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18 August 2010

Book Review: The Possessed

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read ThemElif Batuman 
I find it amusing that most people have probably picked up this book because it was featured on an NPR reading list; one that purported to focus on laugh-out-loud funny reads, an illusion perpetuated by the whimsical Roz Chast cover illustration. 

This book was not laugh-out-loud funny. It did have sentences like "The endless proliferating monk may be read as a figure for scholarly mimetic contagion" as well as words like "patronymic," thrown out into the prose without explanation, expecting the reader to have deep familiarity with the concept. 

But, thankfully, Batuman is a fine writer. Early in the book, she soliloquizes on a writers' workshop she once attended; one designed, she thought, to make writing "a matter of overcoming bad habits - of omitting needless words." Thank goodness she didn't ascribe to this philosophy of writing because though her book is peppered with dense, incomprehensible lit crit and philosophical mumbojumbo, sentences like "Miguel stood out from among the other library workers, who fit a more or less Dostoevskian mold: a tiny old woman whose organism seemed designed to combine maximum disgruntledness with minimum body mass ..." more than made up for the moments, the many moments, in which I had no idea what she was talking about.

Book Review: Dragon Rider

Dragon Rider - Cornelia Funke
Funke creates a nice parallel world within our own world, something that always, when done well, tickles my fancy. Not a brilliant book but readable, exciting and with moral fiber and how-to-be lessons. 

By the by, it took me two days to read it. My kid started it this morning and finished it by 2pm. I'm in big trouble.

Book Review: Juliet Dove Queen of Love

Juliet Dove, Queen of Love (Magic Shop, #3) Bruce Coville 
I liked this much more than I expected to. I read it because I have been looking for age appropriate fiction based on Greek mythology for my six year old. He's not ready for Percy Jackson quite yet and I assumed this book would be too pre-teeny for him, what with being about a shy 6th grader who suddenly has the power of Cupid around her neck. 

But Coville handles it without the schlock one usually finds in pre-teeny novels and, surprisingly, it's an intriguing book with enough placid adventure to make it perfect for the current mindset and interests of my kid.

Book Review: Dead End Gene Pool

Dead End Gene Pool  - Wendy Burden

I don't usually read tell-all autobiographies, particularly ones that seem to be penned in that style that is currently populated so effectively by Chelsea Handler. Yet that is exactly what this book purported to be. It was only at NPR's urging that I picked it up this morning. 

And it was what I expected, with that telltale sign "please let this be a best seller" with episodes of bad behavior topped upon bad behavior topped upon bad behavior plied with alcohol, drugs and more bad behavior, with some name dropping and then more bad behavoir, plied for laughs and, once in a while, for pity. 

Except this book was marvelously penned; her ability to put words together in wonderfully witty and immediately poetic order was marvelous. Burden's knack for description and painting a scene is revelatory. I just wish she had picked a different subject (though they say to write what you know) because this was one of those books wherein I just wanted to sit every single character down and give them each a good, hearty slap and a talking to.

Book Review: Five Children and It

Five Children and ItE. Nesbit
Nesbit is the grandmother of children's fantasy literature. Written in 1902, Five Children and It can be considered to have inspired many who came later, including Edward Eager, whose Tales of Magic series owes a great debt to Nesbit (this Eager freely admits) 
The book shows its age but it is much more accessible than the other books I've read that she penned. Five siblings find a creature who will grant one wish a day and madcap hilarity ensues, replete with political incorrectness and references that are not now common knowledge. None of this gets in the way of enjoyment, however (though knowledge that the word "slut" was more commonly used to mean "slatternly" and "lazy" in the early 20th century might be useful) 

Nesbit's voice is entertaining, whimsical and slightly snide. For example, when the children meet the creature it introduces itself as a "Psammead." The creature says, "You mean to tell me seriously you don't know a Psammead when you see one?" "A Sammyadd? That's Greek to me," says one of the children. "So it is to everyone," said the creature sharply. 

She also launches into off-subject asides that are either tiresome or diverting, depending on one's mood at the time. For example; 

Everyone began to talk at once. If you had been there you could not possibly have made head or tail of the talk, but these children were used to talking 'by fours', as soldiers march, and each of them could say what it had to say quite comfortably, and listen to the agreeable sound of its own voice, and at the same time have three-quarters of two sharp ears to spare for listening to what the others said. That is an easy example in multiplication of vulgar fractions, but, as I daresay you can't do even that, I won't ask you to tell me whether 3/4 x 2 = 1 and 1/2, but I will ask you to believe me that this was the amount of ear each child was able to lend to the others. Lending ears was common in Roman times, as we learn from Shakespeare; but I fear I am getting too instructive. 

Overall, a lovely dalliance. 

And, just because I'm also currently reading Narnia, I must express my frustration with the hold that the series has over children's literature. In the Nesbit biography on the front flap, Nesbit is described thusly; "One of her most admired abilities as a writer is the combination - often with more than a pinch of humour - of a real-life situation with elements of magical fantasy. Five Children and It is perhaps the most famous of her books to display this Narnia-like combination." 

Do be reminded that Five Children and It was published starting in 1901. Lewis didn't start the Narnia series until 1949. If anything, the Narnia series displays a Nesbit-like combination. 

That is all. As you were. 

Book Review: The Chronicles of Narnia

In what order should these be read?  Publication? Composition?  Chronological?

This review is listed in the Chronological-by-Narnia-events order in which they are now published.  I read them in a slightly different order;  I'll call it the "Krista-is-confused-and-grumpy-that-she-has-to-research-so-much-crap-to-discover-how-to-read-seven-damn-books" Order;  The Magician's Nephew, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Last Battle.

The Magician's Nephew
I didn't enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia as a child. At all. 

Ergo, I never read The Magician's Nephew because, back in the olden days, it was the sixth book in the series and I never made it that far, petering out halfway through Dawn Treader. 

Now, of course, it is the first. So I read it first on this mid-life journey through these well-loved books that I've never loved, let alone well. 

However, I did enjoy this book more than I expected to, having preconceived notions and fears about the mannered clunkydom and inconsistent narrative prevalent in the rest of the series. 

It was mannered as heck, to be sure. And I despised it for a good long time. But I did have a surprising amount of joy in finding the answers to why the lamp post is there. And why the Professor was so sure Lucy was truthful. And why Narnia came to be. 

And, truth be told, the creation myth of Narnia is one of the more beautifully woven myths I've ever read.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
I may be sought out and lynched once this review hits the interwebs but, for me, there's not much to this book worth recommending. And it's not just because I've lost my whimsey as I've aged. I didn't find it engaging as a child, either. Even then, at the tender age of eight or nine, I remember thinking, "Did anyone else read this before he published it?" I had the same thoughts during this read-through; a disjunct tapestry, at moments beautifully woven with fine silk and at other moments slapped together loosely with rough-hewn yarn. The author's voice wanders about, trying out styles like they are hors d'oeuvres at a fancy party at which you feel self-conscious about ingesting too much of anything for fear of being thought a glutton.

There are clever bits, to be sure. And I won't even bother to discourse about the Christian symbolism and allegory about which even C.S. Lewis was of two minds as to whether they were purposefully written or not.

But it didn't captivate me. Certainly it has its place as an inspiration to countless other writers and storytellers. That isn't something to sneeze at.

The dedication was endearing as hell and I found myself wishing the book lived up to the voice Lewis used to write it.

And I wonder if anyone anywhere has done a count as to the number of times C.S. Lewis uses the phrase "ten to one" in this book. If they haven't, they should.

The Horse and His Boy
My favorite Narnia book so far! I loved the descriptions and the fully-rendered story. The characters were also much more likable than in previous books.

And perhaps I am simply growing used to the Lewis style, but I thought the mannerism and stiffness of the prose was less stringent in this book than in the others.

The moral of the story of this one, ignoring the Christian context, seems to be "... if you do a good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one."

And I laughed out loud at the following (which contains a spoiler, incidentally)

"Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I'm afraid, even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarreling and making up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently." 

Prince Caspian
I found this book to be strong from a story-telling point of view but only in the portions where Prince Caspian's story was told in flashback; once the story returned to the Pevensie children, it lost me again in a whitewash of too much plot told in too few words leaving too many holes and too many questions. Which is perhaps the point?

There's something about these books that only hints at epic; perhaps it becomes epic when one has read them enough times to fill in the holes for oneself but, on first reading, it seems only a draft sketch rather than a full-fledged chronicle.

I did enjoy two quotes immensely;

When the children are discussing that they, like genies, can be summoned at any time, Edmund says, "Golly! It's a bit uncomfortable to know that we can be whistled for like that. It's worse than what Father says about living at the mercy of the telephone." Imagine what poor Edmund's father would be thinking in our current world.

Later, as if in answer to all the critics who would call him a sexist pig, Lewis puts these words in the mouths of babes;
"That's the worst of girls," said Edmund to Peter and the Dwarf. "They never carry a map in their heads."
"That's because our heads have something inside them," said Lucy.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Still wishing the descriptions and adventures were more fleshed out. Lewis's AD/HD style of wanting to move on before really getting to the heart of the matter suits this book well, as it is, in a sense, a travel log of people who move on before they get to the heart of the matter.

I enjoyed the introduction of Eustace, one of those characters, found often in books aimed at children, built specifically to sketch moral lessons on how not to be (like Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Susan in Prince Caspian). Unlike his handling of the children in the previous books, Lewis presents Eustace well; both his sin and his redemption are sketched without the level of preachy and tsk-y that one might expect. Instead, Lewis infuses him with laugh-out-loud ridiculousness right alongside his nastiness. The opening line of the book sets the tone for how Lewis will handle him; "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." Where you found yourself wanting to punish Edmund, quite severely, in the first (or second) book and slap whiny Susan in the third (or fifth) book, with Eustace you just want to laugh at his cheek and do a quick check of yourself to make sure you are free of traits like his. It's almost a shame when he reforms, really.

The Silver Chair
I'm sure it would be tiresome to mention that this book annoyed me in the same way that the final book of Pullman's His Dark Materials did but there it is. Don't beat me over the head with your depiction of the Underworld, Underlands or whatever you want to call it, and the powers of darkness. I get it.

And the children in this one were bleak and beastly; I didn't like either of them and it's hard to care about characters you don't really like. I grew to like Puddleglum but I wanted to throw the book out the window during the first 20 pages of his presence in it. Thank goodness it was 100 degrees outside and the windows were closed.

AND (yes, there's more) Lewis gets a little heavy handed with the hints that everyone who is not a Christian is worthless (particularly when describing the school the children attend, writing something about how the main problem with it is that no one there knows what the Bible is); nettlesome.

However, despite all of that, the adventure was readable and interesting. As always.

The Last Battle

Two things in this book surprised me. The first was the fact that it seemed complete; like Lewis actually took some time about crafting the story line and filling out the line with details that made it a story worth reading. At least until Aslan finally showed up; then it returned to the tried-and-true sketchy storytelling that seems par for the course in the series.

The second was a moment that almost smacked of religious pluralism ... almost. Good deeds done in anyone's name are good deeds done in God's name. Of course, God has to have a particular name but I do admit to raised eyebrows of gratified surprise that Lewis gives non-believers that free pass.

But then ... and here comes a big fat spoiler. Stop reading now if you don't know that ...

THEY ALL DIE IN A TRAIN CRASH? What the hell kind of ending is that? And how could Lewis have been so heartlessly cavalier and brief and matter-of-fact about his manner of presenting this great tragedy?

And what the hell is the meaning of leaving Susan out of eternal bliss simply because she's currently enamored with lipstick?

And I guess, for staunch Christians, eternal life is their highest aim. Of course it is. But to dismiss the value of life on earth, or in Narnia, because they are only "shadowlands" is, I think, a piss poor message for a book that claims to be for children. Give us a little more of the doing good deeds part and less about the fact that it all doesn't matter in the end, anyway, as long as you are a true believer. If you believe you can act any damn way you please and, by the way, dying ain't no big deal. So go ahead and don't be careful or anything. Deal?

And I guess I wouldn't be nearly as irked if that wasn't the very part and parcel of why Christianity, or any religion, really, gives me pause.

All of that said, it was the most "epic" of the Chronicle books and captivated me moreso than any other, save The Horse and His Boy

And now, having read the whole series, I look at the individual books differently. As I am supposed to, I guess. And the story arc displays craft in design if not always in full-fledged execution.

But the ending ... the ending. Wow, Jack. Were you on deadline?