Sunday, July 24, 2011

The New Arrivals

So, while we were on Whidbey Island (on Tues. the 19th), I got to stop by Kingfisher Books in Coupeville and renew acquaintance with their delightful bookstore cat Miss Broadway Billie, a pastel grey-orange longhair with long, soft fur and a placid, winning disposition (i.e., she purrs vigorously and licks your hand and her shoulder alternately when stroked).* I also took advantage of the brief visit to see if they still had a book I'd looked at and decided against when there two years ago: they did, so I picked it up this time.

That was a mistake, as it turns out. I'm glad to have supported an independent bookstore and all, but the book, despite its interesting premise, was seriously lacking. Called SEVERANCE PACKAGE (by Duane Swierczynski, 2008), it sounded more interesting than it is. Basically a company's staff is assembled for a meeting at which the boss announces there's good news and bad news. The company is being shut down, effective immediately, and they're all out of a job. That's the good news. The bad news is that they're secretly a front for an intelligence agency and they're all being terminated the lethal way: either drink the poisoned champaign or get shot dead; sarin bombs trap the exits for those inclined to make a run for it. What follows is a free for all in which various surviving employees hunt each other down one by one within the sealed-off building. That sounded like it had the potential to be THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (the old Robert Redford movie) mixed with BATTLE ROYALE (by Koushun Takami, 1999, tr. 2003**), but instead it turned out to be filled with long, lingering descriptions of slow, painful deaths, with multiple characters surviving horrific injuries for improbable durations. It's rare that I definitely abandon a book unfinished (as opposed to putting it down and just never getting back to it, which happens quite frequently), but this one is an exception: back on the shelf it goes, for good.

Later that day, we returned home to find not one but two new books had arrived in the mail in our absence: the first a new biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, the other translations from the Old English.

The first of these, simply titled J. R. R. Tolkien, by Mark Horne [2011], is a new (young adult?) bio in the 'Christian Encounters' series from Th. Nelson -- a series that includes figures you might expect (Jn Bunyan), those who are rather unexpected but who you can easily make a case for being included (Jane Austen, daughter of a minister and sister to two more) or Isaac Newton (who spent a lot of his time trying to rediscover mystical Old Testament measurements), to those whose presence makes me scratch my head and wonder what they were thinking (Winston Churchill? really?). The Tolkien book comes out the same month as the one on one of my personal heroes, George Washington Carver, the man who invented peanut butter to solve a problem in sustainable agriculture practices.***

I'm currently about two-thirds of the way through the Horne book, so I'll hold off on any detailed critique, other than to observe that he does more fictionalizing than I'd like, seems to consider The Silmarillion of little importance to Tolkien's life or career, and has
done relatively little research. Rather than a bibliography, he recommends five books as particularly "important, helpful, and enjoyable": Carpenter's biography (which he paraphrases throughout) and LETTERS OF JRRT (ibid), Garth's GREAT WAR (his source for his account of the TCBS and Tolkien's War service), Leslie Ellen Jones's Greenwood biography (which he often cites for facts which Jones herself derives directly from Carpenter), and Michael White (seemingly unaware of how controversial White's book was). You'd have thought a biography published in 2011 would have taken into account the masses of biographical information published five years earlier in Scull & Hammond's massive J. R. R. TOLKIEN COMPANION & GUIDE: CHRONOLOGY. But you'd be wrong; Horne doesn't even seem to be aware of its existence.

There also something strange going on with his citations: he often credits information readily available in Carpenter or LETTERS to some abstruse source -- as when he claims he found a quote from a JRRT letter not from Carpenter (who includes that exact passage to open a chapter which Horne synopsizes in his v. next paragraph) but in a book called THE MANY FACES OF VIRTUE by one Donald De Marco (Ch.2, Nt9). Similarly, he claims that the information about Tolkien requesting the names 'Beren' and 'Luthien' be carved on his tombstone came from Donald Clark Measels' MUSIC MINISTRY: A GUIDEBOOK, rather than Carpenter (whom he quotes in the following paragraph) (Ch 4, Nt28). I don't have Measels and De Marco's books to see if they in fact contain these quotes, but I find it incredulous to think Horne was forced to learn that information from such out-of-the-way sources when it's easily found in standard works he's paraphrasing immediately before and after.

As one additional oddity, Horne has an odd reluctance to name people. He thus refers on four separate occasions to "Edith's cousin" but never once tells us her name (Jenny Grove). And did Christopher Wiseman really help Tolkien co-create his invented languages, as Horne claims (p. 23)? I'd like to see a source for that.

Finally, the third book to arrive is the last of those I ordered at Kalamazoo back in May, being Craig Williamson's BEOWULF AND OTHER OLD ENGLISH POEMS, w. a Foreword by Tom Shippey (which frankly is what attracted me to the book and, after a quick skim, convinced me to buy it). Having several BEOWULF translations (including Tolkien's) but only a smattering of other OE poetry in translation -- e.g. Pope's SEVEN OLD ENGLISH POEMS and Kennedy's AN ANTHOLOGY OF OLD ENGLISH POETRY--I'm pleased to have a more extensive collection here. Williamson's volume includes "The Battle of Maldon", "Deor", "The Wanderer", "The Seafarer", The Wife's Lament, some Exeter Book riddles, Caedmon's Hymn, two Beastiary poems (including the one JRRT turned into "Fastitocalon"), and a smattering of other pieces, ending on the exceptionally high note of "The Dream of the Rood" (a work more read about than read, unfortunately; it was worth learning a little Old English just to have been able to read this in the original). More later when I get a chance to actually read Shippey's Foreword and Williamson's translations; I have high hopes for this one.

current reading: J. R. R. Tolkien (Xian Encounters series) by Mark Horne [2011]
*all characteristics she shares with another store cat I got to revisit yesterday (Saturday), Miss Millie, the cat-in-chief at Wild Birds Unlimited in Burien, who looks enough like Billie to be her sister.

**itself the subject of the most pug-ugly manga adaptation I've ever seen.

***here's the full list given in the back of the Tolkien book of their "Close Encounters of the Christian Kind" (their header, not mine): Jane Austen, Anne Bradstreet, Wm F. Buckley, Jn Bunyan, Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, St. Francis, St. Patrick, D. L. Moody, Sergeant York, Galileo, Geo. Washington Carver, & JRRT.

No comments: