out, with a walk like a zombie’s? This may be the monster in film adaptations, but this is not the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley’s monster reads classical works, listens to music, and appreciates the beauty of the natural world. Except for his appearance, Victor’s creation is not much different from a human person. It is because of his resemblance to man that the monster is such a relatable and pitiful creature. The monster desires love, but he is a hideous figure. No one, not even his creator, gives him the love he craves. Love is a basic human need that the creature, through no fault of his own, is not allowed to experience. The monster is a victim of his circumstances. There is so much responsibility that comes with being a creator, and Victor finds, to his horror, that he cannot accept the responsibility. However reasonable the request may sound, Victor cannot convince himself to do the monster’s will. Although the cover of my edition has a picture of the fiend, Victor’s creature does its damage backstage, so to speak. It only appears a handful of times in the story, but from the shadows, it destroys so many lives.

Although the plot was predictable with a slow, drawn out ending, the questions explored in Frankenstein are more relevant than ever.  So many scientists want to understand life. There have been many attempts to create primitive life in vitro. All attempts have failed thus far, but there is a constant hunger for knowledge and the mastery of life in the scientific community – a hunger that may well be unhealthy and disastrous. The central theme in Frankenstein is the responsibility of a creator toward his/her creation. Victor never considered the consequences of creating such a unique being. He was so wrapped up in the objective world that he lost sight of the things that really matter – love, friendship, and family. I am convinced that there is a great need for bioethics in the medical and scientific world.

Favorite Quote

[M. Waldman, a professor at the University of Ingolstadt, ends his lecture on modern chemistry]: “‘The ancient teachers of this science,’ said he, ‘promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know the metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”

 

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again

TheHobbitI read The Hobbit for a read-along hosted by Rick @ Another Book Blog. The read-along ends on June 22, but because I will be participating in a Lord of the Rings read-along hosted by Robert @ 101 Books starting this Thursday, I thought to get The Hobbit out of the way as soon as possible. This wasn’t difficult since The Hobbit was a fast-paced and enjoyable read.

What was it about?

Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End is a hobbit like any other. He sits to six meals a day and enjoys blowing smoke rings and drinking locally-brewed ale. But one day, a mysterious wizard arrives at Bilbo’s doorstep. This wizard is Gandalf, an individual known throughout the Shire for his fireworks and outlandish tales. Since Bilbo has voiced on many occasions a desire to go on an adventure, Gandalf selects the hobbit to accompany thirteen dwarves on a quest to The Lonely Mountain. Smaug the dragon lives there with untold gold and treasures it stole from the dwarves. The leader of the Company of Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, needs Bilbo’s help to reclaim the treasures of his people. Because of his small size, Bilbo is to be The Burglar. He may be an ordinary hobbit at the start of the tale, but Gandalf is convinced that he is exactly what the Company needs. The next morning, at a quarter to 11 , Bilbo reluctantly leaves an unfinished meal to join Thorin and his friends on the long journey to the end of the world. They pass through the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood Forest, encountering trolls, elves, goblins, and men along the way. Under the Misty Mountains, in the lake of a hate-filled creature named Gollum, Bilbo finds a ring that when worn makes him invisible. With no little struggle and thanks to the magic ring, Bilbo escapes from Gollum and joins the Company at the other side of the mountains. The ring proves to be a valuable companion, helping Bilbo save his friends from peril. But Smaug is notoriously dangerous, and Bilbo and the dwarves fear they will never again return home.

What did I think of it?

It is not without reason that J.R.R. Tolkien is considered the father of modern High Fantasy. His stories are compelling and his writing is gorgeous. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are heavily inspired by medieval myth and lore. The Hobbit is really about the journey. Tolkien goes into great pains to describe the world he has invented. The reader feels like he/she is getting an aerial view of  the landscape of Middle-earth. Bilbo, although possessing heroic qualities, is a character I could really relate to. He loves adventures in theory, but in practice, much prefers the comfort and security of his home.

I am grateful to the creators of the LOTR Project for having created an interactive map of Middle-earth. The map at the front of the book is valuable, but because I read The Hobbit on Kindle, I couldn’t easily flip back and forth between the map and the story. I suggest that readers take notes on important events in the story because these events and characters come up again in the trilogy. Here are a few of the questions I asked myself while reading the book:

What if Bilbo never had the ring? Could he have survived his journey to the Lonely Mountain without the ring?

Why does Gandalf choose Bilbo? Why does Gandalf agree to take Bilbo on that adventure?

The formatting of the Kindle version is not perfect, but Tolkien’s illustrations are included and they really enhance the reading experience. The Hobbit is a masterpiece. What I wouldn’t give to be able to write like Tolkien! I am glad Rick hosted the read-along.

Favorite Quote

[Thorin]: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

The Devil Inside: Review of the The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

1880s Poster

1880s Poster

I finally bought a Kindle Paperwhite. I had considered buying an e reader or a tablet for over a year. Now that I have bought my Kindle, I have no regrets. Since most of the books I read are in the public domain, I think the Kindle is a great deal.

Anyway, the first story I read on my Kindle was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. It is very difficult to give a review of this novella without giving away too much of the plot. Therefore, there will be spoilers in this review.

What is it about?

Mr. John Utterson, a lawyer for Dr. Henry Jekyll, learns from his friend Richard Enfield about the recent murder of a small girl. This small girl was trampled by a frightening-looking man who then escaped from the crime scene. Oddly, Dr. Jekyll offers a large sum of money to the girl’s family to drop the search for the murderer. Over the next few months, Mr. Utterson learns more and more about this sinister man. He discovers that the designated beneficiary in Dr. Jekyll’s will is Mr. Hyde, the same man who had trampled the young girl to death. Here comes the spoiler. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are one and the same person. Dr. Jekyll wanted to learn more about his dark and sinister side – the side that he ordinarily represses. Therefore, he prepares and drinks a potion that changes him into Mr. Hyde. This dark side lives selfishly and without morals. Eventually, Dr. Jekyll loses the ability to control the transformations, and it becomes more and more difficult to suppress Mr. Hyde. When Jekyll is asleep or dwells too much on his evil nature, Hyde is released.

What did I think about it?

I know that  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a study of multiple personality disorder. However, upon finishing the novella, I felt that this story was also an allegory on substance abuse. Dr. Jekyll loves and hates Mr. Hyde. He loves Hyde because Hyde does not have to submit to the constraints placed on him by society or a conscience. Also, Jekyll does not have to take responsibility for Hyde’s actions. After all, Hyde is not Jekyll. Hyde is the murderer, not Jekyll. On the other hand, Jekyll has a conscience. He hates what Hyde has done. The transformations become more and more spontaneous so that Jekyll loses control over Hyde. Like someone with an addiction, Jekyll cannot be rid of Hyde. Hyde eventually takes over Jekyll. As I was reading the story, it became clear to me that Stevenson had personal experiences with addiction. It is believed that the author used cocaine as he wrote this novella. At that time, cocaine was legal. Stevenson used because he suffered from tuberculosis. One cannot help but pity Jekyll. Jekyll has good intentions. He wants to be himself again, but he just can’t get rid of Hyde. The temptation to evil is too strong, and eventually, Jekyll is permanently replaced by Hyde. I have never read a story that described addiction so accurately.

Here are some quotes from the text to give you a flavor of what I mean. The “I” in all these passages is Dr. Jekyll:

“Now, however, and in the light of that morning’s accident, I was led to remark that whereas, in the beginning, the difficulty had been to throw off the body of Jekyll, it had of late gradually but decidedly transferred itself to the other side. All things therefore seemed to point to this; that I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse.”

“To cast in my lot with Jekyll, was to die to those appetites which I had long secretly indulged and had of late begun to pamper.”

“My devil had long been caged, he came out roaring.”

I absolutely loved this story. This is the ideal character study, and Stevenson is such a fantastic storyteller.  I know that I will be rereading this novella for years to come.