Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

My fiancé is a musician, which means he reads a lot…of music. He never really got into books when he was little and claims he has only finished about twenty books in his entire life. But, as we live together, he now lives in a house that is practically a library and yes, people, he has started reading fiction. I couldn’t be prouder. So this review is dedicated to this man, as he sits outside giggling while reading Roald Dahl. Also, Danny the Champion of the World has always been a personal favourite of mine.

Danny is a nine-year-old, who lives with his dad in an old gypsy caravan surrounded by the lovely meadows and green hills somewhere in England, probably in the 1950’s. Danny’s mother died when he was only little. Danny is at first taught by his father, William, so he doesn’t go to school. His father teaches him all important things, like how to make a kite, a soapbox, how to fix cars and how to have a proper midnight feast. As one can imagine, Danny loves his father more than anything in the world. Later on in the book, Danny does go to school, where he has the horrible Captain Lancaster for a teacher. Then everything changes the night his father goes missing and Danny goes out in an old car to look for him.

His father has a small garage and together they just manage to get by. But in addition to his work on cars, his father regularly goes into Mr. Victor Hazell’s woods to poach pheasants, as he confesses after Danny has found him that night he went missing. Apparently this has been a family tradition for generations now and they have turned poaching into an art, with the secret ‘Sleeping Beauty’ method. The entire village hates the local magnate Hazell, as he tries to buy up land everywhere to host his extravagant hunting parties for dukes, lords and wealthy businessmen, so a large part of the village goes out at night poaching. And this is when Danny comes up with a brilliant scheme to thoroughly embarrass Mr. Hazell at one of his parties: one of the largest and most dangerous poaching plans in history, which will eventually make Danny the champion of the world.

The father figure is very important in this book. Danny’s father is mischievous, with light smiling eyes, and remembers very well what it was like to be a kid. His father teaches him how to build things, how to play and have fun, how to work on cars for his future and what it means to be a good person. Not only is he fun, but he is also wildly protective of his son when he finds out about the archaic methods of punishments his schoolmaster employs. He fulfills both the role of the mother, as well as that of the father. As Roald Dahl mentions at the end of the book: ‘A stodgy parent is no fun at all! What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is sparky!’ And Danny’s father is the father we all wanted.

The first part of the book is quite boring, in the sense that nothing much happens. The real poaching adventure happens later on in the book. However, when I was little I had a book called ‘The dangerous book for boys’, which had all kinds of advice on how to entertain yourself during those long Sunday afternoons and during the Holidays. The beginning of Danny is very similar to this book, as it contains all kinds of fun things to do when there weren’t that many computers and iPhones around. Danny does all of these things with his father and I remember doing and building and playing these things as well as a child. So, not only is it great fun to read these first chapters, it might also give you some ideas on how to spend your next summer afternoon.

Then there are these wonderful village idiots: There’s the brilliant and stoic constable, who poaches as well, of course; The doctor, Doc Spence, who seems a little confused at times, has wild white hair, but is a very, very kind-hearted man; Mr. Rabbetts, the mean guard of Hazell’s woods, who apparently likes to pepper the backsides of the poachers when he catches them; Mrs. Clipstone, the vicar’s wife, who pushes a pram about and secretly delivers pheasants to people and as per usual, the reverend is in on the scheme as well. These characters and their funny descriptions make this a wonderfully charming and witty book. The writing is brilliant, ‘keeping you on the edge of your seat’- kind of scary at times and very imaginative.

Roald Dahl’s books follow a pattern of children winning over adults. Often adults appear in the form of cruel and unfeeling individuals, who get away with whatever they are doing, simply because they are grown-ups. I grew up with these kinds of adults, which is why I loved Roals Dahl’s books so much. As a child, this seems unfair to you: you are only little, so there’s nothing you can do. Dahl must have felt the same way. When you read his autobiographical book, ‘Boy’, he writes about getting beaten with a cane by his headmaster, which is what happens to Danny as well in this book, by his cruel schoolmaster. However, in Roald Dahl’s universe, children are the ones that punish the adults. They can defeat them through tricks and schemes. I loved this concept as a child.

There is however a different side to these stories of children being able to punish adults. As a child I thought it only fair and funny even. But reading these books again now, some of the things children do are quite horrible and the punishments are cruel. When I think about this book now, it can also been seen as a thief, coaching his son into thievery as well, with the help of all the shady characters living in a ‘picturesque’ English village. But then again, conning the money-hungry magnate who likes to shoot over 120 pheasants at the time for sport and humiliating the sadistic schoolmaster, do I feel sorry for them now, as an adult? Nope. Victory!

Ness Award, as it was my three-year-old monster’s favourite

Roald Dahl, Danny, the champion of the world (London, 1975)

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Thura Nightingale 

Nausea (La nausée) by Jean-Paul Sartre

This is one of the books that went with us on our hike through the Ardennes. I picked this book because it is one you can not read through very quickly because of its philosophical nature, therefore ensuring me two weeks of entertainment! Also I tend to read books quickly without thinking about every line, and that would not have worked for this book, because every sentence holds meaning and tells a part of the story. Having only one book to read motivated me to read it as carefully as possible. However, this is not a cheerful read, which makes me glad I enjoyed the hike so much, otherwise the book might have been a real downer. But I was happy, so I enjoyed to read about the negative thoughts going through the character’s mind. Often someone’s misery seems more interesting than someone’s joy, something that is at least true for this book.

This is a work written by Jean-Paul Sartre about a man named Antoine Roquentin, and his musings in his diary. At the beginning of the book he notices ‘nausea’ has come over him and he decides to document this experience to understand it better. Nausea is a difficult sensation to explain, but it feels a bit like an attack of depression, combined with complete alienation from the real world and a focus on, in Roquentin’s viewpoint, meaningless details. At the beginning of the book he is busy writing a biography about de Marquis de Rollebon to document his flamboyant life. Rollebon is an obscure figure, and fictional I fear, and Roquentin wants to let him ‘come back to life’ in his book. However, even the book can not keep nausea at bay, because history is futile and once a person is dead, he stays dead, and is even best kept dead. Or at least that is what Roquentin believes.

Because he writes the book, Roquentin lives in Bouville, an industrious sea-side town, full of busy, hardworking people. This makes him reflect on what can be considered life well-lived, especially when he thinks about the many zealous people in Bouville’s past working tirelessly to build up the town and to make it the great town it is in the book. These considerations only enlarge Roquentin’s feelings of uselessness of his own life. Beside the book, he does nothing and knows no-one. He simply exists and even that can often feel unbearable. The only other people he talks to are Francoise, the barmaid of a bar he frequents, and ‘the self-taught man’ he occasionally meets in the local library. The last character is Annie, a previous love of him. The book builds up to a meeting he has with her after years of silence between the two. All those people will disappoint him one way or other.

As you can see the book shows a downward spiral in Roquentin’s mood and optimism. Other reviewers pointed out that this book is the start of Sartre’s philosophies where he becomes famous for later. He is well-known for his ideas about existentialism and phenomenology. In this book existentialism holds that every person is free without a laid-down inherent purpose in his or her life, something Roquentin discovers and tries to come to terms with it in this book. This makes it not a very cheerful book to read, especially because the feelings of freedom comes with a sense of uselessness in the downward spiral, which takes Roquentin to the rock bottom. The phenomenology manifests in the long descriptions of Roquentin’s experiences on which he bases conclusions about his life. Because a lot of his experiences are influences by feelings of nausea, which might well be depression, these are dangerous experiences to base the purpose of life on.

This book is compelling because of the writing style. Although not cheerful, the descriptions of events and experiences Roquentin has are beautifully written. I read it in Dutch (the book is named ‘walging’ in the Dutch language), so I can not say anything about the English or original French writing style, but it is gorgeous. Roquentin takes you with him in the observations he makes, which are sometimes positive and sometimes deeply negative when nausea takes him.

In the preface of my copy of this book a professor warns you that this is one of the most oppressive books you will ever read. It resonates with the moments everyone probably knows in their lives where they think: what is the point of it all? Also this book lays down a strong argument that there is indeed no real point to life, except the purpose a person decides for herself. Further on this book shows the scary consequences when that thought becomes too present, and becomes everything a person can think about. In Roquentin, the protagonist, this is all caused, in my opinion, by the loneliness, alienation and depression he feels. Especially the feelings of alienation are put down superbly. He describes how, on Sunday mornings, he watches all the different people go to church and how they greet each other. He sees so much life and self-directed purpose in the life of other people, where he is not a part of. Those people have a purpose and respect and other people to live for, and he has none.

I am in no way able to say to which extend my thoughts in this review actually resonate with Sartre’s philosophy, because I haven’t read anything else by him yet. This book has triggered my interest though, only I will explore Sartre’s ideas slowly, at times when I feel positive about live. This book can also be appreciated by people who have no previous knowledge of philosophy at all. That is the great thing about a book that is a story and a philosophical treatise at the same time. This is not an easy book to read or like, and I am not even sure if that was Sartre’s intent, but it is certainly interesting for everyone who likes to explore the dark side of the human mind. But be warned: because of its powerful description of Roquentin’s thought processes, this book can take over your mind and take it on a walk through the dark side of nausea and existential dread.

 

Sunshine award, because this book can take down the joy in everything

Jean-Paul Sartre, La Nausée (Paris, 1938)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas

The Oracle of Stamboul is a (somewhat) historical novel with elements of magical realism, set in the 1880’s crumbling Ottoman Empire. As if that premise doesn’t sound enticing enough already, the book boasts a beautiful cover with warm colours and an intricate design. Once again, I fell for a book purely because of its cover: after an internal shriek of delight I took the pretty book home with me. I read it, was momentarily charmed by it, but ultimately felt dissatisfied. About everything in the story started very promising, but wasn’t followed through. Instead both characters and storylines disappeared and were never mentioned again in later chapters. Like the Sultan in chapter Eight, I sighed: “Tell me, what further business needs attending to before lunch?” and moved on to a better book. Here’s why:

Our heroine Eleonora’s birth is accompanied by ominous signs and dramatic events. Not only does her mother die in childbirth, but Russian troops overtake the city and spare only the church and the library from their destructiveness. It is 1877 and the city of Constanta, in Romania, is in the midst of a war, in a jumble of armies of different nationalities. However, as you might have derived from the title, this book is not about Constanta, so the short storyline about the city’s history is abandoned.

Eleonora turns out to be no less than perfect: she is beautiful, a prodigy, communicates with animals and possesses an ‘indescribable inner radiance and clarity’. You would almost say that a girl like that doesn’t need mystic birds to convey that she is somehow destined for greatness, but author Michael David Lukas thought otherwise and lets Eleonora be followed throughout her life by a flock of hoopoes. One detail about the girl jumps out in the early chapters because it is not stereotypically ‘perfect’ like the rest of her characteristics: Eleanora’s family is Jewish, a fact that is mentioned several times at the beginning of the book as being disadventageous or even dangerous because Jews are, to say the least, not liked. However, this aspect is abandoned even before it can develop into a storyline. Eleonora being a Jew has no impact whatsoever on what happens to her in the story.

The girl is taught housekeeping by her stepmother, as well as reading, arithmetic and other school lessons by her father, who is a well-travelled carpet merchant. Among the books she reads, with a speed that reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, there are many British classics. This led me to wonder whether Eleonora has quickly learned English, or if all those books were translated to Romanian by the early 1880’s. They might be, if British literature was popular at that time in that place, so I am curious to know more about that. The same goes for the French, Russian and other books that are mentioned. As I understood it, apart from some Turkish, she only learns to read in multiple languages much later in the book.

When her father is about to travel to Stamboul (Istanbul) for business, eight-year-old Eleonora can’t bear the thought of being left behind and follows him as a stowaway on a boat over the Black Sea. An unforeseen tragedy forces her to stay longer in the capital of the Ottoman Empire than expected, in the house of her father’s friend and business partner, Moncef Bey. He is only one of the many mysterious characters who appear in the course of the book, with secret clubs, suspected ties to other world powers and a taste for intrigue. What their exact intentions are, however, doesn’t become entirely clear, because each of their storylines is in turn -you guessed it!- abandoned. We simply never hear from these people again.

Among the many scheming and secretive characters, my favourite is Sultan Abdulhamid II. He is tasked with the reign over an empire that at the same time unravels at the seams and wears out in the centre, to employ a carpet metaphor. He does so with dry wit and a weary detachment which makes you root for him, even though we all know the fate of the Ottoman Empire. Neither the character, nor the real Sultan Abdulhamid was a particularly nice man, which we don’t expect the most powerful men and women on our planet to be, but the Sultan’s subtle sarcasm is quite delightful, especially when he defies all his advisers by inviting Eleonora to his palace, to consult the tremendously smart eight-year-old about international politics.

The writing style, though sometimes a little pompous, is not bad. The story’s slow pace is at times annoying, but the author spends a lot of time describing people and surroundings and as luck would have it, they are both beautiful and interesting. I have never visited Istanbul in real life, but the city became one of those places I have a clear picture of in my mind. This picture is of the 1880’s, and fictional, and necessarily limited, but that doesn’t keep it from popping up every time someone mentions Istanbul. That’s just one of the reasons why I will maintain, until the day I die, that books have magic in them.

Eleonora would agree. A recurring thing in the story is her favourite book series, The Hourglass. The series doesn’t exist in our reality, to the best of my knowledge, but in Eleonora’s world it is a classic. She, like her mother and stepmother, reads it many times and she even dares to recommend it to the Sultan, who orders it to be translated to Turkish so that he might read it. It is the only thing that comforts Eleonora when life is turbulent and harsh, which made it all the more surprising that the books don’t play a bigger role in moving the plot forward. And the plot really needed moving.

The story has an open ending, which is usually OK by me. I tell myself I don’t require every story to neatly settle each character and anwer every question in the last chapter. But maybe I do, because the ending of this book infuriated me. It was meant to be surprising and unconventional, I’m sure, but in reality it was just badly set up and out of line with the rest of the book. The characters’ storylines are cut short, leading to nowhere. This rids every action or intention in earlier chapters of importance. When I closed the book, I felt disappointed and not quite sure whether the journey I undertook, following Eleonora through the pages, was worth it when it led me to such a shabby destination. In abandoning even the main storyline, I felt like Michael David Lukas abandoned me. And that’s just rude.

 

Universal Ex-Boyfriend Award for charming you and making you introduce them to your family, before leaving you with a feeling of regret and a yearning for good kebab

Michael David Lukas, The Oracle of Stamboul (London, 2011)

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Jo Robin

Atonement by Ian McEwan

When I was only fifteen years old myself, I actually stole this book from my English teacher. I had every intention of returning it (I think) after I’d finished it, but I simply forgot and so I still have her copy to this day (I’m so sorry, Miss…) And somehow, having an old stolen copy of this book is quite fitting. All children make mistakes, but this book is about the ones that can’t be fixed so easily. So here I am, atoning for my theft and reviewing this wonderful book.

The year is 1935 and England is going through one of those rare hot and humid summer weeks. Briony Tallis is a thirteen year old with a passion for fiction. She dreams of becoming a writer, but her imagination causes a destructive family drama within a few hours. Her older sister Cecilia is home for the summer and she has a sort of fling with the housekeeper’s son Robbie. Briony then sees a moment between them, misinterprets it completely, and convinces herself that Robbie is a ‘maniac’. Shortly after, Robbie writes Cecilia a dirty and explicit letter to tell her he loves her. Knowing he can’t possible send her that one, he writes another one: a more decent version. He then asks Briony to deliver that one to her, but, as you can imagine, he has given her the wrong one and the little girl reads it. During those days their cousin Lola comes to visit them at their country estate, who is raped in the night. Briony, after having walked in on Robbie and her sister having sex a few hours previously, says she saw Robbie rape Lola. She has convinced herself that he is in fact a maniac and, only thirteen years old, knows she saw him.

The second part of the book centres around Robbie, who has spent several years in prison, only to be given a choice when World War II broke out: stay in prison or fight. As most, he chose the front. Cecilia works as a nurse, working day and night out of anger and simply wanting to have something to do. She has broken all contact with her family, as she blames them for the arrest of Robbie.
And then there’s Briony, who has figured out her mistake when she sees Lola getting married to another family friend who stayed at their estate during that summer that altered everything. He is the one that raped her then, not Robbie. Briony then goes on a quest to atone herself for the horrible thing she has done as a little girl. She also becomes a nurse and works herself to the bone. She has abandoned all her ambitions as to writing stories, but she does start to work on one story: the story of her sister and Robbie and how they met just after the war.

When I was a little girl myself I wanted to be a writer. I wrote stories and plays and forced other kids to play in them. The painful thing about this book is that you can absolutely understand how a thirteen year old, obsessed with fiction, arrived to her conclusion. She is the daughter of a wealthy but absent father and a permanently ill mother; she fills her solitude with words. The police puts a lot of pressure on her when she is questioned and she doesn’t understand sex. She thinks she does, she has read about it, but only knows what a ‘sexual maniac’ is. She doesn’t understand the dynamics and she doesn’t understand body language. Also, she just wants to protect her older sister Cecilia, so her actions might even be vengeful. Briony has done a horrible thing by lying, but her imagination took over and she actually believed she saw him. And when you think about it, we could all have done something like that when we were thirteen and that’s what makes the whole process of atonement so painful: you can’t erase a silly mistake like that when it has such big consequences.

The novel was written in 2001, but in a sense it reads as though it were one of the classics. The old themes are all there: rich upper-class girl falls in love with a simple boy. War tears them apart and England as it was, is forever lost. It is clear the author has read a lot about the nurses during and after the Second World War, as nursing takes up a large role in this book. Robbie at the front, at Dunkirk, makes for such a dark part of the book: All his pain from his injury, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers dying around him, his life in ruins, in a war without end. The language is so rich and descriptive, though never boring. Ian McEwan takes you through the psychology of each character, but also excels at describing the daily chores of a nurse and crafting a setting full of detail. Some sentences feel like poetry, which is one of the things that make this book so much more for me than just tragic.

The characters are very compelling. They really do make the story. Briony is arrogant, as a thirteen-year-old rich girl should be, quick to judge and cold in a sense. Cecilia is very entitled, distant and holds a grudge like no one can. Their parents are simply just gone. Robbie is naïve and harsh at times. All of them have their flaws, but not like flaws some writers put in so as to make the characters seem three-dimensional. These people are actual, convincing human beings.

This story toys with one of the most important dilemmas of all time: we all make mistakes, but what if they haunt us? Sure, we drop something in the middle of class as a child and we are embarrassed. We even repeat that one single moment in front of our eyes for weeks. But what if we do this for the rest of our lives? We try to make it right again, but Briony can’t. She can’t fix what she’s done and she never will. How would we cope with that? How would we try to atone? I would probably write a book as well.

End of childhood Award, because yeah…

Ian McEwan, Atonement (London, 2001)

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Thura Nightingale

The liar by Stephen Fry

I hated this book so much when I started reading it, that I almost did not finish it, but wanted to fling it out of the bus. The book has vile language, the protagonist is unlikable and the graphic description of sexual relations of boys at boarding school made me uncomfortable. Also the writing style is a bit pretentious and until the end I had no clue what the book was really about. But as I was using public transport, and therefore had nothing else to read at the moment, I persisted. And at a certain moment all the aspects that aggravated me started to become the reasons why I liked the book. The book is still annoying, but at a certain moment that starts to make sense, because of the story it tells and because of the protagonist who is arrogant and sleazy. This book has a way of dragging you in, until you can not do anything else, except finishing the book.

The story revolves around Adrian Healey, who is a boarding school boy at the beginning of the book. There he meets Cartwright, a boy he falls heavily in love with and will meet again during his time at Cambridge. Also Healey is kicked out of school because of an illegal magazine he published with his friends. Further on, he has a lot of sexual relationships with his peers, of the same age and even younger, and he manipulates everyone to keep himself entertained.  Healey is a liar and is always pretending to be a different person in front of others. His favourite persona is an Oscar Wilde resembling outrageous smart talker. Healey beliefs he has a lot of flair and that he can impress everyone with his manner. However, this is not true at the beginning of the book, which makes his character development interesting to read about. In this book Healey tries to find out who he is and how he can make a life for himself that is not boring or humdrum. He looks down on ‘normal’ people and desperately wants to have a more exciting life than school, job, marriage, kids, and finally death.

Another important person in this story is Healey’s professor at Cambridge, Professor Donald Trefusis. They initially forge a bond when Trefusis challenges Healey to write something original. In that way Trefusis is one of the people who see through Healey’s front of fake personalities. I won’t say what original thing Healey comes up with, because that part of the book is too much fun as it is now, but it has something to do with a ‘lost’ manuscript by a famous dead English Writer. When he has almost finished his studies at Cambridge Trefusis takes him along on a trip to retrieve the mysterious Mendax machine. The Mendax machine can uncovered the truth from everyone, and therefore Healey is a suitable guinea pig. The machine is stolen and Trefusis wants to get it back.

These two main stories about Healey growing up and the uncovering of the stolen Mendax machine are told alternately, which made this book so confusing at the beginning. The story of Healey is alternated with short chapters of people looking for the Mendax machine. Because the meaning of those pieces only became clear at the end of the book, the way it is written now did not work very well the first time reading this book. Maybe the second time reading the book it will work better, because then it is possible to look for the clues, hinting at the major plot switch at the ending. Because at the end everything came together and the ending was a very pleasant surprise, which, in my opinion, turned this book from simply interesting, to good. When I read the ending, I became curious what I missed what could have predicted what happened, which is a nice writing achievement: to motivate people to re-read your book to check for hidden clues.

This book is gritty, don’t be mistaken. It talks openly about underaged homosexual relations at boarding school and glorifies them, because Healey is gay and enjoying those relations immensely (Eventually he marries a woman, but I have never believed that was for love). They are not always necessarily between boys of the same age, and it can also be questioned if both parties really agree. However, I did like the fact that this book talks about it so openly, because that does not happen often when the eroticism is between two male characters. It was uncomfortable, but the way Healey acts in those sexual relationships with his peers, and even teachers at a certain moment, does give away a lot about his character. He uses people to achieve his personal goals, and one of those goals is to have sexual relationships. I certainly do not hope every all- boy boarding school is as portrayed in this book, but for this book, the events fit and it does make the story told more realistic.

I read another review of someone who said that this book was smut, combined with the opportunity to improve one’s vocabulary, and I think that is true. That should certainly not really surprise anyone, since the book is written by Stephen Fry and he is a wizard with using exotic words. This is his first book, and it is really noticeable he was more boyish than he portrays himself now, but his elegant, slightly posh way with words, and also the way he likes to use obscure words with confidence, is certainly already present in this book. In this book Fry’s trade-mark style is not yet as composed as it is now, but certain key elements are already in place. Therefore it is difficult to say whether fans of Stephen Fry would enjoy this book, because in a way it is similar to his other stuff, but then again the grittiness makes it different from all the other stuff I know of him. But if you love Stephen Fry, liars and stories set at boarding schools, this is certainly a book for you!

 Teachers’ pet award because despite being about education, this book will sadly have a hard time passing school censor

Stephen Fry, the liar (Reading, 1991)

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Bella G. Bear