Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert Heinlein

It’s a corker. One of those juvenile books that adults will enjoy too and it would make a splendid movie. Theoretically there is one in the pipelines, but nothing’s been heard of it for some years.

Have Space Suit has no weak points. Entertaining (some great one-liners), the science sounds plausible – not saying it is, I wouldn’t know – but one could imagine a young boy reading this and being inspired. I hope that last sentence is wrong and that girls read this too. The narrator is a teenage boy fresh out of high school. His side-kick is an 11 year old female genius, greatly admired and relied upon by the narrator. There is absolute equality. Important also is ‘The Mother Thing’, seemingly all knowing and all good.

I wouldn’t exactly say this makes the book a model of female emancipation in the science world. The mothers of both children are passive 1950s stay at home Moms. Even worst, Kip’s father married ‘his best student’, as male academics still find a handy thing to do. It doesn’t actually say she’s a good typist but…you can close your eyes and see it. Not that this is the setting time-wise. It’s sort of 1950s America set in an undated future. Loved the description of school education which was presumably a comment pertaining to the late fifties when the book was written and yet is likely pertinent today.

Some of the most interesting parts are those where great detail is made of things that I can’t see making the movie. The very long discussion of how space suits work, for example. But it will be a visual feast with some great action scenes and the trials scene near the end would do well in the cinematic version too. Love to know who is going to play the Roman Centurion. Not to mention the voice of the jury machine.

Bonus: there is no incest or paedophilia. Not that I noticed, anyway.

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The Calvin and Hobbes 10th anniversary book, or: Bill Watterson’s adieu.

A few years ago I thought having a cartoon book sitting by my bed at night would be the best way of going to sleep. For a  long time now it’s been this Calvin and Hobbes collection, but today I binged on it, finishing it with a cup of tea after breakfast.

The publication is a treat, not only because it consists of the choices of the author along with his commentary, but also for his account of the industry as a whole. In retrospective, it shouldn’t surprise, reading this book, to see that he was about to throw in the towel. Like many comics and cartoonists, he is an utterly earnest type, but poignantly so here, energy bypassing the creative process to fuel his constant fights with big corporations. One can only admire his utterly moral stand throughout on all these issues. Not everybody is motivated by money – easy to feel like that when it isn’t in front of you, but he had it waved at his nose and still turned it down. Good to know that every time you see a Calvin and Hobbes ‘product’ it’s a piece of thievery which should be given a wide berth. One can also admire his resolve to give up while he was ahead.

I wish cartoonists weren’t so sad – at least my favourites, the others being Schultz and Leunig – but I guess that’s what makes them funny and wise and makes  us laugh and become wiser.

William the Fourth by Richmal Crompton

Early last year I came upon the dregs of the library of a very wealth Swiss family. The dispersal of the expensive chattels of the estate, including the better books, was undertaken by one of those auction houses that specialises in the disposal of rich history. But the dregs of the books, as well as other very minor bits ended up in the stock of one of the sellers I frequent at the open air book markets in Geneva. A few of the items, though valueless, had the emblem of the house upon them, which is why I could tell what they were.

Rich or not, this was a family which had loved reading over hundreds of years and here were items from the 1920s to 1970s or thereabouts, reflecting their interest in English literature for young and old. Some of it I bought out of sheer curiosity, authors like Barbara Pym I’d never read, but perhaps I should. William I bought because I adored these books as a kid and haven’t read them since the 1960s.

They had aged well then – this early one was first published in 1924 – and fifty years later again they are still standing up as fresh, fun and elegantly written. Apparently an attempt is being made to rehabilitate Crompton as a writer for adults. I must dip into that: if they are anything like as good as her books for children, they’ll be a pleasure to snort over, taking care not to spill one’s cup of tea while doing that.

Most of the stories are strong – I see one or two complaints on GR that they are repetitive from book to book, but children want that. If they are going to reread the same book over and over, why not stories that are the same but different?

I particularly love the one where a big company opens a sweet shop in the village, undercutting Mr Moss with whom they have always shopped. Come Saturday they take their money to the new shop, get served by a girl who doesn’t care and thinks having to sell to them in h’penny lots is ridiculous. As they walk along chomping on their lollies, they pass Mr Moss’s shop. He is very sad, quite unlike his usual jolly self. He can’t put his prices any lower, but, just like Amazon, the new shop has the financial power to sacrifice short term profits for the long term gains of putting Mr Moss out of business with the cooperation of the locals. He stresses to the boys that they are doing the right thing, of course they have to go to the cheaper shop, but vague ideas appear in the minds of the boys.

William and his gang start realising that it isn’t necessarily good to buy cheapest. They want Mr Moss to be happy. They talk about how when they buy from Mr Moss he cares, he is always interested in what they buy. He welcomes their purchasing a h’penny worth at a time. They are sure, now that they think about it, that his sweets taste better too. But what to do? Start a campaign to make people buy from Mr Moss, but how can they, they have no weight, why would anybody notice?

Ah, but William, as usual has a plan. And as usual, no matter how many plans go awry, his followers fall into the next without a moment’s hesitation. The Duke is going to be in town to open a Sale of Work. When he appears on stage to do that, unbeknownst to him, he has a big sign on his back advertising Mr Moss’s shop. As he wanders around the Sale, the locals summon the Vicar to tell the Duke what’s on his back, a large crowd following him around due to the unlikely sight. Just as the Vicar explains and takes the sign off to show the Duke, William and his cohorts appear, each wearing placards with creative spelling announcing the various benefits of Mr Moss’s sweets.

The Duke can recognise a ringleader when he sees one. He asks for William to be brought to him. William in his tripping over his tongue enthusiastic way explains about Mr Moss and the Amazon-like attempt to close him down and how much they want to help and that nobody would notice them unless, he thought, they could put their sign on an important person who would be decent enough to care.

Well, the Duke’s been to more Sales of Work than he cares to think about and this is the first bright moment he’s had for many an appearance. He tells William and the others that they must discuss this further over ices. The eager captive audience of lads listens to his tales of adventure like big game hunting and together they discuss Red Indians and pirates. Then the Duke, with boys in hand, goes to visit Mr Moss. He buys a pound of sweets for each boy and he makes a standing order for himself of cokernuts. Instantly Mr Moss is known as supplier of  cokernuts to Royalty. The Amazon shop closes down, Mr Moss is reinstated as the place to go to.

And of William?

It was Miss Spence who voiced the prevailing sentiment about William. She did not say it out of affection for William. She had no affection for William.

William chased her cat and her hens, disturbed her rest with his unearthly songs and whistles, broke her windows with his cricket ball, and threw stones over the hedge into her garden pond.

But one day, as she watched William progress along the ditch – William never walked on the road if he could walk in the ditch – dragging his toes in the mud, his hands in his pockets, his head poking forward, his brows frowning, his freckled face stern and determined, his mouth pucked up to make his devastating whistle, his train of boy followers behind him, she said slowly: ‘There’s something about that boy –

In some ways it’s a mystery I’d like these books so much, books about a boy who doesn’t like to read (except the worst books), likes to fight and get dirty and climb trees, all of which I’m happy if I never do in my whole life. But the thing is that William is above all for fairness. Admittedly his attempts in the first story of this book to introduce Bolshevism into his family fail, but his mates are all share and share alike. He loves the life that poor children live around him, he hates the comfort of his bourgeois existence. All this is at some gut feeling level, it isn’t an intellectual pose. But how can one not admire it. Then there is his ingenuity, his inspiring leadership, his creativity and imagination. He’s splendid.

Lately I’ve been trying my hand at Little Nicolas, who is a sort of French equivalent, entertaining, but not a patch on William. Now that I’ve refreshed my memory of this series, I think maybe part of the reason is that William has an additional layer in it. Little Nicolas has small children and adults. William also has his older brother and sister who are substantially his senior, dating and so on. It will not be a surprise to hear that his siblings’ interest in the opposite sex is rather disgusting to him. He simply cannot understand what young men see in his sister Ethel when he knows the truth of how awful she is. Big sisters. Uggh. He could tell them a thing or two.

This reminds me of the time in my life I really feel like William was my model. I went to a large school in Adelaide in my primary years which had an area out the back where boys would park their cars and girls would join them to pash. I doubt it went much further than that, late sixties. My siblings and I, who being oldest was the leader, occasionally had to hang out at school waiting for my mother, a teacher. We would sometimes go out to the back and dance around the cars like a bunch of Red Indians maybe, saying ‘No spooning here’. ‘Kissing banned’. ‘Stop pashing’. And such like. We were highly amused by ourselves and thought we were terribly clever, though I’m not sure we even knew what ‘spooning’ meant. Probably the kids in cars didn’t either, it was already an anachronistic word. The teenagers must have been ropeable, restrained, no doubt, by the knowledge that anything they did to us was to the kids of a senior teacher. We were probably untouchable, luckily for us.

Come to think of it, I wonder if every occasion I was bad as a kid was because of William? I’d never thought of blaming him at the time, but I did find it hard to separate my reading from life, so who knows? Just hoping now that I don’t regress. I wonder how many of them I’ll have to read before that happens?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pouf le chaton bleu – Pouf, the blue kitten – by Pierre Probst

Moral tales are so much easier to swallow with cute pictures and Probst’s are as cute as they come.

Pouf

He is like so many children’s writers: he sold 30M+ books around the world in his career, but is more or less forgotten. It rather mystifies me that we treat children’s books from a historical perspective with such disdain when they play such a part in the moulding of the young. Look at any adult person and partly what you see is what they read as a kid. When adult authors go out of fashion, this is neither here nor there. When children’s authors go out of fashion, we still see them in the adults they helped to inspire. And yet we can so quickly forget, that there is a complete disconnect between the two, the author and his audience.

As an illustrator and cartoonist, Probst was responsible for some of the Enid Blyton illustrations, in case he looks familiar. As a writer, most famous is his Caroline series. He refused pressure brought to bear by his publisher to make his central character a boy. Instead he insisted on a girl, a girl who dressed in pants and had adventures more likely to be found in ‘boy’s’ books of the period. Probst was willing to anthropromorphise anything – cats, mice, birds, heck, even girls. If you would like to read famous people talking about his impact on their lives, including Catherine of Monaco, the writer Anna Gavalda, the musician Bertrand Burgalat, go here.

Thanks to S-L for giving me this. Sorry it took so long to read!

A Crown of Feathers by Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’m just not a magic person. Unless ‘wand’ has an obvious coarse connotation, I don’t want one in my book. I don’t want devils, demons or invisible crowns of feathers in pillows. I don’t care if the spell is portrayed in an elegant way by Singer or a basic way for children by Rowling. I hereby give up on Singer, this is my second stab at him and I’m not finishing this one. This despite the fact that it isn’t all magic driven. The second story ‘A Day in Coney Island’ avoids all that – and I know, the magic realist clique are going to jump all over that statement and claim this story for themselves too. Well, I don’t think coins coming out of slots counts as magic. So there.

Not only do I neither like nor understand magic propelled books, but when I think about it, in general I don’t share any reading tastes with those in the queue for Harry Potter. I don’t mean by that I don’t share reading tastes with eight year olds for whom the books were written, but that I don’t share them with adults. Apparently the whole marketing strategy of ‘Young Adult’ has been created to capture the market of adults who can’t really cope with reading books for adults, they need smaller concepts, shorter sentences, words with less syllables. They wouldn’t read a book they thought was for children, but put ‘adult’ in the title and it’s okay, even though these are still books for children. The capacity of human beings for self-deception knows no bounds.

Of course, I still say ‘Star so light, star so bright’ whenever I can, but that’s just sensible isn’t it? Hedging my bets.

Summer Book by Tove Jansson

Doubtless all that can be said about this charming collection has been. I don’t understand why it is called a novel – it’s prose, it’s longer than a short story, therefore it’s a novel? In fact this is 22 small pieces contained and constrained by setting and character. Everybody will have the points in this book that stand out for them in some way. My bookmark has stayed here:

Here you come, headlong into a tight little group of people who have always lived together, who have the habit of moving around each other on land they know and own and understand, and every threat to what they’re used to only makes them still more compact and self-assured. An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.

For a book like this to come to be available to a person like me, Englishly and stubbornly mono-lingual, requires some work. When the re-issue I read referred to the ‘flawless’ translation by Thomas Teal, I wondered who he is. An online search won’t exactly bombard you with details. He is an American who has a degree in Scandinavian literature and languages and lived/worked in various parts of Scandinavia for some years. Translation is what he does for love, not money, a familiar tune, no doubt. He has a particular association with Jansson’s work.

I also wondered about the publisher of my edition. ‘Sort of‘ books is a small UK publisher, the kind of organisation one hopes survives the trashing of the publishing middleman going on right now. They certainly seem to have an eye for what to go with. There is an acceptance speech of an award for the translation of True Deceivers by Teal, in which he tells a great story about Sort of books and the part they play in his standing there. You can see it here – fast forward to the 7 minute mark.