Saturday, July 16, 2016

Tolkien on Tom Bombadil

In the course of research for an upcoming conference paper, I ran across the following illuminating passage about Tom Bombadil in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien:

Tom Bombadil is not an important person—to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’. I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention (who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control, but if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron. (Letters179)
I am not usually one to "trust the author," so to speak, but Tolkien is different.  Everything he says here fits with what is represented in the text, and with the interpretation that close reading would yield--and yet there is insight here, too.  I find that I have nothing to add, but I am reminded quite sharply of Gandalf's intent, at the end of Return of the King, to visit and chat with Bombadil.

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Immediate Book Meme

Hat Tip: Mrs. Darwin - thanks for bringing this one up again!

1. What book are you reading now?

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett
So far, a fun read, though I'm stalled in the 'wizard' part of the book.  Ready to get back to DEATH and the other plotline now!

2. What book did you just finish?

Virgins by Diana Gabaldon
Decidedly uninspiring, whether because I'm more or less done with the Outlander series, or because this is really a sub-par addition.  Virgins is a novella about Jamie Fraser and his childhood friend Ian as mercenaries in France, and how they are hoodwinked while escorting a French Jewess to her fiancé.  There was not a lot of substance, and too much discussion of circumcision.

God's Eye by Susan Fanetti 
Rather forgettable; I actually couldn't remember what book I read before the Outlander novella above, though I knew it was something that irritated me.  The novel had potential - it was about a Norse girl who was considered "marked" by Odin and so shunned and feared, her decision to become a shieldmaiden, her sudden romance, and the fight that she and her husband had for her autonomy (from her lord - not Odin; religion is window dressing).  The most troubling thing was how brutal vengeance was celebrated--glorified--upheld as the right path, with no alternative.

Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge
There are things I want to say about Crimson Bound, but I first I need to reread it.  I found it, initially, too adrenaline-pumping for an evening read, and put it aside. But then I came back--because I had to come back--and found it original, compelling, and darkly enchanting (and, strangely, not too intense for a late-night read!)  I highly recommend it, and wish that I could work it in to one of my college-level courses.  Also, I want to read it side by side with The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, as I think the comparison would be very interesting.

The Incarnations by Susan Barker
A very disturbing read.  This novel, ostensibly set in a China preparing for the Olympics, winds back through Chinese History through the letters to Driver Wu, a taxi driver, from an unknown person bound to him through many past lives.  The novel is disturbing in its depictions of sexuality and violence, but both are central to the plot and seem consistent with the time period being depicted. It is a captivating novel, but not one that I am likely to revisit.

3. What do you plan to read next?

No definite plans.  Gearing up to teach summer sessions and writing a conference paper on Lord of the Rings.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett
I finally gave up and returned it to the library. Although I find Rincewind vaguely amusing, I am not a fan of the wizard thread in Discworld.

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett
I'm not sure why this one is so hard for me to stick with when I loved the other three Tiffany Aching books, and anxiously awaited this one.  It might be that there is a difference between this one and the novels that Pratchett was actually able to polish himself.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett
Restarting, in this case.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Mostly Fantasy, some Romance.  Some recommendations from Amazon or bargains from those bargain eBook emails.  In other words, fairly unfocused.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Farmer Maggot's Farm: If not locus amoenus, then what?

Since I am actively looking for places where the Hobbits and the ring company experience rest and rejuvenation along their journey, I feel compelled to pause and consider Farmer Maggot's farm.  Farmer Maggot's farm is a place of rest, yes.  They eat and drink as they rest.  But is it a locus amoenus?  And if not, then what?

The meal is a homely one--a homey one, we might say--farmhouse fare.  It consists of mushrooms and other appropriate foods, and it is eaten within man-made--or hobbit-made--walls rather than in nature.  In particular, there is no running water.  There is also no priest.  Farmer Maggot is a shrewd fellow, but he does not, in fact, preside over the meal.  His wife is more instrumental than he in laying the table, and his part in the tableau is to analyze recent events rather than to serve.  That the main part of the meal is made of mushrooms suggests an earthiness, or perhaps we might say an earthliness.  This is good, nourishing food, but it is food of the earth rather than heavenly food.  So perhaps sometimes a meal is just a meal? And yet, I'm not sure.

The meeting with Farmer Maggot follows close on the heels of the meeting with the elves at Woodhall.  In fact, it is the very next chapter.  Like the supper with the elves, this supper is communal:  the hobbits share a meal with others, bringing the total to 14--the same number (if memory serves) as the voyage to the Lonely Mountain in the Hobbit, without Gandalf.  Interestingly, it is also one more than the total of Jesus and his 12 disciples at the Last Supper (which some would say is the origin of 13 as an unlucky number).

Farmer Maggot, though not a priestly figure, offers sanctuary.  He shields Frodo from the Black Riders and transports him to the Ferry.  But in spite of not being a "priest" figure (there seem to be no priests among hobbits, even though Gildor calls Frodo a prince among hobbits), he has been in the Old Forest, and has even had some dealings with Tom Bombadil, who reveals his respect for Farmer Maggot later.  And while the food is earthly rather than spiritual, he and his wife provide food for Frodo, Sam, and Pippin for their journey, and they later share it with Merry and Fredegar Bolger.

The positioning of this "ordinary" scene of communal eating so close to the extraordinary scene of communal eating and celebration begs for the reader to consider the possible connections.  The spiritual food of the elves is different in kind than the homely, earthy food of the farmer, and yet both nourish the body.  The eating of the communal meal at Farmer Maggots does relieve their fears, but the communal nature seems to be responsible for that relief rather than the food itself.  While it is a man-made shadow of something that, with the elves, touches the divine, a communal meal nevertheless anticipates and participates, in a small way, in that taste of heaven.  Here, we glimpse how ordinary moments become elevated to the sacramental in Tolkien, and as we live in this world, such a moment can be equally significant.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Locus Amoenus in Middle Earth: Elvish Spaces

It's been a while since I've written a notable moment post, or written about Tolkien or the locus amoenus in Lord of the Rings in particular, but I bought myself a copy of the complete Lord of the Rings for Kindle (on sale for $5!) with my Christmas gift card, and started reading on a recent trip back from New Orleans, so it seemed an opportune time to resume.  (Quotes will be from the three-volume Houghton-Mifflin edition, copyright 1994.)

I started at the beginning again, reading the Forward and the Prologue, and a very long textual note that outlined all of the many times errors were introduced into the volumes and corrected by Tolkien and his publishers.

Reading very specifically with the locus amoenus in mind, I am approaching the farm of Farmer Maggot, with Black Riders on the road--Farmer Maggot is an important personage, and even though his farm is not a locus amoenus, per se, it is a resting place where the weary have food and drink, and Tom Bombadil himself attests to the farmer's wisdom.  Before the hobbits find Farmer Maggot, however, they encounter first a Black Rider, and second Gildor Inglorian of the House of Finrod with a host of High Elves.

I resist discussing the elves when analyzing the locus amoenus and the priesthood of Middle Earth.  Elves are the most obvious priests of Middle Earth.  They are in possession of two of the three Rings of Power.  They posess the wisdom (at least of their own kind).  They are fair and have the most fair dwellings.  Their dwellings--to which they admit outsiders in the Ring quest and in The Hobbit--offer food, drink, and rest.  They feature stories of the sacred history of Middle Earth.  They are the closest to Illuvatar (with the possible exception of Gandalf); they know--and evoke--the name of Elbereth.  They drive away Black Riders simply with their presence.  When Frodo journeys with them to their banquet placr, a "veil is lifted"--more or less--and the hobbits glimpse different stars than the ones they have yet glimpsed on their journey.  These elves are not rooted to the particular place, but with their presence and their celebration they consecrate the place.  This is the first time on the journey that the hobbits receive the food and drink of the elves.

But there is a problem with elves.  They are remote.  As a result, they are held in awe, but they are also feared.  They are concerned with their own affairs to the exclusion of all other races.  They are also leaving--their time is done.  So while the dwellings and sacred places of the elves obviously represent the locus amoenus as sanctuary, and priestly sanctuary in particular, the places that are sanctuaries and sacred spaces, priestly dwellings, rest for the journey, but are not associated with elves seem the more significant--both because they are less expected, and because they tap more specifically into the sacred that is grounded in Middle Earth.  Nevertheless, elves--and elvish spaces--set the standard.

So what of the elvish space on the road from the Shire to Buckleberry Ferry?

It is in the "woods on the hills above [the town of] Woodhall" (79).  When they approach the space, the trees become denser and younger.  The clearing is surrounded by woods on three sides, but "eastward the ground fell steeply" and the tops of trees are far below (80).  Time is significant--the time for celebration is marked by the movement of the stars:
Away high in the East swung Remmirath, the Netted Stars, and slowly above the mists red Borgil rose, glowing like a jewel of fire.  Then by some shift of airs all the mist was drawn away like a veil, and there leaned up, as he climbed over the rim of the world, the Swordsman of the Sky, Menelvagor with his shining belt.  The Elves all burst into song.  Suddenly under the trees a fire sprang up with a red light. (80)
The veil of mist--presumably revealing stars that would have been seen on Middle Earth anyway--anticipates the veil that separates Middle Earth from Valinor, through which Frodo, Bilbo, Galadriel, Gandalf, and Elrond pass after the aftermath of the War of the Ring.  The same veil recalls the veil of the temple, "rent in two" when Jesus died.

The boughs of trees make a kind of roof over the natural space, which is like a hall.  There is a fire and food--"good enough for a birthday-party" (81), although Gildor apologizes for the poor fare.  Specifically, the food is eucharistic: "bread, surpassing the savour of a fair white loaf to one who is starving," fruit of the vine "sweet as wildberries and richer than the tended fruits of gardens," and "a cup that was filled with a fragrant draught, cool as a clear fountain, golden as a summer afternoon"--a foretaste of heaven indeed.

Though Gildor is friendly and responsive to the hobbits' fears and wish for information, he remains distinctly above them.  Sam, who has wished to see elves above all elves, is speechless and wears "an expression half of fear and half of astonished joy" (79-80).  When Gildor attempts to give Frodo warning, Frodo "cannot imagine what information could be more terrifying than [Gildor's] hints and warnings" (82), and cites a proverb: "Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes" (83).  Gildor's advice is guarded because "advice is a dangerous gift," but also because
[t]he Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures upon earth.  Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or purpose. (83)
The wisdom of the Elves is great but has limits, as Gildor discerns that there may be a purpose to their meeting, but he does not know what it might be, and thus is even more hesitant to give advice.

After the meeting with the Elves, who do provide sanctuary, the hobbits are rested and refreshed, and provided with (literal) food for their journey.

Sam's reflective observation proves particularly insightful:  that Elves "seem a bit above [his] likes and dislikes" (85).  While all of the consecrated of Middle Earth are beyond the hobbits' understanding, the Elves occupy the space that is the most remote.  The relationships that the hobbits form with other priestly figures close some of the distance, while also bringing the humble hobbits closer to experience of the divine.

Friday, July 18, 2014

On Authors, Fans, and Audience: Written in My Own Heart's Blood (MOBY - Outlander Book 8)

Last night, I polished off the remainder of another Outlander colossus--Written in My Own Heart's Blood.  Did you know that there are virtually no nouns that refer to 'a huge thing' without the connotation of a monster or a demon?  My first impulse was to call it a behemoth, but that wouldn't do at all, because I like 800+ page books if they are engaging.  (Now, the title, on the other hand, is somewhat of a behemoth!)

Disclaimer:  This is basically a review.  Yes, of course there are spoilers.

Those of you who know me know that when I undertake a review, it is generally not to praise the work.  If I find the work praiseworthy, I generally start by analyzing it, as I have with the Hunger Games series, and with a few volumes of the Outlander series as well.  Generally, for me, 'review' means 'critique.'

The Outlander series, written by Diana Gabaldon, is on Book 8 now.  I have written extensively on this blog about three of the books:  Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager.  I became stuck in Voyager because there is so much to say about the themes that interest me--I became bogged down, finished my reread without writing out everything I thought, and moved on.  When I started rereading The Fiery Cross with an eye to blogging it, I realized that I just wasn't that interested in that particular volume, which had a lot to do with Jamie and Claire's daughter Brianna and her intended, Roger, with establishing "Fraser's Ridge," and with a minor peacekeeping skirmish that just wasn't terribly heroic.  Also with preventing pregnancy (a theme that was on the rise from the second book on) and the unlikely parentage of Brianna's son Jem (you will never convince me that it is more likely for a child to have been conceived when the couple practiced coitus interruptus than when she was raped by a pirate the next day).  In spite of The Fiery Cross, and a few moments when it was impossible to suspend disbelief, I was still enjoying the series, and waiting, perhaps not as anxiously as Diana's fans, for the next installment.

Written in My Own Heart's Blood became known through the author's conventions of abbreviation as MOBY on social media and on her web site.  And boy, have the past couple of years been exercises in social media promotion.  I am not certain how any author could sustain such a campaign and not emerge with utter contempt for her fan base.  For much of the last year and a half of her writing process, she (or her PR person) has been posting "Daily Lines"--sneak peeks of the forthcoming volume meant to titillate fans (sometimes literally).  Having just finished An Echo in the Bone, which I enjoyed, but which had a cliffhanger ending or two, I did eagerly consume these snippets.  Then, I tried to read them more carefully, avoiding the fan feedback, which was often in the form of "Oh, Diana, I LIVE for these books!" and "Oh, Jamie!  Oh, Claire!!" or "I just ADORE [character of choice]" or "When is the book going to be out?" or "WHY does the publication date keep moving?  I can't STAND this any more!!" or "Why are you DOING this to your fans who LOVE you?" and other ludicrous forms of praise and complaint.  Throw in the commentary on the casting of the Outlander Starz series, and it was truly nauseating.  I know, I know. Don't read the comments.  But the comments were part of this whole dog-and-pony show, since the whole Facebook page was designed to promote the book(s).  Eventually, I still consumed the snippets, but with less relish.  There were too many details revealed.  The snippets were repeated, or a slightly different paragraph break was posted, but essentially the same part of the story.  I began to fear that when I actually read the book, I would feel like I was reading all of the posts from Facebook, strung together.  This did happen to an extent.  And by the time the book came out, I was no longer eager to read it.  I waited at least a whole week before buying it (it may have been a month, actually), and probably would have waited longer had I not simply needed a book to read that would last through my husband's week-long conference in Switzerland.

That's the backstory.  But it's more than that.  It influenced how aware I was of the writer's writing process.  I did get the impression that the writing of this novel was a long, tedious haul--or at least, the combination of the Facebook campaign and the novel itself led me to that conclusion.

So before buying the book, I read a few Amazon reviews--something I rarely do.  I started with the negative reviews, because having seen fanbabble for the past 18 months, I rather knew what drivel would be in the positive reviews.  I wanted something honest.  What I learned is that some people--even self-described die-hard fans--were disappointed.  Even bored.  Here's a sampling:

I'm sad to say that MOBY was a major disappointment! I'm a huge fan of the series and have read every book, novella, etc available. Pre-purchased this book and counted the days until delivery. 
Plot lines were repetitious and somewhat boring (found myself skimming to get to point). Book lacked the flow that its predecessors possessed; in prior books I couldn't put the book down because the action was so intense. Stories seemed choppy and lacked relevance to each other, in some cases. 
Overall, for a book that took 5 years to write, it felt rushed, thrown together and lacked the authenticity that the 1st 7 books made look so simple. I didn't believe this felt forced.
 The book was so disjointed and did not flow with the poetry of the other 7. It made no sense that so many KEY, nay CRUCIAL components to this 24 years-to-compose series are not answered. Too many new characters were introduced, and I believe the author, Miss Galbadon, forgot to include many, many things alluded to in the story lines of the previous seven novels. Is this because she focused that information in her novellas?
A few things that irritated me.Jamie, raised in Scotland educated in France and now 20 years later.. In this book he talks more Gaidhlig than he ever has. Yet his sister who has never left Scotland, talk 99% great English. Felt like DG Learned some new words and had to include them. They didn't fit and it was SO over done. 
I didn't like Clair in this book, she took on the character of a know it all, always reminding us of how amazingly educated she is. We get it! So many useless filler stories that drag on and on, over detailed descriptions of surgery. Who cares when surgery are done on strangers, that have nothing to do with the continuing story. So many retold stories. Same Story different day.. War. war and.. the burning of a print shop again... At times I thought the story was about to pick up, only to find my hope die. The book is just a filler to the next book. I guess DG is dragging it out to make as much money as she can from this series. 
Ian had some great moments, His story could have been so much more with his fear of the baby's birth. Only to read Rachel water broke one page and 3 days later, Clair tells Jamie Ian has a son. Wow really, No excitement, no joy, no enjoying Ian's moment?The Greys have their own series and they should stay there. How stupid 70% of this book was the Greys searching for Ben. Who cares about Hal, who cares about Ben? I care nothing for William either. DG failed badly. If she spent half as much time building the characters as she did adding languages we didn't need and over detailed medical descriptions. 

I think that the build-up backfired with these readers.  But these reviews didn't put me off.  I forgot many of the criticisms--other than "boring," "surgery," and "characters."

I did not, however, find the novel boring.  Moving through, I could see what the reviewers meant--there were a lot of details of life, but I was prepared to forgive those.  More than prepared--I welcomed most of them.  One of the strengths of Gabaldon's writing is often that she does infuse purpose and significance into the ordinary... when she's not subverting the ordinary.  I did get bogged down in the character list sometimes, finding myself thinking--okay, who was that? and concluding that it didn't actually matter.

The first significant problem I noticed was the repetition of scenes from previous books.  Yes--at times, entire scenes.  Verbatim.  We relived, in brief, many events from each of the other seven books.  It felt like filler, and it felt a little insulting--like the reader could not be trusted to remember.  Now, this is an author who has direct contact with her readers via Facebook.  Many of those readers remember better than she does what happened in each of the books--or assume that they do.  In most cases, the flashback was strictly unnecessary, and rather felt like a device that should have been reserved for the mini series versions.  This was my first inkling that there was something odd in the relationship that the author had established with her audience--or fan base, since I don't think a "fan base" and an "audience" are precisely the same thing.

The third reviewer I quoted above mentions the Gaidhlig words and phrases in this book.  I will second that observation.  Though I did not remember that complaint from the review as I was reading, I developed it quite independently.  In his old age, Jamie is definitely slipping back into Gaidhlig.  Except that... I made up that "old age" part.  There is no rhyme or reason for why he--and Ian, who probably should be interspersing as  much Mohawk as Gaidhlig in his swearing and muttering--uses the Scotch Gaelic so much more in this particular book.  It becomes distracting.  But that's not all....

Speaking of vocabulary, I found myself using my Kindle dictionaries to look up obscure words and usages much more often than I have ever done before, and much more often than a casual reader with a Ph.D. in English should have to do.  I couldn't help feeling that this was another strategy--or dig--aimed at the fans she had come to know on Facebook.  First, the Gaidhlig was there for the fans, to allow them to revel in Jamie's Scottishness, and also to show off and allow them to pick up and puzzle over pronunciation and meaning.  Pure crowd-pleasing.  Meanwhile, the obscure vocabulary functioned to reinforce authorial superiority and control.  Except that the Gaidhlig did so, too.  As I read, I found myself getting the distinct impression that the author was reaching in and reminding me that she was smarter than me.  There were two things wrong with that--first, anyone can do research.  The vocabulary was a product of the nuts and bolts WORK behind the novel, just like the research into surgical techniques or military campaigns of the Revolutionary War.  Sure, a novel is work.  And in fact, more and more we're told that it's more work than inspiration.  Fine.  Whatever.  But the work should be behind-the-scenes.  The author can't imbue the work with the message, "See?  Look how much WORK I did!" Particularly when there has been a dialog on Facebook with that very implication--novels take a long time; they take a lot of work.  Gabaldon goes so far as to reprimand readers who think she is wrong about word usage in the back matter.  I was sort of incensed to read this after finishing the novel:
Owing to the interesting ideosyncracies of the Scots dialect, some words may appear to be misspelled--but they aren't.  For instance, while an English cook may have made her flapjacks on an iron griddle, her Scottish counterpart was frying sausages on a hot girdle.  (This occasional transposition of sounds results in such entertaining items as a Scottish dessert known as "creamed crud" ("curd" to the less imaginative English).  It also results in the occasional inattentive reviewer denouncing the occurance of "typos" in my books.  This is not to say that there aren'tany typos--there always are, no matter how many eyeballs have combed the pages--just that "girdle" isn't one of them.
Thank you, Mrs. Gabaldon.  However, this is a problem for readers, and by adding this note, you indicate that you know that this is a problem for readers, but don't care, because you're too smart to care, and ultimately you are the one in control. (Your editors know that, too, don't they?)  But frankly, this damages your ethos as well as your narrative.  Because the second problem with obscure words or confusing spellings is that they disrupt the reading process.  If I have to stop and puzzle while reading, to look up a word that is too obscure for an overeducated person to know readily, I have suddenly become more aware of my reading process than of the characters and plot.  This is a narrative intrusion that is much more disruptive--and possibly more condescending--than the famed "intrusive narrator," a subject of much contempt in certain camps, particularly among children's literature critics.  In my case, I did not think it was Gabaldon's typo, but I did think it was a Kindle transciption error. Consider the context:
I had a tiny cautery iron, its handle wrapped in twisted wool, heating on Amy's girdle.  I supposed it didn't matter if it tasted like sausages.
Given Gabaldon's sense of double entendre, and knowing now that it was not a transcription error, I can't help imagining her chuckling to herself about "girdles" tasting of "sausages" (*wink, wink* *nudge, nudge*)

I have not done as much research as Gabaldon on the linguistic characteristics of Scottish dialects, clearly.  But here's a thought.  In American English, a naturally occurring linguistic change is for "nuclear" to be pronounced "nucular" or "nuculer."  However, this is not something that appears in print.  If it were to appear in a narrative, even if the intent was to represent dialect, it would not register as such with readers, and would certainly not pass muster with editors.  Let's examine this from another angle.  The story.  Perhaps you noticed that the character who was narrating this particular chapter was Claire Fraser?  Right.  The time traveler. The ENGLISH time traveler.  From the 20th Century.  Why on earth would her internal narrative reflect 18th Century Scots pronunciation?  Exactly.  So that the author can demonstrate how smart she is.  *sigh*

I'm being perhaps more snarky and belligerant than I meant to be.  However, this is a natural response to the type of authorial antagonism present in the narrative, and in the note.  And that authorial antagonism is, I believe, a natural consequence of knowing your audience too intimately.

On a less personal note...

I do agree that the novel was extremely choppy.  It did not, in fact, read as a coherent novel with... okay, a plot.  There were sub-plots, but there was not an overarching plot.  I don't consider "Get Jamie and Claire back to Fraser's Ridge" to be a plot.  That, in fact, was the only unifying problem that needed to be overcome, and it was an author's dilemma rather than a plot dilemma--which points to my other major criticism.  After a while, I was tracing the author's writing process, which again took me out of the book.  It began to feel like a laborious process, and while I could appreciate the challenges of writing the book, that is not where I wanted to be.  Nevertheless, the stories themselves were interesting.  Unlike other critical reviewers, I enjoyed the presence of the Grey family throughout the novel.  For the first time, that family does actually seem to belong in the story of the Fraser's lives.  I was interested in Hal's search for his son Ben and his (purported) widow.  Unfortunately, that plot didn't resolve.  I was interested in William's... journey, which also didn't resolve, but came to one dead end (no pun intended--more on that in a bit...).  The wedding plots were fine, and provided the opportunity for some virgin (and not-so-virgin) sex and some sex ed, which again, is a crowd-pleaser.  These scenes did feel a bit forced, but they had to be there.  It's all part of the schtick.  I did not particularly enjoy the Roger-in-the-too-distant-past interlude, which seemed pointless but provided an intersection with her short story, "A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows" (which was not my favorite thing that Gabaldon has written).

I have not particularly enjoyed the "Bree and Roger in the 1980s" segments, and I almost think that all of their intrigues in MOBY were engineered to get them back to the past (HT: Roger Zemeckis).  While in the 1980s (and I would have to say that there was such an incredible imbalance between Roger and Bree time and the 18th C people that the overall impression was that Bree and Roger didn't fit into this book at all), there were, of course, pop culture references.  There was Fraggle Rock, which, as a fraggle fan, I appreciated, but which sort of registered along with Disneyland almost as product placement.  And then, there was the Tardis.  *sigh*  And I don't care how many Dr. Who fans are out there, I just think that to drop a Tardis reference into a time travel series is ridiculous--another somewhat pointless fan-pleaser borne of social media involvement.  I actually think of Tardismania as a very contemporary thing--I don't remember the Tardis being stressed in the 80s the way it is now, though certainly Dr. Who has many incarnations that (heh) span time.

In general, I enjoyed the surgery--though "enjoy" might be overstating it.  Some made me cringe--most decidedly.  Some were designed to make the reader cringe--in fact, I would guess that most of the surgical scenes were designed--yes, to show off the author's research, but also to make the reader squirm uncomfortably.  A different kind of squirming than the sex scenes, but I do believe that both types of scenes reach out of the book to produce a physical reaction in the reader.  And it works.  How a reader reacts to that type of forced engagement is another question--I was basically okay with it, though some things did stretch my suspension of disbelief.  For example... would incisions under the tongue really stop bleeding in 2 minutes' time with only pressure and cotton?  Having dealt with mouth injuries and extracted teeth, I doubt it.  Mouth injuries bleed profusely.  And would you really want to ply the 13 year-old with whiskey to perform the outpatient procedure, even if nothing else were available? Let's ask 'ol Hippocrates about that one. One surgery seemed placed in the novel for three purposes:  to disgust the reader, to stress the importance of birth control by depicting the (historical?) dangers of childbirth, and to introduce the ethics of forced sterilization.  I did rather feel that whereas in previous books the author's "out" when she encountered a block in writing was sex, in this book it was surgery.  I know people who could not have handled the description or their own visceral reactions to the descriptions, but though I read sympathetically/empathetically, I was able to read through them all. Not all contributed significantly to the novel overall, however.  I keep coming back to that, because being able to point to this or that as not really mattering demonstrates why the novel felt choppy and why it lacked cohesion--it could hardly have been more disjointed as a series of short stories or novellas, which seems to be the mode the author might have preferred for the separate sub-plots.

The other conspicuous authorial strategy was killing off inconvenient characters.  She does it twice.  It is terribly obvious.  And only one of the two is really forgivable, artistically speaking.   She introduced a character in the last book or two who was born a dwarf.  He has no place in 18th Century society outside of a circus, but is a delightful child.  Unable to provide for such a character, the author seems to have made a decision to kill him off.  It's a pity--he was an interesting character.  And the incident is really too random to feel satisfying, and too abrupt to be sad.  Gabaldon also introduces a prostitute and her sister as part of William's coming-to-terms-with-his-illegitimacy sub-plot.  As he struggles with what it means to have honor, shepherding a prostitute and her sister and shielding them from her professional hazards somehow begins to form part of his new identity.  Unfortunately, Jamie Fraser's son--even if illegitimate--and an Earl to boot--could not fall in love with a prostitute.  Which means that we can only find out that he probably was falling in love with her after she is dead.  *sigh*

Poor William. He has issues.  But how could he not, given his parentage?  I have to say that in this book, I cease to like the character of Jamie Fraser.  He is a barbarian at the beginning, and he is a barbarian at the end.  And poor, dear, overstimulated Claire needed to be a bit more defensive of Lord John Grey, who was, after all, trying to save her life by marrying her.  But when the red-heided battering ram (and I did not mean that as a double entendre, though it works) shows up again, all is forgotten.  Suffice it to say, other characters and certain sub-plots carried me through this one.

Did I like the book?  It hardly matters.  I was distracted enough by form and function that I don't know that I had the opportunity to like it.  When I wasn't thinking about how it was constructed and why, I liked it well enough, but don't get me started on the chapter titles (more crowd-pleasing, self-conscious cleverness).  There were certainly things I liked about it.  The book has not, by any means, put me off of the series (though Jamie's character came close--both at the beginning and at the end). I guess there are still too many plot holes--and that's it:  I want to know what happens next.  This one was not a cliffhanger, but in spite of its bulk, with many sub-plots and no overarching, unifying plot structure, it feels incomplete. Things that I still want to know:

  • Is Ben Grey really dead?
  • What is the story behind Amaranthus--Ben's purported widow?
  • Will William ever love again? 
  • Will Benedict Arnold turn his coat, and why?
  • Where are Dottie and Denzell?
  • What about that sticky business of someone knowing that Lord John is homosexual?
  • Why did Ian try to kill Rachel in his sleep?
  • How will the Revolutionary War end?
  • Are these characters secretly immortal, and not in the literary sense?

You might notice that none of these relate directly to Claire, Jamie, & co.  Well, okay.  The last one does.  In fact, my curiousity about Jamie's ghost in Book 1 is beginning to wane.  The mystery is likely more intriguing than any answer could be.

Written in My Own Heart's Blood is a transitional point in the Outlander story--sustained only by the fact that it is part of a series.  I hope that the author works through her attraction to the short story/novella genres before plotting--or plodding through--the next full-fledged Outlander installment. But anyway, I will be waiting for the next installment.  In 5 or 10 years, I'll be ready.