Mystery

I remember being in Beverly Hills Junior High School and going to Seller’s Memorial Library for the first time.  Seller’s is the main branch of the Upper Darby Township Library System and is one third an old Victorian type house and the rest a modern building attached to the house.  It’s a pretty cool piece of architecture.

Beverly Hills Junior High School was only a short walk to and from the library.  My house was nowhere near the main branch, and I wanted to go because I was on a quest.  So, after school one day I walked to the library in search of mystery.

The year was 1974 and Murder on the Orient Express had made a huge impact as a film starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot and a host of other A-list stars including Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman.  I saw the film and fell in love with it.  I was already an enthusiastic reader and wanted anything and everything by Agatha Christie.

I started with my school library at first, but I don’t remember finding very much there.  Junior High School English had already introduced me to Sherlock Holmes, but I wasn’t ready to commit fully to Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective yet, I would in the years to come.  I wanted Mrs. Christie.

So, one late afternoon in 1974 I found myself fully engaged in the mystery section of my hometown’s biggest library.  I was combing my way through the stacks looking at title after title when an older gentleman approached me and asked what I was doing in that section.  I was a little bewildered.  It’s not like I was in some sort of X-rated area of the library so I stammered out some kind of answer and he replied that this section was for older people, and I should look for books somewhere else.  To quote Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame, “What an idiot.”

Needless to say, I didn’t listen to him and went on with my search much to his annoyance.  I don’t know what I went home with that day, but my guess is it was And Then There Were None, probably the most famous of all Mrs. Christie’s works.  When I opened up that book, I opened up a whole new world of mystery one that I still live in.

Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None were my first two trips into adult mystery, but my love of mystery goes back to my grade school days when I was reading Encyclopedia Brown and The Hardy Boys.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, Encyclopedia Brown was a series of short stories where all the clues were laid out in a pretty obvious way.  The reader was challenged to solve the mystery themselves before looking at how the hero, Encyclopedia Brown, solved it.  The books were fun but, in many ways, they were a one-time only read because after the mystery was solved there was no point in going back. 

The Hardy Boys were a different story, they were probably another level up.  The adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy solving mysteries in their hometown or in exotic locations were the stuff of fifth and sixth grade fantasies and doing it with your brother made it even better.  I’ve mentioned my cousin Steve before.  It was his library, that he left at home, that also introduced me to The Hardy Boys.  The first book I read was called While the Clock Ticked.  My aunt made me give this one back too, but I started my own collection after that and read several of the books in the next few years.

I stayed with Miss Christie for a long time, as if she were the only mystery writer worth paying attention to.  There was reason for this.  She wrote so many novels that you just don’t know when to stop and enjoy other authors.  Mrs. Christie had a whole stable of detectives that she created, and they were all worth reading.  Besides Hercule Poirot there is Miss Jane Marple and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford to name her most famous.  There were also her standalone books such as The Pale Horse and Endless Night all totaled Mrs. Christie wrote 82 detective Novels.  I have no idea how many short stories and several plays.  She was and is the queen of mystery.

Other author’s and movies would come along as I got older.  Soon I began to notice other detectives in novels and movies.  In 1934 Dashiell Hammett published his novel The Thin Man with the crime solving detectives Nick and Nora Charles.  This was not the first husband and wife detective team.  Agatha Christie was first with Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.  Tommy and Tuppence were middle class when pitted up against Nick and Nora.

The Thin Man was soon scooped up by MGM and immediately and made into a popular film starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora.  Though filmed in black and white the film showed the opulence of upper-class New York because Nick and Nora Charles were very wealthy.  This was the exact opposite of what most Americans were living like at the time. And because of the opulence and the devil may care attitude of the leading players The Thin Man became very popular and a series of films, totaling six, was produced from 1934 to 1947.

Mysteries were popular on both sides of the Atlantic and though we started with Agatha Christie we must now go back in time the great Victorian era.  London was gaslights and fog.  The English countryside was speckled with large estates nestles against mysterious moors.  And one man walked through those mysteries into international fame, the great Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes first appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1887 in a story titled A Study in Scarlett.  He was creation of Arthur Conan Doyle.  The story goes that Doyle, who was a doctor, did not have a very busy practice so to pass the time he created Sherlock, Doctor Watson.  It is said that there are three characters every child knows, Mickey Mouse, Superman and Sherlock Holmes.

In the Sherlock Holmes canon, there are 4 novels and 56 short stories that Doyle originally wrote.  After Doyle came many who tried to emulate Doyle’s style, and some came close.  There is The Seven Percent Solution by Nicholas Mayer and most recently a whole series of Holmes books which are surprisingly good, written by Kareem Abdul Jabaar.  But there are probably 100s of other authors who have taken up the pen to write further stories of the great detective.

After the popularity of the Holmes stories Doyle himself got a little tired of writing about his detective and had him killed in a story called The Final Problem.  The public outcry was so great and the national mourning so sincere for a fictional character, that Doyle brought him back first in The Hound of the Baskervilles which took place before his death and then he resurrected Holmes in a story titled The Empty House.  Holmes had never actually been dead but had faked his death to make himself scarce to those who still wanted to kill him.  Sherlock Holmes is now part of our great arts culture.  He will continue to be loved and to be enjoyed for generations to come.

One of my favorite detectives that I have discovered in the last couple of decades is the wonderful Nero Wolfe.  Wolfe aided by his handsome, man about town assistant Archie Goodwin was created in 1934 by Rex Stout.  He would go on and publish about a book a year until 1975.  There are 33 novels and 41 novellas and short stories in the Nero Wolfe canon.  I have read about thirty percent of the novels and have enjoyed each of them.

Nero Wolfe lives in an NYC brownstone house in the heart of metropolis.  He weighs a quarter of a ton and rarely leaves his home unless under extreme compunction to do so.  He solves his mysteries in a great desk chair built especially for him and has all the leg work dome for him by Archie Goodwin.  The Wolfe stories are told in first person from Archie’s point of view.  Wolfe, in today’s language would be called a foodie and takes great delight in being involved in the preparation and the consumption of his meals. He has chef/butler that lives with him as well as a gardener who manages his large collection of Orchids that are kept at the top of the house in the plant rooms.  Some of his greatest stories are centered around the office, the plant rooms, or his meals.  For those who desire to eat like Nero Wolfe there was even A Nero Wolfe Cookbook that was published many years ago and is still available today.

Nero Wolfe was not left off of film. There is one movie I know of and two TV series.  The best television series was done in the early 2000s and starred Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin.  These shows kept very close to the source material and are fun to watch.  The producers decided to hire a company of actors that worked across all the shows playing different parts.  In some of the shows the performances are so good you don’t realize you had seen the performer in a different role the week before.  These shows can be found on YouTube to watch for free.

To delve into humorous mystery, we are going to make one stop.  The Polly Pepper Mysteries.  There are four books in The Polly Pepper series.  Remains to be Scene, Final Curtain, A Talent for Murder and Set Sail for Murder all written by Richard Tyler Jordan.  Mr. Jordan worked in Hollywood for a long time and his books are riddled with caricatures of famous celebrities.  Half the fun of reading his books is trying to guess who the real people are behind the characters.  The Polly Pepper book have been described as a cross between Carol Burnett and Murder She Wrote.  Polly Pepper herself is an out of work actress who once had her own wildly popular variety show.  She knows and schmooses with the best of Hollywood but when a murder gets committed leave it to Polly to solve the crime with the help of her openly and well-loved gay son and an outspoken maid.  The books are a hoot and should be on the shelf of every mystery loving fan.  Here’s to hoping Mr. Jordan decides to take up the pen and give us more Polly adventures.

Most of the detectives I’ve written about went from page to screen but there is one that took the opposite route and went from screen to page.  That would be Jessica Fletcher and the television show Murder She Wrote.  Murder She Wrote starred Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher a retired schoolteacher and widow living in the fictional town of Cabot Cove Maine.  We are introduced to Jessica as her nephew has secretly submitted her murder mystery book to a publisher.  The book is excepted and becomes a best seller.  Jessica is pinned in the spotlight and whisked off to New York City to meet her publisher and to solve her first murder.  Murder She Wrote gave the audience the chance to solve the mystery and entertained television viewers for twelve seasons.  It had many celebrity guest stars including Florence Henderson, Shirley Jones, Van Johnson, and June Allison. 

Not long after the show started a series of books began to be published supposedly written by Jessica herself.  These are told in the first person as if Jessica is speaking to us.  The books are very good and keep the flavor and the pace of the TV show.  Murder She Wrote had stopped new TV episodes several years ago.  New books come out regularly.

Charlotte and Thomas Pitt are the creation of Ann Perry and began their adventures in 1979 in the book The Cater Street Hangman.  The stories take place in Victorian London where Thomas is a police detective.  Charlotte, his wife always finds a way or stumbles into his investigations. 

These books aren’t just telling mysteries.  Miss Perry has all her characters grow.  There is a regular cast of recurring supporting characters that you begin to care about as much as Charlotte and Thomas.  In the first book Thomas meets Charlotte in the second they are married as the series continues; they have children.  These books don’t just tell of the solving of a good case but also are the story of a family.

In recent years there have been several new detectives that come at solving crime through cooking up delicious food.  These books are three quarters story and maybe one quarter or less cookbook.  The best of these are The Hannah Swensen series by Joanna Fluke.

Hannah is a caterer in Aspen Colorado when meet her in The Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder.  She is divorced but is doing quite well on her own serving up meals to the Aspen elite.  In this series the characters also grow as Hannah meets new people falls in love and starts a new family. All of this takes place over several delectable tales.  The latest is the series is The Triple Chocolate Cheesecake Murder.  The recipes in these books are usually easy to follow and fun to try.

Mystery!  Why do we love these stories of who dun it?  It is kind of odd that we take delight in murder.  Or is it possible that we don’t delight in the murder as much as we delight in the solving of the puzzle?  All murder mysteries are puzzles and the pieces are all laid out before you to find if they seem obscure.  These mysteries may be a metaphor for life.  After all we start asking questions and trying to solve the mystery of our existence almost as soon as we can talk.  What parent doesn’t cringe a little when their three-year-old asks, “Where did I come from?”  No parent is going to give a technical answer regarding sex so other answers are given that a child can appreciate, but the question remains.  Where did I come from?  It soon turns into why am I here?  Is there a God what does that mean for me?

We all ask these questions.  And we spend our lives trying to find out the answer.  I think mysteries are there to tell us that the answers are there if me choose to seek for them.  There is a meaning and a purpose for every person born on this planet.  The hard part is that no one can tell you the answers to your questions at least not the most basic ones.  You must seek those answers out on your own.  I think mysteries tell us that there are answers to all questions.  I think mysteries give us hope.

Peanuts

Peanuts

On the 19th of September Linus Van Pelt turned 69 years old.  I know this because the Charles Schulz Museum put a special post on Facebook reminding me of my favorite Peanut’s character’s birthday.  They also ran the first strip.  In that historic strip Linus is still in diapers and hasn’t even learned to walk yet.  But that uniquely shaped head and the scraggly hair definitely told you that this was Linus.

That’s true of all The Peanut’s characters.  If you go back and look at the original strips, they look remarkably different than what they would be in ten years’ time.  Ten years after that they would change a little more but not by much. Even the characters would change.  In the first strip which was dated October 5, 1950, we see three characters two of which are all but forgotten today.  Shermy, who is always the shepherd in A Charlie Brown Christmas, Patty (not Peppermint) a blond-haired girl who be most often seen with Lucy, and Charlie Brown.  These three were the center for awhile but slowly the cast would grow as Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty Marcy, and Franklin would all join the cast as well as a host of other characters.

Charles M Schulz was a genius born in 1922 and died in 2000.  For fifty of those years from 1950 until 2000 Schulz wrote and illustrated every Peanuts strip.  If he took a vacation, he wrote strips 2 or three weeks in advance.  Not one line of a pen or one word came from anybody else.  Every strip was pure Schulz.

That’s not to say he didn’t take ideas from those around him.  Watching his own children grow gave Schulz much fodder for his strip.  Watching them at play or what they were learning in school or how they got things mixed up was him plenty of ideas.  He took outside advice to and when an African American lady wrote him asking him to put an African American child in his strip, he took the advice and Franklin was born.

One other gift that Schulz had was seeing the human experience the sad and the happy and making us laugh at it.  His strip had the capacity to make kids laugh at the antics of a beagle and adults laugh and yet ponder the words of Linus who, more often than not, was the moralist of the characters.  He saw inside of us and liked what he saw but he also knew we could be better.  It’s all there in The Peanuts strip.

Mr. Schulz was a Baptist at the beginning of his career and through out the 1950s and 1960s you will find Bible verses peppered through out those years.  Of course, the most famous moment is Linus reciting from Luke Chapter Two in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  But he could be subtle too.  There is one strip where Linus is building a sandcastle.  It was a Sunday strip, and it was panel after panel of turrets and towers, high walls, and battlements.  In the last few panels, it starts to rain and the whole thing disappears.  Linus, looking at the work he has done melting away say, “I know there’s a lesson to be learned here, but I don’t know what it is.”  If you know your New Testament you know exactly what it is.  It’s a pictorial reference to Matthew Chapter 7 verses 26 and 27 where Jesus says, “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain came down, streams rose, and the wind blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.  This is the end of The Sermon on the Mount.

Peanuts somehow enters all of us.  I know at different times of my life I can be as crabby as Lucy, as insecure as Charlie Brown, passionate as Schroeder, Adventurous as Snoopy, as loyal as Woodstock or as wise as Linus.

For a good part of my life, in recent years, I saw myself as Charlie Brown.  The loser, the guy that had little to offer the world.  The guy that failed at life.  Like Charlie Brown too many curve balls knocked me on my back on the pitcher’s mound, but I got up and tried again.  Like Charlie Brown I sought help.  A few times I ended up with advisers that might just as well been Lucy and her psychiatric booth, but more than once I ended with councilors who could and did advise me well and I found myself back in the game again.

Physical issues knocked me down too and again I needed help to get back in the game.  And again, there were people there, professionals who knew how to advise me and get me moving.  Like Linus helped Charlie Brown see what the true meaning of Christmas is.  People helped me to see what the true meaning of life is and how to live it.

These days I think I see life as a cross between Linus and Snoopy.  I want to see the meaning behind the events of my life.  I want to have deep discussions on philosophy and faith and how each of these fits into my life.  I also want to live an adventure.  Snoopy became whatever his imagination decided he would be, A World War One fighter Pilate, A lawyer, a doctor, A skater.  You see Snoopy swimming and surfing and sometimes driving a car he is almost always at the head of an adventure and willing to take the risk of the next one.  This is how I want to live.

What is an adventure.  Thornton Wilder said that you can tell if you’re in an adventure if you look around and say, “How did I get into this?”  But he countered with that you know “There is something wrong with you when you sit quietly at home hoping for an adventure.”

Right now, life is full of adventure for me.  My journey has taken a new turn and there is much to decide in the coming months.  I have been asking myself, “how did I get into this?”  And the answer has been through no fault of my own, at least for most of it.  Regardless of how, the question now is what?  What’s the next move?  How do I solve the puzzle?  I could look on the issues I am facing and be all, “woe, is me”, or I could see each situation as an adventure.  A chance to learn and grow as a person and ultimately to be a better man than I am.  To me that’s the perfect balance between Snoopy and Linus.  Seizing the adventure and seeing the meaning and the potential behind it.

I’d like to talk a little more about Charles Schulz.  Schulz was an amazing man with an incredible mind.  His work will live on through out the ages.  Other comic strips will come and go because they are grounded firmly in the time they were written.  The political landscape of Doonesbury is not the same as we have today and so the strip will fade as its creator passes on.  The same could be said for other comic strips.  Schulz work is timeless.  He makes us laugh and hits are hearts and minds at the same time.  An example of one such strip goes like this.

Linus (Pretending he has a gun) Bang Bang!

Charlie Brown:  What are you playing Linus, cops, and robbers?

Linus No!  Bang Bang!

Charlie Brown: Cowboys and Indians?

Linus: No.

Charlie Brown: Then what are you playing?

Linus: Liberals versus conservatives!  Bang Bang!

 Now Charles Schulz passed away 21 years ago.  This strip was written in the late 50s or early 60s and it is still as relevant today as the day it was written.

Schulz was a man who struggled.  He may have been at one time the most famous cartoonist in the world, but he struggled with insecurity and depression.  And yet they never beat him.  For 50 years this man would turn out strip after strip.  All those raw emotions and self-doubt became fodder for his imagination and instead of wallowing in self-pity he made us laugh and gave us the great gift of all of his characters.

I used to think that Schulz modeled Charlie Brown after himself.  I read an early biography of him where he talked about feeling out of place while in school and felt genuinely insecure.  But when Schulz was asked what character, he saw himself as he simple answered, “All of them”.  That answer, at first, surprised me.  But after thinking about it awhile, it seemed to be exactly true not only for him but for all of us.

As people we switch hats and masks every day.  Maybe to put it better we play different parts every day.  In a days’ time I can be a son, a brother, a writer, a chef, a researcher, a movie or book critic, a house cleaner, a good friend, or a councilor.  You in a day could be a mother or a father, a hockey player or businessperson, a student, or a teacher all in a single day.  We change our roles as we go from one of our interests or jobs to another and we don’t even think about it, the change is instant, sometimes simultaneous.

Charles Schulz is basically saying the same thing as he claims he is all of his characters.  He can lose and yet still be determined as Charlie Brown of be angry and crabby like Lucy.  I guess I’m pushing this to some extent, but the universalness of Charles Schulz Characters cannot go understated.

Charles Schulz is distinctly the only Newspaper cartoonist to have covered all the ways we can be entertained.  His characters have been successful in the newspapers and on-line, in movies and television and on the Broadway stage.  His entire 50 years of work has been bound in 25 hard cover books and are available for purchase.  Peanuts is read the world over and I doubt there are many countries where Snoopy plush dolls are not available for purchase.

One night in December 1969 Charles Schulz had printed his daily strip.  A Boy Named Charlie Brown was playing in the movie theaters, A Charlie Brown Christmas was on our television sets and You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown was being performed off Broadway.  Every form of media was corned by Peanuts that night.  No one has done that since.

Peanuts, Featuring Good Ol’ Charlie Brown has entertained informed and inspired us for 71 years. It has hit our hearts and our minds and our faith.  It remains popular being published every day still in print newspapers or daily delivered to your in-box.  (Since Schulz death they have been reprinting the strip from 1975 to 2000, this will end in 2025)  The Characters remain popular on television and though each of the holiday specials are available on DVD or digitally we still clamor for them to be shown on network television.  Last years rage over Apple buying the rights to show exclusively on Apple TV proves that.  The messages and the joy in those holiday specials should be free to the world as I think Schulz would want it.  Charlie Brown once said, “Life is like an ice cream cone, you have to learn to lick.”  I’ll leave you there.

Children’s Literature

I read recently that classic children’s literature is being removed from schools and school curriculum.  Books like The Odyssey, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are now considered unsuitable for a child to read or to be taught.  I take exception to this.  There is great Children’s Literature out there and to be honest I don’t think that the books that claim to be written for children these days are not anything more than feel good shlock made for the child to feel ok about his or her own self as opposed to becoming self-aware that we all can always be improving.  It has been said that once you stop changing you start dying.  I think this is true.  We are people that have been put on this planet to grow first outwardly and then inwardly.  We start out being constantly in need and when we have grown old enough, we begin meeting the needs of others and this should never change.

There are some books that we should come across early in life that celebrate just letting a child be a child.  Winnie The Pooh, Peter Pan and Tom Sawyer are three of these.  Let’s take a look at these three classics.

Winnie The Pooh is heading toward his one hundredth birthday.  He is 95 this year.  AA Milne released the “silly old bear” on the world in 1926.  I doubt there are very many children in the world who don’t know of this lovable bear.  The reason, of course is the star treatment this character has gotten from The Walt Disney Studio since the 1960s.  Disney, as much as I admire the work of Walt Disney did a bit of disservice to Pooh Bear.  The book of his adventures is charming because they are not adventures at all.  Winnie The Pooh never gets his honey as is depicted in the film Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.  He really never accomplishes anything in the books, and he is perfectly content with that.  His world is the world of the very young pre-school child who also plays at all kinds of imaginary games but never goes much further than his back yard.

Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, is an adventure for all the characters.  Peter defeats Captain Hook and saves Wendy, John, and Michael.  Here we see character development in Wendy, John, and Michael as they leave Neverland knowing they will grow up.  In the book Peter’s lost boys go with Wendy and her brothers and are adapted by Wendy’s parents.  Peter however stays the same.  In the book and in the original play Peter comes back for Wendy and in a heart-breaking scene finds that she has grown up with a child of her own named Jane.  Being heartless Peter takes Jane to Neverland and we are led to believe this will go on thru time.

Tom Sawyer is probably the most read of Mark Twain’s novels by younger people.  But younger people were not his only target audience in his Preface he wrote: ‘Although this book is intended mainly for boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and how they felt and thought and talked and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.  – Hartford 1876

Mark Twain was not only writing for children but for adults too.  Any children’s book worth its salt should be able to engage the adult as well as the child.  In other words, it might be easy to read but the words and stories have depth to them that you have to look for in order to find them.

Tom Sawyer is like that.  Here is a boy longing to hold on to his childhood but being slowly drawn into adulthood.  He is a hero and an antihero at the same time.  His friends Becky Thatcher and Huckleberry Finn are names etched into our collective memory and it would be tragic if any of these names became forgotten.

As we grow older the world of children’s literature grows with us.  We begin to have complex thoughts so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with its charm and wit appeals to us.  We make friends, some of which will be life long and so The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham makes sense to us as there are no better friends in literature then Mole Rat Toad and Badger.  Our minds begin to solve problems and we begin to learn more complex math and language skills.  Even at this stage there is a book, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

Most of the books mentioned in the last paragraph, in fact I think all of the books in this Blog have been made into movies, but they weren’t good movies.  The screen writers took liberties with all the books and cut out some of the best parts.  There is a stop motion animation version of The Wind in the Willows that is well worth seeing.  And the 1970s adaptation of Tom Sawyer with Johnny Whittaker is also worth watching.  Still parts are left out and there is nothing like the book.

One book that captured my imagination in the fifth grad was My Side of the Mountain by Jean George.  Sam Gribley, a city born boy, learns to live on the land his grandfather bought in the Catskill Mountains.  That book was mostly novel, but it also taught you how to fish and other practical camping secrets.  I am no great outdoorsman, but I love a good adventure and Sam striking out on his own, building a house inside a tree and taming a falcon to help him hunt food had everything a boy could want.

There are other books that I wish I had read when I was younger but was glad, I discovered them as an adult.  Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a great American novel.  I don’t really see it as a book for children alone.  It is about four sisters growing up and sharing hard times as well as fighting and making up.  It’s really about the idea that if real love exists in a family, you can conquer the worst of times.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is another book that teaches fundamentals of life.  Those lessons are that hard work, and healthy habits are what you need to lead a good life.  It helps that it is set in an old castle on the desolate Yorkshire moors with strange secrets.

Robert Lewis Stevenson gave us the greatest high seas adventure of all time when he wrote Treasure Island.  Treasure maps, pirates, tall ships, men with one eye or leg and black spots thrill the imagination.  There is a very good film version of this book starring Christian Bale and Charlton Heston.  I still believe it is more fun to read the book first and see the film afterward.

Now we come to the father of modern fantasy the great JRR Tolkien.  While professor Tolkien was grading papers, or so the story goes, he wrote on the back of one of the exam books, “Once in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”  And the world would never be the same.

The Hobbit was published on September 21, 1937.  It became a popular book for children and Professor Tolkien found that he had very strong base of enthusiasts for his book.  The story of Bilbo Baggins and his quest to aid the 13 dwarves to get their gold back from the dragon Smaug took the reader into a new land of Middle Earth and they didn’t want to leave. 

I first came upon the book when I spent the night at my Aunt Mary’s house.  It was sometimes in the 70s and I can’t remember why I was there.  I was put in my cousin Steve’s old room. Steve is ten years older than me, and he was already married.  I was rummaging through the bookshelf and found The Hobbit.  I started it but of course couldn’t finish it all in one night and asked if I could have it.  Steve had left it behind and as anyone knows treasure that is left behind is free for whom ever finds it.  My Aunt Mary said “no”, but I could borrow it.  So, I did and was transported myself to the best of the fantasy worlds.

I remember the first time I read the book of having a dream where the dwarves came to me and in one way or another invited me to go with them.  I remember pickaxes and ropes and climbing but that’s about all.  The Hobbit had a hold of my sub-conscious mind as well as my conscious mind.

If you look at the title of Walt Disney’s first animated feature, you’ll find that it is called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Tolkien, who was, to put simply, a professor of languages, decided that that was not the way to spell Dwarfs and changed it in his book to dwarves.  It has remained that way ever since.

Tolkien got letter after letter asking for information about hobbits and Middle Earth.  It would take him almost 20 years to publish The Lord of the Rings the first book of the sequel, The Fellowship of the Ring appeared in July of 1954.  The other two books in the trilogy would follow, The Two Towers in November of 1954 and The Return of the King October of 1955.  These books probably surprised his readers.  The light touch of The Hobbit was slowly pulled away and a darker scarier world was revealed.  Tolkien had gone form writing books for children to writing books for both children and adults.

With the publication at the subsequent popularity of The Lord of the Rings books of fantasy were no longer just in the realm of children’s literature but squarely in the world of books for adults too.  And those adults who cherished the memory of going to Wonderland with Alice now would have books that led them into strange new worlds of adventure and excitement.

I would be remiss in not mentioning here CS Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a friend of Tolkien and an atheist.  The story goes that one day the two friends took a walk.  They both loved the old myths and legends of ancient times and Tolkien explained to Lewis that Christianity and Jesus redemptive work on the cross was the one true myth.  This argument convinced Lewis that Jesus was all that he said he was and that the Gospel’s were true.  He became an ardent follower of Jesus and wrote many books for adults on Christianity.  Mere Christianity is Lewis’s explanation of The Christian Faith.  The Four Loves is an explanation of the four Greek words for love and how they interact with Christianity.  Surprised by Joy is his memoir.  All these books are great for adults but his work for children may well out last anything else he wrote.

CS Lewis once said “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now That I am 50, I read them openly.  When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”  He also said, “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”  In Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, he gave us, in seven books, the history of Narnia from its creation to its end.  He also gave us many characters to know and love.  First the children who find their way from our world into Narnia and then the inhabitants of Narnia itself, Prince Caspian, Reepicheep, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and Father Christmas himself.

The Narnia books are more than fantasies.  They are in many ways allegorical to the Christian faith.  Many people come away from reading these books with their faith strengthened and commitment to Christ renewed.  Others who read them see no connection at all between Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia and in that I believe you see the genius of CS Lewis.

There are so many other books that in children’s Literature that I could mention but if I did, we would be here for weeks on end.  The Harry Potter books that grew up with the readers as they originally were published.  Aesop’s Fables which seem to have disappeared in these days but when I was child held valuable lessons and still do if they are sought out.  Then there are the books of legends, The Greek God’s and Heroes and The Norse Gods and Goddesses.  Then there is The Matter of Britain better known as The Story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and we cannot leave off this list The Adventures of Robin Hood.  The there are the fairy tales those collected by The Brothers Grimm and those written by Hans Christian Anderson these are some of the tales that Lewis was speaking of when he said there would be a time when we are old enough to read fairy tales again.

One last thought somewhere in the late 1800’s L Frank Baum decided that American children had no fairy tales of their own.  Oh, we had our legends, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and The Headless Horseman to name a few but no magical fairy stories.  In 1900 Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and gave America it’s first fantasy.  Baum would go on to write 15 Oz books all truly delightful tales and all for American children, though, of course, the books would go on to delight children around the world.

I started this as a call to arms not to allow classic children’s literature to disappear from our schools and libraries.  Our kids shouldn’t be deprived of the lessons these books teach and adults should be at the forefront of the fight reading these books again and digesting the simple yet profound messages almost every one of these books teach.

The Sound of Music and Me

It was 1965, I was four years old so I don’t expect that I saw The Sound of Music when the movie was released on April first. But the movie would begin to have it’s effects on me at that early age and would continue to the present day.

First, as I stated before, mom loved musicals and I can bet she bought that album as soon as it came out. The music from that movie would permeate our house frequently.  I remember in kindergarten one of the kids brought in an album that told the story of The Sound of Music along with the songs and I think that was my first introduction to what the movie was about.  In those day movies ran for year and I know at one point I was taken to see the film.  I, of course loved it.

Sometime in early part of the 1960’s 20th Century Fox Studios was about to close its doors.  It had begun producing movies in 1935.  20th Century Fox was responsible for such films as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Miracle on 34th Street, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Robe, and The Rodger’s and Hammerstein films, Oklahoma, Carousel, and The King and I.  Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the only musical they ever wrote specifically for film for 20th Century Fox which was State Fair.  Hard times had come on the studio, but they had one card left to play The Sound of Music.

Sound of Music was hit with people if not with critics on it’s 1965 release.  Christopher Plummer it’s male lead would call it The Sound of Mucus and for the studio it was The Sound of Money.  Starring Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music would win Best Picture at The Academy Awards and Best Actress at The Golden Globes award.  It also took the Oscar for Best Original Score.  The Sound of Music saved 20th Century Fox and helped keep them going for many years.  Unfortunately, the studio would eventually get into financial difficulty again and would be sold to The Disney Studio in 2019.

As a boy I remember being delighted by the story of the nun that becomes governess to 7 motherless children.  You couldn’t help but wonder at romping thru Salzburg, it’s mountain and meadows while singing.  The movie was a delight to both the ear and the eyes despite what age you are.

I don’t remember when I found out that Maria, Captain Von Trapp, and the children were actual people.  Actual living people.  It may have been when Julie Andrews had her own variety show on television and she had as a guest Maria Von Trapp.  I remember the interview vaguely I know you can see some of it on YouTube.  One thing I remember is Maria saying she caused much more trouble in the abbey than the movie portrayed.

This made me curious and I found in one of frequent trips to the bookstore the book that The Sound of Music was based on…The Story of The Trapp Family Singers.

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers was first published in 1949.  It is a memoir of the Von Trapp family from Maria’s point of view and is told in the first person.  Maria, I think was surprised at herself for writing this book.  At least that’s the feeling you get if your read the introduction.

The book itself is different in many ways from what would become The Sound of Music.  For instance, though Maria did upset the abbey quite a bit as a postulant that was not the reason she was sent to The Trapp’s.  She had been suffering from severe headaches and it was thought that fresh air and regular exercise would be of help to her.  When the need for a teacher for The Captain’s youngest daughter, who was also named Maria, reached Mother Superior, she felt this a good opportunity for Maria to get her health back before permanently entering the abbey.

So Maria was sent to the Von Trapp’s

It was Maria’s personality that won the other children to her.  Their were other governesses and staff in the house but the children liked Maria and yes eventually because Maria loved to sing especially folk music she taught the children how to sing together and in harmony.

The Captain too was not the ogre he is presented as in the film.  He is a man that grieved for his wife and so ran a strict household, but the children didn’t want for anything that they knew of and he loved them, frequently coming home with gifts after his absences.

The family had all become recent converts to Catholicism.  Maria opened whole new worlds of worship of God for the family.  Two chapters in the book An Austrian Christmas and Feasts in a Family go into great detail about this.  I read these two chapters each year one at Christmas and one at Easter because Feasts in a Family goes deeply in to how Easter was celebrated prior to Vatican II, the Christmas chapter in advent is self explanatory.

The first half the book  in many ways resembles The Sound of Music.  The Captain is engaged to an Austrian Noble Woman and he does break it off when he realizes he is in love with Maria.  Many things happen between his marriage and his ultimate decision to flee Austria.  Many things and many years pass.  The couple married in 1927 and left Austria in 1938.

In the years between the marriage and the departure The Captain’s children grew up.  Rupert, the oldest son was a practicing physician and was also offered a place in The Third Reich along with his father.  The Captain also lost almost his entire fortune.  He had the money in a bank but that bank went under.  The Family still had the estate but they began renting rooms out in order to secure more income.

It was during this time that they were heard singing by Lotte Lenya a popular vocalist at the time.  It was She who encouraged them to go professional and they did and were a huge success.  The Captain did not sing with his family.  He found the whole thing very painful to endure.  He would eventually get used to it as he had no choice  And ultimately because they had some international contracts being offered to them to sing outside Austria they were able to flee the country when both father and son were offered place’s in Hitler’s regime.

Before leaving Austria Maria would have two children of her own Eleanor and Rosemarie.  She would have a third in The United States as she was pregnant with her youngest Johannes when they left.

The second half of the book is about their adventures in America.  Settling first outside Philadelphia, where Johannes was born and their early concert tours.  Ultimately they found a place in Vermont that reminded them of the Austria they left behind and they settled in Stowe before the America got involved in WWII.

First they farmed the land and made their own branded maple syrup.  Eventually they would buy an army barracks that was abandoned and they ran family music camps so that families could learn to sing together.  

When the war started the two Von Trapp boys, now young men, served in the U.S. military.  The family was successful in The United States and they gave back.  Thankfully both boys came home.

The Captain died in 1947 at the age of 67.  Maria was 22 when she married him and 42 when he passed away.  In 1949 her book was published and it gained the interest of a German film maker who made dramatic film called The Story Of The Trapp Family Singers.  Maria sold the rights to her book for 200 dollars.  They were the complete rights and so it was the German film company who owned the rights when Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted to make a stage musical about the family. Maria and the family made very little money from the Sound of Music.  I think signing her rights away for 200 dollars was one of her biggest regrets.  She was given a certain amount from the film and even had a few seconds of a scene In the movie.  Ultimately that scene was cut, but you can glimpse Maria crossing the square during the Do Re Me Montage.  But you must look very carefully.

The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in November 1959.  It starred Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel as Georg Von Trapp.  It would run for four years on Broadway closing in 1963 and would be perennially done by schools, touring companies, community theaters, and Broadway revivals.  It would star many well known actresses such as Florence Henderson who took over for Mary Martin, Shirley Jones, Maria Osmond, Debbie Boone and the list could go on.  There are some lovely pictures online of the real Maria posing with the actresses who portrayed her.

But Maria’s work and her story do not end with The Sound of Music.  It was my first year of college, probably the spring of 1980, I was walking through the stores in downtown Mansfield PA when I spotted a book by Maria Von Trapp called Yesterday Today and Forever.  I bought it and devoured it.  The book was a sort of Life of Christ from a family’s point of view.  It was also a guide on how to bring Jesus into your own life.  Several years later I would find that book as a hard cover at our local library book sale.  I got it for a dime and opened it to find Maria’s signature.

Maria would go on and write a separate book about Our Lord titled When King was Carpenter.  This book was about the hidden years of Jesus, between his being found in the Temple at age 12 and his baptism by John. The book gives the details of how people lived in Judea at the time of Jesus.  Both books are marvelous treasures for a Christian and I recommend you reading them.  You feel as though Maria and her family really loved The Lord and it comes out in these books.  If you are lucky you may come across a book titled Let Me Tell You About My Savior this book is Yesterday Today and Forever and When King Was Carpenter in one volume.

Maria would write another book on her family called A Family on Wheels.  This book is about their adventures giving concerts across the United States.  It’s a fun book.  A lighthearted look at artists on the road.

In 1972 Maria would publish her last book, Maria My Own Story.  This book is a much more intimate look at the woman separate from her family.  It is her faith journey from a family of non-believers to becoming a novice in a convent.  There are many surprises in the book as well.  Maria felt in 1927 that she was more marrying the children than their father.  The fact is she brought the marriage proposal to Mother Superior and the nuns met and decided for Maria that she would accept.  Maria wasn’t expecting the marriage to be intimate.  She loved the children when she married the father but she grew to love the father as well.

Maria’s story has become part of my own faith story.  I and my housemate do an advent wreath and Advent devotionals during the time leading up to Christmas because of her books.  Maria made Jesus accessible to me.  Especially in the book Yesterday Today and Forever.  She helped me realize that Jesus can be an intimate part of my life if I choose to get to know him better.  And these books help you get to know the real Jesus not the untouchable Christ that some churches portray him as being.

The songs in The Sound of Music give me great strength to do what I need to do.  Climb Every Mountain is a hymn in some churches.  And My Favorite Things brings Paul’s Letter to The Philippians Chapter 4 verse 8 to life.  You can look that up on your own and then compare the instruction to the lyrics.  It is my go-to song when I am feeling very low.

Maria’s life, and her faith have brought much encouragement to me.  She passed away in 1987 at the age of 82.  I felt that passing.  It was like a good friend had died.  But she left a legacy for us all to find if we dare look for it and listen for the sound of music.

My Adventures In Reading

It was 1967 or 1968.  I was in first grade and my teacher at St. Eugene’s Catholic School was sister Joan Maureen.  I remember Sister Joan as a possibly heavy set woman with a florid face.  She had a great smile and I think she had an idea that school should be fun as well as disciplined.  I remember one time she had us form a fake band in the front of the class and we pretended to play rock and roll.  And another time after coming back from singing lessons she had those of us who participated come up and try to sing the song we were learning, which was Talk To The Animals from Doctor Doolittle.  I know for a fact I couldn’t remember the words.  Sister, I think would be proud to know I can sing that song straight through 54 years later.

I don’t know if Sister called my mother up for a special conference or if it was a regular parent teacher meeting.  I do know I was there because there was no one at home to watch me.  Sister calmly informed my mother that I was not keeping up with the class when it came to reading.  She wasn’t alarmed and she had a plan.  She told my mother to buy me comic books and let me read them and or read them with me.  I don’t remember which.  Sister felt sure that my reading would improve if mom did this.

Telling a child to read comic books in the mid sixties was a daring plan.  Comic books had gone out of favor in the 1950s with the publication of the book Seduction of the Innocent by Fredrick Wertham which alleged that comic books were a bad influence on the youth of the United States.  He alleged that they would cause all kinds of problems including homosexuality as Batman and Robin were obviously gay.  He felt that the violence by street gangs could also be traced back to the violence in comic books.  His views were widely accepted especially in middle of the McCarthy era where everyone and everything became suspect.  Sister Joan was a rebel.

The only three comic book heroes to survive Wertham’s book were Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.  Batman survived by having Bruce’s Aunt Harriet come live with Bruce and Dick.  This would relay to the world that there was nothing sexual going on between Batman and Robin.  DC comics at this time introduced the first Batwoman and Batgirl so that each of the caped crusaders would have a love interest.

As I said at the beginning this was 1967 or 68 and The Batman TV series was in full swing.  To adults it was pure camp but to a six year old it was deadly serious.   So, it will not surprise you a bit to learn that my first comic book was Batman.  It, however, wouldn’t end there.  I fell in love with all comic books.  First I had my juvenile stage where I read Richie Rich and Caspar The Friendly Ghost Comics then I had my Junior stage where I read everything Archie and then I graduated to superhero comics and have stayed there ever since.

Comic books themselves opened up whole new worlds of reading to me.  Superhero Comic Books by the early 1970s had grown up a bit.  The market still included children, but it also included college students and other young adults so the comic book itself had to take on a more mature persona in order to keep its audience.  This was mostly due to the work of Stan Lee over at Marvel Comics with the creation of The Fantastic Four and Spiderman. Comic books began to grow up.  The good guys were more three dimensional.  Some of them were tragic figures even the bad guys were motivated for what they were doing.  Occasionally the comic books would quote other books. Alice in Wonderland for example or the works of William Shakespeare.  There was even a villain in the Marvel books named Sauron after the evil character in The Lord of the Rings.

This is where my own curiosity kicked in.  I wanted to know where those quotes came from and what they meant.  I was entering 7th grade by now and I no longer had any trouble with reading.  I was a bit lazy when it came to schoolwork so I was not as advanced as I could have been, but I wasn’t doing badly either.  Back then 7th grade was the beginning of Junior High School, the middle school system hadn’t started yet.  I had left St Eugene’s after my second-grade year and transferred to Primos Elementary which was right across the street from my house.

I should talk a little bit about Primos as I had some wonderful teachers there.  First there was Miss Arabia who had the class stage a mini production of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown where I was given the role of Linus.  I had already grown to love the Peanuts newspaper strip, but that love became life long after portraying one of its characters.  Then there was Mr. Monteith, every year Mr. Monteith read his fifth-grade class Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this was a great book and after he read it to us we all wanted to read for ourselves.  Also, in fifth grade my friend Jack Jennings and I read the book My Side of the Mountain together.  We both loved the book so we read it to see who could finish it in the least amount of time. In Primos I was also introduced to novel Peter Pan and found I loved it more than the Disney version and that goes for The Winnie the Pooh books too.

It was about the end of my elementary school career that The Walton’s became a part of my life.  The Walton’s was a CBS television show about a family surviving the Great Depression in the 1930s.  Its main character was John-Boy Walton the eldest son of seven children whose dream was to go to college and become a writer.  That changed a lot for me as I found myself imitating John-Boy so not only was I reading but I began to write too.  In sixth grade with the help of my best friend Charlie Meo we started The Primos Press and though I think we only got out two issues I was a published author.

Going into Junior High was a new adventure in reading.  Now there were books that I was required to read, but I loved them.  In those years we read Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and best of all A Christmas Carol.  My eighth grade English Teacher Mr. O’Connell taught A Christmas Carol and he did it with passion.  I knew the story.  There was at least one TV version Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, and my mother owned a set of records that had the original radio broadcast of A Christmas Carol which starred Lionel Barrymore.  Those were played every year.  But none of those were like the book.  I personally feel that A Christmas Carol is Dicken’s greatest book.  I believe literary society feels Bleak House is his best, but they are wrong, it’s A Christmas Carol.

School reading went forward thru the years, but my own personal library grew as well.  It was in High School that I began to read the works or JRR Tolkien and Agatha Christie.  If there was a popular movie, I would see the movie and then read the book it was based on.  Sometimes the movie held a rating that prevented me from seeing it like The Exorcist, but I read the book anyway.

As I grew older my tastes expanded.  I would read biographies and autobiographies.  One of my favorites is The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.  The first half of the book would become the Sound of Music but the second half was all about what happened afterward and it was quite a bit.

I was never a popular kid in school.  Truth be told I was bullied on more than one occasion, but books gave me the escape I needed.  They were the best of friends always saying something different or taking me to strange places.  Reading became a refuge and a solace.  I found comfort in adventures, and I loved the books that in one way or another all the characters lived happily ever after.

CS Lewis said, “There will come a time when we will be old enough to read Fairy Stories again.”  For me that time comes around regularly as I love revisiting the books of my youth.  The Wizard of OZ, Little Women, The Secret Garden, The Wind in the willows, and The Phantom Tollbooth all have lessons that we as adults need to continue to pay attention to if are to live well in this world.

A lot of people say they don’t have time to read or that reading isn’t worth their time.  There is one thing I have learned in this life is that you make the time for the things that are important to you.  If reading holds no interest than you won’t read.  If you are one of those people, I would like you take a moment and choose of the books I listed above.  Or go back and find the book that you loved when you were ten and read it now.  Find out how much more wisdom there is to find in its pages.

Books change us.  They rearrange our thinking and they do it without us even being aware of it.  I know I’m a better friend for having read The Wind in the Willows.  I know that I can think well because I read The Phantom Tollbooth and I know that prayer, hard work and healthy eating can make people well by reading The Secret Garden and lastly by reading Little Women I understand how important is to have family, to be honest and to have good manners.

My reading adventures were started by Batman, but I continue today to have adventures across the multi-verse by picking up a book.

PS.  Many thanks to Sister Joan Maureen who made all of this possible.

Conversations With My Inner Atheist A Review

    

Conversations With My Inner Atheist is by Randall Rauser and is published by 2 Cup Press.

     Conversations With My Inner Atheist is exactly what the title implies.The author takes on a journey through his doubts about the Christian faith by having conversations with his inner atheist.  That inner voice is named Mia, an acronym for my inner atheist, and Mia sets up the initial doubts of each chapter while the author does battle with these doubts. 

     Some of the topics include questions about Christian Academics, The theology of The Trinity and why does God allow evil.  Not every chapter is won by the author.  Sometimes you get the feeling Mia got the upper hand.

     This is not a book for apologists or evangelists.  This book addresses the questions most Christians have but are afraid to ask.  It doesn’t give easy answers, but it gives some answers and that’s better than many churches are doing these days.  Most churches would rather you kept your doubt to yourself.  My feeling is faith can’t exists without doubt.  To quote the original version of Miracle on 34th Street, “Faith is believing when common Sense tells you not to.”

     The book is in a way lighthearted.  Though every topic is taken seriously the dialogue between the author and Mia can be entertaining.  Mia is a sarcastic character and the wit displayed between the author and Mia is engaging.

     If you like me have had questions about your faith as a Christian you may find some of your answers here.  If you don’t it is a learning experience well worth having.