May 2020 books read

  • Something That May Shock and Discredit You – Daniel Lavery (as Daniel Mallory Ortberg), 2020. Kind of a weird mish-mosh – I enjoyed parts of it very much but wished there was more straight-ahead memoir. But what sticks in my mind the most is the analysis of “transmasc energy” as originally exemplified by William Shatner’s Kirk – partly because I’m re-watching the original Star Trek, but also because I love windows into subcultures I’m not part of.
  • Cost Price – Dornford Yates, 1949. Sequel to Safe Custody with a lot more detail about the carved jewels, but burdened with tiresome late-Yates tropes, especially “woman who’s lower than hero’s social level but he magnanimously treats her well and so she’s head over heels for him.” The earlier book wasn’t in the Richard Chandos series, but this one features him and he drags that trope along – as well as too much focus on how ridiculously strong and naive he is. Ugh.
  • The Brontës Went to Woolworths – Rachel Ferguson, 1931. Jonathan borrowed this through ILL and it sounded so bonkers that I read it as well before returning. What a strange, sometimes-delightful, sometimes infuriating book – it takes a long time to figure out what the heck is going on with this crazy family, and then once I did, actual ghosts turned up and broke the genre I thought it was in. Plus the protagonist ends up being quite mean. But it was fascinating and if I had a copy I might read it again – I think its strangeness would be a bracing shock all over again in a few years. I’ve certainly never read anything at all like it.
  • Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen, 1811
  • My First Summer in the Sierra – John Muir, 1911 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Hungry Hill: A Memoir – Carol O’Malley Gaunt, 2007 – Irish Writers book group selection, but I didn’t pull any quotes. I hadn’t finished it when we discussed it in April, and I went back to it out of sheer stubbornness, but I regret it. One of the worst books I’ve ever read and not even in an interesting way – sentence by sentence the writing is competent, and the topic could have been fascinating, but there’s no there there.
  • A Child’s Delight – Noel Perrin, 1997. I’m a fan of Perrin, of books-about-books, and of children’s literature, so naturally I loved it. I’ve added a few titles to my to-read-someday list (The Planet of Junior Brown, I Go By Sea I Go By Land, Dogsbody, the stories of Laurence Housman) and loved all the essays about my already-favorites. My only minor disagreement is about the Magic Schoolbus books, which I think were over-hyped – but maybe I should give them another chance.
  • Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926) – Sean O’Casey, for Irish Writers book group. Not enough quotes to do a separate post; J&P was amusing, P&S hard to follow, but we agreed we’d really need to see them performed to get them. I knew these plays by title but didn’t know they were about the Irish revolution – I thought J&P was related to Leda and the swan… Words learned: “fistic” (related to boxing); “glad neck” blouse (deep V collar); “Shan Van Vok” – reference to “The Sean-Bhean bhocht,” a traditional song which also personifies Ireland.
  • The Shining – Stephen King, 1977. Not my favorite King but I was drawn back to it by thinking about Jack Torrance’s writing. The description of his play sounds pretty terrible, and the idea that it’s going to make him his fortune seems rather quaint even in the 70s… Might not read this one again ever – in fact, I’m 55 (1/2!) and that’s probably a good resolution to start making about books I’m not compelled by. Unless there’s some essay or idea I want to work out!
  • Magic, Inc. – Robert Heinlein, 1940. I was remembering the delightful Heinlein short about the dust devil (“Our Fair City”) and revisited this novella. It’s a weird mixture of small-business story in a world where magic can be harnessed for capitalism, which segues into an interminable watching-the-sausage-get-made political yarn. (The very detailed Wikipedia summary deals with the politics in one sentence, but it feels like a third of the book). There’s lovely chemistry between the narrator, Archie Fraser, and the old witch Mrs. Jennings, one of my favorite ultra-calm-and-competent Heinlein women.
  • Doctor Sleep – Stephen King, 2013. The sequel to The Shining which I thought I had never read until I started it again and I totally did try it already, presumably in 2013 or 2014. To my taste quite a bit better than the first, but a couple of plot holes: a not-very-sensical measles-immunity McGuffin, and a miniature train which goes on infrequent excursions to distant points up big grades (granted, there is at least one very long miniature railway – thank you King for making me research this – but nonetheless there is something so weird about the way this Look Park scale thing is described and then they’re heading off to like, Mount Sugarloaf for picnics – who maintains the track? how does this make sense logistically?) I might try the movie at some point.
  • The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus Into Your Life – Thomas M. Sterner, 2005 (early self-published edition). I thought this would be a fairly easy purge/low-hanging fruit from the shelves of self-help books I’m trying to purge – I’m a sucker for them! – but it’s actually quite good. Apparently Sterner went on to found a self-help empire, critiqued for promising the moon and the stars, but this original version is modest in its aims, and reaches them.
  • Red Dragon – Thomas Harris, 1981. I kept hearing how great this series was and finally checked it out. People are not exaggerating. I loved the sequel even more, but this first Hannibal book is remarkable – compelling, readable, and thought-provoking too. Thriller is not my favorite genre but yeah, this was a great read.

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen, 1811

We read this for the Great Books group – moved up a few months because public domain books are easiest while Forbes is closed. Unlike many, I didn’t get into Austen until I was at least in my 30s, and this may only be the third or so time I’ve read it. Immediately after finishing it I had to go re-watch the Emma Thompson movie, which is one of the few screenplays I think really improves on the original book (the other one that leaps to mind is To Kill a Mockingbird).

I keep forgetting this was her first novel – no wonder it’s not the best! It’s amusing, but the pacing is a little choppy. I think early Austen is more prone to the tendency, showcased here, for the protagonists to be essentially perfect (with some room for improvement, but basically born good, full of virtue and refined taste) and everyone else to be on a spectrum between foolish and bad. We’re told of Elinor at the very beginning that “her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn.” Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne are both silly, and though Elinor’s sense will learn to share her feelings a little more, Marianne’s sensibility (sensitiveness verging on romantic sentimentality) will need to change dramatically.

Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne enjoy being miserable: “The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again.” Marianne “was without any power, because she was without any desire of command over herself.” They are foolishly optimistic: “with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect.” Mrs. Dashwood plans improvements to the cottage “from the savings of an income of five hundred a year by a woman who never saved in her life.” When she rewrites history about Colonel Brandon, “Elinor perceived … the natural embellishments of her mother’s active fancy, which fashioned every thing delightful to her as it chose;” and then

“There was always a something,—if you remember,—in Willoughby’s eyes at times, which I did not like.”

Elinor could not remember it

Marianne, with excellent abilities and an excellent disposition, was neither reasonable nor candid. She expected from other people the same opinions and feelings as her own, and she judged of their motives by the immediate effect of their actions on herself.

Of course we get delightful observations of the silliest people:

Sir John was loud in his admiration at the end of every song, and as loud in his conversation with the others while every song lasted. Lady Middleton frequently called him to order, wondered how any one’s attention could be diverted from music for a moment, and asked Marianne to sing a particular song which Marianne had just finished.

Having to spend so much time with such annoying people – and because Marianne won’t bother to be polite, Elinor bears the brunt of the social niceties – makes the socializing feel vividly oppressive. Marianne quips: “The rent of this cottage is said to be low; but we have it on very hard terms, if we are to dine at the park whenever any one is staying either with them, or with us.”

Marriage usually seems fairly tedious if not unhappy; no wonder that in Austen’s narratives we get to the altar and stop there! But marriage is the be-all and end-all. The women walk a knife-edge between “virtue” and complete disaster (Moll Flanders was such a bracing alternative!) – Willoughby can say flatly that even though his aunt would have forgiven him if he married Eliza, “That could not be.”

A few more delightfully snarky yet realistic passages:

The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.

But that [Willoughby] was for ever inconsolable, that he fled from society, or contracted an habitual gloom of temper, or died of a broken heart, must not be depended on—for he did neither. He lived to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself. His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable; and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity.

We talked about Austen’s eternal appeal for adaptation: partly the human love of gossip; partly how cuttingly funny she is; partly how tidy and neat the narrative is, with a small cast of characters, a few locations, and happy endings tied up in bows; partly the conflict between a particularly repressed/restrained milieu and the full range of human nature (since it’s the Regency, Austen’s characters don’t yet pretend to ignore sex and death, unlike typical Victorians).

Somewhere I have the Emma Thompson book of the screenplay and her shooting diaries, which I’ll re-read when I find it. The screenplay’s pacing, the character development (especially little sister Margaret, who’s a cipher here but in the movie gives both Edward and Brandon opportunities to show their caring and goodness), the brilliant mix of textual dialogue and new lines, the wise character pruning (I don’t miss Lady Middleton, but Anne Steele has some good bits) – it’s an amazing adaptation. And then the movie piles on top-notch casting (the big names of course, but also Hugh Laurie as Mr. Palmer! Harriet Walter as Fanny!), superb acting, and Ang Lee as director. I’m finishing this post about two weeks after the discussion, and I’m ready to watch it again.

Shorter quotes:

  • “a fond mother, though, in pursuit of praise for her children, the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous; her demands are exorbitant; but she will swallow any thing”
  • Willoughby “hardly ever falls in love with anybody”
  • “Mrs. Jennings’s endeavours to cure a disappointment in love, by a variety of sweetmeats and olives, and a good fire”
  • Mrs. Ferrars “was not a woman of many words; for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.”
  • “no poverty of any kind, except of conversation”
  • Poor Elinor has “to be the comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in theirs”
  • John Dashwood “never wished to offend anybody, especially anybody of good fortune”
  • “Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate … to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen.”

In this book I learned:

Reading Project Gutenberg books on various devices

During the pandemic, the two Forbes Library book groups that I coordinate (Great Books, and Nature and Environment) are reading books in the public domain so that we can get them online without waiting lists. I wanted to compile some directions to send to group members but haven’t found a good one-stop resource, so I’m attempting one here. Please add a comment if you have better resources or if any of this is incorrect.

I will send out links to the main download location for the book, which is in pattern gutenberg.org/ebooks/[book number]. Here we use Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2084. Note that if you do an Internet search for a title, the result you’ll often get will be the link directly to the HTML version (“Read this book online”): https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2084/2084-h/2084-h.htm. That’s great for reading in a web browser, but if you have an e-reader or tablet you can download a file that you can read more easily.

Click the link to download the EPUB file for Android (Google Play Books) or Mac (iBooks or Apple Books). Use the Kindle link for Kindle. You can choose the Box, Google Drive, or OneDrive icons to download directly into those cloud services rather than onto your hard drive.

  • On an Android phone or tablet, or on a Chromebook, use the Google Play Books app. The simplest way is to visit https://play.google.com/books on a computer first and click Upload Files. You can upload from the local computer or from Google Drive. After you select the file (epub in this case, but you can also upload PDFs), it will take a minute to process. Once complete, the book is in your Play Books library under Uploads and can be accessed from any device which has the Play Books app installed.
  • On a Mac or iPad, use the iBooks or Apple Books app. Click File/Add to Library and browse to the file you downloaded (epub in this case, but you can also upload PDFs). [I don’t have an iPad to test on; you should be able to import there as well or visit the mobile version of Project Gutenberg, https://m.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2084.mobile]
  • For Kindle, plug the device into your computer and drag-and-drop the downloaded .mobi file into the Documents file on your Kindle. Or you can send it to your Kindle via email.

April 2020 books read

  • The Moon Moth” – Jack Vance, 1961. Just a short story, but such a favorite that I’m listing it. It successfully combines Vance’s mystery genre side (he wrote a bunch as John Holbrook Vance as well as some “Ellery Queen” novels) with his primary skill at anthropological science fiction, culminating in a delightfully-satisfying twist ending.
  • Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World – Judith D. Schwartz, 2016 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner, 1971 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (tr. Constance Garnett), 1878 (1901) – quotes pulled, tbd
  • The House that Berry Built – Dornford Yates, 1945. My father, who sparked my love of Yates through this book specifically, died this month, and I picked this up to re-read for the umpteenth time in memory of him…
  • An Eye for a Tooth – Dornford Yates, 1943. …and then I was off on a Yates kick, but a restrained one. This time I just went back to a few of the thrillers – this is one that I acquired late and so didn’t remember that well. I might only have read it once or twice, imagine that! Not bad but a little past his prime in this genre.
  • Safe Custody – Dornford Yates, 1932. I moved on to the series that deal with one of my favorite McGuffins ever, a set of 127 carved jewels commissioned by Pope Alexander VI. They’re so well-described that I wish they really existed; I see that they were probably inspired by the Pope Paul II collection of 827 such gems.

March 2020 books read

  • Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel, 2014. I love post-apocalyptic fiction, and the coronavirus pandemic was just picking up in the US when I finished this. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it was overshadowed by my memories of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which I saw in 2015 (with my friend Stephanie as Bart) and was looking forward to seeing again at UMass this spring. Looks like they’ll do it in the fall – fingers crossed! I might re-read this after seeing the play again, as post-pandemic it will have new resonance. I read it fast, and I’m writing this on 5/2/2020 when the beginning of March feels like it was several years ago.
  • Emma – Jane Austen, 1815. Re-read in conjunction with the film, directed by friend-of-my-brother Autumn de Wilde. The film was amazing (saw it opening weekend right before everything shut down), stolen by Mrs. Elton (Tanya Reynolds) even though there wasn’t nearly as much about Maple Grove as in the book.
  • The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban, 1967. Comfort re-reading but also one of my top ten novels of all time. Description of Crow, the director of the Caws of Art avant-garde theater company: “A tall, well-set-up bird, he wore his great black, glossy wings in the manner of a cloak thrown carelessly over his shoulders…” Someday I’ll write a long essay about this amazing book.
  • Medallion Status: True Stories from Secret Rooms – John Hodgman, 2019. Enjoyable but I gobbled it down and don’t remember much now. Hodgman used to have a summer place near here and there were some local references which I always get a kick out of. He’s a good writer.
  • The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses – Peter Brannen, 2017 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Krapp’s Last Tape – Samuel Beckett, 1958 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson, 1980 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Envious Casca – Georgette Heyer, 1941. This is a long-time favorite comfort re-read, but I like it less each time I read it. For some reason the romance used to be very compelling to me but is no longer. Still great characters but not as much humor as my favorite Heyers (on the whole she’s shrunk on me as an author as well…)
  • Worzel Gummidge – Barbara Euphan Todd, 1936. I had one of this series as a child but I don’t think it was this one – none of the other title descriptions look exactly right either, though. A strange book, but the idea of the TV Gummidge having “interchangeable turnip, mangelwurzel and swede heads” is even weirder…
  • Talking Turkey – Hilary Caws-Elwitt, unpublished mss (2014). Re-read my own book (middle-grade animal fantasy) when I had insomnia. It holds up!
  • Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen – Hannah Howard, 2018. Couldn’t put it down but I didn’t exactly enjoy it – too much self-hatred. I do love the way she writes about cheese.
  • Souls – Joanna Russ, 1982. I come back to this novella whenever I feel despair about the world, and it comforts me in a weird dark way.
  • The Iron Giant: A Children’s Story in Five Nights – Ted Hughes, 1968. Read frequently in childhood, and some of the images were burned into my brain. but I probably hadn’t revisited it in a couple of decades (not since the terrific Brad Bird movie, which was, gulp, 1989). It’s as wonderful as I remembered.

February 2020 books read

  • Educated – Tara Westover, 2018. I had no idea quite how harrowing this would be. So interesting that the family essential oil empire, described near the end, is still going strong.
  • Quit Like a Millionaire: No Gimmicks, Luck, or Trust Fund Required – Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung, 2019 – I’m sort of a FIRE follower and gobble up books like this. On the quick-read/fun side – I don’t think I learned anything new but I like Kristy’s attitude.
  • The Art of Frugal Hedonism: A Guide to Spending Less While Enjoying Everything More – Annie Raser-Rowland with Adam Grubb, 2017
  • Salt: A World History – Mark Kurlansky, 2003 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Beatlebone – Kevin Barry, 2015 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe, 1722 – quotes pulled, tbd

The Art of Frugal Hedonism: A Guide to Spending Less While Enjoying Everything More – Annie Raser-Rowland with Adam Grubb, 2017

I think I heard about this from the same source as Quit Like a Millionaire, but this one I loved. I borrowed it from the library but will put a copy on my to-buy list. There’s a nice website and ooh, an interview I plan on watching!

The book is similar in tone and optimism to my favorite financial blogger, Mr. Money Mustache, but even more focused on relishing day-to-day pleasures and the natural world. Some of the chapter titles capture this attitude: “Recalibrate your senses,” “Enjoy excess” (they throw a banana party when they have a glut of them), “Revel in the good brain chemistry of resourcefulness,” “Indulge your curiosity,” “It won’t be dull. We promise,” “Put on your favorite power anthem, and be the zeitgeist,” “Free up your frivolity,” “Sup at the cultural buffet,” and the last one, “Look up, think about constellations. Look down, think about magma.”

It’s Australian, so I learned the word “jaffle” (a toasted sandwich – now I want one of the cool fluted grills).

In the “Don’t be a sucker” chapter, about resisting advertising:

Be more content. Okay, easier said that done, but as author Douglas Rushkoff writes in his book Coercion, “the more fun you’re having in life, the more satisfied your are with yourself, the harder a target you are to reach.” You may have observed that people with an air of contentment with life, a mind fascinated by ideas, and strong connections with other people and the natural world are less susceptible to advertising. So make like a content person, and ignore the billboard! You are above such piffle!

In the frivolity chapter, contrasted to light-hearted spending:

Living light-heartedly is an altogether different beast. It involves being a bit philosophical about bad things that happen, so that they don’t dominate your mind or outlook. Or retaining the ability to take delight in fleeting moments. Or recognizing that being frivolous, spontaneous or playful with other humans and within your own head is a totally free present you can give to yourself and the people around you as often as you like. This stuff is the real assertion of freedom from the drabber elements of daily life: don’t get it confused with frivolous spending.

January 2020 books read

  • The Genius of Birds – Jennifer Ackerman, 2016 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia – Laura Miller, 2008. The rare book where my reaction was “I wish I had written this,” because Miller explores so much of what pulls me to re-read these books. I didn’t pull quotes but there’s more I want to explore on a second read. Someday!
  • Milkman – Anna Burns, 2018 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing – Robert Caro, 2019 – Couldn’t put it down! I actually haven’t read any of Caro’s biographies but now I want to. My favorite bits were these two heart-warming incidents:

I was still in the first year of research [on The Power Broker] when friends and acquaintances began to ask if I was “still doing that book.” Later I would be asked, “How long have you been working on it now?” When I said three years, or four, or five, they would quickly disguise their look of incredulity, but not quickly enough to keep me from seeing it. I came to dread that question.

Then one day, I looked up and James Flexner was standing over me. The expression on his face was friendly, but after he had asked what I was writing about, the next question was the question I had come to dread: “How long have you been working on it?” This time, however, when I replied, “Five years,” the response was not an incredulous stare.
“Oh,” Jim Flexner said, “that’s not so long. I’ve been working on my Washington for nine years.”
I could have jumped up and kissed him, whiskers and all—as, the next day, I could have jumped up and kissed Joe Lash, big beard and all, when he asked me the same question, and, after hearing my answer, said in his quiet way, “Eleanor and Franklin took me seven years.” In a couple of sentences, these two men—idols of mine—had wiped away five years of doubt.

Lynn [Nesbit] had read my manuscript, and said, “I’d like to represent you, but you have to tell me something first. Why do you look so worried?”
I didn’t know I looked worried. But of course I was. I told her, “I’m worried that I won’t have enough money to finish the book.” My editor had left me feeling that few people would read a book on Robert Moses, and that therefore no publisher would give me the money I needed to finish it.
She asked how much money I was talking about. I told her I needed enough so I could spend two more years on the book. I thought it would take me two years. I don’t remember the exact amount I specified, but I know it was not that large. And all of a sudden there were other sentences that I’ll never forget. She said, “Is that what you’re worried about? Then you can stop worrying right now. I can get you that by just picking up the phone. Everybody in New York knows about this book.”
Then she said, “You can stop worrying about money. But I’ve read this manuscript. What you care about is writing. My job is to find you an editor you can work with for the rest of your life.”

  • Don Quixote (El ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha) – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, 1615 (tr Edith Grossman, 2005) – quotes pulled, TBD

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!