The Lord of the Rings

by J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Sometimes I’m an impulsive Amazon purchaser. Earlier this year I decided that it was absurd not to own the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, so I invested. I watched them at least twice. Wouldn’t you know it, I was then in an even more Lord of the Rings-y mood, and I had to make another Amazon purchase. Those covers are so classy…

Having not read the books since I was maybe 14, before I’d read a lot of other adult fantasy and when just getting through them was a struggle, I wasn’t sure how I’d like the series at age 25. The Fellowship of the RingTolkien, after all, can be incredibly dense. Anyone who has attempted his books as a middle schooler, who has valiantly fought through the songs and poems and lore of Middle-earth, can attest to that.

But Tolkien can also be fun. This side of him definitely shows up more in The Hobbit, which is more of an adventure story for younger readers. Readers learn about the Shire a little bit, and about hobbits and dwarves, and then Bilbo goes off on an adventure that makes him very rich. He also wins a magic ring in a riddle contest from a certain cave-dweller named Gollum, thereby setting up a much more serious trilogy, though that wasn’t necessarily Tolkien’s intention at the time. The Hobbit is largely a self-contained fantasy world that’s a pleasure to read.

This fun side of Middle-earth shows up in Lord of the Rings as well, though it’s quickly overshadowed by the darkness that’s descending upon the land and its inhabitants. Fellowship starts off in the Shire once more, as Bilbo and Frodo throw themselves a birthday party. I really enjoyed this part of the book; if it’s true that Tolkien based the Shire off of the English countryside, he clearly cherishes his home, and that shines through in his writing. The long-expected party gets everyone in Hobbiton excited, and it got me excited again too, despite my knowledge of the more dramatic events to come. There’s just something about those scenes, something in their flavor, that can make you nostalgic for a life that you never lived.

After the party, though, the adventure gets going. The One Ring, having passed from Bilbo to Frodo, must be kept safe. Gandalf lays out Frodo’s quest, which will soon send him on a journey out of the Shire, to Rivendell, across the Misty Mountains, and finally to the Gates of Mordor and beyond. Each phase of his journey–along with those of his erstwhile companions–is neatly divided into a single chapter, which I like; it gives his fantasy a “serial” feel. Most authors these days seem to use chapters to either a) divide a book arbitrarily so that each chapter isn’t too long, and b) create cliffhangers. Tolkien uses chapters to divide what would otherwise be a nearly interminable journey into a series of related adventures. It’s nice, as a reader, to take in a small part of the story, put the book down, digest what happened, and continue with another section later.

As you probably know, what starts out as a journey not unlike Bilbo’s changes over the course of the series. While we open with the insular worldview of the Shire’s inhabitants, Tolkien soon draws back the curtain on the rest of Middle-earth, introducing us to individuals and entire nations who live under a shadow that hobbits can only conceive of in nightmares. As Frodo journeys closer and closer to Mordor to destroy the Ring, he passes through lands that do not share hobbits’ carefree view of the world. The Two TowersThe power of the Ring increases with proximity to its maker, making Frodo’s path ever more dangerous. The Ring preys on the noble and the selfish alike, forcing Frodo to bear his burden virtually without help. Frodo marches towards his fate, while the rest of his companions face their own doom alongside the rest of Middle-earth.

Frodo crumbles before our eyes as the Ring takes its toll, while Sam can do little but watch him waste away. The Ring-bearer’s transformation reflects a key theme of the story: victory requires sacrifice. Across Middle-earth, everyone must decide for themselves whether fighting a war will be worth it if all of the old world will be destroyed anyway. Even a total victory will not prevent that.

All change isn’t for the worse, though. Merry and Pippin, too, are transformed by their experiences. Instead of turning into shadows of their former selves, though, these two young hobbits come out of the war with experience and maturity, which they promptly put to use in an effort to save their beloved Shire; in a cruel twist of fate, the four hobbits who set out on their quest reluctantly to preserve the innocence of the Shire return home to find that for their countrymen, the suffering has only just begun.

While the scope of Tolkien’s world is huge, his focus on a handful of major characters is the strength of his story. He doesn’t need a huge cast to illustrate the depth of his world; he does it with the members of the Fellowship and perhaps just a handful of others. Because of this, we actually get to see the growth of the characters, especially the hobbits, which I’m afraid would be lost in a more crowded story. See Wheel of Time.

Speaking of which, it’s important to note that Lord of the Rings is pretty much the foundation of fantasy as a literary genre. Myth and adventure have been around forever, but it’s impossible to deny that the world building, the character archetypes, and many of the tropes of modern epic fantasy come from Tolkien. I read somewhere that he’s the reason that fantasy characters speak with British accents; haven’t you ever wondered why American author George R.R. Martin’s characters talk the way they do? So much of what we know as fantasy is clearly built on what Tolkien created, sometimes subtly, sometimes as blatantly as Robert Jordan’s homage, The Eye of the World. Unfortunately, this means that sometimes Tolkien’s story doesn’t hold up to the various sub-genres that it predates. Fans of the nihilistic Game of Thrones series will probably see Lord of the Rings as simplistic and naive, while young Harry Potter fans might not be up to its challenges. Wheel of Time fans might prefer simpler writing in a more epic setting. The immense, diverse, and fractured fantasy/sci-fi landscape partially owes its existence to Tolkien while simultaneously rendering his epics seemingly irrelevant.

As for myself, I don’t think Lord of the Rings is irrelevant. But I do, with great honesty and a tinge of regret, admit that I think the movies improve upon the books. I’m a sucker for film, so I’m sure that plays a part, but I could point to a few specific aspects of the movies that I think are better, while I can only point to a couple stellar moments from the books that were omitted in the film adaptations. The Return of the KingI think it’s hard to argue that with regards to pacing, eliminating the Barrow-downs and Tom Bombadil from the films was a wise choice. Likewise with the Scouring of the Shire; as much as I would’ve loved to see the visions in the Mirror of Galadriel come to fruition on the big screen, faithfully adapting Return of the King was going to result in serious pacing problems, and the movie’s approximately one thousand endings were already pushing the limits. Thematically, I think that the Scouring is a hugely important part of the books, but I just don’t see it working as the ending of a film series. Maybe whoever adapts this series the next time around will figure out a way to do it right.

Of course, the written word will always have a magic that won’t exactly translate to the big screen. I’m a big proponent of the idea that you can like a movie and the book that it’s based on just about equally. Refusing to appreciate a movie because you see the medium as inherently inferior is just as silly as refusing to read the source material of a movie or TV show that you absolutely love. So while I think that Peter Jackson’s adaptations often improve upon the books, there are often things that are lost. Going to the source material is a unique and rich experience, even if you end up agreeing that the films are just a little bit tighter than the books.

It’s Lord of the Rings. You know them. You should read them. That’s all.

Washington Wizards: On the Rebound

After another year of incompetence, embarrassment, and shame from the Redskins, and a rough PR year for the NFL, my taste in football soured and I went searching for another team to become invested in. Since I am fiercely loyal toward DC teams and a big basketball fan it was natural to pivot towards the Wizards. After attending several games I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed watching the team as well as the atmosphere in the Verizon Center. After a few games there was no turning back: I was hooked on the Wizards.

The first Wizards game I went to was the Cleveland Cavaliers game and I am ashamed to admit it was more to see LeBron James play than the Wizards. I was then stunned to see that the Cavs actually looked meek and that the best player on the court wasn’t King James, but Washington’s John Wall. John Wall outplayed LeBron in every aspect of the game, dropping 28 points on them. Wall’s high played was greeted with chants of MVP ringing through the Verizon Center. The feeling in the arena was electric, and I thought to myself, “This is so much better than going to a Redskins game.”

I attended four Redskins games last year which ranged from passable to awful. The Redskins fans booed their own team in every game I went to, including the game in which the Redskins outsucked the hapless Titans. Every aspect of the Redskins experience is time-consuming; whether you drive or Metro, it’s going to take at least an hour and a half, and that’s if you’re lucky. The traffic getting into and out of the stadium is a nightmare (not to mention expensive–$20 for parking) and the closest Metro stop is a 20 minute walk away, at the very end of the silver and blue lines. The security to get in the stadium is horrendous. You can’t bring a purse bigger then a wallet (my buddy’s girlfriend emptied hers out and stuck it in her jacket), and it took us an hour and a half to get through the line, causing us to miss the entire first quarter. In fact, I missed the first quarter in all the games I went to, despite arriving almost two hours early to the games. I can’t leave out the drunk and aggressive fans, of both the Redskins and the visiting teams. After the Cowboys game I was harassed by smug drunk Cowboys fans (who probably couldn’t even find Dallas on a map) telling everyone that Romo was the MVP and that the Cowboys would win the Super Bowl, while Redskins fans cursed back at them. The shouting match almost turned into a brawl; I would never recommend taking any kids to a Redskins game.

Wizards games are a different story. The Verizon Center is located in Chinatown, easily accessible using the Gallery Place Metro stop (Red, Yellow, Green lines) or with a short walk to Metro Center (Orange, Blue, Red, Silver). The Verizon Center has openings all over the arena, making entering the arena an easy process. I can arrive five minutes before tipoff and still get through security, walk up the stairs, and make it to my seat before the game starts. Yes, you read that correctly–FIVE MINUTES. Fans at the Verizon Center like to have fun but show none of the aggression or drunkenness that Redskins fans do. The Verizon Center is a perfect place for any occasion a date, hanging with your boys, or bringing your family.

Over the course of the Wizard’s season I attended 26 games (including playoffs), and the Wizards won 16 of them, a win ratio of about 61%. Redskins, by contrast, lost three out of the four games I attended. In those 26 Wizard games I got to see some amazing plays, dazzling acrobatic layups from John Wall, thunderous dunks from Nene, and precision sniper threes from Bradley Beal. I got to witness the heart pounding buzzerbeater “I CALLED GAME!” shot by Paul Pierce, saving the Wizards (who had almost blown a 20 point lead) from an epic collapse. It was one of those sports moments that you never forget, and without a doubt the most clutch sports moment I have ever witnessed. Pierce infused the Wizards with blistering swagger and gave the most epic post game interview I have ever seen. These moments not only make the Wizards incredibly fun to watch but give me hope for future season playoff success. The feeling of the Redskins are completely different; not only are playoffs a laughable dream for them, but even an 8-8 finish seems hopeless.

Since going to my first Redskin game as a child I always wanted season tickets. After enduring the bad stadium experiences, horrendous management, and continued ineptitude of the Redskins, I have found a hidden treasure in the Washington Wizards. I signed up for Wiz season tickets at 1/3 of the price of Redskins tickets (with five times as many games), and I can’t wait for John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Marcin Gortat and the rest of the Wizards to continue to make DC proud and achieve a seemingly insurmountable feat: bringing a championship to DC.

Thirteen Days in September

by Lawrence Wright

 

My dad gave me this one for Christmas. When I finished it and tried to talk to him about it, he asked to borrow it. Funny how that happens right? But I’ve done the same thing, so I’m not really one to judge.

Thirteen Days in September chronicles the the efforts to forge a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt. The Jewish state had been at war with its Arab neighbors on and off since it first declared independence in 1948. While these wars generally went well for Israel, which was not destroyed and whose borders had been ever-expanding, the Arabs faced humiliation after humiliation. These defeats only strengthened Arab resolve, and the contest between Israel and the Arab nations, especially Egypt, grew into an never-ending cycle.

Meanwhile, the United States elected a southern entrepreneur and Navy veteran named Jimmy Carter as President in 1976. Carter, a devout, born-again Christian, wanted part of his legacy to be an end to the conflict in the Middle East. After Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visits Israel to express his desire for peace, Carter saw his opportunity and invited Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David to hash out some sort of settlement.

Thirteen Days in SeptemberWright, the author of Going Clear (now a major motion picture!), focuses his book not only on the titular thirteen days of the conference, but on the histories of the men involved and even that of the Middle East itself. I was particularly impressed with the way that he wove these histories into his narrative, moving effortlessly from the conference, to historical anecdote, to the stories that he uses to illustrate who these men are. I couldn’t imagine how hard it must be to write a book like this; the research that Wright must’ve put in, and then to be able to tell an actual story while switching back and forth- it was pretty unbelievable.

I came away from this much more knowledgeable than I’d been going in. Perhaps that’s not super impressive, as I hadn’t really known much about Camp David beforehand, but it proved to be a very interesting topic. For one thing, Jimmy Carter is a very impressive man. I always get that impression from reading about him, and then immediately forget. It’s easy to lose sight of his accomplishments in the light of his public perception: the jokes and the constant refrain that he was a horrible president, which seems odd given that nobody seems to remember anything about those years. If you come in with an open mind, and no preconceived notion of Carter as a failure, you can’t look at Camp David and see anything but a significant accomplishment.

As fascinating a character as President Carter is, the leaders of Egypt and Israel are just as interesting. The reigning political class in each country had come of age during World War II and the years that followed, and both Sadat and Begin had cut their teeth fighting against British colonialism in their respective countries. Wright does not shy away from the historical fact that both men had engaged in terrorism as a response to the British occupation. It’s an incredibly inconvenient fact, especially for Israel, which often cloaks itself in anti-terrorist rhetoric, and yet might not exist today without the actions of groups like Irgun. As statesmen, however, Begin and Sadat have put those days behind them, making it merely a part of their shared history.

While there are similarities among the three men, the contradictions are often just as stark. Aside from the obvious difference in religion, nationality, and personal ideology, the traits that Wright identifies as most significant seem to tear the men apart and make the idea of lasting peace a near impossibility. While Israel and the United States are strongly allied, Jimmy Carter actually finds more common ground with Anwar Sadat of Egypt. For the two of them, peace is their mission; Sadat essentially staked his career on peace, even travelling to the Knesset in Israel to show his dedication to ending the conflict. Carter likewise views it as a part of his responsibility in office, his religion and his ideology even leading him to stake his presidency on the peace process.  Menachem Begin, meanwhile, thinks that the talks are a trap for Israel, and that a peace that doesn’t resolve the major issues between Israelis and Arabs would be hollow. He believes that Israel did not elect him to make peace with its neighbors, even as his advisers appear almost unanimous in their belief that that Camp David would be Israel’s best opportunity in the foreseeable future. Sadat’s advisers, on the other hand, don’t believe that peace can be achieved without  Egypt making unacceptable concessions. The whole situation proves to be a huge headache for Carter, who perhaps underestimated the stubbornness of the other leaders involved.

In the end, an agreement is signed, through sheer force of will. A negotiation that was supposed to take three days is extended, again and again, even while it seems that no actual progress is being made. When an agreement is finally reached after nearly two weeks, one gets the sense that it’s more out of the leaders’ desire to go home than anything else, and indeed many issues are kicked down the road. As impressive an achievement as Camp David was, it turned out not to be the peace that anyone wanted. Each of the leaders pays a price for his involvement, and I wonder if they ever managed to convince themselves that it was all worth it in the end.

Thirteen Days in September looks at a moment in history that seems forgotten by those who didn’t live through it. I, for one, learned a lot, and came away with a renewed respect for the hard work of peacemakers, even those who fall short.

Diamonds Are Forever

by Ian Fleming

 

I can’t sugarcoat it: Diamonds Are Forever isn’t the best Bond book. I don’t know if it’s the absolute worst, but it’s certainly the weakest of the four I’ve reviewed so far on B+L. Let me explain why.

First of all, the Bond villain is a gangster. Not a KGB agent, or a megalomaniac, or a dangerous assassin- a gangster. Not even a voodoo gangster. It’s just some American gangster in Las Vegas who’s been smuggling diamonds from Africa into the US, through London. Why London? Because why else would James Bond be involved, that’s why. Duh.

Second, the exotic locales that Bond goes to are New York and Nevada: Bond meets up with diamond smuggler Tiffany Case in London, follows her New York City where he finds his old American chum Felix Leiter, and then hits the racetracks of upstate New York. Diamonds Are ForeverFrom there, he flies again to Las Vegas, where his target runs a casino. He finds out about another property in the desert, then goes there, and handles his business. Except for the cruise back to Europe with the now-reformed Tiffany Case, that’s pretty much it. Take a trip to lovely New York and Nevada.

I also didn’t even realize the climax of the book was happening as I was reading it. Ian Fleming sometimes likes to mess with his readers’ expectations by going for the unorthodox ending, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work. Casino Royale works; Bond’s mission concludes about 2/3 of the way through, leaving the rest of the book to deal with the fallout. Diamonds Are Forever just finishes the mission, then wraps up some random threads that don’t have a whole lot to do with the rest of the book.

The annoying thing is that the last couple of chapters would actually be pretty awesome somewhere else. They’re like their own short stories added to the end, but they’re not a significant part of the plot. It just doesn’t make any sense why Fleming didn’t cut it or make it a bigger part of the story; the middle ground kind of sucks

The really frustrating thing is that diamond smuggling is inherently cool. Diamonds are cool and smuggling is cool, so diamond smuggling should be… the bomb diggity? (Or whatever the kids are saying these days.) But it doesn’t really make sense for an international man of mystery, such as our beloved 007, to handle a problem that should probably be left to the local constabulary. Admittedly, the Bond books generally feature slightly more mundane plots than the movies have accustomed us to, but really. “I want to smuggle diamonds out of Africa.” To what end? “To smuggle diamonds out of Africa.” How grandiose.

According to Wikipedia, Fleming decided to write Diamonds Are Forever after he did quite a bit of research for a non-fiction book about diamond smuggling. Diamonds Are Forever is pretty much a side project, and it shows.

Moonraker

by Ian Fleming

 

When I last read this book, in 8th grade, I tried to get credit from my teacher for reading a “classic.” Having seen the movie, in which Roger Moore’s Bond has sex in space, she didn’t buy it. The book, however, is much more grounded in reality, and Bond doesn’t have sex with anyone. I like to imagine him questioning why he even became a secret agent in the first place. Cue Bond’s midlife crisis.

"Maybe a new Aston Martin will make me feel better."

“Maybe a new Aston Martin will make me feel young again. That or killing a guy.”

Bond’s mission this time starts out when M gets mad about a card cheat at his club. Nothing makes British gentleman angrier than people who cheat at games that the working class doesn’t play, so he assigns Bond to take care of the problem, in a seemingly egregious abuse of his authority. The cheat, Hugo Drax, is a war hero and entrepreneur in charge of creating Britain’s latest nuclear deterrent, a ballistic missile called the Moonraker. Bond meets Drax and decides that he’s a boor and not a real gentleman, so he beats him at bridge. Everyone’s problems are solved. The end.

No, just kidding. I mean, Bond does humiliate Drax in history’s most exciting game of bridge, but there’s more. There have been strange goings-on at the Moonraker test site, and the first test launch is only a few days away. M sends Bond to figure out what’s going on. You know the drill.

Moonraker‘s an interesting early Bond book, in my opinion. MoonrakerIt leans heavily on a theme that pervades Fleming’s Bond series: Britain’s place in the world. Fleming alternates between freaking out that Britain is no longer a superpower, and reassuring his audience that yes, Britain is still the most important and civilized nation on Earth. He gets deep into ethnic and class politics; in addition to his idealization of the British gentleman in contrast with the common man, he’s generally pretty willing to write off entire nationalities or races. In Live and Let Die, it was African-Americans. In the case of Moonraker, it’s Germans. Fleming’s suspicion and distrust of Germans is important because at its heart, Moonraker is about an independent British nuclear deterrent being built by former Nazi German scientists. Fleming is aware of this contradiction, and seems to be saying that Britain doesn’t need to adapt or compromise its identity in order to maintain its dominance. Nonetheless, it’s clear he hasn’t quite arrived at a solution to the crisis of British identity in the post-war era.

Interestingly, while the book’s explicit message is that adaptation will be the death of Britain, Fleming himself isn’t afraid to shake things up. Moonraker is definitely a Bond book, but it does stray from the formula a little bit. For one thing, its pacing is totally different; in addition to the inverting the structure by introducing the villain before assigning Bond his mission, the book takes place over just a few days. This is partially because Bond’s assignment takes him not to the other side of the world, but just a few minutes down the road to the cliffs of Dover. The domestic setting and shortened time span intensify the story, making Bond’s mission seem that much more urgent.

The other outlier in Moonraker is its Bond girl, Gala Brand. For whatever reason, Fleming seems to have a specific type of female that he writes into Bond’s adventures. Bond girls are often trapped in a situation beyond her control, or scarred by some past trauma, or frequently both. (Think Vesper Lynd, Solitaire, Tiffany Case- the originators of the stereotype.) Gala’s different. She has secrets, sure, but she’s introduced to Bond as an undercover police officer, so that’s not really a big surprise. She needs an ally more than she needs a savior, and while Bond sure doesn’t fail to notice how hot she is, they spend the majority of their time together working, rather than romancing. I don’t want to give away what happens with them in the end, but it’s refreshing to see a Bond girl who’s not immediately and completely wrapped up in 007’s world.

All in all, Moonraker turned out pretty well. Fleming seems a little more self-aware than usual, as he works to flesh out the meaning of Bond while consciously rejecting his own tropes. It’s different, but definitely not in a bad way.