Book Notes #2: The Chronicles of Narnia, Books 3-5

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Prince Caspian

The Pevensie children are called back to Narnia a year after they come back through the wardrobe. This time they are at a train station on their way to boarding school when suddenly they feel a familiar physical pull and find themselves on a deserted island they soon realize is Cair Paravel where they ruled Narnia as kings and queens. They have been summoned to help Prince Caspian regain his rightful place as King of Narnia.

There is a lot of magic in this one and some beautiful passages that describe the reawakening of the talking animals and trees of Old Narnia who were silenced when Prince Caspian’s ancestors, the Telmars, conquered the land.

Another intriguing aspect of this book is that air and breath take on magical properties. The air makes the children appear to be older, says the narrator, “I think I have explained before how Narnia was altering them. Even Lucy was by now…only one third of a little girl going to boarding school the first time, and two-thirds of Queen Lucy of Narnia.” And Aslan breathes into Edmund before he is sent into enemy territory and “a kind of greatness hung about him.” This reminds me of Genesis when God brought Adam to life through His breath.

While I liked many passages in this book and I liked the book overall compared to The Horse and his Boy, the thought occurred to me after I finished it if all the Narnia books have this same basic theme: a threatened Narnia and someone(s) to the rescue? That sounds tedious.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

But I am pressing on and in the middle of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which happily has a different theme. Prince Caspian sets out on a sea voyage (add to your ‘sea cruise’ series, Lizzie?!!) to discover the fate and where possible, avenge the seven lords that were banished from Narnia by the Prince’s evil uncle with the help of King Edmund and Queen Lucy and their tiresome cousin Eustace. During a sequence of events though, Eustace becomes a dragon and that section right there completely captured my imagination! But what is that about? Is there an explanation further along? I hope so.

So far, I am finding that these books alternate between the childish and the profound; sometimes I feel like I am reading passages my 10 year-old self would have loved and then come upon a section with images so deep I want to pause and reflect.

The Horse and His Boy

Just a note on The Horse and his Boy. I am not sure this book has aged well. I found much of the writing uncomfortably racist in its portrayal of the Calormen, who are easily seen as Middle Eastern, because Lewis has portrayed them through a very stereotyped lens. I am purposely not reading any reviews or criticism of the Narnia books until after I finish the series, so I don’t know if this reaction is an obvious one for others and whether Lewis has been criticized for it.

Having said that, I feel very strongly, in general, about historical context when it comes to criticizing points of view that are no longer acceptable. While the racism (homophobia, sexism, etc.) should be called out that does not mean the author, the book—or whatever medium—should be banned or thrown out only because during the time it was written people held these points of view; unless, of course, the whole premise or tone of the book is destructive, which is another matter.

At this time in human history, we are sensitive to the way our words heal or destroy and that is a good thing. But it makes our relationship with the past a bit tricky.

Reading Chronologically vs. by Publication Date

As an aside, when I reviewed The Magician and his Nephew, I did not like it very much; I don’t think I quite understood it. I should not have read it first, but in my series of books published by HarperCollins all the books are published chronologically and not by original publishing date. I keep thinking about this book and realize I like it more and more. I think it will make more sense in the context of publication, so I am going to reread when it’s ‘turn’ comes up.

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BookNotes are short reviews of books that have made an impression, but time constraints do not allow a full record of the titles.

Mary Oliver, September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, talking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. —from “When Death Comes”

 

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Mary Oliver died today.

Poet of nature, of spirituality; she loved all life.

Now she is with all of her beloveds…the two- and four-leggeds, the winged ones, the fishy furry slithery ones, the ones who grow tall from the forest floor their branches a shelter to the spidery predatory squirrelly ones.

Oliver’s death is an uncommon experience for me, since most of my favorite authors are classics writers and long dead! I don’t have to mourn the sudden silencing of their voice as I have to do now. But words live on and become more treasured than when uttered the first time. In 2017, I reviewed her latest collection of essays, called Upstream.

Looking for one of her works for this moment is impossible. There is never just one. So this:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? —“The Summer Day”

And this:

At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?
—”At Blackwater Pond”

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The Magician’s Nephew (The Chronicles of Narnia), C.S. Lewis (1955)

“Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” Aslan

And the longer and more beautiful the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring….And when the Lion spoke and said, “Narnia awake,” he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl. And when the Beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, bayings, and howlings.

magiciansnephewI read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW) a few years ago. I liked it and knew I would read the other books in the series. I didn’t know there is, what we would call a prequel, until I struck up a conversation with a woman in a bookstore who is an avid Narnia fan. Apparently, after Lewis published the LWW a friend asked him about the lamppost that appeared out of nowhere and in order to clear that up he wrote The Magician’s Nephew (MN). So does this mean the MN is really the first book? When I looked this up, I found Lewis scholars from the 1950s with various opinions that plague newer scholars and fans alike to this day. Chronological order (Lewis’s preference) puts the MN first. Published order puts it 6th or before the Last Battle the last released title. Being that the MN shows not only the origin of the lamppost, but the creation of Narnia by Aslan and how evil enters the Kingdom of Narnia, I believe chronological order is best. But I am only two books in; not the best authority.

I have to admit though, half way through I was very disappointed in the story. I found it dull, the magic not particularly, well, magical. Digory and Polly, neighbor children who are thrust into the void by the power of the magic rings invented by Digory’s Uncle Andrew land in a world made up of innumerable ponds and woods. Even the world that unleashes the Witch and the evil brought to Narnia did not hold my interest. Only the desire that I read all the titles forced me to continue. And then suddenly, Aslan appears and the book takes a most promising turn.

This world has a hopefulness the other worlds did not. It is a new world without flora or fauna, but that changes as a magnificent and glorious sound pierces the air and the children realize Creation is being sung into being before their very eyes!

There were no words. There was hardly even a tune….It was so beautiful he [Digory] could hardly bear it…Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count….The second wonder was that the blackness overhead all at once, was blazing with stars….a thousand points of light leaped out—single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world….If you had seen and heard it, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing….The Voice rose and rose till all the air was shaking with it; the sun rose. You could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up….the earth was of many colors; they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else. It was a Lion and stood facing the risen sun. Its mouth was wide open in song….

These passages and the ones that speak about the creation of the animals and other two-legged beings, are the kinds of magic that moves me. Creation being formed out of Song and love and beauty by a Lion who is at once Creator and Sacrifice (LWW). Because, yes, one cannot but help to see that connection. Aslan is birthing the world through the sound of his Voice, bringing forth the first plants, the new starry heavens, the sun and wind and all the animals, birds and beings that will populate this new world.

Out of the trees wild people stepped forth, gods and goddesses of the wood; with them came Fauns and Satyrs and Dwarfs. Out of the river rose the river god with his Naiad daughters. And all these and all the beasts and birds in their different voices, low or high or thick or clear, replied. “Hail, Aslan. We hear and obey. We are awake. We love. We think. We speak. We know.

Aslan tells the animals and other sacred beings to guard and protect the land because evil has been let loose. The Witch followed Digory and Polly into Narnia, but for now she is headed for lands far away and won’t trouble Narnia for hundreds of years. In the meantime Narnia must be made strong. Aslan sends the children on a journey to find the fruit of a special apple tree that once planted in Narnia will reign over it against all evil. When they return Aslan tells Digory to throw the apple a certain distance and it settles into the soft mud. In the morning the tree is big and filled with fruit. Digory is certain an apple from this tree will help his mother’s cancer and Aslan gives him one to take home.

When Digory and Polly return to London, Digory’s mother eats the apple and is cured. Digory plants the core and a tree grows again overnight. As the years pass and the children grow up so does the tree which has a symbiotic relationship with the one of its origin: it wiggles a bit on days when it is windy in Narnia, even when there is no wind in London. But its shaking has weakened its roots, and one wind-filled day in London the tree topples over. Now middle aged and with unfaded memories of Aslan and Narnia and all he saw there, Digory cannot just chop up the tree for fire wood. So he takes part of the tree and builds a wardrobe which he puts in his house in the country….

The passages of Narnia’s creation, vocalizing it into Being, the animals talking to one another and back and forth with the children tick many of my fantasy-girl and spirituality boxes. I am so glad I stuck with this book. And I further learned I wasn’t so far off the mark when I wanted to set the book aside, because the arguments of Lewis scholars who say the books should be read as released, instead of chronologically with MN to be read first, stems partly from the fact that this IS a dull book up until Aslan’s entrance and children (and adults?) might be turned off by the dull first half and not want to read any further.

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My Edition
Title: The Magician’s Nephew
Author: C.S. Lewis
Publisher: Harper Trophy
Device: Paperback
Year: 1955
Pages: 221
Summary

The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham (1944)

“I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I’ve attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as fluently as I can read French. Of course Greek’s more difficult. But I have a very good teacher. Until you came here I used to go to him three evenings a week.”

“And what is that going to lead to?”

“The acquisition of knowledge.”

“That doesn’t sound very practical.”

 

 

razorThis is my first book by W. Somerset Maugham and I found it to be a compelling narrative with a theme that is close to me. It is a book with a large cast of characters, but by weaving them in and out of each other’s lives Maugham keeps them familiar to us. We watch as their individual fortunes rise and fall affecting all around.

The story begins just after WWI and centers on Larry Darrell and his childhood friends. He is the only one of his group who fought, joining the Air Force to train as a fighter pilot. Traumatized by seeing his best friend killed, when he returns home he is unable to resume his carefree life as a member of the upper class. Set to marry his long-time love, Isabel, and live the conventional life of his class, his experiences during the war have changed him in ways that make that life impossible. He is full of questions about the meaning of life and no longer feels comfortable in the Chicago of his childhood. With inner demons demanding attention he embarks on a life of study and manual labor in France and Germany and to India where at the feet of gurus and into ashrams he spends several years. Confounding his friends with his voluntary poverty and perpetual study, he refuses to reign in his voracious quest for answers.

As the years pass and Isabel loses her ability to wait for him; as the offers of employment dry up and the words of wisdom from well-meaning friends fall on deaf ears, Larry remains undaunted. At its heart this is the story of one man’s spiritual journey, but it is also that for all the characters who experience existential crises in the life choices they make and in the way their lives unfold.

Maugham, who plays himself in the story, met Larry just after he returned from the war at a party given by Isabel’s uncle Elliott. As a writer, he comes to Paris often. His meetings with Larry make him the perfect go-between keeping all at home informed of Larry’s whereabouts and progress on a quest they cannot understand.

Maugham structures the narrative so that he runs into the characters accidentally on streets, in restaurants, at events as a device for “catching up.” He is the older, trustworthy, non-gossipy family friend. They pour out their trials and tribulations to him, their decisions, their changes of heart or circumstances, whether their hopes are attained or dreams dashed.

That Maugham plays himself in this story had me confused. Is this a fictional account of a true story? If so, does his presence make it nonfiction? Or are the characters fictional in order for Maugham to expand on the real point of the book—the quest for the meaning of life vs. living a conventional material life, and as a vehicle that showcases the new Eastern spirituality that had become so popular in the West?

My confusion forced me to learn more about Maugham to see if that might shed some light.

Maugham was involved with some of the major players and organizations that brought Indian religion and philosophy to the States in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. Swami Vivekananda and the Vedanta Society, Paramahansa Yogananda and The Self-Realization Fellowship were well-known messengers of this new spirituality. They lectured throughout the United States and Europe to packed houses making positive impressions everywhere. Maugham uses himself in the book as a sort of messenger not only between Larry and his friends, but as Larry’s sounding board, foil, and inquisitor to his spiritual journey. By forcing Larry to explain himself through their conversations he becomes the transmitter of this spirituality to the reader.

As a new reader of W. Somerset Maugham I thoroughly enjoyed his style of writing and telling of this story. He is asking us to think about what makes a meaningful life and the struggle between material desire and spirituality. Is Larry the better person for his choices and Isabel, who refuses Larry’s life of poverty, the villain? Is a life of inner exploration superior to that of outer conformity to convention? Or does there have to be a choice between the two? A universal conundrum for sure.

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My Edition
Title: The Razor’s Edge
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publisher: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1944
Pages: 258
Full plot summary

Nonfiction Friday: Out On a Leash, Shirley MacLaine (2017)

Many of my friends who have passed on come to their human companions in dreams. They press their furry selves against their human friends with all the warmth they can muster; they nudge and paw until their masters wake up. They do it to remind their human loved ones that nothing ever dies. Love just changes form. Terry

 

LeashI am a big fan of actress/dancer Shirley MacLaine and the books she writes about her spiritual adventures. Her first book, Don’t Fall off the Mountain, played a big part in guiding my younger self’s spiritual exploration. She is not a guru and does not want to be. She is just a gal who wants to feel connected to the Universe and wants to be open to its secrets. She writes honestly of her humanness, her mistakes, doubt, anger and her overwhelming desire to learn.

In this book, she learns through her dog Terry, a Rat Terrier, with whom she is extremely close. Terry experiences life as a wise Yoda-type character who tries to impart that wisdom to Shirley, which she seems to understand until her fears get in the way. Through Terry, Shirley sees all the love, the joy, and even the tragedy the Universe has to offer that really isn’t a mystery or a secret if she can just open herself up to living life in the present as dogs do.

I find myself wanting to surround myself with animals. I want birds in the house, and I want a cat; because of Terry, I would be happy living with a menagerie. It’s wonderful to relate to living things that don’t speak, that don’t judge, and don’t blame. They are always an instant removed from timelessness. They point the way to a state of being we humans can only aspire to. Shirley

The book alternates monologues between Shirley and Terry who muse on life, death, UFO’s, Shirley’s choice of acting roles, and how to get along with the other dogs/people in your pack/life. They talk to and about each other and how Terry’s death, after almost two decades together (this is not a spoiler), though unbearably sad was a gift to Shirley in what it taught her about life after death.

Not only am I biased in favor of any of MacLaine’s writing, I loved bigears (2)this book just a little more for its canine heroine, who is the same breed as my Jess and from whom I learned a lot. Jess really does do Downward Dog…it’s not my imagination!

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My Edition
Title: Out on a Leash: How Terry’s Death Gave Me New Life
Author: Shirley MacLaine
Publisher: Atria Books
Device: Hard cover
Year: 2017
Pages: 258
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love, Dewey’s Nonfiction Reading Challenge

National Poetry Month, James Weldon Johnson’s, The Creation (1927)

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I inherited my grandparent’s library. Many of the books have their signatures and a date and in a few volumes one has gifted it to the other with “Love, Eli” or “Love, Lorraine.” I cherish these.

Every once in a while when I am looking for something to read or rearranging shelves aIMG_5087 title strikes me that I missed or hadn’t felt a pull to in the past. As I looked for something to end National Poetry Month I found this book and a piece that made me pause. I read it all the way through and frankly was sobbing at the end.

In the Hebrew Bible, I love the first chapter of Genesis and the way God is described making the world. Johnson takes those first verses and amplifies the personification of God, of God’s love for his Creation and the care and consideration of what he made and how he exclaimed, “That’s good!”

Johnson’s words affect me specifically because I have always seen Nature as God Incarnate. And in modern America we are killing off Nature, God’s Creation,…well, that’s a post for another time…I am sure these feelings of mine contributed to my reaction.

When you find someone else’s words that speak so deeply and directly to you it is a joy. This is long. Skim if you want, but it’s worth reading all the way through.

 
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The Creation

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.

Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen.      Amen.

jwjohnson

To learn more about James Weldon Johnson, you can read his biography at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

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The Book of American Negro Poetry. Edited by James Weldon Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922, 117.

#BloggingTheSpirit

Gabriela Mistral: Chilean Poet, Educator, Diplomat and Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

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April is National Poetry Month and I want to share a few works of a poet I just discovered, Gabriela Mistral (April 7, 1889—January 10, 1957). She is the first South American author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1945) and I hope I am in the minority of those who have never heard of her!

Pure luck brought her to my attention when a character in a telenovela I am watching that is presently airing on Chilean television quoted her. (“The universe changes in an instant and we are born in a day”). I found this profound and wanted to find out more about her.

Born in a small village in the Andes Mountains of Chile, Mistral had an extensive career as an educator, poet, and diplomat; her diplomatic assignments included posts in Madrid, Lisbon, Genoa, and Nice.

She is an emotional and lyrical poet and her poetry is characterized by a persistent and mystical search for union with divinity and all of creation.

I think it is for this reason these three poems particularly draw me. All three speak of spirituality, Nature and a person at ease in conversation with the Divine.

A note on translation: I do not know Spanish, the language of Gabriela Mistral’s work, but these translations are by Doris Dana, her friend and heir to her papers and estate. I am sure they do Mistral justice.*

 

“Serenity”/”Suavidades”

When I am singing to you,
on earth all evil ends:
as smooth as your forehead
are the gulch and the bramble.

When I am singing to you,
for me all cruel things end:
as gentle as your eyelids,
the lion with the jackal.


“Time”/”Tiempo”

DAYBREAK

My heart swells that the Universe
like a fiery cascade may enter.
The new day comes. Its coming
leaves me breathless.
I sing. Like a cavern brimming
I sing my new day.

For grace lost and recovered
I stand humble. Not giving. Receiving.
Until the Gorgon night,
vanquished, flees.


“Eight Puppies”/”Ocho Perritos

Between the thirteenth and the fifteenth day
the puppies opened their eyes.
Suddenly they saw the world,
anxious with terror and joy.
They saw the belly of their mother,
saw the door of their house,
saw a deluge of light,
saw flowering azaleas.

They saw more, they saw all,
the red, the black, the ash.
Scrambling up, pawing and clawing
more lively than squirrels,
they saw the eyes of their mother,
heard my rasping cry and my laugh.

And I wished I were born with them.
Could it not be so another time?
To leap from a clump of banana plants
one morning of wonders—
a dog, a coyote, a deer;
to gaze with wide pupils
to run, to stop, to run, to fall,
to whimper and whine and jump with joy,
riddled with sun and with barking,
a hallowed child of God, his secret, divine servant.

I don’t pretend at this time to know more than a scant few details about Mistral, since in discovering her, I have mostly concentrated on reading her poems. I know that while she had fulfilling and important career successes in education and political diplomacy, she had many personal loses and sorrows, including the death of a nephew she raised as a son. Her poems reflect this.

Since today is her date of birth, I am hoping the Internet will point me to others who know more. If she is new to you, maybe you’ll want to search around as well.

For a nicely detailed biography of her life, including excerpts from her work, I found her entry at The Poetry Foundation to be quite meaningful.

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Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated and edited by Doris Dana. Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore, 1971.