Delightful whimsy. A humorous illustrated story of fantastical derring-do, by a writer and artist who loved children, pirates, islands and adventure.Delightful whimsy. A humorous illustrated story of fantastical derring-do, by a writer and artist who loved children, pirates, islands and adventure. It reminds me a little of Tolkien's Letters from Father Christmas. My one regret is that I did not come to Peake when my son was the perfect age for this.
As the title declares, it's the illustrated letters of "one of the greatest explorers the world has never known" to his long-lost nephew. He introduces himself, but says "It won't be easy to draw myself as I can't remember my face very well" and casually mentions polishing his "leg-spike" long before explaining it (it came from a sword-fish). The drawings are for his own pleasure; the writing because he needs to tell his story so that his nephew can pass all the information to the Natural History Museum. Later though, "I'm beginning to enjoy writing to you. I didn't like you much at first."
He relishes suspense: "I'm longing to tell you about my Project, but the time is not quite ripe" and "I'm sure you must be tantalized into a tantrum".
The uncle, and his retainer Jackson (a turtle dog), are on a quest to find the White Lion, who is the Emperor of the Snows and indeed, "the only Lion to thrive in Arctic zones", although they've previously explored the tropics. Anyway, the letters are mainly about ingenuity and peril in the ice: hitching a ride with vultures across a chasm by playing dead; a snow vortex; tickling to escape being hugged to death by a polar bear; a magical ice cathedral; warm snow (fear not: it's white), and eventually... The White Lion (who reminds me a little of The Lamb in Boy in Darkness).
There's a sudden, bizarre twist at the end, but it's the continual smattering of casual weirdness I especially like: "smoking a pipe I carved out of the leg of my wife's favourite arm chair"; taking a lifeboat oar to use with a raft made of a table, rather than taking the lifeboat; using "blubber" as a swear word.
* The Aurora Borealis is "Hairy-Bleary-Alice".
* "A forest of trees that had been frozen into skeletons that never put forth leaves."
* "A great wind galloped out of the mountains of clanging ice... until the cold trees roared."
* "Steered my raft among the coughing waves."
* "My heart began to knock like a bandit's gong."
A couple of pages to give you a flavour of the book:
"What's the use of stories that aren't even true?"
I'm not quite sure why I picked this up (it's a children's book, and my "child" was 21 last week -"What's the use of stories that aren't even true?"
I'm not quite sure why I picked this up (it's a children's book, and my "child" was 21 last week - perhaps I'm hankering for times past), but I'm glad I did. It has the powerful mythical feel of traditional fairy tales, with plenty of nods to classics, and a political undercurrent that tells of the time he wrote it.
It would be perfect to read to a child of around 7 to 10, over a couple of weeks (twelve equal chapters), but as a solo adult, I enjoyed the wistfulness of a childish read, coupled with something much more profound.
Before you start
I vaguely knew this was dedicated to his son, but didn't notice the actual dedication or consider the timeline. However, I wasn't far into the book before I felt compelled to check. It was published the year after the fatwa that sent Rushdie into hiding (though he'd long since split from his wife). His son, Zafar, was 10 or 11. In that context, the dedication is heartbreaking:
Zembla, Zenda, Xanadu: All our dream-worlds may come true. Fairy lands are fearsome too. As I wander far from view Read, and bring me home to you.
I also wish I'd noticed the pages at the back that explain the names of many of the characters, most of which are derived from Hindustani [sic].
The key message is the power and importance of stories, even if, or particularly because, they are not true. (You see the link to the fatwa?)
Haroun is the son of a great storyteller who loses the power of storytelling. The story is a quest to turn on the storywater tap. It is set in an "other" world, with a child as the hero. If this were an adult novel, it would be classed as magic realism. It has an old-fashioned and Indian feel, but also features robotic birds and passing mention of aliens, UFOs and moons.
I won't summarise the plot, but it has all the elements you want and expect from a book like this: fantastical creatures; enigmatic lyrical characters juxtaposed with logical prosaic ones; dashes of humour; a maze of corridors; mistaken identity; occasional puns and Malapropisms (pussy-collar-jee = psychology); love; betrayal; impossible dilemma; princess rescue; disorientation; lucid dreaming?; a battle; time dilation; derring-do; funny names; telepathy; wishes; a baddie who explains his plan to the captured hero; magic; a gadget (complete with arbitrary timeout).
Free speech - Je suis Haroun
This is about the fun of stories and the importance of believing even what you can't see, but it's not just about that. There is a clear message about the right to speak. The arch-enemy of all stories is also the arch-enemy of language itself - to the extent his followers have their lips stitched up. What could be a more powerful symbol of censorship that the "Sign of the Zipped Lips"?
"Is not the Power of Speech the greatest Power of all? Then surely it must be exercised to the full?" Not forgetting this is a children's book, the example is a general who accepts insults and insubordination. The risk to those in power is that "inside every single story... there lies a world... that I cannot Rule."
But the importance of free speech doesn't mean one should always speak, unthinkingly. Haroun realises that "Silence has its own grace and beauty (just as speech can be graceless and ugly)... Actions could be as noble as words." As in so many things, we need discernment.
One of the problems Haroun encounters is the deliberate poisoning of the storywaters by dark forces. You can put an ecological spin on that, but it's not the main message.
Even a non-baddie has had some stories changed to make him the hero. Who owns our heritage? Can we rewrite it?
"The magic of the story can restore spirits."
Note: Although this was written in the aftermath of the fatwa, it's an issue Rushdie covered (less obviously) in his earlier novel Midnight's Children.
These ones I spotted (there may well be others). It's only now I collate them that I realise quite how many I found; I may be guilty of over-analysing:
• Douglas Adams People always trust Rashid the storyteller "because he always admitted that everything he told them was completely untrue". Unlike the politicians who want him to speak at their rallies. This logical inversion is slightly like Wonko the Sane from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.
There is also P2C2E - a Process Too Complicated To Explain, which summoned H2G2 to mind.
• Graham Green On discovering his mother had left, Haroun's reaction was the rather tangential destruction of his clock. I was reminded of a short story called "A Shocking Accident" in which a boy, on learning his father was killed by a falling pig, asks what happened to the pig.
• The Beatles There are eggheads and a character called Walrus, but I didn't spot the carpenter.
• Tolkien The Floating Gardeners look rather like amphibious ents.
• Kafka The Plentimaw Fishes are described as Hunger Artists (they swallow stories and then "create new stories in their digestive systems"). See A Hunger Artist.
The Shadow Warrior's first, spluttered utterances are "Googogol" and "Kafkafka".
• Gogol I've not read Gogol, but he gets a mention alongside Kafka (above).
• Shakespeare A boy page is actually a girl in disguise.
• Lewis Carroll The pages dressed like pages (rather than playing cards) and associated trumpets brought Wonderland to mind, as did the logical illogicality of organisations.
One character asks Haroun "Why make a fuss about this particular impossible thing?" The Red Queen famously "believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast".
• Jonathan Swift The antagonism between the Guppees and Chupwalas has echoes of that between the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos.
• Mary Tourtel et al The Plentimaw Fishes talk in rhyming couplets, like the captions underneath each picture in Rupert Bear stories.
• Philip Pullman In the dark world, shadows can be separated from their owners - rather like Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon.
• Monty Python or JM Barrie A knight fighting his own shadow made me think of the dark knight in The Holy Grail, but given that he's not fighting his shadow, I suppose Peter Pan is the more obvious connection.
• One Thousand and One Nights There's a houseboat called Arabian Nights Plus One.
• Aladdin The Water Genie has a magic wrench, which Haroun takes, so the genie follows him round, helping him out, trying to get it back.
• Joseph Conrad The evil one "sits at the heart of darkness". (I might be trying too hard with that one; it's a common enough phrase.)
• The Duchess of York (aka Sarah Ferguson)! Pollution of the storywaters includes "an outbreak of talking helicopter anecdotes" and Budgie the Little Helicopter was published the year before this.
• The sad city, that had forgotten its name "stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue."
• The Ocean of the Streams of Story: "because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories; so that unlike a library of books... [it] was not dead but alive."
• The Floating Gardeners do "maintenance... Untwisting twisted story streams. Also unlooping same. Weeding." They're also like hairdressers, because the longer stories are, the more likely they are to be tangled.
Nonsense isn't a genre of which I'm especially fond, but combined with Peake's drawings, this is a delightful collection.
There is considerable varietNonsense isn't a genre of which I'm especially fond, but combined with Peake's drawings, this is a delightful collection.
There is considerable variety: some are very short, while others are longer, narrative poems. Many are illustrated in Peake's inimitable style, and his way with words is given full rein, with a smattering of invented ones, and odd rhymes, such as "horrible" and "deplorable".
There are a few links to other works, most notably, "It Worries me to Know", whose final line is (view spoiler)["Across the roofs of Gormenghast". (hide spoiler)]
Pirates have a mention, of course. The poem "Of Pygmies, Palms and Pirates" lists lots of apparently random things and ends that of these things, "I have no more to say", which perhaps makes it some sort of post-modern meta non-something.
Generally, I prefer fantastical creatures and paradoxes to outright nonsense, and these are present, e.g. "I saw all of a sudden \ No sign of any ship."
My favourite poem in this collection is "I cannot give the Reasons", for its imagery; here are the third and fifth/final verses: "In gorgery and gushness and all that's squishified My voice has all the lushness of what I can't abide. ... Among the antlered mountains I make my viscous way and watch the sepia fountains throw up their lime-green spray."
Others that stood out for me were "The Trouble with Geraniums", which is fairly traditional nonsense, and the formulaic (but funny) "Aunts and Uncles" ("When Uncle/Aunty X became a Y...").
The most surprising piece is a draft of a narrative poem, "The Adventures of Footfruit". It is about non-conformity in a totalitarian state (echoes of Gormenghast - or am I looking too hard?),subliminal advertising to stoke consumer demand, and where "Priests are the salesmen to whom one confesses not owning".
This edition has a recent forewords (2011) by his son, Sebastian, and ranting poet, Benjamin Zephaniah, as well as the original introduction by his wife, Maeve. Maeve mentions Peake's love of The Diary of a Nobody, saying it "overjoyed his permanent sense of the ridiculous, but he was not immune to the perfections of Jane Austen, the world she presented being equally ridiculous, only more proper". I'm not sure what Janeites would say to that!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
A delightful children's book written (handwriting) and illustrated by Mervyn Peake, though like all really good children's books, it can also be enjoyA delightful children's book written (handwriting) and illustrated by Mervyn Peake, though like all really good children's books, it can also be enjoyed by adults.
This book reflects Peake's familiar love of pirates and islands, though it's really a simple story of friendship, fun and adventure. One surprise is the lack of a peg-leg, given that Barquentine (in Gormenghast) and the Lost Uncle both have one.
The opening strikes a change from the traditional "Once upon a time", yet somehow has a fairytale familiarity: "Far beyond the jungles and the burning deserts lay the bright blue ocean that stretched forever in all directions. There were little green islands with undiscovered edges, and whales swam around them in this sort of way." (and there is a picture).
The illustrations use a few solid colours (it was first published in 1939), but there is a wealth of detail in the lines, shading and stippling. This is especially true of details: tattoos, body hair, fabric, plants, sea creatures, and patched repairs of people(!), clothes and ship.
The publication date also means there are hints of colonialism, but in context, I have no problem with that. The lack of women reflects the plot and setting, and the gay subtext is just a subtext that will go over the heads of small children and shouldn't be an issue for anyone else (most cowboy stories and many pirate ones have similar, tacit, themes, which is why Brokeback Mountain was startling).
There is a panoply of fantastical creatures, with suitably exotic names, including the lonely Mousterashe, croaking Hunchabil, lazy Guggaflop, melancholy Saggerdroop, loathsome Squirmarins, along with the prosaically named Yellow Creature.
If I were a teenager or recommending this to a teen, I might give it 3*; as an adult, I give it 2*.
It's a potentially exciting but gruesome story,If I were a teenager or recommending this to a teen, I might give it 3*; as an adult, I give it 2*.
It's a potentially exciting but gruesome story, but most of the characters were rather flat, much of the plot was predictable (it's not hugely original; in particular, it is VERY similar to the Japanese "Battle Royale"), and there were too many flaws in the plot. I fail to understand its very high ratings.
Post-apocalyptic America (Panem) is divided into a wealthy and technologically advanced Capitol and twelve subsidiary districts of oppressed people who exist in dire poverty, with inadequate food, housing, and health care and hardly any technology. To reinforce the power of the Capitol by instilling fear in the population, once a year, two children from each region are selected by lots to fight to the death in a reality show. If that were not bad enough, the whole thing is utterly corrupt in multiple ways, plus the public bet on the outcome, and sponsors can sway the results. Did I mention these are children? (Some are as young as 12, though the narrator is 16.) A compulsory full-body wax on a teen seems rather pervy and who would want to bet on, let alone sponsor a child-killing tournament, even if it's by helping one of the contestants? As the book keeps reminding readers, one person's survival is only possible by the death of all the others.
CRUELTY TO CHILDREN
I realise that horrendous things are done to children around the world every day (extreme poverty, child soldiers, sexual assault, genital mutilation etc), but in none of those cases is the sole intention that all but one child dies, and nor is it organised by the government for a sick combination of sport, entertainment, punishment and profit.
Humans often lack compassion, but I was never convinced by Collins' world - especially the fact this outrage has continued for three generations (it's the 74th games), apparently without the Capitol even needing to invoke gods or supernatural powers to justify their cruelty! Could a barbaric annual tournament really be such a powerful incentive not to rise up in all that time? (I don't think so.)
Nevertheless, it tackles some big themes that are particularly pertinent to teens: the nature of friendship; divided loyalties; the difference between love and friendship; who to trust; whether the ends justify the means; the need to repay favours; the danger of power, wealth and celebrity; the corrupting influence of reality TV; the need for independence, and whether you can trust a parent who abandons you.
It all feels rather laboured to me, but it might not if I were a teen, which only reinforces my puzzlement at the number of adults who have enjoyed it. I must be missing something.
Nearly half the book is backstory and preparation for the games; the remainder is a tale of hunter and hunted. I predicted the main plot twist less than a quarter of the way in (and the fact that Katniss is telling the story limits the possible outcomes), but the suspense was broken when it was made explicit way before the end. There are some other twists between then and the final page, but by then I was rather annoyed with the whole thing.
IMPLAUSIBILITY AND INCONSISTENCIES
If I'd enjoyed the book more, I would have found it easier to suspend my disbelief, but as it was, I was constantly irked by questions and inconsistencies.
* The contestants (and their parents and grandparents) have been forced to watch the games every year of their lives. I suppose they had become inured to it, but on the other hand, that meant they knew the horror of it. I just didn't believe there was as little fear in them as there appeared to be - given that they are children. * Participants don't want other participants to know where they are, yet sponsor gifts occasionally drop out of the sky, via silver parachute; not a risk, apparently. * It's all filmed by numerous invisible floating cameras (I can buy that), but that somehow includes filming inside a cave that is virtually sealed (I can't). * How (and why) would any of these participants be able to measure time to within half hour intervals? * How big is Panem? It can only be a tiny part of the USA because each district specialises in only one thing (coal mining, agriculture etc) and has just one town square that can accommodate everyone (8,000 people in District 12) and yet it's a day's train journey from District 12 to the Capitol. It doesn't seem like a very plausible settlement pattern in a post-disaster world, even given the totalitarian regime (concentrating people in a few centres makes it easier to observe and perhaps control them, but it also creates more opportunities for opposition movements to develop).
COMPARED WITH LORD OF THE FLIES
There are some similarities with "Lord of the Flies" (my review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), but although "The Hunger Games" is likely to have more appeal to modern teens, I think there are (at least) two crucial differences:
* In LotF one person's survival is not necessarily at the cost of everyone else's. (It is even possible that they could all survive.)
* LotF has much more depth and symbolism: it tackles original sin; the mystical "Beast"; leadership, tribal allegiance and group dynamics (including bullying and attitudes to difference and minor disability) and the importance of ritual and belief.
The second point is what makes LotF a better book, in my opinion.
Of course, there are other, more obvious, parallels with extreme "reality" shows such as "Survivor" and "I'm a Celebrity, get me out of here", but the fundamental differences are not just that contestants in those shows do not fear for their lives, but that they are adults who have chosen to enter.
I TRIED TO ENJOY IT!
Any fans who read this will now hate me. I wanted to enjoy this book, and I read it all the way through, making notes as usual, but to no avail. Sorry. ...more
A hard book to rate as although its well written and is very thought provoking, the content gets unpleasantly graphic and some aspects are awkwardly dA hard book to rate as although its well written and is very thought provoking, the content gets unpleasantly graphic and some aspects are awkwardly dated (eg the assumption the British boys should be jolly good chaps - “we’re not savages, we’re English”).
PLOT It starts off as a conventional adventure: a mixed group of boys (some know each other; many who don’t) survive a plane crash on a desert island and struggle to survive. It is somewhat confused and confusing at first – perhaps to make the reader empathise with the boys’ confusion.
From the outset there are issues of priorities (Jack’s instant gratification of hunting or Ralph’s long term need for shelter and maintaining a fire signal) and leadership and it’s inevitable that standards of “civilization” will slip.
There is also an infectious fear of “the beast”, although whether one interprets it as animal, airman, hallucination, or symbolic may vary at different points in the story. Certainly the tone of the book changes after Simon’s first encounter with Lord of the Flies.
GROUP DYNAMICS Eventually the boys split into two groups: hunters who become ever more “savage” in appearance and behaviour, and the remainder who want to retain order, safety, common sense – and their lives. Why do the obedient and angelic choir turn to savagery - does the fact they have an identified leader, who isn't the overall leader once they're on the island, contribute? One also wonders how the story might be different if it was a mixed sex group, or even an all girl group. Very different, certainly, and I suppose it would provide a distraction to what Golding was trying to say about human (or just male?) nature.
It illustrates how petty bullying can be condoned and encouraged within groups (exacerbated by rituals, chanting, body markings etc) and how it can escalate to much worse. Nevertheless, one of the main victims, Piggy, is proud of his differences, demonstrates knowledge and intelligence and actually grows in confidence as his leader loses his.
MILGRAM, ZIMBARDO, CHRISTIANITY... It questions whether it is power or the environment that makes some of the boys so bad (echoes of Zimbardo’s prison experiments and Milgram’s obedience experiments - if a book can echo things which came after it was written).
The more Christian concept of original sin runs through it, which was probably Golding's intention (his editor made him make Simon less Jesus-like), along with other Christian analogies relating to snakes, devils (aka Lord of the Flies), self sacrifice, and redemption/rescue.
And then there are the conch and fire as symbols of order and god, respectively, in total contrast to the warpaint etc of the warriors.
Lots to think about, but more the stuff of nightmares than dreams.
COMPARED WITH "THE HUNGER GAMES" It's interesting to compare this with The Hunger Games, which modern teens probably find much easier to relate to (my review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
I think one problem Lord of the Flies has is that the period is tricky: too far from the present to seem "relevant" (though I think it is), but not long enough ago to be properly historical. ...more
A beautiful introduction to Middle Earth. It is much cosier than the Lord of the Rings, with a scattering of rhymes to jolly it along.
In some ways itA beautiful introduction to Middle Earth. It is much cosier than the Lord of the Rings, with a scattering of rhymes to jolly it along.
In some ways it's a simple quest narrative, but already you get a taste for the breadth and depth of Tolkien's imagining of Middle Earth.
Although LotR stands on its own, it makes far more sense to read this first, though a child who enjoys it is not necessarily ready to tackle LotR on their own - not just because this is shorter and simpler, but also because it is a simpler kinder world it is describing....more
Although raised as a Christian, I'm now agnostic and perhaps that's why I'm uncomfortable with this retelling of the life of Jesus as Aslan. I have noAlthough raised as a Christian, I'm now agnostic and perhaps that's why I'm uncomfortable with this retelling of the life of Jesus as Aslan. I have no objection to Bible stories, but this is more underhand.
That said, I still don't like it: it's too preachy and the way Mr Tumnus lures Lucy to his lair doesn't feel right - despite his upstanding character. There are plenty of better written and more engaging stories in this genre....more
Part of my fondness for this is the experience of sharing it with my son, quoting bits to each other, but I hope many of them could raise a smile evenPart of my fondness for this is the experience of sharing it with my son, quoting bits to each other, but I hope many of them could raise a smile even in a jaded adult.
It's a wonderful medley of very short poems ("There are holes in the sky where the rain gets in, But they're ever so small, that's why rain is thin.") to longer ones such as On the Ning Nang Nong, and also a couple of bizarre funny stories (several short chapters each): The Bald Twit Lion and the hapless knight, Sir Nobonk.
And the illustrations are a delight as well....more
Whilst I'm not a big fan of this book per se (it's too dated, and the twee quasi homo subtext can grate), I have such happy memories of reading it witWhilst I'm not a big fan of this book per se (it's too dated, and the twee quasi homo subtext can grate), I have such happy memories of reading it with my son, when he was little. We would have endless picnics (imaginary and for real), role-playing various characters... but now he's a strapping 15 year old and those days are long gone. ...more
Tenniel is usually held up as the perfect illustrator for Alice, but, fond as I am of his drawings, I do love these rather quirkier Peake illustrationTenniel is usually held up as the perfect illustrator for Alice, but, fond as I am of his drawings, I do love these rather quirkier Peake illustrations.
Some day I'll have to get around to reviewing the actual words. ;)...more
The epic backstory and mythology of Middle Earth. The grandeur and beauty of the language is a little like the King James edition of the Bible - but wThe epic backstory and mythology of Middle Earth. The grandeur and beauty of the language is a little like the King James edition of the Bible - but with much longer sentences.
Its beauty is counterbalanced by its opacity. I did sometimes have to recap to the start of a sentence or paragraph when I lost the train, and of course many of the characters are referred to by two (or more) names, but in the end, it's the majesty, rather than the detail that matters.
If you're expecting something like The Hobbit (or even LotR), this will be a surprise - but a good one, I hope. ...more
A lovely collection of letters from Father Christmas ("aided" by JRRT) to Tolkien's children.
The tone and content of the letters changes over time toA lovely collection of letters from Father Christmas ("aided" by JRRT) to Tolkien's children.
The tone and content of the letters changes over time to reflect the children growing up and incorporate aspects of their lives and things they'd written to him, but there is some continuity in the stories of what FC and his elves etc get up to. Lovely illustrations too.
(This section was added after an epiphany, which prompted me to make my reviews more personal.)
The real reason I love this is that it prompted "Father Christmas" to write similar letters to my own son over several years. They used some of the characters and plot from this (the literal North Pole, for instance), but added new characters (especially Windley, a naughty girl elf). As with Tolkien's children, the exchanges continued a little after he knew the source, but it remained a wonderful imaginative stimulus and shared semi-secret world. It was also instrumental in making him a Tolkien fan, which has led to a whole world of like-minded friends.
But there's more: when he was newborn, I wondered about the ethics of telling such overt and detailed "lies" as Father Christmas delivering presents. It seemed less obviously fiction than reading Peter Rabbit. I didn't want to deprive him of rich stories and a core part of our culture, but thought I might feel guilty for deceiving him. I need not have worried: as soon as he could talk, his vivid imagination was apparent. He drew me into his world, and we redrew it together. If I hadn't "invented" Father Christmas and other fantasies for him, he'd have done so himself. And I am glad.
(His purest inventions were Sitty the cat - for whom he tried to sneak real cat food into my shopping basket - and Sitty's partner in mischief, Ruffy the dog. Many hours happily spent with them, and telling stories about them - except one time when Sitty said she didn't want to be his friend any more! Fortunately, she relented quite quickly.)