Review: Roverandom

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 8

First things first: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Roverandom is wholly independent from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If you’re looking for an expansion on wizarding lore, pick up The Silmarillion. If you’re looking for a story about a dog cursed by a cranky old wizard, then pick up Roverandom. Overall, it’s very tame and maintains the soothing, bedtime-story tone established at the beginning:

Once upon a time there was a little dog, and his name was Rover. He was very small, and very young, or he would have known better; and he was very happy playing in the garden in the sunshine with a yellow ball, or he would never have done what he did.

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. This one was a wizard, the one that now walked into the story. He came wandering up the garden-path in a ragged old coat, with an old pipe in his mouth, and an old green hat on his head. If Rover had not been so busy barking at the ball, he might have noticed the blue feather stuck in the back of the green hat, and then he would have suspected that the man was a wizard, as any other sensible little dog would; but he never saw the feather at all.

When the old man stooped down and picked up the ball—he was thinking of turning it into an orange, or even a bone or a piece of meat for Rover—Rover growled, and said:

“Put it down!” Without ever a “please”. (3)

As punishment for his rudeness, poor Rover is turned into a toy and sent to a toy shop. Remember your manners, kids! (And dogs!) Because he’s a realistic-looking toy, Rover is quickly bought and given to a child he calls “little boy Two.” Rover can only move when unobserved and he slips from little boy Two’s pocket at the beach. As the tide rises, Rover encounters another wizard, Psamathos, who takes pity on him. He restores Rover’s range of movement, but Rover remains toy-sized. Until full-sized again, Rover can’t go home or he might be eaten by the cat, Tinker.

So what else can little Rover do but go on grand adventures to the moon and under the sea? My edition has a long introduction which explains this story was written for Tolkien’s son, Michael, after his toy dog was lost at the beach. If this is true, then Roverandom‘s original audience was a 5-year-old (ish) boy and it reads as such. This isn’t a bad thing, though, if what you’re looking for is a bedtime story. Roverandom is filled to the brim with small, beautiful details. It has a narrow scope, but it’s as imaginative as anything else Tolkien has written. It has a limited cast of characters, but both wizards and the Man-in-the-Moon are quirky and memorable.

The best way to sum up the free-wheeling nature of Rover’s adventure is to quote the Man-in-the-Moon’s rules:

“Now fly off and amuse yourself. Don’t worry the moonbeams, and don’t kill my white rabbits, and come home when you are hungry! The window on the roof is usually open. Good-bye!” (26)

Rover’s adventures on the moon are a delight, but the conceit wears thin about the time Rover’s swimming through an underwater city. This is a weird thing to say as an adult, but as the third act stretched on, I was a bit sorry my edition didn’t have fewer words and more pictures. My copy has five illustrations by J.R.R. Tolkien printed on glossy paper that really perk up the book. Every so often, I consider razoring out a couple and hanging them over my desk.

Overall: 4.0 It’s fun, but it feels unfocussed and meandering towards the end (even if the end is sweet and heartwarming).

Translation: Read it before bed with a hot, decaffeinated drink.

12 to go!

  1. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  2. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  3. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  4. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  5. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  6. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  7. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  8. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  9. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  10. The Terra-Cotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri
  11. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  12. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  7. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein

Review: The Moving Finger

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 1

I’ve been reading the Miss Marple books in order. Even though they’ve all been murder mysteries, the small-town vibe and gossip keep them light. Usually, series with a recurrent investigator feature that character as the lead, but the three Miss Marple stories I’ve read all feature different narrators. Miss Marple has been increasingly far from the action until here, in The Moving Finger, she only makes an appearance at the end.

The placid village of Lymstock seems the perfect place for Jerry Burton to recuperate from his accident under the care of his sister, Joanna. But soon a series of vicious poison-pen letters destroys the village’s quiet charm, eventually causing one recipient to commit suicide. The vicar, the doctor, the servants—all are on the verge of accusing one another when help arrives from an unexpected quarter. The vicar’s houseguest happens to be none other than Jane Marple. (Goodreads)

Jerry is my favorite narrator so far. He’s in the country to recuperate from a flying accident and has a jovial relationship with his sister, Joanna. They’re initially outsiders in Lymstock and Joanna doesn’t immediately get the memo on country dress:

I added: “Your face is all wrong too.”
“What’s wrong with that? I’ve got on my Country Tan Makeup No. 2.”
“Exactly,” I said. “If you lived in Lymstock, you would have on just a little powder to take the shine off your nose, and possible a soupçon of lipstick—not very well applied—and you would almost certainly be wearing all your eyebrows instead of only a quarter of them.”
Joanna gurgled and seemed much amused.
“Do you think they’ll think I’m awful?” she said. (Loc 8022)

The pace of the mystery is slower than in other Christie books I’ve read and the murder victim takes a while to show up. Through the first act, Jerry and Joanna are left to puzzle over anonymous notes which don’t seem terribly threatening at first. Tension builds nicely through these scenes while the reader waits for something to happen. The letters make wild and improper accusations, but they’re so obviously false that everyone’s reaction is to throw them on the fire. For a time, this is the biggest mystery: in a tiny town where everyone knows each other’s business, why would anyone put so much effort into fake secrets:

“There are so many things the letters might say, but don’t. That’s what is so curious.”
“I should hardly have thought they erred on the side of restraint,” I said bitterly.
“But they don’t seem to know anything. None of the real things.”
“You mean?”
Those fine vague eyes met mine.
“Well, of course. There’s plenty of adultery here—and everything else. Any amount of shameful secrets. Why doesn’t the writer use those?” (Loc 8835)

In related mysteries: Why does Miss Marple take so long to arrive? Without her, the case moves along fine. Jerry makes a few deductions of his own and the investigators seem competent enough. Miss Marple’s presence feels tacked on (even though it’s very welcome). I suppose it’s for the best that she’s minimally involved. For her to be centrally involved in each case, all the murders would have to take place in, or very near, St. Mary Mead, which would quickly strain credulity. St. Mary Mead is a lovely, sleepy village; it shouldn’t be awash with corpses. It’s amazing how many TV shows slide into this pitfall—as soon as the “regular Joe” starts investigating murders, bodies turn up everywhere… at weddings, in their favorite cafe, falling from the sky, and so on.

And Then There Were None is still my favorite Christie novel. The Miss Marple stories are more fun, but the solutions have yet to be as satisfying. In The Moving Finger, Miss Marple’s explanation verges a bit close to “if everyone is acting according to stereotypes and generalizations, here is the motive for the murder.” There was some of this in Murder at the Vicarage too, but it wasn’t as vexing since Miss Marple could also draw on her first-hand knowledge of her friends and neighbors.

Overall: 4.4  Unexpectedly, I have mixed feelings about Miss Marple’s presence in her own mystery series! She has a great way of making cryptic observations until she’s ready to solve the case, but she didn’t get to do much of that here. Also, the romantic side-plot felt unconvincing. I’m still not completely sure whether it’s entirely comedic or if it’s meant to be heartfelt too.

Translation: Read it.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

19 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  7. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  8. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  9. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  10. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  11. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  12. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  13. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  14. She by H. Rider Haggard
  15. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  16. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  17. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  18. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  19. ??? (To Be Determined)

Review: Gulliver’s Travels

gullivers travels_cover

At school, reading assignments could be likened to a game of Bingo: I noted whichever passages fit the professor’s lecture, then dug for a theme to tie a paper together. Reading the classics is almost fun again now. I say almost because Gulliver’s Travels goes on too long after making its points, but the first two sections, when Gulliver meets the tiny Lilliputians and the giant Brobdingnagians, are brilliant. The Writing and Style are very dated, but the Reader will adjust within a Chapter or two.

From the back cover:
Shipwrecked and cast adrift, Lemuel Gulliver wakes to find himself on Lilliput, an island inhabited by little people, whose height makes their quarrels over fashion and fame seem ridiculous. His subsequent encounters—with the crude giants of Brobdingnag, the philosophical Houyhnhnms and the brutish Yahoos—give Gulliver new, bitter insights into human behaviour. Swift’s savage satire views mankind in a distorted hall of mirrors as diminished, magnified and finally bestial species, presenting us with an uncompromising reflection of ourselves.

Gulliver washes up on Lilliput with a rich sense of entitlement and allows the Lilliputians to attend to his every need. He goes to great lengths to describe their provisions as though he isn’t an enormous blight on their society. Everything on the island is miniature, even the plants and animals, so it’s true he’s limited in his food prep abilities unless he wants to eat whole animals, but the Lilliputians cook and deliver his meals:

He ordered his Cooks and Butlers, who were already prepared, to give me Victuals and Drink, which they pushed forward in a sort of Vehicles upon Wheels until I could reach them. I took those Vehicles, and soon emptied them all; twenty of them were filled with Meat, and ten with Liquor, each of the former afforded me two or three good Mouthfuls, and I emptied the Liquor of ten Vessels, which was contained in earthen Vials, into one Vehicle, drinking it off at a Draught, and so I did with the rest. (31)

Gulliver eats food for 1700+ Lilliputians daily and sleeps on 150 beds. In exchange, they draw up what amounts to a chore list and expect him to contribute to society. Gulliver is stunned by the indignity of the tasks, most of which involve ferrying Lilliputians or their resources short distances—short by his standards. Once he proves his worth in a sea battle, he uses his war-hero status to wiggle out of his least favorite chores (which are pretty much all of them).

If you’re reading this book before writing a paper on satire and British Imperialism, you really only have to read this opening section because it has everything. It showcases a British man lording his ‘natural advantages’ over the inhabitants of a tiny island while receiving foods and gifts in exchange for protection. That’s a lot to focus on. When I was in school, we rarely touched upon the best part: the humor. Gulliver is ridiculous and a jackass. He’s inordinately proud of himself for his minor contributions which tend to come at little or no cost to himself. His obliviousness is a key part of the satire and keeps him from being too appreciated by the Lilliputians.

Part 2 is amusing in the sense that it turns Gulliver’s time with the Lilliputians on its head. Among the Brobdingnagians, Gulliver is the little one and he sees them as the Lilliputians saw him: huge and disgusting. He can’t stand to see their blemishes and signs of infirmity blown up to monstrous proportions:

This made me reflect upon the fair Skins of our English Ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size, and their Defects not to be seen but through a Magnifying Glass, where we find by Experiment that the smoothest and whitest Skins look rough and coarse, and ill coloured. (87)

But despite his size, Gulliver keeps up his positive self-image. He narrates his skirmish with a rat in the same grand tones as a legend. Though he’s kept around as a bit of entertainment, he flatters himself that his company is charming. His pluck is admirable, but he still malingers whenever it suits him. His laziness isn’t problematic in this section because it doesn’t put anyone to much trouble—the Brobdingnagians aren’t as inconvenienced by his needs or whims. As a result, he becomes a bit more likable.

These first two sections complement and balance each other so well that Part 3 can’t help being anticlimactic. The biting social commentary that makes Gulliver’s Travels a classic is all present in the first half; as you read, you’ll think: “Oh, right, I understand that [random cultural reference] now.” With the exception of calling idiots “yahoos,” I’m not sure many people reference the second half. It’s just not memorable. Even with Swift’s incredible wit, it loses its lively spark as it winds down to a surprisingly grim ending. With flying cities, immortals, and talking horses, the story becomes too fantastic for its own good. To offer a good social critique, a story should be grounded in the real world. If the exaggerated flaws and vices of the fictional world go too far, some of the sting is lost. For all their strangeness, the Lilliputians keep a grip on relatability, which makes them the best part of the book. They hold up a bizarre mirror to the social faults that Swift wishes to mock.

Overall: 4.0 Surprisingly solid and it’s still funny after all these years. The score would be higher, but with the second half of the book dragging it down, I can’t go over 4.

Translation: Read it! Er, part of it, I mean.

Book 1 of the Reading Ireland Month 2017 Challenge
Next Up: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde




Review: Hell House

hell_house_coverRichard Matheson’s Hell House popped up in my Amazon recommendations after I browsed horror classics for my October reading. I dropped the others on my list in its favor because Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is, well, legendary. What Dreams May Come is also decent (don’t quote me; I read it too long ago to fully recommend now). As for Hell House… not what I expected. It’s suitably eerie, suspenseful, and intense, but it has a weird 1970’s pulp-porn component with an uncomfortable level of sexual violence and humiliation. It’s over the top in a way that verges on camp, but for something to be campy, it ought to be a little funny and this isn’t.

On to the good stuff. Like Hill House, Hell House features a scientific exploration into supernatural events. Dr. Barrett, along with his wife, Edith, and two mediums (one active, Florence; one repressed, Fischer) hopes to crack into and destroy the vicious power which animates Hell House. The house sports an impressive list of paranormal activities and an intense body count. The windows have been bricked over, the power is sporadic, and it’s populated by a cruel force which smashes furniture and possesses people. Or is it? Dr. Barrett intends to prove that the house is a maelstrom of energy which is only responding to the presence of the two mediums. To him, there are no ghosts, the violence is a product of Florence’s desire to prove herself as a medium and connect with an actual presence in the house.

It’s a great set up. There is a lot of supernatural…stuff, but the mystery of what’s fueling the madness is enough to keep the pages turning. Early on, Matheson has some tongue-in-cheek awareness when the power goes out (because the power has to go out):

“Obviously the generator is too old,” Barrett said.
“Generator?” Edith looked surprised again. “There’s no electrical service here?”
“There aren’t enough houses in the valley to make it worth the effort,” Barrett answered.
“How could they put in a telephone, then?”
“It’s a field telephone,” Barrett said. He looked into the house. “Well, Mr. Deutsch will have to provide us with a new generator, that’s all.”
“You think that’s the answer, do you?” Fischer sounded dubious. (31)

(I wouldn’t get my hopes up about that generator.)

Soon after, a phonograph goes off randomly with Belasco’s voice (Belasco was the house’s former insane owner) welcoming them to his home. The phonograph distracts the group long enough for Matheson to write this shiver-inducing passage:

“Then, again, maybe [Belasco] was invisible,” Fischer continued. “He claimed that power. Said that he could will the attention of a group of people to some particular object, and move among them unobserved.”
“I doubt that,” Barrett said.
“Do you?” Fischer’s smile was strange as he looked at the phonograph. “We all had our attention on that a few moments ago,” he said. “How do you know he didn’t walk right by us while we were listening?” (39)

As for how Belasco rotted the house so thoroughly, he encouraged people to follow their vices. It started with orgies, but moved on from there:

“Still, it wasn’t exclusively sex. The principle of excess was applied to every phase of life here. Dining became gluttony, drinking turned to drunkenness. Drug addiction mounted. And, as the physical spectrum of his guests was perverted, so, too, was their mental.”
“People stayed here months, then years. The house became their way of life. A way of life that grew a little more insane each day. Isolated from the contrast of normal society, the society in this house became the norm. Total self-indulgence became the norm. Debauchery became the norm. Brutality and carnage soon became the norm.” (58)

The house’s norm eventually included necrophilia and cannibalism—betcha didn’t see that coming! Needless to say, a very ill force haunts the house.

Altogether, I’d say this is a great read. Matheson’s writing is clear and powerful. He leans on a few clichés, but does so in a slightly self-aware way that prevents a reader from rolling their eyes too hard. The characters can be frustrating: Dr. Barrett is rigid in his belief that THERE ARE NO GHOSTS; Florence, the house’s plaything, is sweet and devout no matter what happens; Dr. Barrett’s wife is consistently devoted; and Fischer, who should be the most interesting, spends his time shrouding himself from the house’s influence. With Matheson’s flare for writing jump-scares and gore, the story feels like it can go anywhere; it’s not hemmed-in by a reader’s expectation for a happy ending.

HOWEVER, some of the sexual violence is unsettling. Really disturbing. So whatever this blog’s equivalent of a “parental warning” is should be slapped across the front of this book. By the end, Matheson is driving for sacrilegious shock value, so if you’re squeamish or prudish, I can’t recommend this book.

Overall: 4.4 It’s made unflinchingly intense with moments of ridiculous camp, but also with moments of sexual violence and humiliation that will cross a line for some readers. It’s the rest of the book that’s earning the 4.4 rating. If you take out the pulp-porn, this book is what I’d expected from The Haunting of Hill House.

Translation: Read it.