Books and Travel, Part 1: Birmingham and J. R. R. Tolkien

We’re on a month-long trip in the UK, mostly in Scotland. The trip started with books, those of J. R. R. Tolkien. My husband is a long-time Tolkien fan, often about the less-read items by “The Professor” as he’s often called, and especially the scholarly pieces about language and maps. Three years ago or so I gave him a membership in the Tolkien Society. This year the society celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with the Tolkien 2019 festival.. About 400 people from all over the world gathered in Birmingham. It was an interesting adventure. We heard lectures from Tolkien scholars of all varieties. There was a wonderful presentation of Tolkien’s little book about life, death, and friendship titled Leaf by Niggle. We heard a concert from The People’s Orchestra, an amateur group of musicians from all over the West Midlands. They played parts of the scores from The Lord of the Rings films.

One fun item was doing three-minute bits for an audio archive at Marquette University. Many years ago Marquette (in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) bought all of Tolkien’s papers and so has been the stewards of them ever since. The archivist thought it would be fun to have a record of how people first got to Tolkien and why they enjoy his writing. The goal is to have 4000 entries, a match with one story in the Ring books. There were three questions: When did you first read Tolkien? Why do you enjoy it? What does it mean for you? I talked about the winter of 1971-1972 in Minneapolis when several of us read The Fellowship of the Ring aloud by a fire with great cups of tea. My ongoing interest in Tolkien has mostly to do with his connection with the group known as “The Inklings”: C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Gervase Matthews and, although she did not meet with them regularly, Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers is my main interest, but it is fascinating to read and learn all the ways they connect. I also named how they have all influenced me theologically in my life as a Lutheran pastor.

Although everything was very interesting, there was a kind of “in-crowd” feel to it. That’s to be expected, I think, with any committed volunteer group that has, at its heart, people with a passion for a particular thing. All the meetings and events take place in the UK, so those of us who don’t travel for those are a bit on the outside. That changed for us at the banquet on Friday night. The table at which we sat included a couple from Lincolnshire who were 40-year members of the society and who had first met at a society meeting. And we had a wonderful conversation with a delightful young couple who are more recent members. They both are at the University of Birmingham, he on the staff and she as a professor of economics. She had moved to Birmingham from France for this job, and then discovered the Tolkien Society. She had first read the books when she was 9 and had continued her interest. They were such fun to be with, and the banquet gave us a new sense of inclusion among this very interesting group of people. I mentioned the “in-crowd” feel, and the young woman had an interesting observation. There are lots of “fandom” groups these days for almost every actor, singer, movie and book series. She said that many of those groups divide into particular interests: costumes for acting role, fans of the text/story, fans of the presentation (song, book, film), and that there isn’t a lot of connection or crossover. She noted that, in contrast, the Tolkien Society is completely inclusive, and that’s one thing she likes about it. I think that fits with the world of Middle Earth that Tolkien created, where Hobbits, Elves, and Dwarves learn how to live and work together in fellowship.

Robert Galbraith

Today is J.K. Rowling’s birthday, so it’s a good opportunity to write about her wonderful detective fiction, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I just finished the fourth book, Lethal White. These are really good reads. Rowling has created two characters: Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott who are so compelling and human that you want to keep going to see how things work out. The plots come out of the sadness and despair of our times, and do so in way that makes you think of even the vilest criminal with some sympathy. I think that is a good way to function. It doesn’t change the need to enforce criminality and incarcerate the offenders. But if we don’t think about everyone as part of our shared humanity, we fail at every level.

The four Robert Galbraith novels are: Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) The Silkworm (2014) Career of Evil (2015) Lethal White (2018)

Where the Crawdads Sing

Where the Crawdads Sing has been at the top of all the bestseller lists for months. This novel by Delia Owens tells a story of an abandoned, abused and increasingly isolated girl-to-woman, Kya. It takes place in the remote and eerie Outer Banks off the North Carolina coast. Going back and forth in time, we are invited into the mystery of a life and a death and, most importantly, about the continuing sadness of human prejudice and judgment.

It’s also the story of how a gifted girl with no schooling and no opportunity can learn, and then use the art and intelligence she has to make a better world for herself. I was reminded throughout, in odd ways, of the Tara Westover’s memoir Educated as much of this story of fiction matches her real life experience.

Although I thought Delia Owens writing about the natural world was wonderful, I did not like this book as I thought the plot was rather contrived. There are a lot of jumps in Kya’s life and growth that just don’t make sense. One of the poems she reads from the anthology her mother left behind couldn’t have been in that volume as the poem was published later. But then it was difficult to track the back and forth time in the novel. Regarding the mystery, if you’ve paid close attention the ending is not a surprise, but again it is a rather difficult to go back and put the pieces together.

This is an easy and quick read, a good one for summer. I can see why it is so popular, as it is a compelling story. But I don’t think it is a great novel.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about rereading books. I have had a regular practice of annual returns to favorites, such as all the Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey novels in order. And every time there’s a presidential election I read J. B. Priestley’s The Image Men.

In August my husband and I are going to the UK and will attend a Tolkien conference in Birmingham. So I’ll start rereading The Lord of the Rings very soon.

Other books on my mental reread list are all the Barbara Pym novels, the hilarious Angela Thirkell books, and perhaps Susan Howatch. Friends had been in London and saw a play called “Jude” that’s loosely based on Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. That put in mind that rereading Hardy would be a lovely thing.

Rereading can be comforting when we need to escape into something familiar and loved. Rereading reminds us why we like certain genres and certain characters. Rereading makes good use of our physical and digital libraries and refreshes our literary senses.

Summer is a great time to reread something. What’s on your list?

Iona Whishaw’s Lane Winslow Mysteries

I picked up the first of these, A Killer in King’s Cove when we were in our favorite vacation place, Tofino B.C. There’s a little bookstore called Mermaid Tales, and we always go in and buy a book or two. I always like reading books with local interest, and this series by a Vancouver, B.C. author intrigued me.

It seems I’m reading a lot of books these days set in the 1950’s, from James Runcie’s Grantchester mysteries, Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, and these books set in the B.C. Interior. I was caught right away by Whishaw’s ability to describe and invoke the area – what they call the Kootenay (after the lake of the same name) in and around Nelson. She lived there when she was a child, so these books have a deep place in her own life and memory. I’ve also always loved this area. We traveled there when I was a child, and I’ve been through there many times since. So the geography itself was enough to get me started.

The protagonist, Lane Winslow, is an English young woman who comes there to begin anew after a secretive career during World War II and at the end of a bad romance. It’s not totally clear why she chose Canada, and it’s described as a random, capricious choice, but one that seems to fit perfectly as the story unfolds. She’s lives in King’s Cove, a small community a ferry ride across the lake from Nelson and another 30 mile ride up the road. Whishaw does a wonderful job of describing the people in the small community, and the terrible effects of the war are still powerfully present.

I’m so taken with these that I am reading book four – haven’t hardly come up for air! The stories are good, the characters are splendid and well-defined, and the writing is excellent. I do think she needs a better proof-reader/editor. Both books one and three have characters referred to wrongly, and book four has at least one serious misspelling. And I was disappointed by a kind of cheap trick in A Killer in King’s Cove where it is obvious who “the director” is but she hides it away until Lane uncovers it. I think the book would have been better to name the person when first using that character. But in all these are well worth the read, especially if you love the wonderful expanses of western Canada as I do.

Here’s the list:
A Killer in King’s Cove (2016)
Death in a Darkening Mist (2017)
An Old, Cold Grave (2017)
It Begins in Betrayal (2018)
Sorrowful Sanctuary (2018)
A Deceptive Devotion (2019)

There There

I just finished There There by Tommy Orange, a remarkable novel set in Oakland, California. It is multiple stories of many different Indians and their families. It’s hard to read, because of all the sadness and loss and addiction. It’s hard to read because of the history you learn. He writes a Prologue that details the history of the Indians in our country, and he writes an Interlude that gives more details for the current time. It’s hard to read because, even knowing all those things, having them put together with the “real” lives of his characters is hard to read.

Story is such an important part of Native culture, and this is a book about story. Last week my husband and I attended a lecture at the Seattle Art Museum that was about how one Northwest Native mask can make its way into different tribes and places, adding different pieces to its composition. The two speakers made one important point: The reason all this exchange can happen is because the piece is not what’s important; it’s the story that’s told behind it. And each story is sacred and particular to each tribe.

At the beginning of There There the character Tony Loneman reflects on reading and story. Tony was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the first chapter about him has him realizing that his face tells the story of that disease. He calls it “The Drome.” His mother is in jail and he lives with his “Grandma” Maxine. He says, Maxine makes me read to her before she goes to sleep. I don’t like it because I read slow. The letters move on me sometimes, like bugs. Just whenever they want, they switch places. But then sometimes the words don’t move. When they stay still like that, I have to wait to be sure they’re not gonna move, so it ends up taking longer for me to read them than the ones I can put back together after they scramble. Maxine makes me read her Indian stuff that I don’t always get. I like it, though, because when I do get it, I get it way down at that place where it hurts but feels better because you feel it, something you couldn’t feel before reading it, that makes you feel less alone, and like it’s not gonna hurt as much anymore. One time she used the word “devastating” after I finished reading a passage from her favorite author — Louise Erdrich. It was something about how life will break you. How that’s the reason we’re here, and to go sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples fall and pile around you, wasting all that sweetness. I didn’t know what it meant then, and she saw that I didn’t. She didn’t explain it either. But we read the passage, that whole book, another time, and I got it.

This is a book will get you to that place “where it hurts but feels better because you feel it… .” And Orange is a terrific writer – no wasted words. The title comes from a Radiohead song by the same name. The last lines of the lyrics are: We are accidents waiting Waiting to happen, and those words are poignant and powerful as this book moves to its inevitable conclusion.

James Runcie’s Grantchester Novels

I would guess many of you have seen the television series Grantchester. It follows the daily life – and occasional sleuthing – of local vicar Sidney Chambers. Set in the 1950’s, the characters lives are set against the aftermath of World War II. Grantchester is a real-life picturesque village just a tiny bit southwest of Cambridge, England. Chambers, with his growing friendship with Detective Inspector Geordie Keating, takes on matters of life, love, death, and God in good style.

The television series is based on the Grantchester novels by James Runcie. Runcie is the son of Robert Runcie who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980-1991, so he is well-acquainted with the strengths and vicissitudes of the Church of England and its local representatives. He does an excellent job of setting out the daily routine of the parish priest while at the same time letting us in on Sidney’s struggles and joys. Here’s the list:
Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death (2012), Sidney Chambers and The Perils of the Night (2013), Sidney Chambers and The Problem of Evil (2014), Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins (2015), Sidney Chambers and The Dangers of Temptation (2016), Sidney Chambers and The Persistence of Love (2017)

The newest is The Road to Grantchester, which is a prequel to the others. It just came out recently in England and I was happy to purchase a copy when I was in Cambridge at the end of March. This is a powerful story about the effects of war on individuals and relationships. From this we learn a lot about why Sidney’s memories from the war are so troubling (as presented in the other books) and also about his intense relationship with Amanda Kendall. I found Runcie’s descriptions of the soldiers in World War II to be particularly powerful. It will be available in the US on May 7.

I’m torn about recommending reading the prequel first. I don’t think you should. Dive into the others first – in order, of course! – and then pick up this book so you can pick up the pieces Sidney Chambers left behind in the other stories. These are very good reads!