Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Asterix and Obelix All At Sea – Goscinny and Uderzo

Book cover photo: Asterix and Obelix All At Sea
I am a huge fan of Asterix and Obelix, and have been for more than 40 years. My German uncle introduced me to them when I was little, and they helped me learn German. Over the years, we swapped copies, with me giving him and my cousins the English versions, and them giving me the German ones. I now have the whole collection, with some in the Kölsch dialect (Cologne dialect), and others in French and Spanish. And this is the great thing about these books. Created by a wonderful author/illustrator partnership René Goscinny  and Albert Uderzo they describe the adventures of a small Gaulish village which are holding out against the Roman army of Julius Caesar, with the help of their village druid’s magic potion.

There are so many wonderful stories and I have so many favourites, in particular, Asterix in Britain and Asterix in Switzerland. But I have just read Asterix and Obelix All At Sea, which was written entirely by Uderzo, as sadly Goscinny passed away in 1977. And it is fabulous, as good as ever, particularly as there is a cameo from the cartoon version of Kirk Douglas as Spartakis.

I should give credit to the translators Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, because the thing that is particularly clever is the way the jokes and puns are translated so that they apply to the local reader. For example, in the French editions, the little dog is called Idefix, while in the English editions he is called Dogmatix, both names sharing the same meaning in their own language. And there are many such examples of clever translations in all the texts. Asterix and Obelix are suitable for all ages. Children might not get all the jokes, but they will love the action and the characters, and adults will enjoy the clever word-use and innovative adventures.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bliss - Peter Carey

Virginia Woolf wrote of Charles Lamb that what she liked about his writing were the flashes of poetry.  The implication, of course, is that in many other parts of his work Woolf found Lamb's prose to be prosaic.  I don't know enough about Lamb to comment about Woolf's judgement; yet, in a different way the same can be said about Peter Carey and Bliss.

Bliss is certainly flawed, so much so that at times I wonder whether Carey ever bothered to re-read his chapters at all; or whether he simply pressed on.  Then, in others, and fortunately most places, the novel is sublime.  It manages to capture what is magical, ridiculous and crude all at once, inviting me to laugh, feel a little bitter about the world, and be uplifted - all of these are delivered with such delicious detail that as a reader - and a writer - I am filled with a jealous awe.

Bliss remains a disputed favourite then; and I am glad that it is the book I have most confidently recommended throughout the years.  I will even loan it - as I have done my many previously unreturned copies, if you can give me a good reason why you won't buy Bliss for yourself.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Lovely poem by E.E. Cummings

maggie and milly and molly and may

Mevagissey harbour and lighthouse
maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
View from Polkirt Hill, Mevagissey
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Why do some pirates wear an eye patch?
Some assume pirates wore eye patches to cover a missing eye or an eye that was wounded in battle, but in fact, an eye patch was more likely to be used to condition the eye so the pirate could fight in the dark.
It takes an average human eye about 25 minutes to fully adapt from bright sunlight to seeing in complete darkness — if a pirate was fighting on deck in the light, then had to go under the deck to fight downstairs where it is usually pretty dark, that would be a long time to go without being able to see. The eye patch could be used to prepare one eye to see in the dark, so when they would go below deck they could swap over the eye patch from one eye to the other and see with the eye that has already adjusted to low light conditions. This would allow them to instantly see in the dark.
Fabulous fact, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal and Mythbusters, from the Children's Museum, Indianapolis.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Dragonfly Pool - Eva Ibbotson

I am delighted to say that I have discovered a new 'favourite' author, and just by chance too. Eva Ibbotson's book reminds me of Michelle Magorian's books, as both authors set their books around World War II, but describing them from a child/adolescent's point of view. The Times describes The Dragonfly Pool as 'Irresistible' and I have to say that I completely agree. It is a tale of adventure and friendship, and has beautifully constructed sentences and use of words. It is a pleasure to read and, I would say, for all ages from about 8 years up. It starts off with a young girl being sent from the loving care of her aunts and father on a scholarship to a progressive boarding school in Devon where she spreads goodwill throughout and encourages the school to take part in a folk dance festival in a neutral country in Europe. While they are there, they make lots of friends, and together they help save a prince from danger. It is such a lovely story because it is compassionate, adventurous, innocent, magical, and exciting. My favourite bits were the descriptions of the amazing nature walks, with their fantastic but mysterious biology teacher, Matteo. It is very simple and easy to read, but is engaging and a proper, unexpected treasure.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick

As a student of film one of the lessons I enjoyed learning concerned the difference between the film pioneers, the Lumiere Brothers and Georges Melies.  The Lumieres were realists; and they busied themselves travelling around and filming real things - one of their classics is The Arrival of a Train in La Ciotat; the plot involves a train arriving in La Ciotat.  

Melies, however, was an illusionist; he specialises in surprising us, or making us dream.  His stories are absurd fantasies; and he takes us among other places to the moon and the sun - his explorers journey to the sun in a train.  Of course, in real terms, Melies travelled far less than the Lumieres - Melies filmed in a studio; but the lesson remains the same, the further a film takes you - think Star Trek - the less the characters actually have to travel.

Anyway, I love this book.  I also loved the film; but the book, with its many illustrations and film stills, has a particular charm of its own.  It concerns Georges Melies, though it is not a biography; it is a fantasy about a boy who saves Georges Melies by finding and re-building an automaton that Melies once invented.  As children's novels do it has simple, recognisable morals; it is also full of pleasure, awe, excitement and escape, and it is determinedly, deliciously old fashioned.  Well worth it.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

To Kill a Mocking Bird - Harper Lee

Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells us that a good poem is not one that you enjoy best when you first read it, but one that you return to most eagerly.  On this calculation To Kill a Mockingbird is a good novel; I return to it eagerly and always get something from it.  What struck me this time was not the childish horror of Boo Radley, or the shooting of the rabid dog; I was taken rather by Scout's first day at school - she was criticised because she could already read and told not to read at home any more because she had to learn how to read properly.  Interestingly enough, when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird - at school - we were told not to read ahead at home in case we failed to understand the book correctly; naturally I disobeyed.  I also enjoyed the part where Scout calls her cousin a 'whore-lady' before questioning her uncle as to what a 'whore-lady' actually is.  As I see it Harper Lee has a way of telling a complex, sensitive and controversial story without losing the innocence that makes her characters worthwhile knowing in the first place.

 Anyway, if you haven't read the book, I would recommend that you do so.  If you have, have a look to see if it is ready to jump off your shelf again.  To Kill a Mockingbird is a good book.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Adventures at the Chalet School

My Mum introduced me to the Chalet School series, by Elinor Brent-Dyer, when I was a child and I loved them. There are loads of books in the series, and it is my deepest regret that I did not keep my collection, as they are now very difficult to get hold of, and also very expensive. The first story describes two sisters who move to the mountains for the health of the younger one. The older one sets up a girls school, and the stories that follow describe life in the mountains, and then in Wales, where they are forced to relocate during the war.

The school sounds idyllic. They rotate languages throughout the week, so that the girls become fluent in English, French, and German. They eat delicious local foods, including "kaffee und kuchen". Each book continues the history over the years, and you watch the first pupil, the youngest sister, grow up to have a family of her own, while her friends become teachers at the school or marry. There are also lovely descriptions of the local traditions, and the flora and fauna, and also the introduction of the Girl Guides to the school.
The language is a little dated, but then the first book was published in 1925 (The school at the chalet), and the final one was published in 1970. A complete list is available here. Not only are they good stories, but they also let you imagine what the young people were facing throughout these years, such as WWII. These books are well-written, interesting, and creative, and they provide a wonderful insight to another way of life.A good thing to note in these electronic times, is the way hard copies continue to increase in value, something that I don't think e-books can do.

I have just finished two: Three go to the Chalet School (1949) and The Chalet School wins the trick (1961). It helps having an idea of the earlier characters, but you can still jump around between books. Ideally, I would like to read the whole set, in the right order, but unfortunately, some of the titles are very difficult to come by. I was very lucky to find these two books at a bargain price of 50p each, in a lovely little bookshop in The North Laines in Brighton, so just keep your eyes open and enjoy.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Momo - Michael Ende

There are some people who would call Michael Ende a Marxist; he grew up in pre-war Germany and there were many Marxists about at that time.  I wouldn't use the Marxist word, however; this is a children's book and Marxism is a dirty word - like smelly socks, or the underwear of some well-spoken politician.  Yet, there is a strong sense in Ende that if people could open their imagination, work together, doing their best and caring for the world, that we might all live slower, happier, more satisfied lives.

Anyway, the romance of political ideologies aside, Momo is a fantastic romantic adventure.  It is possible from the outset to find traces of Harry Potter; though Momo precedes Potter by decades.  Its heroine is an orphan, has a shock of black hair; and the enforcers of villainy are men in grey, men who suck happiness from people's lives.  To battle them, what is needed is a turtle, a professor of time, an hour-lilly and a young girl who listens to everybody.

I strongly recommend this book.  We came across it when looking up the only other Ende novel I have read - Never Ending Story.  The shopkeeper, when we bought it, said that Momo was 'flying off the shelves' (her words).  I am convinced that young readers will enjoy the adventure, the accessible and compelling morals.  I am also convinced that there is enough provocative thinking in Ende's book to satisfy a - smelly socks or not - adult.