This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Magician's Book, A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller - Comments and a Review

The Magician's Book, A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller is the author's reflections on and reminiscences about reading CS Lewis's Narnia books with a lot of history and literary criticism thrown in. A quote from Anne Lamott on the front inside flap praises the book and states "I couldn't put it down."

I had to put it down. But that was just for a while. I was glad when I picked it up again and continued to hear alternate views on the famous children's author. Many people are familiar with the kindly picture of CS Lewis as an Oxford don who would reply to the children who wrote fan letters to him about his Chronicles of Narnia. So often in life, where there's a good side seen by the world there is often a less appealing underside. At least, there are those who like to talk about an underside. And whether you feel their version of the story is accurate is up to you. Perhaps that's why so many biographies are subtitled 'a life.' It's person A's account of another's existence. Person B may write another very different account. Same subject, different lives - life A and life B.

I had heard about CS Lewis's life A: the curmudgeon who converted to Christianity, wrote apologetics for the faith, created a beloved series of kids' books, taught at Cambridge and Oxford and is criticized for his treatment of females in the Chronicles. I hadn't heard of CS Lewis the raunchy incredibly human (ie, flawed) man of life B. Sadomasochistic feelings?

But such a, once more, human depiction of Lewis I was not prepared for. Indeed, more human than one would want it to be. I put the book down; it was too much to absorb at once. Miller does an excellent job painting this layered and complex picture of a real person. This is not a fawning paean to the man, but Miller does give credit when she feels it's due. She goes into Lewis's childhood, a necessity to explain the adult he was, and indepth into the histories of his friend Tolkien and other readers of the Chronicles.

That's perhaps one of the most interesting things about this criticism/memoir/
biography. Hearing about Tiffany's and Pam's experiences as readers of the Chronicles, voices that may have been unheard on this subject if not for their inclusion in this book, is a great part of the pleasure of reading it. Then there are the readers who became famous authors in their own right, like Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke and Jonathan Franzen. These many personal accounts of how Lewis affected their young lives and had effects on their older lives are quite interesting.

Miller's own experiences make for an absorbing first few chapters. Then, for a Narnia lover, there's the shock of so much criticism of Lewis: he never matured (an assertion by others that Miller references rather than makes herself), he liked risque stories and jokes, he had sadomasochistic feeling (which he, Miller states, fought), he was snobby. And for each of these assertions Miller makes her case by providing ample background information and weaving it into a readable story with some clever and effective turns of phrase.

Lovers of Lewis will be miffed. Haters will be satisfied. General interest readers will be engaged save for a few dry spots which they may be inclined to gloss over, although information will be lost by doing such.

I am now looking forward to one day reading a literary response to this book. I have six pages of notes. Perhaps I'll write it.

Thanks to Hachette for this complementary review copy.

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