Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien (1977)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating:  1 Pierogi for (lack of) readibility, 5 pierogies because Tolkien was clearly much smarter than me.

Review: It was SLOW and PAINFUL, but I finally finished The Silmarillion. I like Tolkien well enough. I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, and saw the LOTR movies, but that's about it. My interest in the Silmarillion isn't attributable so much to my interest in Tolkien, as it is to a class I took in college. The class was an Anthropology/Linguistics course, and focused on artificial languages. The professor was a little koo-koo-bananas, but he really knew his stuff, and you could tell he came into class every day super excited to share what he knew. In the class, we talked about the different languages Tolkien invented, as well as Klingon, Esperanto, and a few other topics I don't entirely recall. About 75% of the class was devoted to Quenya and Sindarin-- Tolkien's 2 "big" languages. The Simarillion, as the Middle Earth creation story, was a constant topic in the class. The book was recommended reading, but I didn't get around to it at the time. Since then, I've wanted to get back to it.

The Silmarillion reads a lot like the Bible-- the language is awkward, the story is told from a very detached third party, and each of the characters and places have several different names. If you're reading it on your own, it's very hard to keep everything straight. There is a comprehensive glossary and other resources in the back of the book, but I found flipping back and forth to be tiresome, so I didn't bother. I would have gotten a lot more out of the book if I had actually read it back when I was taking that class in college. If you're able to find like-minded people interested in doing a "Silmarillion study" and working through it together, you could likewise get a lot more out of the book. From where I stand, I only really comprehended the last two parts of the book. One of them was an Atlantis-type story, and the other one was the setup for Lord of the Rings and I probably just recalled it because I remembered seeing it at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Other than those two parts, all I remember is that there were Valar, and Elves, and Men, and Orcs, and good and evil, and lots of characters with lots of children, and lots of battles, and jewels and rings.

All that being said, Tolkien proves his brilliance through this book. It's not going to be on Oprah's book club anytime soon because it's not a fun read in the traditional sense, but the obvious depth of Tolkien's imagination and efforts is impressive. Tolkien created 2 languages, multiple races that span generation after generation, and an entire new world and its history. Not every great work is an easy read. Reading The Silmarillion is something I'm glad to have done, although I wish I had done a better job of it and come out of it retaining more of the stories, and their characters.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer (2003)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: FYI - I am on a non-fiction kick.

While on vacation in Aspen I needed something to read and my husband recommended Under the Banner of Heaven since we were in the American west and close to "Mormon Country." Under the Banner of Heaven is written by American author Jon Krakauer who is better known for his writings on mountain climbing and outdoorsey stuff. It is essentially two stories (1) the history and development of Mormonism - the fastest growing religion in America; and (2) the modern double murder committed by brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, who subscribe to a version of fundamentalist Mormonism. As to be expected, the Mormon Church went completely ballistic when this book was published and have denounced it.

Both stories were captivating. I knew virtually nothing about the history and theology of Mormonism prior to reading this book and now I feel fairly well-versed (at least superficially) regarding the place of Mormonism in American history and culture. I like being knowledgeable about the history of my country and understanding this country's only homegrown major religion is vital. Because Mormonism is so new and young, its founding and evolution are very accessible. Prior to reading this book, I thought Mormonism was a ridiculous religion seeped in fraud and stupidity. Frankly, I still feel that way although I have more ammo after reading this book. The reality is all religions have elements of ridiculousness and ask its followers to believe some crazy things. That said, the established world religions at least have an ancient history and mystery that instill reverence even in the most cynical among us. Mormonism just doesn't. Being able to pull up Joseph Smith's arrest warrant for fraud on google just makes it all the more difficult to take seriously. My two favorite things about Mormonism I learned from this book are (1) Emma Smith, Joseph Smith's wife, thought her husband's testimony about polygamy was complete horseshit, refused to recognize his plural wives and after he died joined a Mormon offshoot with her son which denounced polygamy; and (2) another Mormon offshoot came to Pittsburgh. Not sure what happened to them but you don't see too many Mormons around here.
The story of the Lafferty double murder is a sensational aspect of the book meant to draw in readers. It probably isn't fair to mainstream Mormonism to wrap a book on its history in a double murder committed by crazy fundamentalists but it worked as far as making the book even more interesting and captivating. It is just a hell of a crime drama story. I also think the story of the Lafferty murder (although surely offensive to mainstream Mormons) served a purpose. It shows how and why Mormonism is so popular and fast growing. It also demonstrates how Mormonism's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.
Essentially, Mormonism cuts out the middleman. It tells all Mormon MEN (not the women, eff them) that they can speak directly to God and receive testimony. It is obvious why this would be an attractive religion to many men (hence Mormonism being the fastest growing religion in America). It is also pretty clear why this would be attractive to many freaks in particular.  For example, a man who may want to bang his 12 year old step-daughter would probably find it compelling to subscribe to a religion where God hypothetically can tell him to do so. Additionally, men who might otherwise not be very successful in life may find a religion that gives them the ability to talk to God could help with self-esteem issues. The appeal to your garden variety egomaniac is clear. For most Mormon men born into the religion, it is probably just a nice bonus. The problem is, since anyone can receive testimony (as long as they are a man) the Church cannot control what "testimony" is "recieved" and can't control crazy offshoots from sprouting up all over the place. And that is exaclty what has happened and why you have polygamous groups in Colorado and Arizona and small little individual fundamentalist crazies like the people who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart and the Lafferty brothers and Bill Paxton's obnoxious character on Big Love.
Anyway, the book is fascinating and I would recommend it highly.

Although, I doubt anyone would read this book and have their opinion of Mormonism inflated, at the end of the day it didn't make me any more or less hostile to mainstream Mormonism. As long as they aren't hurting anyone who the hell am I to judge? (Fundamentalists who marry children and become welfare dependants to support their brood can kiss my butt, I will judge them very very much.) I am just as likely to vote for Mitt Romney now as I was before reading this book. Also, all the mainstream Mormons I have ever met (while a bit odd for my irreverant and smart-ass sensibilities) have been hard-working, productive, tax-paying citizens who take good care of their children and teach them positive values. As a practical matter, I can only wish all citizens of this country behaved like Mormons.
In the end, like so many things, my thoughts on this matter are summed up perfectly by South Park:
Gary (Mormon Classmate to Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman):

"Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life. and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don't care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that's stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you're so high and mighty you couldn't look past my religion and just be my friend. You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Helen Simonson (2010)

Reviewer: Beezuskiddo

Rating: 1 soggy pierogi

Review: I stuck it out and finally finished Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Phew, it's finally over.

Simonson's debut novel is a parade of caricatures in an English village. Major Ernest Pettigrew, a prim and proper retiree, spends his days pining over Pakistani shopkeeper Mrs. Jasmina Ali. When he's not drifting in a cloud of cartoon hearts, he's brooding over his father's heirloom pair of Churchill shotguns. The Major's father gave one to him and one to his brother. Each of them were supposed to leave their own gun to the other upon death, so that the pair of guns would be reunited. The Major's brother conveniently omitted that little tidbit from his will, and upon the brother's death, the Major must face his brother's widow about the matter. The Major is also troubled by his social-climbing yuppie son, whose selfishness blinds him to civility.

We had our book club discussion about this book last week. At least one club member adored it, and a couple others liked it. I did not like it, and only finished it out of some absurd sense of duty to finish things I've started. None of the characters were relatable, and the plot was not compelling. On the whole I found it boring. The characters were such ridiculous caricatures that it was at times insulting to read...I kept thinking "Really? You're really describing people this way?"

This book has sold well, and she has won a fair deal of praise, including recognition from Alexander McCall Smith (whose own novels face similar problems with character development). I don't see the reason for any of this praise. I'm just glad I crossed this one off my list, and can move on to the next book.