TomahawkPoe.jpgIn Print (Book Reviews and Published Pieces)

 

Monday
May282007

The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien

May 24, 2007 Philadelphia InquirerChildrenHurin.jpg

More about Middle-Earth before Frodo

The Children of Húrin

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Edited by Christopher Tolkien

Houghton Mifflin. 320 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

When J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973, he had published 11 books, almost all tales of his fantasy realm, Middle-Earth. However, the universe he created, with its own cosmology, languages, cultures and spiritual beings was far, far more vast (and complicated) than could be published. Begun as an exercise to satisfy his linguistic hobbies (creating a world out of invented languages rather than a language for an invented world), Tolkien's Middle-Earth became the grandest, most nuanced alternative realm ever created by a single author.

Since Tolkien's death, his son, Christopher, has prepared for the press some of his father's stories that flesh out the world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and the encyclopedic 12-volume series, The History of Middle-Earth, are all culled from incomplete manuscripts that Tolkien had labored over for almost 50 years.

The Children of Húrin is the latest of these, but it was decades in the writing in various literary forms. It began as an alliterative poem in the 1920s and was later continued in prose during the following decades. Christopher Tolkien has taken the prose parts and edited into a seamless whole the story of the hero Túrin and his battles against the forces of the malevolent Morgoth, satanic predecessor of the Sauron who besets the heroes in The Lord of the Rings. Some of this story has previously been published in both The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, but both of those accounts fall well short of this greatly expanded, complete narrative.

Túrin is the son of Húrin, a great leader and friend of elves who has been captured by Morgoth in a great battle (as were all battles in the heroic age). This tale is set in the First Age of Middle-Earth (Bilbo and Frodo Baggins live during the Third Age), and the world is still ruled mainly by the Elves, with humans only just coming into their own. Barbaric hordes of wild men, orcs and a slithering dragon have overrun the Elven Kingdoms. Túrin's mother secretly sends her child to a hidden Elven kingdom and the tale recounts his tragic wandering, during which he attempts to turn back the tide of evil unleashed by Morgoth to subvert all of creation.

The Children of Húrin follows the pattern of heroic sagas and romances in which characters behave archetypically. They have a defining trait that plays out over the course of the narrative. Characters don't evolve. They are static beings, bound to their fates, but vigorous in pursuit of their goals. This is not to suggest that they are at all boring. Who could call King Arthur, Beowulf, or Odysseus boring? Such characters resonate with the echoes of human endeavor. Reading their adventures helps define the purpose (or a purpose) of human existence.

Túrin is given multiple names in the tale, each a well-bestowed metaphor of his current standing in the story (e.g., Black Sword), but at heart he is a man of constant sorrows, ever hopeful of victory, but each fight won, each enemy overcome, only serves to add another unlooked-for burden to the weight of his journey.

Although constant of energy and steadfast of purpose, the morality of his actions is sometimes ambiguous. He is no paper-thin angel, ever on the side of truth and justice. Sometimes he is right only because his opponents are so wrong.

And for a narrative rooted in such a predictable genre, the heroic saga, Tolkien still manages to create a good amount of suspense in how events will play out. I felt the urge to rush through the short chapters because I so wanted to learn, not what would happen, but how the characters would meet their fate. Still, there were a few deaths and liaisons that surprised me.

Tolkien coined a word to describe what he felt was the highest purpose of a fairy story: eucatastrophe, "the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn.' " There is a great, joyous coming together of the world at the end of his great work, The Lord of the Rings, but as an early part of the grand history of Middle-Earth, The Children of Húrin cannot end with joy.

Túrin's is a tale of grim suffering taking place in one of the many times of darkness before a light briefly shone its beams upon a weary world. But the grimness of its lost battles and the lamentations of its broken harps make a worthy addition to the epic of Middle-Earth.

Sunday
Apr292007

The Friendship: Wordsworth & Coleridge by Adam Sisman

Friendship.jpgApril 29, 2007   Philadelphia Inquirer

A friendship that sparked great poetry

The Friendship
Wordsworth & Coleridge
By Adam Sisman

Viking. 480 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

Adam Sisman's The Friendship opens with Samuel Taylor Coleridge vaulting a fence and bounding across a field, after a 40-mile walk, to meet his new friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth at their temporary home, Racedown Lodge, in Dorset. The moment is emblematic: Coleridge's youthful enthusiasm and vigor, the Wordsworths' joy at his arrival, the pastoral field in which they meet, the presence of William's sister, Dorothy. These are some of the key ingredients of the new Romantic poetry that Coleridge and Wordsworth would create. The dull parsing and analysis that passes for most literary discussion of poetry in schools today forgets the exhilaration that often begets great poetry. Anthologies weighted with endless footnotes cannot capture the passion that ignites literary movements. Sisman sets out to recreate the exuberance and intensity of the friendship between the two poets that would engender the Romantic Movement in England.

Coleridge and Wordsworth became essential to each other, their vision for what poetry should be (committed to both societal change and the revelation of the individual, the personal), their minds melding into a creative whole. Sisman writes, "Each found in each other the qualities he had been searching for." The poets revel in a "euphoria of sharing," each contributing to the other's verse, sometimes losing track of who wrote which line. The "intimate autobiographical style of the conversation poems" that Coleridge initiates is perfected by Wordsworth. And through it all, Dorothy is the "essential bridge between them."

Sisman does not give short shrift to Dorothy Wordsworth's importance to the friendship, which was often a triumvirate of like minds. Dorothy did not write poetry, but did play a vital part in shaping the impressions of both men. She was a conduit for their senses and a critic for their poems. Dorothy joined them on their long walks through the countryside. Her journals fill in the details of what the poems hint at. Of her William wrote, "She gave me eyes, she gave me ears."

Although Sisman claims to focus on only a core six years of the poets' friendship, his book begins with too much extraneous biographical detail. The meeting at Racedown, previewed at the start, doesn't actually occur until page 176. As important as are the events and feelings that shaped the lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge before they met (Wordsworth's trip to France, Coleridge's political activities), Sisman could have condensed much of this information into a short chapter and given occasional flashbacks when relevant. The first third of the book feels like one long introduction. As it happens, that isn't such a bad thing. Sisman's style and insights into the revolutionary times of the poets reward over and again. He is such an engaging writer that the overlong buildup is more entertaining than the core of many other biographies.

Sisman often recounts the walking excursions of Coleridge and Wordsworth. In adddition to Coleridge's walk to Racedown, Wordsworth and another friend walk through France. Dorothy and William walk through Germany. They all walk throughout the Lake District where the Wordsworths will eventually settle. No wonder another writer called their times the "age of Pedestrianism."

The poets even composed on foot. Coleridge would pace for hours in his garden. Wordsworth would compose outside, "keeping step with the rhythm of his verse, his head down and mumbling to himself. Often he would pace back and forth along the same route until a poem 'kindled' in his mind. He held the poem there, rarely committing it to paper until it was complete." Sisman offers the cost of paper as one reason for this, but the act of writing as it were on foot, like Coleridge's vaulting the gate, is also emblematic of the poetry these men created, vigorous and in tune with nature. Their poems often mirror the natural landscape around them, like a reflection of a mountain on the calm surface of a lake. Sisman's account of their friendship shows how their poems are not just flat words on a page, but ideas and images that walk across the mind's own landscape. This is a pedestrian biography in the literal sense of pedestrian - an energetic and exuberant walk through the lives of two men.

Sunday
Apr012007

From Civil Rights to Human Rights by Thomas F. Jackson

March 25, 2007 Greensboro News & Record MLK.jpg

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice

by Thomas F. Jackson

UPenn Press, 459 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

"Civil Rights, plus full employment equals freedom."

This was the slogan for the 1963 March on Washington, a march which culminated in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s delivery of his most famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln memorial. The racial unity of children of all colors joining hands on the hilltop in King's "I have a dream" speech has not only become the core meaning of King's philosophy, but for many, the sole meaning. No matter how vibrant a man, King's message has been relegated by many to just a few tropes of a speech, trotted out once a year on January 21. Of course, this one speech cannot sum up the totality of King's call for lasting civil rights in America (and the world). But it remains that a few soundbites of this speech that is taught to most children in schools remains the only thing that most adults know about Martin Luther King, Jr.

Earlier in that speech, King deploys a metaphor for the lost promise of freedom in economic terms: "It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' " In casting the struggle for equality in such a moneyed way, King hints at the two-fold goal of the March, an event, though abbreviated now, was actually entitled, The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King well understood that any civil rights legislation passed by Congress would have no teeth if not followed by an economic policy to back it up—civil rights PLUS full employment. The March was not just a utopian call for color-blind equality, but also a call for changes in economic policy, without which the lofty goals of universal freedom and equality cannot be achieved.

In his new biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Thomas F. Jackson brings into focus the radicalism of the civil rights leader, a radicalism that has been softened in the public consciousness over the years. If King has become an icon of color-blindness for many, then truly his ideas about poverty and how it relates to racism in America have been laid by the wayside of historical memory. In viewing King's color-blindness, Americans themselves have suffered from a lack of depth perception, failing to see beneath the surface of King's shimmering dream.

Jackson corrects this view by showing how King's radicalism differed from other radical groups of his time. King eschewed Marxism because of its "subordination of the person to the state." He refused the overtures of black nationalists because of the nascent violence of their movement. King even scorned the "centrist liberalism of Kennedy and Johnson" because it didn't provide for the sweeping econmic reform needed to bring about true economic freedom for African-Americans. Jackson traces King's ideas about poverty and resistance to find the threads that mark the development of his own ideas about economic justice. King followed the basic precepts of Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of achieving human rights through non-violent resistance, but his own plans evolved through the prism of American policy, both at home and abroad.

King saw the use of military force in Vietnam and Central America as part of a strategy to further US economic imperialism. In opposing this kind of foreign policy, Jackson shows how sophisticated were King's own ideas about economic justice and race relations. For King, the US government was hypocritical in asking its black citizens to fight for the freedom of the Vietnamese. More importantly, Jackson writes, "Vietnam siphoned resources and political capital away from civil rights and the War on Poverty." So, this brand of US imperialistic policy weakens the country's own citizens, and thus itself, in seeking to strengthen its position in the world.

Thomas Jackson's biography has all the meticulous hallmarks of an academic work— 53 pages of endnotes, 13 pages of bibliography and an 18 page index— and also the dry prose that sometimes afflicts an academic tome. I tended to get a little bogged down with detail in the middle of the book. I felt as if Jackson had a point to prove and he was leaving no stone unturned to prove it. And, of course, he should. However, the clarity of Jackson's ideas and the force of King's beliefs make for rewarding reading.

Jackson writes, "King has been variously interpreted because he varied his rhetorical repertoire in relation to diverse audiences. Like Walt Whitman, he could contradict himself because he sought to contain democratic multitudes." Jackson's biography succeeds in showcasing King's commitment to a vital part of his philosophy, how economic policy must not be left out of the dream, how the children of these democratic multitudes must have economic justice in order to reap the rewards of racial justice.

Thursday
Mar292007

Intoxicated by John Barlow

intox_paperback.jpgUnpublished

Intoxicated

by John Barlow

Harper Perennial, 353 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

John Barlow's Intoxicated opens with a mother holding her young son by the ankles, pounding his head upon the ground, then swinging him in wide circles, herself the hub, while the child spews arcs of glistening, green vomit. Is she mad? Only temporarily. She has caught her son eating rhubarb leaves and, believing them to be poisonous, she resorts to this circus-like version of an emetic. And the fun doesn't end there.

Intoxicated is a rich, hilarious novel about rhubarb, the creation of the soft-drink industry, cocaine-laced tonics, the wool industry and an ugly, humpbacked midget named Rodrigo (or Roderick) Vermillion. In 1869, Isaac Brooke decides to retire from the wool mill he owns in France and rejoin his wife and children in Yorkshire. For thirty years he has spent only a fraction of each year with his family. The results: a wife obsessed with cooking, one son a drunken sot, another son a half-wit and a morose servant a little too devoted to Brookes' wife.

On his return home from France, Brookes shares a compartment in "the train of predestination" with the marvellous and loquacious Vermillion, dressed in rags and smelling like a mixture of dead rat and moldy bacon. Rodrigo is a pint-sized Falstaff—part rapscallion, part genius—whose unceasing energy and overflowing verbiage both charm and repulse those he meets. He is not one to be ignored.

Instead of quietly retiring to his Yorkshire cottage and dotty family, Isaac Brookes astounds everyone when he decides to invest his retirement fortune in rhubarb and market a new soft-drink, Rhubarilla, a concoction created by Vermillion and the Brookes' family. Barlow brings to bear on this absurd tale great wit and rollicking prose. He writes with a verve that compelled me along, eager to consume the next word, the next paragraph, the next page, fitting for a novel in which the primary concern of its characters is consumption.

The story opens with young George Brookes' consumption of rhubarb leaves. His brother Tom is on a quest to drink all of the liquor in Yorkshire. Vermillion is constantly consuming juicy sultanas, plucked from a never-ending supply in his capacious pockets. Isaac Brookes is described as a voracious eater: "He took food seriously and gave each mouthful the sum total of that moment's energy." One character is even sick with tuberculosis. The name Victorians gave to this disease? That's right, "consumption."

Barlow's Victorian world has a bit of the Monty Python spirit to it. I half-expected the Spanish Inquisition to come bursting through the doors. One of the Brookes' brothers laments the new family drink-making endeavour: "I don't know what's got into you all, going about Rhubarb-illa with a midget in the house. It's bloody nonsense." Then, there is all the imbibing of tonics, which the characters furiously consume, unaware this drive to drink has been accelerated by the addition of cocaine to the ingredients. Isaac drinks bottle after bottle of Vin Mariani, a Victorian health-tonic, at times a glass of Rhubarilla in one hand and glass of Mariani in the other. Of course, tragedy eventually enters the scene (albeit a bit drunkenly). Will their soft-drink Rhubarilla be a success? Will anyone sober up long enough to enjoy it? I was never so thirsty reading a novel in my life.

Thursday
Mar292007

Mean Martin Manning by Scott Stein

March 22, 2007 Philadelphia City PaperMMM_coverA.gif

Mean Martin Manning

By Scott Stein

ENC Press, 207 pp., $15

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

If Franz Kafka were funny, if, while down at his local pub in Prague, he had fired off one witty, sarcastic rejoinder after another about the absurdity of the world, then he would have written a novel like Scott Stein's Mean Martin Manning.

For the past 30 years, fed up with the idiocy of the world around him, Manning has locked himself into his apartment. He has neither left his rooms nor spoken to a single human being. Television and the Internet have satisfied his mental diet. Salami, cheese and mayonnaise sandwiches have been his chief bodily sustenance. Manning has created a little oasis of comfort in which he pads around all day in slippers and a bathrobe. He no longer owns any other articles of clothing.

Of course, the world comes crashing in (literally) when a social caseworker, Alice Pitney, learns of Manning's lifestyle and vows to "cure" him, to help him "realize his full potential." What follows is a romp through an absurdist America from trial — in which Manning, as a belligerent but witty Josef K zings his contempt onto the proceedings — to rehabilitation with a cast of other loonies whom Pitney is also "helping."

Manning narrates his story as a first-rate smart-ass, taking aim at a society that shoves health and happiness down its citizens' throats as if the true meaning of life could be found in uncooked vegetables and self-help programs, when we all know what we really need is salami and pro wrestling. Scott Stein has written a perfect book for Philadelphians who are having trouble coming to grips with government-decreed bans of trans fats and even the slightest whiff of tobacco smoke. In fact, smoking was the only pleasurable vice I missed in this gem of book.

Mean Martin Manning is a kind of manifesto for those fed up with the health-and-well-being nazis of all stripes, telling others what they should or shouldn't do. The enforcement of civility. No junk food. Eat right. Exercise. Realize your potential. These are the commands of a parent to a child, not the wise legislation of political leaders. So, what happens when bureaucrats become stern parents? Those not in power become petulant children, just waiting for Mom and Dad to turn their backs so they can snatch a treat from the cookie jar or smoke a cigarette out behind the shed. Here lies the deeper problem of a health-obsessed society, which Stein's novel addresses: the infantilization of adults.

As the novel progresses, Manning becomes less like Kafka's Josef K and more like Anthony Burgess' Alex, whom society wishes to turn into the perfect clockwork orange, seemingly ripe on the outside, but mechanically precise on the inside. And where's the fun in that? Manning revolts against this new system that's supposed to make him a better human being and draws up his list of those who need a comeuppance. The scary part of it all is that Stein's novel is no dystopian vision of a distant future. The time is now. Guard your salami and mayonnaise. Mean Martin Manning for President!