J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

“One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.”

If you are ever looking for a biography on an absolutely fascinating person, look no further than J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter. After re-reading The Hobbit with intentions of reading The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) for the first time, I decided to read up a bit on the author himself before embarking on the journey. This book provides an extremely detailed and comprehensive insight into the life of one of the most well-known and renowned authors of our time and is the official authorized biography of Tolkien by the Tolkien Society. This authorization stems from Carpenter having unfettered access to Tolkien’s personal papers and letters, as well as permission to interview family members and close friends.

Beginning with the meeting of his parents in England and concluding with his death in 1973, this biography seemingly details every moment in between of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life with acute clarity. Completely unbeknownst to me, Tolkien was born in South Africa and lived there for five years before moving with his mother, Mabel, and younger brother, Hilary, to Birmingham, England. Shortly thereafter, tragedy and poverty struck the family upon the death of his father (who was still working in South Africa as a bank clerk). Despite this, Mabel did all she could to ensure an education for both of her sons at King Edward’s School. Tragedy struck again, however, when she passed away just nine years after moving back to England. Orphaned at just twelve years old, Tolkien and his younger brother were placed under the guardianship of Father Morgan, a close family friend and local Catholic priest. Under his guidance, aid, and mentorship, Tolkien was able to complete his schooling at King Edward’s School before eventually continuing his education at the University of Oxford.

One of the most fascinating parts of this book for me was learning how LOTR came to be. It was such an unmeditated, disorderly, and delayed process, yet that is where the real genius and magic resided. Tolkien had no clear outline of his saga while writing it, let alone any idea that this was to be his masterpiece and legacy. It all began with his love of language. As a young boy, Tolkien was fascinated by the mechanics and workings of words, eventually coming to learn an astounding variety of both ancient and modern languages, including Welsh, Finnish, and Gothic. In fact, he loved languages so much he actually began creating his own – he even wrote journals in languages he invented! After creating these languages, Tolkien felt he had a responsibility to “discover” the history behind them; this history would ultimately become the foundation of an entire mythology (eventually captured in The Silmarillion) and, unbeknownst to Tolkien, the foundation for The Hobbit and LOTR. 

While there is SO much more I could talk about, I have condensed some more interesting tidbits about Tolkien and LOTR in the fun facts below!

  • Tolkien was known for his procrastination on projects; this was in large part due to his perfectionist attitude toward his own work. After reading about his lengthy process of writing and publishing LOTR, it is a miracle anything was ever published at all!
  • LOTR is NOT a trilogy – nor did Tolkien ever want it to be. It was broken into three volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) primarily due to the cost of paper at the time and worries that such a long manuscript would not garner enough sales to be worthwhile.
  • Tolkien was NOT a fan of allegory. He specifically noted his works were not meant to be interpreted in the political context of the time in which they were written; he felt that allegories ultimately limited the reader’s imagination. With that being said, he did admit to the resemblances between his work and his own life experiences – he even acknowledged his close likeness to Bilbo Baggins!
  • Tolkien was an Assistant Lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Despite knowing Edith Bratt (his future wife) as a teenager, Tolkien was forbidden to spend time with her due to her being three years his senior.
  • One of Tolkien’s most prized works, Beren and Lúthien, was inspired by his love for Edith; these names are even inscribed on their tombstones.

From his early childhood and love story with Edith, to his time serving in WWI and developing dear friendships among fellow intellectuals (including C.S. Lewis), to becoming the father of four and holding several professorships, to creating Middle-Earth and experiencing fame as an author, this biography marks the loves, joys, tragedies, struggles, accomplishments, setbacks, fame, and daily life of the man who would go on to publish the masterpieces we know today, along with a plethora of scholarly work, poems, and short stories. Overall, I would highly recommend this biography to anyone who wants to learn more about Tolkien’s life, as well as those who are general LOTR fans!

*I would also highly recommend checking out https://www.tolkiensociety.org/ for even more information on all things Tolkien!*

The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White

The three women who wrote this book are all talented writers on their own, so when press started surrounding The Glass Ocean, I knew this novel would be something special. I’m usually pretty skeptical of books with multiple authors, but this book was a perfect blend of all three writers’ specific styles. I’m not sure how they managed this blend, but I couldn’t pick out who wrote what. Perfect.

The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White crafts a well-written historical mystery with a hint of romance. Three women are linked years apart: two in the past and one in the present. All three are also tied to the RMS Lusitania, a passenger liner doomed from the minute it set off. Heading from the United States to England in April 1915, the RMS Lusitania ferried a large number of people heading to a new life, running away from the old, or heading back home. Whatever their reasons, the RMS Lusitania was seen as the perfect way to get wherever they were going.

April 1915. Caroline is a southern belle with a marriage in crisis. Her husband, Gilbert, used to be attentive, but as of late, something has seemed off. Caroline is hoping that this trip to London will reignite the spark that they are missing. The first-class accommodations afforded to them on the Lusitania will certainly help. What Caroline doesn’t account for is her old friend Robert Langford. He turns up on the ship, throwing all of Caroline’s well-laid plans out the window. Does she want to reconnect with Gilbert or start something new with Robert? Trapped on this ship and feeling restless, Caroline must decide how she wants her life to turn out.

Also on the ship is Tessa Fairweather. Her accommodations are much less lavish than Caroline’s. Having secured second-class lodgings, Tessa is returning home to Devon. Or is she? Tessa has really never left the United States and is traveling under an assumed name. She’s the daughter of a con man and has the ability to forge and steal almost anything. Tessa has been told that after she accomplishes this heist on the Lusitania she can start a whole new life. As Tessa begins scoping out this heist, though, it quickly becomes apparent that her partner is holding something back from her and that this heist is not as straightforward as it seems.

Flash forward to May 2013. Bestselling author Sarah Blake is struggling. Her finances are low, she can’t find an idea for her next book, and her mother has Alzheimer’s. Desperate to find a way to solve her problems, Sarah decides to open the chest her mother made her promise never to open. In said chest, Sarah finds items that belonged to her great-grandfather, who died when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat in 1915. Searching through his belongings, Sarah discovers something that has the ability to change history forever. Needing to validate her discovery she heads to England to hopefully gain help from newly disgraced Member of Parliament, John Langford. After all, given that his relative, Robert Langford, was on the RMS Lusitania, his family archives might hold the key to Sarah understanding what she found in her chest.

This book was a delightful mix of three different characters whose lives were all drastically affected by the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915. Read this book and let me know what you think!

Author Name Pronunciation Guide

Let me introduce you to my FAVORITE library resource: TeachingBooks.net, particularly the section entitled Author Name Pronunciation Guide. This section has saved me multiple times! Have you ever wondered how to say an author’s name? Maybe you’ve been saying it one way, you hear a friend say it another way, and then you start second-guessing yourself? I do this all. the. time. So confusing. This problem is just like when you say a word out-loud that you have only ever read before just to have someone correct you and say that you’re pronouncing it wrong. Super annoying, right? Well, lucky for all of us the Author Name Pronunciation Guide at TeachingBooks.net exists. We’ll all become expert author name pronunciators and can spread our knowledge to others! Sounds perfect.

Now let’s find out where the Author Name Pronunciation Guide is! Go to TeachingBooks.net. On the home page in the banner bar at the top of the page, click Author & Book Resources.

That will bring you to a page that looks like the one below! Click on Audio Name Pronunciations.

Viola! Now you’re at the Author Name Pronunciation Guide which hopefully will start off with the following paragraph.

As you’re scrolling through that page, you’ll notice thousands of author names. My favorite one to have people play around with is Jon Scieszka because 1) I NEVER say his name right, even though I know about this guide and 2) kids ask for his books all the time and therefore are already familiar with this author. Anyway, scroll through the list and find his name (it’s alphabetical by last name). Once you click on it, a page with all his info will pop up! (Sorry for the tiny print.)

If you click on the orange play button, you’ll hear Jon Scieszka pronounce his name and talk some more. It’s awesome. It also connects you to author’s personal websites and their own page on TeachingBooks.net. Now play around and find out how to pronounce some author names! It’s definitely one of my favorite not-well-known librarian resources.

I also encourage you to click around the regular TeachingBooks.net site because there are a ton of other really good resources there. Who knows, maybe I’ll blog about them in the future!