8

‘The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia’ by Laura Miller *****

I have never been a huge fan of the fantasy genre, but I could not get enough of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when I was a child. I remember, on a couple of occasions, finishing the last paperback in the series – a gorgeous boxed edition which my mother was given when she was a child, and passed on to me – and going right back to the beginning. I have read the series in adulthood, and found it almost as magical.

I was therefore very keen to read Laura Miller’s memoir, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, which charts her own experiences of reading the Chronicles, both in childhood and adulthood. She writes: ‘My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as heady as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement, and reunion.’ Jonathan Lethem deems Miller’s book a ‘superb long essay’, ‘conversational, embracing and casually erudite’, and Karen Joy Fowler calls it ‘smart, meticulous, and altogether delightful’.

The Magician’s Book chronicles – pardon the pun – Miller’s ‘long, tumultuous relationship’ with C.S. Lewis’ books. Just as I did as a young teenager, Miller discovered the wealth of Christian material which suffused the books; these seem obvious to me as an older reader, but as a child, they went right over my head. Miller’s experience from this point veered in a different direction to mine; I was still keen to submerge myself within the books, but the ‘Christian themes left [Miller] feeling betrayed and alienated from the stories she had come to know and trust.’

As an adult, Miller – who was working as a literary critic at the time – came to the stories from a different perspective. She decided to investigate the Chronicles, alongside Lewis’ life, ‘to see what mysteries Narnia holds for adult eyes’. She was thankfully enraptured by the stories once more, and was able to recapture some of the childhood love which she felt for them. She muses at length upon the Christian symbolism in the novels, explaining why she initially felt let down by this element, and how cleverly Lewis drew parallels between the two. She examines, too, the role of women and race within the novels, and the lack of distinct politics in Narnia, amongst so many other elements.

I loved the mixing of Miller’s own memoir alongside a quite detailed biography of C.S. Lewis himself. She visits the places in which he lived, in both England and Ireland, and travels to the specific Irish landscapes which inspired portions of the books. Miller found Lewis to be a man ‘who stands in stark contrast to his whimsical creation’. In her research, she was particularly interested in his all-engulfing friendship with Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the influence which he has had upon a slew of modern writers, including Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Franzen. Miller gives a fantastic commentary regarding mythology and Medieval romance, and its influences on both Lewis and Tolkien.

The Magician’s Book opens with a reflection of Miller’s childhood, when the greatest love which she felt was for the Narnia stories. She writes in especially touching prose here, telling us: ‘I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again.’ Narnia showed the young Laura how she ‘could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own.’

Miller writes beautifully throughout about Narnia and its magic. She also details how formative reading the Chronicles were, and how they provided a sort of moral and educational primer for its child readers. She says, for instance: ‘To me, the best children’s books gave their child characters (and by extension, myself) the chance to be taken seriously. In Narnia, the boundary between childhood and adulthood – a vast tundra of tedious years – could be elided. The Pevensies not only get to topple the White Witch, fight in battles, participate in an earthshaking mystical event, and be crowned kings and queens; they do it all without having to grow up. Yet they become more than children, too. Above all, their decisions have moral gravity. In contrast to how most children experience their role in an adult world, what the child characters in these stories do, for better or worse, really matters…’.

I found The Magician’s Book fascinating. Miller offers a thorough, even intricate, work of literary criticism. I left with a renewed love for the Narnia books myself, as well as a list of a few other lists and authors to explore – something which I greatly appreciate. The Magician’s Book is, overall, a fantastic melding of a variety of genres and interests, and of themes and elements found within a children’s series which contains an awful lot of depth.

As Miller puts it so wonderfully herself, Narnia ‘mixed up classical and Northern mythologies, canonical fairy tales and slangy modern schoolchildren, myth and satire, all with such cheerful indiscrimination.’ This is a wonderful piece of literary criticism, and I can only hope that every fan of Narnia will have the chance to pick it up.

2

Really Underrated Books (Part Four)

Today’s inclusions are largely works of fiction which sound absolutely wonderful.  For some reason, a large part of the list I am consulting is made up of fiction rather than non-fiction, so the oversight is not a deliberate one!  As always, have you read any of these books?

 

1. Winter Birds by Jim Grimsley 9780552996990
‘On a snowy Thanksgiving day in North Carolina along a stretch of rural highway, a dreamy eight-year-old named Danny Crell is caught in the middle of a violent quarrel between his parents. Danny’s father, Bobjay Crell, has been at the mercy of doctors, unforgiving landlords, and cruel farm bosses ever since he lost an arm in a farm accident. His subsequent fits of rage and drunken jealousy have taken their toll on his wife and five children. The two hemophiliac boys, Danny and his younger brother Grove, have been particularly vulnerable. Bobjay isn’t the same man that young Ellen Crell married years ago, but still she will go to terrible lengths to keep him home and sober and, failing that, to just hold the family together. In the midst of the worst violence, Ellen becomes a stranger to the children, as frightening in her own way as Bobjay in his worst rages. In a ramshackle cottage the children name “The Circle House” for its circle of rooms where one door opens on to the next in a dizzy escape leading nowhere, Ellen and the children must face at last the tormented man who terrorizes them all. Jim Grimsley’s brilliant first novel unfolds in a strikingly unconventional way – as Danny tells himself his own story – and brings to light a shattering story of heartbreak, violence, and the endurance of the spirit.’

 

2. The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller
The Magician’s Book is the story of one reader’s long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Enchanted by its fantastic world as a child, prominent critic Laura Miller returns to the series as an adult to uncover the source of these small books’ mysterious power by looking at their creator, Clive Staples Lewis. What she discovers is not the familiar, idealized image of the author, but a more interesting and ambiguous truth: Lewis’s tragic and troubled childhood, his unconventional love life, and his intense but ultimately doomed friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien.  Finally reclaiming Narnia “for the rest of us,” Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a life-long adventure in books, art, and the imagination.’

 

97815901764673. Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban
‘Life in a city can be atomizing, isolating. And it certainly is for William G. and Neaera H., the strangers at the center of Russell Hoban’s surprisingly heartwarming novel Turtle Diary. William, a clerk at a used-book store, lives in a rooming house after a divorce that has left him without home or family. Neaera is a successful writer of children’s books, who, in her own estimation, “looks like the sort of spinster who doesn’t keep cats and is not a vegetarian. Looks…like a man’s woman who hasn’t got a man.” Entirely unknown to each other, they are both drawn to the turtle tank at the London zoo with “minds full of turtle thoughts,” wondering how the turtles might be freed. And then comes the day when Neaera walks into William’s bookstore, and together they form an unlikely partnership to make what seemed a crazy dream become a reality.’

 

4. Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwarz
‘As powerful now as when first published in 1983, Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s third novel established her as one of her generation’s most assured writers. In this long-awaited reissue, readers can again warm to this acutely absorbing story. According to Lydia Rowe’s friend George, a philosophizing psychotherapist, a “disturbance in the field” is anything that keeps us from realizing our needs. In the field of daily experiences, anything can stand in the way of our fulfillment, he explains—an interrupting phone call, an unanswered cry. But over time we adjust and new needs arise. But what if there’s a disturbance you can’t get past? In this look at a girl’s, then a wife and mother’s, coming of age, Schwartz explores the questions faced by all whose visions of a harmonious existence are jolted into disarray. The result is a novel of captivating realism and lasting grace.’

 

5. England, Their England by A.G. Macdonell 9781781550007
‘Set in 1920s England, this book chronicles the life of a young man forced to live among the English, rather than in his native Scotland. What follows is a series of interesting and satirical observations about English life, including fox hunting, domestic politics, and most famously, village cricket.  This classic book remains a hilarious look into everyday British life in the interwar years.’

 

6. Vanishing Point by David Markson
‘In the literary world, there is little that can match the excitement of opening a new book by David Markson. From Wittgenstein’s Mistress to Reader’s Block to Springer’s Progress to This Is Not a Novel, he has delighted and amazed readers for decades. And now comes his latest masterwork, Vanishing Point, wherein an elderly writer (identified only as “Author”) sets out to transform shoeboxes crammed with notecards into a novel — and in so doing will dazzle us with an astonishing parade of revelations about the trials and calamities and absurdities and often even tragedies of the creative life — all the while trying his best (he says) to keep himself out of the tale. Naturally he will fail to do the latter, frequently managing to stand aside and yet remaining undeniably central throughout — until he is swept inevitably into the narrative’s startling and shattering climax. A novel of death and laughter both — and of extraordinary intellectual richness.’

 

97806700258247. One for the Books by Joe Queenan
‘Joe Queenan became a voracious  reader as a means of escape from a joyless childhood in a Philadelphia housing project. In the years since then he has dedicated himself to an assortment of  idiosyncratic reading challenges: spending a year reading only short books, spending a year reading books he always suspected he would hate, spending a year reading books he picked with his eyes closed.   In One for the Books, Queenan tries to come to terms with his own eccentric reading style—how many more books will he have time to read in his lifetime? Why does he refuse to read books hailed  by reviewers as “astonishing”? Why does he refuse to lend out books? Will he ever buy an e-book? Why does he habitually read thirty to forty books simultaneously? Why are there so many people to whom the above questions do not even matter—and what do they read? Acerbically funny yet passionate and oddly affectionate, One for the Books is a reading experience that true book lovers will find unforgettable.’

 

8. Esther Waters by George Moore
Esther Waters (1894) was one of the first English novels to defeat Victorian moral censorship. George Moore’s story of a mother’s fight for the life of her illegitimate son won Mr Gladstone’s approval and was admitted, unaltered, into those bastions of Victorian conformity, the circulating libraries.  Esther Waters is forced to leave home and become a servant in a well-to-do household. Seduced in a moment of weakness she has to leave her position and the novel charts her poignant story of poverty and hardship: first the lying-in hospital, then service as a wet-nurse, and even the workhouse as she struggles to look after her child. Adapting the French literary practices of sexual frankness and social exploration to the British climate, Moore produced his masterpiece in Esther Waters. A landmark in publishing history, it is also one of the finest of naturalistic novels.’

 

9. Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill
‘In Greenwich Village an orphaned black cat lives happily with her master, a sea captain. Still, the gentle Jenny Linsky would like nothing more than to join the local Cat Club, whose members include Madame Butterfly, an elegant Persian, the high-stepping Macaroni, and stately, plump Mr. President. But can she overcome her fears and prove that she, too, has a special gift? Join Jenny and her friends, including fearless Pickles the Fire Cat, on their spirited downtown adventures and discover why The Atlantic Monthly called Jenny “a personality ranking not far below such giants as Peter Rabbit.”‘

 

10. Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself by Robert Montgomery Bird 902287
‘Sheppard Lee, Written By Himself is a work of dark satire from the early years of the American Republic. Published as an autobiography and praised by Edgar Allan Poe, this is the story of a young idler who goes in search of buried treasure and finds instead the power to transfer his soul into other men’s bodies. What follows is one increasingly practiced body snatcher’s picaresque journey through early American pursuits of happiness, as each new form Sheppard Lee assumes disappoints him anew while making him want more and more. When Lee’s metempsychosis draws him into the marriage market, the money market, and the slave market, Bird’s fable of American upward mobility takes a more sinister turn. Lee learns that everything in America, even virtue and vice, are interchangeable; everything is an object and has its price.’

 

Purchase from The Book Depository