Of Hammocks and Deck Chairs (Anthology: Places where I enjoy reading)

Of Hammocks and Deck Chairs (Anthology: Places where I enjoy reading)

It is summer. It is warm and I’m on vacation. This means: swimming pool, gardening, nature, relax, DVDs, masturbating, and reading. In the last concept there are two subsections conditioned to location, hammock reading and deck chair reading, that I’m particularly fond of and that, in time, have joined the ranks of my favorite places to grab a book and get lost in the pages. I assume that the notion in itself is alluring enough for anyone reading this – I dare anyone to refuse a hammock – but as always the idea behind this post (and again you are justifying yourself for the eight billionth time to nobody) is to find out why this is a special place for me.

In my previous post of this anthology I found it helped to write about the place and time that I’m describing when I’m in it rather than from the top of my head, so I figured I’d try the same approach again to see if lighting strikes twice. (Editorial note: No. I did not write my first posts in the toilet)

IMG_20170727_202326

The hammock hangs between two evergreen trees (quercus ilex). To its left there are hydrangeas that also surround one of the two trees and to its right there is a nice view of the swimming pool, but what particularly endears me to it is the view above. The sky is clear and blue in the few open patches between the boughs and the sun lights the top of the trees with an orange dusky glow (I tend to lay there only in the late afternoon, usually after taking a swim). My eyes swing back and forth between the book and the different birds playing in the branches.

This hammock has been in my house since I was a little kid, but it was only in the summer of 2012 when I was reading Walden or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau when I truly fell in love with it, and it owes its position in this anthology to this book. When I combined these two elements I realized how much nature enhances the reading experience. How? First some context.

Walden_Thoreau
A drawing of the cabin where HDT lived done by his sister Sophia.

Around 1850, Henry David Thoreau decided to leave the city and live in the forest close to Walden pond where he aimed to experience life in its simplest and truest form. This book is a recollection of his experiences and thoughts throughout the two years that he spent living in a little cabin in that forest. A fantastic stylist (one of my favorites along with Edgar Allan Poe) and a deep thinker; Thoreau finds an infinite source of inspiration from the broader aspect of nature and the changing of the seasons to the smallest events, insignificant to the unobservant, like the savage war raging at his feet between two different colonies of ants.

I found joy in the simplicity of laying outside with a book, under two big trees with the birds chipping on the branches. It was the perfect combination of book and place: Walden became one of my favourite books (and is one of the main reasons why I started planting tomatoes) and that hammock became one of my favorite reading spots. (Random Trivia: I first read about this book in Roger Ebert’s review of Into the Wild. Better write that down so that you don’t forget future-me)

*

I love my shitty deck chair. I love it so much because it is so shitty. It is old, dusty, bulky and barely comfortable enough to sit in. Every summer I take it out of a room at the end of the garage, dust it off and place it in the spot with the best view in the whole house, and every time I sit there with a book I am quite simply happy. Life does not get better.

I usually lay there in the morning or late in the afternoon when my legs are a bit numb from the hammock. The morning view is characterized by the miles of pine forest sprawling from the skirts of the mountain to its very top and the cool morning breeze and is usually when I get most of my reading done. However, I think I like it best when the sun sets and the seat is still warm from all the evening heat and Venus shines meekly in the horizon. The time window to read is shorter in the afternoon (one of the cons of fading light) but it is a magical place to end a fine day of reading; in my very own window to the stars.

Much like the hammock there are quite a few books that will be forever linked to that chair. I’ll always remember how inspiring and wonderful it was reading Contact by Carl Sagan , or how I  was glued to Stephen King’s On Writing to avoid thinking about a horrible breakup, or how I read the first four robot novels by Isaac Asimov and started thinking about writing my own science-fiction novel. I’m not sure how long this deck chair will last. It is really beaten down and worn and I know that I’m overtly sentimental for something awfully silly, but the memories attached to it are really special to me.

IMG_20170728_211516 (1)
Behold the glorious shittiness!

A few months ago I bought Robots and Empire (the fifth novel in Asimov’s robot saga) with the clear idea that I’d only read it in summer. I may be a creature of habits, but when this post is published I’ll be sitting in that shitty deck chair reading it and I’ll be as happy as you can get. I guarantee it!

Bonus round: Walden, or Life in the Woods in PDF. Happy summer reading!

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I bought Dracula in my favorite used book store for two euros a few months ago. It wasn’t on my radar but I was browsing through piles of unclassified paperbacks and when I saw it I remember thinking: “This book created one of the world’s most iconic monsters. For that price I could give it a go”. It was an impulsive buy – primarily because I’m a cheap whore – and, whilst I did have some curiosity, I wasn’t really  eager to read it; I figured I’d eventually get to it when the right mood strikes. How dearly I paid for such foolishness!

Tomb_of_Dracula_1.jpg
Issue 1

The worst part is that price tag and iconic status aside, Dracula also ticked the nostalgia factor. One of my earliest Dracula memories is an excerpt from one my school books (taken from the May 4th entry in Jonathan Harker’s journal to be precise) and the line in it that said “It is the Eve of Saint Georges Day. Do you not know that tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway?” The idea of the most evil night really scared and fascinated me and I’ve always remembered that line.

However, my fondest Dracula memory has to be reading the full run of The Tomb of Dracula by Gene Colan and Marv Wolfman. This comic book series is an absolute master piece in storytelling and one of the best adaptations– if not the best – that Marvel did of the classic monsters.  (Editorial note: For this review I’ll skip all references to movies and TV shows with the exception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola)

I began Dracula on the 3rd of May, on the exact same day of the first journal entry in the book – even if I didn’t like the novel that’s a pretty cool coincidence –. The book is structured using different journal and diary entries, letters and telegrams from the main characters in the story. I’ve seen this structuring method used very effectively on R.L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde to gradually give the reader the necessary bits of information to develop the story whilst keeping the momentum going, but unfortunately I did not find this approach as effective in Dracula. The story moves at a snail’s pace and I could have used some trimmings. The main section that I’d edit is Lucy’s slow turn into a vampire because Stoker’s change of POV between characters leads to repetition on the same events from a slightly different perspective and halts the story.

To be absolutely fair I already knew the sequence of events. I may be saying “Get on with it” in 2017 but this story could be nail-biting for the 1897 reader. I’m also aware that Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hide is a shorter book than Dracula but, taking into account that both stories deal with monsters and are from the same time period (Jeckyl is from 1887) I think it is a fair comparison.

There are moments when Stoker’s prose works to create an eerie atmosphere, such as Lucy’s sleepwalking (the first time) and the events that unfold once she turns into a vampire – I couldn’t help thinking about Lovecraft’s The Tomb when I read those passages – or Dr. Seward’s interaction with Renfield  (a patient suffering from fits of lunacy and rage caused by Dracula), but unfortunately those felt few and far away. I also enjoyed Stoker’s approach to his own story from a medical perspective: from the previously mentioned character Renfield and psychiatry to Dracula himself and vampirism (one is treated as a physical threat and the other as a disease).

dracula
Vintage Classics Paperback with Sarah Waters’ quote

The paperback I bought has a quote from Sarah Waters describing the book as “An exercise in masculine anxiety and nationalist paranoia”. I felt that these two themes were present on the margins of the story and I’d go to the point of editing out the word “masculine”, especially when you have such a strong female character in Mina Harker being equally or even more resolute on destroying Dracula than the rest of the characters despite the events that unfold. I agree with the nationalist paranoia angle if you look at the novel with a 1987 lens that could picture Dracula as the outsider from distant lands threatening the Victorian society, but from a current perspective I did not feel that it was an angle that shaped the story. If I had to describe Dracula I’d say it is “A novel that embodies the fear of disease and loss and the lengths of human determination to fight it” but even I can see some holes in that sentence.

I finished reading Dracula on the 6th of August. Even if I didn’t like it – I didn’t hate it is just that it didn’t grab me – I’m glad I finished it because I feel this is the best book review (most analytical) I’ve written so far.

Bonus Round: I have avoided talking about TV Shows and movies dealing with Dracula because this post would get too big to handle and I wanted to keep my focus on the novel.

That. Being. Said.

Having read the book, I have some issues with Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula as I find the title of the movie completely misleading. One of the main threads of the movie is the romance between Mina and Dracula, which is completely missing from the book! Whilst I appreciate that adapting a novel is always difficult, if you call it Bram Stoker’s Dracula I expect a direct adaptation on the novel without big deviations. The title could have been “Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula” or, if you want to be very specific, “Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker with some major deviations in both plot and characters”. I’m sure a talented marketing department could make it work, right?

P.S: No “I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth in it” jokes. What the hell happened?

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Painter

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Painter

When I was little I was fascinated by these three pictures:

The Hill Hobbiton-across-the Water (Left)

Taur-na-Fúin -Fangorn Forest- (Center)

Barad-dúr (Right)

These pictures graced the front cover of the Spanish editions published by Minotauro of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King that were in my school’s library. Every time I went there (more often than most normal eight year olds should) I’d grab one of the books and look at the front pictures mesmerized. This was a time when Peter Jackson’s trilogy did not exist and the only film adaptation was Ralph Baschi’s underrated classic, back when The Lord of the Rings was known primarily to book readers.

The first time I read The Lord of the Rings I was fueled by the fascination with this other world that my brother was obsessed with and my natural curiosity about this “Middle-earth” and all the creatures and adventures in it. (Random Trivia: I remember that I kept an apple nearby when I first read it because I had seen Bastian do the same in The Neverending Story. I was so cute) However in my head, there was also something about these three pictures that imbued these books with a mystic lore – there is also the Middle-earth map which is just enthralling –.

I only found years later that those pictures had been created by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, and thus followed the purchase of J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Random Trivia: purchased in abebooks in very good condition. The copy I bought apparently belonged to the Elsmere Public Library but had never been taken out. Alas! Worry not! Even if you are quote “No longer the property of New Castle County Libraries” your journey across the Atlantic has led you to a nice comfy home).

There are two aspects that I found particularly interesting when I read this book and that I want to keep in mind when I write this review. First is that Tolkien himself doubted the quality of his artwork and second is that I got the impression that Tolkien was at heart both a writer and a painter.  With this in mind, let’s look at the highlights of each chapter.Lostwethion_TolkienWhitby.jpg

Early Work: the most biographical section of the entire book – necessarily so to understand Tolkien’s first steps in drawing – the artwork presented is usually a backdrop to the period of Tolkien’s life. This chapter has some of the first drawings he made as a child, but is mainly dominated by his paintings of the English country side. My favorite is Ruins at West End of Whitby Abbey. I think it manages to capture the sensation of decay and of the forgotten place eaten away by time. (Random Trivia: I just had a geek-gasm. Those same ruins are also in -my current reading- Dracula!)

Visions, Myths and Legends: I liked that this book wanted to cover all of Tolkien’s work and not just The Lord of The Rings because I wanted to see the full picture (pun intended). This section presents an embryonic Middle-earth. Ideas are forming and Tolkien’s world is expanding but is not yet fully developed.

One of the highlights of this chapter is the -full page- painting chosen for the front cover of this book which depicts a landscape of the Silmarillion and is titled The Halls of Manwë on the Mountains of the World above Faerie. I also learned that Taur-na-Fúin originally depicted a moment of The Silmarillion and that it was later redrawn in ink for The Hobbit and retitled Mirkwood (image below), and that the original also had its name changed to Fangorn Forest.

Mirkwood_-_Flies.jpg

Art for Children: this is the one section in the entire book where I paid far more attention to the words rather than the pictures.

J.R.R Tolkien has to be one of the coolest dad’s that have ever lived. He began telling stories to his children about Father Christmas and his adventures in the North Pole, and later on Father Christmas began sending drawings and letters (written and drawn by Tolkien) to his children with illustrations of the events he narrated. The children also received pictures from North Polar Bear a friend of Father Christmas with his very own lettering style. How cool is that?

This particular chapter was heartwarming and sweet and the book is worth it just for it.

The Hobbit: I found this chapter very interesting because it shows the steady hand of Tolkien the writer clashing with the dubious hand of Tolkien the painter. Tolkien prepared a lot of illustrations for The Hobbit with the intention of including them in the book, but he doubted their quality and was uncertain if they were up to standards of the text. These doubts grew after it was released and the book’s pictures received criticism from reviewers.

I do not understand the criticism.J.R.R._Tolkien_-_Rivendell.jpg

The composition, style, look and relation with the story is very smart and crafty. In a painting like Rivendell there is a gateway into the picture. We follow the river and with it the eye observes the rest of the picture. The Gate to the Elven Kingdom shows the road our heroes are walking and manages to put us there with them. The Trolls I liked even more because we are a partner in crime, we are also spying on the three trolls like the dwarf at the bottom is doing.

Tolkien’s drawing fit perfectly with the story and I’m saddened that they received bad criticism.

The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien did not consider that he was up to the task of creating the illustrations for The Lord of The Rings (outside of material like The Gate of Moria or the Runes in Balin’s tomb). Whether it was the criticism received on The Hobbit, the weight of writing or simply his own doubts about his skills, I think that this ultimately benefited the final product.

I like the drawings in The Hobbit because they fit tonally with a children’s book – and make no mistake, no matter what Peter Jackson aimed at, The Hobbit is a children’s book –, but The Lord of the Rings works best with the epic style of Alan Lee. This chapter was surprisingly short in content and I did not find it that interesting outside of the covers Tolkien designed for each book.

Patterns and Devices: I liked the sample images of the mail envelope or the newspaper where Tolkien doodled and drew some of his first attempts at patterns, but unfortunately this chapter suffered a bit of The Silmarillion syndrome. There are lots of names being mentioned left and right in regards to devices and small amulets. This chapter did not make for a very interesting reading (perhaps the more hardcore Tolkien reader disagrees with me).Tolkien Artist.jpg

This book is fantastic and definitely worth buying. I haven’t covered nearly 10% of the drawings included in it, and it is amazing seeing how productive Tolkien was both as a writer and as a painter. The only negative aspect is that sometimes the text  would refer to a picture either on the next page or on the previous page and it is rather tedious flipping constantly between pages to observe all the details being explained (this is a minor criticism).

I’m trying to figure out if, through this book and this post, I’ve managed to identify why I was so drawn (pun intended) to those three pictures.  The book helped me notice that in The Hill Hobbiton-across-the Water there is a small bridge at the bottom of the picture that seems to invite you to follow this long road to a faraway place, and -to a degree-  the following pictures managed to perpetuate that fascination: What is hidden in that forest? Where is that tower? What is in it? What surrounds it?

Unfortunately, this does not provide a satisfying reason to explain my childhood fascination.

Note for future-me: your original ending to this post was much more “Well! I guess I’ll never know” but after sitting on it for a bit the following realization happened.Der_Berggeist.jpg

This drawing by Josef Madlener is called “Der Berggeist” (“the mountain spirit”)  and it is not featured in the book. What the books says is that Tolkien wrote on the back of a postcard that had this picture “The origin of Gandalf”.

This left me wondering.

How did Tolkien’s mind work so that this little picture on a postcard later became the iconic character?  Did he just see the picture and said “Oh, I know! Gandalf!”? What inspired him? Was it the cloak? Was it the mountains beyond where this old man lives? Was it the water in that brook?

The truth is nobody will ever know how Tolkien came up with Gandalf other than Tolkien, but if this is indeed his origin, there is something comforting in knowing that the same person who painted those three drawings -that I began the post with-, once looked at a picture in a postcard and that, somehow, triggered his imagination. After all, if Tolkien came up with Gandalf by looking at a postcard I think my eight year old version is allowed to imagine magical worlds looking at book covers.

I finished reading this book on the 24th of July 2017.

Random Trivia: I also learned that Tolkien liked Van Eyck and, having had the privilege of seeing the Mystic Lamb in Ghent, this was just one of those little bits of information that just managed to put a smile on my face.

Editorial Bonus (Original ending): Unfortunately, my childhood curiosity remains a mystery (although a smaller one). I will have to simply accept the fact that Tolkien managed to put a spell on me through these pictures.