BOOK REVIEW: Going Solo by Roald Dahl

Going SoloGoing Solo by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the second installment of Roald Dahl’s autobiography, and it covers the period from the time when the famous children’s author left home to work Shell Oil in East Africa, through his adventures as a pilot in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II, concluding with his return home to England. In short it covers the earliest years of his adulthood, before he wrote such classic books for children as: “BFG,” “Matilda,” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

In fifteen chapters, Dahl discusses his mysterious shipmate on the ship to Africa, a lion attack, an unwanted visitor in the form of a green mamba snake, and Dahl’s early experience of the war before he became a pilot. Becoming a pilot represents a shift in the book’s tone. From that point, it’s more of a war story, with the higher tempo of life and death situations that entails. That isn’t to say there’s no life and death in the first part, but it’s more quirky and humorous. In the chapters about his life as a pilot, Dahl describes crash landing in the desert and his subsequent recuperation, how he was posted to Greece where the German Air Force had a fleet of planes that made Britain’s look minuscule by comparison, and then his squadron’s move to Palestine to what would be his last battle-filled days before he was relieved from flight operations and sent home.

The stories throughout are as well crafted, as one might expect from a master storyteller. Dahl follows the advice (often-attributed to Elmore Leonard, but which has been around for decades in some words or another) to, “…leave out all the parts readers skip.” There is a tension throughout the book. It’s a much different approach than the previous volume, “Boy” which plays off the dramas of the adult-child interaction.

There are many graphics throughout the book, mostly black-and-white photos, but also maps and documents, but no other ancillary matter.

I’d highly recommend this book. If you want to know how to write a memoir that people will read, this is how it’s done. Dahl doesn’t try to take us from cradle to grave. He’s happy giving us the parts we won’t skip.

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BOOK REVIEW: The BFG by Roald Dahl

The BFGThe BFG by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an excellent, little story about a big, friendly Giant [hence, BFG.] The main characters are the BFG and an orphan named Sophie. The former abducts the later from her bed, which sounds terrible, but he’s conflicted about it. He snatches her because she saw him during his late-night work delivering good dreams to children, and he can’t have any witnesses lest the townspeople get pitch-forky with him. Sophie has no parents or siblings to miss her, and she doesn’t mind being away from the orphanage and making a Giant new friend, but she doesn’t wish to live out her life in Giant Country. While the BFG is a kind and delightful character, he’s the exception to the rule when it comes to Giants. Furthermore, because he lives off the snozzcumber [a repulsive vegetable] rather than dining on people, he’s a runt among his human-eating species. Therefore, he’s no match for his nine mischievous fellow residents of Giant Country. Sophie and the BFG work together to try to achieve an end that is pleasing for all parties concerned—well, except for the nine human-eating giants.

The story is clever, and the BFG character is well-developed and interesting. BFG is wise, but he has trouble with language owing to his lack of formal education and he often mixes it up in whimsical ways. He’s also conscientious about his work of catching dreams and delivering them into the bedrooms of sleeping children so they can have delightful dreams. He also takes bad dreams out of commission by catching them in a jar and keeping them on shelves in his cave. Sophie is smart and likable—if not as interesting than BFG.

The book is illustrated by Quentin Blake in the same style as the other Dahl books. The version I have has black-and-white line drawings, but there is color edition that may be more appealing to children.

This is a great story presented with humor, and I recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Boy by Roald Dahl

Boy: Tales of ChildhoodBoy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the first of a two-volume autobiography of the writer of children’s books, Roald Dahl. You probably know of Dahl from his fictional works such as: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda,” “The BFG,” “The Twits,” or “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

I initially picked up the second part, “Going Solo,” which is about Dahl’s adult life–particularly his early post-school years in which he was an expat serving with Shell Corporation in Africa and—when the war broke out—a fighter pilot. I figured I should read the first part first because it’s short, readable, and might have bearing on his later life. I’m glad that I did, but not because it’s necessary to make sense of “Going Solo.” Rather, because this volume provides great insight into Dahl’s body of work.

Dahl was Norwegian, but spent his school years in Britain, attending boys’ schools and a boarding school. The English schools provided much inspiration for Dahl’s villains and fueled his adversarial view of the child-adult interaction—a view that serves writers of children’s literature well. While I suspect the teachers and administers were just strict and reserved as one might expect at a prestigious school in Britain, it’s easy to see how this lack of affection becomes villainy in the mind of a child. (Not to mention the upperclassmen, who too easily become like the kapos from Nazi concentration camps.)

One feels this child’s perspective throughout the book. The book is written for an audience of children, not so much in the language [which is approachable for young readers] as in the attitude. Dahl presents the world from a kid’s-eye view. He also makes occasional notes to emphasize to children the ways in which the world was changed. Travel and communication for today’s youth are completely different enterprises than they were in the interwar years.

Besides seeing how the teachers, administrators, and upperclassman provided Dahl with villains for books like “Matilda,” one also learns about the origins of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl and his classmates were given sampler boxes of prototype chocolates from Cadbury in exchange for a product review. This started Dahl thinking about laboratories and research facilities inside a chocolate factory, and a book and movie enterprise was born.

Quentin Blake, illustrator for most of Dahl’s books, provides numerous illustrations in the style of the other books. However, there are also many photos and notes from Dahl’s personal archives. The back of the edition that I have has a number of short ancillary features that are oriented toward kids.

I’d recommend this for anyone who is interested in Dahl’s life specifically, but also for anyone who’s interested in writing for children. I think writers can learn a lot from how Dahl presents his childhood in this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl

The Enormous CrocodileThe Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The story arc of “The Enormous Crocodile” is a familiar one. It’s a variation on a theme seen in “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Three Little Pigs” to name a couple of well-known examples. First, there is a bad guy who wants to eat some helpless and / or unwitting victims. In this case, the enormous crocodile is the gluttonous cad—rather than a wolf–and the helpless victims are the local children. Second, the villain is thwarted at the last possible moment.

While it’s a tale that’s been told many times in many ways, Dahl does a good job adding his own imprint to it. An important element of the story is that the crocodile angers, alienates, and attacks several of the other jungle creatures on his way into town to find a victim or victims. Because of this, these animals conspire to thwart the crocodile’s clever plots, and this ultimately contributes to his downfall. It’s with the crocodile’s clever plots that Dahl most fully engages the imagination. The croc uses various disguises to try to lure children to within snapping distance.

It should be pointed out that the illustrations by Quentin Blake are as crucial as Dahl’s words. The color drawings really bring the book to life, and serve to make feasible the clever plots of the crocodile. (e.g. When the croc scoops up coconuts and fronds and stands on his tail in mimicry of a coconut tree, it’s the illustration that makes this seem believable—not to mention capable of being visualized by a small child.)

If you’re looking for a short young children’s story that can be read in 15 minutes or so, this is a good one.

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