Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Wind in the Willows

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, Those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way. 

At first, the story of four animal friends living along the banks of a tranquil English river existed only in the bedroom of Alistair Grahame.  His father, Kenneth, a secretary for the Bank of England, created them as bedtime stories for his young son.  After he retired from his job, Grahame decided to write these stories down and in 1908, The Wind in the Willows was published.  It soon became a favorite of people all over the world, from President Theodore Roosevelt to future children's author A. A. Milne.  And it remains one of my personal favorites to this day.

The Plot:

With the arrival of spring, Mole is tempted from his spring cleaning out into the world above his hole.  He chances to meet Rat, who introduces Mole to his life along the riverbank.  The two become fast friends and are soon spending their days on the river boating, fishing, picnicking, and exploring.  Other friends soon appear on the scene as well.  There is the reclusive, but kind hearted Badger who makes his home in the dark and dangerous Wild Wood.  There is the cheerful Otter who is there one minute and gone the next.  And there is the over the top, vain, and loveable Toad who lives in his ancestral home of Toad Hall.  As life along the riverbank flows through the seasons, the friends have many adventures and ultimately learn the value of home and friendship.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This book has been a favorite of mine for years.  I first discovered the story by renting a video version from the library when I was very young and it has stayed with me ever since.  It is one of the most beautiful, charming, and sensitive children's books that I have ever read. 

In many ways, this is two books in one.  One part of the book is the fast-paced, rollicking adventure told through Mr. Toad.  He is the only character to take us beyond the peaceful world of the riverbank and into the wide world.  It is non-stop action and Toad is constantly getting himself into big scrapes and then somehow manages to get out of them (usually by chance or the help of someone else, but Toad would have you believe that it was his own smarts).  This aspect is balanced out with an emotional and almost spiritual story line told mostly through Rat and Mole's friendship.  Except when their stories intersect with Toad's, it is a much more tranquil story line that portrays a full range of human emotion like fear, sadness, restlessness, longing, joy, and friendship.  But Grahame also never lets us forget that his characters are animals, and they often display moments of instinct, sight, sound, and smell. 

I think the most prominent aspect of the story, and strangely enough one that I never really noticed until this reading, is the importance of home.  Each character has it's own sense of what home means.  For Mole, it is his cozy, simple hole.  For Badger, it is his vast and hidden home of tunnels.  For Rat, it is hearing the river lap against his windowsill every night.  And for Toad, it is his elegant and manicured Hall.  It gives us the sense that home is defined by the individual and that no matter how much you enjoy spending time somewhere else, it is ultimately never the same as being in your own space.  I think this idea resonates with adults more than children.  We have to go out into the wide world every day, and nothing means as much to us as coming home at the end of it and finding things just the way we like it.

This book is  one of literature's greatest treasures.  No matter how old you are, you will love spending time Grahame's world with it's sense of wonder, peace, order, and nostalgia.  It will continue to be one of my favorites for as long as I live, and one that I greatly anticipate sharing with my own children one day.  

The Movie:

There have been lot's of film and television adaptations of this story.  I am familiar with two of them.  One is the 1983 stop-motion adaptation starring David Jason, Ian Carmichael, and Michael Horndern  The other is the 1995 animated version starring Michel Palin, Alan Bennett, Rik Mayall, and Michael Gambon.  Both of these films do a wonderful job with the story and are great for the whole family.           

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Happy Birthday To:

Agatha Christie
September 15, 1890

“The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.” -from Murder on the Orient Express

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Peter Pan

“Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” 

For most of us, the story of Peter Pan is one we become very familiar with at a very young age.  Whether it is through the classic Disney film version or the equally famous Broadway version, we each know the story of the boy who never grew up.  But while we may feel like we know the story, if you have not read the original work, chances are you don't know everything.  Barrie's story is one of childhood and magic, but there is also a sinister side that many modern adaptations leave out.

The Plot:

The Darling family, including children Wendy, John, and Michael, lives in a nice little house in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London.  One night when Mr. & Mrs. Darling are at a party, a mysterious boy appears in the nursery.  He is revealed to be Peter Pan, a boy who lives in Neverland and refuses to grow up.  He has been secretly visiting the Darling home at night to listen to Mrs. Darling's stories.  He invites Wendy to come to Neverland with him and be mother to him and his gang of "Lost Boys".  She accepts and soon she, John, and Michael have been taught to fly (with the help of the fairy Tinkerbell) and are soaring towards Neverland.

That is only the beginning of the many adventures the children find there.  They encounter mermaids, Indians, and a clock-swallowing crocodile.  But nothing prepares them for their encounter with Peter's greatest enemy, Capt. James Hook and his band of ruthless pirates.  Will the children be able to defeat the thugs and return home, or are they doomed to walk the plank?

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I have been familiar with the Peter Pan story all of my life, but I have only now read the book.  It surprised me in many ways, both at how familiar it was and also by how much darker it was to the story I remembered.  

Overall, it is very much the story that you remember.  Barrie's writing is great and the story is one of almost non-stop adventure.  Everything that catches children's imaginations is found here from mermaids and Indians to pirates and crocodiles.  There is also an almost palpable sense of magic throughout the story and Neverland is certainly the center of it.  And Barrie's descriptions only add to the sense of beauty and magic.  "If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire.
There were some things that surprised me and that will probably surprise many parents who choose to read it to their children.  This isn't the squeaky clean Disney version.  There is a bit of violence, with most of it coming from the children themselves, as well as a romantic aspect that isn't always portrayed in the film versions.  And in describing children as "innocent and heartless", Barrie highlights the cruelty that children posses.  The children lack the sympathy and sense of responsibility that comes with growing up.  Peter completely ignores the needs of "his" Lost Boys and the children don't express any concerns for the feelings of their parents.  This all leads to Barrie's main theme that while childhood has many great qualities, it also has an element of tragedy.

All in all, Peter Pan remains a classic read for all children.  Though there are a few elements that parents may want to discuss with their children, it is still one that I recommend be read to them.  No film version can substitute for the original.

The Film:

There have been many adaptations of this classic story, but three of them stand out for most modern audiences.  The first is the 1953 Disney version starring Bobby Driscoll, Kathryn Beaumont, and Hans Conreid.  This version is pretty faithful to the story (if not the tone) of the original and remains a classic children's film.

There is also the 1960 NBC broadcast of the stage musical starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard.  I was shocked at how close this version followed the original story.  Most of the dialogue is pulled straight from the book.  I loved this version as a child and consider it a must see for all fans of Peter Pan.

The other major adaptation is the 2003 version starring Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and Jason Isaacs.  I haven't seen this version, but it has received generally positive reviews.          

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Books for Fall

Once again we find ourselves at the turning of the seasons.  Kids have headed back to school, the days are getting shorter, and the temperatures are beginning to fall.  For many readers, this all means changes for the type of books we read.  Many of us put away our "beach reads" and instead reach for stories that evoke the cooling weather, the changing leaves, and the darkening nights that are approaching.

Over at the Melville House Blog, they have created a list of seven books that they think best suit this time of year.  They include the Gothic nonfiction Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, the American classic Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, the enduring Macbeth by William Shakespeare, and the cozy and mysterious Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.

My own reading list has been set for the rest of the year, and it also reflects the changing seasons.  Here is what I will be reading through the rest of 2013:

  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.  This early sensation novel was incredibly popular when it was first published in 1860 and it continues to be well loved among modern readers as well.  On a moonlit London Rd., Walter Hartright encounters a mysterious young woman dressed completely in white.  Little does he know that this chance meeting in the dark will entangle him mystery that will change his life forever.
  • Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini.  From the author of the classic swashbuckler Captain Blood, this novel tells the story of Andre-Louis Moreau.  Raised by the French nobility, a tragedy drives him to join a band of actor and speak out against the power of the French Government.  
  • The Professor by Charlotte Bronte.  Fall is Bronte time in my reading life.  After this one, I will have read every novel written by the Bronte sisters.  In Charlotte's first novel William Crimsworth (the professor) must make his own way in a world obsessed by money and manners.
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.  Capote recreates the investigation, the trial, and the execution of one of America's most famous and bloody crimes.  In 1959, four members of a Kansas family were brutally murdered in their home for no apparent reason. In what is possibly one of his most famous works, Capote explores their story and gives insight into the nature of American violence.

How is your fall reading shaping up?  Do you have any favorite books that scream "autumn" to you?  Share them with us!