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Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped?
by Neil Walsh
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]

Reading at Random (and Random Thoughts)

Can there be such a thing as too many books? Lately I've been feeling I do indeed have too many books I haven't read yet. But is that really too many books, or simply not enough time? Or is it just poor planning. Some of the books on my shelves have been waiting for years to be read and I really do want to read them next -- and then I bring home a new one that I also want to read next. How to prioritize? I've never found a good way to do that. And so I read at random, choosing my next book to read based on nothing more rational than pure whim (or sometimes pure accident). So if the two books I've chosen to examine this month have absolutely nothing in common, don't even contrast all that well, and seem like entirely random choices, it's because they are just that.

Oh, and when I refer to "adult" books below, I mean books written for a general audience rather than specifically for kids. I'm not talking about X-rated stuff. (When did "adult" come to mean "pornographic" anyhow? Ah, the evolution of the language. That's a virtual discussion we can have another day. And by the way, how did "virtual" come to mean specifically relating to computers? But, another time.)

Watership Down (1972)
Richard Adams

Watership Down - First Edition Richard Adams was born on 9 May 1920 in Newbury, Berkshire. He served in the British Army throughout the Second World War and read history at Worcester College, Oxford. In 1948 he joined the Civil Service, rising to become an Assistant Secretary for the Department of Agriculture. He retired to pursue his writing career following the publication of his second novel, Shardik, in 1974. Adams lives in Berkshire with his wife, Elizabeth.

Watership Down - Penguin Modern Classics Richard Adams is most famous for his first novel, Watership Down (1972). Legend has it that the story of Watership Down was narrated by Adams to his children during a lengthy trip by car and they later encouraged him to write it down. It was first published by Rex Collings in a modest print run. The novel was quickly received as a classic of children's literature, winning the Carnegie Medal in 1972, and has since sold more than 50 million copies in many, many editions.

Watership Down - 35th anniversary edition from Puffin Adams' other works include Shardik (1974), Plague Dogs (1977), The Girl in the Swing (1980), Maia (1984) -- which takes place in the same world as Shardik, although I didn't feel it was as strong a work as that earlier novel -- and Traveller (1988).

For many, many years, Watership Down sat prominently among my shelves of books I've been meaning to read. I've never been tempted to actually NOT read it -- that is, to give away my copy or shame-facedly shelve it alongside the books I actually have read. Sure, I saw and enjoyed the 1978 animated film adaptation, directed by Martin Rosen. But seeing a film adaptation of a book isn't the same as reading it, and Watership Down is such a classic that not reading it was simply never an option. Besides, Richard Adams is an author I've admired for about thirty years, so it was only a matter of time before I picked up his most famous work. This past month, that time arrived at long last.

Adams is a writer who has never shied away from the distressing scenes necessary to flesh out a good story; he's always been unapologetic about that, which I heartily respect. Watership Down the film included some moderately disturbing scenes for an animated children's movie. My wife vividly recalls sobbing inconsolably when she saw the film as a child. I still enjoy reading children's literature and even as a child I preferred the sort that was less condescending, that would happily assume me to be entirely capable of using a dictionary if required. Generally, I've found that British authors are more apt to treat their younger readers as potential equals than their American counterparts will (with some notable exceptions, such as, for example, Lloyd Alexander).

Forearmed with all this knowledge, I picked up my copy of Watership Down with a sad-eyed bunny on the cover, anticipating a sophisticated children's story about rabbits. Which it is. But not at all in the way I expected.

If Adams told this story to his children, they must have been very mature and sophisticated children indeed. I find this an odd children's book because some aspects of it do read like the author had a young audience in mind, and yet it maintains a very urbane style throughout and continually strays into unabashedly mature themes and subject areas, including violence, death, belief, denial, and the bald necessity of reproduction for the coldly impersonal purpose of repopulating a colony that has met with disaster. It also has a strong underlying message regarding the evils of human encroachment on wildlife habitat, if you're looking for that environmentalist slant. And it is somewhat ambivalent regarding the issue of keeping caged pets; they lead much healthier, safer and more peaceful lives than the wild rabbits, and yet they are not free.

There are frequent references scattered throughout the novel to a treatise on the behaviour of rabbits. I can imagine Adams, living in the country, must have spent a great deal of time watching the local rabbits, reading this work on rabbits, perhaps witnessing the destruction of a warren by human intervention, and having all these visions in his mind of this remarkable, realistic story about these individual rabbits, giving them human-like personas and motivations that still fit within their rabbity natures.

It's an utterly compelling novel, brilliantly conceived and executed. And part of what makes it so compelling and so brilliant is its rather quirky nature. When the editor for Puffin first chose Watership Down for their line of children's books back in 1972, she expressed delight at the way the rabbits spoke like they were all civil servants. Certainly that would be considered an odd criterion for selection of a children's book in any place other than the UK. But it absolutely works. Hearing these little bureaucratic bunnies hopping about trying to rebuild their devastated world is simultaneously heart-wrenchingly sad and intensely amusing. These are never simply talking rabbits in the manner of Bugs Bunny or any of Disney's talking animals. The story sweeps you along so that you become immersed in the characters and the story, but you never for a moment forget that they're actually rabbits. They experience the world from only a few inches off the ground. They're real rabbits, with real rabbit problems and real rabbit hopes and dreams.

In the same way that publishers printed the "adult" versions of the Harry Potter books (i.e., with covers that don't make them look like kids books), some of the editions of Watership Down were printed with more "adult" covers. See, for example, the 2001 Penguin Modern Classics cover shown in the middle of the sidebar to the left. Like many of the very best children's books, adults will find far more to enjoy about Watership Down than most kids will. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that it's about talking rabbits, I doubt it would ever be marketed as children's literature in North America. (And I frequently do find it shelved in bookstores here alongside adult fiction and adult classics.)

Clearly those British kids are tougher than the rest of us, because this month saw a new UK Puffin edition to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the first publication. The cute, friendly looking bunny on the cover (pictured at the bottom in the sidebar to the left) means it's safe for 12-year-olds to read -- at least in the UK. But you can read it too. And if you haven't, really you should.

What the heck was I waiting so long for?

Pirates of the Universe (1996)
Terry Bisson

Pirates of the Universe Terry Bisson was born on 12 February 1942 in Owensboro, Kentucky. He attended the University of Louisville, graduating in 1964. He has worked as a writer and editor since the 1960s, in both graphic and non-graphic media. The dust jacket tells me he lives in New York City, but that was over a decade ago, so I'm not sure if he's still there.

Pirates of the Universe (1996) was a New York Times Notable Book. His first novel was Wyrldmaker (1981). Other novels include Fire on the Mountain (1988), Voyage to the Red Planet (1990), and The Pickup Artist (2001). He also wrote the comic book adaptations of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber (1996) and The Guns of Avalon (1996), and he completed the writing of Walter Miller, Jr.'s novel Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (1997), unfinished at the time of Miller's death.

Bisson is probably best known for his short fiction, including "Bears Discover Fire" (1990), winner of the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. There are several collections of his short work, including Bears Discover Fire (1993), Numbers Don't Lie (2001), and Greetings (2005).

I don't recall where or when I picked up my copy of this book. Likely someone gave it to me because it had pirates in the title, and there was a period some years ago when I was reading extensively about historical pirates. I've never read a novel by Terry Bisson before, although I very much enjoy his short stories and I found he did an admirable job with Walter Miller, Jr.'s' Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman; I can only imagine how challenging and daunting a task it must be to complete someone else's novel seamlessly without being able to consult that person. So, still in a daze with visions of rabbits in my head, I reached over to my stack of overlooked books and picked this one out more or less at random.

Huh. Pirates of the Universe. With that cover and title, it must be some future SF pirates in space thing. It can't be a serious novel, though, can it? Must be humorous. Switching gears from rabbits to space pirates, I cracked open a new adventure. Once again, not quite what I anticipated.

It is humorous. And it's also lightly serious. But it's not at all about pirates in space. Although it is about pirates of the universe. Sort of. The Pirates of the Universe of the title is actually a Disney-Windows theme park which has survived the catastrophic global wars of the future and is now the utopian ideal theme park home to which every Space Ranger aspires. Gunther Ryder is a Space Ranger with only one more trip left before he qualifies for residency at Pirates of the Universe.

And what is it that Space Rangers do? Why, they go up into space and collect the skins of Peteys (PDs, or Psioraimen Directicii -- yeah, let's just call them Peteys), which are 700-mile long space jellyfish that mayt be portals to alternate universes, as they zip into our solar system and then zip out again, for reasons of their own which no one really understands.

Gunther returns to earth after his latest stint in space, where something went terribly wrong. And now Gun finds his accounts are on administrative hold and his Space Ranger privileges (such as they are) are revoked. The biggest problem this poses for him is that he is denied access to his copy-protected fantasy lingerie girlfriend with whom he likes to spend all his time, although he can never remember what she looks like when he's not with her (copy-protected). Gun travels the length and breadth of post-war Disneyworld trying to determine whether his life is on hold because of what happened in space or because of something to do with his brother, currently serving life in prison. Eventually he has to return home to find out.

Does all this sound just a little bit ludicrous? Well then imagine it happening in a world very like that in Terry Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil, only if that film were done by an American satirist instead of a British one. This novel is at times hilariously funny, at times cuttingly satirical, and always charmingly gripping. It's exactly the kind of book you'll stay up all night to finish and be very happy you did.

Nothing Over-hyped; Something Overlooked

So, the classic this time, Watership Down: is it over-hyped? Not in the least. Some classics are classics for darned good reason. But it's not just for kids. In fact, I'm not even sure it really should be shelved with the children's lit at all, unless you're one of those tough British kids who can read AND use a dictionary.

And Pirates of the Universe: is it really overlooked? Yeah, I think it is. It received quite a bit of attention when it first came out, winning the dubious honour of "most reviewed book of the year" as well as being a New York Times notable book. But who remembers it today? If you do, good for you. If, like me, you hadn't ever given it a thought, go track down a copy in either the original hardcover edition or the 1997 trade paperback reprint, both from Tor, and cosy up for a really fun read.

Copyright © 2007 Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh has a scattershot approach to his reading. This past month, in addition to the works discussed above, he read something new, And Your Point Is? by Steve Aylett (2006), something old, The Outward Urge by John Wyndham & Lucas Parkes (1959), something translated, Souvenirs de la troisième guerre mondiale by Michael Moorcock (1978-80), translated by Jean-Luc Fromental (1995), something with pictures, The Red Star, Volume 1: The Battle of Kar Dathra's Gate by Christian Gossett, et al. (2000-01), something with stick-figure pictures, The Order of the Stick, Volume 1: Dungeon Crawlin' Fools by Rich Burlew (2005), and something else, Irish Fairy Tales edited by Leslie Conron (2006).

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