December 2019 books read

  • Finished The Chronicles of Narnia
  • A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby, 2005 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer – Jeff VanderMeer, 2007. Not your typical writing book at all. It’s a little outdated in some respects, but covers so many aspects of publication and career that it’s still full of valuable and interesting information.
  • Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming – Paul Hawken (ed.), 2017 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • The Black Envelope (Mr. Pinkerton Again!) – David Frome, 1937 – Jonathan loves silly/cozy mysteries and recommended this one as a good representative of the Mr. Pinkerton series. Not bad, not great.
  • A Death in the Family – James Agee, 1956 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • The Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman, 2019. I enjoyed it very much but read it quickly. I’ll re-read the whole Book of Dust trilogy after the 3rd one comes out (Wikipedia says Pullman hasn’t even started it, yikes) and have a better sense then of the whole.
  • Death From a Top Hat – Clayton Rawson, 1938 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • Measure for Murder – Clifford Witting, 1941. Another mystery Jonathan was trying out, and because it was set in the theater world and was in a series called Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction, 1900-1950 (I love best-of lists!) it was my 3rd for the month—super-unusual for me, and I’m probably off the mystery train for a while. I just picked up two interesting terms: “compactum,” a dresser (still in use in South Africa), and “Tansad” used to mean a working stool (the company name was Tan-Sad but this article says it comes from “tansad,” a French word meaning pillion seat).

Notable quote from a magazine article, “The Sanctuary” by Elif Batuman (New Yorker, Dec 19-26, 2011):

I thought about the power of the sacred: originating, if the archeologists are to be believed, in the most material expediencies of the body—how and what to eat—it overtakes the soul, making Neolithic man build Göbekli Tepe and making him bury it, sweeping through the millennia, generating monuments, strivings, vast inner landscapes. I thought about history, and the riddle of the Sphinx: what goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? Some people say that history is progress: isn’t this just a reflection of how we’re born, tiny, weak, and speechless, and then go on to build cathedrals and fly to the moon? When others say that history is a decline from a golden age, isn’t this because youth is so brief and we regret it for so long?

Year in review

I got almost all the books I read into Goodreads this year (might have missed a few), which helpfully counts them and tells me I read 33,705 pages (!) across 104 books. The “most popular” book was Huckleberry Finn, supposedly read by 1.2 million people this year, but only 5 also read The Black Envelope (still more than I would have expected!)

However, I am tremendously underwater with my retrospective posts of quotes pulled from book group books. I have made progress with the actual pulling—backlog under 10 I think—but draft posts etc. has got to be closer to 75. It’s OK if I never finish the actual posts as long as I grab the quotes, since this blog is really just for me anyway…

The Chronicles of Narnia – C. S. Lewis, 1950 – 1956

I was just going to add notes to the listings in the monthly round-up (November and December 2019), but they started getting long! Looks like I last re-read these 18 months ago, which is probably a typical interval for me over my lifetime as I love them so much. For such short books it’s amazing how they still elicit new reactions and thoughts

  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950. I craved making Mr. Tumnus’ tea—I thought the sugar-topped cake would be a pound cake, but most of the recipes dreamed up online are more of a fruit cake. I might make the cinnamon tea cake here and dig into some of those other posts!
  • Prince Caspian, 1951
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 1952
  • The Silver Chair, 1953. This time around I noticed how the suspense often resolves quickly, not the typical ratcheting-up, things-get-worse-and-worse techniques I associate with modern fiction (even for children). Near the end, this little drama happens in one paragraph: “The tide was running up the valley like a mill-race, and if it had come to swimming, the horses could hardly have won over. But it was still only a foot or two deep, and though it swished terribly round the horses’ legs, they reached the far side in safety.” And earlier, when the witch-snake almost overpowers Rilian, similarly it’s wrapped up in one page. The suspense still works but it’s not gory or drawn out. It reminded me of Lucy resisting the temptation to cast the “become the most beautiful” spell in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In the world of Narnia our protagonists encounter perils and make wrong choices without the worst quite happening. It makes sense that Lewis wrote Perelandra, an Eve story with a happy ending.
  • The Horse and His Boy, 1954. Calormen is clearly larger and more populous than Narnia. It took a long time for the Narnia-centrism (beyond the general racism) to jump out to me, partly I suppose because Narnia is cognate to England and that cultural viewpoint is the water I’ve been bathed in since childhood. On the mostly accurate charges of sexism and racism, Devin Brown tries to marshall a defense of Lewis, but it goes deeper than he admits. [note from future (Jan 2020) reading: Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book nails it]
  • The Magician’s Nephew, 1955. Same thought writ large: this is the creation story of “Narnia” (ie this whole world and possibly universe), with Aslan singing the very mountains into existence—but what about all the other lands/nations we’ve encountered: Archenland, Calormen, the Lone Islands, even Bism deep in the earth…?
  • The Last Battle, 1956. Again the end of Narnia-the-world is centered on Narnia-the-tiny-country. But on the good side, I noticed afresh how important this book was to me in shaping my ability to identify and avoid/deflect a certain kind of person. The monkey Shift manipulates his friend Puzzle the donkey by playing the martyr, telling him he’s doing things “for your sake,” asserting his special ability to do or know certain things. My impression is that Shift must be modeled on Mrs. Moore (a very interesting aspect of Lewis’ life, although there’s plenty of controversy about her character), but I only find references to her inspiring the “all-I-want” woman in The Screwtape Letters. Lucy defends Puzzle against those who blame him for going along with Shift (bringing disaster), but the text is ambiguous enough that I took away the need to develop and trust your instincts. Combined with the storyline of Emeth (the Calormen soldier who’s told that his sincerity in searching for truth meant that he was really a follower of Aslan rather than Tash), The Last Battle actually contributed to my religious skepticism/atheism.

Someday I want to write an essay about Narnia and Christianity—a topic that’s been explored in depth by many, but I’ve never seen my take fully represented. That will entail yet another re-read. I’m already looking forward to it!