Completed: Emil and the Detectives

Emil and the DetectivesEmil and the Detectives [Emil und die Detektive]
Erich Kästner
(1929, Germany)
Eileen Hall, translator
Walter Trier, illustrations

’Oh he’ll like Berlin, I’m sure of that,’ declared Mrs. Wirth from the depths of the wash-basin. ‘It’s just made of children. We went there the year before last for the skittle club outing. My word, but it’s a noisy place! Do you know—some of the streets were as light at night as during the day. And the traffic! My, what a lot of cars!’ (Chapter 1)

Emil and the Detectives starts out deceptively, Emil carrying the water jug and his mother washing her client’s hair—a scene of domestic tranquility, nothing of adventures in sight. Yet this opening chapter, slow by current standards, is our introduction to Emil and his character: he is obedient and polite, determined to do right by his mother. Which is why it is so important to Emil, when the one thing she warns him against happens, losing the money she gives him for his grandmother, that he make it right. Especially since he feels particularly wronged; he didn’t lose the money, it was stolen from him after he fell asleep on the train, despite all his precautions, both to protect the money and stay awake. It is from this point that the story takes off; Emil soon meets up with a group of boys who upon learning his story are only too happy to help him chase down and trap the thief. His cousin, Pony, the only girl in the story, makes occasional appearances with her new bike—which she is only too eager to show off—functioning as messenger or go-between with Emil’s adult relatives. We also see other aspects of Emil’s character–his determination to right a wrong, a bit of temper (he nearly fights the first boy he meets), and a hint of mischief: he believes he can’t go to the police, because he chalked a statue at home and believes the Berlin police will surely learn of it and accuse him of stealing the money!

I’m really not quite sure what I expected from this classic from 1920s Germany. Perhaps more of a mystery, but the detective work in this story is tailing a known suspect, not discovering “whodunit.” Of course, this makes for an exciting adventure, and the reader never really cares that we know the thief already or that we feel fairly assured of a positive outcome. After all, there are still plenty of twists and turns and we can’t be sure, exactly, how the boys will manager to confront the thief and reclaim Emil’s money.

A German writer, Kästner would some years after writing this children’s tale watch the Nazis burn many of his books, including the sequel Emil and the Three Twins. But they didn’t include Emil and the Detectives, in part because of of its popularity. It’s been adapted for several film versions, including multiple German versions and the 1964 Disney adaptation, as well as a UK stage production.

Emil and the Detectives Readalong April 2016 - 300px wide

As well as reading this for the readalong, it also counts as one of my titles for the Books in Translation Challenge 2016.

Completed: The Jungle Book

The Jungle BookThe Jungle Book
Rudyard Kipling
1894 (England)

Mowgli had never seen an Indian city before, and though this was almost a heap of ruins it seemed very wonderful and splendid. Some king had built it long ago on a little hill. You could still trace the stone cause-ways that led up to the ruined gates where the last splinters of wood hung to the worn, rusted hinges. Trees had grown into and out of the walls; the battlements were tumbled down and decayed, and wild creepers hung out of the windows of the towers on the walls in bushy hanging clumps. (“Kaa’s Hunting”)

That I should decide to read The Jungle Book in the same month that Disney should release their big-budget “live-action” remake of the animated film is complete coincidence. Rather, it had been sitting on my shelf for some time, tempting me, and with this month’s Children’s Classics Event incentive, I decided to finally give in.

The Jungle Book is not a novel, but a collection of seven short stories with accompanying poems (one per story, relating to to the story previously told). Of these stories, three–“Mowgli’s Brothers,” “Kaa’s Hunting,” and “Tiger! Tiger!”–are related to Mowgli, Shere Khan, Baloo, and all the other characters familiar to us from Disney. The remaining four stories all feature different characters and are not all closely linked to the Jungle. While “Toomai of the Elephants” is very much jungle-based, and “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “Her Majesty’s Servants” both remain set in British India they are in the human world and “The White Seal” is largely set on an island in the Bering Sea–what a contrast! But constant throughout is the importance of animals, usually anthropomorphized. Only in “Toomai of the Elephants” do we not have the direct thoughts of the animal characters presented as dialogue. More often, the animals speak directly–even in “Her Majesty’s Servants,” which is narrated entirely by an unnamed man of British origin, who had learned from the “natives” to understand camp-beast speech. Which poses an interesting question–was this conceit, that the locals understood camp-beast speech, simply meant as a narrative device, or is it part of Kipling’s romanticization of India, and the Jungle? Although Kipling had spent a good portion of his life in India–he was born there, and after schooling in England returned to work for some time–he wrote his Jungle Book stories while living in Vermont, and the brief introduction in my copy of The Jungle Book (Collins Classics edition) suggests that his distance from the country led to creating an India that “perhaps never quite existed.”

‘All the jungle is thine,’ said Bagheera, ‘and thou canst kill everything that thou art strong enough to kill; but for the sake of the bull that bought thee thou must never kill or eat any cattle young or old. That is the law of the Jungle.’ (“Mowgli’s Brothers”)

On the other hand, Kipling’s India reflects back on the human world he lived in. Setting the stories among animals allows him to comment on human society, both through the customs and structures of his animal characters–“The Law of the Jungle” so frequently referenced in the Mowgli stories (and strictly adhered to by most)–and Mowgli’s uneasy interactions with other humans once he finally leaves the jungle. His arrival in a human village brings to him the knowledge that there is a price on man-eating Shere Khan’s head, but the reward is never motivating to young Mowgli. Rather his motivation is more complicated–a mix of survival, vengeance, power. And in turn, the villagers cannot understand him, for his ability to communicate with animals seems a most dangerous magic. What is not understood is feared–and understanding takes away fear, as in Mowgli’s ability to yield the “red flower” so feared among the jungle beasts.

Moving away from Mowgli, the story most directly connected to his seems to be “Toomai of the Elephants,” also set in the jungle, and another instance of a young child seeing a side of it–in this case, the elephant’s dance–that the adults–native and colonist alike–will never see. Although perhaps one might say there is the fantastic in these stories, specifically in the ability of human and beast to communicate, the real magic seems to be the experiencing of the natural world free of human intervention.

The air was full of all the night noises that, taken together, make one big silence–the click of one bamboo-stem against the other, the rustle of something alive in the undergrowth, the scratch and squawk of a half-waked bird (birds are awake in the night much more often than we imagine), and the fall of water ever so far away. (“Toomai of the Elephants”)

“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “Her Majesty’s Servants” are on the other hand set in the human world. The perpetual conflict between wild, natural space and human, created space is illustrated in the former, when the cobras resent the arrival of humans who they feel must be responsible for the dangerous mongoose that now threatens not only their eggs but their very lives. Rikki in turn becomes the intermediary between the two spaces, for his natural instinct to kill the snakes fits well with the human desire to have space safe from such dangerous reptiles. And finally, man vs. nature makes way for man vs. man in “Her Majesty’s Servants,” as now all animals involved are either domesticated or trainable wild beasts (elephants) whose concerns are how to reconcile their fears with their service to their human masters. It is an illustration and contrast of types, for each beast–horse, camel, mule, elephant, bull–has a different function, and different fears, based on their natural abilities and inclinations. It is also fascinating to reflect on all the different ways humans have found to solve their difficulties–in this instance fighting on all sorts of different terrain.

The most distinct of the stories is “The White Seal,” whose titular hero Kotick is shocked to discover the passivity with which his fellow creatures allow themselves to be hunted by man. He is unique–not only for his white coat, but for his determination to find a nesting ground which is truly safe for all. A reminder, perhaps, that even humans too often simply allow dark things to happen and only the most daring or most determined speak out or act.

I rather enjoyed these enchanting stories. The poems, or “songs,” less so, but then I am not so much a poetry person and could not really begin to judge if they are even any good or not. Although I think they do work better if thought of as “songs” as Kipling calls them. (Actually, I read the “Road-Song of the Bandar-Log” as a sort of pirate’s shanty. It seemed appropriate.) There is a second volume of Jungle Book stories which I shall be on the lookout for–especially as I am promised that more Mowgli stories feature among them.

Completed: Ghostwalk

Cover: Ghostwalk by Rebecca StottGhostwalk
Rebecca Stott
U.K., 2007

Over the last two years, as I have tried to tease out the truths from the untruths in that series of evenst that seeped out through Elizabeth’s death, like lava moving upwards and outwards through salt water from a tear in the seabed, I have had to be you several times, Cameron Brown, in order to claw myself towards some kind of coherence. Sometimes it was–is–easy to imagine the world through your eyes, terribly possible to imagine walking through the garden that afternoon in those moments before you found your mother’s body in the river. After all, for a long time, all that time we were lovers, it was difficult to tell where your skin ended and mine began. That was part of the trouble for Lydia Brooke and Cameron Brown. Lack of distance became–imperceptibly–a violent entanglement.

So this is for you, Cameron, and yes, it is also for me, Lydia Brooke, because perhaps, in putting all these pieces together properly, I will be able to step out from your skin and back into mine.

(Opening, Chapter 1)

Some years back I went though a brief phase where I would randomly decide to pop in the bookstore and buy a book or two, not because I wanted a specific book, but because I wanted to buy a book, any book. It didn’t necessarily result in the best of purchases, but fortunately for my pocketbook, that store went out of business and I haven’t been impressed by the replacement.

One of the books that was a result of this shopping spree was Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott. I can’t say that I’d ever heard of it outside of the bookstore shelves, but the cover art was intriguing, as was the description—a mysteriously drowned Cambridge historian with an unfinished manuscript about Isaac Newtown, another, younger writer (Lydia Brooke) asked to finish the book, and promises of mystery, danger, conspiracy, and history.

Alas, outside of the history—far and away the most enjoyable part of the book for me—the promises failed to deliver. As I was reading, determined to actually finish (I have a fault of not being able to deliberately abandon books unless the library demands a return), I turned it over to the back and reread the blurbs:

…hypnotic brew of speculations, intrigue, and murder…” (Washington Post Book World)

You won’t have time to reflect on Stott’s metaphysics, at least not on the first read—you’ll be too eager to solve the murders.” (Los Angeles Times)

Had we read the same book?

It seems to me that Ghostwalk is trying to be too many things, or at least the “literary” version of too many things—mystery, supernatural, thriller—and not quite hitting the mark. It does belong—and I think this is perhaps one of the reasons for so much critical praise from the professionals—to that class of books commonly called “literary fiction,” and succeeds most strongly when dealing with the relationships between characters and in the history it blends into the narrative. But I never felt that the mysterious deaths had any real heft to them; they seemed more background rather than stakes-raising propositions. The only mystery that seemed to matter revolved around what was supposed to be in the missing final chapter of the manuscript, and the supernatural pathways that Lydia began to follow seemed quaint rather than serious—this despite the narrative’s assertion that one of these ghosts was really quite dangerous; the prose put too much distance between the reader and the danger. Overall, I found it an unsatisfying read. It never made me work hard, but it wasn’t light enough to be pure entertainment, and somehow even the resolution seemed rather run-of-the-mill. Alas, despite a promising premise, in the end, it just didn’t quite work for me.

Playing Catch-up – A Trio of Mini-Thoughts

I spent a good chunk of last weekend catching up on the writing about the books I’ve read the last few months. Hopefully I will get all the posts up this month (I don’t have them in WordPress format yet, just a Word document), but thought I’d start with some quick notes on books I either don’t remember well enough to write more about or didn’t have much to say about.

Cover: Eragon by Christorpher PaoliniEragon
Christopher Paolini
U.S., 2003

I read this, starting in 2015, on a sort of impulse. I’d thought of picking it up for a while, as dragon stories interest me. Alas, I’m not sure I enjoyed it enough to read the series. Early on, the entire story felt very familiar – it wasn’t until I was rewatching the original Star Wars movies before I saw The Force Awakens that I realized that there are many plot similarities with A New Hope. So not only was it very familiar, but very predictable. I have a guess for how the series ends… A series I would have enjoyed more in middle school than as an adult.

Cover: White Nights by Ann CleevesWhite Nights
Ann Cleeves
U.K., 2008

The second in the Shetland Series by Ann Cleeves, I read the first back in October of 2014. Eventually I will read the entire series, for I love the world that Cleeves creates. As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the conventions of mysteries–a small cast of characters from which the murderer must come–works so well in the small Shetland villages that populate her novels; there really is only a limited number of people from whom to pick. (Assuming, of course, no outsiders sneaked in and out–which is always possible when the victim is from out-of-town.) If only big city sleuthing were so easy! I love too the way she moves her narrative between the different characters, allowing us into multiple thoughts and motivations and to know more than just the detective well. We the reader know more than any one character, but still not enough to solve the mystery just yet. At the end I was a bit torn–on the one hand, the solution seemed rather abrupt, but on the other, looking back there were still so many clues paving the way. I just wasn’t as clever as Jimmy Perez, the local detective on the case, who managed to piece all these little clues together.


Cover: The Martian by Andy WeirThe Martian
Andy Weir
2011 & 2014, US

On page 36 I gasped. 64% hydrogen?! And then I remembered. This is fiction.

Such was the power of the opening chapters of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I found these early chapters, told in the form of a daily log kept by stranded astronaut, Mark Watney, so realistic*, and so engaging–math, science and all–that it was at times somewhat of a stretch to remember that this has all been made up. And unlike other thrillers where the twists and turns seem just a plot device to ramp up the tension, here each obstacle to Watney’s survival, on such a remote and unforgiving place as an empty Mars, seemed a natural outgrowth from the harsh conditions. In a way, this isn’t a science-fiction story; it is a pioneer story, a lone traveler in a foreign landscape seemingly conspiring to kill him.

I can see it now: me holding a map, scratching my head, trying to figure out how I ended up on Venus.

I was initially disappointed by a sudden switch in the narrative device, but quickly realized it only served to ratchet up the tension even more. And yet, despite all of the tension and suspense–was it even remotely possible for Watney to make it?–the humor. So much humor! It is not often that I literally laugh out loud while reading, but this novel, despite the dire picture it painted provided ample opportunity. Watney was truly the right character to strand on Mars.

Humor, science, math, suspense: quite possibly my favorite read from 2015.

*I assume. I don’t know enough of the science to say, but it seems sound.

Completed: drive, Act I

drive: the scifi comic
Dave Kellet
US, ongoing

Take one part futuristic sci-fi, add a dose of second Spanish Empire, a strong part humor, monochrome blue palatte, alien creatures ranging from intimidating oaf to cuddly scholar (and everything in between) and don’t forget family and work dynamics, and you just might have the makings of one of my current favorite web comics. Oh, and let’s not forget the documents: memos, letters, articles from the Enciclopedia xenobiología. I might not typically comment on a web comic here, but I recently reread the entirety of what the creator, Dave Kellet, terms “Act I,” so it seemed as good a time as any to proclaim my love for this serial comic. (And for that matter, there are some rumors, that funding permitting, Act I may be self-published as a standalone book. Kellet also previously published the first half or so of Act I in paperback form, which I used for the first part of my reread.)

I came to drive: the scifi comic via Kellet’s other web comic, Sheldon, a wide-varying comic with a group of recurring characters including the eponymous Sheldon, but which also ventures away from the regulars to showcase everything from Shakespeare’s literary agent to Gandalf Airlines. My brother had introduced me to Sheldon, knowing I would likely appreciate the geeky humor and wide varying references (Shakespeare, design, Star Trek, etc.). My brother couldn’t have known at the time that Kellet was about to start a project I would love even more.

Set centuries in the future, when the Second Spanish Empire rules not just the Earth, but much of the known Galaxy, Drive is adventure-humor-scifi. Our main characters are the crew of a small space ship, The Machito, who, early in the story find themselves with a very unique new pilot who can’t remember who he is or where he came from. But his talents are so great, that soon the emperor coerces the crew into searching out other members of their pilot’s species. And so the adventures begin…

New posts come out roughly once a week (though twice is soon hoped for), and guest artists have begun adding their own spin-off chapters to the story. Where it will all go, who knows? But I’m more than willing to trail along.

drive - prologue
drive - sample page