Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

Chronologically The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the fifth installment in the Narnia Chronicles and, to me, it is the funniest one so far. Lewis never openly criticizes modern books, modern parents or modern education, but his disapproval comes through loud and clear in his subtle and humorous comments. Because I’m a lover of beautiful and imaginative literature, I found his jabs at modern books to be the most hilarious.

In one of the book’s most famous scenes bratty Eustace encounters a dead dragon and goes into its cave:

Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons. That is why he was so puzzled at the surface on which he was lying. Parts of it were too prickly to be stones and too hard to be thorns, and there seemed to be a great many round, flat things, and it all clinked when he moved. There was light enough at the cave’s mouth to examine it by. And of course Eustace found it to be what any of us could have told him in advance – treasure. (p. 71)

Caspian and Reepicheep (from the book Prince Caspian) make a reappearance in Voyage and this book brings closure to their story. I liked Reepicheep in the previous book, but loved him in this one. All in all, Voyage of the Dawn Treader was a pleasant read. Now to get my hands on The Silver Chair!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Quote of the Week: Reading as Freedom

In many ways [our] new visual culture is pleasurable, but it is a tyrant. Literature, on the other hand, is democratic. One can pause and put a book down and debate with the author. One can take it up later, after there has been time to think or do some research. The reader's imagination can select what it wishes to focus on, whereas in electronic visual media the mind is pummeled with powerful stimuli that bypass conscious and subconscious defenses.

(Quote from A Landscape With Dragons by Michael O'Brien)

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne

I read The Lively Art of Writing in preparation for a class I teach and liked it so much that I rewrote my syllabus around it. Its emphasis is on writing good essays, but the advice could apply to many kinds of writing. Although the book has not been updated since its 1969 publication (making some of the examples outdated), its information is still fresh and relevant. The Lively Art of Writing is a wonderful book for struggling writers. It clearly explains how to write a thesis, what makes a good thesis, how to write a paragraph, how to connect paragraphs and how to conclude well. Each chapter contains clear instructions as well as assignments for practicing each new writing skill.

Payne’s gentle witticisms reminded me of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. An example from page 104:

Sally saw the cat. It was a big cat. It was a black cat. It was a big, black cat.
You learned, obediently, what you had to learn: that sentences started with a capital letter and ended with a period, that Sally was a noun, saw was a verb, and big was an adjective. You probably learned, in addition, a few things that weren’t strictly a part of the lesson. You learned to hate Sally. You learned to hate Sally’s cat. And you learned to hate sentences. If sentences were this kind of stuff, who wanted them? You had the uneasy feeling that it was dangerous, even faintly immoral, to put a sentence in writing until you had starched and stiffened and sterilized it beyond any resemblance to natural speech.

While I’ll always be partial to the genius of Strunk and White, I thought that Payne did a more thorough job of explaining the mechanics of writing. This is a great book for those who would like to improve their writing.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther

As a fan of classic movies I was only familiar with the film version of Mrs. Miniver. I didn’t know there was a book by this title until I read about it here. So I was glad to get a copy through PBS.

From the opening pages you know you are reading a book from a different era. After all, a woman who unabashedly loves her children, husband and home is considered “outdated”. But those are the qualities that make Caroline Miniver irresistibly charming.

This is not a novel, but a string of vignettes. They describe simple activities in the life of an English woman in the days leading up to WWII. The writing is lovely. (“It was a Wedgewood day, with white clouds delicately modeled in relief against a sky of pale pure blue”.) And the book is chock full of gentle philosophizing:

About once a year Clem rather ruefully suggested, and Mrs. Miniver reluctantly agreed, that it was about time they asked the Lane-Pontifexes to dinner. There was nothing really the matter with them. They were quite nice, intelligent, decent people; she was personable, and he was well-informed: yet for some mysterious reason one’s heart sank…

(Later as Mrs. Miniver is interviewing a woman to help with the dinner party, she immediately feels a kinship to her. ) Mrs. Miniver liked her more and more, recognizing in her that most endearing of qualities, an abundant zest for life. It was rare, that zest, and it bore no relation to age, class, creed, moral worth, or intellectual ability. It was an accidental gift, like blue eyes or a double-jointed thumb; impossible to acquire, and almost impossible, thank heaven, to lose. To be completely without it was the worst lack of all – and it dawned on her in a flash that that was what was the matter with the Lane-Pontifexes. (p. 49 & 50)

The book is full of pleasant insights into life and relationships and, frankly, I was sorry to see it end.

(By the way, the movie bears little resemblance to the book, but I think they were spot on when they chose Greer Garson for the role. She definitely exudes the charm of Mrs. M.)