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beowulf_1So (or hwaet if you prefer), you may be asking how many versions of Beowulf does one person really need to read (or review)? My answer would be at least one more. As he has been doing since his father’s death, Christopher Tolkien has brought out another previously unpublished work by his father, J. R. R. Tolkien. This time it is a translation of the great Anglo Saxon poem that J. R. R. Tolkien completed in 1926 but never thought to publish.

Tolkien’s translation is, perhaps, not as easy to read as Seamus Heaney’s more poetic version that I reviewed here. For one thing, Tolkien chose to write a prose translation rather than a metered one. The translation is by no means dry though. A scholar of Anglo Saxon, Tolkien has a feel for and a delight in the rolling rhythms of the story, and even in prose he captures that rhythm. His language and sentence structures will seem familiar in some ways to readers of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There is a formal and almost archaic feel to some of the writing here that is mirrored in Tolkien’s own work, and he does not entirely abandon the alliterative approach that anchors Anglo Saxon poetry, viz. “great gobbets gorging down” as Grendel rends a Dane into dinner.

A welcome companion to the poem itself are excerpts from a series of lectures on Beowulf that J. R. R. Tolkien gave in the 1930s and that Christopher Tolkien has edited here as a commentary on the poem. In these lectures, the senior Tolkien discusses language, symbolism, and early poetry, helping to set his translation into time and place. Following the commentary are two short pieces that Tolkien wrote under the influence of the poem. “Sellic Spell” is a retelling of the possible mythical tale that would become Beowulf, and “The Lay of Beowulf” is Tolkien’s telling of the story in a rhymed ballad form.

Fans of Tolkien will definitely enjoy his translation of this classic poem, and readers interested in Anglo Saxon poetry will find Tolkien’s commentary of interest. While I prefer the poetic version of Beowulf created by Heaney, Tolkien’s translation is a worthy read and a fine addition to the Beowulf canon.

Check the WRL catalog for Beowulf

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naturalThis week’s posts are written by staff from the Circulation Services Division.  Today’s review is written by Alan.

The 15 years following the end of World War II are considered by many to be one of baseball’s golden eras. Attendance skyrocketed, great players returned from the war, the leagues were integrated, no other professional sport seriously competed for the affection of sports lovers, and television brought the game into millions of households. This same time brought forth the birth of a new development – the literary novel about baseball. Before, baseball writing consisted of newspaper reports and sports columns, inspirational sports novels for boys, and colorful and entertaining short stories about characters who inhabited baseball land.

The first, and to many still the best, literary novel is The Natural by Bernard Malamud, which appeared in 1952. It was the 38-year-old author’s first published novel. On one level it is the story of the ups and downs of the sensational rookie season of Roy Hobbs, a superb natural athlete, who enters the big leagues at the age of 35. On another level the book is a commentary on the American dream – or more specifically on the dark side of that dream. Roy Hobbs wants to live that dream, but he has failed to obtain it, through a combination of bad luck, bad choices, and an inability to understand how the game of life is played. He has a gargantuan appetite (literally and figuratively) for life, but he does not know how to live it. He is alone within himself, wary and distrustful of others, standoffish, and incapable of true affection – in short, not a people person, a team-mate, not a team player. There is a sort of redemption at the end of the novel when he realizes that he has learned nothing from his past life, and that he has to suffer again. The question left hanging and unanswered is whether he is, indeed, capable of learning from his past and putting his suffering to good use.

In 1984 The Natural was made into a movie starring Robert Redford. The movie emphasized the mythic aspects of baseball at the expense of character development and granted Roy Hobbs the bucolic and idyllic resolution and ending that he wished for in the book but that Malamud denied him on the printed page.

Two other literary novels about baseball worth mentioning appeared just a few years after The Natural. Both were written by Mark Harris – The Southpaw (1953) and Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), which was adapted first for television and then in 1973 for the movies. These books are concerned with the human aspects of the characters that inhabit the pages, not the profounder issues that concerned Malamud.

Check the WRL catalog for The Natural

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East of EdenI’m a big fan of John Steinbeck. He’s a great blend of philosophical content, strong storytelling, intriguing characters, and an awareness of the effect of the natural world on people. He’s a great and important novelist, with all that implies, but he’s also still entertaining to read. Until recently, my list of favorite Steinbeck would have been 1) Cannery Row; 2) Of Mice and Men; and 3) The Grapes of Wrath. Now I have a new favorite: East of Eden.

East of Eden re-tells the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, but moves the action to California. It starts in Connecticut just after the Civil War, where young Adam Trask goes through a difficult childhood with a domineering father and a violent brother. He eventually marries Cathy, a woman whom he wrongly idealizes. Something isn’t right in Cathy–a modern person would call her a psychopath.

Adam takes Cathy, against her desire, to northern California’s Salinas Valley. There she gives birth to twins, Cal and Aron, but then deserts the family and assumes a much different life, working in and ultimately running a brothel. His fantasy marriage obliterated, Adam flounders, but is ultimately saved by contacts with a neighboring family, the Hamiltons, and particularly with Lee, a Chinese-born man of high intelligence who hides behind a facade of the stereotypes people want to see in a Chinaman. The boys grow up, at first believing their mother dead, then each slowly discovering the family history in their own ways. Cal is the stand-in for Cain, and Aron is Steinbeck’s Abel.

That’s enough plot. Ultimately, one can overstate the allegorical nature of this story. It’s certainly there, but one could enjoy the book without knowing the bible story. Steinbeck adds additional elements to the tale, but is more sympathetic to Cal and his struggle to do good things than he is to Adam or Aron and their sometimes unconsidered idealism. The result is an epic moral tale, but a fun book too, with elements of romance, suspense, and humor.

I loved the characters in this novel, especially the neighboring patriarch and inventor Sam Hamilton and the slyly wise servant Lee, who becomes such an important part of the Trask family. Cal’s internal struggle is fascinating, and even Cathy, for all her evil, becomes something different to a modern reader, an intelligent woman trapped in a world made for men.

Another strong point here is Steinbeck’s love for the natural world of California. It shines through in his writing, even as he recognizes that the natural world can be cruel.

The library owns two film versions of this story as well, both entertaining, but neither quite as good as the book. The 1955 James Dean film is a classic, and still great fun to watch, but it condenses the story somewhat to make it fit into the length of a feature film. There’s also a 1981 miniseries, which does cover the entire book, if less vividly.

Check the WRL catalog for East of Eden

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armsI frequently confess in these pages my bypassing of the great works of Western literature, of which A Farewell to Arms is undoubtedly one.  In this case I think I have a good reason: my best friend in high school became a Hemingway fanatic, quoting from Carlos Baker’s collection of Hemingway letters, insisting that we couldn’t use straws to drink our Coke because that isn’t what a “Hemingway man” would do, pulling non sequiturs from the stories into our ordinary conversations.  I dutifully read The Sun Also Rises for English class and completely didn’t get it, but I also knew I’d have to come back to Hemingway eventually.  Then Stephen Colbert’s Book Club “did” A Farewell to Arms (satirically making the most of the same Hemingway cliches my friend was guilty of misunderstanding) and it reminded me of my long-standing obligation.

The book is set during the endless stalemate along the Isonzo River. Along with the unusual setting (few people paid attention to the Italian front), Hemingway took a further step into unexplored territory by giving his main characters a kind of ironic immunity to the war.  Frederick Henry, a semi-autobiographical figure, is an American in the Italian ambulance corps, a witness to but a kind of bystander to combat.  Catherine Barkley is a British volunteer nurse, physically protected from the worst of combat’s random destruction.  Neither is unaffected by the war, but they don’t have the emotional patriotism that binds and drives the Italians.

Combat catches up with Henry, though not in the heroic manner he might have hoped.  Catherine transfers to the hospital where he’s being treated and the two become tender and enthusiastic lovers. Then Catherine gets pregnant and the rehabilitated Henry is sent back to the front just as the Italians are routed in the Battle of Caporetto.  Henry decides to desert to Switzerland, which proves a healing refuge for the two. Then both Catherine and the baby die in childbirth, and Henry learns that his “farewell to arms” does not render him immune from heartbreak and loss.

Superficially, this is a quick read.  Hemingway’s famously terse language is on display, even in the most intimate moments between Henry and Catherine.  His use of the word “fine” covers everything from Henry’s quarters to the wine they drink to Catherine’s idea of herself as wife and lover.  Critics have written this off as Hemingway’s ideal of the taciturn alpha male and a docile female in his thrall, but it seems to me more an inability for either of them to articulate the depth of their love for each other because the war has taught them that their world is a tenuous place.  But a passage where Henry describes taking Catherine’s hair down is rich in imagery and desire that he couldn’t have expressed aloud.  I also doubt that a misogynist detached from his emotional life could have written it.  A fast reader would miss the import of those flashes.

As far as readers go, I didn’t (and still don’t) believe that most high school students have the intellectual and emotional capability to understand the issues that writers like Hemingway wrestled with, and my high school friend was a perfect example of that.  It is only in subsequent years as he’s experienced deep love and the loss of that love, death, disappointment, and the unexpected beauty of a world he did not know as a teen that I think A Farewell to Arms could have the emotional power I as an adult first-time reader experienced.  I hope he finds that same power in the books he’s reading now.

Check the WRL catalogue for A Farewell to Arms

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Spectator BirdWallace Stegner was one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. You can’t really go wrong with his books, which are all a little different, but always center on characters that are hard to forget. Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety seem to be his most often mentioned titles, and both deserve the attention, but there are more gems in Stegner’s canon.

Narrator Joe Allston is the “spectator bird” of Stegner’s title. He’s a retired literary agent, unhappy both with the circumstances of his retirement and the way in which he conducted his life. He feels as though he was always watching the parade of life, for instance serving as an agent to writers instead of doing the writing himself. His circumstances don’t help, as he has retired to rural area outside of San Francisco where he sees few people but his wife, whom he loves immensely but but whose familiarity he has come to find overpowering.

When he receives a note from a Danish acquaintance in the mail, Joe retrieves his journal and begins to read about the fateful trip that he and his wife took to Denmark back in the years shortly after World War II. His wife insists that he read the journal aloud, as she didn’t know he kept it. Although it’s about an awkward time in their relationship, he complies. He has put aside most of what happened on that trip for the sake of his marriage, but now it all comes burning fresh into memory.

I don’t want to give away too much of the tale, but there’s a mad scientist theme, Hamlet allusions, dilemmas of wartime loyalties in an occupied country, and plenty of surprises in the plot, something the reader might not see coming in a book that at first seems to be a subtle character piece about the cruelties of aging. Joe might be a curmudgeon, and he might be a spectator, but his life hasn’t been uninteresting, even if he chose not to follow every opportunity. This book is about the choices we make, even if we make them by not choosing.

I also recommend this book in the audio format, where it’s read by the talented actor Edward Herrmann (perhaps best known to modern audiences as the grandfather in The Gilmore Girls) whose intelligence comes through every sentence delivered by a pleasing baritone voice.

Check the WRL catalog for The Spectator Bird

Or try it as an audiobook on compact disc

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dickens-1Each winter I try to read something from the 19th century that I have not read before. These sprawling, character-laden stories seem to be just the thing for reading the winter blues away. I had intended to get started on something over the Christmas holidays, but circumstances prevented me, so in January, on the recommendation of a colleague  ~ thanks, Penelope ~ I dove into Our Mutual Friend.

Dickens’ last finished novel is, in some ways, a recapitulation of many of his earlier themes; poverty, social climbing, unscrupulous lawyers, and loving families all make appearances. It is also typical Dickens in its many plot lines that run in parallel for so long that you cannot see where they are ever going to intersect or even resolve. And, to be honest, they do not always resolve cleanly; some plots just seem to drift away and are never heard from again. Nonetheless, the story is a fascinating one, and it is worth the time to read through it.

Like Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend concerns an inheritance, in this case, one gone oddly wrong. Young John Harmon, on his way back from abroad to take up the profitable “dust” business left to him by his estranged father, is thought to have been murdered by a local boatman, and a body found floating in the river confirms that suspicion. The will stipulates that John only inherits if he marries Bella Wilfer. Needless to say, the body in the river is not John, and the story, or one of the stories, revolves around Harmon’s efforts to prove the boatman innocent of his murder, to woo the girl that his father’s will would have forced him to marry, and to come to his rightful inheritance. I told you things got complicated.

There are a lot of other tales here too: the pursuit of Lizzy Hexam, whose father supposedly killed John Harmon, by a lawyer and a schoolmaster; the trials and tribulations of the Veneerings, who are seeking to rise up in society; and the ups and downs of the delightful Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. Written in serial form, abrupt shifts of scenery, plot, and cliffhangers abound. But Dickens manages to wrap everything up at the end, pulling together the various strands of the story in sometimes surprising ways. I was delighted to meet several new characters here who will stay with me–Jenny Wren, Noddy Boffin, Mr. Riah, and Reginald (R.W.) Wilfer among them. They can join company with any of Dickens’ better-known creations.  Our Mutual Friend is an excellent novel to start with if you are new to Dickens, and if you enjoyed others, you will find much to like here too.

Check the WRL catalog for Our Mutual Friend

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classicsVolume 22 of the Graphic Novel Classics series contains twenty-three stories and poems written by famous early black authors and poets, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Each tale is then adapted and illustrated by notable contemporary black writers and artists including Jeremy Love, who wrote and illustrated the stunning Bayou graphic novel (review here), Trevor Von Eeden, who wrote and illustrated the two-part graphic biography The Original Johnson about the early boxer Jack Johnson, and Mat Johnson, who wrote the graphic mystery Incognegro (review here). With such a talented group of contributors, I had high hopes as I turned the pages of the first story, and I was certainly not disappointed.

Without a doubt, the stories are still as powerful today as when the words were first put onto paper. Sometimes sober, sometimes funny, and always heart-searing, even without the artwork this volume would stand alone as a fantastic collection of literature. But it is the illustrations, framing and woven into the lines of words, that really make the selections shine. Each artist brings their own unique style of lines and coloring to their work, which helps separate the stories from each other in tone and pace. Authors who have multiple contributions have their work drawn by different artists, and the contrast of styles give each piece a different life.

I would be hard pressed to select an absolute favorite among the works, but The Two Americans starts off the book with a powerful, wrenching emotional blow. In contrast, The Negro is simple, beautiful, and cosmic in its elegance. Each of its mere six panels could be justifiably framed and put on a wall as standalone art, something you don’t often get from a graphic novel.

Recommended for readers of poetry, short stories, and/or with an interest in American culture presented by the unflinching voices of those who experience it’s ugliest side.

Search our catalog for African-American Classics.

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