Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien Reading Event 2018Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Home and Hearth: The Many Ways of Being a Hobbit. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!  Check out the complete schedule here.


Mr. Bliss by JRR Tolkien

Information

Goodreads: Mr. Bliss
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1982

Official Summary

Mr. Bliss’s first outing in his new motor-car, shared with several friends, bears, dogs, and a donkey, though not the Girabbit, proves to be unconventional though not inexpensive.

Review

Mr. Bliss is a delightful yet little-known story that Tolkien wrote for his children.  It’s fairly straightforward as children’s stories go, following the misadventures of Mr. Bliss after he buys a new automobile and discovers it might be more trouble than it’s worth, so I can see why the tale isn’t generally mentioned among Tolkien’s bigger works.  However, the story is amusing and a must-read for any Tolkien fan.

The published book is a facsimile edition, reproducing Tolkien’s illustrations and hand-lettered text on the right-hand pages, with typed-out text on the left.  The illustrations are on the smallish side but still detailed and characteristically Tolkien.  There are also some entertaining captions, such as when Tolkien notes that he’s tired of drawing the car in every scene so he simply left it out or when he comments that a character is missing from a certain scene because he rose from his chair to do something else.  Normally I’m not a fan of authorial asides, but these come across as personal notes to the reader and are just in the right space between charming and funny.

The plot is wild and clips along at as a fast pace, as Mr. Bliss encounters an increasing number of troubles with his new car, running people over, picking people up, driving into walls, and so forth.  I suppose it’s a bit of a story of its time, when automobiles were still kind of wild and new, but it doesn’t read as old or out of touch.  Rather, it’s just hilarious and will still resonate with today’s readers.  (As a side note, I half wonder if the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender reader Mr. Bliss because there’s a character here who keeps screaming “My cabbages!” and Mr. Bliss keeps as a pet a Girabbit, a cross between a giraffe and a rabbit.)

I’ve been meaning to read Mr. Bliss for years because it’s currently out of print in the US and can be a bit hard to find.  I was excited to discover my local library actually has a copy (it never occurred to me to look before), and I highly recommend it to anyone else who can locate a copy.

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4 stars Briana

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The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

The Jungle Book

Information

Goodreads: The Jungle Book
Series: None
Source: Borrowed
Published: 1894

Review

What little I know of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book comes from having watching Disney’s animated version exactly once, several years ago.  So, I knew basically nothing going into this besides there being something about a young human boy being raised by jungle animals.  Imagine my surprise upon discovering the book contains seven stories, and only the first three are about Mowgli.  I do think, however, these three stories are the strongest.

Mowgli’s stories are, interestingly, not told in chronological order; they start with the story of how Mowgli leaves the forest, then circle back to tell one adventure he had while living in the jungle and one story of how he eventually returned to the jungle.  The biggest themes seem to be about power and “the law of the jungle,” which is powerful but apparently not as binding as many would like.  I enjoyed reading about the adventures Mowgli, his wolf family, and his other friends had, as well as how the laws of the jungle were sometimes helpful and at other times ignored.  I have not yet fully decided whether Kipling’s depiction of certain animal societies is supposed to be commentary on something broader, however (such as the depiction of the monkeys as a species completely ignored by the other jungle animals because there is no clear monkey society or law).

The other stories in the book were more hit or miss for me.  The first story to break away from Mowgli is simply about a seal who wants to find his seal friends/family an island uninhabited by men so they can hang out without fear of being hunted.  It’s pretty straightforward, and I didn’t find it all that interesting.  Another story is basically about army mules/horses/elephants/etc. debating who has the coolest, most important, most courageous job.  I think readers, especially younger ones, who happen to like animal stories will enjoy some of these offerings.  (Humans feature in some of the stories but are generally not the point, and I’m certainly not an expert on whether Kipling is portraying the societies with accuracy.) Personally, I found the stories amusing enough while I was in the process of reading them, but I’m not sure I would go out of my way to revisit them.

The Jungle Book was worth a one-time read for me since it is a classic piece of literature, and it does have some of the unique charm of older children’s stories, if you’re into that particular style.  However, since I’m not really an animal story person, I don’t think it spoke to me the way it may speak to some other readers.

Note: I read the MinaLima edition of the book, which is beautifully designed and definitely worth picking up if you like adding pretty books to your collection.  I think the claim of “interactive elements” is a bit overblown because this generally means you might be able to spin an illustration or unfold a map, but they do add some fun to the book.

4 stars Briana

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Information

Little Women by Louisa May AlcottGoodreads: Little Women
Series: Little Women #1
Source: Gift
Published: 1868

Summary

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March are doing their best to grow up into women their father would be proud of.  If only he weren’t so far away at the war!  Still, despite their poverty, they try to be happy.  Along with their neighbor Laurie, they have plenty of good times, from producing plays in the garret to writing their own newspaper.

Review

Little Women is one of those classics that never grows old.  Perhaps it is because the titular little women range in age (12 to 16 at the start) and so can present an array of experiences sure to resonate with a wide audience.  Perhaps it is because they age over the course of the book (Jo ends it at the age of 30) and so can encompass the humiliations of childhood, the first blush of love, the trials of married life, and the rocky starts of careers.  Or perhaps it is because the characters are so vibrant, so lifelike.  Who would not want to spend a day with the March family?  Whatever the charm, Little Women endures.

And Little Women endures despite the complaints of some readers, who find the tale too wholesome, too moralizing.  But this, I believe, is part of its charm.  The book, it is true, makes no secret of its desire to instill good morals in its readers.  It opens, after all, with the girls playing Pilgrim’s Progress and receiving Bibles or New Testaments for Christmas.  Yes, it wants it readers to learn to fight vanity, to control their tempers, to become generous and loving and uncomplaining.  But the book really believes in all this.  It does not feel like a moral tale, but like the inspirational example of a friend.  And, in the end, even though we may be uncomfortable with a book that points out that we are not perfect, its message that we can all try to do better is a message I believe that many people still need and want to hear.

I have always appreciated Little Women for its encompassing look at womanhood, from Jo’s fiery independence to Beth’s comfort in domestic life to Meg’s struggles to be the wife and mother she thinks she ought to be.  There is no one right path here, no correct way to be a woman.  Rather, all the girls’ choices are valuable just as all their personalities are appreciated.  Each one gets to be the focus so that readers can see their flaws as well as their strengths, and learn to love them even when they are weak.

And you get to grow along with them.  Today, we might not think that a chapter about learning how to balance childcare with a relationship with your  husband is the type of thing children want to or should read.  We might not think that a child or teen wants to read about a character in her late 20s falling in love with a man nearly forty.  Or that any child wants to read about a thirty-year-old running a school.  And yet it works.  The work is beloved by many.  Because it gives a glimpse ahead.  It says that life is weird and unexpected and sometimes painful or tragic.  But life goes on.  And you have a hand in shaping it.  It tells its readers that they have agency and that they are important, no matter the path they choose.

5 stars

Rainbow Valley by L. M. Montgomery

Information

Goodreads: Rainbow Valley
Series: Anne of Green Gables #7
Source: Library
Published: 1919

Summary

A new minister and his family have moved into the manse.  The Meredith children, however, are motherless and their antics are scandalizing the neighborhood.  From playing in the Methodist graveyard to showing up to church without stockings, nothing seems beyond them.  The Blythe children, however, are always ready to play and Mrs. Dr. Blythe remains their staunch defender.

Review

Rainbow Valley is classic Montgomery and everything enchanting.  The focus moves from Anne and her family to the Meredith children who, like Anne herself, tend to act first and think later.  Their innocent revelries are the cause of much consternation in the congregation.  Poor Miss Cornelia is not sure she will ever be able to face the Methodists again!  The combination of childhood joys, heartbreaks, and fancies, along with the gossip of the locals provides a perceptive look at life in a small town where nothing is ever dull and the tragedies of old maids are as great as the tragedies of queens.

Readers who miss the Anne of Green Gables days will delight in Rainbow Valley.  The manse children, though well-meaning, get up to all kinds of humorous high jinks.  Their desire to do good always seems to go awry in a way that is very reminiscent of our favorite redhead.  However, they distinguish themselves from Anne because their mishaps are often intentional–they simply do not understand the social mores of Glen St. Mary.  They go at life with vim and are confused when the staid old maids gossip as a result.

The gossip is, as always, both riveting and the target of Montgomery’s wit.  Montgomery makes small town trials and tragedies come alive, showing that passion is not confined to only higher segments of society.  But the gossip often centers around trivial matters when little else is happening.  Thus, the ladies of Glen St. Mary unconsciously couple stories of jilted lovers and vengeful wives with shocked whispers about the doings of the manse children, as if a childhood prank exists on the level of seriousness.  The ladies become a little humorous themselves even as they tell the silly doings of the children.

Rainbow Valley is sure to please any fan of L. M. Montgomery.  However, it also has much to recommend it to any casual reader.  It enters sympathetically into the world of childhood and brings readers back to the innocence of imagination.  But it also contains a keen wit and perceptive characterization as it charts the deaths, births, marriages, and courtings of Glen St. Mary.  The characters seem real, so real that leaving them feels like leaving friends.

5 stars

Why I’ve Never Liked Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

Discussion Post

When I was in elementary school, my teachers used to read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree aloud to my class.  I understood that my teachers thought that the story depicted selfless giving on the part of the tree.  Year after year as the boy and then the man come to her asking her to give of herself to him, she happily obliges, allowing him to take her apples, her branches, and, finally, her trunk.  But, despite my teachers’ apparent love for this story, it never enchanted me.  To me, it was a dark and twisted tale, one in which a man unthinkingly kills someone who was kind to him, because he thinks only of his own needs.

My teachers would have seen the tree as a example to us all.  The tree loves her Boy unconditionally and does everything in her power to provide for him and to make him happy, even though he is grateful for none of it.  I appreciate this interpretation and can only hope that I can become a little more like the tree myself–generous, cheerful, and willing to sacrifice for the good of others.  However, I cannot help but feel that the interpretation is missing something–a recognition that, even though the tree is generous and loving, that does not excuse the actions of the Boy.

As a child, I possessed the sense of justice that many children possess.  I knew instinctively that the boy was wrong and selfish, even though this is not something any adult would have said.  The focus was all on the positive–how kind and giving is the tree!  No one mentioned that the tree was capable of such sacrificial lengths only because the Boy she served was willing to chop her down without a second thought.  A more well-rounded interpretation of the story would, I think, acknowledge that it is not okay for someone to keep taking, taking, taking with nary a thank you.  Nor is it acceptable for someone to ask another person to hurt themselves so that they can attain more wealth or material possessions.

Am I being too literal?  Well, that is what elementary school me thought when my teachers read this story aloud.  I never liked The Giving Tree.  I found it disturbing and I found it even more disturbing that the adults seemed unperturbed by the ending, in which an old man sits down on the stump of the tree he has killed.  The tree is happy because she can keep on giving and the man rests content, still oblivious to his selfishness throughout his life.  (Yes, technically the tree is still happy so I guess she is not really dead, but surely the man who chopped her down didn’t expect her to somehow go on living?  That is not  how trees work!)  To me, the story was more about the depredations of the selfish Boy than it was about the abused love of the tree.

Years later, I still cannot stand The Giving Tree.  I cannot help but think that readers too easily dismiss the actions of the Boy in order to praise the sacrifices of the tree.  I am pleased to learn that some criticism has been leveled at the work, with some readers interpreting the work more along the lines that I do–as a story about the selfishness of the boy or the ways in which humanity destroys nature.  But I suspect that many elementary school teachers go on reading the work, happily untroubled by its darker undertones.

How do you interpret The Giving Tree?

Classic Remarks: L.M. Montgomery Recommendations Beyond Anne of Green Gables

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. We look forward to seeing your responses!


Tell us about your favorite L. M. Montgomery work, aside from any of the Anne of Green Gables books.

Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat

I love just about every book L. M. Montgomery has written, but I have always had a special place in my heart for Pat of Silver Bush and its sequel Mistress Pat.

Anne Shirley is famously imaginative and garrulous. Emily Star (from the Emily of New Moon series) has a reputation for being a bit odd; she has “flashes” and borders on interacting with the supernatural.  Pat Gardiner, in comparison, is one of Montgomery’s more “average” heroines–and I love it.   She’s quiet and fond of her home and her cats and somewhat adverse to change.  In short, she sounds like someone I might actually know.  And someone whom I would like if I did.

Montgomery can’t help but add some of her romantic touches, however.  Housekeeper Judy is Irish and firmly believes in fairies and the wee folk, and she’ll probably make you believe a little bit, too.  And then there’s the romance. I talked about why Jingle is one of my favorite Montgomery heroes in a previous Classic Remarks, so I won’t rehash it at length.  However, he’s friendly and earnest and kind and all the great things a strong love interest should be.  And he has an adorable dog.

Pat is sometimes overlooked because she’s quieter than Anne, but she is definitely worth knowing.

If you are participating this week, please leave us your link in the comments!

Briana

Classic Remarks: Should We Adapt Classics for Children?

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s prompt is:

What do you think of adapting classics for younger readers?

In many ways I’m a literary purist. I often bristle at movie adaptations that aren’t faithful to the original novels, and I’m not afraid to grump about people disrespecting masterpieces with all their silly changes. (Shudder.)  As I grow older, however, I’ve come around..a little bit…to the idea that sometimes changes are necessary or good–that maybe something that works in writing doesn’t work as well in film and needs to be tweaked. Or maybe, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter whether the protagonist’s sister’s teacher’s daughter has the correct color hair.  However, no matter the medium, I’m still a purist where it comes to the spirit of a text, and my greatest frustration with children’s adaptations is that they often make great literature less in order to make it more accessible for younger readers.

When I say the literature is made “less,” I refer to all manners of changes, but all have the consequence of diluting the story.  Sometimes children’s adaptations cut material to make the book shorter.  Sometimes they simplify the prose. And sometimes they remove material because it’s not “suitable for children.”  The ultimate goal appears to be making the novel “easier to read.”  I suppose an idealist would say the goal is to introduce children to great literature, but my complaint is that with these adaptations the reader isn’t really getting Jane Eyre or The Count of Monte Cristo or Hamlet or whatever.  The reader is getting an editor’s interpretation of what’s most valuable about the original text.  And it’s often less interesting, less complicated or nuanced, than what the author originally wrote. What’s the value in that?

So, yes, I bristle that great literature is being watered down and important pieces are being lost.  I also have a practical objection, however: I think that, instead of making readers more interested in classics, these adaptations could make children less likely to read the original.  I remember receiving children’s adaptations to read when I was a child. Half the time, I was confused by whether I was reading an adaptation or not, since it often isn’t clear from the way the book presents itself.  I thought I was reading the actual text, and it never occurred to me that in five years I should graduate to reading the “real” version.  The other half of the time, I considered my job done.  I had read some version of Moby Dick or Robinson Crusoe or whatever. I knew how the story went, and I therefore had no interest in reading it all over again in a longer version.  These adaptations discouraged me from reading classics because I felt I had already read them.

I’m a firm believer in letting readers read books whenever they feel ready for them, not in altering the books to try to meet the reader halfway.  I don’t have an issue with children reading “adult books” (I did it all the time), but the fact remains that the target audience is adults.  The issues presented and the way they are handled are not meant for children.  Artificially trying to make them resonate with children (or simply comprehensible to younger readers) isn’t a worthwhile goal, particularly if the means of doing this is just hacking away at scenes to make the book shorter.  Omitting a sex scene from a novel isn’t automatically going to make a book about love, loss, and divorce speak to a child the same way it would speak to a reader who was older and had actually been in a romantic relationship.

I’m sure there’s someone in the world who enjoys children’s adaptations,  but I have never been one of them.  I wouldn’t be sad to see this trend disappear.  I’d rather see children read full classics when they’re ready and interested in them.

This Week’s Participants:

Briana