Announcing Summer School: Tolkien 101 – Index

Tolkien holds a special place in my book-heart, and in my more desiccated heart-heart.  It does not go too far, I think, to say that I wouldn’t be doing any of this but for Tolkien.  And by any of this, I’m not sure that I only mean the blogging.  It was Tolkien who turned a spark of a love for reading into a roaring conflagration.  A poor kid from the southern Appalachian Mountains, it was largely a facility with the written word that got me from there to here.

It almost didn’t happen.  And then I wouldn’t be giving you an entire summer of posts on Tolkien (you will be able to find every post linked here).  I will be posting on Tolkien every Thursday through the end of August.  This is no truncated summer session.  Read on for more about my history with Tolkien and more about what you can expect from Summer School: Tolkien 101.

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Tolkien 101: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring Trilogy (extended editions)

I’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy many, many times.  But this was a different experience.  My first time watching them after rereading the books, perhaps since their release.  My first time watching them after watching Jackson’s execrable Hobbit trilogy.  My first time watching the extended editions.

How did each effect my viewing experience?  The movies have steadily grown in my estimation since their release, in large part I think because they steadily replaced the books in my schema of the story.  Rereading the books, I have a better appreciation for them as separate works.  The books are better, frankly, with richer characterization and deeper emotional resonance.  But the movies are a remarkable adaptation and visually stunning.  The Hobbit movies made me appreciate the Lord of the Rings movies more, especially the F/X, of which I have been critical.  But they are much, much better than those of the Star Wars prequels and Jackson’s King Kong movie, and the movies are very well served by the blu-ray transfer and a 60” plasma.  And if the extended editions don’t exactly change my estimation of any of the movies, they improve the narrative flow and look even better than the theatrical cut.

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Nonfiction: Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill

Some hillbilly studies from my new blog Hillbilly Highways…

Hillbilly Highways

I once thought of Night Comes to the Cumberlands as a The Mind of the South for southern Appalachia (W.J. Cash utterly ignores the highcountry).  Now that I’ve read Night Comes to the Cumberlands, I know just how different coal country is from both the lowcountry South and the stretches of Appalachia unblighted by coal and thank God again there is no coal under my particular corner of Appalachia.  Coal ruined Mr. Caudill’s country, and he’s rightfully angry about it (although his writing is never other than fair and evenhanded, perhaps too much so, as he lays out this hillbilly horror story in exacting detail).

Night Comes to the Cumberlands has immediately joined my pantheon of books I would recommend to any planning to embark on a serious study of the South along with The Mind of the South, Confederates in the Attic, and Albion’s Seed.  It occupies…

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Announcing Hillbilly Highways: Country Noir, Hillbilly Studies, and Texas Country Blog

I have been hinting here for months about a secret project.  That secret project—Hillbilly Highways—quietly went live on June 4.  Hillbilly Highways is a new blog devoted to “Country Noir, Hillbilly Studies, and Texas Country.”

Hillbilly Highways focuses on the cultural folkway of the people who immigrated to the Appalachian backcountry from the border regions of England and Scotland and Ulster Ireland and from there (on hillbilly highways) to Oklahoma and inner California, Detroit and Houston.  My people.  Steve Earle epitomized that diaspora in his song Hillbilly Highway.

What is all that stuff in the blog subtitle?  “Country Noir” stories occupy a particular corner of the crime fiction genre.  A corner set in the hills and hollers instead of the big city, full of messy violence and desperate men and women, comfortably straddling the divide between pulp and literary.  A better introduction will take me only 7 minutes—Chris Knight’s Down the River is one hell of a country noir story in song form.  I have two other posts on country noir already up: one on my favorite book by my favorite country noir writer—One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash—and one on a collection of short stories by the quintessential country noir writer—The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell.

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Tolkien 101: Devin Brown’s Tolkien Biography

The best thing that can be said about Brown’s biography of Tolkien is also the worst: it is very short.  192 pages (in paperback) isn’t much room to tell the story of anyone’s life, let alone Tolkien’s.  Brown’s biography was the first book on Tolkien—other than Tom Shippey’s masterful Author of the Century—I had picked up in many years, but Brown doesn’t seem to cover any new ground.

If you are looking for a quick read, especially as an introduction, Brown’s book may be worth picking up.  But it is exceeded by Shippey’s Author of the Century; Loconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War; and the Zaleskis’ The Fellowship and doesn’t add anything new that those books don’t cover.

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Brandon Sanderson Sets Up Oathbringer With Edgedancer

I picked up four books to read in anticipation of Oathbringer: the Mistborn trilogy and Edgedancer.  As I mentioned in my reviews of the Mistborn books, that trilogy isn’t very closely tied to the Stormlight Archive (but it is also the best Sanderson series I’ve read, so no harm, no foul).  Edgedancer, on the other hand, is not only helpful but almost mandatory reading between Words of Radiance and Oathbringer.  It is also a damn fine book on its own, although it can’t stand alone.

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Tolkien 101: The Animated Tolkien Movies

Whew boy, did I need a palate cleanser after watching Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.  And I did love the Rankin/Bass adaptation of The Hobbit as a kid, after all.  So it turns out that, of the three animated adaptations, that one is the only one that is any good.  But they are all still worth watching, a welcome change, and useful for disassociating Jackson’s Hobbit from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings in my mind.

The animated movies have a bit of a weird history.  Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, best known for their animated Christmas specials, adapted The Hobbit (in one movie, it turns out it can be done).  Ralph Bakshi, the same guy behind the animated sword and sorcery movie Fire and Ice, worked on a planned two-part adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but after weak ticket sales for the first movie his studio refused to fund the second one.  Rankin and Bass then adapted The Return of the King.  They obviously intended to finish Bakshi’s unfinished two-part Lord of the Rings, but they only had the rights to the final book, so considerable material from The Two Towers is left out of both movies.

In the end, we got one very good movie and two mediocre movies.  We also got a different vision for Tolkien’s work.  Peter Jackson borrowed a surprising amount from the Bakshi movie.  The Rankin/Bass Hobbit movie, on the other hand, is very different from anything you or Tolkien ever imagined.  These are 70s movies, and they reflect a much weirder SF landscape more than they do a more Tolkienized post-1980 SF landscape.

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Wrath of Empire Cements McClellan’s Reputation as Dean of Flintlock Fantasy

First things first, this review is going to be full of spoilers for Sins of Empire, the first book in McClellan’s Gods of Blood and Powder series.  If you haven’t read that book, go back and read that review instead of this one (or just go ahead and buy it).  And if you haven’t already read McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, you really need to start with Promise of Blood.

Bottom line: Wrath of Empire is probably McClellan’s weakest book due to some storytelling shortcuts, but McClellan’s worst is better than most writers’ best, and he is still the dean of flintlock fantasy for a reason (even if I did read By Fire Above first).

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