A Question for August: Favorites?

With the advent of the new Classics Club blog, a new monthly meme of classics-themed questions has begun. Some of the questions are fun to think about, so I thought I’d answer a few here and there.

August’s theme is favorites: what is our favorite classic and why?

And I’m in trouble already. I have a terrible time picking favorites. I can name a favorite tea, a favorite dessert, a favorite food, but neither a favorite meal nor a favorite color (I have two) nor a favorite song nor a favorite movie. And especially not a favorite book, classic or otherwise.

I used to call Jane Austen my favorite author, but truth is it’s been so long since I’ve read any of her books (most recent was probably about ten years ago), that I’m not sure I can fairly claim that anymore, at least not until I actually reread a book or two. And even then, I could never pick a favorite among the main six.

Of course, I could be terribly literal and turn to the definition of “Classic” as the ancient Greeks—but no, I have no favorites there. Maybe The Odyssey, but it’s been too long since I’ve read that, I might actually like Medea or Antigone or Oedipus Rex better. Or not. So that’s not a good idea.

If I go with my most reread classic, Dracula is the only Victorian I’ve read twice. Actually, it makes a good candidate for favorite, as I enjoyed it very much, both readings. Only, it didn’t even make my mental possibilities list until I started categorizing books I’ve read more than once, so perhaps it hasn’t made sufficient impression to be called favorite.

If I’m going with books that have made an impression—no, I can’t do that, I can name classics that left their mark—The Grapes of Wrath, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Crucible—but that isn’t fair; I never while reading any of those thought, “Oh I love this book!” No, I can’t call a book favorite because I’m merely impressed by it—I must embrace it.

So perhaps I must turn to beloved childhood memories: A Little House on the Prairie; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; A Little Princess; Anne of Green Gables. Oh, I loved Anne! Irrepressible, exuberant, Anne! But how can I pick her over Sara the storyteller—her stories so vivid I could imagine myself there. Or Laura and Mary, living history, stories so real I choose Laura for my 4th grade biography project; steadfast Lucy who made me love Aslan too; courageous Meg and Charles Wallace.

No, it doesn’t seem possible to pick between them.

I scan my Classics Club TBR list, my various other project lists, and there are so many books I am excited at the mere thought of, so many wondrous worlds and words to explore. They taunt and tempt me with their promise. I think perhaps that my favorite classic is one I haven’t yet read. Although maybe I’ll reread Anne of Green Gables just in case…

Completed: The Silmarillion

The Silmarillion
J.R.R. Tolkien
Christopher Tolkien, ed.
1977 (Posthumous)

Moreover, my father came to conceive The Silmarillion as a compilation, a compendious narrative, made long afterwards from sources of great diversity (poems, and annals, and oral tales) that had survived in agelong tradition; and this conception has indeed its parallel in the actual history of the book, for a great deal of earlier prose and poetry does underlie it, and it is to some extent a compendium in fact and not only in theory. (Forward by Christopher Tolkien, xii)

I have long been a fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, ever since my dad read them to my brother and me when we were little. He didn’t actually like the books when he picked them up to read—he has a dislike for all things fantasy or mythology—but there were four books and he could be sure he wouldn’t need to make a choice on another book for quite some time. My brother and I fell in love with the tales of Middle-earth; our dad discovered he liked them after all.

I’ve read these more famous works of Tolkien several times since, most recently in late 2002 (Oh. That’s been 10 years. How time does fly…), but I had never managed to make it past the first part of The Silmarillion. It is a more difficult work compared to the other two, lacking a single linear narrative while being populated by dozens, perhaps over 100 characters, not few of whom have multiple names, and stylistically more reminiscent of the Bible than popular fiction.* But reading it now, with a greater understanding of the wider context of literature, I’m inclined to believe it is actually the strongest of the three works, both for its achievements and its language. It reminded me at times of the Bible and of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and I am sure that had I familiarity with his Nordic sources, I would see those too. It is frustrating at times—when I say reminded me of the Bible, I include those chapters of Chronicles full of unrecognizable, near unpronounceable names (Christopher Tolkien helpfully includes both an index of name and a pronunciation guide)—but at others I couldn’t help but be transfixed by the text, nearly convinced that I was reading a narrative passed down through the ages, not one conceived of less than a mere 100 years ago.

When considering Tolkien’s achievement, I am stunned. Not only did he conceive of an invented mythology spanning thousands of years—I would consider The Silmarillion closer to mythology than fantasy—but he created several languages for this world, even to the point of working out how they would have evolved over time. All those “unpronounceable” names? Not just random strings of letters, but names with careful meaning and origin in his invented languages. An appendix at the back provides “elements” of the names, so that I can see that the alqua in Alqualondë is “swan” and derives from the root alak-. Not necessary for the casual reader, but all this background informs the larger works with a depth rarely encountered. As Tolkien actually began writing the stories that would make up The Silmarillion around 1917 (and continued working on it until his death in 1973), the languages and mythology are also present in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but to a lesser extant than in The Silmarillion.

It was interesting reading The Silmarillion in light of just recently reading “On Fairy-tales.” The Silmarillion is the most developed of Tolkien’s books and well-aligns with the ideas he developed there. Notably, eucatastrophe is on full display, but Tolkien is sure to allow enough heartache that we don’t always feel certain of the turn for better. As for his concern with “inner consistency of reality,” I find something very “real” about Tolkien’s stories; I always feel somehow that they are history, not legend.

The structure of The Silmarillion is divided into five parts, with the lengthy story surrounding the Silmarils (Quenta Silmarillion) framed by the creation history of Middle-earth (Ainulindalë and Valaquenta) and the histories which will more directly inform The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Akallabêth and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age).

Ainulindalë

     Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased. (3-4)

The creation myth of Middle-earth, Ainulindalë most directly reminded me of specific Biblical accounts, not just in the idea of creation by a Supreme Being (Eru or Ilúvatar here), but the fall of Melkor (Morgoth) through his own pride and desire for dominion echoes the fall of Satan (Lucifer) through his “I will” (as recounted in Is. 14:12-15). Tolkien discouraged the picking apart of his works for his sources, desiring that the reader might enjoy the story for itself, rather than feeling the need to divide it into its base elements; however, here I could not help but noticing similarities with stories I already knew. And this is without knowing any of his Nordic sources!

I actually read Ainulindalë twice, so enchanted was I by the beauty of the passage, not just by the poetic language, but the idea of creation through music. (This is also a concept shared in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. The two were close friends and discussed their work together—I don’t know if one influenced the other on this, or if they arrived at the idea separately.) The idea of the “music of the spheres” is ancient—here it turns song into form most beautifully, a chorus of voices creating image of all that will be. For a time, I thought this would be my favorite section of The Silmarillion.

Valaquenta

Without a doubt, Valaquenta is the driest section of The Silmarillion. It is the listing of the Valar and Maiar—the intermediate beings between Ilúvatar (godlike figure) and “the Children of Ilúvatar” (elves and men)—and their responsibilities in Middle-earth. They are somewhat equivalent to the gods and goddesses of ancient mythologies, but in Tolkien’s world they are not deities, rather beings with powers greater than those of the primary inhabitants of the stories. (With one exception, they play no obvious role in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but are important to The Silmarillion.)

Quenta Silmarillion: The History of the Silmarils

And as they watched, upon the mound there came forth two slender shoots; and silence was over all the world in that hour, nor was there any other sound save the chanting of Yavanna. Under her song the saplings grew and became fair and tall, and came to flower; and thus there awoke in the world the Two Trees of Valinor. Of all things which Yavanna made they have most renown, and about their fate all the tales of the Elder Days are woven.

The one had leaves of dark green that beneath were as shining silver, and from each of his countless flowers a dew of silver light was ever falling, and the earth beneath was dappled with the shadows of his fluttering leaves. The other bore leaves of a young green like the new-opened beech; their edges were of glittering gold. (Chapter 1, 33)

Far and away the bulk of The Silmarillion lies in the Quenta Silmarillion. Although it describes itself as the history of the Silmarils, three jewels containing the light of the Two Trees of Valinor, it encompasses much more, relating the history from the time of the first Elves and the second rebellion of Melkor to his final defeat, spanning hundreds of years. There are side stories and a constantly changing cast of characters, although the most important names reappear often. Motifs common to mythology and legend recur throughout: curses, Golden Ages, quests, noble deeds. Those familiar with The Lord of the Rings know that Tolkien places it in the “Third Age”; the Quenta Silmarillion is the story of the First Age.

The chapters in Quenta Silmarillion are varied, some focused on battles, others on kingdoms, even one just describing the lands in which Elves and Men have settled. My favorite section of The Silmarillion is here, Chapter 19 “Of Beren and Lúthien,” a tale of a man, Beren, who loves elf-maiden Lúthien, and his quest to win her father’s blessing and hers to save him. It is a lovely tale, reminiscent of the quest stories of fairy-tale, or of the paintings of the pre-Raphaelites. Tolkien wrote portions of the story in poetic form (published in the posthumous Lays of Beleriand), and I would love to read them at some point.

Akallabêth & Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

These last two sections pertain most closely to The Lord of the Rings, providing background details only lightly touched upon in the other book, those of the history of Númenor and the rings of power. It is not essential reading for The Lord of the Rings (I’d made it until now without reading it!), but it deepens the experience—somewhat akin to recognizing references in a novel to another work. For those hesitant to read the entirety of The Silmarillion, but wanting to more background to The Lord of the Rings, these could be read on their own. I read through them quickly, eager to learn more. The first, Akallabêth is fascinating on its own, however, for it relates the history of a city that will sink beneath the waves, Tolkien’s Atlantis.

It shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did to finish The Silmarillion, but I let myself be interrupted by other books. Which is a shame, because this really is an excellent book, and I don’t know why it took me so long to discover that!

This is my second book completed for The Classics Club, third for the 2012 TBR Pile Challenge (whoops, better get moving!) and first for the Books I Started but Never Finished reading challenge.

*Tolkien contributed a translation of Jonah to the Jerusalem Bible.

Libros españoles – un proyecto nuevo

Yesterday marked the first day in three and one-half months (has it been that long, really?!) that I haven’t looked at my reading plans with the weight of The Silmarillion hanging over my head. Yes, that’s right, I’m finished! And lest you think that the length of time it took me to read it reflected the quality of the book, my one-word summary review: “awesome.” But more on that later this week.

Today instead I’m focusing on Stu’s and Richard’s Spanish Language Lit Month. I mentioned previously that I planned on participating, but it also seemed the perfect time to add another one of my project lists. I’ve had an interest in Spanish language books ever since our required summer reading for high school Spanish class (10th grade—Don Quixote, which I didn’t actually finish, whoops!; 11th—our choice of The House of Spirits, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Fictions; 12th—La casa de Bernarda Alba). Some really good group reads over the past few years and I’m hooked. This is one of my longer lists to date, and I’m sure it will grow. As an explanation for the seemingly random nature of which books I hope to read in Spanish: for the moment, it’s those books for which I already have a Spanish copy.

Spain:

  1. Bécquer, Gustavo Adolfo: Legends and Letters [Leyendas] (1871)
  2. Valera, Juan: Pepita Jimenéz (1874)
  3. Pérez Galdós, Benito: The Disinherited [La desheredada] (1881)
  4. Pérez Galdós, Benito: Fortunata y Jacinta (1887)
  5. Alas y Ureña, Leopoldo “Clarín”: The Regent’s Wife [La regenta] (1884-85)
  6. Pardo Bazán, Emilia: The Manors of Ulloa [Los pazos de Ulloa] (1886)
  7. Baroja, Pío: The Tree of Knowledge [El arbol de la ciencia] (1911)
  8. Unamuno, Miguel de: Mist [Niebla] (1914)
  9. García Lorca, Federico: Obras Escogidas (c. 1918-35)†§
  10. García Lorca, Federico: La casa de Bernarda Alba [The House of Bernarda Alba] (1936)*§
  11. Cela, Camilo José: The Hive [La colmena] (1951)
  12. Goytisolo, Juan: Fiestas (1958)§
  13. Martín-Santos, Luis: Time of Silence [Tiempo de silencio] (1962)
  14. Benet, Juan: Rusty Lances [Herrumbrosas lanzas] (1983)
  15. Marías, Javier: All Souls [Todas las almas] (1987)
  16. Marías, Javier: Your Face Tomorrow [Tu rostro mañana] (2002-07)
  17. Pérez-Reverte, Arturo: El capitán Alatriste [Captain Alatriste] (1996) §
  18. Pérez-Reverte, Arturo: Limpieza de sangre [Purity of Blood] (1997) §
  19. Pérez-Reverte, Arturo: El sol de Breda [The Sun over Breda] (1998) §
  20. Pérez-Reverte, Arturo: El oro del rey [The King’s Gold] (2000) §
  21. Delibes, Miguel: The Heretic [El hereje] (1998)
  22. Vila-Matas, Enrique: Bartleby and Co. [Bartleby y compañía]  (2000)
  23. Cercas, Javier: Soldiers of Salamis [Soldados de Salamina] (2001)
  24. Somoza, José Carlos: Lady Number Thirteen [La dama número trece] (2003)
  25. Ruiz Zafón, Carlos: The Shadow of the Wind [La sombra del viento] (2004)

Argentina:

  1. Echeverría, José Esteban Antonio: “The Captive” [“La cautiva”] (1837)
  2. Echeverría, José Esteban Antonio: “The Slaughterhouse” [“El matadero”] (1839)
  3. Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino: Facundo (1845)
  4. Hernández, José: Martín Fierro (1872-79)
  5. Arlt, Roberto: The Seven Madmen [Los siete locos] (1929)
  6. Borges, Jorge Luis: Ficciones (1962)
  7. Borges, Jorge Luis: The Book of Imaginary Beings [El libro de los seres imaginarios] (1969)
  8. Cortázar, Julio: Hopscotch [Rayuela] (1963)
  9. Puig, Manuel: Kiss of the Spider Woman [El beso de la mujer araña] (1976)
  10. Saer, Juan José: The Witness [El entenado] (1983)
  11. Eloy Martínez, Tomás: The Perón Novel [La novela de Perón] (1985)
  12. Eloy Martínez, Tomás: Santa Evita (1995)
  13. Eloy Martínez, Tomás: The Tango Singer [El cantor de tango] (2004)
  14. Piglia, Ricardo: Money to Burn [Plata quemada] (1997)

Chile:

  1. Donoso, José: The Obscene Bird of Night [El obsceno pájaro de la noche] (1970)
  2. Allende, Isabel: La Casa de los espiritus [The House of the Spirits] (1982)*§
  3. Allende, Isabel: Of Love and Shadows [De amor y de sombra] (1987)
  4. Allende, Isabel: The Stories of Eva Luna [Cuentos de Eva Luna] (1989)
  5. Bolaño, Roberto: Nazi Literature in the Americas [Literatura Nazi en América] (1996)
  6. Bolaño, Roberto: Savage Detectives [Los detcctives salvajes] (1998)
  7. Bolaño, Roberto: 2666 (2004)

Colombia:

  1. García Márquez, Gabriel: No One Writes to the Colonel [El coronel no tiene quien le escriba] (1961)
  2. García Márquez, Gabriel: Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] (1967)*§
  3. García Márquez, Gabriel: Autumn of the Patriarch [El otoño del patriarca] (1975)
  4. García Márquez, Gabriel: Chronicle of a Death Foretold [Crónica de una muerte anunciada] (1981)
  5. García Márquez, Gabriel: Love in the Time of Cholera [El amor en los tiempos del cólera] (1985)
  6. García Márquez, Gabriel: Clandestine in Chile [La aventura de Miguel Littín clandestino en Chile] (1986)
  7. Mutis, Álvaro: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll [Empresas y tribulaciones de Maqroll el Gaviero]  (1993)
  8. Vallejo, Fernando: Our Lady of the Assassins [La virgen de los sicarios] (1994)

Cuba

  1. Gómez de Avellaneda, Gertrudis: Sab (1841)
  2. Carpentier, Alejo: Kingdom of This World [El reino de este mundo] (1949)
  3. Carpentier, Alejo The Lost Steps [Los pasos perdidos] (1953)
  4. Cabrera Infante, Guillermo: Three Trapped Tigers [Tres tristes tigres] (1964)

Guatemala:

  1. Asturias, Miguel Ángel: Mister President [El Señor Presidente]

México:

  1. Azuela, Mariano: The Underdogs [Los de abajo] (1916)
  2. Paz, Octavio: The Labyrinth of Solitude [El laberinto de la soledad] (1950)
  3. Rulfo, Juan: Pedro Páramo (1955)
  4. Fuentes, Juan: La muerte de Artemio Cruz [The Death of Artemio Cruz] (1962) §
  5. Poniatowska, Elena: Massacre in Mexico [La noche de Tlateloloco] (1971)
  6. Esquivel, Laura: Like Water for Chocolate [Como agua para chocolate] (1989)
  7. Rivera-Garza, Cristina: No One Will See Me Cry [Nadie me verá llorar] (2003)

Peru:

  1. Arguedas, José María: Deep Rivers [Los ríos profundos] (1958)
  2. Vargas Llosa, Mario: Los jefes/Los cachorros [The Chiefs and the Cubs] (1959) §
  3. Vargas Llosa, Mario: The Time of the Hero [La ciudad y los perros] (1962)
  4. Vargas Llosa, Mario: Conversation in the Cathedral [Conversación en la catedral] (1975)
  5. Vargas Llosa, Mario: La fiesta del chivo [The Feast of the Goat] (2000) §

Puerto Rico:

  1. Sánchez, Luis Rafael: Macho Camacho’s Beat [La guaracha del Macho Camacho] (1976)

Uruguay:

  1. Onetti, Juan Carlos: A Brief Life [La vida breve] (1950)

Venezuela:

  1. Gallegos, Rómulo: Doña Bárbara (1929)
  2. Parra, Teresa de la: Mama Blanca’s Memoirs [Memoria de Mamá Blanca] (1929)

Latin America:

  1. Menton, Seymour, ed.: El cuento hispanoamericano, vol. 1 & 2 (1964 ed.) §

I’ve tried to compile my list based on books I own, books I’ve heard good things about, and books that are on “best of” lists. As always, any comments, corrections, suggestions, or emendations are welcome! Needless to say, this is going to be a very long-term project.

* Indicates a reread
§ I hope to read in Spanish
Obras Escogida: An Anthology in the Original Spanish, Dell Publishing Co., Inc. (1965)

Dabbling in Dublin

I’ve heard tell that today is Bloomsday, that day on which the events of James Joyce’s Ulysses take place, 1904. Had they actually happened, that is, 108 years ago. And Ulysses is some 90 years old, 94 years since first serialization.

Which is something to think about. Readers utter “Ulysses” in tones of awe or fear. It is difficult. Modernist. Important. So when I think about it, I’m expecting something somehow “contemporary,” perhaps in part because we use “modern” to mean “contemporary” or “current,” because we forget that there’s a style “Modern” which means specific style, specific concerns, not “what is now.” So I look at that date, June 16, 1904, and it strikes me, this is quite old, these characters are Edwardian, teetering on the front edge of Modernism, not having experienced the Great War or the Depression or WWII, the women still are corseted, the men wear suits and hats, horses still abound. I would not have thought of them that way, before I saw that date, somewhere, on a a Bloomsday post or article. It gives a different coloring, somehow, to the story, as I dip in and out of Joyce’s words. Set so long past, not current. But nothing like any other book I have read.

I haven’t read much, only scattered pages here and there, across the novel. I started the first chapter and read a bit before I realized that if I read too much more I might become ensnared and feel the need to read it all, but I don’t wish to take the time it requires just now. Nor do I have the mental energy for such a book when the days are hot as this has been. (And I really should reread The Odyssey first or concurrently.) But I have read enough to demystify it a bit. Difficult, yes, abstruse, yes—but they are still just words on a pages, albeit words shoved together or words unknown, foreign, or words spun together in unexpected ways. But still just words, just a book—books, words can be conquered. Someday. I didn’t include Ulysses on my Classics Club list, nor will I add it just yet. I just know now, certainly, that someday I shall read it. Which I was never sure of before.

Many thanks to O of Délaissé for hosting the Bloomsday Ulysses readalong today which inspired me to pick up this intimidating book! You can find other actual participants at her site.

Guilty Pleasures?

Thinking about Death Comes to Pemberley and fan fiction, my mind wandered to the idea of “guilty pleasures.” As I understand it, the general consensus definition of “guilty pleasure” is something you enjoy but think you shouldn’t, like say, a really bad pop song: everyone agrees it’s terrible, but you can’t help liking it anyway.

This takes me to a podcast I listened to back in December. I’m a bit of a National Public Radio junkie, and a group of their pop-culture staff (reviewers of  movies, music, books) put out a weekly podcast touching on pop culture topics. They discussed the idea of “guilty pleasures” on their Dec. 9, 2012 edition. If I recall correctly, the group mostly felt that there really isn’t such a thing as a “guilty pleasure”—we enjoy what we enjoy and shouldn’t have to defend it. (Unless of course, we’re talking something that really does involve guilt, say serial murder. Ahem.) So by that rule, it doesn’t matter how bad the tune is, if you love it, so what?

I’m inclined to agree with this second perspective. If you saw my iTunes playlist you’d understand: I have almost every style and era represented, excluding non-Western music, with which I have little familiarity. (Some might say I have no taste, but that’s another discussion… 😀 )  I like what I like, and when the mood strikes me I’ll listen to what I want. But when it comes to books, I’m not so sure. After all, it only takes up a few minutes of time to listen to a typical song, but a book can take a couple hours or more. When I’m seeking to be abducted by these books, to have my world-view turned upside down, to lose myself to their seductions, do I really have time for the throw-away, but terribly fun novel? On the other hand, sometimes all I have brain power for is that fluffy read.

Defending our reading choices, or even just feeling the need to defend them, seems to take a terrible ton of energy, not just in the book blogging world, but beyond. How many of us have ever been asked, disdainfully, “are you really reading that?” Or for that matter, felt the need to justify a reread, when there are “so many other books out there”?

I’d like to say I stand strong and pooh-pooh the whole conversation: we like what we like and what does it matter to others, but I know that I’ve felt the need to defend myself in the past, or more especially, to selectively edit when answering the “so what do you like to listen to/read” question. Certainly, I’d rather not spend my energy tied up in justification of something, that when it comes down to it, is really rather pointless. At the same time, then, I need to remind myself not to judge others for their pop-culture choices. We like what we like, even when we don’t understand someone else’s preferences. And let me tell you, there are some I really don’t understand!

Oh, and for the record: if there is such a thing as a bookish guilty pleasure, my sin is thrillers, poorly-written or otherwise.

So what about you: do you believe in bookish “guilty pleasures?”