Reading Ohio, Completed: The 13 Clocks

The 13 Clocks (book cover)The 13 Clocks
James Thurber
Illustrated by Marc Simont
1950, U.S. (Ohio)

It’s always such fun to research authors/titles for a new project (see: Amanda’s vast quantity of mostly-untouched-since-created project lists), and back in December I decided that the best way to transition from my January Children’s Classics Event to my Ohio project was to find a children’s classic by an Ohioan. But I didn’t know what–was there anything out there that would both be at least 50 years old and by someone I counted as “Ohio enough”? Ha! A quick glance at my project map shows that the answer is a resounding YES. And being a little dense, I hadn’t caught onto the fact–until after hours of research–that one title was already on my Classics of Children’s Lit project list, James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks. The perfect book to transition from January’s event to February’s new project start. Mission accomplished.

James Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio December 8th, 1894 and raised there, ultimately attending The Ohio State University, although he didn’t graduate as he was unable to complete a required ROTC course due to poor eyesight.* While at OSU, Thurber wrote for the school newspaper and was editor of the humor and literary magazines. After leaving Ohio State, he was a reporter and columnist for The Columbus Dispatch. He would later work for The Chicago Tribune in Paris and Nice, France and for the New York Evening Post. In New York he would befriend E.B. White, who helped him obtain a job at the New Yorker, where he published the remainder of his career, until his death in 1961. Over his lifetime he published over 30 books, including short story collections and children’s books, as well as three plays, and his illustrations made the pages of The New Yorker and three books. Notable among these is his story collection My Life and Hard Times.†

The brambles and the thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets. Farther along and stronger, bonged the gongs of a throng of frogs, green and vivid on their lily pads. From the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leaped over a bleating sheep creeping knee-deep in a sleepy stream, in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slithered silkily, whispering sinful secrets.

Chapter V, The 13 Clocks

It is a fairy tale, but not quite like any other I’ve ever read–a fairy tale with a knowing wink, a sly smile at the conventions of the type, but also something completely its own, something almost a poem, a celebration of language and sounds. I find it hard, in a way, to describe, but fortunately the edition I read has an introduction by Neil Gaiman, telling of his childhood introduction to the story:

It was funny in strange ways. It was filled with words. And while all books are filled with words, this one was different: it was filled with magical, wonderful, tasty words. It slipped into poetry and out of it again in a way that made you want to read it aloud, just to see how it sounded.

Neil Gaiman, Introduction to The New York Review Children’s Collection Edition (2008)

Illustration by Marc Simont from The 13 Clocks
Illustration by Marc Simont from The 13 Clocks

I myself read it twice, wanting to re-experience the magic of its words all over again. I read it without knowing anything about that story, and I think that all anyone needs to know to pick it up, is that if you wish to be delighted or enchanted, to experience the magic of words, this is a book to read. Reading it, I wondered why it is that it seems that it is only (or primarily) children’s books, children’s stories that allow us to see delight and wonder. It is as if we deliberately limit wonder, delight, enchantment to the age of childhood, relegating them to those not yet hardened by the world, but I can’t help but feel that we would all be better off if, all our lives, we continued to cultivate our senses of wonder and delight. Happier, certainly. All these “best of” and “must read” lists–they would all be better for including such lovely books as The 13 Clocks and the Moomin tales. (Happily, the infamous 1001 books You Must Read Before You Die list, does include the Thurber.)

Finally, to any Hobbit fans–have you read this? And if so, did you find certain scenes with the Golux reminding you of the riddles in The Hobbit? I didn’t notice it the first go-’round, but the second time through, I could hear Bilbo’s voice quite plainly. And for those who haven’t read it–does not “Golux” intrigue you? Go on, read it!

*In what will surely be only the first “it’s a small world” connections with this project, when my dad was in college (outside of-US: university) he boarded for a year at the house of a Mr. B–, who knew Thurber at Ohio State.

 

† Biographical information from http://www.orrt.org/thurber/ and http://www.thurberhouse.org/james-thurber.html

Completed: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Wonderful Wizard of Oz RAL 300w

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum
1900, U.S.

I know that I read several of Baum’s Oz novels when I was in elementary school, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the first and most famous one. I certainly enjoyed them at the time, but  this go around… Well, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I disliked the novel, I did find it less enjoyable than any of the other children’s classics I’ve revisited in the last few years. It strikes me as simpler than, say Finn Family Moomintroll, containing characters who are types, or elements of a person, rather than complete personages in and of themselves. Dorothy might perhaps be the exception.

Baum’s stated objective was to create a modern sort of fairy-tale, free of the ugliness of the Grimms and meant to entertain rather than moralize. His tone certainly feels like that of a fairy-tale: plain and matter of fact. But his removal of the “horrible and blood-curdling incidents” also seems to lesson the danger, lesson the stakes. I am never truly convinced of the wickedness of Baum’s Witch of the West–or at least of the danger she poses the traveling companions. They might have been battered or enslaved, but it doesn’t feel real, more that if Dorothy were to take it into her head (which doesn’t seem likely, as it doesn’t seem that Dorothy is actually capable of this much thought) to just give the Witch a good whack with a broom, the West would have been spared her menace just the same as when Dorothy employed the bucket of water. Baum has made his story bloodless, and his removal of danger’s teeth might provide a story entertaining enough, but without any true heft.

Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Anderson have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents.

(Author’s Introduction)

Reading Baum’s thoughts, I recall my reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1947 essay, “On Fairy-stories”:

Children as a class – except in a common lack of experience they are not one – neither like fairy-stories more, nor understand them better than adults do; and no more than they like many other things. They are young and growing, and normally have keep appetites, so the fairy-stories as a rule go down well enough. But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them… it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.

Given that Tolkien was an academic, and Baum a working writer, I have a feeling that Tolkien is more accurate on this one. Certainly, not everyone enjoys reading fantasy tales or fairy tales. I am also struck by this contrast: Tolkien kept the stakes high in his work: death is a very real thing, even in The Hobbit which is a children’s book. Which perhaps might go a ways towards explaining why Tolkien’s actual novels seem to have had a longer appeal than Baum’s–would we remember Oz today were it not for the 1939 movie?

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz RAL

Wonderful Wizard of Oz RAL

It’s here, the final weekend of January and time for discussion of our thoughts on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz! Leave links to your posts in the comments, or feel free to discuss below. My own post will be up sometime later this weekend.

If you’ve never read it before (and were only familiar with the 1939 film version, or another adaptation), was there anything that surprised you? Does reading it make you want to check out one of the many adaptations? If I have time this weekend, I hope to revisit the 1939 adaptation, but I’m also intrigued by the 1910 (silent) and 1925 versions (both available for free online–follow the links).

Completed: Finn Family Moomintroll

Finn Family Moomintroll [Trollkarlens hatt]
Tove Jansson
1948, Finland
Translated from Swedish by Elizabeth Portch (1958)

Finn Family Moomintroll (book cover)Phew! I’ve finally finished a book for my own reading event! (Let’s not discuss how many I’ve started.)

While there is a part of me that wishes I would have discovered the Moomins of  Moomin Valley when I was still a child, I think the greater part of me is actually thrilled that I am only just now experiencing the delight of Tove Jansson’s creations for the first time. For it is indeed a true delight to visit Jansson’s world, the magical, whimsical Moomin Valley.

I hadn’t even heard of the Moomins until about a year ago, but from the moment I first caught glimpse of  Janssen’s line drawings I knew I had to at least try one of her books, so charming were the imaginative characters in her images, especially the round Moomins, who rather remind me of hippos, although I’ve never heard of a hippo native to Finland.

Finn_Family_Moomin_ch1

In a post on Tove Jansson last year, Jean at Howling Frog books suggested that Finn Family Moomintroll was a good place to start, and so there I did. It is not the first book in the series, but I found no difficulty in starting midstream; indeed according the Jean reading order does not matter. I would say that Finn Family Moomintroll  is a good January read–its spring/summer setting is just the thing to cure the winter blues.

Then they all threw themselves onto the clouds and shouted “Hup! Hup, hup-si-dasiy.” The clouds bounded wildly about until the Snork discovered how to steer them. By pressing a little with one foot you could turn the cloud. If you pressed with booth feet it went forward, and if you rocked gently the cloud slowed up.

Ch. 1

The story itself is more or less episodic, with a new adventure in each chapter, but always in the background, when not front and center as the catalyst for the latest adventure , is the magical Hobgoblin’s hat. This hat is a marvelous thing, for once something is put in, you may never be sure what will come out. Perhaps outlandish words or raspberry juice or clouds? Reading this, I feel that Jansson surely in some way held on to the soul of a child. Somehow it feels like a memory of my own childhood, and the imaginative games I played with my best friend.

Despite it being a “children’s book,” I feel as if one reading isn’t quite enough. That there is perhaps something I’m missing, so caught up in the delight of reading as I am. But then, perhaps that is the point. Delight seems to have been delegated to the province of children, so caught up are we adults in the “real” world with its responsibilities and difficulties. Yet turning to this book, I am so happy to return to the province of Delight, that I can’t imagine what I am doing mucking about in “reality.” Perhaps the essential element of childhood that Jansson captured was not the wild imagination or whimsy, but the child’s capacity for Delight and Joy and Wonder. And for this alone, I believe I shall visit  Moomin Valley and its inhabitants many times still.