A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War

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” ‘ The Inklings have already agreed that their victory celebration, if they are spared to have one, will be to take a whole inn in the country for at least a week, and spend it enitrely in beer and talk, without any reference to a clock!'”  – from a letter by J. R. R. Tolkien as quoted by Joseph Loconte.

Joseph Loconte’s short volume A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918  focuses on what influenced Tolkien, Lewis and their writings during the wake of the First World War. In addition, Loconte delves into why the works of these two authors may have differed in theme and tone from many of the other authors of the time. While everyone seemed to suffer from the disillusionment caused by The Great War, Tolkien and Lewis maintained a persistent hope while their contemporaries (such as Ernest Hemingway) may not have.

The influence that resonated with me the most was the friendship itself between the two writers. More detailed biographies that I’ve read don’t hide the fact that the friendship had its share of bumps and strains. Loconte’s book doesn’t dismiss this fact but it emphasizes the lasting aspect of the relationship.

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When it comes to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien or the writings of some of my favorite “Lost Generation” writers, I’m not going to pick which ones I like better. All of them have had their impact on me. If I had the opportunity to go back in time to 1920’s Paris to hang out with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald like Owen Wilson did in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, of course I would jump at the chance. But if I had to choose between which group of authors I would want to hang out with over the course of thirty or forty years, I think I would choose Tolkien, Lewis and their crowd.

 

Everybody Behaves Badly

…this new Pamplona story already contained something for everyone. Its terse, innovative prose would titillate the literary crowd, and the simplicity of the style would make it accessible to mainstream readers. And if that deceptive simplicity didn’t do the trick, the story promised to stand alone as a scandalous roman a clef featuring dissolute representatives from the worlds of wealth and ambition.

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Things I found interesting from reading Lesley M. M. Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:

  1. Non-fiction about fiction is my favorite kind of non-fiction.
  2. Hemingway epitomizes the theory that great artists have a selfish streak.
  3. Hemingway wasn’t just selfish; he was mean.
  4. The Sun Also Rises launched Hemingway into the literary stratosphere.
  5. The majority of this book is set when Hemingway was a no-name and F. Scott Fitzgerald was a superstar.
  6. In spite of Hemingway’s mean streak, he had a lot of people supporting his art.
  7. Sherwood Anderson was instrumental in introducing Hemingway to the Paris literary world, even though his popularity faded as Hemingway’s soared.
  8. The characters in The Sun Also Rises were thinly veiled portraits of people Hemingway knew and hung out with in Paris.
  9. This didn’t go over so well with the real-life people.
  10. Fitzgerald predicted that Hemingway would have to have a different wife for each of his novels.
  11. While he was writing each of his four major novels, he did have a different wife.
  12. Blume refers to Hemingway’s style as sparse, terse, bare-bones as many would describe his style, but also refers to it as “high-low”, in the sense that it appealed to both literary types and mainstream readers (see quotation above).

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

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I miss my friend. But I still have the story that he gave me, that he whispered in my ear, that we told together, the one we whispered into your ear, and that is going to carry on. If I were a mystic, Clarence’s and my friendship would lead me to believe that we must have stood together in other, older times, along other rivers, in other cities, in other fields, doing our modest version of God’s work.

Bruce Springsteen fills his autobiography Born to Run with gem-like paragraphs as the one above in which he reflects on the death of his renown saxophonist, Clarence Clemons. Many reviews have already commented on the lyrical quality contained in much of the book but I would be remiss if I didn’t shout out a hardy “agree” in my own post.

It has been a while since I’ve read a rock bio and I don’t think I’ve reviewed one since I’ve been blogging. I evaluate rock bios on three categories: sex, drugs, rock and roll.

Sex: While making no profession of sainthood, Springsteen makes a point to say that his sex life was by no means that of the stereotypical rock star. He procedes to provide very few details. Given that I’m rarely interested in anyone’s conquests/escapades in this area, I found this refreshing.

Drugs: According to Springsteen, he never did any. If that’s true, maybe that’s why he is still able to play 4 hour concerts while getting close to age 70.

Rock and Roll: And of course that brings us to the rest of the book. The story I’m interested in hearing about and the story Springsteen is interested in telling. His relationship with the E Street Band, not without its ups and downs, appears to be a congenial one even while he makes no bones about the fact that he was indeed “The Boss”. He considers himself a benevolent dictator. The ins and outs of the music he wrote and created with these people and where the ideas for his albums came from never ceased to fascinate me.

One of the more minor and amusing anecdotes that I’m still thinking about involved Springsteen and a buddy taking one of many road trips from New Jersey to California. Apparently, the buddy was getting over a relationship and spent the first part of the trip riding shotgun hugging a giant teddy bear. Springsteen eventually pulled over and wrestled the bear away from the buddy telling him he was ruining their “Kerouac On The Road mojo.”

On one personal note, I admit I didn’t really “discover” Springsteen until I was around 40. Yes, as an older teen I was definitely aware of his music from his juggernaut album Born in the USA.  It wasn’t until decades later that I went back and listened to his follow up to that album, Tunnel of Love. I was amazed at how a rock star could lyrically portray so well the frightening and blissful messiness that is marriage. After that, I went back and listened to all of his albums. The characters he created and the stories he told in his music meshed with my enjoyment of literature like few other musicians have (Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash are two others).

On another personal and literary note, when I found out Springsteen considers Flannery O’Connor a major influence, it didn’t come as a surprise. On the one hand, Springsteen was raised Catholic and his lyrics are filled with Biblical and Catholic imagery just like O’Connor. On another hand, so many of the characters in Springsteen’s stories are people in need of redemption, some finding it and some not – just like O’Connor’s stories. And finally, not being Catholic myself, I’ve struggled to explain why I chose Catholicism as a topic for my 2016 Deal Me In short story project. When Springsteen discusses his Catholic influence, he hits on something that at least comes close to the reason for my intrigue with stories and authors from a Catholic background:

I came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. So I stopped kidding myself. I don’t often participate in my religion but I know somewhere…deep inside…I’m  still on the team.

This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward. It was a glorious and pathetic place I was either shaped for or fit right into. It has walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life. So as a young adult I tried to make sense of it. I tried to meet its challenge for the very reasons that there are souls to lose and a kingdom of love to be gained. I laid what I’d absorbed across the hardscrabble lives of my family, friends and neighbors. I turned it into something I could grapple with, understand, something I could even find faith in.  As funny as it sounds, I have a “personal” relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in his godly power. I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save…but not to damn…enough of that.

 

 

 

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

“Alone in my room, congested and exhausted, I forgot my obsession with self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. Instead of filling in the blanks, I wanted to be a blank and be filled in.”

– from Walter Kirn in Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever as quoted by Alan Jacobs

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As the title might imply, Alan Jacobs’ slim book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is going to appeal mostly to those individuals who already love reading. Those who are not inclined to read for pleasure will probably gloss over this title.

He puts much of the book’s emphasis on a concept he calls “Whim”. Reading at Whim isn’t simply reading randomly and chaotically (that would be whim with a lower case ‘w’). True, according to Jacobs, Whim involves a little randomness and lack of plan; however, its a randomness based on knowing yourself as a reader. Jacobs tends to lightly make fun of all of those lists of books that everyone should read. Whim tends to not just include reading those works that are considered “literary” but any work that can bring true pleasure to the reader. At the same time, Jacobs encourages readers, at Whim, to begin exploring works that might go deeper than sheer entertainment. Reading for pleasure seems to be somewhere in between reading out of necessity (for education or for information) and reading for entertainment – although many times all of them can occur at the same time. I like the way he tied this lack of plan to those of us who were lucky enough to have parents and teachers who read to us:

Plan once appealed to me, but I have grown to be a natural worshiper of Serendepity and Whim; I can try to serve other gods, but my heart is never in it. I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a find one according to schedule and plan. And why not? After all, once upon a time we chose none of our reading: it all came to us unbidden, unanticipated, unknown, and from the hand of someone who loved us.

If you are an avid reader, this book will enjoyably reinforce what you already know.

 

 

 

The Fellowship

After reading The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings – J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip and Carol Zaleski, I can’t help but imagine a little corner of heaven with an Oxford pub where a bunch of old British guys are still drinking beer, talking about literature, theology and philosophy, laughing and arguing and, at least from my perspective, having a good time.

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The authors in the title all belonged to a literary circle known as the Inklings and met together once a week for the better part of several decades. In the 21st century, Tolkien is probably the most well-known due to Peter Jackson’s film version of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. 

Coming out of World War I, they all dealt with the disillusionment so much of the world felt, though they dealt with it differently than some of my favorite American authors. They are primarily known for writing fantasy and, in their writing, they never completely lost hope:

 

Yet underlying his pessimism about humanity was an indomitable hope, born, as surely as his pessimism, from his Catholic faith. Belief in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, logos over chaos, bestowed upon all the oppositions in his life – scholarship and art, male friendship and marriage, high spirits and despair – a final and satisfying unity, a deep and abiding joy. When Tolkien said of himself that “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size),” he spoke the truth, not only about his material likes (trees, farms, tobacco, mushrooms, plain English food) and dislikes (cars, French cooking, early rising) but also about the disposition of his soul. He, like a hobbit, was at home in his shire; he like a hobbit, trusted the cosmos – but not necessarily the powers that held sway on earth.

While I still love the way so many American authors poured all of their disillusionment into their writing, I personally have difficulty “staying there”. I enjoy Tolkien and Lewis (I haven’t read Barfield or Williams) for the fact that they are “guilty of the heresy of the happy ending” as the Zaleskis put it.

This book was a complete joy to read for someone who has read Tolkien and Lewis since they were twelve; however, if one is not all that inclined to read about literary analysis, theology or philosophy, one might struggle through parts of the book but there’s still plenty of fascinating history and biography.

David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers

If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio. -Wilbur Wright as quoted by David McCullough

I’m dedicating this post in memory of my Dad who loved everything about airplanes.  When I was about 5, he took me to the tiny airport in Urbana, Ohio to see a small plane owned by a pilot friend of his.  He said we were just going to see inside it.  Of course, his friend started it up and we took spin over the Dayton, Ohio/Miami Valley area.  He made a habit of taking all of our out-of-town guests to the Wright-Patterson Airforce Museum.

As a result of my Dad’s interest and growing up in the Dayton, Ohio area, I’ve always wanted to know more about Wilbur and Orville Wright so I was thrilled when I saw that premier historian David McCullough’s next book topic would be about these brothers that took the world to the skies.

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The Wright Brothers does not disappoint.  I admit that I had some concern going into it that the science and mechanics of flight would take over the history, personalities and events of Wilbur and Orville’s lives; however, McCullough includes just enough to give any reader the impression of how much genius went into the inventors’ daily lives and the process by which their dream of mechanically controlled flight came to fruition.

I had never realized how they actually became world celebrities during the first decade of the twentieth century.  Wilbur drew crowds by the thousands to watch him take twenty minute flights over Paris, France – the country that seemed to embrace their invention first instead of their United States home.  The climax of the book; however, comes when Wilbur flies over New York Harbor and around the Statue of Liberty during a Henry Hudson celebration. McCullough’s description was the next best thing to being there – the stuff movies are made of (there’s an idea!). McCullough portrayed another touching scene when the brothers’ eighty year-old father, Bishop Milton Wright, finally went up in a plane flown by Orville.  His only words apparently were “Higher, Orville, higher”!

McCullough presents the brothers as being known as much for their strength of character as for their invention.  And their younger sister, Katherine, travelled with them and became almost as well-known.  Neither brother ever married and seemed to never have even the remotest desire to be in a relationship.  Their friendships consisted of a handful of people who worked at their bicycle shop in Dayton, family and a few other flight enthusiasts of the time.  Most of the presidents and dignitaries with whom they came in contact praised them for their impeccable character and humility.

I’m grateful to McCullough for finally putting background and personality to these two people who have fascinated me for most of my life.

In the Heart of the Sea

…as the survivors of the Essex came to know, once the end has been reached and all hope, passion, and force of will have been expended, the bones may be all that are left.

It’s taken me at least as long to read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea as it took the crew of the whaleship Essex to survive being shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean – which is approximately three months – and not everyone survived which is one of the more gruesome aspects of the book.

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Philbrick writes a very readable non-fiction story and gives fascinating background into the whaling industry and the island of Nantucket that sparked the industry boom during the early years of the United States.  His details regarding the influence of the Quakers in this area shed more light on those “Quakers with a vengence” that owned the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  This connection to Melville’s novel prompted me to read Philbrick’s account along with the trailer to the upcoming film based on the book.

Based on published accounts by the surviving members of Essex along with letters and other documentation, Philbrick narrates the whaleship’s destruction by a sperm whale that to all involved appeared to aggressively attack the ship – something shocking to the crew members and other whalers of the time.  The struggle to survive pushed all of the crew’s morals and ideals to the limit and in some cases passed the limit.

According to Philbrick, this incident inspired Herman Melville, who spent time employed by whaleships, himself, to write Moby-Dick, his Great American Novel.  In the Heart of the Sea contains fewer details about Melville than I was expecting; however, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in survival stories.