Review: Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis; or, I am never going to read the other books in this series ever

That’s right, NEVER. It’s not because I hated Out of the Silent Planet (I didn’t). It’s because I think if I read them, I would be in a huge fight with C.S. Lewis, and I hate to be in a fight with C.S. Lewis. I’d rather focus on his agreeablest qualities, viz.:

  1. I love how crazy in love he was with his wife. That is touching. If you can read A Grief Observed without crying you are just not human.
  2. I love how crazy in love he was with God. That is also touching. I love that he’s able to speak about God with pure sincerity and not a hint of ironic edge. It’s not that I don’t love an ironic edge — I do, truly. But I love it that C.S. Lewis doesn’t need this as a shield. I love it that he can speak with such naked, vulnerably honesty about how God makes him feel. And especially because he was, you know, this British male academic in the early to mid-twentieth century; his life would not, I expect, tend to teach the value of emotional sincerity.
  3. I love how crazy in love he was with stories. He was an exceptionally generous reader who could write persuasively and affectionately about a wide range of different books, and I love that about him. Case in point, the sweet paragraph that appears at the beginning of Out of the Silent Planet:

Certain slighting references to earlier stories of this type which will be found in the following pages have been put there for purely dramatic purposes. The author would be sorry if any reader supposed he was too stupid to have enjoyed Mr. H. G. Wells’s fantasies or too ungrateful to acknowledge his debt to them.

C. S. L.

Oh C. S. Lewis. I am awfully fond of you sometimes.

The problem with C. S. Lewis is that he’ll say something like this and make me feel fond of him, and I’ll read his book all the way through, and maybe it’s not exactly my thing? Because maybe it goes on and on describing the new planet and not a lot happens storywise? But C. S. Lewis has won my heart with this sweet tribute to H. G. Wells, so I’ll be trying to see the good in this book. I’ll like the writing because I do love the way this guy writes, and I’ll think the new planet is weird in interesting ways, and all in all I’ll be feeling very amiably towards C. S. Lewis. But the problem is that as soon as I’ve been lulled into this affectionate way of feeling, C. S. Lewis will often be like, “You know who sucks, though? LADIES,” and then we’re in a fight again.

Why couldn’t he have met his wife like much much sooner? I think it would have made him a nicer person for a longer number of years.

Out of the Silent Planet doesn’t really have any ladies, so I didn’t have to deal with any of that sort of thing in this book, but when I got through with it and went to pick up Perelandra, I remembered that Perelandra was the name the aliens in this book had given to the planet we call Venus. And Venus was, you know, a lady. The lady goddess of ladies and their lady parts.

So I checked with Mumsy:

me: is Perelandra super sexist?
Mumsy: OMG
me: oh, maybe I’d better skip it
Mumsy: SO SEXIST. I cringe at the thought
me: oh dear.
Mumsy: Please do skip it. you will never love CS any more if you read it.

and decided to give it a miss. Forever.

Review: The Magician’s Book, Laura Miller

I’ve had this book since December 2010. Not in that generic bought-a-book-and-forgot-about-it-until-a-TBR-challenge-happened kind of way, but in the sense that I constantly saw it on the shelf and struggled with fierce opposing forces within my soul. Arrayed on one side of the battle were the numerous things about this book that appealed to me: Laura Miller, founder of, a website I regularly read and enjoy; the Chronicles of Narnia, the books that taught me what stories are supposed to be like; writing about books; critical analysis by intelligent people of literature I love; etc. On the other side was the fact that Laura Miller was going to have negative things to say about CS Lewis and I cannot handle anyone talking shit about CS Lewis. Not Philip Pullman (now sort of my enemy). Not Neil Gaiman. Nobody.*

Nobody. And that side of the battle was always going to win. Because I love CS Lewis that much. And I like to think that although there are things about me and about CS Lewis that would annoy the other one no end, we could focus our correspondence (it would have to be by correspondence because CS Lewis lived in England and I live in New York**) on our commonalities and end up having a deep and abiding friendship. I’d let him talk me into Norse mythology, and he’d let me talk him into the reasonableness of vegetarianism and the value of collective joy. I wouldn’t try to send him any Tony’s because I don’t think any amount of persuading could convince him about that.

So I was worried that I’d read The Magician’s Book and start disliking Laura Miller for talking trash about CS Lewis, and I didn’t want that. That’s what came between me and Philip Pullman; I mean it was that and also the complete unrereadability of his books, which is a shame because I enjoyed them a lot on the first go-round and keep optimistically hoping that if I give it enough time I’ll be in the mood for them again. It’s been close to ten years now, and I haven’t been able to get through those books a second time, but Philip Pullman has been able to keep saying irritating things about CS Lewis pretty regularly, so I think we’re probably never going to get that positive interaction/negative interaction ratio up to where it would need to be for me to be Philip Pullman’s friend again.***

The good news is, I do not hate Laura Miller. That was a silly fear. She doesn’t write CS Lewis off entirely, and her unhappiness with the discovery of Christian themes was not as over the top as Mumsy made it sound. She’s obviously writing from a place of wanting to get back to her love of and belief in Narnia, and that’s something I can get behind. I enjoyed reading nearly all of the first two parts of the book, first where Miller describes what the Chronicles meant to her as a child, and then as she writes about growing older and discovering their flaws. Her writing is easy and entertaining, and she says a lot of things that absolutely nail what made Narnia magic for me. Especially this, which reminded me so much of Legal Sister:

[R]eading the wrong books would leave [the Pevensies] unprepared, making them the kind of children who wouldn’t know that you should kick your shoes off if you happen to fall into deep water with your clothes on…The Chronicles, then, become the same kind of adventurers’ handbooks that stand their own characters in good stead. I can remember thinking that I’d gotten plenty of invaluable information  from them, although strictly speaking most of it was only helpful if you also happened to be a character in an adventure story.

I mean, yeah. Every time I see a movie where someone falls in the water I’m like, Kick off your shoes. Kick off your shoes! You always kick off your shoes! I feel this more strongly than I feel Don’t go down there! when I’m watching a scary movie. By, like, a lot. I used to think (and I know Legal Sister felt and feels this much more strongly than I did because it is much more nearly true of her) that I would be extremely well-prepared to have a Narnia-style adventure because I’d know all the things CS Lewis teaches you like that you kick off your shoes if you fall in the water and you always clean your sword and robins are kindly birds. So that was great.

I enjoyed the second third also, where Laura Miller grapples with some of the reasons a grown-up person has to be bothered by the Chronicles of Narnia. There are reasons a grown-up person would be bothered. I do not like the sexism and I do not like the racism and I wish CS Lewis didn’t have to be so absurdly curmudgeonly about ideas he wasn’t accustomed to thinking of. I was looking forward to seeing what Laura Miller had to say to these points, but I thought she oversimplified them sometimes, especially the stuff about gender. There are a lot of things to say about gender in the Chronicles of Narnia, but you can’t say all the dudes are cooler/braver/more upstanding than all the ladies. Laura Miller handwaved the flaws the male characters were shown to have, and played up the flaws of the female ones, and I thought it de-nuanced what could have been a fascinating, thoughtful chapter. Still it was interesting to read, for I love with all my heart the literary/personal essay genre that these first two sections belonged to.

Where Miller lost me was the final third, when she tries to find a way back to the Chronicles. I guess this is maybe because I didn’t need a way back myself? Because I did not freak the hell out upon discovering that CS Lewis was Christian? Or that I just don’t like reading about landscapes? I don’t know. I was bored to the point that I kept reading one chapter, giving up and going to do something else, and then coming back because I’m really trying to get rid of the books I’m not going to read again, and if I didn’t finish The Magician’s Book I’d never be able to send it away on PaperbackSwap. In this section, Miller writes about the mythical influences on the Narnia books, and Lewis’s friendship with Tolkien, and y’all I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint anything that was wrong with the last third of the book. I didn’t enjoy it, is all I can say.

The good news is, I have no gripes with Laura Miller as a person after reading her book and have not come to like her any less. (I know Laura Miller does not care about this, but it was a relief to me because I think she’s a cool lady.) The bad news is, I did not love The Magician’s Book as much as its many appealing qualities led me to hope I might. I still think, and shall always think, that it would be very cool to go to Narnia even though I am a nonsmoker and a wearer of stockings.

A final note since we’re talking about women: Captain Hammer asked us recently what fictional character we would pick to rule the world, if we had to choose a fictional character to rule the world. And everyone else said Dumbledore but I said Lucy Pevensie, and I think my pick was better. Dumbledore would hate it for one thing. For another thing he is a puppetmaster and doesn’t confide in anyone because he’s smarter than everyone. Lucy Pevensie is the way to go. She is smart and brave and kind and humble and would choose excellent advisers. SUPPORT MY CHOICE PLEASE.

Other reviews: Their name is Legion.

*Ana, I am not talking about you. You never talk trash about CS Lewis; your objections to him are completely reasonable. I am just sad that you did not read the Chronicles of Narnia as a little girl because they are magic and you would have loved them.

**We’d also have to have a postman who could travel through time.

***Plus, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ bored me to tears and was patronizing. I don’t mind people disagreeing with me but I dislike being patronized.

Review: The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. and trans. Martin Moynihan

May I tell you a cute story? It’s very cute, and I can’t proceed with this review until I tell you the cute story, so if you are not in the mood for a sweet story, you should depart precipitously. Once upon a time there was an Italian priest called Don Giovanni Calabria who read C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and loved it. He wanted to write to C. S. Lewis to express his admiration for the book, but he didn’t speak English, and he suspected (rightly) that C. S. Lewis didn’t speak Italian. Knowing that Lewis was a scholar of the classics and knew Latin, he wrote to him in that language, and they carried on a correspondence! In Latin!

Lewis and Calabria corresponded periodically over the course of seven years, from Calabria’s first letter to Lewis until Calabria’s death in 1954, after which Lewis continued writing now and then to another member of Calabria’s congregation. Their relationship is touching. They always write to ask each other for prayers, and they ask each other for guidance on theological questions. It is sweet.

As sweet as this is, I don’t know that I’d have been interested in these letters if they had just been published in English. Most of the letters are from Lewis to Calabria, rather than the other way around, so you don’t have a good sense of the correspondence as a whole. The letters discuss the wars, schisms in the church, and the moral tone of the present century, but they are short and cannot explore the issues deeply.

However, I read the Latin half of the letters, and that was fun. The editor helpfully put the Latin and English text on facing pages, so when I got confused about syntax or vocabulary, I could refer to the translation to set me straight. I most pleasingly referred to the translation more rarely as I carried on reading, which made me feel great about myself and totally ready to translate Ovid’s Metamorphoses which I am absolutely going to do one of these days because I love Ovid and Fagles didn’t translate him.

“The Problem of Susan”, Neil Gaiman

While I’m in a talking-about-C.S.-Lewis groove, I might as well review this short story.  I reread it yesterday because I was thinking a lot about C.S. Lewis and Aslan and God, and leaving Susan behind when everyone heads into Aslan’s country.  And here’s what I came out of it with: This story hurts my feelings.  On C.S. Lewis’s behalf, my feelings are hurt by this story.

The main body of the story isn’t the problem.  I think the story is great actually.  It’s essentially a young reporter interviewing a professor of children’s literature, who (it’s very strongly implied) is the grown-up Susan Pevensie.  She’s talking about her life after her siblings all died, how she had to identify their bodies, and how she didn’t have much money following the death of her parents, and so forth.  There’s this tone of bewildered melancholy, and weary anger, which I thought was excellent.  These are points which I think need to be made about Susan from The Last Battle, because even making the argument that her crime was caring too much about girly things, and no longer believing in Narnia – even making that argument, the passage comes out damn sexist, whatever Lewis intended.  So hurrah for Neil Gaiman, putting a face on what Susan would have been going through back in the real world, while everyone she loved was frolicking around merrily in Aslan’s country.  (The other three Pevensies didn’t seem to bother much about her either.  I expected better from Lucy.  And Edmund, actually.  Their big sister!)

But, oh, the bits in italics, which framed the main story, hurt my feelings so much.  (Even though I can see how the story would have been incomplete if he had just taken those bits out.)  I’m excerpting a bit, which is rather explicit, so don’t read it if that’s going to bother you.  Aslan and the White Witch have made a deal to divvy up the Pevensy kids, the boys for her and the girls for him:

The lion eats all of her except her head, in her dream.  He leaves the head, and one of her hands, just as a housecat leaves the parts of a mouse it has no desire for; for later; or as a gift.

She wishes that he had eaten her head, then she would not have had to look.  Dead eyelids cannot be closed, and she stares, unflinching, at twisted thing her brothers have become.  The great beast eats her little sister more slowly; and, it seems to her, with more relish and pleasure than it had eaten her; but then, her little sister had always been its favorite.

The witch removes her white robes, revealing a body no less white, with high, small breasts, and nipples so dark they are almost black.  The witch lies back upon the grass, spreads her legs.  Beneath her body, the grass becomes rimed with frost.  “Now,” she says….

And when the two of them are done, sweaty and sticky and sated, only then does the lion amble over to the head on the grass and devour it in its huge mouth, crunching her skull in its powerful jaws, and it is then, only then, that she wakes.

Not something I often say, and not something I really ever want to say, but shut up, Neil Gaiman.

At first this was just a kneejerk reaction.  As an adult I recognize that sometimes Aslan is a bit smug and aggravating, but still there is this huge part of me that just finds him safe and comforting.  I identified really strongly with Lucy when I was a kid – I think because when you’re a kid, people often don’t listen to you, and nobody would listen to Lucy about Narnia – so I also identified with her relationship with Aslan.  Also, when I went and woke up my parents with nightmares, they would tell me that Aslan would blow my bad dreams away.  You know, like he blew away Eustace and Jill in The Silver Chair, most terrifying Narnia book ever; and that’s what I would imagine when I was falling back asleep.  In fact I still do.  So I was never going to take kindly to something like this.

However, on an intellectual level – and, disclaimer, I don’t know if this response is any fairer – but this business with Aslan and the Witch just seems mean-spirited.  Not because I mind things in which God doesn’t come out too well – for a while I was absolutely entranced by the His Dark Materials books, so much so that I bought all three of them, in hardback, right after I finished The Amber Spyglass; and Angels in America is one of my favorite plays ever (brother’s from the homeland!), as well as being one of my desert island movies.  (Hm, I seem to have Angels in America on the brain – could be my subconscious signaling me to read it again.)  I’m Catholic, but as a trend I really don’t mind when God is portrayed negatively, when it reflects the author’s beliefs and attitudes about the world.  I figure, God is tough.  God can take it.

“The Problem of Susan”, to me, is a whole different question.  It’s not an assault on God; it’s a specific, personal assault on one specific person’s affectionately rendered depiction of his beliefs.  C.S. Lewis wrote Aslan to reflect his experience of God, and as I’ve said, that man loved God like nothing else.  Whether you agree with him or not, he wrote Aslan with such absolute sincerity and love.  I think it is unkind to take such an honest expression of someone’s religious devotion, and do this with it; no matter how much you disagree with him, or find his beliefs about women/God/whatever, to be damaging.  It makes me feel all yucky to read this part of the story – a reaction I don’t think I’ve had to something I’ve read since this horrible book I got for my eleventh birthday, the contents of which I don’t remember at all, but which upset me so much I hid it under the couch and still couldn’t sleep knowing it was in the house so I got up and threw it in the trash and poured wet coffee grounds on top of it.

I’m not pouring wet coffee grounds on top of “The Problem with Susan”.  I just wish Neil Gaiman had been more respectful of C.S. Lewis.  And I say this as a girl who likes dressing up pretty with stockings for parties, and has been from a young age completely displeased with how Lewis dealt with Susan in The Last Battle.  (Y’all should see the sexy, sexy yellow dress I got for Christmas.  You know how hot Kate Hudson was in her yellow dress in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days?  This dress is just like that.  But my hair is longer.)

Okay.  This marks the end of my C.S. Lewis apologetics.  You will not hear another peep out of me about C.S. Lewis.  I am reading his letters but I won’t say a word.  Coming soon: more Sandman, more Shakespeare, the seventh Harry Potter book for heaven’s sake, the interesting book about virginity I am reading, and hopefully some Susan Hill, since every book blog on my blogroll seems to be reading Susan Hill recently.  But no more of the Sally Lockhart books.  I’m tired of them because everyone died, and the Eleventh Doctor has pretentious hands.  Also maybe some science fiction.  I feel myself getting into a very science fictiony mood.  We’ll see how that plays out.