Sunday, January 26, 2014

Matilda: my new best friend

Let’s talk about childhood, that innocent time when the world was your oyster. You could be a pirate, an anthropologist, a super hero, and a teacher all in the same afternoon. There were no limits to your possibilities. All it took was a blanket fort, a friend, and a lot of imagination. Then when your imagination started to wane, you opened a book and a whole new world of magic presented itself to you. As a child, I loved books. I wanted to consume each one and become a part of the setting and plot. So when my coworker balked at the fact that I've never read her favorite childhood novel, Matilda by Roald Dahl, I accepted the call to read it as an adult. And oh my goodness what a read it was. My poor childhood self missed out on a beautiful book and a main character who should have been a best friend.

Matilda is a little girl with an astonishing ability to learn. She consumes books like no one’s business. But poor Matilda must teach herself to read because her parents could care less about her. The Wormwoods are a selfish and materialistic couple. Mr. Wormwood cheats people into buying faulty used cars, and Mrs. Wormwood thinks that a woman should only look good to attract a man. Luckily, Matilda has the library and soon, she goes to school. At school she meets the loving and caring Miss Honey who recognizes that Matilda is a child prodigy and works to hone her abilities. At this academy, however, the evil Ms Trunchbull reigns supreme and any child who so much as thinks of upsetting her will be punished severely. Against all odds, Matilda must find a way to help her classmates and Miss Honey and defeat the ever so ugly and self-centered adults.

Dahl has a way of painting adults in his story that feels so true to a child’s outlook. They are either mean and nasty beings, or fair and lovely. In a world where grownups rule and often have tyrannical sway over children, Dahl presents a child’s perspective and a way to achieve justice even if one is small. Matilda is such a lovely character that I wanted nothing more than to scoop her up in my arms and read all day with her. She makes me want to be a better person. Her life is difficult, yet she does not complain or give up, she finds ways to better herself and the life she’s been handed. She teaches the adults around her and helps those she cares for. On top of that she’s a bibliophile and she loves the library! She’s every librarian and book lover’s perfect child.

It really is astounding that I never read this book. Once I started, I couldn't put it down and wanted so badly for Matilda to have a better life, for her to help Miss Honey, and for the evil Trunchbull to get her comeuppance. Luckily, the wonderful thing about children’s novels is they usually wrap up nicely and have a happy ending. Dahl does not disappoint. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Aging in Australia

The best way I heard the book The Night Guest described to me was as a frog in a pot of water. You know the old anecdote about a frog dying in a pot of water that starts at room temperature and slowly heats to boiling. The frog is not receptive to the temperature change thus never jumps out. Here is an excellent way of describing Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest.

Ruth is an aging woman who lives alone by the sea in Australia. She doesn't do much with her days and lives a somewhat lonely existence. One day a mysterious woman, Frida, shows up and becomes Ruth’s carer. The woman reminds Ruth of her childhood in Fiji. Soon Ruth is calling on her old love and her life is starting to become a bit of a blur. The once perceptive woman begins a slow spiral into forgetfulness and insecurity.

Here is a book that makes you feel unsure of what is happening. At the beginning of the book, you know Ruth has some troubles, but it doesn't seem harmful and she seems to be content if not a little bored. Frida shows up and starts taking over small tasks, then larger tasks, until she becomes an absolute essential to Ruth’s life. It seems as Frida does more for Ruth that Ruth’s ability to function mentally and physically deteriorates. On top of Ruth’s health and mental state, the reader questions Frida’s intentions. She comes in out of nowhere, offers assistance, and starts becoming quite a force in Ruth’s life. It’s a strange relationship.

The main reason I picked up this book was a) the cover was pretty awesome, and b) the description talked about Ruth’s history in Fiji and a tiger, which sounded very intriguing. The book, however, was much different than I anticipated; a little more sinister and not as exotic. In the end, I’m glad I read it. Here is a book that gave a striking picture of aging and the deteriorating mind. It takes the mundane and lonely tasks in one woman’s small world and puts a microscope to them. McFarlane does a fine job of describing the ordinary and the sad little nothings. You felt for Ruth and the frustration she had when she forgot something or had to be reminded of little things. At the same time, you hope this stranger, Frida, is who she says she is, but you question.