Archive for the ‘Classics Club’ Category

Previously posted on August 30, 2015

Read Full Post »

On September 1, 2012, I started my Classics Club project with big plans – I had a long list of hard books that I intended to read. I reorganized my project about 15 months later, after I realized that an assignment list really wasn’t very much fun and was turning the project into something that I wasn’t enjoying. I updated my page with classics that I had read but that weren’t on the existing list, and then decided to scrap the list altogether and just go forward reading what struck my fancy, with some basic ideas as to where I was headed. Recently I realized that I was really close to my initial goal of 50 classics in 5 years, so I made a huge push to get everything reviewed by August 31, the three year mark.

And, whew, I made it. I’m done.

Project Recap:

Total number of pages read: 20,634

Total number of centuries spanned: 3 (1794 through 1962)

Total number of books written by women: 21. I’m actually sort of surprised by the fact that 42% of the books were written by women. I didn’t make any effort at all at gender balance, but I know that I absolutely gravitate to books written by women writers. Even in a challenge that is probably going to be heavy on dead white guys, while I didn’t make it to 50% women, I wasn’t far off.

Oldest book read: Lady Susan by Jane Austen: Lady Susan was my only 18th century work, and just barely squeaked in because it was written in 1794. A novella, it was crisp, entertaining and Austen’s portrayal of the manipulative Lady Susan was first rate. Totally underrated, in my opinion, and should be more widely read by readers who love Jane Austen.

Newest book read: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. One of my few rules was that any book I read for the Classics Club had to be at least 50 years old. This one was published 53 years ago.

Favorite author: Edith Wharton. Before the Classics Club I had only read The Age of Innocence, which I just re-read. After the Classics Club I can honestly count Wharton as one of my favorite authors. I absolutely love the complexity and depth of her books.

Favorite book: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. This book was a total treat for me. I loved so many things about it – John Thornton is right up there with Mr. Darcy in the swoon-worthy category, and many of the supporting characters were complicated and interesting. I can’t wait to read more Gaskell.

Least favorite author: Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read The Scarlet Letter and The Blithedale Romance and I can say unequivocally that I am over Hawthorne. Never again.

Most hated book: King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. What I thought I was getting: a rollicking adventure story about an Indiana Jones type character. What I got: a book that was devoid of suspense about an obnoxious, racist jackass who slaughters elephants. It had no redeeming qualities as far as I was concerned.

Longest book: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. At 1200+ pages, this was a committment that took more than a year to fulfill. I ended up really liking it, but Hugo never had a thought that he didn’t think was worthy of inclusion.

Shortest book: Lady Susan by Jane Austen. But since I already mentioned that one, the second shortest was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, which is a fun read for the autumn season, and is more humorous that scary.

Biggest failure: Not finishing The Count of Monte Cristo after two and a half years. Not sure if I will ever go back.

Biggest success: reading four Dickens novels. I initially planned to read all 15 of Dickens’ novels, but struggled through Dombey and Son and realized that I needed a change of plans. I still eventually want to read them all, but I’m not going to force a schedule.

Read Full Post »

Previously published January 19, 2015

Title: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Author: Shirley Jackson
Published in 1962

Summary from Goodreads: Visitors call seldom at Blackwood House. Taking tea at the scene of a multiple poisoning, with a suspected murderess as one’s host, is a perilous business. For a start, the talk tends to turn to arsenic. “It happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night,” explains Uncle Julian, continually rehearsing the details of the fatal family meal. “My sister made these this morning,” says Merricat, politely proffering a plate of rum cakes, fresh from the poisoner’s kitchen. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel, is full of a macabre and sinister humor, and Merricat herself, its amiable narrator, is one of the great unhinged heroines of literature. “What place would be better for us than this?” she asks, of the neat, secluded realm she shares with her uncle and with her beloved older sister, Constance. “Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people.” Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic, burying talismanic objects beneath the family estate, nailing them to trees, ritually revisiting them. She has made “a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us” against the distrust and hostility of neighboring villagers.

Or so she believes. But at last the magic fails. A stranger arrives — cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune. He disturbs the sisters’ careful habits, installing himself at the head of the family table, unearthing Merricat’s treasures, talking privately to Constance about “normal lives” and “boy friends.” Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods. The result is crisis and tragedy, the revelation of a terrible secret, the convergence of the villagers upon the house, and a spectacular unleashing of collective spite.

The sisters are propelled further into seclusion and solipsism, abandoning “time and the orderly pattern of our old days” in favor of an ever-narrowing circuit of ritual and shadow. They have themselves become talismans, to be alternately demonized and propitiated, darkly, with gifts. Jackson’s novel emerges less as a study in eccentricity and more — like some of her other fictions — as a powerful critique of the anxious, ruthless processes involved in the maintenance of normality itself. “Poor strangers,” says Merricat contentedly at last, studying trespassers from the darkness behind the barricaded Blackwood windows. “They have so much to be afraid of.”

A slender book, only 148 pages long, that packs an outsized punch. Prior to reading it, I’d heard a lot about it, as well as a lot about Shirley Jackson, who is best known for her short story that launched a thousand anthologies: The Lottery. I vaguely remember reading The Lottery in high school, and finding it more than a little disturbing.

And it is my general sense that “more than a little disturbing” pretty much describes Shirley Jackson to a T.

In any event, I participate in a blog event every year called R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril) that is hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. It is a lot of fun, and is an opportunity to read books that are on the chiller/thriller/horror end of the spectrum. This was one of my R.I.P. reads for 2013.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a brief tale of two sisters: Merrikat and Constance, who live in their family home after someone has murdered every other member of the family (with the exception of their crazy uncle) using poisoned sugar six years earlier. Merrikat is 18, although she perpetually seems to be about 12, and Constance is her older sister, who was acquitted of the murders. The unsolved mass homicide hangs like a pall over the house, and over the village in which Merrikat and Constance live.

It is a fast read, a page turner, propelling me forward with a sense of vague unease and discomfort. I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a little psychological horror. It is a remarkable book.

As an aside, I read The Haunting of Hill House earlier this year (well after reading this one – this review was long-delayed on my blog) and I actually prefer this one. Take that for what you will!

Read Full Post »

Originally published October 2, 2014

Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Published in 1959

Summary from Goodreads: First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

“What else could you call Hill House?” Luke demanded. “Well—disturbed, perhaps. Leprous. Sick. Any of the popular euphemisms for insanity; a deranged house is a pretty conceit.

Shirley Jackson wrote and published The Haunting of Hill House in 1959. A classic ghost story, it owes a debt to the Victorian antiquarian ghost stories of writers like M.R. James, but approaches the genre from a totally different style. Rather than indulging in flowery, gothic, Victorian prose, Jackson is a stripped-down writer of great emotional engagement. The spareness of her prose is what gives her work its authority and power.

The book has a very limited cast, and is written on a small scale. There are the four primary characters – Professor Montague, Luke, Theodora and Eleanor. Eleanor develops as the primary narrator, and the primary focus of Hill House itself. A young woman with a history of psychic sensitivity, she is an unreliable narrator, and there are questions that are never resolved. She arrived first at Hill House – was the haunting a projection of her psychic sensitivity? Why was she the primary focus of Hill House? Was there a single ghost, or multiple spirits, or is it the house itself that is a malevolent presence seeking companionship?

In addition to this primary quartet, there are two characters who are the “help,” who come and go from Hill House without interference, and, late in the book, the Professor’s oddly cheerful wife shows up with a side kick. It is her plan to gently guide – or possibly to force – the spirits to pass from earthly discontent into heavenly peacefulness. Mrs. Montague is an archetypal character, the managing female who interferes with the work to be done by the men. This is the point at which the book, and the house, seem to take a turn into even deeper darkness, as though a battle for the soul of Hill House has commenced, and Eleanor’s narration slips further and further into confusion.

One overriding theme of Hill House is that of movement toward an unknown destination. She uses the word “journey” over and over again, in discussing Eleanor’s trip toward Hill House, early in the book, and then between the four characters once they have arrived. At the beginning all is hopeful, optimistic, Eleanor drives her car toward Hill House with a sense of the possible.

“Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.

When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gay stream tumbled along below her. I have not very much farther to go, Eleanor thought; I am more than halfway there. Journey’s end, she thought, and far back in her mind, sparkling like the little stream, a tag end of a tune danced through her head, bringing distantly a word or so;

“In delay there lies no plenty,” she thought, “in delay there lies no plenty.” She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden. I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step. No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road. I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth. I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread. People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin. . . . But the cottage was far behind, and it was time to look for her new road, so carefully charted by Dr. Montague.”

Jackson repeatedly uses the phrase “journeys end in lovers meeting,” fourteen times by count of my kindle. The phrase comes from Twelfth Night, Act II, a song sung by Feste, a jester:

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear! Your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

The first time the phrase is used is by Eleanor, in reference to her arrival at Hill House:

“It was an act of moral strength to lift her foot and set it on the bottom step, and she thought that her deep unwillingness to touch Hill House for the first time came directly from the vivid feeling that it was waiting for her, evil, but patient. Journeys end in lovers meeting, she thought, remembering her song at last, and laughed, standing on the steps of Hill House, journeys end in lovers meeting, and she put her feet down firmly and went up to the veranda and the door. Hill House came around her in a rush; she was enshadowed, and the sound of her feet on the wood of the veranda was an outrage in the utter silence, as though it had been a very long time since feet stamped across the boards of Hill House.”

The other characters use it as well, repeatedly, to describe the gathering at Hill House. It is used by Theodora, in potentially jealous reference to Eleanor’s relationship to Luke, it is used by Eleanor in reference to her own ambiguously sexual/romantic relationship with Theodora, and it is used, generally, in reference to the ending of Eleanor’s journey at Hill House.

Hill House, itself, looms over the book, a dark presence, pregnant with dread and malevolence. Jackson’s ability to describe the oddities of the house – the doors that won’t stay open, the angles that aren’t quite right, the rooms that don’t fit together in a way that is quite consistent with architecture and physics, is remarkable. Hill House takes on a character of its own, and overwhelms the characters themselves. In a battle of wills, Hill House wins.

“Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away.”

This is a perfect book for October, when the sun turns on its journey away from us, and brings with it darkness. Suspenseful without being gory, never devolving into melodrama, it is a near perfect example of the haunted house novel. If you can only choose one Jackson novel to read, I would slightly more highly recommend the other well-known book by her – We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But why would a reader limit him or herself to only one? Read them both – always in autumn.

“Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Read Full Post »

Originally published April 20, 2015

Title: The Last Battle
Author: C.S. Lewis
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #7
Published in 1956

Summary from Goodreads: NARNIA…where you must say good-bye…and where the adventure begins again.

The Unicorn says that humans are brought to Narnia when Narnia is stirred and upset. And Narnia is in trouble now: A false Aslan roams the land. Narnia’s only hope is that Eustace and Jill, old friends to Narnia, will be able to find the true Aslan and restore peace to the land. Their task is a difficult one because, as the Centaur says, “The stars never lie, but Men and Beasts do.” Who is the real Aslan and who is the imposter?

And so we come to the end.

I really don’t like this book at all. Of all of the Narnia books, this is the one that won the Carnegie (in 1956), which near as I can tell must be like when a really talented actor finally wins the Academy Award for one of their weaker performances. Because the fact that this book won an Carnegie, but that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was overlooked is a travesty.

Because The Last Battle, in my opinion, has little to redeem it. It is, at its most basic level, an allegory of the Book of Revelations from the Bible. Narnia perishes in darkness, and those who are chosen of Aslan are taken to his country.

But where I cannot forgive Lewis is for his treatment of Susan. Susan Pevensie haunts me, like she does many readers. She is barely mentioned in the book, a few paragraphs worth of dismissal are all that she receives, when her entire family, from Digory right through to Jill Pole, perish in a train accident and are transported to Narnia. Without her:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

“Well, don’t let’s talk about that now,” said Peter.

Don’t let’s talk about that now? Really, Peter? When do you think you might want to talk about Susan? No one spares a thought for Susan, who is literally the only member of her family who does not perish in a fiery train crash. She is left, alone, in England. And I can’t help but think of her, grieving her siblings, and the moment that she figures out that she alone of the survivors of Narnia has been left. Because Susan may be frivolous, but she isn’t stupid.

It’s cruel. It is a cruel thing to do to a character, and I honestly can’t understand why he would do it, and dismiss her so cavalierly. I get it, I guess. He had to make some kind of a point that not everyone gets into heaven.

I reread Narnia regularly. But I never reread The Last Battle. I still remember the first time I read it. It pissed me off. Deeply. As far as I am concerned, the series is better without it. About the only thing that I like about the book is that Reepicheep reappears in Aslan’s Country. I don’t recommend it. Stop with The Magician’s Nephew.

Neal Gaiman wrote a fascinating and more than a little disturbing short story called “The Problem of Susan”. It used to be available on the internet, but has disappeared. If you stumble upon it, it’s worth reading.

Read Full Post »

Originally posted April 6, 2014

Title: The Magician’s Nephew
Author: C.S. Lewis
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #6
Published in 1955

Summary from Goodreads: The Magician’s Nephew is a gorgeous introduction to the magical land of Narnia. The many readers who discovered C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will be delighted to find that the sixth volume in the series is actually the first in the sequence–and a step back in time. In this unforgettable story, British schoolchildren Polly and Digory inadvertently tumble into the Wood Between the Worlds, where they meet the evil Queen Jadis and, ultimately, the great, mysterious King Aslan. We witness the birth of Narnia and discover the legendary source of all the adventures that are to follow in the seven books that comprise the series.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Silmarillion as the creation story for his world of Middle Earth. Christians, of course, have the Book of Genesis.

C.S. Lewis gives his readers The Magician’s Nephew as the creation myth for Narnia, which borrows heavily from both of the above (it is true that The Magician’s Nephew was published before The Silmarillion, but it is also true that The Silmarillion was written before TMN. Given the close relationship between Tolkien and Lewis, it is undeniable that Lewis would have read The Silmarillion before putting pen to paper to write TMN). There is a world sung into existence (thanks, JRR), and forbidden fruit that just so happens to be an apple (thanks, Bible dudes).

The Magician’s Nephew – like all of the Narnia books – is a quick read. I have to say that I don’t think it comes even close to Wardrobe, or The Horse and His Boy, or even The Silver Chair for quality. In my wrap up post, I’ll rank the books based on my personal enjoyment. This one is near the bottom. Along with the final book, Lewis appears, to me, have abandoned any pretense of story telling, and moved into pure allegory and Christian propaganda. I feel like he sat down at some point and thought, “well, Clive, you really need a beginning – you know, like “in the beginning there was” and you need an ending, like, you know, “the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and someone has got to go to hell,” so get to it, man,” and he wrote The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle.

Now, I know that isn’t how it happened. Actually, TMN took him forever to write – approximately six years. He began it after finishing TLTW&TW, but interrupted writing it to complete all five other books, including The Last Battle. It was published before The Last Battle, but finished after.

At this point, I am going to make my argument for publication order as opposed to chronological order. I am quite immovable on this point – it is my opinion that there cannot be two legitimate opinions on the subject. The books should be read in publication order. Period.

As I’ve said several times throughout this process, TLTW&TW is the strongest of the books. It carries the most emotional resonance. The image of Lucy entering the snowy wood through the wardrobe and finding the lamppost burning quite unexpectedly and without warning is one that is rich and thrilling. It is the signature piece of imagery for the series – the movie posters feature it. The title alludes to it.

It is critical that the reader enter Narnia for the first time with Lucy. Only in that way can we connect to her astonishment. Her disorientation. Her sense of wonder. Having already read TMN ruins the mystery and the magic of the entire series. Reading TMN nearly last, on the other hand, prepares the reader to overlook its flaws because of that emotional connection to Narnia, to the Pevensies, to the narrative constructed by Lewis. Learning the origins of the lamppost and the wardrobe, and the identity of the professor, and how everyone is connected within the stories is a most marvelous gift and is the best part of the book. By far. It is opening that box of Turkish delight, and finding several delicious pieces of candy inside. Where did the White Witch come from? Answered. Why do the animals talk? Answered. Why is the wardrobe a portal into Narnia? Answered. Why is the professor so awesome? Answered.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that even identifying the Professor by name in the plot summary for TLTW&TW is a mistake on the part of the publishers. We are meant to NOT KNOW the identity of the professor when we are reading Wardrobe. We are meant to NOT KNOW, but merely suspect, that the Professor himself has some connection to Narnia, with his mutterings about “what do they teach children these days?” Knowing that the Professor is the Digory Kirche who was there for the genesis, the creation, of Narnia, sucks the life out of the best of the books.

Anyway, TMN is worth reading, but only barely just. It’s worth reading after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but not before. Not ever before.

Read Full Post »

Originally posted April 5, 2014

Title: The Horse and His Boy
Author: C.S. Lewis
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #5
Published in 1954

Summary from Goodreads: Narnia… where some horses talk, where treachery is brewing, where destiny awaits. On a desperate journey, two runaways meet and join forces. Though they are only looking to escape their harsh and narrow lives, they soon find themselves at the center of a terrible battle. It is a battle that will decide their fate and the fate of Narnia itself.

I’m totally behind on the Narnia discussion!

The Horse and His Boy holds the distinction of being the only Narnia book which takes place entirely within the boundaries of Narnia. It was the fifth book written and published, but chronologically, would be in the third position, because it is basically a tale of some events that occurred during the time that the four Pevensies were “Kings and Queens” of Narnia, before they tumbled back out of the wardrobe to resume their childhoods. While they are tangential to the story, it is interesting to get to see the children as adults (or at least young adults).

The plot summary provided by Goodreads really sucks, so I’m going to expand on it a bit. TH&hB is an adventure story of a flight by a pair of children, Shasta and Aravis, from their home of Calormene, a vaguely Islamic-style kingdom to the south of Narnia, to freedom in Narnia. Shasta is the equivalent of a slave, with a rather Moses-ish backstory. He was found floating in the Calormene equivalent of bulrushes by his “father”, the fishmerman Arsheesh. Shasta overhears Arsheesh selling him to a Calormene noble, and when he overhears the transaction, any sense of loyalty towards Arsheesh for taking him in disappears. He decides to flee. In the course of making this decision, he learns that the horse belonging to the Calormene nobleman is a Narnia horse. A talking horse, named Bree. They decide to escape to Narnia together.

The second pair of our quartet are Aravis and her horse Hwin. Aravis is a young female Calormene of noble birth who has been betrothed to a man who is approximately half a century her senior. She is, in my opinion, Lewis’s best female character, being resourceful and clear-headed in her decision to leave behind the land of her birth for the freedom of the north. Yes, there are distinct cultural problems with the idea that a dark-skinned adolescent would flee her oppressive Islam-style kingdom for the freedom of the white-skinned north in order to escape a disgusting marriage to an elderly, wealthy man. It is not as though Lewis’s homeland was exempt from this phenomenon – after all, Henry VIII married Catherine Howard when he was 49, and she was 16. In any event, however, Aravis rocks, and Hwin, her horse is a humble, helpful foil to the pompous Bree.

Shasta and Bree, Aravis and Hwin, are more or less pushed together in their northward flight by Aslan, and they decide to travel together. On their quest northward, they discover a plot by the Carlormenes to seize control of Narnia which they must foil. The plot relies heavily on coincidence, and also on the idea of an infallible and inevitable destiny. A chess game, with a divine player cooly moving the pieces about on the board while playing several moves ahead.

The four Pevensies themselves enter into the story but a little. Most importantly, I think, Lewis begins the process of severing Susan from the Narnian narrative. It is her poor judgment and obsession with boys and other frivolities that make it possible for the Calormenes to embark on their evil plan to subjugate free Narnia. The problem of Susan is, for me, the biggest problem with the series and is the reason that I am left with extremely mixed emotions about the series as a whole. The only book of the seven for which I have unadulterated admiration is the first. By the time we get to book 7, I am utterly disillusioned.

For all of its failings, I really do like this book. I think it’s the horses, honestly. Bree and Hwin are absolutely delightful. Bree, pompous and arrogant, is humbled in a really convincing way. And Hwin is unassuming, but full of integrity and inner strength. For a horse-loving girl, a story that includes talking horses escaping oppression is pretty wonderful.

Read Full Post »

Originally published March 28, 2014

Title: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Author: C.S. Lewis
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #3
Published in 1953

Summary from Goodreads: Lucy and Edmund, with their dreadful cousin Eustace, get magically pulled into a painting of a ship at sea. That ship is the Dawn Treader, and on board is Caspian, King of Narnia. He and his companions, including Reepicheep, the valiant warrior mouse, are searching for seven lost lords of Narnia, and their voyage will take them to the edge of the world. Their adventures include being captured by slave traders, a much-too-close encounter with a dragon, and visits to many enchanted islands, including the place where dreams come true.

This edition follows the original numbering scheme. More recent publishers have re-numbered the volumes so that the books are ordered chronologically. This was reportedly the author’s preference. Other editions number this book as #5.

***Spoiler alert***

My Narnia posts pretty much presume that either you have already read the entire chronicles, or you don’t care about spoilers. It is impossible to discuss the whole series without spoiling the various parts of it. Fair warning – you will learn a lot about the plots by reading on.

One name: Reepicheep. All right, two names: Reepicheep and Eustace.

This book has one of the best opening lines of all time: “THERE WAS A BOY CALLED EUSTACE Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the third book in the Narnia series (in publication order) and is the fifth book if the books are put into chronological order. I will say right now that I am a proponent of publication order. I will provide a complete argument in support of my position in the scheduled wrap up post, but for now let it be said that I have read the books in both orders. Publication order is superior.

So, Dawn Treader. This is the book that has Edmund and Lucy returning to Narnia, and their annoying, smug cousin Eustace tags along quite by mistake. Eustace is a hoot – very superior British youth constantly demanding to be taken to the British consulate. His narrative arc is one of the best in all of the books and his interactions with Reepicheep are delightful. In fact, Reepicheep is among the most noble of characters in the entire series, and the mice, in general, are simply awesome. Reepicheep is the most awesome of the most awesome. He appears in Prince Caspian, and makes a reprise in Voyage, and then we see him one last time in The Last Battle. And it is the mouse who helps the dragon through his dark night of the soul over to the other side.

The premise of the Dawn Treader is a classic quest novel – Caspian X is at the helm of Narnia, peace has been restored, and he has embarked on a journey to find the Seven Lost Lords of Narnia who were dispatched by Miraz on impossible missions to get them out of the way so he could usurp the throne. Five of the seven lords are found alive, two of them having apparently perished in different ways. Thematically, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a voyage of discovery – certain of the characters confronting and overcoming their own weaknesses. Eustace is transformed into a dragon because of his greed and selfishness and must find his way back into boyhood. Caspian himself is tempted to leave his subjects without a ruler, and must give up the dream and return to the hard life of being a responsible king. Even Lucy is tempted, first by great physical beauty, and then by something much more mundane – the desire to find out what her friends are saying about her. In classic “be careful what you wish for” fashion, what she learns is unflattering and results in the demise of a potential friendship.

I like this one slightly better than Prince Caspian, mostly because of the prominence of Reepicheep and because of Eustace, who returns from Narnia having grown enormously within himself. Happily, we get to see Eustace again in The Silver Chair.

“Use?” replied Reepicheep. “Use, Captain? If by use you mean filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be no use at all. So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honor and adventure. And here is as great an adventure as ever I heard of, and here; if we turn back, no little impeachment of all our honors.”

Stay away from the movie though. Because while it was beautifully filmed, Hollywood took a subtle story about growth and confronting fears and selflessness and turned into a quest for seven magic swords. Whatever.

Read Full Post »

Originally published March 31, 2014

Title: The Silver Chair
Author: C.S. Lewis
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #4

Summary from Goodreads: Narnia . . . where giants wreak havoc . . . where evil weaves a spell . . . where enchantment rules. Through dangers untold and caverns deep and dark, a noble band of friends are sent to rescue a prince held captive. But their mission to Underland brings them face-to-face with an evil more beautiful and more deadly than they ever expected.

This edition follows the original numbering scheme. More recent publishers have re-numbered the volumes so that the books are ordered chronologically. This was reportedly the author’s preference. Other editions number this book as #6.

***Spoiler alert***

My Narnia posts pretty much presume that either you have already read the entire chronicles, or you don’t care about spoilers. It is impossible to discuss the whole series without spoiling the various parts of it. Fair warning – you will learn a lot about the plots by reading on.

By The Silver Chair, we have seen much of the history of Narnia, from its early days, ruled by Jadis, to the subjugation of “true” Narnia to the Telmarines, the restoration of “true” Narnia under Caspian X, and now, in The Silver Chair, we see again that Narnia is in peril and can only be saved by human children dispatched by Aslan from England.

This is the first of the books that doesn’t contain any of the Pevensie children. Even Lucy has been told by Aslan at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that she will not be returning to Narnia. Eustace gets his second time in Narnia, and he brings with him an unconnected girl, Jill Pole, from his school. As an aside, Experiment House, the school attended by Eustace and Jill sounds uncommonly horrible – a boarding school badly run by an incompetent headmistress, where bullies are permitted to flourish unchecked. Eustace and Jill escape from the bullies by going to Narnia (it is also interesting that this is the one book where the characters seem to choose to go to Narnia, as opposed to being simply relocated there by Aslan).

When they arrive in Aslan’s country, things rapidly go from bad – Eustace falls of a cliff – to worse – Jill forgets to tell him about the important signs that they need to recognize in order to make their task in Narnia easier. Between the events in Dawn Treader and the events in The Silver Chair, less than a year has passed in England, but decades have passed in Narnia. Prince Caspian is now an old man, his wife has been killed by a serpent, and his son, Rilian, has disappeared leaving him without a successor.

There are adventures, of course, that involve giants, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, and a marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum. Marsh-wiggles are one of Lewis’s most inspired creations (and let’s be honest, the Monopods are pretty weird) – they are tall, loose-limbed, with dreadlocks and webbed hands and feet. They also tend to have a depressive, gloomy outlook on life – like Eyeore, only not quite as lighthearted. Puddleglum is a fairly awesome character, and turns out to be a steadfast companion and of great assistance in breaking the enchantment that holds Rilian captive. The Lady of the Green Kirtle is a riff on the White Witch, beautiful, fey, evil, and intending to subjugate Narnia.

There are shades of fairy tale in The Silver Chair – Prince Rilian, like the Prince in East o’the Sun, West o’The Moon, only returns to himself once per night, when he must be bound to the titular silver chair in order to remain in enchanted captivity. And there is more than a whiff of the Wizard of Oz in the freeing of the gnomelike earthmen after the demise of the Lady of the Green Kirtle (I almost expected them to start singing “Ding dong, the Witch is Dead.”)

The Silver Chair also holds the uncommon position of being one of two books where characters from Narnia interact with our world – after Jill and Eustace complete their tasks, Caspian and Aslan return to England with them to deal with some schoolyard bullies. This results in a well-earned thrashing and in a very satisfying little bit of justice. Also, some gentle mockery of parliament.

In terms of ranking, I would put this one fourth in my personal order of preference, with TLtWtW first, TVotDT second, The Horse and His Boy third (I’ll talk about this one next), and then this one. The Silver Chair has not been adapted for film, although as of December, there were intimations that it might be the fourth of the Narnia books to make it to the big screen.

Read Full Post »

Originally published on March 27, 2014

Title: Prince Caspian
Author: C.S. Lewis
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #2
Published in 1951

Summary from Goodreads: NARNIA … the land beyond the lamp-post where wondrous things happen, where the Lion returns … where a battle is about to begin.

An evil king sits on the throne of Narnia, forcing all the Talking Beasts and mythical creatures to live in hiding. The rightful king, the young Prince Caspian, fights desperately to regain his throne and save his people. But when all seems lost the Great Lion, Aslan, calls peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, four heroes from another world, to join the battle to free Narnia.

***Spoiler alert***

My Narnia posts pretty much presume that either you have already read the entire chronicles, or you don’t care about spoilers. It is impossible to discuss the whole series without spoiling the various parts of it. Fair warning – you will learn a lot about the plots by reading on.

Prince Caspian is subtitled: The Return to Narnia, and tells the tale of that one time that the four Pevensie children went back to Narnia and ended up in the middle of a revolution.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ends with Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy tumbling back through the wardrobe as adults and return to their childhoods, exactly where they left off. Has anyone (else) had that dream where they are back in high school, but can’t figure out why? I have a recurring one – I am still a lawyer, but I’m back at my high school because I need some credit or another in order to graduate (and I haven’t been to class in WEEKS, also, I might possibly have a towel on my head from having just emerged from the shower, but I digress) and I am wandering around trying to explain that I don’t understand why I am here, because I have a graduate degree and a job. The credits I need are always in math, and I haven’t taken a math class in decades and scarcely remember how to multiply without using a calculator. But, again, I digress.

Anyway, C.S. Lewis ignores the part of the story that has the children wandering around like they are me, wondering why they have to go back to the seventh grade when they are, duh, kings and queens of Narnia. Also, possibly, they have experienced romantic, um, love, and have yet been returned to a state of bizarre (emotional) virginity (this is especially difficult to imagine for Lucy, which is presumably why Lewis ignored it. Because, eww). And, yes, there is a sense that the memory of Narnia fades the longer they are in “our” world. But, in any event, we meet up with them again when they are waiting for the train that will return them to boarding school.

Then they are yarded back to Narnia more than a thousand years in the future, to help the rightful king of Narnia, Caspian, retake his throne from the usurper, his Uncle Miraz, who has murdered his father and intends to murder Caspian X. Shades of The Lion King (I mean, Hamlet) batman. Because the children have forgotten many of their skills, they need some time in the bracing magical air of Narnia to regain their abilities with sword and bow.

Prince Caspian is not – for me, at least – as good as the first book. The Telmarines have trampled much of the magic out of Narnia and the talking beasts and dwarves and other Narnian folk have gone underground or simply disappeared. It is firmly set in the world of men, and the takeover of the men have done pretty much only harm to Narnia. Ironic, then, that a group of men – Peter, Edmund and Caspian – are charged with saving it and restoring true Narnians to a position of prominence. Susan plays much less of a role in this book, and even Lucy is left out of a lot of the action. She remains the voice of innocence that is most readily able to communicate with Aslan, but aside from her role as oracle, she seems to have little active role to play in the emancipation of Narnia.

At the end of the book, it is made clear to Peter and Susan that they are not going to be returning to Narnia because they are too old. This never really made sense to me, and, actually, it sort of pissed me off when I read it the first time. It’s like Narnia is sort of like believing in Santa Claus – something you can’t have once you reach maturity. But, then, we have what happens later and, well, shit. Do you want them to grow up or not, Lewis, you old hypocrite, because maturity is pretty much required of adult human beings, and if you aren’t going to let them come back to Narnia then presumably they are going to have to do things like have jobs, and get married. Mundane, grown up stuff, which, apparently, causes you to go straight to hell if you are girlish about it.

A few words about the movie: it can only be stomached if one is not a fan of the work as a whole because the story was basically butchered. The actor who plays Trumpkin is quite good (2018 note: well, yeah, this was Peter Fucking Dinklage, who is friggin’ amazing, so yes, from the rear view mirror of 2018, I am completely laughing at my off-hand statement that Peter Dinklage was “quite good”), and the four young actors playing the Pevensie children do a workmanlike job. Ben Barnes is extremely handsome as the young Prince Caspian, although his acting skills leave much to be desired. However, there are major changes to the story that make no sense at all. There is a futile and militarily incomprehensible assault on the Telmarine castle that involves Peter being responsible for a slaughter that did not happen in the book and is terribly painful to watch both because of the tactical humiliation and because of the fact that the noble centaurs are slaughtered like, well, animals. And when Caspian and Susan started making cow eyes at one another, I was pretty much done. I am no purist, but it was all too much for me.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »