Books for Boys

Somewhere between 7 and 9 years old, I became a Reader.  And by Reader I mean someone who loves to read.  I’d been “reading” (deciphering the alphabet to produce words whose meaning I understood) since I was about 3, and by first grade I was the best reader in my class (just a small elementary school in a tiny rural community, but still – no brag, just fact).

But somewhere during or after second grade and before fifth grade, I really got into reading.  Why was that important?  Because when one loves to read, then one reads more.  When one reads more, one better develops vital language skills.  The more enjoyable reading is, the more one develops the information access skills that are critical to success in the twenty-first century.

And, perhaps alarmingly, boys are NOT turning into readers in the same numbers as girls.  This trend has been going on for at least a decade, and the causes are many:  popular tween and YA books focus more on the female audience by about 3 to 1; [YA titles are in a Golden Age, btw – perhaps more on that in another blog later…?]; boys are more likely to spend free time in video games than reading; and, finally, many educators don’t always know what’s “out there” for boys. Probably all true to some extent. While I can’t do much about most of those causes, I can share some titles that might help your young male to enjoy reading.  They made a difference for me anyway.

One of the books I came across in that important phase where I was developing as a reader was “Tarzan of the Apes.” Written about a century ago, it still has the excitement and adventure that is capable of hooking a reader.  Better yet, the author Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a lot of sequels.  One of the things that happened to me reading Tarzan what that the author had a YUGE vocabulary.  I was constantly going to my Mom to ask her what a word meant. (Tarzan’s mighty thews, for example:  A well-developed sinew or muscle: “sinews of steel, thews of iron” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.)

Mom got tired of answering me, and directed me to take a dictionary with me whenever I sat down to read the book.  Whenever I did not know a word, I had to look it up in the dictionary.  This had two great side effects: 1) My vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds (albeit with many somewhat archaic usages, like “mighty thews”); 2) I learned to use a dictionary really well.  While today’s young reader might be more inclined to look an unknown word up on the internet than to use a print dictionary, the benefits would still accrue.

Another book or set of books that really worked for me was the “juvenile” series by Robert A. Heinlein.  I’ve written in an earlier blog about how a kindly librarian directed me towards this author, but his books are great if the tween/teen reader has any interest in space or science fiction.

So really, there are some great books available, and the Library has them.  Here is a list of books I remember liking immensely as a young growing male reader – they have different reading levels and certainly the rule about having to look any word up if you don’t know what it means will apply, but overall I believe they have some real value.

Tarzan series – Edgar Rice Burroughs – jungle adventure

Heinlein “juveniles” – Robert A. Heinlein – science fiction [list here]

The Scarlet Pimpernel – Baroness Orczy – adventure during the French Revolution; features a hero with a secret identity

The Three Musketeers –  Alexander Dumas – adventure during the French monarchy – swords and swashbuckling

The Call of the Wild – Jack London – animal (dog) adventure during the Alaska gold rush

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain

The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck – historical rags to riches story in pre-industrial China

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood – Howard Pyle

Beat to Quarters (Capt. Horatio Hornblower) – C.S. Forester – adventure on the high seas during the Napoleonic era

Lost Horizon – James Hilton – Hidden realm (Shangri-La) in the Himalayas

Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

Jungle Books – Rudyard Kipling – like Tarzan, boy raised by animals (Mowgli)

The Great Impersonation – E. Phillips Oppenheim – adventure/mystery set in the WWI era

King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard – hidden kingdom in Africa

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne – Captain Nemo and his fantastic submarine the Nautilus

Rabbit Hill – Robert Lawson – animal adventure (rabbits)

Watership Down – Richard Adams – animal adventure (rabbits, but like no rabbits ever known)

Lad: A Dog – Albert Payson Terhune – animal adventure

The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien (and the prelude, The Hobbit)

If the boy is younger, you might want to read these aloud to him.  Most are suitable for 10 year olds and up.  Besides growing a reader and increasing vocabulary, there is a lot of history, folklore, and imagination to be gained.  Please let me know if any of these fit on your list of beloved books, and feel free to suggest some others!

[All titles are held by the NC Cardinal Library system which Fontana Regional Library belongs to – the links might be to just the first book if it is part of a series]

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!