C.S. Lewis: A Life

C.S. Lewis: A Life – Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, by Alister McGratb

Hodder & Stoughton (2013), Paperback, 448 pages

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I can’t honestly say that the writings of C.S. Lewis have had a great impact on me, simply because I haven’t actually read too many of his works. I was introduced to Narnia in my 20’s, in the context of being a leader on a Christian children’s camp, I hadn’t previously ever heard of it, and when I started reading, it made little impression on me. Compared to Tolkien’s work, to which I remain devoted, I found it somewhat childish, shallow, and its overt Christian message (I was still struggling with finding my own faith at the time) was obvious to the point of irritation. I dismissed it as a children’s book pure and simple and have never gone back to it since. In the course of my Christian life, I also read the Screwtape Letters (wickedly funny, it remains by far my favourite Lewis work) and of course Mere Christianity, which was interesting, but I found largely irrelevant to my own experience. That’s the sum total of my knowledge of Lewis’ work. However, of late Lewis the man rather than his writings per se, has become of some interest to me. This was partly precipitated by discovering how big a part Lewis played in the creation of Lord of the Rings, which is detailed quite well in this book. McGrath describes Lewis as the “literary midwife” who assisted in the birth of LOTR. His intercession was apparently necessary because as a chronic perfectionist Tolkien was hopeless at finishing writing projects once started. I remain not entirely convinced by this, but am nevertheless intrigued by Lewis’ role in the production of a book that I hold very dear. Then there is Lewis’ equally intriguing personal life, which I saw depicted in a documentary some months ago, particularly concerning the two women in his life, Mrs Moore, the mother of his adolescent friend killed in WWI, and with whom he shared a house for most of his life, and Joy Davidman, the pushy American writer who more or less forced her way late into Lewis’ life, and was briefly married to him, before dying of cancer. McGrath deals with both of these relationships at length, although by its nature the Davidman relationship becomes somewhat of an afterthought because it was so brief and occurred so late in Lewis’ life. I found the description of Lewis’ battles with university politics and personalities fascinating, McGrath does a great a job of recreating the flavour of Oxbridge academic life in the mid 20th century. Less interesting to me personally was McGrath’s obvious fascination with Lewis’ Christianity and his role as an apologist, including in-depth analysis of Lewis’ Christian beliefs and writing, but this is understandable when you read the back-cover biography and see that McGrath himself is a Christian apologist. Thankfully, perhaps, there is no real Christian polemic in this book, McGrath lets Lewis’ story unfold at its own pace and does not seek to gloss over any of Lewis’ flaws. This is close to the perfect biography, meaty enough to feel it’s worth reading and is adding to your knowledge, yet not getting bogged down in minutiae so that you feel you will never get to the end. McGrath’s picture of Lewis is finally a wonderful portrait of an idiosyncratic genius, a man curiously at odds with the 20th century, yet whose writings remain hugely popular into the 21st. This is a great book, a wonderful, fascinating, engaging read, and I heartily recommend it.

9.5/10

The Seven Wonders

The Seven Wonders, by Steven Saylor

C & R Crime (2013), Paperback, 432 pages

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Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series (“sub rosa”, literally “beneath the rose”, was a Latin euphemism for secret dealings or conspiracy) is, in my opinion, second only to Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome series in terms of recent fiction concerning the late Roman Republic. Like McCullough, Saylor’s stories are exhaustively researched, with comprehensive references and notes at the end of each. Although Saylor’s central character, the sleuth Gordianus the Finder, is fictional, he interacts with real Romans of the time, including Caesar, Cicero, Crassus, Pompey and Sulla, and each story is backgrounded against real events in the last century of the Republic, including the Catiline conspiracy, the murder of Clodius, the Civil War, and in this case, Rome’s long conflict with the Eastern tyrant Mithridates. Set as a prequel to the series, the story involves Gordianus as a teenager making his first overseas trip in the company of his tutor Antipater of Sidon (another real figure from the period) and having a number of exciting and perilous adventures in his travels. The real stars of this novel, however, are the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, each described in loving detail by Saylor and carefully situated in its particular historical context. Saylor demonstrates his erudition by including the Walls of Babylon, which were in the original list, but subsequently replaced by the Pharos of Alexandria, which features in the climax of the story. By its very nature, the plot in this book is somewhat disjointed, and doesn’t hang together as well as Saylor’s other novels, being of course very episodic, but it is a light fast read, entertaining and full of interesting characters, and ends on a very upbeat note with Gordianus being introduced to his lifelong Egyptian love Bethesda, which will please Saylor’s many fans. Less substance perhaps than Saylor’s other books, but a thoroughly enjoyable read nevertheless.

8.5/10

That’s Anarchy

That’s Anarchy: the Story of a Revolution in the World of TV Comedy, by Chrissie McDonald

Sid Harta Publishers (2003), Paperback, 290 pages

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Delightful mish-mash of a book, written by a devoted fan with more enthusiasm than skill, but I loved it. The story of how “alternative” comedy developed in the UK, from stand-up comedy presented by university students in the main, rebelling against clean-cut family comedy, to the first tentative efforts on TV, leading up the show that is regarded as the progenitor of alternative comedy, The Young Ones, and its spiritual successors, Comic Strip Presents, Filthy Rich and Catflap, and Bottom, and the other shows which followed in the same vein, including Blackadder, Red Dwarf, French and Saunders, Ab Fab and the Vicar of Dibley. I did love the Young Ones. It exploded on me during my first stint at university in the early 80s, and its impact has never left me. I credit the Young Ones equally with Gary Larson’s Far Side for developing my particular love for twisted, dark humour. This book captures the feeling I, and many others, had on first seeing the Young Ones, it just blew our minds with its outrageousness and free-wheeling trashing of sacred cows. Nowadays, when that sort of thing is now mainstream, its hard to realise just how revolutionary the Young Ones and its successors were at the time, but McDonald captures that feeling very well. As well as being a fun book to read, it is also very useful, as it contains full synopses of each episode as well as trivia and interesting facts and the story behind the making of every episode. As I said, there’a lot more enthusiasm than skill in the writing of the book, it sprawls over each page and jumps from tangent to tangent with dizzying fervour, it’s very much a paean of devotion to the shows, but it is a fantastic read and a must for any fan of these shows. It brought many wonderful memories for me, and I am eternally grateful to the author for having put this together. It will have a special pride of place on my bookshelf.

9/10

Empty Mansions

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell Jr.

Ballantine (2013), Paperback, 496 pages

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Absolutely enthralling story about which I had previously known nothing. Huguette Clark was a product of America’s Gilded Age, the daughter of a mining magnate whose fortune rivalled that of Rockefeller and other giants of the time. However, Huguette lived on in to the modern era, a reclusive relic of a bygone age, spending the last 20 years of her very long life sequestered in a hospital room, while even her own relatives were unsure if she was still alive. Meanwhile she maintained vast estates and grand houses around the country which she hadn’t visited for decades, but still kept staff under strict instructions to keep them cared for and ready for use. After her death, an unseemly squabble erupted over the disposal of her $300 million fortune, between the descendants of her father’s first marriage and her coterie of friends, carers and sundry hangers-on to whom she generously bequeathed vast sums. In this sense the book drags on just a little too long, it could probably have benefitted from being 100 pages shorter. While the examination of Huguette and her family’s early life is fascinating, the  later pages become  a rather tedious rehashing of her various eccentricities and  the efforts of various individuals to get their claws into large chunks of her fortune. It’s all somewhat tawdry and rather sad, and tends to dissipate the  solid image provided earlier of a woman of refined taste and profound artistic sensibility, who chose her own path through life and appears to have enjoyed it thoroughly. You can’t help but like Huguette, despite her eccentricities, she appears to have been a warm, generous person, kind to her friends and relatives, which makes the ending of the book seem even sadder. Still, it is a worthwhile read, as a portrait of America’s Gilded Age and its extravagance and excess, it is spellbinding. At a hundred pages less this would been an outstanding book, still very good and highly recommended.

8/10

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

HarperCollins, (2001), Paperback, 1137 pages.

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I feel somewhat embarrassed to be reviewing a book I’ve already read many times and is one of the best-known works of the modern era. However, my brief to myself on writing this blog was to review everything I read, no matter how old or well-known and no matter how many times I had read it previously. Having thus neatly trapped myself (something I realised about halfway through reading it), I am therefore committed. Not that it’s a trial to review this unsurpassed work of genius, the second best-selling novel ever written, although it is a trial to find anything to say that hasn’t been written many times before.  I was introduced to LOTR quite late, having read The Hobbit at high school, I didnt find it within me to tackle LOTR until university. However, when I did finally get around to reading it, its impact upon me was profound. Apart from awakening my love of fantasy writing which has never left me, it is just such an epic story, based upon one of the oldest literary tropes in existence, the quest, that it can’t fail to leave the reader unaffected. The book’s underlying theme, that the most insignificant of us has it within ourselves to achieve the impossible, is truly inspiring. Despite the fact that the book deals with themes of quite horriffic evil, despair, death and destruction, it remains always profoundly upbeat, something many subsequent fantasy writers have seemingly found difficult to comprehend or copy. It is also compellingly honest in dealing with its characters’ failings. For example, Frodo’s failure at the last to destroy the Ring of his own volition shocked me deeply when I first read it. It seemed so out of keeping with the nature of the quest for the hero to fail in such a  dramatic fashion at the very moment of climax, and then for there to be no conclusion whereby the hero redeems himself. Tolkien masterfully leaves this very understated, but the brutal fact is that Frodo did fail, and the Quest was only saved (albeit inadvertently) by the most despised character in the book. I have no doubt Tolkien intended this to reinforce his message that the least among us is capable of the greatest deeds. I believe that it is things like this that have given the book its appeal and grip upon the public imagination. I must also mention the other thing which grabbed me when I first read the book, which is Tolkien’s incredible massive backstory. One of the key reasons this book is so gripping is simply that it reads like this is a real world, with a rich, incredibly detailed history, a whole book’s worth in its own right. What other fantasy work comes with such incredible appendices, worthy of any academic work, that give minute details of language, origins, history and fill-in details. Its shouldn’t be any surprise, really, since Tolkien was an academic, and he knew that such attention to detail, to have accurate references to back up his arguments, was essential to having academic work accepted by his peers, and he applied that same principle to his fiction. But it still doesnt make this incredible backstory, something so comprehensive that it has been often studied in its own right, any less amazing. For me, any way, it has always been one of the outstanding features of this work, and one that separates it definitively from its many imitators. There’s not a great deal more I can say about this great work that hasnt been said many times before. Suffice it to say I found it as arresting on the 1oth reading as I did on the first. Nor can I put in a recommendation to read it, since everyone has either already read it, or otherwise has been living on Mars for the last half-century, or simply doesn’t want to read it, in which case any recommendation from me would be doubly pointless. It is simply among the best products of the human imagination ever put to paper. There is nothing more to say.

10/10