Sunday, April 29, 2018

"A Pioneer Woman's Memoir: Based on the Journal of Arabella Clemens Fulton" edited by Judith E. Greenberg and Helen Carey McKeever

Do you ever get the urge to sell your house and pack your most useful things into a covered wagon and head for the western horizon in search of a new and better life?

I don't exactly get that urge, but sometimes I get this yearning for it.  Like, I wish that I wished I was a pioneer, or something?  Because wow, they were astonishingly brave and intrepid and hardy.  Maybe this is why I'm fascinated with astronauts too.  I wish I knew if I was that brave and intrepid and hardy.  Sometimes I think I am, and sometimes I suspect I'm not.  

Anyway.  This book is based on the memoir of one pioneer named Arabella Clemens Fulton.  It's excerpts of her memoir, together with excerpts of her journals, and also some editorial explanations of things.  I thought it was going to be her actual memoir, and I'm a bit disappointed that instead, it's a sort of abridged version of what she wrote.  I think this book is meant for teens who are supposed to be learning about the west or something?  

Although this book wasn't what I was expecting, what's here is pretty fascinating, all about the deprivations and joys of moving west in a covered wagon and making a new home for yourself on the frontier.  Arabella strikes out with two married siblings and their spouses, heading to Oregon to escape the unpleasantness of the Civil War, but she never makes it that far.  Instead, she settles in Idaho, gets married, and starts a family.  I got some ideas from it for one of my future fairy tale retellings, so that's a plus.

Particularly Good Bits:

I was young then, just twenty, with all the romance and reality of life before me, eager for adventure, full of life and activity, and with no element of fear in my makeup (p. 22).

Out of the hideousness of the War was built this great Western domain (p. 27).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  G.  Nothing objectionable here.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

"Death Comes for the Archbishop" by Willa Cather

This book has been on my to-read list since 2002.  At least.  I'm not even kidding.  I know, because I got a little book for my college graduation from my advisor/mentor that was for keeping track of stuff like the books you want to read.  I promptly gathered up all my little scraps of paper where I'd previously kept titles of books I wanted to read and entered them very nicely into that book.  And Death Comes for the Archbishop is on the first page. 

I have no idea anymore where I first heard of this book -- possibly from that same professor.  She taught Lit and Creative Writing, so it would make sense if she recommended it to me since she knew I loved the Old West.  Anyway, I somehow ended up with the impression that this books was a lengthy allegory about Death on a Pale Horse hunting down some evil archbishop.  Or possibly about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  And so I've spent more than fifteen years wanting to read this book and thinking that's what it's about.

That is not what this book is about.

So, yeah, that was a surprise.

This book is actually about a GOOD archbishop.  And there's no personification of death, it's just that, at the end of the book, he dies.  This may sound a bit anticlimactic, and in a way, it did feel that way.  Do you ever do that?  Get ideas of what a book or movie is going to be like, and then discover they're way off base?  And then feel a little disappointed, because what you'd imagined they would be like was really cool, and maybe the real story is really cool too, but it's not what you were expecting, so you're just a teeny bit bummed that you're not going to get to read the story or watch the movie that you'd imagined this would be?

I hope you don't do that, because it's an annoying habit.  I know, because I have that habit, and it annoys me.  The same thing happened to me with Captain America: The First Avenger, which for some reason I decided was going to be a fish-out-of-water story about what happened when Cap woke up from being frozen in ice, and was mostly going to be about him adjusting to modern life.  I'm still waiting for that movie, because I really want to watch it, and it turns out that's not at all what The First Avenger is about.  I'm still disappointed in that movie because it's not what I thought it would be.  Which is ridiculous of me, but true.  So, yeah, I hope nobody else does that.

(Obligatory Bookstagram Photo by me)

Anyway.  Despite the fact that it was not about Death riding around on a Pale Horse hunting down some archbishop who needed to die, I did appreciate this book.  I read most of it on the ride down to Colonial Williamsburg and back home again on my birthday, so that was fun. 

It's based on a couple of real-life Roman Catholic priests taking over the diocese in New Mexico Territory after the United States wins that territory from Mexico in the 1800s.  One of them gets named Bishop and then Archbishop for that area, and the other one is his best friend and assistant.  The book just kind of rambles around, following them as they interact with Native Americans and Mexican-Americans and Spanish-Americans and Kit Carson.

Yeah, Kit Carson is in this.  Aging, but still awesome.  You probably don't know this, but Kit Carson has been a HUGE hero of mine since I was a little kid.  Like, six or seven.  He was an amazing dude.  So him popping up on this was a big bonus for me :-)

The book doesn't really have a plot, exactly.  It follows these guys and what they do, and takes little sidetracks to talk about local history, and it spends an incredible amount of words on describing the American Southwest.  So.  Many.  Descriptions.  Of.  Landscapes.  And don't get me wrong, they were gorgeous descriptions.  I made myself read as many of them as I could.  But I did skim a lot of them because... long descriptions bore me.  I don't care so much about what a place looks like as about what's happening there.  It's probably sad, but it's definitely true.

The biggest thing I took away from this book was how amazingly devoted the early missionaries to America were.  Staggeringly brave.  Not being Catholic myself, I haven't learned a lot about their mission work here, aside from knowing that there were a ton of missions all over the place in California and Arizona and Mexico, which I mostly know from TV shows like The Lone Ranger and Zorro because they're always getting help from the padres or helping the padres or whatever.  So that was pretty cool to learn about.

All in all, I can see why this book is famous and well-respected.  And I think I will read it again one day, now that I know what to expect from it for real.  But I also think I am just never going to be a Willa Cather fan.  I didn't really like My Antonia or O Pioneers! much at all -- they were too melancholy for my taste.  I liked Death Comes a lot better than either of those.  Enough to want to reread it at some point.  It had a stark beauty that impressed me.  But I think Cather and I just have different worldviews or something, and I never quite click with her books the way I want to, or the way other people do.  Such is life!

Particularly Good Bits:

The thick clay walls had been finished on the inside by the deft palms of Indian women, and had that irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by the human hand (p. 33).

Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky (p. 232).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for non-explicit discussions of non-celibate priests, torture, and violence.

This is my 17th book read and reviewed from my second Classics Club list, and this is also my 8th book read and reviewed for the Mount TBR Challenge 2018.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Judging the INSPYs Again

Yup, I've been selected to judge the INSPY book awards again this year.  Like last year, I'll be judging the Mystery/Thriller category, which you know I'll dig.  The finalists won't be announced until next week, but they've got a nice page full of bios for all the judges up right here now, so you can go see who's judging what category.  

I really enjoyed this process last year, especially because it introduced me to some authors I hadn't read before.  I became such a fan of some of them!  So I'm eager to find out what the finalists are so I can dig into some more awesome Christian mysteries and thrillers.  If you want to see the longlists, they're here.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"The Choir Immortal" by Katie Schuermann

Do you ever read the first book in a series and think it's pretty good, and then you read the second book and it blows your tiny mind?  That totally just happened to me.  I liked House of Living Stones, Schuermann's first novel about the people who attend Zion Lutheran Church in fictional Bradbury, Illinois.  It was cute and funny and a little zany.  But the second book?  My heart is not yet recovered from the upwelling of emotions caused by this book.

As Larry the Cucumber says, "I laughed; I cried.  It moved me, Bob." 

I did laugh.  Quite a bit, actually.  But I cried more.  Happy and sad tears both sprang to my eyes, sometimes both at the same time.  This book was simply excellent at portraying Christians facing good and bad times both, learning to cling to God's love and forgiveness in all circumstances.  This book has weddings, funerals, marriage proposals, family squabbles, new friendships forged, old friendships strengthened -- everything we walk through in life, in other words.

And also Jell-o salad, cream of mushroom soup, and hot coffee in the middle of the summer because yup, those are cornerstones of a Midwestern Lutheran life ;-) 

I'm really not telling you what this book is *about* very well, am I?  Well, there's a bachelor pastor who's trying to figure out how to ask his church's choir director to marry him.  There are families facing the death of people young and old.  There's a little boy trying to become a ninja.  There's a college student who's trying to come to terms with his parents' divorce after his dad chose a gay lifestyle over his family.  That college student, Blaine Maler, became one of my favorite characters over the course of this book.  He reminds me of someone I knew in college who also got judged a lot because he liked wearing black clothes, had a lot of tattoos and piercings, and did weird things with his hair.  I hung out with a lot of the weird people in college, being weird myself, and I really just wanted to jump in this story and befriend Blaine because he definitely needed more friends.  But then, don't we all?

Bottom line: if you like stories about small town congregations filled with very real, quirky, lovable, exasperating people, you're going to love this book.  But read House of Living Stones first so you know who's who and what's what, okay?

(My copy with my morning coffee.)

Particularly Good Bits:

She always had an easier time talking to yarn than to people (p. 117).

Transferring from Northwestern University to BC in the middle of his sophomore year had felt a bit like jumping off a speeding train and landing on a tractor (p. 125).

"I was trying to be helpful," she explained, her voice gaining in momentum and volume, the usual music that so often accompanies self-justification (p. 217).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for discussions of homosexuality, divorce, death, and other difficult topics.  No bad language or smutty scenes or violence.  It's clean, but not child-appropriate at all times.

This is my 7th book read and reviewed for the Mount TBR Challenge 2018.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"Enchanted" by Alethea Kontis

Wow.  This book was not at all what I expected -- but I mean that in a good way.  It's taken me days to sort through my feelings and thoughts of it, and I'm really just giving up on that and writing this review anyway because... the book is due at the library.  Such is life.

So, it all starts when Sunday Woodcutter falls in love with a frog, who of course was once a handsome prince because this is about fairy tales.  Only it turns out the handsome prince he used to be is someone Sunday's father hates, as do many of her family.  But she didn't know at the time who he used to be, she just knew him as her friend the frog.  

Also, Sunday has six sisters who are also named after days of the week.  And you know that old saying about Monday's child is full of this, and Tuesday's child is full of that?  Well, that saying defines the personality of each Woodcutter girl.  (I've always found that saying to be complete bunk because I was born on a Wednesday, but I've never been full of woe.  I've always been a pretty cheerful sort.  Stubborn, but cheerful.  But in this imaginary world, it all makes sense thanks to some fairy godmothers and stuff.)  Also, she has a brother and an adopted brother and a lost brother.  And a mother who is more powerful than you might expect.  And a father who is literally a woodcutter.

I'm really hopeless at reviewing this book.  Because it's just so different!  It doesn't retell a specific fairy tale.  It weaves oodles of them together!  Cinderella, The Frog Prince, Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, The Red Shoes... I could go on and on.  It's simply crammed with fairy tale references.  Kind of dizzying at times, actually.  I had to put this book down more than once and let my brain settle down a bit before I could go on.

I hear this is part of a series, but this book ended so beautifully that I'm not sure I want to read more of a series because this really just felt like a perfecly contained story and... I don't know if the next books will please me as much as this one did.

So anyway, yeah, I liked it.  That's really all you wanted to know anyway, right?

Oh, and I really loved Velius.  Just so you know.

(From my Instagram)

Particularly Good Bits:

"We are all made of stars," said Velius.  "Not just you, little one" (p. 168).

"The curse of an interesting life: there are either very good times or very bad times" (p. 205).

"My life has been a string of very long days lately" (p. 214).

She had that way of looking at him that made him feel like he'd built the world for her and given it to her as a gift just that morning (p. 237).

"Child, no one is ever ready for anything.  I would never doom you to that.  What sort of adventureless life would that be?" (p. 265).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13.  There's a lot of peril going on, violence of the fairy-tale sort, and some scary moments.  Also a ghost.  Lots of magic.  Some talk of vampire-like and cannibilistic behavior.  I don't recall there being any bad language, but there might have been some?  (That's the trouble with waiting for several days to write a review -- my ideas solidify, but details start to fade.)  There's also some mild innuendo, of the sort where people are wondering what happened between a man and a woman, but we the readers know nothing untoward occurred.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Poetic Justice

This week is a freebie from That Artsy Reader Girl for Top Ten Tuesday, so I decided to celebrate National Poetry Month with my list!  I hereby present to you my ten favorite poets:

1.  Robert Frost

2.  Kenneth Koch

3.  Langston Hughes

4.  Carl Sandburg

5.  Robert Browning

6.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

7.  William Shakespeare

8.  Billy Collins

9.  T. S. Eliot

10.  Shel Silverstein

(From my Instagram)

What did you do for TTT this week?  Are you celebrating Poetry Month in any way?  Do you like any of these poets?

Monday, April 16, 2018

"Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen (again)

(From my Instagram)
After this reread, I can say for certain that, yes, Northanger Abbey ties with Pride and Prejudice for my second-favorite Austen novel.  (Persuasion is my favorite, and has been for decades now.)

I love Catherine Morland.  I love Henry Tilney.  I love Elanor Tilney.  They're all absolutely adorable, and I want to hug all three of them.  At once, if possible.  An Austen group hug. 

I also love how much this book makes me laugh.  It's just delightful, that's all there is to it!  I first read it in 2012 -- it was the last of her major works that I read.  I loved it then, and I loved it now.  How could I not?  An entire novel about a heroine who can't possibly be the heroine of a novel?  It's brilliant.

As usual, Austen's writing is delightfully wry and witty and sarcastic.  Especially the dialog for Henry Tilney, whom I would probably have been scared of if I'd met him when I was 17 myself.  Dude is way too smart and way too teasing, and his humor is probably too dry for me to have quite gotten when I was that age.  Now, however, I do declare he is probably my favorite Austen hero!  Though if I reread Persuasion soonish, I may recant that and decide that nope, it's Captain Wentworth.  I really can't decide between the two of them most of the time, so whichever one I've encountered most recently is my favorite.

I actually based a few things in Cloaked, my Little Red Riding Hood retelling, on this book.  Like Catherine, Mary Rose is imaginative and fond of reading novels.  Like Catherine, she travels far from home at a young age and must learn to trust her instincts and intelligence.  Like Catherine, she meets and dances with a young man who also likes to read novels and tease her.  I didn't actually plan for those similarities to be there, they just kind of organically happened while I was writing it, and I liked it so well, I tossed some Austen references into the book while I was at it to cement things :-) 

Anyway!  So happy I got to re-read this.  It was perfectly charming, and I'm now in the mood for more Austen, so we'll see if I can slip another of her books into my reading time this spring.

Particularly Good Bits:

Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? (p. 29).

Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone.  No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her better for it (p. 67).

"If I could not be persuaded into doing what I thought wrong, I never will be tricked into it" (p. 95).

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid" (p. 102).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for not-spelled-out-entirely cursing and some taking the Lord's name in vain, both by one odious character.  ::glares in his direction::

This is my 16th book read and reviewed for my second go-round with the Classics Club.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Another LOTR Read-Along Index

For future reference, here are all the individual posts for this read-along.  If anyone wants to discuss it at some future date, I'm always willing to go back and discuss a book again!

Guest Post: "I am No Man, but I'm Still Important" by V. Kovaciny

The Fellowship of the Ring

Prologue: Concerning Hobbits, and other matters

Book One
1. A Long-expected Party
2. The Shadow of the Past
3. Three is Company
4. A Short Cut to Mushrooms
5. A Conspiracy Unmasked
6. The Old Forest
7. In the House of Tom Bombadil
8. Fog on the Barrow-downs
9. At the Sign of the Prancing Pony
10. Strider
11. A Knife in the Dark
12. Flight to the Ford

Book Two
1. Many Meetings
2. The Council of Elrond
3. The Ring Goes South
4. A Journey in the Dark
5. The Bridge of Khazad-dum
6. Lothlorien
7. The Mirror of Galadriel
8. Farewell to Lorien
9. The Great River
10. The Breaking of the Fellowship

The Two Towers

Book Three
1. The Departure of Boromir
2. The Riders of Rohan
3. The Uruk-hai
4. Treebeard
5. The White Rider
6. The King of the Golden Hall
7. Helm's Deep
8. The Road to Isengard
9. Flotsam and Jetsam
10. The Voice of Saruman
11. The Palantir

Book Four
1. The Taming of Smeagol
2. The Passage of the Marshes
3. The Black Gate is Closed
4. Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
5. The Window on the West
6. The Forbidden Pool
7. Journey to the Cross-roads
8. The Stairs of Cirith Ungol
9. Shelob's Lair
10. The Choices of Master Samwise

The Return of the King

Book Five
1. Minas Tirith
2. The Passing of the Grey Company
3. The Muster of Rohan
4. The Siege of Gondor
5. The Ride of the Rohirrim
6. The Battle of Pelennor Fields
7. The Pyre of Denethor
8. The Houses of Healing
9. The Last Debate
10. The Black Gate Opens

Book Six
1. The Tower of Cirith Ungol
2. The Land of Shadow
3. Mount Doom
4. The Field of Cormallen
5. The Steward and the King
6. Many Partings
7. Homeward Bound
8. The Scouring of the Shire
9. The Grey Havens 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Another LOTR Read-Along: The Grey Havens (ROTK 6, 9)

We did it.

To quote Frodo, I'm glad to have you with me, here at the end of all things. Well, not all things, but the end of these books. Congratulations! You've just read one of the finest works of modern literature, not to mention the most iconic piece of fantasy fiction basically ever.  

But enough about us. This is such a quiet, soft, melancholy chapter, isn't it? It reminds me of the little coda to Disney's The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, when the narrator tells Pooh, "All stories have an ending," and Pooh replies, "Oh, bother." I would cheerfully spend another hundred or so pages reading about life in Hobbiton, and Merry and Pippin's visits to Rohan and Gondor, and Sam's children growing up, and Faramir and Eowyn setting up their household and trying to keep Ioreth from visiting all the time to dispense gossip, and...

But all stories have an ending. And, as Sam's Gaffer says, "All's well as ends Better!" (p. 999). I'm not really sad about how everything ends, just the fact that it does end.

Okay, so, on to a few less-pensive thoughts about this chapter. Tolkien writes that "there were thousands of willing hands of all ages" in the Shire, ready to rebuild! Thousands! I honestly tend to think of there being maybe, I dunno, three hundred hobbits all told, but if there were thousands of hands, then there had to be at least a thousand hobbits! Wow.

I love Sam replacing beloved trees, using his magic dust from Galadriel to better the whole Shire, not just Bag End, or even just Hobbiton. And then he spends the winter being "as patient as he could, and tried to restrain himself from going round constantly to see if anything was happening" (p. 1000). I get that way too, wanting to encourage things to grow somehow :-)

And how happy I am that Sam and Rosie get married and move in with Frodo! What could be better? Well, okay, Frodo not being changed beyond return would be better, but... I love Sam, and he's happy, so I'm happy.

Or I would be, if the story wasn't ending.

But doesn't it have the best last line ever?

He drew a deep breath. "Well, I'm back," he said.

Brilliant. Wonderful. "I laughed! I cried! It moved me, Bob." (That's from some VeggieTales or other, I can't recall which. It's what my college friends and I always said about movies and books we greatly enjoyed.)

Also, notice that it's almost exactly what he said to Farmer Cotton when he returned in the last chapter. And that waaaaaay back when he stood outside Shelob's lair and debated whether or not to follow Frodo to the tower full of orcs, "[h]e felt that if once he went beyond the crown of the pass and took one step veritably down into the land of Mordor, that step would be irrevocable. He could never come back" (p. 878).

But yet, he does get to come back. And Frodo does not, or he doesn't get to stay back. Hmm.

Favorite Lines:

And no one was ill, and everyone was pleased, except those who had to mow the grass (p. 1000).

"I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them" (p. 1006).

Discussion Questions:

What did you think of The Lord of the Rings?

According to tradition handed down by his daughter Elanor, when Sam was old and Rosie had died, he left the Shire, found the Grey Havens again, and was allowed to sail to the Undying Lands because he, too, had been a Ring-Bearer. There he was reunited with Frodo, fulfilling his wish from back in Shelob's Lair that Frodo would not go where Sam couldn't follow. What do you think of that?

Housekeeping Note:  I posted the last like ten chapters of this all on one day because I decided it was silly to string it out when my major participants are catching up at their leisure anyway.  I do apologize for having flooded everyone's feeds with a gazillion LOTR posts, but... I had a free hour today, out of the blue, because my kids all finished their school more quickly than usual.  So I put that to good use.

Now you can feel free to comment on these posts as you get a chance to read the chapters, and I'll merrily come back and discuss them with you :-)  I promise!

Another LOTR Read-Along: The Scouring of the Shire (ROTK 6, 8)

Forget everything I've said about favorite chapters. This is it, for me. Does it get much better than our courageous friends putting their new skills and knowledge to use to rescue their families, friends, and homes? I'm so proud of them! The whole story has been about them trying to save the world to protect the Shire, but sort of from far away, you know? Now, they get to put all their new skills to work protecting it in a very immediate way.

The first time I read this, I was so shocked at the reappearance of Saruman. This isn't how it goes in the movies, which I saw first, and him popping up here in the Shire was absolutely horrifying. It felt like finding a tarantula in my cereal box or something. And that's what makes The Lord of the Rings rise above so many other "quest" stories, don't you think? The hero doesn't get home and everything returns to normal. The quest had consequences; the world is not the same, not even the farthest reaches of it. Just like when Gandalf chose to save Faramir instead of fighting the Witch King of Angmar, and thus Eowyn and Merry were grievously wounded -- Frodo and Sam left the Shire unguarded in order to save the world from destruction, and in their absence, less-worthy hobbits messed it all up.

Saruman makes an interesting point at the very end of the chapter: mercy can be cruel. He tells Frodo, "You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy" (p. 996). It makes me think of a line from Hamlet: "I must be cruel only to be kind" (III, 4). Being kind and merciful can be cruel, and saying mean and hurtful things can be kind. Hmm.

Favorite Lines:

"If I hear not allowed much oftener," said Sam, "I'm going to get angry" (p. 979).

They would have started earlier, only the delay so plainly annoyed the Shirriff-leader (p. 980).

"You won't rescue Lotho, or the Shire, just by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo" (p. 983).

Some of the village-folk had lit a large fire, just to enliven things, and also because it was one of the things forbidden by the Chief (p. 985).

"It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing" (p. 995).

Discussion Questions:

Do you think Tolkien might be making a statement about post-war England here? About what returning soldiers might have been surprised to find, or how the world at home had changed in their absence?

Frodo says, "No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire, and it is not to begin now" (p. 983). Do you find that a bit too good to be true?

Another LOTR Read-Along: Homeward Bound (ROTK 6, 7)

Poor Frodo and his afterpains on the anniversary of his Weathertop stabbing :-( I'm so glad they didn't last long. But they're such a great reminder that even after a war is over, the warriors who go home don't leave the pain and sorrows behind them. None of the heroes here seems to have PTSD exactly, but Frodo is certainly more troubled by his experiences than the others. I'm sure this section resonates with any returning soldier, and it reminds me especially of one of my favorite movies, The Best Years of Our Lives (1945).

When Frodo asks Gandalf, "Where shall I find rest?" (p. 967), Gandalf doesn't answer. I think he knows Frodo really won't find rest in the Shire, and I suspect Frodo at this point is beginning to accept that fact. And I find this so miserably unfair, that a person who gave so much of himself to save the whole world -- including the Shire -- is now unable to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Very true-to-life and all that, but still, grrrrrrrr.

And we end the chapter knowing we've got one last adventure ahead before the story ends. The hobbits have been trained to be stern and hardy warriors and good leaders, and that's going to be verrrrrry useful.

Favorite Lines:

...Gandalf with his white beard, and the light that seemed to gleam from him, as if his blue mantle was only a cloud over sunshine (p. 973).

Discussion Questions:

Frodo says that coming home to the Shire "feels like falling asleep again," while Merry says everything they've seen and done seems like a dream (p. 974). Do you think that's because of a difference in their experiences, their personalities, or both?

Another LOTR Read-Along: Many Partings (ROTK 6, 6)

The exchange between Gimli and Eomer makes me laugh aloud. Especially when Gimli says flatly, "Then I must go for my axe" (p. 953). They're so silly, arguing ultra-seriously about which elf is more beautiful -- I get such a kick out of them.

And I like the exchange between Eowyn and Aragorn, when she calls him her "liege-lord and healer" and he says, "It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss" (p. 955). Eowyn grows and changes a lot in these books, more than some of the more "main" characters, and I love that she's found peace and self-understanding. And that she's not bitter toward Aragorn or anything. Especially since I suspect she'll end up seeing a lot of him, since she's marrying Faramir and going to live in Ithilien, very near to Minas Tirith. I like to imagine Faramir and Eowyn sometimes hanging out in Minas Tirith having banquets and stuff with Aragorn and Arwen, maybe their kids playing together. And travelling to Edoras to visit Eomer (who eventually marries the daughter of Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth). I must admit I've spent a lot of time imagining up what happens later on to all these characters.

But the rest of this chapter makes me sad. I hate endings. I hate partings. Sniff.

Favorite Lines:

"...the tree grows best in the land of its sires" (p. 952).

"You should know that above all I hate the caging of live things, and I will not keep even such creatures as these caged beyond great need" (p. 958).

Discussion Questions:

What do you think of Treebeard letting Saruman and Wormtongue go?

Do you ever imagine what happened next for characters you love after a book (or movie) has ended?

Another LOTR Read-Along: The Steward and the King (ROTK 6, 5)

I love this chapter. Really, really love it. Even before I started appreciating Faramir more the last time I read this, I loved the way he wins Eowyn over. "Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her" (p. 943). That is one of the most beautiful love stories ever, to me. He held out love and understanding, and "pity that is the gift of a gentle heart" (p. 943), and those gifts from him healed her of her internal illness. This is how you write a believable, non-gooshy love story, IMHO.

Anyway, then Aragorn and everyone else return, and we get some comic relief out of Ioreth again. I rather wish she was around more, because her commentaries and asides are hilarious. And Aragorn and Arwen get married, which only gets kind of a passing mention -- much less time is spent on them than on Faramir and Eowyn. If you want to know more about them, check out the appendices (at the end of my copy, starting on page 1032, you get Aragorn's whole life-story and how he fell in love with Arwen and their life together later, etc.  I assume most editions have this?).

Favorite Lines:

"I am a shieldmaiden and my hand is ungentle" (p. 939).

The days that followed were golden, and Spring and Summer joined and made revel together in the fields of Gondor" (p. 942).

And he took her in his arms and kissed her under the sunlit sky, and he cared not that they stood high upon the walls in the sight of many (p. 944).

Discussion Questions:

After she's healed and has fallen in love with Faramir, Eowyn chooses to live in the Houses of Healing until King Eomer returns. She says it has "become to me of all dwellings the most blessed" (p. 944). What do you suppose she means by that? Because that's where she was staying when she met Faramir? Or because now she's capable of being healed, maybe? Or something else?

What do you think of the love story of Faramir and Eowyn? Did you kind of see it coming, or was it a bit of a surprise?

Another LOTR Read-Along: The Field of Cormallen (ROTK 6, 4)

What a happy chapter! Ten pages of pure denouement, and isn't it lovely?

I noticed, in the little poem that all the people cry out about Frodo and Sam when they're brought to the King, that they refer to "The Ring-bearers." I wonder how everyone already knows that they both bore the ring. Gandalf has his far sight, of course, but back when the Tower fell, he said, "The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest" (p 928). I suppose Frodo told him all about it while Sam was still asleep.

I really like the moment when Gandalf kneels down and buckles Sam and Frodo's sword-belts around them. It makes me think of Jesus washing the disciples' feet.

Favorite Lines:

"But after coming all that way I don't want to give up yet. It's not like me, somehow, if you understand" (p. 929).

"A great Shadow has departed," said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to same that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known" (p. 930-31).

Discussion Questions:

Interesting word choice: when the minstrel of Gondor sings the song of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom, Tolkien says "their joy was like swords" (p. 933). What do you think that's supposed to mean?

Another LOTR Read-Along: Mount Doom (ROTK 6, 3)

Oddly enough, I'd kind of forgotten that Frodo and Sam don't know Gandalf has returned. Sam says, "I can't think somehow that Gandalf would have sent Mr. Frodo on this errand, if there hadn't a' been any hope of his ever coming back at all. Things all went wrong when he went down in Moria. I wish he hadn't. He would have done something" (p. 913). Of course, we readers know that Gandalf is back and in fine fettle, and even now working for the good of all Middle-earth, even Sam and Frodo. But poor Sam doesn't know that, and things look so bleak and desolate for him.

And once again, here's that theme of hope dying, but characters battling on anyway. In fact, this time when Sam's hope dies "or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength" (p. 913). When you have nothing left to lose, you can commit to doing things you would otherwise refuse to do because they didn't seem safe.

At this point, everything is up to Sam. He's the one who gives Frodo food and water, finds where they should walk, and even "set[s] his master's will to work for another effort" (p. 915). He's so committed to this quest, he even throws away his beloved cooking gear that he's carried all this time. That, above all, makes me so sad for him.

And, in the end, Sam carries Frodo up Mount Doom. It's my favorite moment in the entire trilogy. "Come, Mr. Frodo!" he cried. "I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well" (p. 919). I choke up every time I think of it. I'm tearing up right now, just thinking about it. It's one of the moments in the movies that they absolutely nailed. Magnificent. Who would have thought, at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, that Frodo's gardener, Sam, unpretentious and quiet, would wind up being the hero of the tale?

Actually, Tolkien considered Sam "the chief hero" of the tale in at least one letter. You can read more about that here if you want to.

Also, remember I mentioned that Frodo says he doesn't think he'll do any more fighting? How wrong he was! Gollum attacks him here, and Frodo "fought back with a sudden fury that amazed Sam, and Gollum also" (p. 922).

And then, suddenly, within just a couple of pages, the deed is done. Frodo fails in the end -- he claims the ring for his own instead of casting it into Mount Doom. And all the pity that Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam spent on Gollum saves the day. They didn't kill him so many times, even Sam at the end when "his mind was hot with wrath and the memory of evil" (p. 923). And so Gollum saves the day, attacking Frodo and falling into the fires with his Precious, so drunk with joy at regaining the Ring that he can't keep his feet.

I can't remember now where I read this, possibly online, but I just ran across a theory recently that Gollum is still obeying Frodo at the end there. He promised, you recall, to help keep the Precious from Sauron's grasp. Frodo putting the ring on here has attracted Sauron's notice, and so by removing the ring the only way he can think of, Gollum is doing what Frodo told him to do, even though at this moment, Frodo doesn't want him to. Something I'm still turning over in my head, but I feel like there's an element of truth to it.

This chapter ends with one of my favorite lines: "I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam" (p. 926). (Of course, it's not the end of all things, or even of this book -- we have 82 pages left to go. But who's counting?)

Favorite Lines:

Out of the north from the Black Gate through Cirith Gorgor there flowed whispering along the ground a thin cold air (p. 912).

At last wearied with his cares Sam drowsed, leaving the morrow till it came; he could do no more (p. 915).

He knew all the arguments of despair and would not listen to them. His will was set, and only death would break it (p. 919).

Discussion Questions:

Does it surprise you that the ring has been destroyed "already," with so much of the book left?

Did you cry during this chapter? Do you cry over books in general? I get tears in my eyes over Sam picking Frodo up and carrying him up that mountain.

Another LOTR Read-Along: The Land of Shadow (ROTK 6, 2)

And now we're back to slogging around in Mordor. But the end is in sight! For us, if not quite for Sam and Frodo yet.

Once again, we encounter the idea of having no hope, but doing what you can anyway. This time it's Frodo who says, "I am tired, weary, I haven't a hope left. But I have to go on trying to get to the Mountain, as long as I can move" (p. 897). I have days that feel like that, don't you? Like when I have zero hope of getting my house cleaned up before we have friends come over for a game day tomorrow, but I give it my best effort anyway. Better partly cleaned than entirely messy.

But I digress. Even dear Sam the Perpetually Cheerful finds it difficult to remain hopeful. His "quick spirits sank again" (p. 898), and when he "thought of water even his hopeful spirit quailed" (p. 901). If Sam's losing hope, we know things are bleak. Except he does find water, and when he looks up at the stars and realizes they'll still be beautiful and unsullied even if Sauron conquers all of Middle Earth, "hope returned to him" (p. 901).

And it turns out that Sam's hope might be enough to sustain both of them. Frodo tells Sam, "Lead me! As long as you've got any hope left. Mine is gone" (p. 907). So they continue stumbling about Mordor, page after weary page. (Honestly, this is probably my least-favorite chapter in the whole trilogy, and I'm happy to have it behind us.)

Favorite Lines:

"I'll try," said Sam, "but when I think of that Stinker I get so hot I could shout" (p. 905).

Discussion Questions:

Sam relies on luck now and then to help him find water, to help him get back to Frodo before Gollum could do him harm, and to help them find a path. It worked the first two times, but then they find themselves trapped on the open road by a company of orcs, and Frodo says, "We've trusted to luck, and it has failed us" (p. 909). What do you think Tolkien might be trying to say about the whole idea of luck? Should we trust to luck?

Another LOTR Read-Along: The Tower of Cirith Ungol (ROTK 6, 1)

Sam. Oh, Sam. Loyal, brave, wonderful Sam.

I've got "aww" written in the sidebar from the second time I read this (first time I underlined or made notes, back in 2005), right where Sam "no longer had any doubt about his duty: he must rescue his master or perish in the attempt." Sam tells himself, "The perishing is more likely, and will be a lot easier anyway" (p. 878), and doesn't that say so much about him? He figures he's going to die, but he's going to try anyway, and while he's at it, he's going to be as cheerful as possible!

As he prepares to enter Mordor, Sam has a moment where he figures if he does, "[h]e could never come back" (p. 878). That one little line really makes me think of the very end of the book. And that, to me, is Sam's bravest moment -- he believes he'll never get home again if he makes one step into Mordor, and he does it anyway. He gives up all hope of going home in order to save Frodo.

My favorite moment of this chapter is when Sam gets inside the stronghold and yells, "Tell Captain Shagrat that the great Elf-warrior has called, with his elf-sword too!" (p. 882). Even in great peril, he still has his sense of humor.

On a rather different subject, here is something I noticed for the very first time just today. My seventh time reading this, and I'd never picked up on it before. Frodo freaks out and snatches the ring back from Sam, and is sort of "possessed" by the ring, for lack of a better term. And when his "possession" ends and he's himself again, he says, "What have I said? What have I done?" (p. 891). That is exactly what Boromir said after he tried to take the ring from Frodo, after its control over him had ended. Check it out, page 390, right at the bottom. Exactly those same eight words. Whoa.

Favorite Lines:

He was in a land of darkness where the days of the world seemed forgotten, and where all who entered were forgotten too (p. 878).

"The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it's no good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won't come" (p. 893).

Discussion Questions:

Frodo talks to Sam about the orcs, and says: "[t]he Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don't think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them" (p. 893). What do you think of that, and how it might apply to the creative process? When we humans create things, are we actually "creating" new things of our own? Or are we taking what God made and sort of... twisting them around? Especially if we're trying to create things to please or honor ourselves, rather than to honor God? What do you think -- am I reading too much into that?