Tomes from the Olden Times: Heaven Cent…

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Afternoon there intrepid book-wranglers!  It’s about time I delved back into those books I read as a youngster, into the books that have shaped my reading journey.  I used to call this spot “Retro Reading” but as other blogs are using that title, I’ve decided to rebrand my nostalgic wanderings as (cue deep, booming voice) “Tomes from the Olden Times”.  The image above is particularly relevant for today’s pick, because it features an animated skeleton.  Animated as in sentient and capable of movement, not animated as in cartoonish. Although…

Allow me, if you haven’t already made its acquaintance, to introduce you to the Xanth series, by shelf-bracingly prolific author Piers Anthony.  The series (one of many….and I mean MANY) series that Anthony has authored, features the magical world of Xanth, that lies in geographically the same area as our Florida, but is entirely separate from it.  One of the main features of Xanth (apart from its magicality) is its fondness for punnery.  Puns abound.  They’re everywhere.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at the title of the first Xanth book (indeed the first Piers Anthony book) I ever encountered:

Heaven Cent

Heaven Cent is book number eleven in the Xanth series.  Why did I start with eleven? Your guess is as good as mine.  Perhaps I was eleven when I first picked it up.  Regardless, this book follows nine year old Prince Dolph as he sets out on a quest to find the missing Good Magician Humphrey, chaperoned by the aforementioned animated skeleton, Marrow Bones.  If you are wondering who these characters might be and how they fit into the world, I can assure you that in all honesty, it really doesn’t matter.  As I said, I started with book eleven, and I followed the story just fine.  Dolph and Marrow encounter various challenges along the way, including that of Dolph becoming betrothed to two girls simulataneously and everything ends happily (as, I was to find out later, often happens in the land of Xanth).

I particularly chose this book as a Tome of the Olden Times because it is chock full of puns and obvious humour and a pretty basic storyline.  I had loved this series as a kid, but I could simply not imagine how an adult could stick with such a book for 300 plus pages, let alone do this repeatedly over a VERY long running series.  So I was very interested to see what my feelings were for this pivotal childhood book as an adult.

The long and short of it is….it held up okay.  Admittedly, I read this story multiple times as a kid, so it was like revisiting an old friend.  Weirdly though, there was nothing more that I got out of it as an adult than I had as a kid.  There were no jokes that I discovered anew that had gone over my head as a younger reader, no insightful twists that I had blithely skimmed over in childish innocence.  Essentially, I felt that while I had grown and matured over the years, the book was exactly the same read for me now, as it was then.  I did not expect this turn of events, but in some ways it’s kind of reassuring.  The book (and the whole series really) would make great candidates for my Utopirama reviews, in that nothing truly bad ever happens and things always right themselves in the end.  In that regard, the Xanth series would be a great choice for those times when you want something light on drama, and heavy on fantasy and punny humour.

A word of warning however.  I read a lot of Piers Anthony as a kid, and as an adult, I have come to the conclusion that he must be a bit of an oddbod.  While Xanth is pretty harmless, there are plenty of other books of his that are spectacularly inappropriate for children (but I read them anyway…why? Who knows).  I remember absolutely LOVING his Mode series (which I’ve since found out has continued past the last book I read many years ago) as a young teen and it features suicidal ideation, self harm, a very dubious romantic relationship clearly involving a minor and a whole lot of other guff that really, I probably shouldn’t have been reading at that age.  I suspect that should I pick that one up again as an adult, there would be plenty of new and interesting material that my kid-brain missed the first time around.  I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a good thing. I’ll let you know if I decide to give it a second airing.

So if you’re looking for light and fluffy, stick with Xanth.  If you’re looking for hot and heavy, Mr Anthony can furnish you with some of those sort of tomes also.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from any of you who have read these books, to find out what you think of them!

Until next time,

Bruce

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Retro Reading: The Brothers Lionheart…

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Today I present to you a book that I have been forced to categorise (since my most recent reading) as a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a very attractive dust jacket. I first encountered The Brothers Lionheart by perennial favourite Astrid Lindgren (she of Pippi Longstocking fame), as a reasonably young gargoyle. If memory serves I would have been around 9 or 10 years stony standing and was deeply involved in a “medieval” phase – which has been acknowledged as a highly important developmental period for gargoyles and other stone-creatures alike.  It was first published in the original Swedish in 1973, and had its first outing in English in 1975.

brothers lionheart

The story centres around young brothers Karl and Jonathan Lion, who die within weeks of each other and are reunited in Nangiyala, which appears at first glance to be an afterlife consisting of simple country living, such as one might have experienced during “the time of songs and sagas” as Lindgren puts it.  Shortly after Karl’s arrival in Nangiyala however, it becomes apparent that a creeping evil is descending on the valley where the boys reside and the story really takes off when Jonathan vanishes while on a secret mission into the heart of enemy territory.  Essentially, the plot unfolds as your basic good townsfolk versus tyrannical despot type of story, until we leave the boys as they gain entry into a second afterlife-y place called Nangilima.

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Right. Now as soon as this book popped unbidden back into my head n years after first reading, I immediately added it to my “to read retroactively” list as the thought of it was accompanied by a lovely warm feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment in the story.  Weirdly, as I re-read it, I also remembered that I was not able, as a youngling, to read this book in one sitting due to a feeling of dis-ease that seeped into my young mind with every turn of the page.  In fact, after some really focused reminiscing, I acknowledged that while I remember borrowing this book out from the library multiple times, I did so only because I found the book too discomfiting to finish in one reading.

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As a grown stone re-reading this story, I could see why it made my young self a tad unsettled.  For a start, it’s chock-full of death. The two main characters die not once, but twice; the second time in a way that I found, as an adult reader, a bit disturbing.  There’s plenty of terror and tyranny in the story as well – dissenters being carted off to a secret prison, traitors revealed amongst trusted company, and so forth.

I think though that this book is one of those tricky ones that can be interpreted at a much deeper level if first encountered as an adult.  Prior to re-reading, I had fond memories of my experiences with this book, with only vague undertones of something a bit frightening lurking within the pages.  As an adult reader, I’m now a bit unsure as to whether I like the story or not, and what sense or message I can take from it, and this might be a little unfair.

Soooooo…….do I recommend this one for young readers or not? I think I’ll have to err on the side of a guarded recommendation. It’s an engaging and action packed read, but “Macy the Shopping Mall Fairy” or “Captain Underpants” this book ain’t.  There are deeper themes presented here than one would normally find in children’s literature and for that reason I would recommend this book as a read-aloud, or for young independent readers who are fairly mature and/or sensitive in their outlook on life and books.

I would love to hear from anyone else who encountered this book as a youngling, and how their recommendations would pan out now.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Retro Reading: Books about Puberty…..

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Yes, it’s that time again – time to link arms with a trusted confidante (ie: me) and take a stroll down memory lane. BYO mosquito repellent and hayfever medication.

Recently I have been contemplating that most treacherous of life events – puberty.  A younger colleague of mine has just begun on this road to adult gargoyle-hood and is most vexed at the appearance of mould where there was no mould before.  It was while I was advising him of the necessity of a meticulous morning-and-evening cleansing routine to keep this problem in check, that I decided I should re-read some classics related to this special time for young gargoyles and fleshlings alike.

To that end I selected two that I remembered well (or at least I thought I did…): the perennial favourite Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume and Pig City by Louis Sachar.

are you there godIt may come as a surprise to those of you who have read Are You There God?…., but on re-reading I had absolutely no recollection of any of the content pertaining to Margaret’s investigations into different religions. None, whatsoever.  How could this be? I wondered – clearly, this was an important part of the main character’s growth and development throughout the plot.  It’s even mentioned in the title, for goodness sake.

It was about this time that I began to suspect that on my initial reading, drawn by content arguably more interesting to a young buck undergoing certain important life changes, that I may have skipped the bits about religion and flicked through to the advice about increasing one’s bust…..Yes, dear reader, I believe that I may have been guilty of skipping large chunks of the story in order to get to the spicy bits! Surely, though, this small infraction can be forgiven – as creatures of stone, gargoyles have a vested interest in busts (of the artistic, sculptural variety) and advice as to how to make a bigger one could be just the ticket for a gargoyle without a lower half to take a step up in the world, so to speak.

In re-reading Pig City, you will be pleased to know I did not uncover any nasty surprises about content I had forgotten, for this book was certainly on high rotation in my reading list at that time.  Strangely though, I had forgotten all about the book itself until I recently overheard something that jogged my memory and I felt an immediate need to search it out.

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The story follows the sixth-grade school year of Laura Sibbie and friends as they grope their way up, down and across the social ladder through the creation of various clubs.  The initiations and subsequent fall-out of these friendships make up the bulk of the story, and very entertaining it is too.  This is a much milder take on the beginnings of adolescence than that presented in Judy Blume’s work – the characters still have the charm and innocence that Blume’s more wordly girls do not.

Having had its first outing in 1987 though, I wonder how much the events in Pig City mirror the experiences of today’s children in grade six and seven.  I can’t help but feel that the squabbles depicted here would nowadays be more likely to occur in a younger age group than the technology-savvy, know-all-about-it pre-teens of the post-noughties.

I must say, having re-dipped the toe into books about this life event, I feel I must seek out more as the embarrassing predicaments in which the characters find themselves are really quite fun to read about.

Any suggestions from fellow bloggers about classic “growing up” reads to tackle?

Until next time,

Bruce

Retro Reading: Tikki Tikki Tembo and cultural sensitivity….

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It’s that time again! For those Joany- or Johnny-come-latelies to my musings, I am currently undergoing something of a personal quest to re-read some tomes from my distant past to see whether any new insights come to mind in so doing.

The next book in my meander down memory lane is one that has always stuck in my mind due to its amazingly catchy refrain and the challenge it presents for those who enjoy tongue twisters and saying things really really fast.  It is, of course, Tikki Tikki Tembo, a retelling of a supposedly traditional Chinese folk story, by Arlene Mosel, illustrated by Blair Lent.

tikki tikki tembo

Essentially, this tale claims to explain why Chinese first-born sons are traditionally given short names.  I say “claims” because, not having spent any time inancient China (or indeed its modern counterpart!) I cannot vouch for the validity of this tale as a traditional folktale, as opposed to something some Westerners made up because it is stereotypically amusing and fun to say.

I am quite, well, sensitive, to addressing cultural sensitivity in printed matter and believe that wherever possible, items that offend (when looked at in hindsight, or otherwise) should be re-worked to better fit a contemporary audience.  To that end, I was greatly relieved to discover the Little Golden Book edition The Boy and The Tigers had been re-worked both in content and illustration, from its now cringe-worthy 1970s incarnation titled Little Black Sambo. Although having said that, the original version by Helen Bannerman is still in print. I wonder, then, to what extent Tikki Tikki Tembo might offend the sensibilities of contemporary audiences….

boy and his tigers

Debates over cultural appropriateness aside, this book charts the significant difference in the emergency response times elapsed in the rescue of two young brothers in (separate) near-drownings in the town well.  Chang (son number two, as indicated by his short, not-very-honourable name) is fished out in a jiffy, while the unfortunate, fortunate-first-born Tikki tikki-tembo no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo has to wait considerably longer for help to arrive.

Re-reading this tale has been just as enjoyable as its initial reading. Just one glance at the distinctive illustrations – particularly those eye-catching kites and the bearded Old Man With The Ladder (an prototype for David Hasselhoff’s Baywatch character, perhaps?) – took me right back to my youth.  I could feel the urgency of the poor old second son, Chang, as he stutters over his brother’s ridiculously long (though fun-to-say!) name, while time is ticking away.

All in all, I was very pleased to find this story still in print and available for the new generation of readers who appreciate rhythm in their reading.  At the same time I wonder whether this tome needs a little re-working too, to bring it in line with modern standards of inter-cultural folktale appropriation.  Perhaps something as simple as removing the completely untrue bit  about the name Chang meaning “little or nothing” would suffice?  If nothing else, that bit is deeply hindering to anyone attempting to learn other languages through incidental mentions in children’s literature.

I would love to hear what others think about this – particularly how flesh-parents might go about explaining such issues to their mini-fleshlings!

Until next time,

Bruce