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Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, A Review

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I found this book because I was reading the New York Times and read an article about how it was amazing. And I was like, “A book about Roald Dahl?? That is allegedly just as interesting as his works of fiction? YES PLEASE.” What I didn’t realize when I put it on the reading list was how thick it was. And yes, this is the first book I have not been able to finish on the list. But I own it, and will absolutely read it, and after the reviews by Maris and Amanda, I’m even more excited to read it.

So whether or not you’ve read this Biography, I would love to have some discussion in the comments on what you do know about Roald Dahl and your experiences with his writing. James and the Giant Peach 4 Evah. But first, the reviewers and the reviews.

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Amanda J is my twin who lives in Texas. Our birthdays are days apart, we met through work, and were pretty immediately friends. She is incredibly thoughtful and smart and I value her opinion on everything. You can check her out on Instagram and at her blog.

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Maris is one of my best friends. She lives in Chicago, is a lawyer, and reads way faster than I could ever hope to. She is the one who needles me into reading such favorites as: The Hunger Games, World War Z, and Divergent.

Now to the book.

Maris: I was really excited to receive this book assignment – my literary comfort zone is fiction, and I honestly cannot tell you the last time I read anything non-fiction.  I’ve always loved being able to lose myself in another world, and think about characters, and I have a harder time doing so when I am acutely aware that I am reading about a real person.  But!  I think Roald Dahl’s books are so creative and so interesting and I’ve always wondered what kind of person could produce characters and stories like that.  I have very distinct memories about reading the BFG and Matilda, and have always had this picture in my mind of Roald Dahl as this kindly older gentleman who loved children and creativity and freedom.  I was both excited and nervous to see whether this image of the author was realistic or not.

Amanda: I was really excited when I was assigned this read.  I had never heard of the book itself, but Roald Dahl is my all-time favorite children’s author and I was anxious to learn more about him, his inspirations, and his motivations. The size of the book was daunting. I haven’t read something this large in quite some time, but I was eager to take the challenge!

Maris: This book is a biography, so it is obviously the story of Roald Dahl’s life.  It starts with his family history, all the way through his death.  Interestingly, the book focused much more on his younger years and his writing at that time.  Those stories are not nearly as well known as his children’s books and are of a completely different genre and tone.  What I loved, though, was how unexpected his life was… he crossed paths with Presidents, worked with Walt Disney, was friends with famous actors and actresses, crashed an airplane and barely survived, and had an incredibly dramatic personal life. 

Amanda: Storyteller is an “authorized” biography (as in the family endorsed it for goodwill and general accuracy) written by Donald Sturrock, who first met Dahl while producing a PBS special about the author’s life. It details his life, beginning with a bit about his ancestors, and going all the way to his death. Many of the stories and descriptions were gathered from personal letters, diary entries, and interviews with Dahl’s children.  Clearing nearly 700 pages, the bio is a thorough chronology of the author’s childhood, boarding school days, military service, and writing career. 

Maris: I don’t know how well I can define the theme of someone’s life, but something that really jumped out at me was how autobiographical all of his works were.  Not only did his novels and short stories all reflect elements of his personal life, he took every step of the writing, editing, and publishing process incredibly personally.  For example, Dahl’s first forays into writing focused on gremlins, which were creatures that originated in myths told by pilots – Dahl was an RAF pilot in World War II, and his stories about gremlins reflected the stories that the pilots used to trade and included characters that resembled many of the other pilots who fought (and died) in his squadron.  It was also really interesting to read about how personally he took the editing process – Dahl acquired a reputation as a “difficult” author to work with, because he would take every revision and every note as a personal insult and a negative reflection on his life and his character.  He actually ruined a few long-term friendships over his touchiness and possessiveness about his work.

Amanda: A major theme was Money. I was a thrilled by the frequent mention of Dahl’s business acumen.  There were several instances where publishers tried to undersell him on royalty shares and undervalued his work. But, he was a strong negotiator who was confident in his worth.  This is something you don’t see in most authors’ biographies.  There are endless stories of successful authors who sold their early works for pennies and worked ages before they made a living. Starving artistry is worn as a badge of honor, and I think that is a disservice to the craft; it supports the idea that it isn’t a real job, deserving of real pay.   As a writer, it gave me a little hope and I smiled at Dahl’s sticking it to the man! :)

I was also intrigued by the descriptions of the author’s temperament. I love the ways in which the author and Dahl’s family described him.  He was just this ticking time bomb…quick to speak his mind, a little ornery, silently genius. He really made me want to know him!

Maris: I think the author definitely did a great job – he relied heavily on source material, as well as interviews with Dahl’s still-living friends and family (and even interviewed Roald himself a few times before his death).  Something that surprised me was how much I enjoyed the author’s suppositions and assumptions – when there wasn’t enough evidence to explain certain actions or events, the author would basically lay out a few theories, explaining how he got there.  It felt like detective work, which I always love.

Amanda: I think the writer did an excellent job at covering every major event in the author’s life, and he clearly did some extensive research. There was a major hole for me, though. I wanted to know about his inspirations, his creative process, where he got his biggest ideas. Maybe there wasn’t anywhere to find that kind of information. Roald Dahl is known for some incredibly imaginative works (James & the Giant Peach, the BFG, Matilda) which I grew up on. Sturrock touched on some stories vaguely, mostly as side notes to whatever event was occurring in Dahl’s life at the time. I wanted more. I felt cheated of that.

Maris: I was surprised how little of the book focused on his most well-known books.  There were discussions of his major successes, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the BFG, but there wasn’t nearly as much attention or in depth discussion devoted to them as I had expected and hoped for.  You think of Roald Dahl and you think of Matilda, not his time spent in Washington DC as a Diplomat.  However, to be fair, the more I learned about his life, the more I saw elements of his stories and characters pop up in his teachers, friends, and family members.  Additionally, it was really surprising to learn that his short stories and novels that were intended for an adult audience were pretty dark and macabre.  It definitely shed some light on the more gruesome aspects of his children’s books (the ill-fated children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example).  Also, who knew that Roald Dahl worked closely with Walt Disney, married an Oscar winning actress, and wrote a screenplay for a James Bond movie? I sure didn’t.

Amanda: I was surprised by the story about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When the film was being made, the NAACP protested the both the movie and the book, because the Oompa Loompas were portrayed as African Pygmies “from the deepest and darkest part of the jungle where no white man had ever been before.”  Hence…the orange-skinned alternatives were born. 

Dahl also criticized Gene Wilder’s portrayal of Wonka as “insufficiently gay and bouncy”, which I found interesting because I appreciate the eccentricity and mysteriousness of that character, but always wondered if he meant it to be that way. 

Maris: I did enjoy it!  I was proud of myself for venturing out of my comfort zone, and genuinely enjoyed learning about this author who played such a big role in my childhood reading.  Initially, I was really nervous that the book would completely destroy all of the illusions that I had about Roald Dahl, but in the end, I appreciated that despite the author’s obvious reverence for Dahl, the biography presented a really well-rounded and complete picture of Dahl’s life.  I think this would be a great start for anyone looking to venture into the world of non-fiction, or who wants to arm themselves with little tidbits and factoids to drop into regular conversation :)  Did you know that Roald Dahl was great friends with the Roosevelts (FDR and Eleanor) and with Ernest Hemingway?  Or that his last words were “Ow, fuck!”?

Amanda: I’d rate it a 3 out of 5.  I didn’t hate it, but it was quite dense, and the holes in the story were meaningful to me. I continued reading in hopes I’d finally get to the page I was waiting for, but never quite found it.  I’d recommend it to readers who enjoy biographies and historical accounts.  I do love learning about other people’s stories, and having some fun trivia to throw out at parties.  ;)

*Join in on the discussion of Roald Dahl and one lucky commenter will win one of Roald Dahl’s books! Winner chosen by Random.org on Friday.*

8 Comments

  1. This is really interesting to me. I haven’t read this book, but I did read The Irregulars by Jennet Conant, which focuses on Dahl’s years in Washington during WWII, and I have to say it made me think that Roald Dahl was kind of an asshole (which obviously wouldn’t be the view of an authorized biography.) He had a super interesting life and was a very smart guy, but I didn’t get the impression from The Irregulars that I would have liked him much. He seemed pretty misogynistic, although I guess that was pretty much the default culture in the 1940s. I still like his books though!

    • I actually think the biography did a good job of pointing out his faults, and painted a pretty clear picture of his… less than kind tendencies. I will say, though, that I didn’t get the impression that he was a misogynist. Based on the book and the stories about his personal life, I think he was more of an all-around asshole… he could be kind of arrogant and snobby, but that seemed to apply to men and women equally.

      One interesting point was that he was the single man in his family – his father died when he was very young, so it was his mother, his sisters, and him. He was kind of the treasured golden boy, and I think that attitude definitely rubbed off on him.

      • Agreed, Maris. I definitely got the idea that he was difficult to deal with, bull-headed, and a little irrational sometimes. I totally got the same feeling about the only man in the household thing. I imagined a lot of doting and being head of household at an early age combined to make him so stubborn and selfish.

  2. I read this biography pretty much as soon as it came out, I have always loved his stories and I really like to read author’s lives. He really had an interesting life, and even if it was non fiction, I loved imagining myself in his boys’ school as a young child, during his time fighting as a pilot, later at his garden / gypsy house in the UK. And all of the interesting bits as his job as a spy and his collaborations with Walt Disney and meeting with all kinds of important people of his time.

    Lauren, I actually thought of you when I read the book, there is a part where he describes his writing process / manias (always sitting in a certain green couch, using particular pencils and a yellow block note, talking about how he would write even if sometimes it felt like a task). I think you have told us about this several times and I just thought Lauren would like this book.

    It was thick, but I really enjoyed it, also because it comes with photos (at least the edition I had, which was actually a pocket one). I would give it an 8.5, maybe a 9 , but I guess that’s because as much as I like his stories I did not really have any expectations before reading it, so I wasn’t unsatisfied… there were not unanswered questions, just a quite full idea of his life. I also loved how he actually develops a foundation and device for patients of stroke after a health family crises.

  3. This sounds like a really interesting read, but dense, eek! I was a huge fan of ‘Matilda’ and also ‘Witches’ as a child! There was so magic in those books, I can still remember how truly mesmerized I was by the ladies in ‘Witches’ who gave no Effs. They were obviously not up to any good, turning to children in mouses (wtf?), but it was so fantastical and whimsical, and it almost felt like a little glimpse of feminism.
    Annnywayyyys – I had no clue about the interesting details of his life! Maris – the gremlins were myths told amongst war pilots – how cool!

    • The bio actually talked about how he was angry about the change in the ending to the Witches movie – (um, spoiler alert?) he put a lot of value in the fact that the boy remained a mouse, instead of changing back. I’ll have to pull up that section when I get home, but that was a big point of contention.

      Also! fun fact – apparently the grandmother in Witches was written to resemble Roald’s mother (old, wrinkled, large body covered in lace), and the boy was orphaned while in Norway, while they were there visiting his grandmother (Roald Dahl was Norwegian, born and raised in England, but they went back to Norway for vacations every year). Autobiographical elements everywheeeeere.

  4. this sounds most excellent- thank you especially to Amanda for mentioning the holes in the story. I still definatly want to read it, but may see if it’s on Audible- for a lot of denser things, listening while I’m knitting or doing something else makes me less impatient.

    • oh and I can’t beleive I neglected to mention The Irregulars- it is the story of his time with the RAF and as a spy. Again, about a 3/5, more if you’re into spies.

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Who the hell is she?


Lauren

I am a writer living in Seattle and I believe that life is a grand adventure and only boring if you believe it to be. Plus! You don't need money to have fun.

I live with my husband, a photographer by education and a maker-of-video-games by trade, and a baby named gabe in an apartment on the hill.

I am romantic about most things and I cry... about almost anything. I tell stories to entertain you, I spread stories to keep you in the loop. I am not a grammar freak, but I do know how to spell it. I am exceedingly proud of my scrambled eggs and I really could eat an entire pan of cupcakes. If I met me, I would be my best friend. I tend to be irreverent.

If you would like to chat with me or see what else I'm up to you can follow me on Twitter (betterinrealife), on facebook, or email me at betterinrealife at gmail.


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