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The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren

lionheartI was asked some time ago what my favorite book was as a child, and I couldn’t say. I could have listed a dozen, at least, that I loved, but I don’t know how I could have chosen one. I asked my mother, and she said my favorite book as a child was the one I was reading right that minute. I read a lot.

But something about The Brothers Lionheart has stayed with me. I don’t know when I read it, or how many times – not many, I think, maybe only once; but it made a strong impression, and I’ve found myself thinking about it over the years. (Astrid Lindgren is better known as the author of Pippi Longstocking, but I think this one kicks Pippi’s butt.) So I finally went and got my hands on a copy recently, and I’m so glad I did!

The story is fantastical. When it opens, little Karl Lion is sick; he’s been in bed for six months. But his older brother Jonathan is a good big brother, one of those golden people, beautiful and strong and talented and kind, and modest because he seems to just really not notice or care how special he is. He’s sweet to his little brother, and stays up late telling him stories. Karl knows he’s going to die. Jonathan tells him it’s okay, because he’s going to a beautiful place beyond the stars called Nangiyala, a land still in the time of campfires and sagas, where the brothers can have adventures together. Jonathan is only sorry that Karl will get there before he does, since Jonathan seems destined to live a long and healthy life.

But there is a fire, and Jonathan saves his brother’s life but forfeits his own; and when Karl succumbs to his illness, Jonathan is waiting for him at Knights Farm in Cherry Valley in Nangiyala. They have horses, and rabbits, and a vegetable garden; Jonathan tends the rose gardens of a nice woman named Sofia, and they are friends with everyone in the town. Karl is happy. But too soon, he learns of Wild Rose Valley, the next neighborhood over, where things are not so simple and joyful: an evil tyrant named Tengil has enslaved the people of Wild Rose Valley and built a wall to keep them from their friends in Cherry Valley. Jonathan and Sofia are part of the resistance; and although Karl is very small and very frightened, he finds himself involved, as well.

There are forces of evil dressed in black uniforms and scary helmets; there is an occupation; there is a fire-breathing dragon; and there are brave citizens. It is a saga itself, and Jonathan is its shining golden hero, but Karl doesn’t do too badly either. I loved this story very much, this time as much as when I read it as a child. And the ending thrills me as much as ever.

This is definitely a book for kids; the language is simple and childlike, and the thing I found most striking upon this adult read was the pacing. It moves very quickly! It takes very few pages to establish how lovely & simple & calm Cherry Valley is; and then we’re on to the darkness next door immediately. An adult book would have been longer and allowed the action to develop a little more slowly. But this made for a very enjoyable, quick read. I’d recommend it for anyone who likes fantasy and dreams and adventure, and who might not be up for a longer, more involved novel.

There is another level on which this story can be read as allegory. Tengil’s occupying force presents several clear options for comparison (and I think also offer some tips on how not to do it). One valley looks so sweet, good, prosperous and happy, and yet if you open your eyes just a little – zoom out to the point where you can see as far as just the next valley over – things are not nearly so happy or easy as you thought. Without putting too fine a point on it, I think this offers an analogy for capitalistic western culture. Speaking of capitalism, I was charmed by the idea of everyone helping everyone & taking care of one another in this idealistic Nangiyala. One can dream.

Themes include the beauty of a deeply felt brotherly love, resistance against evil, loyalty, hope, and courage; but there are also themes related to death & what happens after, tyranny, war and betrayal. The book has been criticized for its approach to suicide (although I would argue it’s not quite that simple). For me, the good is bigger than the darkness, and the ending is happy. I feel that the interplay of dark and light is part of what makes this story the kind that has stuck with me for over 20 years, and keeps it from being saccharine. But not everyone will see it that way.

I am so pleased to report that Jonathan was still simply heroic, Karl still sweet and surprisingly brave, Sophia still good and the dragon still scary, even now that I’ve grown up. Do check out my childhood favorite with me.


Rating: 9 trips along a river.

book beginnings on Friday: The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

lionheart

Astrid Lindgren is far better known as the author of Pippi Longstocking. But I remember Pippi only vaguely, and have remained enchanted by The Brothers Lionheart since I read it first as a child. I was excited to find a new copy and open it back up again. We begin:

Now I’m going to tell you about my brother. My brother, Jonathan Lionheart, is the person I want to tell you about. I think it’s almost like a saga, and just a very little like a ghost story, and yet every word is true; though Jonathan and I are probably the only people who know that.

I love this childlike tone. But don’t be fooled: this is a hell of a story, exciting and beautiful and poignant and scary and fantastic.

A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle (audio)

wind in the doorThe second book in L’Engle’s Time Quintet series stars the same quirky, likeable Murry family members: chiefly Meg, along with her brother Charles Wallace; and to a lesser extent, their mother and twin brothers. (Their father is again away in this story. I wonder if he’ll come to play a stronger role in later books.) Calvin, friend of the family and Meg’s tentative romantic interest, plays a lead role alongside Meg. Where their task in A Wrinkle in Time was to save the Murry father, this time it’s Charles Wallace himself who’s in danger: there’s something wrong with his mitochondria, and the farandolae who dwell therein.

As A Wrinkle in Time used outside supernatural influences – Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which – to direct Meg and Charles’s actions, A Wind in the Door features a Teacher named Blajeny and a cherubim named Proginoskes (Progo for short). Yes, cherubim is generally considered to be plural, but Proginoskes is “practically plural” – he is at first mistaken for a drive of dragons by Charles Wallace.

To save Charles Wallace from the rebellion of his farandolae (and you can look it up: while farandolae are fictional, mitochondria are as real as the tesseract that starred in A Wrinkle in Time), Meg and Calvin, along with Blajeny and Progo, must become very very very small and get to know one of Charles Wallace’s farandolae intimately, going inside Charles Wallace to fix him up.

I enjoy the characters that L’Engle creates. I will say that her young people don’t always sound like young people – which is explained in Charles Wallace’s case because he is nothing like a normal young person (this book opens with him being constantly beat up at school for talking about mitochondria and the like); but I think Meg is supposed to represent a more approachable, normal-ish girl, and along with Calvin, Sandy and Dennis, she can be a little odd. But somehow, even as I note this, it doesn’t bother me. Realism is not a central dogma of this series; it is fantasy after all.

I love the science (even though it’s science fiction, and I suppose might confuse the young readers – and the not-so-young – as to what’s real; that’s a concern), and I love that L’Engle makes science interesting and relevant in a series starring a girl. That’s no small thing even today, but these books were published in the 1960′s, 70′s, and 80′s, and I think this deserves note and applause. That said, Meg is on the one hand a mathematical genius, and on the other a little whiny and reliant upon big strong Calvin. Perhaps that’s where the realism comes in.

With a few quibbles, I definitely did, again, enjoy this listen. It’s read by the author in a somewhat gravelly voice, and she does voices for her characters. I recommend the books, for readers of all ages (I am not much of a YA [young adult] reader, myself), and I recommend the audio. I’ll be continuing with the series: next up is Many Waters.


Rating: 6 snakes.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (audio)

wrinkleWhat fun to dig back into this children’s classic. I only vaguely remembered enjoying this as a kid, and I got to rediscover it via this audiobook, read by the author. My memory didn’t provide much: I think I was most familiar with the opening scene, in which Meg Murry is awake and frightened in her attic room alone by a storm outside. She is grumpy, frustrated with her family: her father for being away for so long; her baby brother Charles Wallace for not feeling her pain and coming to her as he usually does.

Next, of course, Meg and Charles Wallace meet the not-quite-mortal Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and an unusual boy from Meg’s school named Calvin. This unlikely team will adventure together via the “tesseract” – a wrinkle in time and space as well, if you will – to try and find Mr. Murry, and save him, and save the world (and all the worlds) from the Black Thing.

This is a children’s chapter book. Madeline L’Engle notes in an introductory section that publishers thought it would be too hard for children; but her own kids loved it, and as it turns out, so does the world. It’s won several awards including a Newberry, and remains popular today. (Originally published in 1962 and still in print.) I can see how it would be “hard” for children, particularly the physics bits; but then, we don’t have to understand it fully to enjoy it, do we? And lots of adults are puzzled by physics too! This book has appeal for adults – perhaps obviously, here I am, and I don’t read a whole lot of children’s books. It still rings like a kids’ book, but I found the characters and the plot both engaging. I have a slight criticism that Meg occasionally sounds a little adult for her age; she does whine appropriately, but sometimes her observations are startlingly astute. It’s a common complaint with young characters in books. But only slightly, here.

Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are all likeable but human; their parents are similarly well-rounded, sympathetic characters. The Mrs’s are charming, and the world-building – in the world of Aunt Beast, for example – is well done. I like that Meg grows some in the course of the story; and L’Engle certainly leaves us open for a sequel, what with the possibility of a burgeoning romance, and the happily-ever-after-at-least-for-now ending (with the Black Thing still looming). Mostly I was just disappointed that it was over so quickly! (Another feature of children’s books.)

I was a little surprised to find religious references within; I didn’t remember those. Not many, but a few mentions of having God on one’s side, or being the chosen ones, fighting for good. It got me thinking. I’m not particularly good at spotting religious allusions, not having been raised in church or on the bible. They mostly pass me by. But spelling out G-O-D will catch my eye every time! It’s not a technique that appeals to me but it wasn’t a central enough theme here that it threw me off much, either. A theme that is central is a good-versus-evil dichotomy, which of course could be interpreted as being religious; but the book-banners have protested certain aspects of this story, too – including the grouping of Jesus with mortal fighters-for-good such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Pasteur, Einstein, Gandhi, Beethoven, Copernicus and a lone woman, M. Curie. So there you are: all matters of interpretation.

In a nutshell, I found this book a delightful, too-brief romp in another world. I am tempted to pursue further work by L’Engle; four books follow this in a quintet, and others of her oeuvre reference the same characters. Realistically, I don’t know if I’ll get to them. But this was an enjoyable read, and not just for children.


Rating: 7 pairs of spectacles.

book beginnings on Friday: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

wrinkle

I am just as pleased as can be to experience again a book I enjoyed in childhood, a book that won several awards including a Newberry. Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time begins:

It was a dark and stormy night.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind.

L’Engle is winking at us, I believe, when she uses this well-worn literary opening line; but it works beautifully, don’t you think? It’s atmospheric, and if it’s “pre-owned,” I find it still effective. It brings to mind the attic reading scene in The NeverEnding Story, which I also loved.

I’m just a few minutes into this audio recording, read by the author, but I’m glad to be back in L’Engle’s world. Happy weekend!

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Remember I read Tales from Watership Down a while back? And noted that this was probably really one to have read in order, meaning *after* Watership Down? I was so right. I wonder if I’ll find the time to go back and reread it now; I’d certainly like to.

This is a charming story. It’s about rabbits – but wait, come back! It’s a story of adventure, battles and bravery and trying new things, stepping into the unknown, making new friends. It’s exciting. And while it is enough when read for the explicit story of these rabbits of Watership Down, it can also be considered allegorically, if you’re so inclined.

At the beginning, a rabbit named Fiver has a premonition of something bad coming to the Sandleford warren where he lives. His friend Hazel has learned to trust Fiver’s intuitions, and the two of them attempt to warn the Chief Rabbit; but he will not be warned. Hazel (a leader type) and Fiver (more shy and withdrawn) gather a small group and leave the warren headed for parts unknown. Their comrades include Bigwig, a trained fighter; Blackberry, a cleverer rabbit than most; Dandelion, an accomplished storyteller; and Pipkin, even smaller and less impressive than Fiver. This unlikely crew faces the dangers of traveling through the open, through the woods, and over a small river; they move into a peculiar but welcoming warren for a time, until they discover the strange danger that dwells there, and have to move on again. As a group, they become closer, learn one another’s strengths and weaknesses and learn to work as a team. Finally they settle at Watership Down, and begin to build an idyllic new life, but there’s a missing piece: without does (female rabbits) to bear their kittens, their warren is doomed to extinction. So our friends launch yet another expedition…

As an adventure story, Watership Down has it all: likeable characters with developed personalities; a plot with beginning, middle, and end, during which those characters grow and mature; suspense, danger, excitement, bravery, personal sacrifice, bad guys, good guys, strange and wondrous creatures and happenings. It’s great fun, and I stayed up too late one night because I wanted to know what happened next (always a good sign). This is an enjoyable story.

And then there is the allegory. Much has been written on the topic, and for the most part I’ll leave it for others to cover the concepts of religious symbolism, historical allegory, and the like. I prefer it as a “straight” story of adventure fantasy as experienced by this gang of rabbits. But I will say that I enjoyed the epic-hero aspects, and the fact that the larger rabbit society has its own set of myths, proverbs, and stories passed down through the generation. Story-telling and the remembering of mythical heroes (and the creation of new ones!) play a large role, and this was familiar to me, as I have long loved the ancient Greek myths. Watership Down has been compared especially to the Aeneid; I actually thought of the Lord of the Rings trilogy-plus-one (to include The Hobbit), in terms of the building cadence of action. (Side note: Adams includes a number of quotations and allusions to classical works, lending credence to the idea that he had some of this explicitly in mind.) Also, I found myself musing from time to time on the statements Adams (or his rabbits) might be making about human civilization. The four warrens we see in this story embody four different cultures and styles of organizing citizens; some work better than others. I’ll say no more, because if you read this book, I believe you might enjoy making your own connections as you will. But yes, there is plenty of opportunity to consider allegory at work in Watership Down.

This is definitely an enjoyable read. Early in the book the pace is measured, as we get to know our characters and invest in their fates; when the cards are on the table later on, the pace ratchets up (this is where I didn’t go to bed on time). I thought it was very enjoyable when read “straight”, and would work as a children’s book. But it also offers fodder for serious thought and discussion. I can see why this one has remained in print for so long! Now to track down Tales of Watership Down again…


Rating: 7 bunnies.

Tales from Watership Down by Richard Adams

in lieu of a cover shot, since mine is a plain hardback missing its dust jacket, I give you one of the fine illustrations from within.

As I noted in my book beginning post last week, I am taking this one out of order, since I have not yet read Watership Down. That original is a well-regarded fable or heroic tale about a group of rabbits overcoming odds to start a new life; these Tales are a late sequel (published more than 20 years after the original), and come in the form of a collection of short stories. They include the fables that the rabbits of Watership Down live with (their own cultural mythology, if you will) as well as stories involving the rabbits of the present day. They are sweet and curious; Adams includes a lapine glossary and gives these anthropomorphized bunnies their own societal norms and shared history. Some of these tales resembled some of the other great heroic myths in our own culture’s tradition; I thought of the ancient Greeks, for instance, because there is some question of god’s (or gods’) interference in the lives of mortals (rabbits). The stories were interesting, somewhat familiar in themes but engrossing. In a nutshell, I enjoyed them very much; they made for a quick, easy, entertaining, evocative session. The emotions that the rabbits feel – courage, fear, love, concern, friendship, curiousity – were very real, and I cared about the characters. Oh, and they have such lovely names! That said, I definitely felt the hole left by my failure to read Watership Down first, and think that that would have enriched the experience. Big events are referred to and not explained; I feel confident that’s what the first book did. So, recommended, but probably not until you’ve read the original, which I shall look forward to doing.

Rating: 5 bunny ears (probably more if I had read the first book first).

book beginnings on Friday: Tales from Watership Down by Richard Adams

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

in lieu of a cover shot, since mine is a plain hardback missing its dust jacket, I give you one of the fine illustrations from within.

I’m doing it backwards again, since I’ve not read Watership Down, sigh. I look forward to getting my hands on a copy! The first story in this follow-up volume of Tales, entitled “The Sense of Smell,” begins:

“Tell us a story, Dandelion!”

It was a fine May evening of the spring following the defeat of General Woundwort and the Efrafans on Watership Down.

And so we start with several clues as to the history of those gathered around to hear a story; and who amongst us readers doesn’t enjoy storytime? I think it’s an auspicious beginning.

What are you reading this weekend?

Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier, trans. by Anthea Bell

Not being a big reader of YA, or time travel, or fantasy/alternate realty/insert-concept-here, it surprised me how much I was drawn to this book. But I was.

Before I tell you about this story, here’s a funny detail I noted right off: the translator, Anthea Bell, also translated the last book I read from-the-German, The Stronger Sex. This title is YA where that one was decidedly adult material, but I guess a strong German-to-English translator is the same across the board. I hadn’t really thought about it before. Just as I said about The Stronger Sex, Bell gets full credit for making the translation invisible. If anything, the language here is a little more awkward; but having read that other example of Bell’s translation, I think this awkwardness comes from the original. If I hadn’t known, I wouldn’t have suspected translation issues – I would have assumed just what I have come to feel is a common YA writing issue. It feels a little bit effortfully simplified, if that makes sense. It’s something I’ve encountered in YA before. I guess it’s a reading-level thing. Like in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, it bothered me slightly when I focused on it, but the story ended up engrossing me enough that it faded into the background. I don’t read a lot of YA. If you don’t, either, this little issue may irk you as it does me; if you read a fair amount of YA, chances are good it won’t faze you.

Gwen is trying to live a normal teen existence in present-day London, but her obnoxious cousin Charlotte’s destiny is difficult to ignore. Charlotte has inherited the family’s time-travel gene, and any day now, she’s expected to take her first trip. She’s been trained all her life in languages, history, the mannerisms of different periods, fencing, dancing, and music. But when the first uncontrolled time travel occurs, it’s not Charlotte, but Gwen – of all people! – who finds herself in an unfamiliar era. She’s thrust unprepared into a complicated world, and finds herself partnered in adventure with Gideon de Villiers, the time-travel-gene-carrying teen of his own family. He is snotty and bossy… and sooooo handsome…

I enjoyed the intrigue, the plots and codes and ancient documents and secrets and mysteries. I enjoyed the world Gier builds. I even enjoyed, mildly, the juvenile romance. But I didn’t get enough of any of it. I felt like the set-up for the story took 3/4 of the book, and then the story began and -whoosh- please buy the sequel that comes out in 2012. Is this a YA thing? I was frustrated and unsatisfied; but I’m also intrigued enough to seek out Sapphire Blue, the aforementioned sequel. Sigh. I guess she got me.

the WSJ-YA uproar to which I am late

I had a patron approach me in the library to ask my feelings on this issue.

The background is… more than a month ago, the Wall Street journal published this article by Meghan Cox Gurdon, which immediately became a huge deal. I would encourage you to go read it, because that’s the best way to know what it says, but in a nutshell, this children’s-book-reviewer lady notes an increase in “darkness” in young adult (YA) literature, and comments that darkness is not good for our young adults. While she has some supporters, there was overwhelming indignation among bookish/literary/librarianlike internet dwellers. They have mostly said, in a dark world, kids can actually benefit from reading about situations that are like those they are facing. Also, you shouldn’t censor. The author of the original, offending article has since published, also in the WSJ, a rebuttal.

I resisted entering the fracas, mostly because I feel my opinion is unnecessary (because I’ve read some other excellent responses) and because I don’t feel terribly well-qualified to have an Important Opinion, not being a YA librarian or really much of a reader of YA. Even when I was a YA. But on the other hand, this blog rather exists for the publication of my Not Very Important Opinions, and so I’ll throw it out there.

So. I had a patron approach me here in my (definitively adult) library and ask for my thoughts. I tried to tell her why I’m not qualified to have one but she pushed. So, I told her I agree with those opinions that say, children in rough positions need to read about said rough positions. The cited instances of “darkness” include stories about rape, prostitution, violence in general, poverty, and cutting (self-mutilation). Young people living these situations are in a position to benefit from having them handled wisely in literature, and I appreciate that such things are available. My patron turned out to be (as I understood her position) arguing that children living in darkness need to read about light – happier, brighter situations – to which I say, sure! Great! Let them read that stuff, too! She proceeded to argue that there is too much dark and not enough light; the proportions are wrong; at which point I have to beg off, because my very limited knowledge of current YA doesn’t allow me to debate this point. I don’t know the proportions, quite frankly. I support the idea of diverse options, for sure – in all things, in fact. (For example, there should be more than two political parties in our electoral system.) Lots of options, please. But if you prefer for your YA to read only happier, lighter books, I don’t think that should necessarily limit others – who might be interested in those “darker” ones – in their access to those choices.

I have to take issue with one of Gurdon’s conceptions (from the original article).

In the book trade, [guiding what young people read] is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.”

I’m afraid she’s confused about “banning.” Or maybe she’s just being imprecise in the phrase, “guiding what young people read.” There are several ways in which parents, guardians, or whoever can guide what young people read. For example, they can pay attention to what their children read, and direct those choices. The Maryland mother whose personal experience begins Gurdon’s article was doing just this. She wasn’t banning anything; she was exhibiting judgment and taste, and guiding her daughter’s reading choices. This is the kind of guidance I recommend; I encourage parents who are concerned about what their children read to pay attention to what their children read, and limit it as they find appropriate. Banning, on the other hand, is what parents and various community members attempt when they submit complaints to public libraries (for example) requesting that certain books be pulled off the shelves. I am in favor of “judgment” and “taste” – I may not agree with yours, but that’s fine as long as your judgment applies only to your child. I am against “banning,” which involves limiting other people‘s access to books. See the difference? Banning is not synonymous with parenting.

I don’t think rape or cutting in books leads to rape or cutting in life. I think it has the potential to offer some relief or catharsis or therapy. Certainly some children don’t need therapy for these traumas; absolutely Gurdon is correct that not all teens are rape victims, thank goodness! But I’m not sure that reading about even those traumas that are outside their experience isn’t necessarily instructive and good, too. (I wasn’t involved in teen violence or gangs, but still found S.E. Hinton’s oft-cited The Outsiders amazing; it was one of my favorite books.) I won’t push these books on your child, certainly, but I fail to see how the availability of these options is a bad thing. Again, I’m all for more options. If I accept my patron’s thesis that there is too much dark and not enough light in YA today, then by all means, let there be more light, in the interest of a multiplicity of options.

But, the vampires I could take or leave, actually.

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