Journeys of Frodo by Barbara Strachey

Journeys of Frodo : An Atlas of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
Barbara Strachey
ill. Barbara Strachey
(HarperCollins, London: 1998)

First published in Great Britain by George Allen & Unwin, 1981.

READ: February 2008

I love books.

I love maps.

I love the Lord of the Rings.

Therefore, it logically follows that were there a book of maps based on the travels in the Lord of the Rings, I would love that, too. Journeys of Frodo, happily, proves this hypothesis.

In this marvelous gem of an atlas, what Strachan has done is gone through all of J.R.R. Tolkien's writings related to the Lord of the Rings, and matched up descriptions to detailed maps. Tolkien was largely consistent in his descriptions, but he occasionally gave conflicting evidence, and in those cases, Strachan has done her best to reconcile differing accounts. While you won't find a story, per se, in the pages of this book, it is a lovely complement to anyone who wishes to have a deeper, more detailed understanding of Middle-Earth and the travels of the Fellowship.

Next by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton
(Harper (HarperCollins), New York: 2006)

READ: February 2008

I didn't have quite the visceral reaction to this book as I did to The Da Vinci Code, but almost. My mom left this book behind after coming to visit one weekend, and so I figured I'd read it.

In his book, Crichton states that Next is a work of fiction, "except for the parts that aren't." He then leads the reader through a dizzying whirlwind of genetic science events. A drug addict is cured by a gene therapy that causes accelerated maturity. A cancer patient who donated some of his cells for gene therapy to a university loses control over those cells, and those of his descendants. A monkey-boy is created when a researcher injects some of his sperm into an ape. You dream it up, Crichton's probably already put it in his book.

According to a review in the New York Times, "oddity after oddity in 'Next' checks out, and many are replays of real events." To which I respond, "Sure, but so what?" Just because something is true, doesn't make it worth reading. I've studied enough law and read just enough science to know that certain genetic procedures are still currently operating in a Wild West as far as patent law is concerned. I even agree that some, if not all, of these developments are troubling. But if you're trying to bring the issue to the forefront, why not do so in a less tabloid-esque way?

And that, I guess, is my main problem with this book. Fundamentally, I can agree with Crichton's main thesis. A novel with a thesis, you may ask? While certainly not every work of fiction can be said to have a central thesis, in an Author's Note to Next, just in case you didn't "get it", Crichton clearly lays out his five conclusions:

1) Stop patenting genes.
2) Establish clear guidelines for the use of human tissues.
3) Pass laws to ensure that data about gene testing is made public.
4) Avoid bans on research.
5) Rescind the Bayh-Dole Act [which grants universities, small businesses, and non-profit institutions in the U.S. the control and ownership of any intellectual property on inventions resulting from federal government-funded research, rather than the IP rights going to the government].

On their face, these are laudable goals. And a novel, of course, does not have to be neutral in its politics. However, I find Crichton's method of hammering the reader over the head with example after example of why our current legislative scheme (or lack thereof) is faulty, to be tedious, deplorable, and even somewhat insulting. Next is geared to prove that these five conclusions are inevitable. While this may or may not be true, a proper exploration of the issues would have been more appropriate. A proper exploration could very well, in fact, lead to the same five conclusions, but without me feeling like I've been dragged through 300+ pages of bias to get there, leaving me a happier reader as a result, and perhaps more concerned about the issues.

But Next dismisses any need for a proper debate. It says, "It's so obvious," and then throws 37 different examples my way. It portrays the guys (yes, mostly guys) in the biotechnology business as cowboys, bent on getting the results they want at any cost. Everything is black and white. Even those issues that could have been dealt with more subtly are painted with fat brushstrokes: Alex - whose father is the cancer patient mentioned above whose cells, and those of his descendants, are now "owned", as it were, by the university who developed a particular gene therapy - is a lawyer. But wait! - she's not a blood-sucking, money-leaching lawyer, like all the others in the book. She is nice and cuddly, and prefers to settle matters out-of-court whenever possible, rather than dragging everything out into a prolonged court fight. She only starts to get mean when her son is threatened. I mean, c'mon - it's her son! And then there's David, the 4-year-old "monkey-boy", who is rescued by the researcher who created him when it turns out David is scheduled for termination (due to the lab being worried about the ethical ramifications that may arise if David's existence is discovered, though why that hadn't happened earlier when David first started showing signs of being anything other than a regular ape is a good question, but I digress). He is brought to live with the researcher's family in California, and things only come to a head when another young boy starts challenging David. But this boy is not just your average neighbourhood bully, not just that kid who didn't get enough hugs from his mother when he was very young - oh, no, this kid is mean, escalating from a brief schoolyard scuffle to an actual gunfight in the blink of an eye. Shed no tears for the bully; David needs them all.

Crichton dumbs down the issue by using such broad, obvious strokes. In addition, the style of the book, with its short, fast-paced chapters, cutting from storyline to story line, and interspersed fake news articles written to look as if they are real, further debases the actual importance of these issues. Really, all I ever needed to know about cloning, I did not learn from Jurassic Park (to be fair, I have not read the book), and I am dismayed at the thought that people will think they have "learned" about genetic testing from Next.

Final thought: For an example of how to rewrite Next - even in such a way that it has almost exactly the same plotlines - but with less bias and more exploration of actual issues rather than the panic-stricken tone adopted here, take a look at Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. In it, Stephenson clearly and concisely sets out the history of cryptography, and also explores future possible developments of the technology of cryptography, both good and bad. It's a big book, and will take you longer than 3 days to read (which is roughly how long it took me to get through Next, mostly while commuting to and from work), but there are certainly worse things on which you could waste brain-cells and time.

Your Own Worst Enemy : Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement by Kenneth Christian

Your Own Worst Enemy : Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement
Kenneth W. Christian
(HarperCollins, New York: 2002)

READ: January - February 2008

Not my usual fare, but Randal had picked this up at some point in Japan, upon a number of recommendations, so I figured I'd give it a try.

Well, the book was an interesting read and it certainly gave me a good perspective on some of the habits I have that may not always be the most productive. So I guess it was helpful in that it made me a bit more aware. I mean, most people would probably not consider me to be an underachiever. For all intents and purposes, I come off as an overachiever: I have two graduate degrees, a good job, a stable relationship. But - and Dr. Christian would allude to this again and again in his text - I could have done more. I am happy with where I am, with (most of) the choices I have made, and with what I am doing; however, along the way, I occasionally have made choices that were clear underachiever choices. But this is a book review, not a personal review.

It was hard, sometimes, to see the book as truly relevant when I was consistently being give examples of fairly extreme cases - people who had truly and completely dropped out, either socially or academically, despite having shown great promise, talent, and ambition early on. This was a little disappointing - I think there are probably a lot more so-called adult underachievers who are more like me: borderline underachievers. But maybe that just means I needed to read a different book.

I probably could have gotten more out of the book if I had taken more of the advice given - for example, there were numerous suggested written exercises that I merely read over and did not attempt. All things considered, however, this was still a useful book. If nothing else, it made me more aware and more conscious of how I deal with things, helping me to perhaps fend off potential problems or issues in the future, and also more aware that it's important to be content with where you are in life, something which is often parroted but not often practiced.

Tales Before Tolkien : The Roots of Modern Fantasy, ed. Douglas Anderson

Tales Before Tolkien : The Roots of Modern Fantasy
Edited and with commentary by Douglas A. Anderson
(Del Rey Books (Random House), New York: 2005)

READ: January - February 2008

Douglas Anderson, a leading Tolkien scholar, has collected here 21 stories that either inspired Tolkien directly in the creation of his seminal The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books, or are striking examples of the lineage of prior fantasy works from which Tolkien drew inspiration.

While I understand that some sort of criteria needed to be followed in order to choose from a more finite pool of candidate stories, the selection criteria indeed seemed (as the editor himself admits) a little arbitrary: That the authors be born at least 5 years before Tolkien, not that the stories have directly influenced Tolkien. There's many other works I would have liked to see in this list, of which I have become aware from one of Anderson's other works, The Annotated Hobbit.

At any rate, as I expected to find in a work of this scope, many of the stories were wonderful little gems in their own right (for ex., The Elf Trap by Francis Stevens), while others struck me as being vastly inferior to what came later (for ex., The Golden Key by George MacDonald). Some stories were quaint and charming (for ex., Puss-cat Mew by E. Knatchbull-Hugessen), while others were simply off-beat (for ex., The Coming of the Terror by Arthur Machen).

For anyone who is a fan of fantasy literature, whether or not you are a huge fan of Tolkien, this is a book I'd recommend.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
Mordecai Richler
(Penguin Canada, Toronto: 1995)

First published by Penguin Canada in 1964.

READ: January - February 2008

As someone who professes to love Canadian literature, I have been a little embarrassed to admit that I have never read any Mordecai Richler. So when I had a chance to pick up a nice copy of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, I jumped. (I haven't even seen the movie.)

I can see why the book is as lauded as it is; however, I hate it when I finish a book and still dislike the main character as much as I did upon starting. Still, there's something about this book that grabs you, and I can understand why it's endured as it has. The writing is, of course, excellent, and Richler really did a good job of developing the story. Still, the characters were a little one-dimensional, and that's probably why I disliked Duddy as much as I did. I had no starting-ground in common with him from which I might attempt to try to put myself in his shoes.

That being said, I am looking forward to reading more Richler.