Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit book that started it allMelanie and I took advantage of having her mom with us and not yet having a newborn baby to go to the movies, something we don’t ever get to do. I think the last movie we saw in a theater was the Star Trek reboot in 2009. So this time, we went to the matinée of The Hobbit in IMAX 3D at the local theater.

To put my remarks in perspective, I will point you to the photo accompanying this post. It’s a photo of a 36-year-old copy of The Hobbit. When I was eight, I saw it sitting on my mother’s bedside nighttable and picked it up, thus changing my life from that moment. Over the next two decades I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings several dozen times, as well as The Silmarillion, the 12-volume Histories of Middle Earth, Unfinished Tales, the Children of Hurin, etc. I am a devourer of Tolkien’s literary opus magnus on Middle Earth. Not only that, but the book also launched me on a lifelong love of the genre, which admittedly has resulted in plenty of not-so-good imitators and very few almost-as-good novels.

So when I say I approach this film differently from many movie fans, that’s what I mean. The obvious question is whether I liked the movie. Having heard so many disappointed reviews I was braced for the worst, but I did recognize going in that those who I knew were Tolkien fans like me had given it high marks.

First, I know I sound like an old man, but when did movies get so loud? Right from the first trailer, I actually had to hold one hand over an ear at times. Second, while I enjoyed the IMAX 3D experience, Melanie did not and made me promise for the second and third movies that there would be no 3D. She said it makes it seem blurry to her.

As for the movie itself, I liked it. I thought the addition of the material from appendices was a good move. In a sense the director Peter Jackson isn’t making The Hobbit, per se. He’s making a movie that fills in the gaps in the story of the War of the Ring at the End of the Third Age that the first three movies did not tell. I’m okay with that.

I saw some didn’t like the more playful elements, like the Dwarves throwing the dishes at Bilbo’s home or the Goblin King’s too-humanness or Radagast’s oddities or the three trolls’ vaudevillian act. All those scenes are true to Tolkien’s original story and in fact, in some cases I think Jackson could have gone further. I genuinely missed Bilbo’s tricking the trolls with the different voices, not to mention their names: Tom, Bert, and William. But he also changed the substance of the scene, where the book has Bilbo getting entangled with the trolls because he wants to prove himself as the burglar he was hired to be.

Of course, being a big-budget blockbuster, there has to be plenty of action, a lot more than the book offered. Melanie counted at least six literal cliffhanger scenes (someone actually clinging to a cliff) and a whole lot more pitched battles. I suppose I also accept the presence of Azog the Orc. I can see the filmmaker’s need–where the novelist had none–to have an antagonist to thread throughout the story against our protagonists. As others have pointed out, the book is very episodic and not a continuous story, like The Lord of the Rings. You can tell it was composed as a series of bedtime tales that thread together. Thus Jackson needed something to unite all the episodes across three movies. I think this method will do.

If I were to be a strict adherent to Tolkien, I would be more disturbed by the places that diverged from the book, especially where such divergence didn’t seem necessary for the medium. But that’s not me. I can appreciate the movie on its own terms and as a creative work separate but related to Tolkien’s, a sibling artwork, if you will.

Finally, I’ll leave you with these final thoughts. Every time I saw a sweeping vista or the framing of an iconic place in the story, whether it was Hobbiton or the Misty Mountains or Erebor, I was caught up in the joy of seeing it for real. Of course, I know intellectually that it’s not really Middle Earth, but some location in New Zealand. And yet, it also seems real. As a boy, I lived in Middle Earth in some sense, or it inhabited me. I pored over those books and over every map and companion guide I could get my hands on. I knew every corner of the place. And now here before me in glorious IMAX those places have come to life. In that theater, I felt the old yearning I had as a boy to be there, to go there and back again, if you will. And perhaps it’s The Hobbit’s ability to elicit that fundamental response in me that let’s this fan boy say, I really, really liked this movie.

The Life of the Mind for a Good Marriage

Before I was married I used to lead a Bible study in my parish that brought together mainly young adults. As the resident guy with the Theology degree, I became the study leader, leading the discussion and doing the research into what we were reading at the time. I enjoyed it immensely, because it was a great social gathering (we always went for food and drink at Salem Beer Works afterward) as much as a wonderful intellectual and spiritual stimulation. I loved exercising those theology muscles again.

(The memory of the Bible study is also near and dear to my heart because it’s where I truly started the courtship of Melanie. After our near-disastrous beginning, she started coming to Bible study with her roommate and she saw I wasn’t just an impetuous cad.)

We haven’t had anything like the Bible study in a long time. After we and our friends started getting married and having kids, getting a free night to have people over the house became more and more difficult. Then we had to up and move to the South Shore of Boston, at least an hour away from our old place (at best). I’ve been attending the Men’s Group in our parish, but it’s not the same.

However, Melanie just started something new, which brings back the old theological joy, while also making me appreciate all over again what a smart, intellectual woman I married. Someone (I forget who, sorry) linked to 2006 academic article by Dr. Scott Hahn published in the journal “Letter & Spirit”. It was entitled “The Authority of Mystery: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI” (PDF). It looked intriguing so I downloaded it to my iPad, but I was having the hardest time reading it. Maybe it’s the lack of hard theological reading lately or just the many nights of sleep interrupted by wakeful children, but I couldn’t grasp it.

However, when I mentioned this, Melanie asked me to start reading it aloud to her. So I did as she cooked and cleaned in the kitchen, with punctuations from children seeking a drink or something. And what do you know? It worked. Suddenly I was grasping it. Not only that, but we start discussing it as we went, digging into the meaning, applying to our own situations or more broadly. As if by magic, we were back in our dating days, when we’d have long intellectual discussions while sitting in my car in front of Melanie’s house, as I was dropping her off from a date. Or standing by the door of my house after Bible study, her hand on the doorknob, for two hours.

A large part of our mutual attraction was indeed the intellectual curiosity and capacity of the other, but as we settled into the routine of family life, we seemed to have let that slide somewhat.

(While I’m shallow enough to admit that Melanie’s good looks were an equal part of my attraction to her, I’m also lucky that when Melanie considered me, looks were not as important as intellect.)

I’m reminded again what a blessing it is to have a wife with whom I share not just so many interests, but whose differences from me are also intriguing. I’m not a big poetry or “literature” fan (I like books just fine, but serious English Lit eludes me), but with Melanie I can begin to appreciate it. Likewise, Melanie has never been big on politics or science, but she likes to talk with me about them. And when it comes to faith and theology, that is a shared love we dig deep in together.

Some of the best husband-wife couples I know include two great intellects in them, which seems to spur both on to greater accomplishments. I’m thinking of Scot and Kimberly Hahn for one and Phil and Leila Lawler for another. Certainly, the life of the mind is a key element to a happy marriage, I think.


Book review: “Tears of the Sun” by S.M. Stirling

The Tears of the Sun (Emberverse, #8)

The Tears of the Sun by S.M. Stirling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The whole book had the whole “second book of a trilogy” feeling to it, where everything is being set up for resolution in another book. The previous two books in the series really advanced the story at a rapid pace, so Tears of the Sun was a bit jarring in how little it actually moved forward. In fact, it felt more like Stirling was going back to fill in various plot holes and tie up loose threads.

That’s not to say that there aren’t big things that happen. In fact, there are some very big events that occur. Very significant to the major characters. I would say that this is a book that explores the characters more than advances a particular plot.

One thing to keep in mind is that Stirling engages in his trademark non-linear storytelling, where the chapters jump around to focus on different people in different places, sometimes a year or more before or after the events of the previous chapter. It can be disconcerting if you’re not paying attention. By the eighth book in the Emberverse series, you better be paying attention to have got this far.

So “Tears of the Sun” may not be my favorite book of the series, but it’s still worthwhile, especially to see where Stirling is going and as the set up for what promises to be an epic conclusion to the tale, worthy of the massive buildup we’ve seen. I just hope we get some real answers to the overarching mysteries in the end.

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Book Review: Talion: Revenant by Michael Stackpole

Talion: RevenantTalion: Revenant by Michael A. Stackpole

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’ve read any Star Wars novels, then you recognize the name of Michael Stackpole, one of the best of the stable of those authors. But that’s not the whole of what he’s written. He has many novels in both fantasy and scifi genres.

But Talion:Revenant is unique in that not only was it the first book he ever wrote, it has never been published. At least not in the traditional sense. Last year, Stackpole brought the book out of his archives, polished it up, and started selling it on his website (and through the regular ebook stores). Partly, he wanted to prove that good authors producing self-published ebooks can make a good living, but also so that this story could live. And if the book sells 5,000 copies, he’s promised a sequel. More than 1,200 have sold so far, and I have to imagine there are 3,800 people out there who don’t want another sparkly vampire book.

The world of the Talion is quite imaginative, in fact. I enjoy the interplay of justice with the concepts of mercy and honor as characters struggle between the need for the law to earn both deterrence and respect. Characters struggle within and without and while the book is not perfect—some of the plotting is a bit thin and races along a little too fast and some of the characters are a little flat—it’s quite enjoyable. In fact, there’s a bit of a Harry Potter feel at times (remember, this was a long time before Hogwarts was even conceived), a little bit of Ender’s Game, but on the whole, quite original.

At the least it’s worth $5 to see Stackpole revisit the world of the Shattered Empire after 25 years of honing his craft and see what he produces today. If you like Tolkien or Guy Gavriel Kay or Terry Brooks, you’ll enjoy Talion: Revenant.

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Review: “Between the Savior and the Sea” by Bob Rice

Bob Rice’s “Between the Savior and the Sea” is a novelization of the public ministry of Jesus with a focus on St. Peter. It is not a theological treatise, although as Bob says, he based his story on solid theology. Neither is it private revelation, although it is faithful to the public revelation of the Four Gospels. Instead, what Bob has created is a narrative bridge that fills in the gaps of what the Gospels choose to tell us, creating a story that brings the truths about Christ and His apostles to us in new ways that are uniquely suited to a culture such as ours that consumes such stories for hours per day.

To be clear, Bob is not claiming that the way he depicts Jesus, Peter, Mary or any of the figures in the books is the way they actually were. “Between the Savior and the Sea” is undoubtedly not what really happened in the pubic ministry of Christ. But it could be what happened as nearly everything rings true to what Scripture and Tradition tell us.

“Between the Savior and the Sea” accomplishes what every work of Christian fiction should aspire to, namely that as I read it and when I was done I was brought closer to Christ, to His Church, and to His sacraments. At times, I was brought to the point of tears as I contemplated Christ’s love and His sacrifices. Particularly moving was the scene in which Mary receives the Body of Christ from the cross and contemplates Him as the newborn baby He once was.

The focus on St. Peter is especially satisfying. I’ve always loved Peter because it is so easy to identify with him. Having been chosen by the Lord, Peter so obviously fails again and again, and yet manages to also express profound truths about the Lord. In his denial of Jesus, he’s not quite like Judas in the depth of his betrayal, but even so he shows in his life the forgiveness that could have been Judas’ had he not given into despair. Bob’s depiction of Peter’s soaring love for Christ, his self-doubt, his final thrust of himself at the mercy of the Lord all resonate with my own relationship with Christ. How often do I fall in to sin? Yet, even St. Peter failed the Lord at times and look at he got back up time and again to go forward for the Lord.

Some will be bothered by the colloquial language used by the characters in the novel as being too 21st-century American. Others will not like how one or another character does not live up to their own mental images of these people who are in many ways as much a part of our lives as our own families. It can be hard to let encounter someone else’s interpretation of that person.

The research that Bob put into the book shows clearly. He went to the Holy Land and stood in the places he describes and in that way, we stand there too.

At the beginning of Holy Week, this is a perfect time to read this book. It will be good spiritual reading and nourishment for your contemplation of the Passion and Resurrection. If you have a Kindle or a device that can show Kindle books, then you can download the book and be reading it within minutes.

Personal Disclosure: Bob and I went to school together at Franciscan University of Steubenville, but my opinion of his book would be the same regardless.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


What’s the real reason sales of picture books are languishing?


Are picture books declining in sales because parents are pushing kids to chapter books earlier or is there perhaps a simpler explanation? The New York Times story claims that sales of picture books are declining because parents—as in so many other areas of life—are pushing their kids to excel and advance more rapidly than normal development phases would suggest.

Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.

But is that really the reason? Undoubtedly, it’s part of the cause, but it could also include the fact that so many of the new picture books that the book industry is dumping on the shelves at an alarming rate are just dreck and drivel. One reason to believe this may be the case is that sales of classic books continue to be strong.

Classic books like “Goodnight Moon” and the “Eloise” series still sell steadily, alongside more modern popular titles like the “Fancy Nancy” books and “The Three Little Dassies” by Jan Brett, but even some best-selling authors are feeling the pinch. Jon Scieszka, who wrote “Robot Zot,” said his royalty checks had been shrinking, especially in the last year.

In other words, classic books that have stood the test of time and new books that have proven to be good are still selling well. But new books that are a flash in the pan or are just plain bad aren’t selling. Frankly, I think it’s a reflection of the whole book industry: People are starting to be choosy about the books they spend their money and fewer dollars are being spent on poorly written, edited, and produced titles that have filled the seasonal catalogs of publishers for years. The book industry, like the music industry, has gotten by for decades vomiting forth formulaic products hewing to the latest fads and sopping up disposable cash. But in the midst of the Great Recession and an era of easy access to competitive content online, people are less willing to spend money on dreck.

When I look at the children’s books that are out there—much of it the equivalent of junk food, some of it actively harmful to their development—I understand why parents are getting fed up. How many Winnie-the-Pooh equivalent books are produced in a generation? How many Seuss-quality writers have there ever been? Jan Brett is certainly top-notch, and we really like Otis by Loren Long. I’m having a hard thinking of another new picture book that stands out.

As usual, the old media producers of content miss the change in those who purchase and use their content. Music companies blame piracy for declining sales of music rather than their ongoing attempts to make us buy the same classic music catalog over and over again in every new format and then push the likes of Kesha and her doppelgängers at us. Likewise, Hollywood which rarely stumbles upon unique gems like “Lost” and then decides that if we like one “Lost”, we’ll love a dozen poorly made lookalikes. And then if we want to watch the TV shows and movies on something other than the decades-old technology they allow, they accuse us of piracy. And then also blame declining profits on piracy and anything else other than their own shortsightedness.

And thus with the book publishers. I don’t doubt there are plenty of parents pushing their kids into chapter books as part of their ongoing obsession with measuring their own worth by their children’s material success in life, but I won’t overlook the nagging suspicion that much of the blame can be found by looking in their own mirrors.