Wednesday, November 30, 2011

#90: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

New York: Bantam, 2005. 784 pages

OK, I am running out of gas on this series. This books swings away from the stories of Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys who are not heard from, while Cersei Lannister and Brienne of Tarth get a little more than 40% of the chapters. This has its benefits and drawbacks:

The Good!
Brienne is a fantastic character. She encapsulates the plight of females in Martin's world and in some small way our own. What is valued is beauty and youth in women; there is nothing else. How female characters react is limited: they can live out the stories of valiant knights and virtuous ladies, scheme from behind the throne, or strap on a sword and kick some ass. Sansa takes the first route (less so in this book), Cersei the second and Brienne the third. Brienne cannot take the other two because of her physical self. She appears more manly, so she acts manly because of the men in her life. At the beginning to spite them, and then to earn their respect. Of course, neither of these works. I find her, along with Tyrion, as the most compelling characters in this series. They are both MUCH more than they appear because of circumstances beyond their control. Brienne is ten times the "strong female character" than the Arwen that was created for the Lord of the Rings films.

Arya Stark makes great strides in this text. Methinks she will be a complete and absolute Bad Ass by the end of the series. 

The Bad!
Alas, too much Cersei. As much as I love Brienne's character, the "power behind the throne" motif is old and tired. Throw in a pinch of wicked stepmother and you have Cersei. Samwell's character does not develop very much in this text, which is shitty. The cloud hanging over this text are the dual specters of Winter and The Others, and they are not developed very much. This pissed me off.

The Ugly
I don't buy the shift in Jaime Lannister. In fact, the more I read these books, the only characters I do not want to see get a dagger up the strap are Arya, Brienne, Jon Snow and Tyrion. Is it poor to want a lot of characters to die in hideous ways? I can't get on board with Daenerys either. I just don't care. One thing is certain, and that is this thing better show some wrapping up in the next book. I don't mind the length, as this is the first of the series that has made me question whether or not it needs to be this long. That thought may creep into my little head if the next book does not tie up at least a few strands.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

#89: Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground by Jonathan Kay

New York: Harper, 2011 368 pages

Leave it to a Canadian to offer what may be the most intelligent critique of American Political Discourse in this Age of Competing Horseshit Noise:

"The war is not only shrill, but endless: Since most American conservatives would never actually accept the much smaller government they claim as their goal, their war demands will never be instead, populist conservatives send waves of culture warriors into an unending series of proxy battles...all without much changing of government or preventing it from performing the functions on which we have come to depend. This has pathologized political debate--turning every discussion about legitimate policy areas into a screaming match." (145-46)

I found this book to be mistitled; anyone looking for a in depth treatment of Conspiracy Movements in this country is going to be disappointed. If you want some top-notch political analysis of the effects of conspiracies on the current discourse, this is the book for you. One of the things that most of the Amazon reviewers tend to miss about this text is the emphasis on "pseudo history". I enjoyed Holy Blood, Holy Grail as much as the next guy, but it contained no evidence to support anything. Of course, in this culture, opinion masquerades as fact, and the lack of evidence is consigned to some nebulous conspiracy.

Kay puts this ideology into politics, and there are quite damaging repercussions for politics. If opinions are taken for fact (Bush=Nazi, Obama=Socialist), reason cannot exist. Glenn Beck is a past master at this sort of shit, simply because he does what I call the ol' "Chapter and Verse" trick. Whenever someone challenges Beck on the Fed, or Woodrow Wilson, he pulls out a somewhat obscure piece of legislation about it and challenges the person to explain it to him. When that person cannot, he pounces. It is the same trick used by the Fallwells and Swaggerts of the world; when someone says "The Bible says love your neighbor" they ask "what is the chapter and verse of that?" When that person cannot answer a very obscure question, the loudmouth becomes expert and their opinions carry the weight as facts for people who have limited knowledge.

Watch the Republican Debates or the President's pedantic soundbites. No one ever challenges these people on anything; when they (or anyone else in this fucking country) is questioned, it is a personal attack. We label and do not analyze because we are lazy and really enjoy a good story. Kay finds this a toxic brew for most anything, and I agree completely.

#88: The Games that Changed the Game: An Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays by Ron Jaworski, Greg Cosell and David Plaut

New York: Ballantine Books, 2011. 313 pages

Do you like the football? Large men running around smacking the crap out of each other? Is football just about who can get more 350 pound men away from the nearest buffet table long enough to strap on pads to play a game? Ron Jaworski plumbs seven games for coaching styles and developments that cast a long shadow over the NFL. The book is very rewarding, and proves that Jaworski is perhaps the best color commentator on TV today; he has a unique ability to explain what you are seeing on the field.

Jaworski looks at seven different games, breaks down the film, and explains what was the important development of the game for the NFL. I watched several of these games:

Game #5: The 44-0 beatdown of the Cowboys by Buddy Ryan and the 46 defense (11/17/1985)
Game #6: A painful loss by the Steelers to the Bills in the playoffs (1/9/93)
Game #7: The upset of the Rams by the Patriots in the Super Bowl (2/3/2002)

Jaworski puts games in their historical context. The Bears 46 defense (in which the defensive tackles cover the center and guards) decimated the Cowboys, and hastened the demise of the core 1970s and 1980s "pro set": two backs and 2 WR with a tight end. The Dolphins beat the Bears that year by using Nat Moore as a slot receiver to create matchup problems. Doug Plank, who wore #46 with the Bears, said "the 8 man front (of the 46) can't defend a spread offense." (189) The spread offenses of the 90s and today have their start as a response to the Bears and then the Eagles playing the 46, which funnels everything inside in an effort to knock the quarterback on his ass.

Four of the seven feature defenses (the '74 Steel Curtain, '85 Bears, Dick LeBeau's zone blitz and Belichick's hit Marshall Faulk plan) which all deal with pressure. The offenses (vertical stretch, Air Coryell and the West Coast Offense) all deal with the passing game. All of the strategies strive to create pressure on single players or sections of the field. Jaworski does an excellent job in making the difficult much easier to understand. One thing I do not understand (nor does Jaworski) is the NFL's reluctance to allow fans to see the "All 22" film angle that shows all the players on the field at the same time. "This is the only true way to see all the assignments" Jaworski writes in the introduction, and he is correct. It is much the same as viewing a baseball game from the center field camera with only the pitcher and catcher in view. This makes baseball on the radio MUCH better than on TV, as you can picture how the fielders are playing the batter.

In any event, if you like the football, read this book. You'll learn quite a bit. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

#87: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

Whooooooooa Boy. So much happens in this text that it is sort of unfair to do a "review" of it. I don't want to ruin anything for people who have not read the book, but I want to go on and on about how good it was. How the hell do I do that?

So, there were a lot of killings. I mean, A LOT. Heads chopped off and crushed, throats slit, arms cut off at the elbow, eagles taking out eyes. So many in fact that there was some yahoo running around with bone armor. That's right, bone armor. Bad Ass! Martin is called the "American Tolkien". What is fascinating about these books is that there are several small homages to Tolkien in these pages, but there is a lot more of several things, violence and destruction being two of them. It fits, however.

That is the thing that gets me about these books. No matter how I might squirm at the destruction of someone by The Mountain that Rides, the severe disfigurement of The Hound, the deflowering of maidens of any name, it all fits in the broader scope of the tale. It is not gratuitous, which is something that many authors need to learn. Martin's world is brutal. This is in some way why this series is so good. Many readers have some intuitive understanding that the Middle Ages would not have been "romantic" for many of us and our modern sensibilities. Violence was not done from long range, but up close and personal. People died from infections that are now treatable. People stank, were dirty, poor, could not read. People worked hard for most of their lives, the exception being the rich men and women at the top.

Martin does not romanticize this at all, and it makes his characters believable. The Hound is the antithesis of King Arthur's knights, because he sees the hypocrisy of the system. Knights blather about honor and do their best to fuck over anyone who actually has it. It reminds me of the treatment of the samurai by most people who have no conception about the samurai. Would a samurai stab someone in the back? Does a bear shit in the woods? War is not a beauty contest about honor. As Sherman said in the U.S. Civil War: "War means fighting, and fighting means killing." Honor is for those who have a choice about survival or 12 year olds with black belts who will never use their karate moves in anger.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

#86: Everybody Loves our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm

Crown, New York: 2011. 567 pages

At first I thought this was by Mark Arm, lead signer of Green River and Mudhoney. Either way, this was an excellent piece of oral history; it is up there with Legs McNeil's book on punk. The book focuses on more of the little known yet important bands to the grunge movement: The U-Men, Green River, The Melvins, Skinyard, Malfunkshun, 7 Year Bitch, The Fastbacks. In a word, excellent. I am planning on using this in the future in my rock history class.

The main source of tension in this book is, of course, Courtney Love. I actually am kind of afraid that she will Google "Courtney Love", see my blog complaining about her, and then attack me. I mean, she is batshit insane. Her comments for this book sound about as coherent as a 5 year old who broke into the parents liquor cabinet and drank that Peach Schnapps that has been sitting in the back since that party in 1994. Most people in the book have nice comments for her, with the most common being "gold digger". There is a of hate here for her. Frankly, it is absolutely deserved. Second to her is Candlebox, which is described "not as the nail in the coffin of grunge, but the actual fucking coffin". (344)

If anything, one of the few voices of reason in this text is fucking Bret Michaels. He says this "My career didn't end with grunge. My career with the media ended with grunge." (303). That is the real thing to take away from this text, that after Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Candlebox, most folks in the corporate rock world did not care about anyone else. Eddie Vedder and Mark Arm both describe a sort of "scorched earth" Seattle, where ex-members of pioneering bands wander around in confusion after the trend muffins have left town. A land in which the punk roots of grunge were overlooked in the race to sign "the next Nirvana" and where shitty derivative bands got fat record deals. Exhibit A: Stone Temple Pilots, who weren't even from Seattle. Far be it from me to wish for a return to the spandex and Aqua Net days of the 1980s, but this book, as the Michaels quote points out, is about the bloodsucking creeps that are most record executives.

Cobain is quoted as labeling Mark Arm and Jeff Ament as "careerists", honing in on the one thing that I could never stand about Kurt Cobain. As Arm put it, "For me, playing music is the difference between me having a career and working in a restaurant for my entire life. If that makes me a careerist, fine." I agree with that assessment; Cobain never wanted to be popular and was never happy when he was. He is the archetype of the tortured artist. Without "Teen Spirit", Cobain is the 90s version of Alex Chilton. With Teen Spirit, he becomes a self-righteous prick. That's not to say I don't like his music. Perhaps in this way he was the Bob Dylan of his generation, someone you could absolutely dislike and mock as a person who continued to record music that ranged from awful to transcendent regardless.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

#85: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

New York, Bantam Books 2011 Mass Market Paperback. 1009 pages

Good Lord, this book was long! It is one of those small paperbacks that weigh about 2 pounds. This installment of the series focuses on three characters:

1. Tyrion Lannister: the dwarf with the taste for women, food and saving his own skin.
2. Arya Stark: youngest daughter of Edd Stark, and a regular "tomboy" in the Medieval mode. You know, swords and roughhousing and general thievery.
3. Jon Snow: member of the Night Watch and bastard son of Edd Stark.

This book is filled with acts of rapine, food throwing, sex, sex involving food, magic (the darkest magic), burnt down castles and farms, ghosts, fuckers rising from the dead. It's got it all, and I could not stop reading. Martin seems to have two sources of stories and culture. One is 15th century England, one is 13th century Mongolia. As it is, I want more magic. This is not Gandalf's shining of a light to make evil run away or fireworks (cool as that is). It is not something that renders its users invincible or superhuman (with one possible exception). I like that. In this world, if you screw with the Old Gods, magic or anything supernatural, debts have to be paid. It is not something to simply cure your problems; the law of unintended consequences overhangs the use of magic in this text.

The action is fast and furious; the more I read this series, the more I notice that the main characters are decidedly female and young. Many of the characters are children thrust into terrible situations. That is becoming a real draw for me, as each of the characters reacts differently. Not all the knights are noble, not all the ladies are lady like, not all the villains are evil just because they are evil. All the characters have their own motivations, which is the sign of a fully fleshed out an developed world. I have already started the third novel.

#84: All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera

Portfolio Books: New York, 2010. 400 pages

If you are interested in what is going on behind the occupy Wall St. movement, read this book. It will piss you off, make your hair stand on end, make you want to punch anyone attached to Goldman Sachs or Countrywide or any other one of these collective groups of greedy bastards. Not that the government is completely blameless, as regulators "looked the other way" while AIG hid $750 million in bad loans connected to PNC bank in 2002. The deal should not have been made, but it was anyway. (198)

Nocera and McLean are longtime Wall St. reporters, well respected and widely read. In this book they do not throw certain people or companies under the bus. They treat all people in an evenhanded fashion, giving a blow by blow account of the financial crisis of 2008. This may cause some people problems, but who cares? This is a book full of flat out good reporting. Reporting in this day and age grinds axes and inserts opinions for fact. Nocera and McLean do NOT do this, and the result is an excellent book.

What makes me want to punch these greedy bastards? It is passages like this: the American Financial Service Association stated in 2005 that "it would be unnecessarily stringent to assess whether or not borrowers could repay a loan." (214) So, banks and lenders thought that it would hurt business if they were actually required to perform "due diligence" on borrowers.Add in that more than 35% of all mortgages in 2004 were actually refinancing loans, and any person could see that the housing market was a true house of cards. (255) Just like Madoff and his ponzi scheme, the traders at AIG betting on short sellers to not ask for their money back all at once. (193)

The biggest question the reader is left after reading this book is "How much is enough?" It should never be a bad thing to make money (even though it seems as if it is sometimes). What is important is how the money is made. For me, Bernie Madoff is a common thief and nothing more. He was a simple con man who used what people wanted to get what he wanted. The fuckers who ran Goldman, AIG and the rest are just greedy elites who saw riches and wanted more. Is there any sort of coincidence that 5 former Goldman execs had joined the government between 2004 and 2006? No, there is not. That's what occupy Wall Street is about; the federal government enables Wall Street fraud. Is this new? Of course it isn't. The history of this country is littered with financial scandals that implicated members of the Federal Government: Credit Mobilier and the Tea Pot Dome to name only two. This was a crisis created by greed and hubris, two of the defining elements of this country the last time we acquired a shoddy empire: 1890-1915.

Glenn Beck and most of the Republican Right wing should read a little more about that era, instead of the knee jerk reaction that Woodrow Wilson was a socialist. I'm sure Big Bill Haywood is spinning in his grave every time he hears that. In today's America who wrote something is just as important as what they were saying, so it would not matter anyway.

Friday, November 11, 2011

#83: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

New York: Bantam (Mass market Paperback) 1997. 831 pages

I picked this up after having several people (John, Jersey among them) recommend it. I was not disappointed in the least, and have subsequently run out and bought the next three volumes of the series. There are multiple strings in this textual weave, some of which are weaker than others. Most are very compelling.

The nominal "main character" of the first text is Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell. The Stark family and their role in the intrigues of the Court of the King of Seven Kingdoms is the actual "main" character. Each chapter concerns the point of view of a different character, named at the beginning of the chapter. These are from different royal houses, each with different motives and backgrounds. Martin is influenced quite heavily by English history, specifically the Wars of the Roses, I am guessing. However, this book is NOT your average fantasy novel. People get killed in brutal ways, knights are not always what they seem, there is lying, intrigue and death everywhere. All this makes for an incredible story.

Ned Stark becomes "The King's Hand" and goes to court, against his own judgment. This begins the tale, and it careens out of anybodies control. As with most things political, it seems the intrigues beget more backstabbing until the violence and paranoia have lives of their own. Everyone gets caught up in it and is forced to take sides, regardless of their place. Martin's descriptions of the different areas of the kingdom are so vivid that you can feel how the environment shapes the people; in reading about the Starks, I was reminded of Sam Houston's remarks to a crowd in Galveston in April of 1861. He told them "The (Yankees) are not a fiery or impulsive people, as they live in colder climes...but when they decide to move in a certain direction, they move with the speed and determination of a mighty avalanche." That is Ned Stark and his family. Others (such as the Greyjoys and Tyrells) bedeck themselves with symbols of their homes, all described in incredible detail by Martin. I actually do not want to see the mini-series, as it will ruin the visualizations I had whilst reading this book.

The other main family is the Lannisters, who have the most compelling character in my humble opinion, the dwarf Tyrion. At first I hated his living guts, then I respected the end of the text, it was both. But I couldn't stop reading this book no matter who was being written about, and that is the take away. I put it down and instantly picked up volume two.

#82: Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon by Craig Nelson

New York: Viking, 2009. 404 pages.

I am a sucker for books about the Space Race. I picked this up when I finally broke down and bought "A Game of Thrones". I saw this book with the picture of Buzz Aldrin next to the U.S. flag during Apollo 11 flight, and I saw the discount price of $5.98. SOLD!

Oh well, would that it were worth it. Don't get me wrong, it is not a bad book. Craig Nelson wrote a very well received biography of Thomas Paine, and his writing is crisp and detailed. What this one lacked was really anything new that one could not get out of any of the other 75,000 books about the Apollo program. I made the mistake of actually thinking it was solely about Apollo 11. That was my mistake, as Nelson's text careens through the timeline of the mission, interspersing anecdotes with stories about Robert Goddard, JFK, Werner Von Braun and Sergei Korolev. The info on Von Braun, whose record of service with the Nazis has been classified and then expunged, is quite well done.

But again, there is little here that is new. Besides some excellent quotes from Alan Sheperd concerning JFK (actually using the term "Space Cadet" with its original connotation) and a couple of anecdotes about the years after the mission, a reader should check out "Moon Shot" by Deke Slayton and Shepard.

For those (like me) who constantly bitch that the US put men on the moon 42 years ago and that we are now a country whose own citizens think can do nothing right, Nelson does offer some hope. He does point out that it took roughly 60 years to get from the Wright Bros to reliable jet travel. Of course, space travel is much more difficult than jet travel. It also took roughly 120 years between Columbus "discovered" a continent with millions of people on it and the founding of Plymouth colony. We could do more; the question as always is are we willing to pay for it? In the 1950s, it was "Hot damn! Let's go!" Now it appears to be "Waaaaaaaa!  We can't afford stuff like space flight! We can't afford ANYTHING! Good lord! That SOB Johnson and that even bigger SOB Roosevelt ruined this country with their damn Socialism! I'll cut three departments from the Federal government: Commerce, the EPA and that one what deals with school lunches. Do you know lunch ladies have a UNION!?!?!?! What in the Blue Blazes of the Left Nut of St. Reagan is wrong with these people?"


Thursday, November 10, 2011

#81: 101 Places Not to See Before You Die by Catherine Price

New York: Harper Collins, 2010. 249 pages.

This little red book with a snake on the front curled about a suitcase is peppered with a bunch of places the author deems unworthy of a waste of your precious time and cash. Within is some inspired writing, interesting travel anecdotes and filler. Sort of like early Beatles albums; on their second you get inspired (She Loves You, You Can't Do That, Money), interesting (Roll over Beethoven) and filler (Please Mister Postman, You Really Got a Hold On Me). Not that those last songs aren't good, but I prefer The Marvellettes and Smokey Robinson, respectively.

Catherine Price is an intrepid travel author, and it runs in her family. Perhaps her best story here is #14, "An Overnight Chinese Train on the Day of Your First Period." Suffice it to say, there is not a drugstore in sight. Or maybe it is about the two places I have actually been (The Winchester Mystery House and Bay Area Rapid Transit -- BART). Both take your money, but only one smells like a wino that has not showered in three months. She was spot on with those places. I looked so forward to going to the Winchester House after I came to the San Jose area. I went, walking roughly 4 miles from my hotel in 95 degree heat to get there. Perhaps I could not read the map (check), perhaps San Jose is a giant sprawling monstrosity (check), perhaps it was because I was hallucinating by the end of the walk due to heat exhaustion. Even if I was hallucinating, my tour guide sucked and it was a huge let down. My ass is more haunted than that place. Why? My ass has produced unexplained noises, olfactory sensations best not repeated and has led to people leaving a room exclaiming "My God!". I rest my case.

The filler is just that. "Jupiter's Worst Moon" and "An AA Meeting When You're Drunk" seem like cop outs to push the number to over 100. On the whole, the wheat outnumbers the chaff here: a theme park in Argentina with a 59 foot plastic Jesus who rises after his crucifixion to the dulcet tones of the "Hallelujah" chorus, a former IKEA now filled with steamy piles of excrement, the "Testicle Festival".

#84 is the state of Nevada. I am not sure I agree with this, and Price states that she included it for the "Nevada Haters" and asks persons of Nevada to "please forgive me." (196.) Frankly, I can think of worse states than Nevada. Arizona for one, Maryland for two. Maryland does have Baltimore and does not take 776 hours to drive across like Arizona does. So, I guess I would include Arizona. Could we move Meteor Crater to New Mexico? Please?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

#80: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

New York: Knopf, 2006. 506 pages

The Book Thief was given to me by a colleague. It is written for a high school audience, and I blew through it in about two days. It left me wondering several things:

1. Where the hell was this book when I was in high school? I would have read this cover to cover 57 times.

2. Don't like Slaughterhouse Five? Then give this one a wide berth. If you like Vonnegut, you will like this. The Book Thief centers on a period in the life of a young German girl, sent to Munich to live with foster parents during World War Two. The narrator, in an incredibly interesting twist, is Death. The Grim Reaper. Who? THE GRIM REAPER.  Some of this book is just downright hysterical, mixed with horror, sadness, disbelief. In other words, what good fiction should be. Along the way, the girl meets several people. all of whom will stay with you one way or another.

3. It is really NICE to see a book for high school readers that does not involve vampires, wizards, Greek Mythology and other assorted Bull Shit. This book is about, of all things, a teenager who likes to read. This is about the power of books to allow the escape from real monsters, not about the power of escapism from the awful pit of daily drudgery. Whining teens? Toss 'em this, and then say that in Caesar's day, children like them were left to die on windswept crags.

4. Going more on that theme, when I was younger I was reading Zelazny, know, honest to God high quality fantasy and science fiction. This book is excellent, with a great story that is compellingly written. Much more so than all but the last Potter books, and more than any of those abysmal Percy Jackson tomes. What happened to good authors? I know they are out there, and I do not read a lot of fiction. Partly because I was turned off from it over the last 10 years. Only Vonnegut or Isabel Allende could have turned out  book like this. Have a kid that likes Percy Jackson? Throw Jack of Shadows or Changeling at them for a real book.

5. Anyway, The Book Thief is about the love of reading. How could you argue with that?

#79: High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed by Michael Kodas

New York: Hyperion, 2008. 357 pages

I have always had this strange fascination with Mt. Everest. I don't want to climb the damn thing and really do not want to go there. I'm perfectly happy to live vicariously through the people who attempt to get up to the high point. Michael Kodas is a writer for the Hartford Courant who went on an expedition to the mountain with a team funded by his newspaper and the state of Connecticut. The story that Kodas unfolds during his 2004 expedition is terrifying.

In 2004 seven people died on Everest; at least one of them was left on his own by a man he paid more than $10,000 to guide him to the top. One was a 63 year old Japanese woman who slipped 1000 feet below the summit and dangled off a rope, dying before her colleagues could save her. What emerges from this text is a place where no one is safe. It's a place that if you go alone (like David Sharpe in 2006) you will be left to die by other climbers. It is such a money maker that theft seems endemic in the high altitudes, with food, head lamps and even fucking crampons stolen from other climbers.

More importantly, it seems to be "a source of bragging rights" according to one climber (187). It is a source of bragging rights for many wealthy westerners; some guide companies ask for more than $30,000 for a trip that may or may not be successful. It is wonderful when a blind man climbs Everest, or when a double amputee does. This book does not come out and question whether or not they should have been there in the first place. In both those instances, they were experienced mountaineers who knew what they were in for. In that case, they absolutely should be there. The real question becomes should all of these fucking people be there? The answer to that is a resounding "NO"

Kodas's expedition fell apart in a blaze of recriminations, fistfights and anger. In Kodas' text, it is not the environment that is in the most danger (even though it is in a perilous position) but in some cases the humanity of those that undertake the climb. This is what makes the book so scary; imagine falling into a tent you cached food at at the 7200 meter level only to find it looted. Night is coming on, but your sleeping bag has also been stolen. What do you do? Some poor bastards have had to ask this true life and death question. Read this book to find out their answers. I could not recommend this book enough.

#78: The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien

Silver Jubilee Edition, Ballantine Books.

Well, this is it. I put these away for another year. In some ways, this is the most difficult book to plow through, as the temptation to just get to the parts where:

--Gollum bites Frodo's finger off
--And Saruman (nee Sharkey) gets stabbed by Wormtongue for being a general bastard.

In some ways, the reader is carrying a burden along with Frodo. Tolkien was in love with using the phrase "Behold!" and words such as "splendor" and "beauty" and "puissant". I remember the first time I came across that word, "puissant".  It means "powerful" or "having high influence". How has the writing changed since the 1920s and 1930s?

1. Eowyn, you sought the Lord Aragorn's love because he was high and puissant
2. Eowyn, you wanted to bang Aragorn because he is hot dirty or clean and can kill 400 orcs with his two day old stubble alone.

I can hear it now: "Did Faramir call Aragorn a pussy??????" Well, no he did not, you illiterate baboon! I love the fact that Frodo could not go through with destroying the ring in the end. The passage in the book reads almost matter of factly, as if you should have expected it all along. No one really destroys the ring in the end, as Gollum just pulls it off and falls over the edge. It destroys itself. I don't know what that means exactly, but evil and bad experiences can't really ever be excised. They remain, no matter what you do or how hard you try to forget them.

This is what makes the Battle for the Shire, left out of the film, so poignant and meaningful. The Hobbits, much like the generation of men such as Tolkien who went off to World War I, came home having seen things that no person should ever have to see. Death, destruction, waste, fear, hate; all of these take a toll. As they know these things, jack asses who play act like Bill Ferney hold no power over Pippin, Sam, Frodo and Merry. What is wonderful is how the Hobbits use a terrible experience as a positive. They clean up the Shire and become great leaders; they could have just as easily became bitter, angry and hate filled.

That being said, the experience changed them utterly. This is hinted at in the film when the four mates share an ale and look very uncomfortable in a place where a year earlier they would have been dancing. They have become part of a wider world and a wider narrative, which I think is what Tolkien was really getting at. We have a choice whether to leave home, to go where we are asked by friends, countries, governments. That journey changes our expectations as we become part of a wider tale, whether it is war, making friends from far off places, meeting people not of your race or class. Our minds can incorporate these things or not, and we can choose to return home. But those things stay with us and endanger the safety of the memories of our home. It may seem smaller, meaner, less important and wrapped up with meaningless things like fun, drinking, dancing and the rest. The important idea is to not be ashamed of where you are from if it is filled with frivolity, and not to begrudge those who know only happiness. Those of us who have seen sadness, loss and pain in great measure must protect those who have not from the very things we have experienced. That is the lesson I take from Frodo Nine Fingers and the Ring.