Friday, February 1, 2008

Roald Dahl

by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 8+

The letters in the title stand for "Big Friendly Giant," a character readers of Danny the Champion of the World will already know and love. The BFG stands 24 feet tall and strides around the streets at night, poking his long thin trumpet through the windows of children's bedrooms, and blowing lovely dreams at them while they sleep. But when a little orphan girl named Sophie sees him from her dormitory window, he is forced to snatch her and take her to his mountain lair. He couldn't risk letting the word get out about giants.

The BFG is a friendly giant, though. Unlike the other nine giants in Giant Country, who are all twice as big, twice as stupid, and twice as mean. Those giants all have names like "Bloodbottler" and "Bonecruncher," and they go out every night and eat dozens of innocent "human beans." They look down their ugly noses at the BFG, who is the runt of the litter and the only vegetarian among them. The poor BFG has a hard time of it all around, because the only vegetable that grows in Giant Country is the horrid snozzcumber.

But it isn't until the nasty giants go striding off to England to feast on school children, that Sophie and the BFG hatch their brilliant plan to put a stop to the butchery once and for all. In a silly and exciting adventure that includes Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, an extremely resourceful butler, and a lot of military hardware, everything is finally set right.

Of all Dahl's books, this is the one that most made me appreciate what a wonderful wordsmith Dahl was. The BFG has a very peculiar way of speaking, mixing up a lot of words and making up as many more. The master who coined "scrumdiddlyumptious" here creates a multitude of new words, all of which tickle the funny bone and get their meaning across in a truly magical way. And as a feat of pure story telling, The BFG holds its own alongside the best of Dahl's books.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 8+

One of my favorite kid movies of all time is the musical Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Once I read the book, though, I realized that the original title is much better. The story is about the same though, with poor-as-dirt Charlie Bucket dreaming of being one of the five lucky winners of a candy bar sweepstakes, the grand prize being a guided tour of the mysterious and magical Wonka Candy Works.

Along with Grandpa Joe, Charlie does get to tour the marvelous candy land, along with four obnoxious children and their over-indulgent parents, who are eliminated one-by-one as a result of their own character flaws. Each time this happens, the tiny Oompa Loompas deliver moralizing remarks about such evils as watching too much TV, chewing too much gum, overeating, and being a spoiled brat. Finally Charlie's loyalty is tested... and when he passes the test, he wins the real grand prize that he never dared dream of!

Look out for the sequel, Charlie and the Glass Elevator. [UPDATE: When I wrote this review, Tim Burton's film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had not yet come out.]

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 8+

This sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory picks up where the original left off, with Charlie Bucket and his parents, Grandpa Joe, Grandma Josephine, Grandpa George, Grandma Georgina, and Mr. Willie Wonka himself in the magical glass elevator, on their way to take over the Wonka Chocolate Factory. But because the three bedridden old ones are still cantankerous and full of doubts, they ascend too high and end up in orbit. It just happens that the great Space Hotel USA is about to open, and they take advantage of their plight to be the first on board the opulent luxury hotel in space.

Only, they aren't the first. Something has gotten there before them--a thousand somethings from far away in outerspace--about the nastiest somethings you could ask for. And in their madcap escape, which also happens to be an international incident of the utmost absurdity (you'll LOVE the President of the U. S.), they also have to help a space capsule full of housekeepers, waitresses, and bell hops escape a rampaging swarm of Vermicious Knids.

But the story isn't even half over then... for once they smash down in the Wonka Works, Charlie and his family have another crisis on their hands: for two of Wonka's magical confections--Wonka-Vite, which makes you younger, and Vita-Wonk, which makes you older--lead the Bucket family on a scary and hilarious adventure to Minusland and back.

Many of the most memorable lines from the Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory musical-movie, starring Gene Wilder, came from this book. Such as, "A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men." It's a very goofy story, and certainly not Dahl's most perfect or well-polished creation, but it's got some good solid laughs, some hair-raising moments, and a few life lessons thrown in, like medicine laced with sugar.

Also, those of you who may have read Julie Andrews Edwards' The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, will remember some creature names from this (and other) books by Roald Dahl. Who else would come up with whangdoodles, snozzwangers, procks, and whiffle birds?

Danny the Champion of the World
by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 8+

Here is a wonderful adventure and an affectionate, father-son love story rolled into one. Danny is an adorable nine-year-old boy, raised alone by his doting father. They live in a gypsy caravan parked behind a filling station. Danny's father is an auto mechanic, but he's oh so much more. As Danny finally concludes, he is the greatest, most exciting father a boy ever had.

The two are devoted to each other. So it happens that one night, when Danny awakens in the small hours and can find no sign of his father, he grows worried. When his father returns from a nocturnal jaunt, he decides to reveal his deepest darkest secret. Danny's father, law-abiding mechanic by day, is a pheasant poacher by night! Soon father and son together are enjoying this exciting past-time, their enjoyment redoubled by their dislike for Mr. Victor Hazell, who has hundreds of fat pheasants in his woods, saving them up for the opening of pheasant-shooting season when Hazell has the lions of society over to his estate.

So partly to feed their family and friends with a rare treat of roast pheasant, and partly to get back at the nasty Mr. Hazell, Danny and his father hatch an ingenious plan-a daring plan-a plan that unravels in a hilarious and amazing way.

Fans of Dahl's books will recognize a beloved character in the stories Danny's father tells to his son.

As in Fantastic Mr. Fox, readers may question the ethics of Dahl's characters. On the other hand, it could be that Dahl's purpose (in part) was to make you question the ethics, for example, of Mr. Hazell and his type, or of the vicious schoolteacher named Captain Lancaster. One thing you will not question is that this story will charm you, and you will love Danny and his father almost as much as they love each other.

The Enormous Crocodile
by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 6+

This isn't exactly a novel. In fact, it's such a little book that it's all in one chapter. It's a lot like a classic fable. An enormous, ravening crocodile sets his mind on eating some fat, juicy children for lunch. Along the way he makes the acquaintance of several animals, but he doesn't exactly make friends. The other animals keep warning the children to stay away from the enormous crocodile, thwarting all his imaginative traps and schemes, until finally the crocodile gets what he deserves. Witty and full of Dahl's unique brand of word-magic, this story will especially delight youngsters who may not be old enough for Harry Potter.

Fantastic Mr. Fox
by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 8+

Here is a story about three nasty poultry farmers who team up to try and finish off a fox who keeps raiding their barns. Mr. Fox cleverly saves his whole family, and a bunch of other burrowing creatures besides, and thwarts the aims of the three wicked men. It's a very charming story whose moral you may not quite agree with, but it is basically "It's okay to steal if your family is starving." In the animal world, at least, there's nothing wrong with that. In the human world, if that's what you're supposed to think about, it provokes some thought, doesn't it?

Since it is such a short book, and so easily and quickly read, I won't add any more except to say that I recommend all of Dahl's magical books for young readers and the young at heart.

George's Marvelous Medicine
by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 8+

If your favorite Hogwarts subject would be potions, I have already pointed out that you should read The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones. [EDIT: Not on this blog, though.] But even before that book, there was this treasure for young readers and the young at heart, by Norwegian-bred, British author Roald Dahl. I feel obliged to say, first of all, that any book by Roald Dahl is bound to be a wonderful, fun, magical experience, and I recommend every single one.

This one is a cute story about a little boy who is left at home by his parents one day and told to give his witchy grandmother her medicine at precisely eleven o'clock. But she is such a frightful old hag that he decides to give her some real medicine...and concocts a magical potion out of all kinds of household items from the bathroom, kitchen, his mother's dressing table, the garage, storeroom, etc. (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!!!)

The effects of his experiment, and of subsequent experiments that his father enthusiastically enters into, are very amusing. It's basically a fun little brush with magic, and the recipe is priceless.

James and the Giant Peach
by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 8+

Before there was a claymation movie under this title, there was this book. And a fine book it is, though perhaps darker than some of Dahl's children's stories.

As the story begins, James is in a fix that should feel familiar for anyone who has sympathized with Harry Potter's plight. James is a happy little boy until his parents are killed in a truly outrageous accident (you have to read it to believe it). James is sent to live with his evil aunts, bony Aunt Spiker and tubby Aunt Sponge. This pair makes the Dursleys look like a good-natured family that only practices a little "tough love." They are truly hideous. And for three years, they grind James down with beatings, forced labor, constant criticism, deprivation, loneliness, and despair, until he is a very sad little boy.

Then, lo and behold, a strange little man gives James a paper bag full of magic crystals which, the man says, James must stir into water and drink if he wants to have wonderful things happen to him. In his excitement, James trips and spills the crystals on the roots of a withered old peach tree. Overnight a peach the size of a house grows, and before you can say Peach Cobbler, the peach has broken loose, crushed the horrid Aunts to death, and carried James away on a magical journey.

Through sea and sky, James is swept by a combination of cleverness, courage, and fairy-tale gags. And on the good ship (or airship) Peach, he makes the acquaintance of a group of giant-sized, talking, clothes-wearing bugs-the Old-Green-Grasshopper, Miss Spider, Miss Ladybug, Miss Silkworm, the Earthworm, the Glowworm, and the ne'er-do-well Centipede, who is constantly worrying about his forty-two pairs of boots. Together they see how the weather is made, they escape from sharks, and they scare the daylights out of the good people of New York City.

Fans of the Dahl stories will be delighted by cameo appearances by the snozzwanger, the whangdoodle, and (my favorite) the vermicious Knid. And fans of a certain boy wizard will be slightly startled to learn the full name of our hero: James Henry Trotter.

by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 8+

What is a gifted child to do when she is brought up by a family that squelches intellect? Poor Matilda, who reads at an adult level before she's even old enough to go to school, is forced to watch TV night after night with her dishonest used-car-salesman father, her airheaded bingo-playing mother, and her not-too-bright older brother. When she is finally allowed to go to school, it is a dreadful school run by a child-hating ogress named The Trunchbull. But her teacher, Miss Honey, soon recognizes Matilda's special gifts, and the two become fast friends.

Together with a power to make objects move on their own accord, Matilda frees her school from the Trunchbull's tyranny, and finds the family she deserves. An adorable fantasy from a true master! Prepare to be reminded of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone.

By the way, if you think Pam Ferris is the perfect actress to play Aunt Marge in Prisoner of Azkaban, you've got to see her as the Trunchbull in the adorable film of this book, directed by Danny DeVito.

The Twits
by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 8+

This is a short adventure about a very hideous, nasty, retired couple of circus animal trainers who delight in playing malicious jokes on each other, using glue to catch songbirds to bake in pies, and forcing a family of monkeys in a cage to stand on their heads all day long...and the sweet revenge the animals wreak on them.

As usual, Dahl's writing is full of wit, humor, and an underlying current of moralism and pathos. It's like having a wise old uncle who has been to hell and back, telling you innocent little stories with depths of meaning in them while a witty twinkle dances in his eye. Check out his other delicious books!

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 6+

Just as J. K. Rowling wrote the Hogwarts school-books to benefit charity (in her case, Comic Relief), Roald Dahl wrote a small and very funny children's book to aid the Dyslexia Society of Great Britain. This story features a kind-hearted young clergyman who, when he's a bit nervous, pronounces words as though they were spelt backward. This results in confusion at best, and scandal at worst, especially when he's trying to say "park" or addressing a pillar of the church named "Mrs. Prewt."

Finally, a fanciful cure is found for the Vicar's problem, creating yet another lovable eccentric among the many who come from the mind of Roald Dahl.

The Witches
by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 8+

A little orphan boy, being raised by his cigar-chomping Norwegian grandmother, comes to an English resort hotel for a seaside cure. While he is training his pet mice (William and Mary) to do tricks, he makes the horrifying discovery that all his Grandma's stories about witches are true. They really do have square, toeless feet, pointy teeth, claws on their fingers, and eyes that glow purple, and they think children smell like dog droppings. This poor, petrified boy (who interestingly remains unnamed throughout the book) only learns that these stories are more than stories when he stumbles on the fact that his hotel is filled with a Witches' Convention.

Disguised as a women's society to promote the welfare of children, the witches are actually plotting the destruction of all children in England - using a hilarious yet sinister recipe called the Delayed-Action Mouse Maker. The ingredients for this are even more rib-tickling than George's Marvelous Medicine. But the results are ghastly! Soon our hero and a fat little boy named Bruno are both turned into mice, which horrifies Bruno's parents but brings out the best in Grandma. Eluding housekeepers and hotel managers intent on drowning him in a fire-bucket, the little boy-cum-mouse turns the tables on the evil witches once and for all.

This is, without a doubt, one of Dahl's most irresistible stories, and Grandma is one of his quirkiest heroes. You'll love the little orphan boy, you'll be tickled and grossed out by Bruno, and of course the witches are simply priceless. I also recommend the film based on this book, starring Anjelica Huston as the high witch of the world. I still remember the delightful way she seemed to fight down an urge to vomit whenever she pronounced the word "children." These are not Hogwarts-type witches, but disgusting, creepy-crawly creatures of evil whose undoing is a joy to behold.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More
by Roald Dahl
Recommended Age: 12+

This is a set of six stories, aimed at adults actually. Roald Dahl's grown-up stories are as excellent as his young-readers' ones. They often have a sense of irony that reminds me of O. Henry. Nevertheless, I found this book among others by Dahl in the children's section of Barnes & Noble, and I suppose you may find it there too.

One of these six stories is an autobiographical account called "Lucky Break: How I Became A Writer"--including yet another awful account of growing up in British boarding schools, of which I can't remember reading any story that wasn't revolting, brutal and sad. In this case one of the brutal headmasters was later the Archbishop of Canterbury who crowned Queen Elizabeth II, and who (according to Dahl) actually beat boys bloody in his schoolmaster days. Dahl goes on to recount his experiences in WWII as an RAF fighter pilot and how a chance meeting with C. S. Forester (author of the Horatio Hornblower stories) led him to write his first story, an account of all that he remembers of the time he was shot down over Africa. Forester actually wanted Dahl to give him the details of the story so Forester himself could write it for the Saturday Evening Post, but he was so staggered by what Dahl wrote that he submitted it unchanged & sent a check to Dahl along with a letter telling him (to Dahl's surprise) that he was a gifted writer.

It's a very interesting account, and it concludes with the first story that Dahl wrote, "A Piece of Cake," vintage 1942, which starts out like a fighter pilot adventure but turns out mostly to consist of a series of hallucinations Dahl suffered after having his skull cracked open and suffering burns in a fiery plane crash. Dahl also claims to have invented the term "gremlins" in a children's story that Disney started to make into an animated movie, then left unfinished. The story was published with illustrations from the aborted Disney cartoon and became such a hit that the concept of "gremlins" causing damage to Allied fighters and bombers went into military aviation folklore. My favorite animated cartoon of all time dates from WWII and is a Bugs Bunny short about gremlins. (Best moment: after a long and intense sequence in which it seems Bugs' plane is going to crash, the machine stops dead about 2 feet off the ground and Bugs exclaims, "What do you know! Ran out of gas!") I wonder how closely that story is related to the Disney movie that never happened?

Also in the book are a handful of stories which Dahl narrates from the point of view of a professional writer either eye-witnessing the events in the story or being given the material to write a true account after the fact: "The Boy Who Talked with Animals," "The Hitchhiker," and "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar." Actually Dahl reveals in his autobiographical account that these, like almost everything he wrote, were pure fiction developed from two-or-three-sentence ideas he scribbled in an old notebook. (He lets you see the ideas as he originally wrote them, also for "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox"). A fourth story, "The Mildenhall Treasure," actually is non-fiction, the only non-fiction Dahl ever wrote other than that first story. And the other story in the book, "The Swan," makes no pretence of being anything but fiction. Nevertheless he does such an amazing job creating scenes that come alive in your mind's eye, that you can nearly believe that these fantastic tales are true.

In "The Boy Who Talked With Animals," the writer/narrator is vacationing in Jamaica when he sees a disturbance on the beach. A crowd of people is watching a group of fishermen drag an enormous, ancient turtle out of the sea, up toward the hotel, where it is to become steaks and soup for the hotel guests and its polished shell will be sold at a high price. Along comes a little boy named David who loves animals, and who becomes hysterical at the sight of this cruelty. He eventually prevails on his father to buy the turtle and have it set free. The next day another disturbance happens: David has disappeared. The only clue of what happened to him for years afterward is a few sightings of a boy riding a turtle's back...

In "The Hitchhiker," the author/narrator is driving his fancy BMW convertible to London when he picks up a man who first boasts, then later proves himself, to be a world-class pickpocket. Or rather, "fingersmith," which is infinitely more than a pickpocket, a truly amazing and ingenious fellow.

In "The Mildenhall Treasure," a man who makes a living plowing other men's fields, accidentally discovers the greatest buried treasure ever found in the history of England. He doesn't know that this discovery could make him a millionaire, under the laws of the land... nor does he know that another man's greed will prevent that from happening.

In "The Swan," which takes place near a small English town, two young hooligans fiddling around with a rifle decide to terrorize and torment a smaller, weaker, smarter boy named Peter Watson. Poor Peter is unable to resist because he doesn't know what these vicious armed boys might do, and he fears that if he stands up to them it will only go worse for him. But his courage prevails in the end, when it comes to a matter of life or death, after atrocity upon atrocity has driven him to the point of desperation. It is, at its climax, a depiction of the inner strength some people display when they're pushed to the edge and beyond. It is also, throughout its length, a depiction of the monstrous evil inside even the youngest people that, once a person commits himself to it, he can only carry it forward and may not even think of turning back. For instance, Peter is tied to a railroad track and forced to find a way to survive being run over by a train. That's just the first thing they do to him; it gets worse from there!

In "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar," a rich idle playboy discovers a manuscript account of how an Indian yogi learned to see without his eyes. Henry Sugar realizes that if he follows the yogi's procedure, with effort and time he could learn to see through playing cards and make a fortune at casinos. So for three years he trains himself, through intense concentration, to see what's on the other side of a playing card. Then he goes out and strikes it rich at a casino, and realizes that his years of meditation have changed more than his sense of sight. The money no longer matters to him. An interesting chain of events follows by which Henry Sugar discovers his new mission in life...

All of these are rich, wonderful stories, or at least well-developed snapshots of life with an interesting twist. I suppose when you get down to it, the first two stories are more like ideas for a story that never happens. But they're that much more realistic for it, I think. They're like what happens in real life, that become the basis for a more developed story when a fiction writer sits down to work on the material. "The Boy Who Talked To Animals" could have been an adventure of a Dr. Doolittle type child living it up around the world without parents, going native with nobody for company but the animals who love him. But that's been done. What hasn't been done before, is the idea that such a child existed in the real world and a real live writer had a weird brush with him on a Jamaican beach. "The Hitchhiker" could have been a novel about the career of a fingersmith, which I'm sure would be entertaining, but the short story gives you all you really need to know and grabs you with the idea that such a person really exists. And who knows, you may see him hitchhiking along a highway near you. The "Mildenhall Treasure" could have been a more dramatic tale of betrayal and justice, but instead it has the fascination of being an extraordinary true story that happened to a very ordinary man. And "Henry Sugar" actually makes reference to one of the characters in it planning to write a novel on the subject, partly in explanation for why certain details are left out. But the one story in this collection that is simply a perfect, self-standing, fully-developed work of fiction is "The Swan," which gives you a suspenseful and moving glimpse into the goodness and courage some boys have inside them, and the ugly cowardice at the heart of others.

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