Books that Matter: Over to You by Roald Dahl

Books that Matter

It wouldn’t be a book list of mine without something by Roald Dahl. The difficulty was choosing which of his books to highlight, as I enjoy so many of them.

One kept sneaking back into my mind–Over to You, his collection of RAF inspired tales. Not the first of Mr Dahl’s books that I read, but the one that I have read most frequently.

This book is a collection of some of his earliest work. There’s an elegance to it, a lyricism that delivers a punch straight to the gut. There’s humor in some of the stories, such as ‘Madame Rosette,’ but there is a poignancy to  others that stays, such as “They Shall Never Grow Old.”

I discovered this book shortly after developing my interest in the RAF and the Second World War. It was a fitting match, stories that captured camaraderie and sorrow.

I’ve read most of Dahl’s other adult stories, but these are the ones that stick with me the most.

Edit: Holmes has asked me to clarify something: it was she who reintroduced Mr Dahl into my life, NOT the RAF. However, I stand by my “I chose this book over the others” because of the RAF.

Happy Deathday, Mr Dahl

The Twirl and Swirl of Letters
Roald Dahl

From Wikipedia. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten

Roald Dahl died 20 years ago today, 23 November 1990.

What can I say about one of my favorite writers that hasn’t been said before?

Roald Dahl, the writer who continues to weave his way through my life. As a child, I loved his books. I wanted powers like Matilda’s. I loved the story of the BFG. My sister had a Book On Tape of it, and we listened to that story on car rides to visit my grandparents or on family vacations. In elementary school, we read James and the Giant Peach during a very long fire drill. As a young child, I read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator first, and never forgot those Vermicious Knids.

But then I hit that barren wasteland of middle school, where it was no longer cool to love his books. They were kids’ stuff, to be regulated to a far corner, to the back of our minds, to be remembered fondly but never admitted.

High School brought a return to the awesome. My prom theme was Golden Ticket, styled after the Gene Wilder movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, complete with golden tickets, candy everywhere, and a (fake) chocolate waterfall. But still, I ignored the books.

Cue sophomore year of college. My roommate, the fantastic Holmes, got a copy of a collection of his adult short stories. She made me read “Genesis and Catastrophe”. I was hooked on the way my stomach felt after reading that story. I began to read more, to crave more. “Lamb to the Slaughter” introduced me to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the story “Beware of the Dog” brought me to 36 Hours (a really good thriller).

Through it, I read a book called The Irregulars, about Dahl’s time as a spy during WWII, which subsequently kicked off my interest in the RAF (or may have just helped to spawn it, I’m really unsure of how that came to be).

I’ve read most of his adult stories by this point. When I travel, I bring Over to You, a collection of his RAF stories, with me. It’s a slim book, perfect for sticking into a computer bag. I want to read My Uncle Oswald, a novel about his delightfully devious character of the same name.

Recently, Holmes and I have started rereading some of his children’s books. We recently finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I never realized how delightful of a morality play it is. The evil children all meet their very fitting ends, all receive their punishments in accordance to their crimes. Its delightful how twisted the tale is. In rewatching the Gene Wilder movie, we realized how much it distorts the story, how it takes away from Charlie being such a deserving character. In the movie, he misbehaves as the other children do. And Grandpa Joe is such a bad influence in the movie.

Dahl’s wicked sense of humor appeals to all ages, from the child looking for a creepy bedtime story, to the adult looking for a good gut-twisting story. There’s a magic to his work, an appeal that transcends ages.

In honor of Mr Dahl, I shall be eating chocolate today (a favorite food of his, in fact, he allegedly was buried with some), and reading a portion of Over to You.

Read one of his short stories today. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.

Here’s to many more years enjoying Roald Dahl’s stories, the fantastic, the strange, the heartbreaking, the wicked.

La’s Foul Note

What's On the Bookshelf?

When I came home from Italy, I found one of the latest Alexander McCall Smith books, La’s Orchestra Saves the World, waiting for me. Needless to say, I was incredibly excited. I adore AMS’s books, and this one seemed especially up my alley–it centers around a woman, La, who starts an amateur orchestra near an RAF base in Suffolk. Long time readers have probably picked up on my interest in the RAF, and my enjoyment of AMS.

AMS’s works are usually intimate, if lighthearted, looks at every day people in often extraordinary (or extraordinarily funny) circumstances. There’s Precious Ramotswe in his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, a strong-willed woman who’s dealt with some tough stuff in her past, but ultimately moves forward. His 44 Scotland Street series features characters like Bertie, a precocious 6-year-old forced to speak Italian and play the saxophone when all he wants is to play with a train set (and have his room a color other than pink).

La’s Orchestra has a strange disconnect. We, the readers, pity and sympathize with La, but we never gain that intimate bond with her. The orchestra barely features into the story. It’s mostly about her and her relationships with men. The book felt very shallow, almost flimsy, at times it was like peering through a veil of smoke. Nothing ever gelled properly.

One part of AMS’s writing is his imitation of the culture through his writing. No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency takes place in Botswana (where AMS lived for a time), and the writing style is different from 44 Scotland Street (which takes place in Edinburgh) and is different from Portuguese Irregular Verbs (which I didn’t particularly enjoy, but it certainly captures the occasionally BS nature of academia). It could be that, as a 21st century American, I don’t understand the disconnect of a city woman living in the countryside during WWII. He captures the vibe so well in his other books, maybe I’m just missing it here.

I suppose I was expecting a different book, one more lighthearted and in line with 44 Scotland Street. I hoped for an interconnecting web of characters who shared the orchestra as common ground–La, the conductor, people from the nearby village, the pilots from the RAF base. Instead, I got the disenchanted La, and only her. There wasn’t enough development of the other characters to form an attachment, and even to her. I pitied La for her unfortunate circumstances, but I never connected with her.

I suppose every once in a while, favorite authors are allowed to hit a bum note.


General Geekiness

I adore footnotes. Honestly. While doing research (or just reading history books for fun), few things delight me more than those little gobbets hidden in the lower margin. Even when reading about a topic that interests me greatly, a digression proves too inviting to resist.

Let’s look at the book I’m currently reading, a history of the Battle of Britain called With Wings Like Eagles by Michael Korda. Now, apart from being a well written, engaging book with an ample bibliography, Korda makes use of footnotes. Enjoy this snippet (digression taken while discussing the difference between Luftwaffe and RAF bases):

“Our quarters at a former Luftwaffe base near Hamburg…not only had indoor baths and showers but featured a mysterious-looking porcelain basin set in the wall which was too small, too high up, and too elaborately decorated to be a urinal, and which turned out to be a flushing vomitorium for those who had drunk too much beer” (64).

Will that ever feature into my works? Probably not. Will that ever be something I’ll need to know? Again, probably not, but I’ll bet it will make for interesting conversation fodder.

Oh, what a year!

The Twirl and Swirl of Letters

This month for the AW Blog Chain, we’re taking stock of our accomplishments over the year. This has me shivering in my very boots.

I started out the year with bold ideas and plans. I thought that I would complete another novel first draft this year. Maybe two–an alt reality sci-fi story and my currently-stashed-away RAF tale (research is daunting, and alas, so is course work). I also thought that I would write more short stories this year. I think the count is three. I’m disappointed, but I can amend this next year.

I did get some things done.

I created this blog. Originally a course requirement from the Spring 2009 semester, I had fun and continue blogging. I don’t post as frequently or with the same consistent quality as I would like, but things to work on.

I wrote. Every day, at least a page. Over the summer, I required two handwritten pages. Now that school is winding down, I’ll be back up to my preferred level. I hope to carry this into the next year. Mostly I write fiction, but sometimes my mind moves to the real world or philosophical discussions.

I indulged my geekier side. Following the suggestion of one of my professors, I picked up Dune. That set the pace for (some of) my summer reading, which also included the first Riverworld book and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? For television viewing, I started Star Trek, and watched the entirety of The Prisoner (which I’ve determined needs multiple viewings and I’m only too happy to comply with).

And my, how the year flew by. 2010 looks like a promising one, filled with action and adventure (cue Danger Man theme).

Here are my fellow blog chainers!

Lost Wanderer –
Claire Crossdale –
coryleslie –
bsolah –
DavidZahir –
RavenCorinnCarluk –
Ralph Pines –
shethinkstoomuch – (that’s me!)
Lady Cat
truelyana –
misaditas –
collectonian –
laharrison –
beawhiz –
razibahmed –
FreshHell –
AlissaC –
Aimee –

Love, Literature, and Potato Peel Pie

What's On the Bookshelf?

The preceding post in the AW Book Blog Chain is Fictional: Lurker in the Dark and Others and the following can be found at Random Writerly Thoughts.

For a couple of weeks, every time I spoke with my mom she urged me to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. “It’s about WWII,” she told me. “It takes place on Guernsey during the Nazi occupation.”

Being a sucker for all things related to the UK and WWII, I gave in over Thanksgiving break.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society begins with Juliet Ashton, a writer, receiving a letter from a founding member of the titular Society. Juliet decides to write an article about the society (for a philosophy and literature series) and begins to receive more letters from Guernsey. She determines that the best way to write the article is to go to Guernsey itself.

The book is written in a different fashion–various lines of correspondence between Juliet and the other characters, such as her publisher, best friend, and the people of Guernsey. Through the letters, notes and telegrams we get a sense of who these people are. Their thoughts are intimate and thoroughly engaging.

One thing that I enjoyed is the care the authors put into developing individual voices for each of the characters. Some write only one or two letters, yet sound distinctive from the others. This aids with the realism of the book. One can’t help but feel like one is spying on these people, yet also feel like they are friends (or acquaintances at the least).

The story is one that is alternatively light and dark. The tones the characters write to each other in are humorous and self-deprecating. On numerous occasions I started laughing out loud. As the book is about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, the story becomes serious at times, but never loses its charm.

It saddens me that letter writing has fallen by the wayside for email, facebook and twitter. Fifty years from now, will anyone write a story in a similar manner about people like us? Emails lack that personal feel. Will an entire book be told over tweets? It strikes me as a bit ridiculous, really (if a fun poetry experiment).

All said, this is a charming book. Recommended for those looking for a feel-good novel (it does have a very happy ending!). Light, enjoyable, and worth the few hours it takes to read. Best enjoyed with a continuous stream of tea and digestive biscuits.

Lost Wanderer
Vein Glory
Shethinkstoomuch –  That’s me!
Lady Cat –
Rosemerry –