Saturday, September 22, 2012

An honest burglar

Happy Hobbit Day! Yes, in case you've forgotten, September 22nd is the birth date of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. And it's even more special this year because yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. So, join in the Hobbit Week celebrations as we all anxiously await the first movie (and it sounds like there's going to be 3 instead of just 2) scheduled to come out on December 14th. (I tried talking the family into going to a midnight premier but their response was as exciting as watching sea-monkeys come to life.)

Well, at any rate, The Hobbit was one of my favorite books growing up. I loved the charming way the story begins, the beautiful world it describes, and especially the humor. I even liked it better than The Lord of the Rings because it wasn't as dark and serious. As I've probably mentioned before, The Hobbit began as a story for Tolkien's own children, and when it was first published that's all there was about hobbits; The LOTR wasn't imagined yet and the ring was just a simple magic ring – it wasn't The Ring that it later became.

And that's the perspective Corey Olsen ("The Tolkien Professor") takes in his new book Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit". Olsen goes through The Hobbit chapter by chapter and points out the prevailing themes such as Bilbo's differing natures (Baggins vs. Took), how he grows through his choices, and how he actually becomes the burglar he was hired to be. He also discusses the role luck plays in the story and explains those songs the dwarves and elves sing that I always thought were so strange (now they make more sense). He doesn't bring in any peripheral information from Tolkien's life or his motivations for writing the story, but he does discuss the minor changes Tolkien made in preparation for the LOTR books.

In fact, did you know that Gollum originally waved a cheerful goodbye to Bilbo after showing him the way out of the caves back in the 1937 edition? I didn't. But when The Hobbit became a publishing success and fans were clamoring for more, Tolkien changed parts of the story slightly – like making Gollum more frightening and sinister – and blamed it on Bilbo trying to downplay the fact that he kinda stole the ring.

If you haven't already read The Hobbit, what's wrong with you? Oops, I mean, this would be an excellent book to read along with it, although there are a few minor "spoilers" where Olsen anticipates some events at the end of the story. But while a "book about a book" could sound kinda dull, I found it both fun to read and surprisingly interesting – like sitting in on the kind of discussions about the themes and ideas that I used to enjoy in high school and college English classes. (I guess I could always join a book club, but then I'd have to read what other people want to read and that just sounds like too much work.) I thought Olsen's conclusions and conjectures were very plausible, and his writing style easy to read.

Besides, what else are you going to do between now and December 14th?

(I was lucky enough to snag an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine – they went pretty fast!)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Running around naked

Back in March there was a news story from a technology conference in Austin, TX, about a company hiring homeless men to be wireless 4G hotspots. I guess the access was free but the company encouraged people to give a $2 donation to the homeless person. Of course, there was a lot of public outrage and the company was accused of exploitation. But in one of the news stories I heard they asked one of the homeless men what he thought about it, and his answer was interesting. He said something about how people didn't ignore him anymore or look away when they walked by. Instead people smiled and said hello, and many of them stopped and talked to him. He said he didn't feel "invisible" anymore.

In 1897 H. G. Wells published a short novel titled The Invisible Man. It tells the story of a stranger who arrives during a snowstorm at a small country inn in the English village of Iping in West Sussex. He is, of course, all bundled up with a coat, hat, and gloves, but his face is also fully bandaged and he wears dark goggles. He keeps to himself and stays in his room working with chemicals and laboratory equipment, only going out at night. But such a mysterious stranger in a small town naturally stirs up curiosity which leads to an incident where the man – who the reader obviously knows is invisible – is forced to flee unseen by taking off all his clothes.

He later tells his story to an old acquaintance from medical school. His name is Griffin and he is/was an albino, but he discovered a way to "lower the refractive index" of his body to the same as air so that he reflects no light, making himself invisible. He anticipated great advantages but not the troubles that would come with not being able to be seen.

Although I alluded to a social situation as an introduction, I'm stretching the comparison for this old “classic” science-fiction story – I just thought it was a nice intro (yes, I know there's another book with the same title that would have fit perfectly, but I didn't read that one). During the late Victorian (Romantic) period, the optimism of science was seen as also having a dark and dangerous side. Griffin imagines his work will "transcend magic" giving him power and freedom. His first impulse is "to jest, to startle people, to clap men on the back, fling people's hats astray," and yet he quickly realizes the true problems he faces. He has no money and no shelter (he had caused a fire that destroyed the room he rented), and wearing clothes (if he had any) would forfeit all advantages – yet it was January in London! He can't even eat because the undigested food remains visible and he can’t carry anything. The snow was settling on him and dirt and mud gathered on his feet making them visible. He can't speak to people, dogs could somehow sense him, and his attempts to steal clothing nearly get him caught – which would only make him a sideshow attraction.

I've seen comments by other reviewers alleging that Wells was channeling his socialist philosophies and that the story is a commentary on how capitalism had made the lower classes invisible, but I disagree. Griffin is never a very sympathetic character and although I tried to empathize with him and his unfortunate predicament, his unfriendliness and poorly contained anger make him a frightening protagonist. And there's plenty of evidence to question his sanity, although it's not clear if his madness is due to his experiment or just who he is. It seems more like a simple cautionary tale warning that just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. Although we can accomplish wonders in the name of science, we're still vulnerable to the dangerous human side of our selves.

And yet it's an interesting book to read. Who hasn't at some point or other wished they could be invisible? Just consider the downsides first – like having to run around naked in the winter!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Green's Tsunami Zone

Between scout camp and girls camp and cheerleading camp and volleyball camp, the Stake Pioneer Trek and EFY, the backpacking trip, and quick trips to Arizona (to see Poppy & family) and Provo (to drop Braiden off at BYU), we've been so busy this summer that I haven't had time to post family pictures.  This sign we saw when camping on Memorial Day weekend kind of sums up how it's felt:

Of course there were a few trips to the beach, but not enough!
Cousins came to visit
Jamie and the girls went to Solvang and talked Patty into going with them
Katie (on the left) at girls camp

Pioneer Trek - Taylor (in the middle)

Why is the Bishop the only one who looks happy?  (Maybe because he's not pulling?)

 Pioneer Braiden

Surfer girl Kate (with no braces!)

When we took Braiden to BYU we HAD to have lunch at the Red Iguana!

Poor Taylor!  BYU doesn't allow skateboarding on campus.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

"I have my bicycle."

"Everyone in their life has his own particular way of expressing life's purpose – the lawyer his eloquence, the painter his palette, and the man of letters his pen from which the quick words of his story flow. I have my bicycle." — Gino Bartali

It might be difficult to imagine a time before cars and airplanes made travel quick and easy, but in the earlier part of the century the bicycle was about the best many could hope for. It not only enabled them to go from place to place quickly but sometimes became necessary if you wanted a job. And with the rise of bicycles in Europe came cycling clubs and eventually races. One dominant Italian racer in the 1930s was Gino Bartali, whose incredible endurance on mountain slopes made him a formidable opponent and led to a 1938 victory in the Tour de France. But his racing career sputtered to an halt when war came, and he was put to use delivering messages on his bicycle... and later secretly transporting forged documents for Jewish families hiding from the police. That continued "training" helped when he later won the Tour de France again in 1948 at a time when he was thought "too old" (at 34!) and when his country was rocked by an assassination attempt and riots, and Bartali continues to hold the record for the most years between Tour victories.

Fans of Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken will enjoy a similar story of heroism in the face of great danger and great odds in Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation by Aili and Andres McConnon. From the early history of European cycling and the tragedies Bartali faced, to his quiet anti-fascism and secret work with Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa to protect Jews, to his racing struggles in the Alps, this is an inspiring story of courage in the face of real and personal danger.

I am not a cycling fan and had never heard of Bartali before, but I found the story to be well-written and a compelling read. I wish there had been a little more detail about the Tour itself (for those of us who know so little about it) but the rest of the story more than makes up for any missing information. Photographs of Bartali and elevation maps of the courses help as well, but the real highlight for me was the wartime experiences and how he risked his life for Jews. But the authors also bring the world of cycling alive, and the human element is combined excellently with the sports world here. A very inspiring read.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)