Three childhood books that changed my life

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I’ve always been a voracious reader (I started reading when I was 3), and what I read helped to shape my world. While I was in library school I took several courses dealing with children’s literature, and that spurred me to think about some of the books that most influenced me in my formative years. I’m sure the list is different for everyone, and it was difficult to narrow it down, but here is my top-three list: The Enchanted Castle (1907) by E. Nesbit, Freckles (1904) by Gene Stratton-Porter, and Daddy-Long-Legs (1912) by Jean Webster. I realize, writing this, that although I grew up in the 1960’s, my formative literature was definitely from an earlier era! That says more about my parents’ influence than anything else.

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I first read The Enchanted Castle when I was about seven years old. I had read lots of fairy tales, animal stories (especially Thornton Burgess’s books), Halloween stories about witches and such, as well as realistic fiction, but The Enchanted Castle was the first book I read that really blurred the lines between fantasy and reality to the point that I couldn’t tell where the lines were. I was fascinated by this, by the notion of alternate realities, the possibility that a fantasy could perhaps be real. To this day I can’t think of another book that, at least for me, did such an artful job of riding that edge.  E. Nesbit wrote many wonderful books, and I have enjoyed them all, but The Enchanted Castle still holds special magic for me.  Of course it made me want to read more fantasy, so I read other Nesbit books, Edward Eager’s Half Magic and Knight’s Castle , C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the rest of the Narnia chronicles, later Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series (still one of my all-time favorites, though those weren’t published until I was a teenager), Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and lots more. Hmm, all but Eager are British authors — they seem to have a special gift for fantasy.

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I was introduced to Freckles when I was ten or eleven, and have reread it many times, as well as all Gene Stratton-Porter’s other fiction. I was brought up to appreciate nature and the environment, but this book really drove home ideas about the need to revere Mother Nature’s majesty and bounty.  The story is painful in ways, because at the same time that it exalts the glories of nature, the main storyline is about logging old-growth swampland and destroying the very Mother Nature the book celebrates.  Porter was trying to get people to see what was happening before it was too late.

Freckles is a story about a young man (an orphan, by the way) who leaves the city for a job as guard of a large timber lease in dense Indiana swampland, the Limberlost. His conversion from fearful city boy to ardent lover of nature is assisted by a great cast of characters, including the memorable Bird Woman who goes all over the countryside photographing wildlife. Another of Stratton-Porters novels, A Girl of the Limberlost, is set in the same area, with some overlapping characters including the Bird Woman.

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Gene Stratton-Porter in her outdoor gear

Gene Stratton-Porter was a remarkable woman, a pioneer in conservation thought, who pursued her early career in writing, nature photography, and conservation largely in secret. She was the real-life “Bird Woman” of her novels, photographing birds, moths, and other wildlife at all hours, in incredibly difficult conditions, in order to preserve it and share it with the world. She only agreed to write novels so that her publisher would print her non-fiction nature books.  I was strongly influenced by both her and her writings to be a more ardent environmentalist and a woman who stands by her values (whether they are popular or not).

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The first time I read Daddy-Long-Legs I was about nine years old.  There were many orphan novels written in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries; I read and re-read lots of them, including Understood Betsy, Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Jane Eyre, Eight Cousins, and Rose in Bloom, among others. Daddy-Long-Legs stands out in my memory for several reasons. We meet Judy Abbott as a young adult of eighteen rather than a child. Unlike most orphan novels of the period, she has grown up entirely in an orphanage, never experiencing a traditional home setting. She leaves the orphanage for the first time in order to attend college.

The novel is told in the form of Judy’s letters to her benefactor (she calls him “Daddy-Long-Legs,” thus the book’s title), who is paying for her college education (at a time when women going to college was still out of the ordinary).  This was the first novel I read that was in letter form, and I was very taken by that writing style, and impressed by how well I was able to come to know the characters despite what seemed (to me) to be a difficult form of delivery.  It helped me to see how I too could write letters that went beyond delivering facts, to set a scene and bring my reader into my world in a more complete way. 

Judy was experiencing the world outside the orphanage for the first time, and I was enthralled by her fascination with everything around her and her joie-de-vivre, though at the same time appalled at all the things she had missed growing up. She had never seen paper money, never been on a train or in a car, never set foot inside a house, never known anything of what it meant to have a family. It made me realize more fully just how fortunate I was, and how much I had experienced that I took for granted. I think this novel, more than any other, made me realize how different each of our experiences is, how varied our opportunities are. It made me more actively appreciative of my own childhood, and helped me to value each person’s perspective on life.

So there you have my three book picks. What about you? What three childhood books most influenced your life?

 

Outstanding Oddball Movies

Having received some good feedback when I shared some of my favorite re-watchable movies, I thought I might again share some favorite movies.

Now in my earlier movie blog, the movies I shared were pretty non-controversial.  It’s pretty easy to see that Casablanca is not only one of my favorites, but MANY people consider it a top-ranked film, if not the best film of all time.  It has been broadcast on US television more than any other film.

Not far behind that in repeated US broadcasts would be two other films from my list: The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life; and as for popularity, the original Star Wars trilogy just celebrated the 40th anniversary of its origin, seemingly gaining in popularity as it goes along.

Finally, even the most quirky of the films I submitted (Young Frankenstein) is found listed among the best comedies of all time.  So I clearly have my “likes” aligned pretty closely with popular and critical viewpoints, or so it would seem.

BUT…I have some other films I like, maybe even REALLY like, and they are not quite in the same league as the five movies I previously blogged about.  In fact, they are quirky, idiosyncratic, and somewhat “non-mainstream” – some might even say “oddball.”  

I’ll start with rolling out a film by a French director released 20 years ago-  The Fifth Element.  Director Luc Besson first envisioned the story when he was sixteen, and it took him 22 years to get it made. It tells the story of an ex-military special forces major in the 23rd century (played by Bruce Willis), who gets involved in saving Earth when a young woman (actress Milla Jovovich) literally falls into his life.  Bruce Willis’ character is a down on his luck but principled cab-driver, and when “Leeloo” drops into his flying taxi-cab, the fast-paced plot takes off.  It seems “Leeloo” is the “Fifth Element,” the keystone to a weapon which can defeat a recurring and otherwise unstoppable evil being. While the plot on one level seems to be fairly straightforward science fiction, the movie has been described as “over the top;” “unhinged;” “…fun and boasts some of the most sophisticated, witty production and costume design you could ever hope to see;” “may or may not be the worst movie ever made;” it’s also been called the “best summer blockbuster of all time.” I’ll just say I find it funny, interesting, and reflective of humanity being stranger than any aliens.

Another very quirky film I enjoy is Raising Arizona. While “The Fifth Element” is 20 years old this summer, this next film was released 30 years ago in 1987.  Directed, written and produced by the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan, it was a very creative attempt by the famous (infamous?) brothers to make a film as different as possible from their previous movie, “Blood Simple.” The film is, in my opinion, VERY funny.  It tells the story of a crook/cop marriage (Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter) running aground because of the couple’s strong desire to have children but inability to do so.  They hear of a local family having quintuplets, and decide to kidnap one for themselves.  From there it quickly becomes a madcap, screwball plot involving the crook husband’s criminal pals, the husband and wife’s increasingly strained relationship, and the involvement of a private investigator also known as “the Biker from the Apocalypse.” There is a scene beginning with the robbing of a convenience store that seems irresistibly funny, along with a later scene of a bank robbery that has been ranked as one of the best bank robberies ever filmed. Yet for all the offbeat characters, the movie is strangely heartwarming. It also has some good quotes – I’ll drop one for you: “My friends call me Lenny – but I got no friends.”

Another movie from the far side is a fantasy movie (no science involved, but instead “a kind of magic”) titled Highlander. This tells the story of Connor MacLeod, born in 1518 in Scotland. He is “killed” in 1536, but finds out he is an Immortal, a sub-race of otherwise normal humans who cannot die except by decapitation. The movie actually starts hundreds of years later, in the late 20th century.  It is the time of the Gathering, when the various surviving Immortals begin to hunt and kill each other in order to gain “The Prize” – a sort of superpower which could lead to the winner being the ruler of the world, although just what that means is fairly undefined.  Much of the movie showing Connor’s history comes in the form of flashbacks, featuring his allies (foremost Sean Connery as an Immortal Egyptian named (improbably) Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez) and his enemies, mainly the Kurgan, a very bad savage Immortal. Called “the greatest action film” and “no equal among sword-and-sorcery flicks,” I think there are at least three or more reasons why I like this movie: 1) Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod – his accent seems weird, but his facial expressions and acting makes you think at times this really is a 400+ year old character; 2) Clancy Brown as the Kurgan – his scene in the church is unnerving and convinces you this guy is an evil nutcase; 3) the soundtrack by Queen – the band wrote many of the songs specifically to match the mood of the scenes where they are played.  This movie inspired sequels, a fairly long-running television series, and a tagline you might recognize: “There can be only one.”

Another “weird” movie is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension. Featuring the eponymous Dr. Banzai as a polymath physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot and rock musician, it sort of comes across as a wired/manic/updated version of the pulp hero “Doc Savage.”  Like the Doc, Buckaroo has a team to help him in his adventures – the Hong Kong Cavaliers (vs. Doc’s Fabulous Five), and also like Doc Savage, Buckaroo finds himself saving the world from villains and monsters.  In the movie, Buckaroo invents a device that lets him travel through solid rock; and while testing it and simultaneously setting a land speed record with his jet car by going through a mountain, Buckaroo accidentally brings back a strange creature.  News of this reaches an alien (played by John Lithgow) who has been inside an asylum for the criminally insane – he escapes and one of the strangest plots then ensues.  Toss in a romantic angle (the long lost twin sister of Buckaroo’s deceased wife), another group of aliens at war with the evil ones, a new recruit for the Cavaliers, and the involvement of several of Buckaroo’s support groups (similar to Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars) and you have yourself one absurdist movie.  Why in the world did I like this?  Well, I am a bit of a fan of absurdist humor (such as Monty Python) and the weird but light-hearted story seemed to invite re-watching due to its complexities.  (Why is there a watermelon hooked up to strange devices in Buckaroo’s laboratory?  Is Rawhide (Buckaroo’s lieutenant) really dead? Why is the only female Cavalier in Tibet?)  The movie seems to be set up in a very detailed alternate reality, and there are constant references to this larger reality that are only mentioned and hinted at.  Two interesting facts: Buckaroo’s right hand man (Rawhide) is played by the same actor [Clancy Brown] who was the Highlander’s main antagonist, the Kurgan; also, there was a sequel set up for this movie that never happened – Buckaroo Banzai against the World Crime League. (I wish they’d done that one!)

Well, there you have some oddball movies that have found a spot in my heart.  Feel free to check one or more out if any stir your interest; they are all available through Fontana Regional Library or the NC Cardinal system.

Do any of them stir fond memories for you if you’ve seen them?  Or, like me, do you have your own list of “weird but good” films?  Share in the comments please!