Review: C S Lewis: A Life – Alister McGrath

lewisWhen I first saw this book, C. S. Lewis: a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet I wondered why anyone would want to write another biography of C S Lewis.  After all, George Sayer, A N Wilson, Roger Lancelyn Green, Walter Hooper have all published biographies of Lewis.  Most Lewis fans will also be familiar with William Nicholson’s excellent biographical screenplay Shadowlands which has been produced on both stage and screen.

However, the highly qualified Alister McGrath (Professor of Theology and Ministry Kings College London and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University) explains in the preface to his book, the huge significance of the publication of the collected letters of C S Lewis during 2000-2006 which has added 3,500 pages of source material to our knowledge of Lewis and provides a “continuous narrative backbone for an account of Lewis’s life” which was not available to earlier biographers.

I am now very pleased that I have read McGrath’s book for three reasons.  Firstly, it reminded me of how important Lewis has become as a writer and thinker. Secondly, it definitely draws out some elements of Lewis’s life which I hadn’t fully understood before.  Thirdly, it is a very readable biography, not over-long, nor too scholarly and full of interest throughout.

Earlier biographers were reluctant to cover some of the darker sides to Lewis’s character.  McGrath’s new biography does not flinch from some of the more controversial sides to Lewis, such as his relationship (probably an “affair”) with a Mrs Moore which started when Mrs Moore’s son Paddy, a close friend of Lewis was killed in the First World War.  Lewis had managed to serve in the same regiment as his best friend but was soon hospitalised with trench fever and later wounded by shrapnel, returning to Britain, while Paddy was lost in action.  An intimate relationship soon developed between Lewis and Paddy’s mother and there is now a consensus among scholars that Lewis and Paddy’s mother continued as lovers for many years.

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Review: Such Stuff as Dreams – Keith Oatley

The Stuff of DreamsKeith Oatley is a novelist and professor of cognitive psychology at the Univeristy of Toronto.  He has some remakable things to say about the act of reading.  His book, Such Stuff as Dreams suggests that when we read, our brains interpret social interactions in a work of fiction as the real thing – as far as our brains are concerned we experience real human contact and are as affected by the experience as though we were actually present with the characters in the novel.

Oatley has been quoted in the magazine Scientific American Mind (article Fiction Hones Social Skills) as saying, Reading “can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book  down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.”

Most readers know how deeply they can be affected by the books they read.  What they didn’t know before is that when they get involved with a fictional character, they tend to follow their actions as though they were participating in them and develop a deep empathy with their motives and feelings.  Oatley suggests that reading is a form of mind-training – a course in how humans behave and react to each other.  Readers tend to have better social skills because they are better aquainted with the way other people think and they are more familiar with the huge variety of human behaviour than non-readers.

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Review: The Possessed – Elif Batuman

The e PossessedElif Batuman’s book of essays, The Possessed, loosely based on the joys of reading classic Russian literature, turns out to be a bit of a hodge-podge of travel-writing, literary criticism and a personal reading history, enlivened by a butterfly mind that flutters from one subject to another without really landing for too long on any particular theme.

This gives the book a distinct lack of unity – sure, some of it is clever, but at other times, this reader at least thought, yes, but this isn’t really why I came here.  The book is subtitled “Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them”, and in a loose way, I suppose that’s fair enough, but I expected more unity of purpose, with more material written specifically for this book rather than a a collection of previously published lectures and articles (although occasionally enhanced for this volume).

I’ve no problem with bringing together collections of previously published material, but I do think the publishers should make this clear on the cover because in this case, I could find quite a bit of the book online and find out whether it was something I wanted to read.  As it is, the book is very selective in its appraisal of Russian books and the people who read them and hardly serves the purpose of its subtitle at all.

I wanted more of what it says on the tin – a book about reading Russian literature, something more comprehensive, with a bit of planning behind it. I got instead large chunks about Batuman’s intellectual and academic development including tortuous stories of how she ended up learning the Uzbek language, or how she moved from one course to another while at college – or even tales about her various boyfriends (an uninspiring bunch to say the least!).  Dare I say, that some of it seemed remarkably self-congratulatory – a sort of “look how clever I am”, but maybe that’s my English perceptions getting in the way – American reviewers seem not to have picked up on this at all.

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Review: Love, Sex, Death and Words – John Sutherland and Stephen Fender

This is a review of a book I was sent by Icon Books, but at my request – I would have purchased it anyway, especially after having read it, so thanks to Icon.

I have been looking forward to reading Love, Sex, Death and Words for some time, having enjoyed John Sutherland’s earlier books like How To Read a Novel and The Curiosities of Literature.  This time John Sutherland is joined by Stephen Fender in assembling this huge anthology of essays about writers and books, 365 in fact, one for every day of the year, although few readers will be unable to resist reading on through several articles every time they pick up the book.

The range is vast and I will mention just a few in order to provide some idea of the scope of the book.

An entry from 1922 describes T S Eliot writing to his friend John Quinn to tell him that he has written a long poem of about 450 lines.  This is of course, The Waste Land, and we learn that it was originally to be titled, “He Do The Police in Different Voices”.  Ezra Pound was much involved in the development of this modernist opus and Sutherland and Fenton give examples of how Pound suggested minor edits which Eliot adopted.

The collection includes American literature along with European and from 1692, there is a description of the Salem Witch Trial – I for one hadn’t realised that the hysteria arising from this resulted in over 150 people being imprisoned, nineteen hanged and one 81 year old man being pressed to death under a platform loaded with stones.  It is no wonder that these events have been a rich seam for writers to mine, not least Henry Miller in his play, The Crucible, which drew out the parallels between the Witch Trial and the House Un-American Activities Committee under Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s.  Sutherland and Fender quote from the investigation into Pete Seeger who refused to answer questions about his political beliefs and ended up with a one year prison sentence. Continue reading

Review: Excavating Kafka – James Hawes

I started to read the books of Franz Kafka as a young man and found them remarkably relevant to me at the time, describing as they do a sense of alienation from mainstream society which so fitted in with 1960/70s counter-culture.

Working in my first boring office job, the thought of waking up as a beetle (Metamorphosis) did not seem too unlikely a possibility, and the thought of being pursued for having committed some unknown crime (The Trial) was all part and parcel of hanging around with people who had radical political ideas.  The fact that no-one in suburban London cared tuppence what a group of long-haired young men were talking about in the pub was neither here nor there – perhaps we just wanted to be in Kafka’s world, and it certainly felt good to have one of Penguin’s Kafka paperbacks sticking out of your jacket pocket.

James Hawes is passionate about Kafka but believes that the bulk of modern scholarship is misguided in painting him as a lonely, heroic figure, bullied by his overbearing father,  ignored in his lifetime – a “fair unsullied soul” almost saintly in his appeal.  Excavating Kafka is his attempt expose the “K Myth” and to inject a note of reality into the study of Kafka, a man of his times who as we might expect had all the usual foibles and failings as the rest of us – and a few unique to himself  for good measure.

The first thing to say about this book, is apart from the writer’s attempt to correct other Kafka scholars, its actually a very readable biography of Franz Kafka, written in an amusing style and imparting vast amounts of information in a relatively compact package.  I think you’d have to read a substantial biography and then a couple of books of literary criticism to get quite as much information (unless of course you favour the cartoon approach!).

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Review: Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoire – Rick Gekoski

I suppose one of the quickest way to get an idea about someone is to look at their bookcase, or even better, to talk to them about books which have inspired them and guided them through life. Quite a few writers have been tempted to write about their life in books – I’m thinking about Francis Spufford (The Child that Books Built), John Sutherland (The Boy Who Loved Books) and Alberto Manguel (A Reading Diary) to name a few among many.  I greatly enjoyed reading these and in any case, I collect “books about books”, and when I saw Rick Gekoski’s new books, Outside of a Dog, it had to be mine.

Rick is not the first person to write his life story in the context of the books he’s read, but this one is as good as any and was a read both amusing and informative.  I’ll quote from the publisher’s website to list some of the books covered:

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg;
Magnus Hirschfeld Sexual Anomalies and Perversions;
Allen Ginsberg, Howl;
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye;
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land;
Descartes, Meditations;
David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding;
W.B. Yeats, The Collected Poems;
F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit;
Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy;
Tom Wolfe,The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test;
Ludwig Wittgenstein,Philosophical Investigations;
R.D. Laing, The Divided Self;
Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch;
D.H. Lawrence,Women in Love;
A.S. Neill, Summerhill;
Roald Dahl, Matilda;
Alice Miller, Pictures of a Childhood;
A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic;
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams;
Carl Hiaasen, Double Whammy;
Peter Wright,Spycatcher; and
Rick Gekoski, Staying Up.

And there was a good enough mix of the familiar and the new to keep my interest throughout.  Rick is basically an academic (ex-lecturer in English at Warwick University) turned rare book dealer, and has many contacts in the world of literature.  And oh yes, he’s been a judge on the Man Booker Prize.  So, as far as literature is concerned I guess he’s qualified to write about books, which he does eruditely, knowledgeably and perhaps above all, humorously. Continue reading

Review: Introducing Kafka – Mairowitz and Crumb

I’ve seen Icon Books Introducing series in the bookshops but it was only when confronted by a long train journey with my current novel finished that I finally dived in and bought one.  I don’t think I’ve read a graphic book before and I was suprised by how much I enjoyed reading Introducing Kafka with illustrations by Robert Crumb (who will be well known to readers of The Guardian).

Kafka has always interested me, but I’m not a great one for biographies so this seemed a good way of learning more about this favorite writer than I would glean from a Wikipedia article or some-such.  In any case I was on my way home after a visit to the Tate Gallery, so was in the mood for more visuals rather than immediately descending down into pages of text.

I think the first thing to say is that the book is a work of art in its own right.  The design of the volume is immediately attractive, and when you open it up, the eye is drawn into a fascinating and complex set of images, showing Crumb’s interpretation of life in early 20th century Prague.

Take this illustration of Kafka’s home life for example, where poor Georg has to look after his elderly (but still tyrannical) father.

Crumb’s larger than life images somehow portray the essence of the father son relationship.  I am not saying that words could not provide a more accurate “picture” of the realities of the situation, but for a quick impression, Crumb and writer David Zane Mairowitz do a pretty good job.

Its a little like seeing a film of Kafka’s life, but more than that, because Crumb adds his own unique and definitely eccentric perspective.  There must be a whole set of people who would baulk at a full-scale written account of Kafka’s life who might glean quite a lot from this graphic novel format.

Perhaps the book should just be seen as entertainment in its own right, but at least its entertainment which very successfully communicates a lot of information.

I enjoyed this book and wouldn’t hesitate to try some more titles from this useful series.