Completed: Old Testament (and Entering the New)

Bible

Originally, I had only planned to post on my current read-through of the Bible twice: at the half-way point and after completing the entire thing. But then I realized it made much more sense to also post after completing the Old Testament. (And also allows me to add one more title to my 2012 reads list!)

There’s a certain sense of relief at finally completing the Old Testament. At times it felt like a slog, especially through some of the prophets, who occasionally seemed rather redundant—”Hey! You are terrible sinners! You’re gonna be published punished!”* And repeat—but other parts sped by and overall I have much the same feeling of exhilaration at knowing I just finished something really good that I had after reading The Silmarillion this summer. Oddly, too, I almost feel let down starting the New Testament: I’m starting with the Gospels which by comparison seem so easy (reading, not message)—I’m used to hard work! I find myself already plotting out the next read-through.

When I posted at the half-way mark, I listed the books I’d already read, so here’s the list of the remainder of the Old Testament, in the approximate order I read them (some were mixed in among each other).

  • 2 Kings
  • 2 Chronicles
  • Jonah
  • Isaiah
  • Amos
  • Micah
  • Hosea
  • Nahum
  • Zephaniah
  • Jeremiah
  • Habakkuk
  • Lamentations
  • Ezekiel
  • Joel
  • Daniel
  • Ezra
  • Haggai
  • Zechariah
  • Esther
  • Nehemiah
  • Malachi
  • Psalms (scattered throughout)

As I mentioned previously, I’m using THIS (pdf) reading order which is roughly chronological by event. I REALLY, REALLY like this method. My original intent had been simply to break up Psalms rather than having to read them through all in a bunch, but the placing of all the books in context has really been helpful to me, especially with all the prophets. If I understand it correctly, the prophets can be categorized as pre-exhilic, exhilic, and post-exhilic, and reading them in order—and in context of the surrounding history as narrated in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah—really makes it easier both to follow their words and understand their aims. That said, the prophets are still probably the books I have the most difficulty understanding, especially when they get into the Messianic and Kingdom prophecies. Also, except for Jonah, Daniel, and selections of Isaiah, I’m least familiar with the prophets out of all the books of the Bible. One part of the prophets that was easy to follow: the history they narrate. I knew there was some of this in Daniel, but didn’t realize there was so much history scattered throughout some of the others as well.

Actually, this touches upon a difficulty with the Bible—there’s just so much there, it’s not possible to take it in all at once. I remember best those parts I already knew or recognized: the stories from Sunday school, the texts often read in church (Isaiah reminds me of Advent), the lines that have been turned into hymns. I can’t remember where it is now, but I remember thinking to myself one day that I’d just found the text for “How Great Thou Art.” (My biggest difficulty in remember things from the Bible is remembering where they are in the Bible.) But some of the stories I forget, the names bleed together, the timeline is blurry. I had to write out a timeline of the Kings of Judah and Israel after Solomon just so I could keep track.

Every reading, every visit reinforced previous readings, though, and I’m already reaping the benefits of rereading the Old Testament as I enter the New. When I read it last spring, I found Leviticus terribly boring and repetitive, and have considered that perhaps I might skip it on future reads, but then I read Luke 2:22-24, and I recognize the requirements for purification and offerings that were laid out in Leviticus. Even though the New Testament is much more familiar to me (much of the Old Testament I’ve only read twice, but I’ve read most of the New quite a few times), I have a feeling that the reacquaintance I made with the Old will inform my reading of the New even more.

*Thanks, Caro for catching that.

In Progress: Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories (1)

ChristmasAnneChristmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories
L.M. Montgomery
Rea Wilmshurst, editor (1995)

“Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves” from Anne of Green Gables (1908)
“Christmas at Red Butte” (1909)
“The End of the Young Family Feud” (1907)
“Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket” (c. 1903)
“The Osbornes’ Christmas” (1903)

As December marched quickly on this year, I didn’t expect that I would have time to read anything seasonal this year, but on Christmas day I found myself with some spare time and my copy of Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories at hand. The volume is one of several collections  of L.M. Montgomery’s short stories edited by Rea Wilmshurst in the late 80s to early 90s. Most of the stories had been originally published in various newsletters or magazines, although in this collection, given the “Anne” theme, several episodes are chapters selected from the Anne books. I only read the first five this year, which allows me to save the rest for future Christmases.

There is something about Montgomery’s work that I always find delightful. A lightness, I suppose, or a feeling at the end of each tale that everything will be alright—a marked contrast to her own difficult adult life. However, unlike the Louisa May Alcott Christmas stories I wrote about last year,  I didn’t feel that they contained the saccharine quality that I had difficulty swallowing—a story may travel from despair to hope, but always as the result of making-do or of a benefactor already in play, not an unexpected and sudden reward for the mere virtue of doing good. That is, the stories felt realistic rather than mere fairy-tale. None of them were the same either—”The Osbornes’ Christmas” was not a tale of a family wishing they could receive Christmas despite the odds, but rather of a family that was so well-off they could no longer appreciate what they did have, and “Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket” was a story of making a Christmas while snowed in on a train.

The first story, “Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves,” is not actually a free-standing short story, but is pulled from Anne of Green Gables. As such, it works best in context of the book, but as a fan of Anne, I could read it over and over again with or without the remainder of the novel. It is such a lovely chapter depicting gentle Matthew and his determination to do something special for Anne, even though this means an attempt to overcome his overwhelming shyness.

“Christmas at Red Butte” is perhaps the most similar to the Alcott stories: a mother is in despair because she cannot afford to give her children Christmas. But where in Alcott a surprise benefactor might arrive, here the niece who makes a great sacrifice to let her cousins have some Christmas joy. Where Alcott speaks of Christmas miracles, Montgomery champions sacrificial giving, a message that sits more easily with me. Finally,  “The End of the Young Family Feud” tells what I find seems to be a typical Montgomery story: an old family argument and stubborn pride overcome by a mistake and/or a plucky young woman, and the discovery that the prickly old man is rather nice after all.

One realization as I read these: while I may have decided a few months back while reading Year of Wonders that I am not as much of a fan of historical fiction as I thought, I truly love reading old fiction where the time-frame is from within the author’s memory. Throughout these stories there are little details included that readers of the time would have thought nothing of, but which help provide a fuller—and more accurate—image of the past for the reader one hundred years later. In “The Osbornes’ Christmas,” Montgomery tells us “…Frank and Darby had stoned all the raisins…”, an activity that would never had occurred to me as necessary in this day of convenient store-bought, seed-free raisins, but doubtless Montgomery’s original readers would have known this chore themselves, or have observed others complete it. A writer from today would likely need to complete extensive research to discover this tidbit, and likely would have not inserted it so naturally into the narrative in the concern of ensuring the reader’s complete understanding. I can’t even imagine anyone using that phrasing! And this is only one small instance, one little detail. I’m sure if I paid better attention to my reading of old fiction, I could find many such instances of detail or description that would better illustrate the world of the past for me. A challenge for my future reads! And how lovely to know that I have more of these stories to look forward to next year.

Completed: The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin
Hergé
1929-1976
translated from French

Tintin3-4I have had too much fun these past few months revisiting a series I first read when I was 10 or 11. At that time my brother had stumbled across the series in the library and I didn’t hesitate to borrow them from him, even if they bordered rather close to picture books, albeit longer and more narratively complex. When a movie version adapting several of the stories made its appearance last winter, a wave of nostalgia prompted me to request every single adventure from the library and embark on my own adventure.

Apparently, Tintin isn’t as well known in the US as he is in other countries (although perhaps the movie has changed that?), although I’m not sure why American children shouldn’t enjoy his adventures as much as others. Perhaps we have too many other distractions to entertain us? Anyway, for those unfamiliar with the stories, the hero is boy-reporter Tintin, always accompanied by his white fox terrier, known as Snowy in the English translations (Milou in the original), who finds himself on a series of adventures all over the world. Tintin was introduced in 1929 in Le Petit Vingtième, a weekly children’s supplement to the Belgium paper Le Vingtième Siècle, and his popularity soon led to a series of books. Over the years, other regular characters make their appearances, including detectives Thompson and Thomson, Captain Haddock, and Professor Calculus, all of whom find themselves involved, wittingly or un-, in a number of Tintin’s adventures.

TintinSovFor this rereading I made a particular effort to read the titles in the order they were created, excepting The Adventures of Tintin Reporter for “Le Petit Vingtième” In the Land of the Soviets, which I was unable to acquire until later in my reading. For the most part, the stories could be read in any order (although some later stories make reference to earlier adventures), but by reading them in the order they were written, it allowed me to see how Hergé’s skill as a story teller developed over time. The earliest titles were more slapstick and stereotyped, in the manner of their era. The first title I read in particular, Tintin in America, seemed to suggest that Hergé’s knowledge of the U.S. in general and Native Americans in particular came only via cinematic westerns. Unfortunately, I don’t know that even American writers of the 1930s would have done any better in their portrayal of Native Americans; after all those westerns came from Hollywood studios. It’s just a bit jarring to read it now. On the other hand, Hergé used the same broad strokes for white Americans, so perhaps he was just equal-opportunity stereotyping. It should also be noted that the second title in the series, Tintin in the Congo, isn’t available in the U.S. due to concerns over its portrayal of the Congolese and its portrayal of big-game hunting. (According to the Wikipedia article, Hergé himself would later regret these portrayals.) Later titles, on the other hand, seemed more nuanced and better researched, and the story-lines themselves grew more complex. Actually, in this sense reading In the Land of the Soviets out of order really brought this point home as it is much simpler than the later works. It is also the only story which didn’t make the transition from black-and-white to color.

Something else I noticed this time that I don’t recall paying attention to before was the shortage of female characters. Outside of occasional appearances by “Milanese Nightingale” Bianca Castafiore, there are very few named female characters and they have almost no bearing on the plot. Perhaps this indicates that the Tintin adventures were meant for boys, perhaps it just represents a different era. Regardless, it didn’t spoil my amusement with the stories, it was just something I noticed this time around. (Although, given my childhood love for stories with strong female characters, I’m surprised I didn’t notice before.)

One of the fun things about reading good children’s books or watching good children’s movies as an adult is finding things that you wouldn’t notice as a child. Here, for instance, there were times when characters spoke in another language that hadn’t been translated into English. While I still can’t say if they were all accurate or real languages, this time around I could understand Bianca’s Italian. Then there’s Captain Haddock’s varied vocabulary: no doubt meant to convey the idea of a sailor’s salty language while staying kid-safe, his expressions of “gibbering,” “iconoclast,” “cercopithecus,” and “anacoluthon” provided me much amusement. He knows words my spell-check doesn’t know!

Tintin_and_SnowyI don’t think I can pick an absolute favorite Tintin story. My least favorite were the paired Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, which were less adventure story (especially the first) and more episodic. The group that were included in volumes 3 and 4 of the collections I read were probably some of my favorite, in part because of the introduction of the drunken, irrepressible Captain Haddock and the half-deaf mad-genius Professor Calculus. Somehow, the Tintin stories don’t feel right without these two along for the ride. But all-in-all, it was fun to revisit these stories from childhood, including some that were new to me (I had not previously read In the Land of the Soviets, nor some of the later volumes).

Tintin Books Read:

  1. The Adventures of Tintin Reporter for “Le Petit Vingtième” In the Land of the Soviets – Hergé (1929-30, Belgium)
  2. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 1 - Hergé (Belgium)
    1. Tintin in America (1931-32, 1945)
    2. Cigars of the Pharaoh (1932-34, 1955)
    3. The Blue Lotus (1934-35, 1946)
  3. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 2- Hergé (Belgium)
    1. The Broken Ear (1935-37, 1943)
    2. The Black Island (1937-38, 1943)
    3. King Ottokar’s Sceptre (1938-39, 1947)
  4. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 3 - Hergé (Belgium)
    1. The Crab with the Golden Claws (1940-41, 1943)
    2. The Shooting Star (1941-42, 1942)
    3. The Secret of the Unicorn (1942-43, 1943)
  5. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 4 - Hergé (Belgium)
    1. Red Rackham’s Treasure (1943, 1944)
    2. The Seven Crystal Balls (1943-46, 1948)
    3. Prisoners of the Sun (1946-48, 1949)
  6. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 5 - Hergé (Belgium)
    1. Land of Black Gold (1948–1950, 1950)
    2. Destination Moon (1950–1953, 1953)
    3. Explorers on the Moon (1950–1953, 1954)
  7. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 6 - Hergé (Belgium)
    1. The Calculus Affair (1954-56, 1956)
    2. The Red Sea Sharks (1956-58, 1958)
    3. Tintin in Tibet (1958-59, 1960)
  8. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 7 - Hergé (Belgium)
    1. The Castafiore Emerald (1961-62, 1963)
    2. Flight 714 (1966-67, 1968)
    3. Tintin and the Picaros (1975-76, 1976)

Completed: The Hobbit

view of Birthday Tree from Bilbo's front door

Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien
1937

The HobbitThere are few books I’ve reread as often as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Anne of Green Gables is the only other that springs to mind), and I’d been meaning to return to the first published of Tolkien’s fantasy novels for some time. Although I’m quite certain I’ve read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings multiple times, the current reread felt foreign enough to me that I’m don’t think I reread it when I last picked up the longer Lord of the Rings, precisely ten years ago. (I distinctly recall having reread The Lord of the Rings just before the second of the films hit the theaters in 2002.) So it’s been perhaps been fifteen years since I’ve read this favorite, and I found myself approaching it almost with new eyes.

I often see a fear among book bloggers about rereading old favorites–that the book somehow won’t be the same, or that the reader will have changed so much that even though the book remains, the magic they first experienced will somehow be gone. The counter argument to this becomes that the good books will still be there, that though we may change that simply means we will find something new in them, perhaps even something better. But I didn’t find this when I started The Hobbit. The magic seemed lost, replaced by an annoying and intrusive narrator. I grew up and the aspect of the book directed at children seemed to have become lost on me.

I am not interested in the ‘child’ as such…and have no intention of meeting him/her halfway, or a quarter of the way…. I have only once made the mistake of trying to do it, to my lasting regret, and (I am glad to say) with the disapproval of intelligent children: in the earlier part of The Hobbit.*

Interestingly, Tolkien apparently felt the same. As he grew as a writer and, perhaps more importantly, worked through his own scholarly analysis of what fairy-stories are or should be, Tolkien became dissatisfied with the tone of the novel, and apparently even considered a rewrite to better align its style with that of The Lord of the Rings, although he was later dissuaded from this idea. As it is, after he completed the lengthy Lord of the Rings, Tolkien made revisions to his earlier work in order to maintain plot-line consistency between the two. (Specifically regarding the story behind Bilbo’s acquisition of a certain famous ring.)

It is not a style-choice that I recall noticing before, and while I may have simply been too entranced by Middle-earth previously, I wonder if my awareness of the faults of The Hobbit this time isn’t in part due to my summer reading of The Silmarillion. Where The Hobbit is a children’s adventure story, The Silmarillion is a grand pseudo-mythical epic and often reminded me in style and theme of the Biblical Old Testament narratives. If I am to be objective, I believe that The Silmarillion is the superior book.

But.

About halfway through The Hobbit, I fell in love with it all over again. I don’t know if it was a change in tone or a change in mood or if the book had simply had the time it needed to work its magic on me, but for the last section of the book I didn’t want to put it down, even knowing what would happen. Or at least knowing the general idea—I can’t believe how many of the details I’d actually forgotten! I don’t think I’d forgotten how wonderful Bilbo is, as I don’t think I had really recognized that previously. If my memory of my past impressions is correct, I had also misinterpreted both the elves and the dwarves and their motivations, simplifying them, rather than allowing them to have the dimensions Tolkien had granted. Perhaps here though I am influenced by The Silmarillion, which makes much more clear the complexity of the relations between the two groups. I believe I mentioned in my post on The Silmarillion the depth of the world Tolkien created, down to the linguistic variations of his invented languages over time. Although The Hobbit is an early work, I could make out hints of the deep background given Middle-earth as I read, from the names derived from the elven tongues to the casual references to events from The Silmarillion. This depth is part of the magic of Tolkien’s world—as was his ability to make us want to live there, scary monsters and all. (Truth? The life of a hobbit, at least of the non-adventurous sort, does sound pretty good. Actually, I think my dad already eats on a hobbit schedule, six times a day…)

So I find that my latest excursion to Middle-earth was not a disappointment of tainted memories after all. The pesky narrator was quite easily forgotten and I find myself with strands to explore on my next venture through, the ideas of themes that Tolkien seems to have returned to throughout his stories. They may not mean anything, but I find myself curious as to their recurrence. (I’m most curious about the presence of some sort of special—and trouble-making—stone or jewel in each of the books I’ve read to date—silmarils, arkenstone, palantirs. Or is it just a hit-us-over-the-head commentary on greed and desire?) Regardless of any significance of Tolkien’s works, I find myself ultimately unable to completely separate myself from my continued enchantment with his world. Perhaps I’m not grown up after all.

*Letters, 309-310, as quoted on pages 15-16, including ellipses, from Tolkien On Fairy-stories: Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes, Verlyn Flieger & Douglas A. Anderson, Editors, 2008

Completed: Year of Wonders

Book Cover: Year of Wonders by Geraldine BrooksYear of Wonders
Geraldine Brooks
2001

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year it would be all right: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came. I used to love to walk in the apple orchard at this time of the year, to feel the soft give underfoot when I trod on a fallen fruit. Thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood. This year, the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.

(Opening paragraph.)

OK, I have to confess: I’ve been avoiding writing this post. No excuses of busyness (although I’ve spent far more time watching college (American) football this fall than I’d anticipated–Kent’s been winning!!) or reading slowness. I’ve simply kept putting it off.

It is of course, much harder to write about a book I don’t have strong emotions towards.  I don’t love it, don’t hate it, didn’t find it an excellent book, didn’t find it a terrible book. It’s just a book I enjoyed reading while I was reading it but will probably forget soon (save for this post).

I mentioned previously a vague feeling of dissatisfaction while starting this, and as I read the source became more clear to me: my expectations were too high. I’d heard such good things about Brooks’s novels, especially her Pulitzer winning March, that I think in some ways I was expecting (unconsciously) the same difficult level of other books I’ve read this year, most of which made me work as a reader. This one did not, which threw me a bit off balance mentally. This isn’t meant as a reflection on Year of Wonders so much as my over-expectations. And to be fair, this is Brooks’s first novel–perhaps March is exactly what I’d been expecting here.

The novel is an historical tale, set during the plague year of 1666 in a small village in England. It is based on a real story of a village that shut itself off from the outside world in a noble effort to confine the plague to their borders. It is in many ways a fascinating story–the struggles of the villagers through daily life with the pall of death constantly surrounding them, struggles both of survival and to remain human. Although is is mostly likely classified as historical fiction, I would make an argument that it is more a thriller–a thriller in which the villain is not human but microscopic infection, although at times the greatest monsters were those left to mourn. I think there is much potential in a story like this for a real in-depth character study of how such tragedy changes those left behind. But here it seemed more surface, and I almost felt there was too much plot, the pacing was too fast. (Which I find incredible that I am saying as I like plot.) There is one character whose changing response to the outbreak leans to what I am looking for, but in some ways I think it comes too late, is looked at too lightly.

This is not to say there aren’t some things I really liked in Year of Wonders. Brooks has an absolute knack, perhaps it is her journalistic background, for describing a setting so that I am there, even in a landscape I have never seen either in real life or in pictures. It is not just the visual image, but the whole atmosphere–I am there because I smell it and feel it and hear it. The story, plot-heavy as it is, is compelling. The reader knows certain outcomes, who lives and dies, from the beginning, but Brooks makes the stakes are such that this knowledge doesn’t impair the reading. Indeed, it could be evidence for the argument that for a well-written book there is no such thing as a spoiler.

My one other issue with this book I think is more personal, that is, I suppose many readers might disagree. I didn’t care for the ending. Without giving anything specific away, I thought it was too pat, too neat. This is a story from real life, although the characters are invented, and in real life things aren’t neat. Especially after such a dire situation. It just didn’t feel real, didn’t feel plausible, and although there are moments of implausibility earlier (I thought the narrator’s eloquence a bit of a stretch given her lack of education), this is the one that stands out. I imagine that many readers would rather have everything tied up just so–it feels more complete, there’s a more definitive end–but in this particular instance I’d rather leave it more open-ended. Perhaps Brooks did so originally and her editor disagreed. Perhaps not. I will say though, she did lead towards the ending very nicely, there was no “where the heck did that come from?” about it.

Would I read more of Brooks’s novels? Perhaps. March intrigues me, as does Caleb’s Crossing. Would I recommend Year of Wonders? If you are a fan of plot-driven historical fiction or are particularly interested in the story of Eyam, England, yes. If you prefer more gritty realism or characterization over plot in your books, it’s probably not for you.

Additional thought: Earlier today, I saw THIS article from the Guardian regarding open-ended novels which relates to my feelings here. Check it out for a pro-ambiguity argument.

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