Admiring Boldness

Revolting Rhymes is a splendid rewrite by Roald Dahl of seven well-known fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk.

Dahl not only retells the stories with modern (the book was published in 1982) language and characters. He also infuses the tales with his own moral message. So, Cinderella advocates that marriage be underscored by decency, rather than princedom and money; and Jack and the Beanstalk says that daily bathing has its rewards!

Adults will be highly amused by the twist on Little Red Riding Hood who ‘whipped a pistol from her knickers’ and shot the wolf. The hooded maiden also appears in the Three Little Pigs where she helps the pigs overcome the wolf and, er, overcomes the third little pig too.

I don’t pretend to have done an academic study of Roald Dahl’s work. But on first glance at these clever, hilarious tales I do wonder if Revolting Rhymes may be viewed today as ‘politically incorrect’. And in a way I admire them for that. I appreciate them for their difference, their astuteness, and their boldness in today’s politically correct world.

I also respect the latest theatre release, Overcomer, for its boldness. Overcomer follows the story of young teen, Hannah Scott, whose life is changed when she takes up cross country running at her school. Through her running coach, John Harrison, Hannah meets the father (Thomas Hill) she never knew, excels at something for the first time in her life (running), and becomes certain of who she is.

But what I admire most about the movie is its clearly Christian message. The script of Overcomer doesn’t just proffer gentle, politically correct ‘message marketing’. It resolutely champions the Christian belief of repentance, redemption and forgiveness.

There is lots wrong with this film. It’s overly sentimental and dramatic, and confuses success with salvation. Nevertheless, I applaud it for its unequivocal focus on Jesus Christ and Christian new birth. And that in a world that is so politically correct that many messages are diluted so as not to be offensive.

Overcomer opens at cinemas in South Africa today 30 August 2019.

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The Stories Behind Writers

Aren’t you curious about writers? The faces behind the words you read, what inspired them as writers, who they are, how they write? I know I am. And judging by two films and one series I watched recently so are others. All three focus on writers, their lives, experiences and influences. They are: Agatha Christie and the Truth of Murder (2018 film), Tolkien (2019 film) and Little Women (BBC television series 2017).

Of the three Agatha and the Truth of Murder was the one I liked least. I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie plots. And this film addresses Christie’s own doubts about the predictability of her stories. In real life Agatha Christie went ‘missing’ for a number of days during her career and Agatha and the Truth of Murder is an imaginative story of how Christie might have spent that mysterious time. The writers place Christie squarely in an actual murder case which she is forced to solve. This experience ultimately helps her own writing – or so the story goes. The point made by the film is that an author’s lived experiences informs their writing.

Tolkien makes this very point clearly. In this film, however, what is portrayed may reflect actual events in the author’s life. The film is an in-depth, sensitive biography of the famous author’s formative years and how the many influences in his life ultimately had great bearing on his famous works. His poverty, orphanhood, intelligence, love of language, and desire for friendship all influenced the man and the writer he became. His romance with fellow orphan Edith Bratt, which ultimately matured into marriage was an integral part of his life. And WWI, which cut through everything – his studies, career, romance and friendship circle – profoundly affected the man and writer he became.

Slightly more subtle on the theme of experiences influencing writing is the BBC television series Little Women based on the book by Louisa May Alcott. Of the four sisters in Little Women, Jo March was the writer. She wrote initially because she loved writing. Then she wrote out of necessity. And finally she wrote out of pain, as a way to process the death of her beloved sister, Beth. Jo’s life circumstances obviously influenced the writer she became.

Practical Criticism or New Criticism is a branch of literary theory that studies the form of texts. The theory disregards author intention and reader response. There is certainly merit to this approach to studying literature, especially with poems or stories for which the reader has no idea of the author’s intent.

However, I just can’t help wondering… What influences of your life can be brought to bear on the writer you are?

 

 

Telling Tales that Make You Sit Up & Listen

In this stirring video Sir David Attenborough tells us humans how we can save our planet from destruction. How we can provide a sustainable future. To do it, says Attenborough in the video, we need to ‘rewild’ our planet. Rewilding will help people move back into a harmonious balance with nature.

Attenborough outlines three other ‘simple’ ways to save our planet: phase out fossil fuels, produce food more efficiently, and correctly manage our oceans.

Attenborough’s video has helped raise the profile of a crisis that most of us simply ignore.the wolf wilder

In light of this heightened awareness I found it interesting that – shortly before I saw this video – I read a children’s book called The Wolf Wilder. Author, Katherine Rundell, bases this exotic adventure on the real concept of ‘rewilding’ wild animals who have formerly been tamed. In the story the wolf wilder is actually a feisty young girl called Feodora who lives in freezing Russia with her wolf-wilding mother and a pack of wolves. When Feo’s mother is kidnapped Feo chases after her with the wolves, making friends as she goes and starting a revolution. It’s an entrancing, almost bizarre story in which children – and wild wolves – are firmly the heroes. I highly recommend it.

Reading fiction – especially in the Wolf Wilder’s case – is an entertaining way of confronting very serious issues. Likewise, non-fiction told in narrative form can be an effective way of holding and at the same teaching an audience. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is a case in point.

the radium girlsAs recently as 2011 a bronze statue was unveiled in Ottawa, Illinois to commemorate a group of women ‘dial painters’ known as the ‘radium girls’. Kate Moore tells in her book The Dial Painters the horrific story of young women who were employed in America during World War I to paint dials on watches and clocks used in the war effort. The paint these women used contained radium. The poisonous effects of the radium on the women were astounding. Bones became brittle, teeth loosened, jawbones cracked and fell out of the gums, cancers grew to huge proportions and blood markers changed. Many died excruciatingly painful deaths. And even in death the women’s skeletons glowed with radium.

What was even more astounding was their employers’ cover-up, denial and outright lies regarding the dangers of radium. It was the bravery of a handful of these women that finally resulted in proper workplace safety standards and government legislation regarding radium. The contribution to science – thanks to the girls’ suffering – has been invaluable.

All of this was told in an easy-reading style – as a story – as opposed to history. The characters were written by Moore as real, individual – and therefore relatable – people. I also highly recommend this book.

Middlesex and the Subject of Intersex

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is now one of my most memorable reads. I read this 2002 novel for the first time in 2015 and listened recently to the audio version. The latter was brilliantly narrated by Kristoffer Tabori. Tabori appears to know the text intimately and gives just the right inflection. Because of Tabori’s reading I realised just how funny Middlesex really is. One of the most amusing scenes comes right near the end when the main character’s father, Milton Stephanides, dies in a car crash while chasing another vehicle. Milton’s life stretches out before him in his last moments and, in some way, his thoughts act as a summary of the different strands the text of Middlesex explores.

These strands include the troubling subject of intersex conditions, cultural prejudices in Detroit USA, and the replacement of an older generation (and its viewpoint) by a younger one. The scene is also a fine example of the intriguing narrative technique used by Eugenides. Eugenides uses a combination of first person and third-person omniscient narrative viewpoint. This has the effect of casting Cal Stephanides, the ‘I’ in the book, as an omniscient narrator of his own life, from before conception to present day. So, in the scene when Cal’s father, Milton, meets his end, it appears as if Cal has entered his own father’s head. I loved this masterful narrative technique.

Of course, the opening scene of the book is one readers of Middlesex are also likely never to forget: ‘I was born twice: first, as a baby girl…. and then again, as a teenage boy…’ Readers immediately have an idea of the subject that is to follow. Eugenides employs this foreshadowing method throughout. It functions to draw the reader in, and in no way spoils the experience of this complex, highly thought-provoking novel.

It is thought-provoking in large part because of its treatment of the sensitive subject of intersex conditions. Middlesex attributes the abnormal development of intersex to incest. But then goes on to portray the main character (Cal Stephanides) as choosing to embrace the facets of his condition, rather than trying to change it.

One viewpoint that endorses embracing intersex conditions rather than trying to change them is the Christian ‘The Reformation Project’. The speakers in this Youtube video say that God created all variations of gender and should therefore be accepted as they are.

For a slightly different perspective a very thoughtful Christian talk from the Gospel Coalition on the subject can be listened to here. Andrew Wilson, the speaker, emphasises what a loving Christian response should be to intersex conditions and how to live with them.

 

 

What do We Communicate to our Children?

I read two books this month aimed at vastly different audiences. One was The Secret Garden, a children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1911. The other was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a book for adults written by Gail Honeyman and published in 2017.

Despite being written in different centuries and for different audiences there was one particular theme that ran through both of them. This was: neglectful parents and the effect that neglect can have on what children believe about themselves.

The main characters in The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox and Colin Craven, both have distant parents. Mary’s mother is a socialite who is too busy to bother with her daughter. When Mary’s parents both die, their absence makes little sentimental difference to the already lonely, emotionally stunted girl. Her cousin, Colin, is actually physically stunted because of his father’s neglect. After Colin’s mother dies Mr Craven withdraws from his son. Craven firmly believes that Colin will become a hunchback like himself and die young. Despite having nothing biologically wrong with him Colin appropriates his father’s beliefs and subsequently lives the miserable life of an invalid.

In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, main character Eleanor is likewise disregarded by a delinquent, powerful mother. Eleanor’s mother is in fact cruel and abusive, the full extent of which is gradually revealed as the book progresses. And into adulthood it is ‘Mummy’s’ voice in her own head that Eleanor simply can’t shake. A voice that constantly tells Eleanor she’s a bad, insipid, useless individual who will never amount to anything. Like Mary and Colin, Eleanor takes on board her parent’s beliefs about herself. And she becomes a friendless, tactless, emotionally immature person.

Happily, there is a positive resolution for all three characters. In each case it is the ministrations of friendship that launches a change. Much else could be said of both books and their tropes and themes. But having read them alongside each other this theme of parental influence on self-belief (or unbelief) is what stood out for me. The books are a sobering example of how parental treatment of, and communication with, our children can have such a powerful and material influence on who they become.

By Brenda Daniels

Book Club Benefits

My book and movie entertainment this week was local, down to the town in which I live. More than the pleasurable local aspect, my enjoyment of the book in question was greatly increased by the book club discussion around it; I should think of joining a movie club to, similarly, enhance my appreciation of the films I watch.

The film I saw, 3 Days to Go, by producer Bianca Isaac, showed familiar backdrops of the Durban beachfront and shoreline. Summer sunshine filtering through in the indoor shots was, likewise, wonderfully recognizable. As with the setting, I thought the filming itself was well done and made for good viewing.

The story of 3 Days to Go revolves around the death of the patriarch of a South African Indian family. Upon his death, for the first time in many years, the man’s four adult children return to the family home and to their widowed mother. Tensions ensue as each comes with a load of baggage. Abusive or wayward husbands, difficult teenage children, gambling brothers, schemes, betrayal, extended family issues and more are what emerge during the three short days before the man’s final ocean memorial.

I’m not a fan of all romantic comedy, and some of the acting in 3 Days to Go is a bit stilted. But the actors themselves are beautiful to behold, and the film will find a following amongst audiences.

Family concerns and more also feature in the book The Blessed Girl by South African author, Angela Makholwa. More seriously, The Blessed Girl raises the thorny (horny?) subject of blessers – people ‘(usually male and married) – who sponsor younger women with luxury gifts or a luxurious lifestyle in exchange for short- to medium-term sexual relationships’ (The Blessed Girl).  During a lively discussion of the book at the book club I attend we discussed the author’s treatment of the role of social media, the mockery of government corruption, male irresponsibility, shocking family handling of young girls, drugs, and of course the prevalence of blessers and blessees. The Blessed Girl is written in a flow-of-consciousness, conversational style, and is laced with humour and colloquialisms that I especially enjoyed.

Disagreements as to the merits of The Blessed Girl, and grappling with the issues raised in this book made for fruitful discussion.

Here’s to South African flavour and to discussion forums!

The Blessed Girl is available on Kindle. 3 Days to Go opens at South African cinemas on 25 January 2019.

Reading: An Entry into Other Worlds

I bumped into a friend and his 12-year-old daughter at a market recently. The young girl, whose pen name is Tamika, enthusiastically told me about a book she’d been reading, Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Treese. Words like ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Queen Elizabeth’, and Tamika’s excited description whet my own appetite for what sounded like an historical fiction book for children.

Using history as a base for children’s fiction is a wonderful idea. After borrowing Cue for Treason from my local library and reading it for myself I read another children’s book in the same genre, The Explorer by Katherine Rundell. The Explorer is a story about four children whose aeroplane crash lands in the Amazon jungle. There they meet an Explorer who – though unnamed throughout – is reminiscent of Percy Fawcett, the real-life adventurer who went missing without trace while searching for the Lost City of Z (see my previous review https://wp.me/p4c1s1-nS). All the children are transformed by the experience and at least two of them grow up to be explorers themselves!

Like my young friend Tamika, Rundell is enthusiastic about her genre and about reading. Copious historical research as well as a visit to the Amazon made up Rundell’s groundwork for The Explorer. But so too did books Rundell read as a child, books that caused her to be ‘in love with the world of a book’. (Read an interview with Katherine Rundell here https://bit.ly/2vVaEAp). As a writer herself Rundell is wonderfully descriptive. And, like the books she read as a child, Rundell has likewise created in The Explorer a book that easily transports the reader to another realm.

Descriptiveness – or lack thereof – was Tamika’s one criticism of Cue for Treason, a book she otherwise loved. Read Tamika’s review of Cue for Treason here:

‘The main characters in this book are Kit, Shakespeare, Sir Joseph and last, but certainly not least… Peter.

‘Pete or Peter is accused of a crime, a crime he did indeed do and all the people in his small town know it. The 14-year-old has to escape from home with a few of his family’s pennies and bread and cheese. He has to survive on the road where he meets Kit and then Shakespeare. Kit and Peter learn that the queen will be killed. When Pete becomes an actor and Kit’s friend, they go on their way to warn the good Queen Bess about her murder. Will Pete be kidnapped with all the things he knows? Will Kit have to travel alone? So many secrets, so many lies. Who is a friend, who is a foe?

‘I think this book could have used more description of the characters but I guess everyone can make up their own characters. I mean I’d like to know what Kit looked like. I did love the vigorous verbs. It was a wonderful book and we read it every night. We couldn’t put it down! 70%’.

Tamika, thank you for sharing your review and for your passionate recommendation!