Monday, June 14, 2010

A Tale of Two Dahls

Next up in my Take Another Chance Challenge reading, Challenge 11: All in the Family.
The writing gene often runs in the family. For this challenge, you need to find two authors from the same family (either by blood or by marriage) and read a book by each of the authors and then write about both books.
At first I was going to read books by Michael Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldman but changed my mind when another pair came across the radar -- Roald Dahl and his granddaughter, Sophie Dahl.

First, I decided to read Roald Dahl's first published memoir, Boy.  This was a delightful book that was over far too soon.  I was actually looking to read some of his adult stories but I've heard great things about Boy so I decided to use this opportunity to pick it up.  It's only 160 pages long but has dozens of sweet, funny and terrifying events from Dahl's childhood.  It was easy to see where some of the inspiration for his later stories came from.

The best part of this book might have been Dahl's love for his close-knit family -- his grandparents in Norway who they saw only once a year, his brave mother who was left with five children when her husband died prematurely and his siblings that looked out for each other.  While he was frequently away at boarding schools, he wrote to his mother every week.  In fact, he wrote to her every time he was away until the day he died.

I really want to pick up Going Solo next which continues from the point that this one leaves off.  Dahl's real life is just as fascinating as the imaginary ones he creates!

Shortly after finishing Boy, I started Playing With the Grown-ups by Dahl's granddaughter, Sophie Dahl.  The author herself called the novel "somewhat autobiographical".  I thought it was somewhat awful.  It was like an accident that you can't look away from.  Because it's a coming-of-age story, it's hard to summarize because it's simply a girl's trip from childhood to near-adulthood.  It just happens that this girl's trip includes a highly dysfunctional mother, experimentation with all sorts of substances and a generally weak will -- all before the age of fifteen.

This book highlighted something that I am really getting tired of in memoirs and coming-of-age stories -- the blaming of bad behavior on dysfunctional parents.  I'm sorry but just because your mom snorts coke in front of you doesn't mean that you, at fourteen, can't exercise judgment of your own and choose not to do it.  Too many adults are copping out and not taking responsibility for their own choices.  I'm not denying that they had bad parents but there are enough other influences in most children's lives--friends, friends' parents, grandparents--that there are examples of good behavior around as well.  It's as if the author is admitting that they had no brain or will of their own -- a sad statement.  This book mostly just made me feel ill and actually made it difficult to choose my next read because I needed just the right book to cleanse my palate after this one.

This turned out to be a very interesting challenge!  While Roald Dahl grew up in a wealthy family, they still valued work and didn't have a sense of entitlement.  These are values that don't seem to have remained in the family.  I also wasn't really a fan of Sophie's writing style.  There were too many places where time passed without any indication -- conversations ending with one line and the same speaker starting on the next line in another conversation in the future.  It was very confusing and broke the flow of the narrative.  Overall, these two books couldn't have been more different!

Thinking about nature versus nurture,

Support our site and buy Boy and Playing with the Grown-ups on Amazon or find them at your local library.  We borrowed both of these titles from the library.


  1. So, looks like writing doesn't necessarily run in this family!

  2. What a shame about the second book, which I have not read myself. I have read Boy and as I remember absolutely loved it...

    Thanks indeed for sharing


  3. Shame Sophie's book wasn't better but hey! It occurred to me when I was reading this post that Dahl probably named Sophie from The BFG after her, and that is adorable. I've never thought of him as much of a family man, but maybe I'm wrong.

  4. In some ways, I'm feeling bad because of this challenge because one member of the family always comes up short! But in this case, it seemed like Sophie might be writing SIMPLY because of her family relationship. I think I have to check out more of Roald Dahl's autobiographic books though.

  5. Tracy - I didn't think that her writing was very good. Although, if she wrote an actual memoir and wasn't trying to be literary, I might read it!

    Hannah - I definitely loved Boy and wished it was longer!

    Jenny - Yes, he used Sophie's name in The BFG -- lucky girl. I'm not sure how he was when he was older but he was certainly good to his mother.

    Jenners - I think it's highly unlikely that two family members could ever come up equals in the same arena. That seems to be the case in acting, singing and, well, just about every artistic pursuit.

  6. This is an interesting challenge. I love your commentary, though. I agree that you can't blame your own bad decisions on others. Thanks for the heads up about not reading Sophie's book.

  7. Paige - I have a real problem with people not taking responsibility for how their own lives turn out. This book happened to push that button for me!

  8. The more and more I learn and read about Dahl, the more and more I love him! I really need to check out Boy. Definitely adding that one to my list. As for the other, I think I will pass. I tend to lean towards your same viewpoint in many instances!

  9. Tif - I think you would love Boy. It's a great insight into an amazing man!

  10. I've already added it to my list!! Thanks again!! :)