April 1, 2014
RUI: Reading Under the Influence APRIL, "NOT AS GOOD AS THEY SAY." | Facebook

Tomorrow, RUI host, ERIN NEDERBO, takes the stage with authors PEGGY SHINNER (YOU FEEL SO MORTAL/ESSAYS ON THE BODY), ERIC SHONKWILER (ABOVE ALL MEN), and RUSS WOODS (WOLF DOCTORS). It’s better than they say.

At Sheffields (3258 N. Sheffield Ave. Chicago, IL). 3$ cover, 2$ domestics, with book and drink prizes for trivia. Let’s get rowdy.

March 15, 2014
Book Review: Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring

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The Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring, written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published by Harper Collins, is a third-person, fantasy novel primarily told from the point-of-view of Frodo Baggins, heir to the Baggins family wealth and otherwise good, young chap. The Bagginses are Hobbits, creatures like men but much shorter and with hairy feet from the realm of Middle-Earth that keep to themselves in their own little shire, The Shire, until one day, a ring bestowed upon Frodo by his uncle, Bilbo, is revealed to be a tool for an evil sorcerer, Sauron. Though Sauron died, in theory, Frodo’s friend and confidant, Gandalf, a powerful wizard who once helped Bilbo on his own journey, encourages Frodo to go to Rivendell, a High Eleven outpost, with the ring, to determine the fate of all of Middle-Earth. The ring itself holds many strange powers, though for Frodo, it makes him invisible, but otherwise, it can unlock the physical manifestation of Sauron again and end the world. Encouraged not to use the ring, Frodo depends on those he meets on the way, like his other friends who join him, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, and of course, Gandalf, in addition to a slew of other strange people from mythical backgrounds: Strider, the mysterious ranger; Gimli, the dwarven son of one of Bilbo’s companions; Legolas, a wood elf with remarkable talents; and Boromir, a great human warrior from Minas Tirith. These nine together must overcome Sauron’s minions: powerful black riders serving directly under the dark lord, monstrous orcs hungry for blood, and one ancient demon of fire known only as a balrog. The goal is to cast the ring into the pits of fire from where it was forged, so Frodo and his companions set out as the fellowship of the ring.

This is my second Tolkien book—the first was The Hobbit, Bilbo’s adventure into ancient realms to steal the treasure of Smaug, this asshole dragon. Of course, like The Lord of the Rings, it’s being made into a major motion picture in three parts—which makes a lot more sense for The Lord of the Rings than it does The Hobbit, but we’ll talk about why Peter Jackson is a douche later. In the meantime, The Lord of the Rings has played a very profound role in my life, even for a guy who never read it. My brothers are big role-players, and I don’t mean in the bedroom, though who knows. Maybe. Probably. Either way, having spent the majority of their lives organizing Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, The Lord of the Rings in my splintered household was very much like The Bible in an ordinary, Christian family. It was important for me, in my teenage years without a mother around and living with my brothers alone, to know the difference between an elf and a dwarf, the value of mythril, and just what spells work best against the undead. My older brother, Thomas, owned an arsenal of medieval weaponry, including maces, swords, daggers, flails, and any number of additional weaponry that he hung proudly off the walls of our suburban home. Our library consisted of cheap fantasy novels, role playing compendiums, and franchise books that bordered on fan fiction. It’s no surprise that I too rarely write fantasy, a rebellion against my very upbringing, but you can’t abandon your roots forever.
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(As of the time I’m writing this, this is a 12 year old picture, okay.)

But I’ve grown older and come to see the value of it. After combing through The Hobbit in anticipation of those films, I discovered how fantastic the journeys in fantasy stories really are, scouring the realms for treasure and some ethical ideal of heroism. My immersion in games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and television shows like Game of Thrones were particularly powerful reminders of the intentions made in my upbringing, so when I saw a trailer for a video game called The Shadows of Mordor, I thought I’d give it a shot. You can read the linked post, but it’s essentially Assassin’s Creed set in The Lord of the Rings. Pretend like that’s not fucking awesome. In any case, I’ve decided to throw myself back into Middle-Earth again as a result.
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(How every girl I ever dated reacted when I asked for head.)

The Fellowship of the Ring is weak in a lot of places when taken into the context of the recently made film adaptations. As I read these books, I had to remove myself from my expectations of the book based on the film in order to fully understand what the author was doing. That’s not to say that the film is so good, it overshadows the books—quite the contrary, in fact. As I read this novel, I kept finding myself awaiting moments from the film, anticipating things to happen as they did in the films. Halfway through the novel, I began to acknowledge that habit and realized that the film bastardized large portions of the novel, considering how long I waited to see what came next. That’s not to say that the films are bad, but the novel shows a lot more skill.

The thing you have to remember is that in spite of the existence of Sauron, the selfishness of Saruman, and the feverish attacks of the orcs, none of these play a central antagonist in the book. Rather, it’s the ring itself that plays the main villain. Very rarely do you read of an author who uses an object to create both fear and antagonism to move the plot along, a simple item that the characters carry with them which also acts as a plot device because of it’s unusual behaviors. After all, it’s not Sauron that inevitably breaks up the fellowship (God, I hope that’s not a spoiler for you at this point), but the ring itself and how it comes between Frodo and the rest of his party. The dangers that lurk around every corner don’t threaten the fellowship half as much as their own yearning for the ring, as it slowly disseminates our heroes without their knowing. Using an item alone that serves no single purpose to forge a conflict that extends through three novels is feat I can’t imagine will ever again be done quite so well. At the moment, I’d be hard pressed to write a short story with the same kind of conflict, let alone a single goddamn novel about it. However, it’s this same vilification of an object that makes The Lord of the Rings so epic.

The Fellowship of the Ring isn’t about the ring so much though, as it is about building the relationship between the characters of Aragorn and Frodo. When they kick things off, Aragorn is a stern, paranoid ranger that poses as much danger as he does friendship, but over the course of the novel, Frodo begins to trust Aragorn. Tolkien accomplishes this by, essentially, killing off or creating distance between Frodo and those he naturally trusts in the story and forcing Aragorn into their position. As trouble manifests as a result of Frodo’s evil ring, Frodo’s dependence on Aragorn grows through the dissolution of Frodo’s own child-like naivete, represented by the other hobbits in his party. At the same time, Aragorn’s own natural leadership is juxtaposed against the feelings and beliefs of the other surviving party members, especially Boromir who shows nothing but contempt for Frodo being chosen to carry the ring to Mordor. By using other characters to both represent and uniquely define the central characters of this novel, Tolkien encourages communication and relationship evolution between his central characters that ultimately creates a dynamic of genuine friendship, comparable to a romantic kinship in spite of the obvious opposites between the two characters.

The highlight of this novel is its description. It’s no surprise that Tolkien considered himself a poet, because the word choice in every description is downright phenomenal. Everything is colored and portrayed with words to the extent that you can’t help but see the images as beautifully as they appeared in the film. Though his dialogue is a bit stunted, the careful, yet powerful, descriptions, enhanced by their eloquence, make up for whatever we miss as we progress through the novel. Every step of the journey is tracked and every lineage is marked, but it never bored me. I was engaged in spite of how mundane some of these ideas were, because of how skillful Tolkien wrote, avoiding cliches in a day rife with them while building on even the most regular of sights with descriptions enough to make them sound as though they’re the most beautiful, or in some cases most horrible, things that I’ve never before seen. 

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(“So when does the gang bang start?”)

It’s more than likely that most audiences have seen the films, but haven’t read the books. I’m not going to tell you what you’re missing—that wouldn’t be any fun, but I will say that Jackson chops out whole sections of the book, shortening things to the point where months in the story feel like mere days. I can understand a bit of heavy cutting in some cases, but what remains isn’t true the novel either. Dialogue is added, most notably humor, as well as events that were never written, meant to emotionally charge the audience. When I think of a film adapted from a book, it’s okay to permit that kind of stuff with what have generally been accepted as lousy books. Who’s to say a book is lousy? I don’t know, I’ll leave that to the general masses who made the film, Drive, into a masterpiece but left the book hinged on, “Eh…” What I like about what Jackson does is that he creates moments of humor that didn’t previously exist in the book to lighten the subject matter. However, he also falls off on various thoughts that Tolkien, I can only imagine, preferred to keep. When Boromir comes striding into Rivendell on a horse, I only thought, “Why would you include that?” After all, in the story, Boromir fucking walked to Rivendell to meet with the council, having lost his horse along the way. That may not be important to you, Mr. Jackson, but that’s important to me, in spite of your efforts to find a villain while overlooking the obvious. My negative feelings on the subject matter of Jackson’s films go beyond just disapproval in the details, considering how he’s stretching The Hobbit, a novel shorter than Fellowship of the Ring, into three separate parts, but a guy has to make money, right? Even if he is a Jabba-the-Hut, Lucas-esque piece of shit. In spite of all that, Jackson makes pretty movies and if I owned his trilogy on Blu-Ray, I may have kinder feelings for him. Too bad that I don’t. As far as my opinion goes, Jackson can eat shit for all the money he’s trying to make off Tolkien.
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(If you’re still looking for Han Solo, he was in that other trilogy…)

If you even liked the movie remotely, read the book and enjoy it for what it’s supposed to be. It certainly feels like the beginning of a trilogy, but in-and-of-itself, it’s an epic tale of friendship, discovery, and finding not all good and evil come in tremendous extremes but in the most unexpected of places.

The Riahi Rating:
★★★★★
5/5 stars.

Other reviews of Harper-Collins books:
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

March 15, 2014
Book and Brew: The Two Towers and Two Brothers Bitter End Pale Ale

Whether the rise of power comes in two brothers or in two great towers, pairings too rare compliment each other to make every next feat so spectacular. Whether you’re journeying to the climax of your story or the bottom of a bottle, only the bitter end waits when these two forces combine.

The Two Towers, Harper Collins: “Frodo and his Companions of the Ring have been beset by danger during their quest to prevent the Ruling Ring from falling into the hands of the Dark Lord by destroying it in the Cracks of Doom. They have lost the wizard, Gandalf, in a battle in the Mines of Moria. And Boromir, seduced by the power of the Ring, tried to seize it by force. While Frodo and Sam made their escape, the rest of the company was attacked by Orcs. Now they continue the journey alone down the great River Anduin — alone, that is, save for the mysterious creeping figure that follows wherever they go.”

Bitter End Pale Ale, Two Brothers: “This American pale ale has a subtle malty character with noticeable hop flavor and aroma. Three classic American hop varieties add complexity to this incredibly drinkable beer. At the end of every glass, you will discover how this pale ale got its name.”

March 4, 2014
RUI: Reading Under the Influence MARCH, CUSTOMS. | Facebook

Reading Under the Influence celebrates their one hundredth show tomorrow night. Y’all should join me to hear readings from Laura Krughoff, author of My Brother’s Name; Eric May, author of Bedrock Faith; Johnny Misfit, host of Two-Cookie Minimum; and Emily Roth, coordinator of 7 Stories

RUI is 21 plus. Three dollar entry fee, but I’ll wave it if you send me a message on tumblr.

Hope to see you there, tomorrow night at Sheffield’s, 3258 N. Sheffield Ave, Chicago, IL (the Belmont red-line stop)

March 1, 2014

Shadows of Mordor, developed by Monolith Productions and to be published by Warner Bros., is a espionage/action game set in the world of The Lord of the Rings, Middle-Earth, written by Christian Cantamessa, lead-writer on Red Dead Redemption by Rockstar Games. 

Shadows of Mordor follows Talion, a ranger with wraith-like abilities, seizing Mordor single-handed, one orc at a time. Though vengeance is on his mind, his abilities include taking control of orcs and building his own, unique army through Mordor in order to inspire a coup among Mordor’s forces. 

Set between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien wrote about how dark forces begin to grow to take the one ring back, a magical totem with the power to return Sauron to his full power. Sauron, the emissary of evil and the lord of the rings, re-manifested himself in Middle-Earth as the Necromancer of Dol Guldur in order to infect Mirkwood and re-establish lost ground, while his Ringwraiths, in service to their dark lord, claimed the city of Minas Ithil on the border of Mordor, renaming it Minas Morgul, as a base of operations for recapturing the one ring. During the events of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who is thought by his company to be a master thief as he journeys unwillingly to the Misty Mountains where the great dragon, Smaug, resides, steals a magical ring from withered, destitute cannibal, Gollum, that turns him invisible, before returning to his home, the Shire. With the growing threat of Sauron and the Ringwraiths, a wizard and friend to Bilbo, Gandalf, and a ranger of a secret, royal bloodline, Aragorn, set out first to identify that Bilbo’s stolen ring was, in fact, the one ring of Sauron, before making it their duty to take Gollum under their protection only too late. Gollum fell into the hands of the Ringwraiths and was then tortured until he uttered a single name in clue to the whereabouts of the one ring: Baggins. Thus, begins the story of The Lord of the Rings.

Talion is a ranger, meaning he’s from the northern-lands and, though it’s unlikely he shares the same bloodline, is of the same people as Aragorn, the descendants of Numenor. When the Ringwraiths take Minas Ithil, Talion’s family is killed and he’s left near-death by a weapon that leaves him between the common plane and the ethereal realm of the wraiths, imbuing him with strange, wraith-like powers. With these abilities, Talion slips into Mordor and, essentially, starts corrupting and controlling the orcs in the same way that the Ringwraiths do, in order to achieve justice. All the while, he meets other characters from The Lord of the Rings canon, including Gandalf, Aragorn, and Gollum, though it’s still unclear what relationship he will have with these characters and to what extent he will effect the overall plot of The Lord of the Rings.

This is a pretty touchy game to make, in my opinion, because Talion is not a Tolkien character and Shadows of Mordor is not a Tolkien story. Though inspired by Tolkien, it is a modern creation exploiting the popularity of Tolkien’s works while creating a fundamentally original story that aligns with The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, etc. Though many games have been made in the past for The Lord of the Rings (I played very few of them. The ones that I did play weren’t very good…), it is not essentially a franchise retelling of the films or stories, but something new, something different. I’m actually really excited for it and I hope that it’s of the same quality as Tolkien’s works, because by the trailer and gameplay (a cause for controversy in itself, because of how similar it appears to Assassin’s Creed games), it looks highly entertaining. Furthermore, it would be nice to see video games to take on a greater literary role and be held in the same esteem as literature. Though I regret that Tolkien isn’t alive to cosign a project like this himself, I believe this is a great step forward in developing video games as art, because of how closely related to pre-existing art this is, without being a direct copy of that work.

Set to come out in 2014 on the Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One, we shall soon find out. 

February 24, 2014

In 1965, composer Donald Swann met with J.R.R. Tolkien regarding music he wrote to accompany poems used in The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s novels, these poems and songs were spoken or written by characters Bilbo, Sam, Aragorn, etc. as an oral storytelling tradition to convey the history of Middle-Earth and the kings of past. 

Together, Swann and Tolkien collaborated on these pieces to create a unique, heartfelt collection to tell the story of The Lord of the Rings through piano, voice, and one man’s interpretive vision, as enchanting as it was originally written.

The road goes ever on…

February 23, 2014
"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king."

The Riddle of Strider, J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954.

"Make sure that it is the real Strider. There are many strange men on the roads. His true name is Aragorn.” 
—Gandalf

February 15, 2014
Book and Brew: The Fellowship of the Ring and Dragon’s Milk

The dragons are dead, but their yield continues on. Whether being chased in the wake of a wyrm’s death or at the teet of another, dark things come on scaled wings and savage breath.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Harper Collins: “The dark, fearsome Ringwraiths are searching for a Hobbit. Frodo Baggins knows that they are seeking him and the Ring he bears—the Ring of Power that will enable evil Sauron to destroy all that is good in Middle-earth. Now it is up to Frodo and his faithful servant, Sam, with a small band of companions, to carry the Ring to the one place it can be destroyed: Mount Doom, in the very center of Sauron’s realm.”

Dragon’s Milk, New Holland: “A stout with roasty malt character intermingled with deep vanilla tones, all dancing in an oak bath.”

February 10, 2014
Book Review: White Noise

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White Noise, written by Don DeLillo and published by Penguin, is a first-person novel told from the point-of-view of Jack Gladney, frequent divorcee and head of the local college’s Hitler studies department. Though Jack’s married for what he hopes will be the last time, he still manages to parent most of the children from his former marriages and his wife’s children, all while learning German for the big Hitler conference his college is hosting. Meanwhile, a chemical tanker has a terrible accident in their small hometown of Blacksmith, releasing a dense, black fog, an airborne toxic event, into the local atmosphere. As Jack and his family flee with the rest of the population, he learns through his wife’s depression that there is no outrunning death.

This was part of a little book trade between me and my co-worker/drinking buddy. I gave him End Zone, he gave me White Noise. Fair trade? We’ll say yes, but not really. This is my fourth DeLillo book and, I’ve got to say, this author has wormed his way into my top ten. Though a little hesitant, I dare even say he’s my favorite living author. In addition to End Zone, I also read Americana and Running Dog too, but I’ve got to say that White Noise takes the cake. Unlike the other DeLillo novels I’ve read, this one has a much more abstract idea of running. The book, for all the chaos in the toxins and the drugs and keeping the Brady Bunch together, is about one man’s escape from death, much in the same vein of Running Dog. The two share another common brush stroke: Hitler. I can’t quite explain DeLillo’s interest in the Nazi dictator, but I’m so insufferably curious as to how many other books reference Adolf after reading this installment of DeLillo’s catalog. Truth be told, I kept waiting for characters in this book to call attention to some of the events from Running Dog—the lack thereof being my only disappointment with this novel.

Unlike Running Dog, DeLillo draws focus to a single character again—Jack’s a man who tries his very best to remain uncomplicated, but fails at doing so. He’s a guy who likes to hide—whether it be behind the sunglasses he teaches in, his lackluster German, or a figurative Hitler, Jack tries to stay just out of reach of everyone. Even his family has trouble maintaining an attachment to him, his oldest son slowly departing in a youthful existential crisis while his youngest seems unaware that Jack even exists. However, his entire family has one thing in common: a fixation with death, whether it be the hurry from or the forced ambivalence to it. Heinrich, his oldest son, is best friends with Orest, a boy wishing to test death by sitting in a cage with poisonous snakes to beat the world record of something like 63 days. Jack’s daughter, Steffie, starts playing dead in emergency reenactments. Denise, Jack’s step-daughter, combs through ingredients, drugs, chemical names in order to understand what substances will kill a person. And Wilder, Jack’s youngest son, is anything but safe from death without a parent to hold his hand. All the while, Jack’s wife, Babette, suffers from depression as a result of fearing death and Jack, himself, finds himself drawn to death more and more as the story progresses, resulting from the chemical tragedy overlaying town.

This thematic progression compels the story forward, even when nothing in this book actually changes. People come, people go, but it’s a small town. Nothing is supposed to change. However, DeLillo never bores us with it, pulling us away from the main theme to paint several composites of small town life before he yo-yos us back into death again when we least expect it, manipulating the audience toward the final, dramatic conclusion of the novel, confrontation with death personified. Though the children in Jack and Babette’s household are extraordinarily intelligent for local, midwestern youth, the family dynamic is rich and true, featuring youthful rebellion and the eager clinging as this family comes to terms with a local tragedy. While some of these children begin to edge out from their shells as a result of this tragedy, the family foundation falters and settles again as these very real, very human characters are cut from each other and bounced back together again. Death tears people apart, death brings people together. Death is ever-present in DeLillo’s world—like white noise, scattered in the background.

Death isn’t the only theme of this story though—well, not entirely at least. DeLillo also draws media into it. The TV age, where people leave their sets on to play whether or not they’re even watching it, has a component to the theme just as much as family does, and likewise, it has a component to family just as much as death does. These cyclical themes, constantly affecting each other and being affected by each other, create a masterful fugue of storytelling in the novel’s progression. To consider even writing a book without carefully funneling several themes together in this fashion almost seems like a waste of time now and I’m considering the themes in my own works-in-progress to see whether or not I’ve accomplished half of what DeLillo built so elegantly. Only time will tell with that one, but there’s certainly a lot more to be learned here than I picked up from merely one reading. Of course, DeLillo is a pro with mixing themes—in his works before, he’s proposed two themes in tandem: college football and nuclear war, conspiracy and porn, family and the road that spans from them. However, none are done so masterfully as in White Noise. And how he saw television in the 1980’s? Hell, thirty years later and it’s only gotten worse.

Needless to say, the writing is brilliant and DeLillo’s vocabulary makes me ashamed of my own. Phrases like “airborne toxic event,” have worked their way into popular culture, ironically enough, like the popular band, for instance, and oddly as an insult in an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In fact, I’m listening to the Airborne Toxic Event right now and I’m pretty goddamn sure I’ve heard them before. They’re everywhere it seems like. I would have never guessed they’re named after a DeLillo concept. But wording only goes so far—it’s also how DeLillo manages to tie the most mundane of things to the theme, like grocery shopping or chewing gum. It’s these little, intimate details folded into the very origami of DeLillo’s themes that make this novel so effective. One might read this book and find it boring due to how deeply and carefully he goes into descriptions of casual events in the American lifestyle, but it’s that careful description that makes it all so fucking profound. 

Honestly, why are you even bothering reading this review anymore. Just go out and buy this book. You’re doing yourself a disservice by not reading it thoroughly, over-and-over again. 

The Riahi Rating:
★★★★★
5/5 stars

Other reviews of Penguin books:
Americana, by Don DeLillo
End Zone, by Don DeLillo
The Diamond As Big As The Ritz, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
On The Road, by Jack Kerouac
Piercing, by Ryu Murakami
The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand

February 9, 2014

The only thing harder than writing is not writing.