Literary Flashback: Roald Dahl on Writing

author_dahlI can’t believe I almost forgot to celebrate Roald Dahl’s birthday! As I have written on many occasions, Dahl is my all-time favorite author. In eighth grade, I decided to learn more about the man behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and Matilda, and that is how I came across the Roald Dahl website. In an interview with Todd McCormack, Roald Dahl described his writing process.

Here is a link to that interview.

If you scroll down to the middle of the page, you will see a giant “play” button. Different segments of the interview can be accessed by clicking on the “forward” and “back” arrows. Dahl was a very eccentric man; in his writing hut that resembled an airplane cockpit, he kept his old hip bone; the hip bone served as a  paper weight. More than any other author, Roald Dahl understood the mind of children and purposely wrote for them.

My personal motto comes from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator: “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”

A relevant quote

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”
― Roald Dahl (Matilda)


55 Questions Concerning My Book Habits

Masanobu @ All the Pretty Books recently posted her response to a questionnaire conceived by Lydia @ The Literary Lollipop. I loved the questionnaire, so I have decided to complete it myself.

1. Favourite childhood book:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. It not only got me through many sleepless nights, but it served as my introduction to Roald Dahl and his creative genius. I attribute my love for literature (especially children’s literature) to Roald Dahl.

2. What are you reading right now?

Multiple books, as usual. LAnnonce faite à Marie (The Annunciation of Mary) by Paul Claudel, La Fortune des Rougons by Emile Zola, and Trinity by Leon Uris.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
A Poet Before the Cross, translated by Wallace Fowlie (an autobiography of Paul Claudel). I couldn’t find a French version so the English version will have to do.

4. Bad book habit:
I write in the margins of all my books – even library books. I always write lightly in library books and erase my notes thoroughly before returning the books. I don’t really consider this a “bad” habit because I learned how to read carefully through the practice of making margin notes. If I bought the books I care much more about their condition than if I merely borrowed them. Still, I don’t lose sleep over cracked spines and the like. My copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory no longer has a cover or a title page. I don’t mind it one bit; in fact, it makes me smile because the battered copy is evidence of how much I enjoyed reading it.

5. What do you currently have checked out the library?
So many many books. I will include the ebooks in my list. The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (finished. review is forthcoming), Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI, LAnnonce faite à Marie  by Paul Claudela collection of novels by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Huit Clos  + Les Mouches by Jean-Paul Sartre (What can I say? Sartre’s stories are interesting even if I disagree totally with his philosophy.), La Nausée by Jean-Paul Sartre, Le poète et la Bible (The Poet and the Bible) Vol. 1 (Over 2000 pages of writings by Paul Claudel about the Bible! Not too theological though. More like autobiographical fiction inspired by the Bible.)

Clearly, I like Paul Claudel’s writings. I totally disregard the controversy surrounding his life and writings.

6. Do you have an e-reader?
Yes! I love my Kindle. I can read books in the public domain for free as well as borrow books from my local library through Overdrive.
7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
I will quote Virginia Woolf on this one. “I am reading six books at once, the only way of reading; since, as you will agree, one book is only a single unaccompanied note, and to get the full sound, one needs ten others at the same time.”

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
Yes. Last year I probably read 10 books. I have already read around 40 books this year!

9. Least favourite book you read this year:
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

10. Favourite book you read this year:
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (it blew my mind)

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
I read very widely (historical fiction, crime fiction, literary fiction, poems, and plays) but that does not mean that I like reading outside my comfort zone. I generally avoid romance, and that includes well-written romance novels like the ones written by Jane Austen. I am a woman who tends to avoid literature written about women because I’m afraid that there will be stuff about romance, marriage, family, etc. in the books. I find so-called domestic fiction boring, but I also know that I am missing out on some great literature. This is a silly fear I need to overcome.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?
Anything that is well-written. I refuse to spend hours reading a poorly-written book.

13. Can you read on the bus?
I can read anywhere. I ran into a tree once and almost poked my eye out with a branch because I was reading while walking.

14. Favourite place to read:

My bed.

15. What’s your policy on book lending?
People don’t often ask me for books. I have no problem lending books to others as long as I get them back in a reasonable amount of time.

16. Do you dogear your books?
I used to but I don’t anymore.

17. Do you write notes in the margins of your books?
Yes. I always write in the margins.

18. Do you crack the spine of your books?
I try not to, but if I do I don’t lose sleep over it.

19. What is your favourite language to read?
French. I love the texture of the French language; it is at once elegant and aggressive. I also enjoy the challenge of reading in French. Although I read something in French nearly everyday I have not read too many novels in French this year. I am clearly trying to fix that this month.

20. What makes you love a book?
I fall in love with a book if I love the themes that are explored within.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
If the work blew me away, I will recommend the book to anyone and everyone.

22. Favourite genre:
Fantasy and Christian Classics

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)?
Victorian Romance and Sci-Fi

24. Favourite biography:
Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl and Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

25. Have you ever read a self-help book? (And was it actually helpful?)
I have read a few self-help books but I can’t list any off the top of my head. Clearly, they weren’t very memorable.

26. Favourite cookbook:
I take all my recipes from off the internet. I don’t own a cookbook.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction):
So many but here are a few. Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing and Works of Love by Soren Kierkegaard (I really need to lead a read-along of his works. I once started a blog dedicated to his writing.), and anything by Joseph Ratzinger (yes, I was one of those people who loved the last pope)

28. Favourite reading snack:
Chips, ice cream. Basically, anything unhealthy.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience:
Hype intimidates me, so I tend to avoid books that get a lot of hype. That will change when I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I will tell you what I think about that book once I read it.

30. How often do you agree with the critics about a book?
I love reading criticism. I usually end up  having a running conversation with the critic. All of my reactions can be found in the margins.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
I have no problem giving negative reviews. I am not a professional critic and my blog doesn’t have a gigantic following. I assume that if people follow my blog they do so because they value my reviews. It’s good to be honest with your reader.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?
German. There are so many German (mostly theological) works I have read in translation, and the translators often write in the preface to their translations that German is best read in the original language. Evidently, it is a hard language to translate.

33. Most intimidating book you have read:
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. It was fantastic.

34. Most intimidating book you are too nervous to begin:
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. I want to read it in French, but I have a feeling that it contains romance. It is not the length of the book or the language that intimidates me, but the subject matter.

35. Favourite poet:
Paul Claudel. I also love the poetry of Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll (why oh why do modern children’s books not contain poetry?)

36. How many books do you usually have checked out from the library at any given time?
More than I can read.

37. How often do you return books to the library unread?

38. Favourite fictional character:
Anne Shirley (finally, a woman), Ishmael, the Fox in The Little Prince, and Aragorn.

39. Favourite fictional villain:

40. Books you are most likely to bring on vacation:
Something relatively light. I probably wouldn’t take an epic poem with me on vacation.

41. The longest you have gone without reading:
I read all the time but not always for pleasure.

42. Name a book you could/would not finish:
Cinq Semaines en Ballon (5 Weeks in a Balloon) by Jules Verne. That’s one racist book.

43. What distracts you easily when you are reading?
The television.

44. Favourite film adaptation of a novel:
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The 1993 adaptation is one of my favorite films. I have watched it so many times that I could probably quote the whole movie.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation:
The Hobbit films. I am pretty sure Peter Jackson thinks he’s Tolkien. He’s not. Why Jackson thought it was a good idea to make three movies for a 250 page book is beyond me.

46. Most money you have ever spent in a bookstore at one time:
100 dollars

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
Sometimes but usually I go into a book blindly.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through?
I stop reading a book if it has unbearably objectionable material (extreme racism, explicit sex scenes, tons of profanity).

49. Do you like to keep your books organised?
I am a very messy person.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once they have been read?
I usually keep them, but I have boxes of textbooks I’d love to sell.

51. Are there any books that you have been avoiding?
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, The Portrait of a Young Man as an Artist by James Joyce

52. Name a book that made you angry:
Sula by Toni Morrison. Don’t get me started on how much I loathe that book.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did:
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I absolutely loved it.

54. A book you expected to like but didn’t:
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (I definitely didn’t expect the Mormon chapters)

55. Favourite guilt-free guilty pleasure reading:
I actually feel somewhat guilty about this. I read academic books all the time, preferring monographs written by professors to creative non-fiction. I also read tons of primary sources. Research libraries are to me what gold is to a pirate or a dragon. I am what people would call a nerd, but I don’t know much about computers, Star Wars, Star Trek, Anime, or Video Games. Because I read tons of literature I am always afraid that people think I’m pretentious. My knowledge about Medieval European literature or 19th century Christian philosophy is actually quite isolating. I love blogging because I can share my love for such things with others. However, I am not nearly as well-read as some other bloggers. There is definitely a Classics community and it has been so much fun to belong to the community.  I like the challenge of reading as I like the challenge of studying science. It’s just that I’ve decided to do the latter as my career. Insects are cool!

Reflections on The Lord of the Rings (Contains Spoilers)

I started reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time while in high school. There has always been a lot of hype surrounding the series, so I wanted to find out for myself what people love about J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. So, I picked up The Fellowship of the Ring and started reading. To my dismay, I did not understand a word of it. This was distressing because I prided myself on being well-read. After all, I had read A Tale of Two Cities as an eighth grader (but probably understood only 60% of it). I just couldn’t get into the story. The plot and language went way over my head. I expected The Lord of the Rings to read like the Harry Potter series, but they didn’t.

Because it is not in my nature to throw in the towel and give up, I decided to try reading The Fellowship of the Ring again a few years later. I finally finished the first book, but I still had no idea what went on. I knew that Frodo and his friends were trying to destroy an invisibility ring. That much was obvious. But there were so many different lands and names. I couldn’t keep track of them all. I never thought to consult the map of Middle-Earth that was so conveniently placed at the start of the book.

During my sophomore year of college, I visited the education library and embarrassingly admitted to the librarian that I found The Lord of the Rings confusing and dense. She suggested I start with The Hobbit, and so I did. People often ask on forums whether The Hobbit should be read before the trilogy. My answer is a strong yes! The Lord of the Rings is not really a plot-driven story. Tolkien created a world, and the more you learn about the world, the more you can appreciate the trilogy. That year, I finished reading Tolkien’s novels for the first time. But I didn’t fully appreciate them. While I enjoyed reading The Fellowship of the Ring, I could not wait for The Return of the King to end. Looking back, I realize now that I did not approach the books with the right mentality.

Frodo Baggins’ journey to Middle Earth is really a pilgrimage. People go on a pilgrimage to reach a particular destination like the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. But if the pilgrims are truly invested in the journey, what inevitably happens is that they come to discover much about themselves and about life. Frodo knew from the beginning that his journey to Mordor would be fraught with peril, but neither he nor his friends understood the sort of evil they were up against. Only Gandalf truly understood. In my most recent reading of The Lord of the Rings, I focused much on the characters themselves. Gandalf is wise because he realizes that he is not essentially different than Saruman. He knows that if he handled the ring, he too would fall under it’s influence. Gandalf does not think he is invincible. I was struck by Tolkien’s commentary on the nature of true wisdom. I have always loved Sam and Aragorn, but I noticed Pippin’s character development for the first time. At the start of the journey, he is quite a foolish, silly hobbit. Gandalf wants to strangle him because Pippin always seems to land the Fellowship into trouble. But while, in Gondor, so many others fall into despair, Pippin shows great courage and selflessness. Thanks to Pippin, Faramir is saved from death.

I have written much about the themes in Tolkien’s books in my previous posts. I did, however, leave out a discussion of the Catholic themes in the books. I did this for a reason. Tolkien was quite clear that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. It’s not even a thought supposition like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. There are Catholic elements in the trilogy because Tolkien viewed the world through that lens. For example, I do see the Virgin Mary in Galadriel and the Eucharist in the lembas, but it is wrong to say that The Lord of the Rings is allegorical. God is only mentioned once in the trilogy, and it is not clear who is supposed to be the Christ-figure (if there is one at all). I can’t deny, however, that the books have a special place in my heart because of the themes that are explored – themes that are much a part of my faith. Whether these themes are explored in similar ways in the other religions of the world I can’t say.

Remember that I said that I wanted The Return of the King to end the first time I read it. Well, this time around, I wanted more. In particular, I wanted to learn more about Aragorn and Arwen’s marriage. I tend to shy away from adult fantasy novels because they often include very graphic sex scenes. Even when the sex scenes are brief or not graphic, I usually find romance quite boring. But the romance in The Lord of the Rings is based on love and respect, not lust. How rare is such romance in the fantasy genre and how refreshing!  It is no secret that the love between Aragorn and Arwen was based on Tolkien’s love for his wife, Edith.

I can now say with absolute certainty that The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is the greatest fantasy series ever written. I am so glad that I did not give up on the books. They are truly a masterpiece!

August in Review

Smileys For BlogThis has been a very different reading month from the ones preceding it. Most of the books and essays I read were by one author: J.R.R. Tolkien. Although I read The Lord of the Rings a few years ago, I have only just discovered his genius. I love how Tolkien wove medieval myths and legends into his fantasy works. His research as a professor appeals to me because my research interest as an undergraduate was medieval French hagiography, particularly miracle and passion plays. I also did an internship with a couple professors who were studying the lives of Saints Barlaam and Josaphat. The story of Saint Josaphat was a Christian version of the story of the Buddha. I became fascinated by the proliferation of certain parables and myths during the Middle Ages. For example, there is a parable in the Barlaam and Josaphat stories that was well-known throughout the 13th and 14th centuries and was included in plenty of different stories. I often hear people say that Tolkien’s fantasy works were completely original, and later fantasy writers just copied him. They say this because they are ignorant of the older myths that influenced The Lord of the Rings. I don’t think good fantasy is ever completely original. That, I believe, is it’s strength. In the coming week I will explain further what I mean. Suffice it to say that Tolkien’s writing has captured my intellect and imagination. He was a myth-maker, and I won’t quit until I have read everything he wrote about Middle-Earth and the history of the Númenóreans. There may be quite a few posts about J.R.R. Tolkien’s essays and stories in the coming months.

Here is a list of the books I read in August.

On Fairy Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien – :) :) :) :) :)

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis (A rating of this book is not appropriate.)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie – :) :) :) :) :)

A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt  – :) :) :) :) :)

Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien – :) :) :) :)

Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien (LOTR Vol. 2)  – :) :) :) :) :)

The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien (LOTR Vol. 3) – :) :) :) :) :) (I didn’t want The Lord of the Rings to end)

Note: I will review The Lord of the Rings in one post but I may also make smaller reflection posts about the characters and themes in the trilogy, so stay tuned…


Books I Plan to Read in September

La Fortune des Rougon by Emile Zola (I gave up on Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne because it was boring and way too racist for my liking.)

The Silmarillion by J.R.R Tolkien (I’ve been told that this book is super dense, so I will have to read it very carefully.)

Trinity by Leon Uris (Not a classic. I borrowed this book from my father, and I’ve wanted to read it for the last few years.)

The Epic of Gilgamesh 


Literary Flashback: Samwise Gamgee On The Greatest Stories

This conversation between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee comes from Two Towers (the second book of The Lord of the Rings). An abridged and paraphrased version of the dialogue was included in the film adaptation, and you can watch it here.

‘I don’t like anything here at all,’ said Frodo, ‘step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid. ‘

‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were the things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have just been landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about these as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’

‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’


Top 4 Under-Read/Out-Of-Print Favorites

Yesterday, during the long car ride to university, I was reminiscing about my favorite childhood books. Like other children, I loved Harry Potter, Beezus and Ramona, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But there were also other books that I loved as a child that are either under-read or out-of-print. My top 4 under-read/out-of-print favorites are listed below:

1) Richard Brown and the Dragon by Robert Bright

7144503-LI did not know this as a child, but Richard Brown and the Dragon is a retelling of a story by Mark Twain from A Tramp Abroad. Unfortunately, Richard Brown and the Dragon is out-of-print. Both the illustrations and the story are delightful. Richard Brown is a bucket-maker who is making a secret invention to destroy the dragon that killed Princess Rossile’s suitor and continues to terrorize Richard’s village.  This clever invention adds a humorous twist to the ol’ dragon adventure. You can purchase a used copy from an Amazon bookseller for 3-5 dollars.

2) Bearskin by Howard Pyle


Like Richard Brown and the Dragon, I did not know that Bearskin belonged to an anthology of Howard Pyle fairy-tales called The Wonder Clock. It is also a more child-appropriate retelling of a Grimms’ tale of the same name. The edition that my mother bought me contains illustrations by the Caldecott Medal winner Trina Schart Hyman (a sample is above). Bearskin is about a miller’s son who is raised by a bear and therefore has the necessary courage to fight a three-headed dragon. But he needs more than just his strength to defeat the monster and win the hand of a princess.

3) The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom


The Secret Language got me through many sleepless nights as a child. The story is about a girl named Victoria North who goes to boarding school for the first time and experiences home-sickness. But her miseries come to an end when she meets Martha Sherman. Martha and Victoria soon become friends and invent a secret language to communicate with one another. We all need a good friend to get us through the sad and frightening moments in our lives. Once again, The Secret Language is out-of-print, but used copies are available.

4) My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett


Elmer Elevator runs away from home and climbs aboard a ship with the express purpose of saving a baby dragon he heard about in a story. This one also got me through sleepless nights. My Father’s Dragon won the Newbery Honor in 1949, and is available in the public domain. It is also the first book of a trilogy. Book 2 is Elmer and the Dragon and Book 3 is The Dragons of Blueland. I believe I have read all three books. Here is a sample of the illustrations from My Father’s Dragon (the illustrator is Ruth Chrisman Gannett):