C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius and Reluctant Prophet
By Alister E. McGrath; Read by Robin Sachs
13 hours 56 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Oasis Audio
Themes: / biography / religion / fantasy / medieval literature
Before setting out on this review, I must apologize for the liberal use of the first-person pronoun, which I normally use sparingly. This book intersects my personal and professional interests at several points, so I’m not even going to attempt an objective, impartial review, if such a thing is even possible. I am, as Lewis was, a student of medieval literature, though I can only dream of reaching his depth of knowledge and scope of imagination in this field. Furthermore, I undertook part of my studies at Oxford University, which was home to Lewis for much of his life. The City of Dreaming Spires, as Matthew Arnold called it, exerted a profound influence on Lewis’s life and work, and having walked its winding cobbled streets and ancient quadrangles it’s easy to understand why. Last, but certainly not least, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia had a profound impact on my intellectual and imaginative development as a child. In this I suspect I’m not alone, and I hope this review will encourage readers to learn more about the life and mind behind one of the wellsprings of modern fantasy.
Before discussing the biography itself, I should say something of its author. Though currently Professor of Theology at King’s College, London, McGrath’s previous post was in Oxford, where I had heard his name spoken with a great deal of respect while I was there. The biography lists ever so slightly in the direction of Christianity, reflecting its author’s background in theology and apologetics, but on the whole it’s a balanced work firmly grounded in scholarly research of Lewis’s works and correspondence. The biography, of course, deals extensively with Lewis’s religious and spiritual development so central in his life and work, but the work by no means white-washes Lewis’s life or even his faith. This audio recording is preceded by an interview with McGrath, whose calm, measured voice assures us as listeners that we’re chosen a trustworthy guide down the path of Lewis’s life.
Like most biographers, McGrath takes a strictly chronological approach, with very few detours either to backtrack or to foreshadow. The narrative takes us through Lewis’s birth and childhood in Northern Ireland, through his lengthy tenure at Osxford University, to his final years as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge. The biography strikes a delicate balance between Lewis’s rich inner life as reflected in his writings and his sometimes tumultuous outer. In the former case, McGrath devotes considerable space to Lewis’s conversion experience and subsequent development of his spirituality. As an academic, I was also pleased that Lewis’s scholarly works, notably on Edmund Spender’s Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost, receive some attention. In regards to Lewis’s personal life, the biography charts Lewis’s many professional disappointments resulting from his popular religious work and the rift that formed between Lewis and other Oxford academics. Lewis’s relationships also receive some attention, in particular his long-running peculiar arrangement with the older Mrs. Moore and his controversial marriage to Joy Davidman. Of course, there is significant interplay between Lewis’s inner and outer lives, and McGrath expertly weaves these strands together to illustrate how one sometimes influenced the other. The book concludes by reflecting on the rise of Lewis’s reputation in various circles, religious and popular, after his death in 1963.
Two whole chapters are dedicated to Lewis’s development of The Chronicles of Narnia. McGrath packs a lot of material into these relatively few pages, from Narnia’s inception in Lewis’s mind, to the debate over the proper reading order of the books (Lewis’s ordering, order of publication, or internal chronology), to the works’ modern reception, especially Philip Pullman’s criticism. This section also manages to delve a little deeper, too, highlighting the philosophical and theological underpinnings of this imaginative, not imaginary, world. McGrath deals with the question of whether Narnia is an allegory, and also links the work to Plato’s Republic and the allegory of shadows in the cave. Obviously this is a lot of topics to cram into so little space, and I would have liked a more thorough treatment, but to be fair this is a biography, not a work of literary criticism. McGrath has promised a fuller, more scholarly edition of this book in the near future, which will likely feature copious footnotes providing a wonderful paper trail for the Narnia enthusiast eager to learn more. SFFaudio readers should also note that Lewis’s lesser-known Space Trilogy also receives brief treatment in this biography.
Though built on academic bedrock, C.S. Lewis: A Life is written in a lively, accessible style. McGrath uses Lewis’s own words, or the words of his associates, when possible, which imbues the book with a sense of immediacy and authenticity to the work. I sometimes felt as though I were in the room with Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings as they discussed important religious, mythological, and literary matters. Like Lewis himself, McGrath also has a way of explaining complex intellectual and theological matters in a way that an average reader like me can understand. This is, in my view, the hallmark of any solid intellectual or literary biography. My only criticism of the book, and it’s a trifling one, is that McGrath hardly even alludes to any sexual relations between Lewis and Mrs. Moore, or later between Lewis and Joy Davidman, even though it’s obvious there was some sort of sexual element to these relationships. Perhaps McGrath found this matter distasteful, or thought the book’s Christian readers would. In any case, this omission is to me the one glaring lacuna in an otherwise thorough life story.
Robin Sachs’s stately narration lends the perfect air of British respectability to the audio edition. His pronunciation of some of the book’s more arcane linguistic and literary terms are, for the most part, spot on. As mentioned earlier, the inclusion of an interview with Alister McGrath, is a welcome addition, and provides additional insights into an already insightful work. Another minor quibble: I feel the interview should have been included at the end of the audiobook, rather than the beginning. I prefer to go into a book unbiased by the author’s later thoughts on the book. Again, though, this quibble is very minor. What does conclude the audiobook, however, is an amazing recording of Lewis at his deep-timbres lecturing finest.
There are certainly many other windows into the lives of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the other Inklings. Despite the influence of these authors on my own life, I have to admit I have not read most of these other works. So I’m very glad that one of the first I’ve read has proved to be such an enlightening and entertaining journey, (mostly) free from the partisanship and polarity that plague some biographies of relatively recent figures. I can’t think of many readers who wouldn’t benefit from or at least be entertained by Alister McGrath’s C.S. Lewis: A Life.
Posted by Seth Wilson
The SFFaudio Podcast #241 – Jesse and Jenny discuss the 1913 novel Goslings: A World Of Women by J.D. Beresford and the 2013 audiobook from Dreamscape Audiobooks.
PUBLIC DOMAIN |ETEXT|
Talked about on today’s show:
Dreamscape Audiobooks, narrator Matthew Brenher, English dialects (and accents), a casual apocalypse, running out of water, “he’s going to beat his family”, “and we’re very English and we’re moving on”, a world of women,
A global plague has decimated England’s male population and the once-predictable Gosling family is now free to fulfill its long-frustrated desires. When Mr. Gosling leaves his family to peruse his sexual vices, the Gosling daughters, who lack experience and self-independence, find shelter in a matriarchal commune. However their new life is threatened by the community elders’ views on free love.
that’s not what it feels like, what do the women want?, Thrail and his perspective, the Gosling’s perspective, Thrail’s journal, an implicit trust in the British authorities, fathoming an empty world, what is Mother Gosling’s ultimate fate?, a very gentle book, the cruelest moment in this book is the confrontation at the tobacconist’s, “you stupid slut”, a gentle apocalypse, 70% of the population dies, The Stand by Stephen King, exploding heads, Earth Abides, the war of all against all, almost all the men die, the harem, Thrail is asexual, a dalliance with a coquette, Jenny blames Father Gosling, the proximal cause, “we’re wasting the potential of women”, Eileen (aka Lady Eileen), marriage never really protected women, a world of slaves, men can be feminists too, why does it take a man to write a book about a world of women?, J.D. Beresford modeled Thrail on H.G. Wells, Jack London, the 1910s, the Bolshevik revolution, Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen, an anti-disestablishment bill, the Anglican Church, church and state, the fundamentalist religious people in this book, so many critiques, a very thoughtful book, intellectualism, “you don’t want books, keep your eyes open and think”, Thrail worked on every continent, Thrail is needed for his manly skills (not just his sperm), “the Jewess”, is this casual racism?, this is a weird book because its about fashion, a Science Fiction novel about FASHION!, the clothing, pants, work clothing, Thrail is the Beresford mouthpiece, Thrail’s Dr. Watson, “you’re so mighty!”, women want to attract mates but their worried about what other women think, and men are into fashion too, a vigorous bike ride, “get out of the city”, the suppressed lech, “I saw the god in the father”, a transition back to nature, Sterling, the ending, what’s going on in America, this story would never work now, Goslings is completely of its time, a really well written book, Beresford wrote a book about H.G. Wells, Neil Gaiman, the neat ending undercuts the book, a new way to be, why do we like these downer books, Jenny likes to see what happens when things get torn apart, a farm commune, the thieving, the religious group, class distinctions, fashion and class, Louis Vuitton, a signifier of class, men are not the oppressors, people are oppressing themselves, we weren’t even slaves to intelligence and efficiency, a strong educated woman, a funny utopian book, utopia/dystopia, compared to the end of Earth Abides, the war bride phenomena, think of the children, Virus (1980) aka Day of Resurrection (PUBLIC DOMAIN), an inversion of the situation in Goslings, rape is not okay, how do we rebuild the world with only eight women and eight hundred men?, The Best Of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord, On The Beach by Nevil Shute, Gooses?, Ganders?, goslings grow up, growing up, Blanche is the elder daughter, Millie becomes a harem girl, beautiful hair, “if you stop I’m gone”, Thrail doesn’t want to suffer the fools, sex in that bush, the women are jealous, “history is a series of stories about the worst fucking people in the world”, bastard after bastard, asshole after asshole, “slut” is the insult word for women, etymology of swear words, bitch, bastard, a term of unworthiness, men worry about bastard children, women are worried about having sluts near their husbands, the terms don’t apply anymore, religious sects that don’t sexually reproduce, the Shakers, the rapture, J.D. Beresford was agnostic and then a theosophist, Paris intellectuals, Madame Blavatsky, the universal over-soul, séances, the cause, the 19th century, “newspapers newspapers newspapers”, disposable income, social negotiations, the girls could push their dad’s buttons, when the hard truth comes…, Jean Claude Van Damme, Jenny plows her own fields, “more beets, less kale”, the prepper phenomenon, a seed bank, all the planting zones are shifting, growing beets and kale in Antarctica, there are only two flowering plants in Antarctica.
Posted by Jesse Willis
Talked about on today’s show:
The 1818 edition versus the 1831 edition, the half-made up prologue, Leaves Of Grass, are there any body changes?, “the corpus”, Downpour.com’s version with Simon Templeman, Anthony Heald, Stefan Rudnicki, Frankenstein vs. the monster, creature, wretch, demon, insect, incoherent with rage, face to face, moving on, the fainting hero or heroine, swooning, Lovecraftian fainting, cosmic horror, Herbert West: Re-Animator, Young Frankenstein, Cool Air by H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, M.R. James, becoming god, why are we reading a book by a teenager from almost 200 years ago, Edinborough, the broken reader, Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, etymology, Paradise Lost, Gulliver’s Travels, Percy Shelley, William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Caliban, The Tempest, Science!, hey I’m killing your family and stuff, Spirits!, Russia, the Arctic, Prospero, Caliban the dogsbody, Sycorax, the pre-science world to the science world, Christopher Marlowe, “I’ll burn my books!”, the education of young Victor, religious swearing, Brian Aldiss, spark, the electrical element, Galvani and the frog’s legs, more chemical (than electrical), the Romantics, the heart of the the book, “the modern Prometheus”, nature, the North Pole, Siberia, Things As They Are; Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams by William Godwin, berries and nuts, vegetarianism, the bringing of fire, The Wonderstick (the coming of the bow) “spooky action at a distance”, fire as technology, Eric S. Rabkin, fire -> knowledge -> enlightenment, the blasted oak, the family tree destroyed, this mortal clay, body stealing, Burke and Hare (are a lot of fun), ‘there are some things man was not meant to know’, a motherless monster, Young Frankenstein, what’s so cool about Young Frankenstein is that it solves the problems caused by previous movie adaptations, “Hey there handsome”, is the creature really hideous?, “a very Jewish movie”, “this is a boy that the world will love”, community, Victor had no Igor, Eyegor, or Fritz, well formed, euphemisms, dull yellow eye, proportionate limbs, is he veiny?, black and flowing hear, a pearly whiteness, a feminist novel, a misogynist fantasy, the framing narrative, males behaving badly, Gothic, gender coding, the curse of the Frankensteins, Frau Blücher, the Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Frankenstein, The Revolt Of Islam by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Justine (and the lack of justice she receives), Anne Rice, “I’m never going to sleep again”, the path of evil, Victor had a temper, the abnormal brain (Abbie someone), a “blank slate”, Henry Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein retcons the book and the 1931 movie (and the Hammer movies), Froderick Frankenstein, Boris Karloff, Transylvania Station, The Body Snatcher, Robert Louis Stevenson, The Black Cat (1934), Bela Lugosi, a movie from a parallel dimension, the perfect romantic character, the “noble savage” and the “blank slate”, flowery language and obfuscation, a baby story, that’s Science Fiction right there, an eight foot baby, how do we detect the world, what is light?, a blind man given sight, sphere vs. pyramid, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, an urbane monster, the ideal syllabus, Mary Shelley is showing the heck off, Paradise Lost, The Sorrows Of Young Werther, suicide, Lives Of The Noble Greeks And Romans by Plutarch, Ruins Of Empires by Constantin-François de Volney, Frankenstein’s lab notes, Safie, the Ottoman Empire, Turkey as a proxy for European society, Olaf Stapledon, the hapless fate of the aboriginals of North America, Shelley’s hanging out with radicals, an anti-American dream, three years after the fall of Napoleon, Lord Byron, dreams, “how are we living with each other?”, Prometheus Unbound, The Last Man, Prometheus should be our hero, Harlan Ellison, Walton, Bryan’s dissertation was on Frankenstein, The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket, At The Mountain Of Madness, Star Trek, doppelgangers, doubles all the way down, perfectly symmetrical, The Prestige by Christopher Priest, Melmoth The Wanderer by Charles Maturin, The Saragossa Manuscript by Count Jan Potocki, the fire and ice, “in the cottage we are the monster”, lookism, when they see the monster, “as a lion rends the antelope”, Blade Runner‘s ending, all those murders, a child having a temper-tantrum, where you gonna get that wood?, standing on an ice-floe, Dante’s Inferno and the final circle of hell, Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Bryan reads Frankenstein every year, teaching Frankenstein in high-school, a perfect ending, is the monster still out there?, Edison’s 1910 film adaptation of Frankenstein (it’s 10 minutes), imagine Tesla adapting Frankenstein, a shameless self-promoter, “Victory Frankenstein fucked with Mother Nature, and She bore him a strong son”, ‘there are some things that man was not meant to know’, Walton wants to find the source of the pole’s magnetism, “it’s not just loving your family – it’s also loving your fellow being”, “if you make a mistake – own up”, Walton learns from the story, Young Frankenstein, it’s an ethics book, mad scientists, a Kennedy son, Moby Dick, C.L.R. James, a ship as a microcosm of society, “I smell readalong!”, Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power by Andrew Nagorski, “the kids loved Uncle ‘Dolf”, “charisma leaking out all over the place”, charisma and beauty, a bear doesn’t understand charisma, real-life parallels, what is the function of Henry Clerval in the book, is he us?, a homoerotic reading, Percy and Bryon go hiking, it’s Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, World’s End, Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, Elizabeth’s provenance and the weird relationship with her cousin/brother/owner Victor, a subterranean psychodrama, Victor’s wild dream in which Elizabeth dies and then turns into his mom, grave worms, a maternal figure and a corpse.
Posted by Jesse Willis
Prominent Author is a great example on the joke theory of short stories. Look to the meaning of character names, listen for the clever turns of phrase (‘he wasn’t just a cog in the machine anymore’) then add in the fun bit of stuff happening with the wife and wife’s girlfriend back at home – Philip K. Dick knew his stuff.
Nick Camm’s accent doesn’t quite fit the story, but his narrative abilities sure do. In fact, now that I think about it, it’s pretty clear to me that Protecting Project Pulp hits more home runs than any other podcast in the District Of Wonders network!
Protecting Project Pulp No. 67 – Prominent Author
By Philip K. Dick; Read by Nick Camm
1 |MP3| – Approx. 47 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Podcaster: Protecting Project Pulp
Podcast: November 4, 2013
“It was the dawn of a golden age of transportation. Terran Development was ready to market a fourth dimension ‘vehicle’ which afforded almost instantaneous travel. For instance Henry Ellis commuted 160 miles to work in five steps and a few seconds. Then, one morning, he met some people on the way…” First published in If: Worlds Of Science Fiction, May 1954.
And, here is a |PDF| made from this story’s first publication.
Posted by Jesse Willis
The SFFaudio Podcast #236 – The Hills Of The Dead by Robert E. Howard, read by Paul Boehmer (courtesy of Tantor Media’s The Savage Tales Of Solomon Kane). This is a complete and unabridged reading of the story (60 minutes) followed by a discussion of it. Participants in the discussion include Jesse, Mr Jim Moon, Matthew Sanborn Smith, and Bryan Alexander
Talked about on today’s show:
Second-to-last Solomon Kane story chronologically, “Red Shadows” and “Wings of the Night” close contenders for Solomon Kane stories, the latter featuring harpies from Jason and the Argonauts, history of Solomon’s staff explained in other stories, fetishes (not THAT kind!), joojoo stick, magical weapons, Wandering Star edition illustrated by Gary Gianni, comic book adaptations, vampire-slaying, story uncharacteristically well-plotted including foreshadowing, “plains and hills full of lions” oh my!, lion sleeping habits, “Africa is full of never-explained mysteries” excuses plot holes, prefigures Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Kate Beckinsale’s Underworld movies, one of few stories to depict ‘nation of vampires’, Kiss of the Vampire (film), Transylvania, homeopathic symbolism, sex sells, ‘Howardian damsel in distress’, voodoo, feminization of the jungle, homoerotic undertones, Howard biography Blood and Thunder by Mark Finn, post-Colonial critique, vampires in fiction oscillate between sexualized and homicidal, Stephen King slams Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight vampires, Nosferatu (relatively unknown at the time of this story’s writing) introduced the idea that sunlight kills vampires, the Devil as source of Kane’s lustful urges, “Howard doesn’t do metaphors very well”, vampire-zombie continuum, Howard as great visual writer, animal characteristics ascribed to Kull and Conan but not Kane, snake imagery (related to serpent in Garden of Eden?), Slave Coast, vultures, nature of the soul, “Rogues in the House” (written in one sitting while Howard had a headache), the dangers of over-interpreting Howard, Howard’s subconscious, early 20th-century magazines preoccupied with race, Cosmpolitan (it was once a literary magazine), race hierarchy, Solomon Kane less racist than Howard himself, racial hierarchy, Berbers, Solomon Kane’s conflicted personality, the New Model Army, Howard’s characters are solitary, Puritans, Kane has a death wish, Kane’s celibacy, significance of Solomon Kane’s name, Ben Jonson satirizes Puritan names (in Bartholomew Fayre), so does Terry Pratchett (in Lords and Ladies, Mormonism, concept of congregation of all believers, English Civil War and its sects, Grendel in Beowulf as descendant of Cain, Sandman comics, Kane is “always on the road”, Matthew Hopkins witchfinder general, wood imagery, we learn what a palaver is, The Dark Tower series, temptation, inquisition, H. P. Lovecraft, cohesion of Howard’s works, history of the English language, George Harrison’s coyright infringement, parallel evolution in fiction, Clark Ashton Smith, Charles Baudelaire, genocide, the importance of a shared reader-author premise, shared cultural values, Hitler, The King in Yellow, Woodrow Wilson was a racist, zombies vs. animals.
Posted by Seth Wilson
MaddAddam (MaddAddam #3)
By Margaret Atwood; Read by Bernadette Dunne, Bob Walter and Robbie Daymond
Publisher: Random House Audio
Publication Date: 3 September 2013
[UNABRIDGED] – 13 hours, 23 minutes
Listen to an excerpt: | MP3 |
Themes: / post-apocalypse / survival / religion / genetic engineering / megalomania / mythology /
Months after the Waterless Flood pandemic has wiped out most of humanity, Toby and Ren have rescued their friend Amanda from the vicious Painballers. They return to the MaddAddamite cob house, newly fortified against man and giant pigoon alike. Accompanying them are the Crakers, the gentle, quasi-human species engineered by the brilliant but deceased Crake. Their reluctant prophet, Snowman-the-Jimmy, is recovering from a debilitating fever, so it’s left to Toby to preach the Craker theology, with Crake as Creator. She must also deal with cultural misunderstandings, terrible coffee, and her jealousy over her lover, Zeb.
Zeb has been searching for Adam One, founder of the God’s Gardeners, the pacifist green religion from which Zeb broke years ago to lead the MaddAddamites in active resistance against the destructive CorpSeCorps. But now, under threat of a Painballer attack, the MaddAddamites must fight back with the aid of their newfound allies, some of whom have four trotters. At the center of MaddAddam is the story of Zeb’s dark and twisted past, which contains a lost brother, a hidden murder, a bear, and a bizarre act of revenge.
“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”
Preach, Mother Atwood. This past week has had me reimmersed into the MaddAddam trilogy, starting with a fifth re-read of Oryx and Crake since we discussed it for a readalong.
When you read all the books of a trilogy close together, and you already know the story having read each of them at least once before, it is a lot easier to fill in the gaps and see the intricate detail that Atwood has built into this world. It isn’t just the Waterless Flood causing the dilemmas the Crakers are born into, the world was going to hell for decades before that. This book tells more of that story. While Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood were parallel narratives, MaddAddam starts from where those books end, and then traces back around to tell the story of Zeb. His story is told largely by Toby, to the Crakers, in the form of myth-like bedtime stories. What is the power of myth? The minute someone tells it, it has a high likelihood to change, whether that is to protect the listeners or to make it easier on the storyteller. There is so much about story in this novel.
“People need such stories, Pilar said once, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”
I scanned these books for questions I had from the first novel, and I won’t include my discoveries here, but there are definitely answers in this novel. And more questions.
The audiobook is a real treat – the three narrators do not share the job evenly, and by the time the third narrator comes along, there is a wonderful reason why he has waited so long. Highly recommended, but do start with Oryx and Crake!
Posted by Jenny Colvin