The Ghost Brigades (part the first), John Scalzi

I feel like this season should officially be dubbed, “The Spring of Sequels.” I’ve clandestinely been gorging myself on the Flavia De Luce series, which I promised I wouldn’t review again, and I won’t unless one of them blows me out of the water, but they really are delightful fun and can be blamed for my inability to get reading/deadlines/housekeeping done in a timely manner. I try to blame all of that on the fact that I still don’t have a working computer, but in all honesty, the lack of the computer is just a perfect opportunity to read those books instead.

The fact that I even found time to get half-way through The Ghost Brigades is a bit of a miracle actually, not because I’m not enjoying it, but because any reader worth her salt will admit to having a hard time transitioning emotionally between characters. The Ghost Brigades is the quasi sequel (same world, different characters) to Old Man’s War, and if I’d been clever, I would have jumped on it immediately after finishing the first. The problem was, I was gearing up for a six week trip and I didn’t have the brain power for it. My focus was on planning and executing work and travel plans, and it didn’t leave much time for anything else.

Now, though, I’m back, and even though the calendar claims it’s early May, the weather says late July, and it’s too hot to concentrate for more than thirty minutes or so at a time. Don’t get me wrong – I can get some quality reading done in thirty minutes, and I know quite a few people who would go to great lengths for thirty uninterrupted minutes with a good book – but I’m spoiled. I want a rainy, cool afternoon so that I’m not tempted by (in this order): going to get frozen yogurt, booking flights to anywhere my friends live, catching up on television I missed in March and April, and weeding the garden. Incidentally, I like weeding because it doesn’t require me to have a green thumb, so it’s really not an insult to reading to say that I would rather be outside in the sunshine, getting a little satisfaction from clearing our tiny plot of land than inside, using my brain.

The Ghost Brigades is well-suited to this little problem. It’s about soldiers who have been created from human DNA to be far greater (stronger, smarter, telepathically linked to each other) than ordinary humans. Because they’ve been created as “adults” in a lab rather than being born in the more traditional sense, however, some aspects of their personalities – the bickering, the odd sense of humor (or complete lack of one), the less than perfect social skills – resemble those of children. These enhanced men and women have a particular affinity for the child soldiers written about in Ender’s Game because, essentially, that’s what they are.

So what does this have to do with me and my inability to sit still? Are any of you teachers? Parents? Do the rest of you remember what it was like to be in school in May? No matter how much you like learning, or being with your friends, or what your teacher might have to say, when May rolls around, all bets are off. Every hour feels like ten thousand. Every page read goes too slowly, and the information drain directly out of eyes, ears, and mouth without even a stopover at the brain. Opening the windows to allow fresh air to circulate should be qualified as a form of torture for any person who can’t immediately go out to enjoy the day, no matter age. The spring just holds this magic; to me, it feels like the time of year when I want to go out into the world and make stories happen, rather than just reading about adventures, regardless of how exciting or well-written, on the page.

My compromise usually involves taking my book or computer outside in a valiant effort to reconnect to what has to get done. What usually happens then is that I lay down on a bench or in the grass, spend three or four solid minutes concentrating, then roll over and stare at the sky. I watch the clouds, and I feed bread to the baby ducks and geese. I listen to the squeaking bikes cycling past, and I luxuriate in a feeling of relaxation we attribute to childhood, but which rarely exists at any age unless we seek it out. Instead of reading or writing, I think of what a shame it is that to be created with a purpose – as Scalzi’s “ghost brigade” is, for example – means no time to learn what doing nothing well really feels like.

It’s a shame. I believe in doing nothing well. When I give my brain a little nothing to work with, the things it comes up with when I ask for something…well, they’re quite marvelous. Go ahead. Give it a try. I promise all those important, have-to-get-done somethings will be waiting when you return. And let’s be honest, I’ll feel a lot less guilty if I’m not the only one playing hooky today.

For more about John Scalzi, hit up his blog Whatever.

James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl

During my last week in London, we were fortunate enough to score tickets to see the new musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. It was a wonderful show, although I think a few scenes from it went over the head of the little girl sitting next to me. She was probably seven or eight, and she was terribly excited to be at the show with her mother on a school night. She was also extremely wiggly and kicked me a solid dozen times over the course of two and a half hours, but I didn’t really mind (much). I found myself trying to watch the show through both my eyes and hers. Did she grasp the innuendo? What exactly scared her so much about the blaring lights and ear-piercing music? And what did she make of the idea of a headmistress – a person in charge of children’s fates – being a murderer?

It was a strange way to watch a show, I have to admit. I couldn’t fully enjoy it for myself because I was transported back to how I felt reading Dahl’s work when I was a child. Frankly, most of his books were a bit of mystery to me; I read them over and over again, but I was never sure when I finished if I had understood what was there. He told stories that embraced the uncomfortable shadowy world where children’s fears sit and wait, and about children who were, in most ways, powerless against adult-inflicted cruelty. As an adult, I can appreciate how brave and resourceful those same children were, but when I was young, that wasn’t what stuck with me. I was much more obsessed with the evil, with the rage, with the villains he created.

I think that’s why James and the Giant Peach was never one of my favorites. I read The Witches and Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ad nauseam, but James was never really my cup of tea. Nevertheless, last week I found myself desperate to reread it, so when I got home, I hunted through the books I still have from my childhood and spent an hour in Dahl’s world.

James, it turns out, was Dahl’s first foray into the world of children’s writing. He was already a relatively successful author, but he entered this new territory reluctantly. Publishers met his work with equal reluctance – his stories were dark and creepy, and yet they were aimed at a very young audience – I imagine what saved him was his gift of seeing the world so accurately through children’s eyes. As it turns out, children like creepy and dark. Much of the world seems awful to them, and books that explore the murky and unmentionable give them a kind of hope that they are not the only ones who are questioning the things they don’t understand. As Dahl gained confidence that he had a young audience desperate for the kind of stories he was good at telling, he allowed himself freer rein.

When he was writing James though, there was a definite sweetness that, as a child, failed to catch my attention. In the book, we hardly see the boy’s suffering at all before he’s swept up on an adventure with his charming insect companions. And once he’s on the adventure, the boy can do no wrong. As a child who did quite a lot wrong, I found this galling. As an adult (who still does quite a bit wrong), I find it unlikely. Don’t get me wrong – I love the peach. My favorite part of the whole book is when he crawls inside for the first time. I just want more…suffering.

And yes, I recognize that makes me sound like an awful person who doesn’t think children deserve to go on splendid adventures. It’s not that though. It’s that I think adventures come at a price – often a very high one – and that the person who arrives at the end should be different from the one who began. James…isn’t. He’s introduced to us as a lovely child, and throughout the book, he is unendingly helpful and self-sacrificing and precious. He’s never afraid or angry at all once he enters the peach, and that infuriates me. This book is like seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of Dahl’s talents – it’s not until we dive into his later work when we really see what he can do.

Maybe I read this book too late. I was probably eight or nine when I got around to it, and I think it’s much better suited for a younger reader. I could picture my next door neighbor enjoying it, and he just turned four last month. The frightening parts (which are really not too frightening) would be just intense enough to make him think. Chances are good that if he liked what he heard, the book would live forever in his memory as a special, powerful experience from childhood, which is how, I feel, Dahl’s books should be seen.

I still remember the birthday – was I eight? ten? – when my parents hired a Dahl impersonator to come to my party. I definitely thought he was the real deal, and I remember being spellbound as he read us poems and excerpts from “his” stories. I was also a little afraid of him, of the stranger in my home who could take my fears off the page and bring them to life…

But that’s Dahl in a nutshell, isn’t it? A little scary, and magical, and strange, and a person one’s never quite sure should be invited in.

For more about Roald Dahl, go here.