Friday, December 7, 2012

Two—Count 'Em—Picks of the Week

To tell you the truth, I wasn't much of a Roald Dahl fan as a kid. I wasn't a disparager, either, just sort of a disinterested party; I think the deep sadnesses experienced by his young characters stressed me out. But sometime in my young adulthood, I got my hands on this:

And then immediately after devouring it, I went right out and got my hands on this:

I started reading them out loud to Ada a couple of weeks ago, mostly because I wanted an excuse to read them again myself. And happily enough, Ada seems to be enjoying them as much as I did and do. She called BOY "gruesome," but she meant it in the best possible way and her face kind of lit up as she said it. And the book—containing autobiographical sketches of the author's school years, some of which were spent at an English boarding school—certainly does touch on the gruesome. But it is also a kind of amazing and tricky symbiosis of complete self-confidence and self-effacement on the part of Dahl—his way of shrugging off his own bravery or brilliance, and for making his most frightening travails seem, not at all commonplace, but absolutely surmountable. And it's funny. And in addition to all that, there are several terrific "ah-ha" moments throughout, in which the reader gets a glimpse of the author-to-come, and what must have been some rich—and yes, gruesome—material for his later books. 

In some ways, GOING SOLO is even better, although it deals with Dahl's post-school adult years, during which he joined the Shell Company and went off to a life of adventure in Africa, only to be waylaid by World War II. I wasn't sure Ada would be interested in his account of flying fighter planes over Egypt for the RAF. But she is; perhaps it is the recitation of exotic place names, or Dahl's always spot-on tone and ear for pacing—a rival to Tolkien—or the descriptions of places and events that are so distant in place and time as to seem almost magical. Admittedly, though, it was the tales of snakes and other wild animals that had her sitting on the edge of the couch, biting the inside of her lip at the tension. Would the gardener be bitten by the deadly green mamba? Would the lion, trotting off with the cook's wife in his jaws, finally consume her? There is only way for you to find out, of course, and I suggest that you do it, posthaste!