May 21, 2009


Security Blankets: How “Peanuts” Touched Our Lives. By Don Fraser and Derrick Bang. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

The Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel. By Nicholas Ruddick. Wesleyan University Press. $35.

     These are “meta” books, one popular and one more academic, seeking to look beyond the works they discuss to find out those works’ effects and meanings. The authors’ concepts, though, turn out to be better than their executions. Charles Schulz’s Peanuts is a natural touchstone for all sorts of personal searches and has inspired many books about its influence – one of the best, Robert Short’s The Gospel According to Peanuts, dates all the way back to 1965. What Don Fraser and Derrick Bang bring to this field, which is almost a mini-genre of its own, is a series of brief essays contributed by a variety of people – “relatively short stories that could be enjoyed and digested as provocative and enduring appetizers, rather than enormous meals too quickly forgotten,” as the authors put it. That is rather odd wording, though, and the book itself is a touch on the odd side as well. There is no information whatsoever about any of the contributors – nothing on their ages, where they live, how long they have read Peanuts, where (or if) they work outside the home, except to the extent that the contributors themselves divulge snippets of data here and there. Fraser and Bang (and who are they, anyway? – the book doesn’t say) are proud of Security Blankets: “Like many of the world’s best ideas, the concept for this book began with a question.” But readers, including ones deeply affected by Peanuts, may be less charmed. It is not that the anecdotes here are uninteresting – some are amusing, some touching, some heartfelt. But there is no apparent organizing principle anywhere – nothing alphabetical or by age or geography, for example, and the contributions are not even numbered. So enjoyment of the book is strictly hit or miss. Readers may like Merrill Baker’s comment, “I also attribute a lot of my independence to Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang.” Or Miranda Wong’s: “After joining the Peanuts Collector Club, I made friends with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.” Or Rob Kirby’s: “There was something so devastatingly simple about Charles Schulz’s minimal use of lines to convey what actually was a highly detailed encapsulation of childhood.” You may be charmed by Denny May’s remembrance of his father, who actually flew a Sopwith Camel, the plane Snoopy uses as a World War I Flying Ace, or by textbook writer Karl J. Smith’s memory of the time Schulz used one of his algebra problems in a strip. But you will come upon more- and less-interesting reminiscences strictly by accident, and without a great deal of help from the authors, who are really just assemblers of these brief personal essays.

     Nicholas Ruddick’s book leans strongly in the other direction – Ruddick, a professor of English at the University of Regina, analyzes everything and is careful to point readers directly at whatever points he wants to make. But the subject matter he discusses is of limited interest, and his assumption that readers will be familiar with most, if not all, of the literature he discusses will limit his book’s appeal to people with a strong attachment to what Ruddick calls “prehistoric fiction.” That is likely to be a very small group indeed. Ruddick’s terminology can sometimes be confusing, too. He starts with a straightforward enough definition, if a highly academic one: “Prehistoric fiction, hereafter abbreviated ‘pf,’ is a speculative literary genre dependent on extrapolations from scientific or quasi-scientific discourse.” But just a few pages later, he confuses matters when he makes a distinction among “sf, pf [and] prehistoric sf,” thus requiring readers to wade through an explanation of the differences between science fiction and prehistoric fiction, and the ways in which science fiction set in prehistory differs (in Ruddick’s view) from what he designates pf. Ruddick proceeds to discuss pf in two overall ways, “General Evolution” and “Thematic Evolution,” dealing with works’ believability based on the science of the time in which they were written (and whether that is important) and also discussing what he calls the works’ “poetics.” Along the way, he shows some illustrations from the works he cites, and some of these can be quite interesting – when they are visible. Unfortunately, they often are not: a “cave bear” blends into the illustration’s dark background, for example, and a scene of dinosaurs threatening an ape-woman is so dark that the woman is barely distinguishable from the tree on which she stands. For every well-known author whom Ruddick discusses – Brian Aldiss, Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, et al. – there are many others with whom readers are unlikely to be familiar: F. Britten Austin, Elie Berthet, Austin Bierbower, Nictzin Dyalhis, G. Hagemans, Edmond Haraucourt, Alan Sullivan, and so on (and on). Ruddick tends to mention most authors’ works only in passing, which means readers unfamiliar with them have little to go on in determining whether the author’s analyses are accurate. One example among many: “[C.J. Cutcliffe] Hyne’s The New Eden [1892] is a case in point. On the island where the Archduke is conducting his experimental attempt to recapitulate human social evolution, monotheism evolves from the same psychosexual roots that gave rise to patriarchy.” Readers with a strong interest in pf will surely enjoy Ruddick’s exploration of its byways, and ones familiar with certain specific works in the field will at least be able to get a handle on what Ruddick is getting at by reading how he approaches the works they know. Despite the heavy-handed style, The Fire in the Stone gets a (+++) rating for these groups. But for readers looking for an introduction to prehistoric fiction or a sense of its significance as a genre – without already having a significant level of interest in it – Ruddick’s book gets a (++) rating.

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