Saturday, December 16, 2006

Jupiter Jones for President!

I did an unusual thing today and checked out a book I haven't read since childhood. Actually, I'm not even sure I read it as a child, to tell the truth. I checked it out thinking that I hadn't, but now that I'm halfway through it, parts of it seem really familiar.

In the 3rd and 4th grades I was a really big fan of The Three Investigators - a series of "Hardy Boys"-style books about three friends who solve mysteries. These were way cooler than the Hardy Boys for a number of reasons. First, the characters weren't rich, so they didn't just conveniently happen to have everything they needed always. Second and more importantly, one of them was actually intelligent. As I recall, in Hardy Boys stories the solution always just kinda hit them on the head. I mean that literally - they would snoop around a bit, and one or the other or both of the brothers would get kidnapped by the badguys, who invariably had a "base" of some kind. And of course getting kidnapped meant that they would escape inside of this base, and there you have it! Problem solved. They weren't exactly "mystery" stories, in other words. The Three Investigators stories were legitimate mystery stories and - as I'm finding out now - pretty well-written for children's books.

So what got me thinking about this? It's hard to say, now. Sometime last semester I stumbled across a mention on the internet that they were thinking of making a movie series. I would say that's LONG overdue. And to tell the truth, I'm really hoping they don't, in a way, because I liked reading as a child, and I think it would ruin some associations to actually see this filmed. (Not that I wouldn't go to see it; I would - but with a reservation or two.) But reading about it brought back memories, and so I started using "Jupiter Jones" as a handle on some internet sites (it's also part of my Yahoo! mail address). I guess it's been floating around in my head for a year or so, and so killing time today (I'm still taking a much-deserved end-of-semester break!) I looked it up again. I ran across an interesting review of the first book in the series by a gradeschool teacher who's been reading them at story time, and she had some interesting things to say about it, so I wanted to read it. Two things in particular. First - she muses that the books may be too slow-paced for the modern generation. I somehow doubted that (after all, Harry Potter is VERY slow-paced, and the kids LOVE those books!), but can now confirm that there's no way these books are too slow-paced. In fact, I'm kind of in awe at how perfectly-paced for that agegroup it seems. I remember thinking so as a kid too. Not explicitly, of course, but in the sense of being aware that the books always held my attention without ever being cheesy. I would read them slowly on purpose to avoid finishing the series (ironically, I outgrew them before that happened, so it was never a danger to begin the time, though, I worried I would "run out" of them!). So she's wrong on the first count. The second count is the interesting one, though. She maintains that one of the mysteries in the book isn't actually solved by the end. That is, they explain MOST of what's going on - but there's one thing that doesn't get explained, and more pointedly Jupiter, the main character and the "brains" of the group, doesn't ask about it. This is what really got me wanting to read this one (again?). I LOVE that technique in horror/mystery! It's rare (or maybe not? How would we really know? Heh!), but you do occasionally run across mystery and horror novels where a certain not-so-noticeable loose end isn't tied up at all, and you have the impression (if you notice it at all, I mean) that it's deliberate, not an oversight. I have that feeling a lot about Shirley Jackson stories. It all seems to add up superficially, but if you really think about the events of the story it doesn't quite - and then you realize that you were told a story that's quite different from the one you thought you were told, and I LOVE that! In particular, I feel this way about her most famous story - The Lottery. When I worked in Korea, that story was a favorite choice for in-class reading both because it was easy enough English for the students to follow and also because it contained a message that we wanted to get across: that "it's tradition" or "it's our way" are no kind of justification for anything. Of course, all cultures do this, but the Koreans seems a lot worse about it than most. "It's Korean tradition" is a justifcation for the most horrible things! Anyway, because it was so frequently used, it came up a lot in discussion in the teachers' room. After I'd read it and discussed it maybe five times it occurred to me that it actually IS a horror story - not just a social commentary. That is, it styles itself as a social commentary, but I think underneath it, if you really read closely, it turns out that the supernatural presence is real. The surface reading suggests it's not - the lottery is just a mindless tradition that people keep doing for no good reason that they can remember. But I'm not convinced that's the real story. The critics are simply wrong about this one. First of all - Tessie doesn't "assent to the lottery (before she's picked)" as you often read in the criticism. She's secretly kind of opposed to it; the critics are simply missing that point. More importantly, she is chosen as the victim for that reason. Physically it's a random drawing, but there's a higher power at work...

So I got interested in (re?-)reading The Secret of Terror Castle when it was suggested that this is also that kind of book. What seems like a simple mystery with a rational explanation turns out to be an actual ghost story, only the author didn't ensure that the reader would notice that to be the case by making the detail that gives it away seem insignificant? How cool is that!

Of course, I'm not reading this expecting it to be great literature! But I got curious (and nostalgic) reading this review and I wanted to check to see whether the reviewer's speculation on that point was true. 60 pages to go, so I'll know by tomorrow. It's good to have free time again!


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