Archive for the ‘American literature’ Category

Well, the cold weather continues.  We’re looking at temps around -10°F tonight.  The white car still refuses to start, so I think I’m simply going to give up trying until temps moderate, which means probably next weekend.  There’s no point burning out a starter.

I was telling a friend this week that Today’s History Lesson has given me a much greater appreciation for good writers.  So it’s great that I get to write about one today, though I won’t do him near the justice he deserves.

J. R. R. Tolkien may not be the most remarkable writer that ever lived.  He certainly wasn’t as prolific as many authors.  And I’m not 100% sure that writing was even Tolkien’s first love.  I think that was reserved for linguistics, languages, and the studies concerning them.  But J. R. R. Tolkien is responsible for one of the most remarkable works of literature ever created.  It largely defined a literary genre and has captivated millions of readers (and more recently, movie-goers) worldwide.

When The Hobbit was published in 1937, it achieved a success that surprised its author.  Tolkien had created a story essentially to read to his children, and a goodly number of people decided they wanted it read to (and by) their own kids.  Though the author did not really envision a sequel, the publishers believed one would be appropriate.

And so Tolkien began work on a continuation of The Hobbit, and very quickly discovered a story that ran much deeper, and with a much darker vein, than its predecessor.  Published as The Lord of the Rings, it contains many elements of the prequel.  There’s a quest, there’s a ring (the same Ring from The Hobbit, but with a much more sinister nature), and there’s a group that forms the “quest party”.

But the similarities pretty much end there, as The Lord of the Rings is far more involved, exposing us to much of the expanse of Middle Earth and the richness of its 7,000-year history.  There are numerous races of people, and Tolkien’s mastery of languages came to the fore, as he created more than a dozen distinct langauges and writing systems.

Since their first publication in the mid-1950’s, the three volumes that comprise The Lord of the Rings have sold millions of copies and have captivated millions of readers.  The trilogy largely created and defined the fantasy genre and has since become the benchmark against which all fantasy fiction has been measured.  It’s been made into numerous video games.  There were television movies in the late 70’s, though they weren’t very good.  It is, without question, one of the most important literary works of the 20th Century.

In the late 1990’s, New Line Cinema essentially “mortgaged the farm” on film director Peter Jackson and his ability to bring the massive scale of Tolkien’s world to the big screen.  The three movies were a tremendous success, introducing The Lord of the Rings to millions of new fans.

I read the trilogy every August, and 2009 was my 25th reading, so I consider myself a fan.  I love The Lord of the Rings so much because they’re the books I would have wanted to write.  I very much want to walk the plains of Rohan and stroll with Halflings through the Shire.  Maybe lay eyes on Sauron’s Dark Tower or stand over Balin’s tomb in Moria.  It could be the kid in me (or possibly I’m just weird), but Tolkien’s story draws me into the pages like no other fiction has or probably could.

It begins humbly enough, but builds in urgency and pace until the final crescendo before the gates of Minas Tirith when the King is crowned.  The 3rd book’s final 70 pages are basically the epilogue, and while the story seems to end on a positive note, I consider it a tragedy.  Evil is vanquished, but even good suffers loss…”they all lived happily ever after” sounds discordant as this masterpiece is completed.

And I want to see it…but then, maybe I already have.  My mind’s eye has created Middle Earth, and I’ve visited so often that, in some sense (a sense that might rightly earn a crossway’s glance from any number of people), I already know the place.  I own Peter Jackson’s movie renditions, but steadfastly refuse to watch them.  I’ve watched the intro to The Fellowship… and the scenes from Khazad-dum, but that’s it.  I don’t want another “world-view” infringing on my own.

It’s so all-encompassing in scope.  The Tale of Years, detailed in the appendix, verifies the “truth” of the Third Age.  We see snippets of stories, largely untold and never-to-be-explained, that beg for fleshing out.  The historian in me just has to know.  Its languages, and lands, and races of people, and heroes long dead and gone, each story crying for its witnesses to come forth.  But while it’s “all-encompassing”, it’s also so personal…to the point of being just my experience alone.  Tolkien’s world is his creation…but the books make it my creation as well.  When I open the books, I play God for a brief moment and, with a thought, create a landscape “in my own image”.  Treebeard looks and sounds as I wish, the Misty Mountains are as rugged as I make them, the Brandywine River as cool to the touch as I desire.

Maybe that’s the magic of Tolkien’s creation for me…his creation allows me to create.  I don’t know.  It’s kind of ethereal and hard to explain.

J. R. R. Tolkien was born in South Africa on January 3, 1892.  When he died in 1973, he left behind a canvas that I paint, and repaint, every year.  I can’t wait for next August.

Happy Birthday, J. R. R. Tolkien!!

Recommended Reading:  The Lord of the Rings – Experience Middle Earth for the first time…or the nth time.

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One of the things I remember about growing up were the times that Dad would read to us.  Sometimes it would be on one of our beds, with us kids sitting around him.  Other times, it would be in the morning before the van came to take him to work.  We’d sit in the bean-bag chairs in the living room and listen for 15 or 20 minutes.

The reading material varied…the enjoyment remained constant.  We had this big book of Uncle Remus stories from which he’d read.  It was written in an old southern style, with sentences like, “Now Brer Fox wud der cleverest creetur in dee fores…”.  It was stuff us kids couldn’t read, no matter how hard we tried.  But Dad could.  So we’d sit there and listen and laugh as we heard about the De Tar Baby, and De Briar Patch, and Why De Cricket Fambly Lives in Chimbleys, and how Brer Rabbit outsmarted the lion that was hogging all the water at the water hole by pretending there was a big storm coming so the lion let Brer Rabbit tie him up to the tree.

And then there were the times that Dad would read to us…and he’d be the one laughing.  Like when he read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to us.  This book, the work that probably brought author Mark Twain his greatest fame, was actually first published in the United States on February 18, 1885…that’s today (well, not the 1885 part).

I’ve never read the book myself, and it’s been more than 30 years since Dad read it to us, but what I do remember is that he’d be reading and he’d get to laughing so hard that he’d have to stop.  I seem to remember a church picnic, and Huck and Tom Sawyer floating down the Mississippi River.  And Jim being captured and this elaborate plan that Huck and Tom hatched to free him.  And Jim getting shot in the leg during the escape.

I’m not sure why those snatches come to mind, except that maybe they’re the times when Dad was laughing the hardest.  There has been a lot of proverbial “water under the bridge”, but these are some of the many cherished memories I have.  Being a kid…hearing a story about a kid like Huck Finn or another about Brer Rabbit…laughing like a kid…and having Dad laugh like a kid.  He still does that, and I’m glad for it.

I can’t think of a time in the last 30 years when I haven’t been reading a book, and I’d like to think that it’s due to Mom’s appetite for reading that she passed on to all of us kids, Uncle Remus, Tom Sawyer…and Dad.

Recommended Activity:  If you’ve got children, read to them.  In 30 years, your grown-up kids may be writing about those memories on a this-day-in-history website of their own.

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There were several other topics I was planning to do for today (Devil’s Tower or maybe the creation of the Attorney General’s office),  but they’ll just have to wait.  I decided to put them aside when I saw that Theodor Geisel had passed away on September 24, 1991.   Geisel’s name probably means little to you, though the teaster photo likely gives the gig away.  But Geisel’s middle name is legendary.  Its mention brings instant recognition, takes many of us back to our childhoods, and conjures up some of our earliest memories.  That name is…Seuss.

Yep, Geisel is none other than the immortal Dr. Seuss.  And like my other favorite doctor, Dr. Science, Seuss wasn’t a real doctor, though his intentions were to study for a doctorate of Philosophy.  But advanced degree or no, Seuss has provided children (and not a few adults) with some of the most entertaining books ever.

It’s hard to really describe a Seuss book, simply because they’re so completely different from any other children’s book.  Most books tell a simple story, so there’s a plot, and flow, and at least a little character development.  And some of Seuss’ books do that a little…I’m thinking of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (one of Seuss’ first books).  They’re books that move toward an end.  But many others simply have no real point at all.  They bob and weave from idea to idea and from topic to topic in a most precarious way.  Plot?  Forget about it.  Characters?  Who cares, they’re creatures that don’t even exist anyway.

But in a way, those are the perfect books for children.  They’re silly, they have creatures with fantastic names, they’re beautifully illustrated, and they defy any kind of categorization…except as “classics for children”.

Seuss wrote dozens of books in his lifetime, many of them enormously popular.  You’ve probably read some of them (or at least looked at the dazzling artwork).  The Cat in the Hat is, quite possibly, the most popular children’s book of all time.  If it isn’t, Green Eggs and Ham wouldn’t be far from the top.  The 500 Hats… was a favorite of mine (I always loved it when, after about 400 hats or so, the feathers started appearing), I’ve read Hop on Pop, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Mr. Brown Can Moo!  Can You?, and If I Ran the Circus.

But my favorite Dr. Seuss book is, without question, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  The story is so simple, the rhyming is so clever, and as a children’s tale, it takes a light-hearted approach to an important lesson that every child needs to know:  you don’t have to have lots of stuff (or even anything at all) to be happy.

Of course, Boris Karloff’s narration of the Grinch cartoon is superb, and I watch the video version every single year around Christmas (“Why, the Grinch even took the last can of Who-hash!“)…my wife bought me the DVD.

So, while Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss left us on this day, he left us with an astounding collection of terrific books that children will enjoy for generations to come.

Recommended Reading: How the Grinch Stole Christmas – Read this Dr. Seuss classic.  It might take you 15 minutes or so.

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The world would not have been right if I didn’t talk about Bill Watterson.  Born on July 5, 1958, Watterson is another one of those guys that some of you might wonder about, at least until I mention his brain-child.  It’s my favorite comic strip of all time…Calvin and Hobbes, which ran from November of 1985 until the last day of 1995.

I absolutely love Calvin and Hobbes.  I sit down and re-read the strips and laugh and laugh…and laugh some more.  Watterson drew on some of his own childhood experiences to create Calvin, a precocious little boy with a colossal imagination who terrorized his parents, his teacher Ms. Wormwood, his babysitter Rosalyn, and the little neighbor girl Susie Derkins.  His constant companion was Hobbes, a stuffed tiger that was alive only to Calvin.

Calvin often struggled with issues like death, the meaning of life, God, commercialism, and modern materialism, and Hobbes was usually there with some response that should have provided (but often didn’t) perspective and resolution to Calvin.  The star of the strip possessed a huge vocabulary, but couldn’t be bothered to do the simplest of homework assignments.  He spent most school-time hours day-dreaming that he was Spaceman Spiff, saving the galaxies in his spaceship, or Stupendous Man.

I think the comic strip was outrageously funny, and picking my favorites out of 10 years of material is pretty difficult.  He and Hobbes play this hysterical make-the-rules-as-you-go game called Calvinball.  His creation of a cardboard-box Transmogrifier was hilarious.  But I think my favorite strips involved Calvin eating bowls of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs and the time when he ordered a beanie with a little propreller that he thought would make him fly.

Watterson created a winner with Calvin and Hobbes, and the numerous awards he won prove it.  He steadfastly refused to merchandize the characters, believing that slapping them on a lunchbox or a T-shirt or creating movies about them destroyed the purity of the strip.  So the comic strip is all we have.  But as far as I’m concerned, the comic strip is all we need.

Happy Birthday, Bill Watterson!!

Recommended Reading: Find any of the numerous Calvin and Hobbes comic strip books at your local bookstore.  Better yet, get the complete anthology…I received it as a gift and it’s awesome.

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©William C. Minarich

On May 25, 1927, Robert Ludlum was born in New York City.  He spent time in the theater as both an actor and a producer, and he made a pretty good living doing voice-overs for TV commercials.  But it was his writing that helped him achieve world-wide acclaim.

The books in the store describe him as “The Master of the Super-thriller”.  I don’t know if that’s strictly true, or if there is a list of Super-thriller Masters somewhere which he heads, but I do know that he could write some really exciting books.  Before his death in 2001, he published nearly 2 dozen novels, including a handful under the pseudonyms Michael Shepherd and Jonathan Ryder.  Since Ludlum’s passing, several more manuscripts have been published, and several more have been completed by a ghost writer and published under his name.

Nearly all his books feature a 3-word title (“The Chancellor Manuscript“, “The Apocalypse Watch“, etc.).  And many of his books feature a person who, finding himself in the middle of some high-level conspiracy,  hunted by all sides, and totally overmatched, must rely on his wits and quick thinking to survive.  There are usually secret organizations at work, such as Inver Brass, or large plots to be exposed, like the Sonnenkinder and the Fourth Reich, or government corruption.  Abuse of power was something Ludlum despised, and it showed in his books.

Nearly all of his books are blessed with non-stop action almost from the first page, some level of violence (though never gratuitous), and multi-layered plots that require you to think like the character and pay attention to detail.  And nearly all of his books have been best-sellers, both domestically and abroad.  Ludlum’s books have been translated into numerous languages and sales are somewhere in the range of 300 million copies.

Robert’s one of my favorite authors.  I’ve read almost every book he’s written…most of them two or three times, and I love them.  I would have to say my favorites are “The Holcroft Covenant“, “The Acquitaine Progression“, “The Parsifal Mosaic” (which may have the most complex plot), and of course, the Jason Bourne trilogy.

Happy Birthday, Robert Ludlum!!

Recommended Reading: The Robert Ludlum Companion – Get to know the man himself, his thought process, and his inspiration.  Plus it’s got a place-name concordance that’s pretty handy.  Also, read one of his works…”The Acquitaine Progression“.

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March 2nd – Today we celebrate the birth of a personal favorite author of mine, Mr. John Irving. He was born in Exeter, New Hampshire on March 2nd 1942. Irving would later attend the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, where he developed his passion for reading and wrestling both of which would eventually influence and play important roles in his stories and his career.

Irving is best known for penning The Cider House Rules (later adapted to the big screen, starring Tobey Maguire, which Irving won an Oscar for), The World According to Garp, and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

As a novelist, Irving’s career began in his mid 20’s. However, during his early career Irving worked as an academic in order to financially support his young family while writing on the side in his spare time. His first critical success, The World According to Garp, would not be published until Irving was 36, but its popularity has since allowed Irving to devote his attention solely to his writing.

Irving’s stories are noted for their sometimes autobiographical nature, as well as the strong development of his characters, his dark comedic (and dramatic) effects and his imaginative themes. Perhaps Irving’s own simple words best explain his success as a writer: “The building of the architecture of a novel – the craft of it – is something I never tire of.”

Suggested reading:

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (a collection of short stories, autobiographical writing and essays, written by John Irving)

John Irving mini-bio

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