Monday, November 28, 2011

The Last Battle

The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

[Disclaimer: I will be discussing theology and Christian beliefs in this review, I can’t not given the content of the book and my background in studying theology.]

Despite the listing being for The Chronicles of Narnia I am only going to review The Last Battle (TLB) as I read the previous six Narnia books in 2007. Therefore for the purposes of crossing items off my list I only had to read TLB. The others are not as fresh in my mind and one Narnia book is worth a review all on its own!

I was particularly appalled at the blatant racism right from the beginning. Actually, upon looking for the first instance of racism I realise the first thing I hated about this book was the Ape, Shift, but I had done a good job of forgetting him (I read the book a couple of weeks ago)!
The first three instances of Calormenes are basically as such:

Then came that dark Man with the beard, the merchant from Calormen. The Calormenes care nothing for Aslan as we do.

Two Calormenes were driving a horse which was harnessed to a log. Just as the King reached them the log had got stuck in a bad muddy place.
‘Get on, son of sloth! Pull, you lazy pig!’ cried the Calormenes, cracking their whips. The horse was already straining himself as hard as he could; his eyes were red and he was covered with foam.
‘Work, lazy brute,’ shouted one of the Calormenes: and as he spoke he struck the horse savagely with his whip*.

One of the Calormenes, who had a helmet instead of a turban and seemed to be in command, snatched the gold circlet off Tirian’s head and hastily put it away somewhere among his clothes.

So what we know about Calormenes is they are dark bearded people with turbans (everyone think of a people group that fits that description), they are cruel, and they are greedy. This blatant racism continues throughout the book and I really struggled with it. I don’t recall being as shocked with the racism in the previous six books and I suspect that may be because I was living in the USA and was daily experiencing culture shock so a little bit of time-travel shock didn’t seem as bad!
I think the thing that I found most confronting was that this was written by an adult intellectual and it basically came down to ‘dark = bad’ and was very simplistic. I remember having a hard time with how simplified the series is the first time I read it, especially as I read it as an adult and had heard the books talked up my whole life!
Which brings me to my next point: given all I have heard about the Chronicles of Narnia, I would have expected to have heard an intelligent discourse on the racism within the books and I really don’t think I have. There is lots of praise about the allegory and Christian messages, I’ve also read a bit of criticism of the blatant evangelical nature of the series, but I’ve never heard a Christian criticise the flaws in a way that doesn’t dismiss the whole series or create an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ scenario where one side argues that C.S. Lewis can do no wrong and everything he writes is fantasmagorical and the other side dismisses him as a racist sexist privileged man who should be discarded. Surely the truth lies somewhere inbetween?

And now, to show that I do not belong in camp #2, I will praise Lewis’ theology and how he makes it accessible to children (and theological students – me).

[There are spoilers ahead that give away how the whole series ends, but seriously, who hasn’t read the whole series by now?]

I have had many discussions with people about God and Allah. There is an idea that Allah and God are one and the same, but Muslims have just misunderstood the nature of Allah, so their religion does things wrongly. This is not a universal Christian belief, and I find it ridiculously offensive. When a Muslim tells me that I really worship Allah, but am doing it wrong, it jars against my very being. Why would as Muslim feel any different if I told them the same thing?
Which is my preamble to the following section of the book…
Emeth is a Calormene who has gone through the door and found himself face to face with Aslan, who welcomes him:

But I said, ‘Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.’ [Aslan] answered, ‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me… Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites – I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.’

I have had discussions with Christians and Muslims alike about whether God and Allah are the same god or are different gods entirely (one true and one false, depending on who you ask). I don’t like to link Allah to Tash, but I don’t imagine Lewis would have had any trouble doing so. In which case there is some interesting theology going on here. Given orthodox Christian belief is that Jesus is the only way to God, but that is not really what Lewis is saying here.
There is also an interesting twist, if we move away from ‘Tash as Allah’ to ‘Tash as satan’ then I think of the surprise that a whole bunch of Christians will get when they ‘arrive at the pearly gates’ and discover that a whole lot of bad stuff they did in ‘God’s’ name was actually done in satan’s name and see what that does to their chances of getting in!**

Talking about heaven, “Farther in and farther up!” is the cry that is given as the Narnians stream through the door into heaven. I am so glad I read this book to the end as I found Lewis’ description of Aslan’s Land (which is obviously heaven) to be immensely helpful in my own understanding of heaven.
Recently someone asked me what I thought heaven is. I struggled in my response as my answer was ‘eternal closeness with God – nothing to separate us’ but as an atheist that didn’t really resonate with her, and for me I didn’t think it really covered it as I am not Gnostic and believe that God redeems our whole selves, not just our minds. ‘Eternal closeness’ seems too Gnostic for me.
This is where Lewis comes in. Because after a while the characters work out that Aslan’s land is Narnia, but better, and England, but better. As they go ‘farther in and farther up’ they find an even better version and so on.

But that was not the real Narnia. That has a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that matter, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.

Coupled with eternal closeness with God, that sounds like as good a description of heaven as we can achieve on earth.


*The horses being whipped are Talking Horses, making this behaviour equivalent to whipping a human in our world.

**This is not a particularly theologically sound image; it is just the one that came into my head after reading this section of TLB.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My First Book: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

This book was an obvious choice to begin active participation in 2012 Sister Book Challenge. It's been sitting on my shelf for years now, as I bought it bound together with The Importance of Being Earnest. I studied the latter in year 11, but never got around to reading its neighbour.

I'm glad I didn't, because I think at 17 it would have messed with my head. At 23 I still struggled with its dark themes.

I'm going to stop teasing you now and practice my good reviewer skills. The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a young aristocrat who gives the book its name. Soon after meeting Dorian Gray, Lord Henry points out to him that his wondrous will fade and with it his charms, while his portrait will always bear the bloom of youth. Upon hearing his, Dorian wishes the reverse were true: that he could go on looking young and unblemished, while the picture grew old. You can probably see where this is going, although I didn't: Dorian's wish is granted.

This book explores themes of morality without being preachy, instead employing a standoffish, interested manner. It looks at what "sin" does to a man. The book considers why men (sic) do wrong -- or rather, why they don't not do wrong. Dorian Gray's wealth and social standing protect him a great deal from punishment for the amoral life he leads, and his face does not bear the mark of his iniquity. It is only his soul that suffers.

I had never considered the idea of a face bearing one's past and revealing one's soul but I see now that it's a valid point. I enjoying thinking this idea through as I read the book.

Authorship of Dorian Gray is also very important. At times I felt as though Lord Henry was merely a voicepiece for Oscar Wilde's own philosophical ideas. They were interesting, but the dialogue with him became tiresome, as it was comprised almost entirely of aphorisms and epigrams.

Oscar Wilde's own private life is also relevant to the text. Apparently when it was first published in 1890 it was censored and banned in many places and widely condemned as immoral. After the first edition Wilde had to change it to be less homoerotic. The morality of the author was conflated with that of the text. This was bidirectional: Oscar Wilde's own homosexuality was seen to pollute his work, and also the immorality in the text was considered to reflect on the soul that produced it.

When I read The Importance of Being Earnest, I had no idea Oscar Wilde was a raging homo. Reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, however, I bore this fact in mind as I considered the campness of the text. The Importance of Being Earnest is heavily invested in heterosexual notions of marrying and giving in marriage**. In Dorian Gray, marriage is more of a general background to male friendship. The two main characters (both male) apart from Dorian are in love with him, though only one admits to it, and there are hints that Dorian does not exclusively "ruin" young women. I'm not sure if I would have noticed these elements if I was still ignorant of Oscar Wilde's sexuality, and I think it's a fascinating point to consider: how much of the author we put into the text. Death of the author debate, etc, etc, blah blah blah.

One more note before my final evaluation: the novel is quite mysogynistic, anti-semetic, and a little bit racist. It's hard to know how much of this is a product of its time, and how much is Oscar Wilde being an arsehole.

So: should everyone read this novel? Yes, I think so. It's brilliant, with original concepts and ideas, and I think it's the sort of book that can be read over and again. Everyone should read it -- but only once they're in their mid-twenties, maybe, and not if they're too melancholic.

*Pardon the double negative.
**It is important to note, though, that Wilde hardly takes these things seriously.

(Read Jocelyn's review here)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A farewell to arms.

So this my (Cecelia's) first post. I have read embarrassingly few books in this cloud. My proudest accomplishment thus far is ‘a farewell to arms’ by Ernest Hemingway. It was a book that I was required to study in year 12.
I have a lot of thoughts on a farewell to arms, my number one thought being this: I HATE IT! There are a number of reasons why I feel this way.
Firstly, I had to study it. Usually you end up hating texts/films that you have to study. For example, I love the film ‘look both ways’ because I never had to study it. I hate the book ‘catcher in the rye’ because it is total whiny drivel. And I had to study it.
Secondly, Year 12 sucked. Second worst year ever!* So that means I probably wasn’t in quite the right headspace to be reading this ridiculously depressing book.

But I should get on to talking about the book. (Is this the part where I put a spoiler alert? I don’t know if I’ll spoil anything so I’ll warn you just in case.) The protagonist is an alcoholic and quite slutty and I very much didn’t like him. He fell in love with a girl. Whenever they were together the pages were filled metaphors for lovemaking. Hint: if he is describing her hair, chances are they are doing it. Whenever they were apart, the weather was crappy. If it was raining someone probably just died.
Oh my, thinking about this is giving me English flashbacks.

I don’t like Ernest Hemingway. Kat Stradford of 10 things I hate about you was right when she said “Romantic? Hemingway? He was an abusive, alcoholic misogynist who squandered half of his life hanging around Picasso trying to nail his leftovers.”
Well, right about the abusive alcoholic misogynist bit. The Picasso stuff I am not so sure about.

Lastly, I have a confession to make. I did not read the entire book. HOWEVER, I still count it because I had to endure countless English classes of studying it and I got an  A fricken+ on the text response for it so I think I must have soaked enough in to be allowed to count it.

Im sorry, Im not very good at this sort of review-y thing. Perhaps I’ll get better the more I read and review. Also, I’m trying to get my hands on that magical essay that I wrote.**

*2003 takes the cake.

** Its only comparatively magical to the start of year 12. I went from getting a D to an A+ in English in one year.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Retrospective Read: Pride and Prejudice

I first read this book as part of year 11 literature. My grandmother was very disappointed in me as I hated it. I kept sloping around the house reading it and throwing it on the ground in disgust.

"Why are all these women obsessed with marriage?" I asked. "It's just all about marriage! How boring!"

Later, of course, I became familiar with a little thing called irony, of which Ms. Austen was a massive fan. And, predictably, I became a huge fan of hers. I say predictably because I very much fit the mould of the kind of person that would be a Jane Austen fan: early-twenties, secret romantic, literary woman who aspires to be a "woman writer" and loves the fact that Austen had to write her genius novels in secret.

So, Pride and Prejudice. Lizzy Bennet has charmed readers for dozens of decades. She's probably one of the most loved characters of all time and definitely a woman who was ahead of her time. Her love story with the adominably proud Mr Darcy has been homaged, consciously and unconsciously in hundreds of books and movies that followed*. Mr Darcy is the dark and mysterious man we love to hate, but then grow to love for his quiet strength and unwavering passion for the delectable Lizzy.

I have also read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is amazing and a great adaptation. The Bennet sisters are even greater when they're Japanese-trained zombies slayers. It's Victorian-era post-feminism!

So: Everyone should read Pride and Prejudice. Because it's brilliant, a classic.

Note: This is embarrassing. In my last post I wondered why Harry Potter isn't in the cloud and it totally is. I also considered reading 100 Years of Solitude in Spanish, but it isn't in the cloud! Love in the Time of Cholera is.

*Eg. Bridget Jones' Diary. Bridget Jones makes a pathetic substitute for Lizzy.

Retrospective Read: Twilight

Emmeline here. This is my inaugural post for this blog.

I'm pretty sure we're going to post reviews of books we read prior to the Consensus Cloud Challenge. Well I decided to get Twilight over and done with.

I'd hardly heard anything about this book when I saw the movie at the cinema. Later I devoured all the books, love-hating every minute of it.

I read this book at the start of 2009. I remember sitting on the tram reading it with the covers pressed against my thighs, so no-one could see what I was reading. When I had to close it I did it very quickly and shoved it right in my bag. It was as if I was in constant fear of someone pointing out to me that, as a Serious Arts Student, I shouldn't be reading such drivel.

And it is drivel. Terribly written, unedited, highly problematic. I'm glad I read it, though, because it means I can critique it. Which I have. A lot. I used to be obsessed with how messed up and bad it is.

I think I've moved on, though.

In Winter of 2009 I made it most of the way through Crepusculo, which is Twilight in Spanish. It was a way of turning a guilty pleasure into an intellectual exercise. Interestingly, it was more painful to read Twilight in Spanish than in English, because I had to go over the words more slowly, and it was more obvious just how repetitive and annoying the language is. On the plus side, Meyer's limited vocabulary made it not as difficult to read as it otherwise would have been.

So: Is Twilight a book everybody should read? I think so. It's painful and terrible, but you kind of just need to know what the fuss is about*. Just don't buy the book, because by doing so you are giving money to the Mormon church, which is homophobic.

Question: If I read a book from the consensus cloud in another language, does that count? I could read 100 Years Of Solitude in the original Spanish. I don't think I would, though. Apparently Marquez' writing is highly metaphorical and difficult to read in Spanish.

Question: Why isn't the HP series in the Consensus Cloud??

* Like Harry Potter. Except that Harry Potter is actually good.

The Old Man and the Sea

When Emmeline and I were crossing off our lists initially we had two highlighters for different categories. One was books that we had started but never finished and the other was books that we owned but hadn't read.

Given that The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway was a bookclub book (from the first week), is very short, and I had already begun it, I thought I would start there. Also we were at Joanne's and she had a copy I could borrow.

It turns out that I had barely read the first page and so didn't have much of a headstart. Also, reading a book after you've already sat through a bookclub on it is bizarre, because you are always straining to remember what was said and if it fits with what you are reading rather than just enjoying the book on its own merit.

[Spoilers beyond this point]

I did not like The Old Man and the Sea. If it wasn't so short and I wasn't reading it as part of this project I believe I wouldn't have finished it*. I knew the fish gets eaten by sharks so I knew all his hard work was for nothing. I also couldn't remember if he died at the end or not, so I thought that might happen as well** and the whole thing would have been a waste of time.

The imagery of the book was good, I could really imagine his hut, his body, his boat and the ocean.

I liked that the skeleton of the fish remained even after the sharks had demolished the flesh and the old man was revered for his skills upon return to the shore, rather than ridiculed for fanciful stories, which I was terrified he would be.

With the return of the young boy to fish by his side forevermore and the vindication of his skills as a fisherman; it was all in all a pleasant ending to a painful journey.


*I am not afraid to stop reading a book I don't like or am not currently in the mood for. On my consensus cloud The Scarlet Letter and 1984 are two books I previously have started reading but haven't felt like finishing and have discarded for a later time (which may or may not come).

**I always assume the worst will happen in books and movies. It can take away from their enjoyment and I have begun to seek out spoilers when I feel my enjoyment will increase. Previously I eschewed spoilers like the plague!

In the Beginning.

Having finished my degree I am left with a gaping hole in my life which I have been asking around for hobbies to fill it with. Emmeline suggested I attempt to read all the books on a book cloud she had had on her wall for a while.
I immediately went online, printed out a copy and crossed off as much as I could.
It looked pretty good because of the few that I have read, many are the large-text (most popular) books. Initially I didn't cross off Hitchhikers or Narnia because I had not finished the series. Emmeline then pointed out to me that The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy only refers to the first book, not the whole series. I promptly crossed out both only to be corrected that that one does refer to the whole series!!

Emmeline and I decided to aim to read as many as possible by the end of 2012. And of course if it isn't on the internet they you didn't really do it. So we are making a blog and posting about the books we read. Reviewing would probably be the wrong term, we shall see what our thoughts look like.

Whilst visiting Cecelia I was creating a Venn Diagram to show what Emmeline and I had read and where our overlaps are. Cecelia wanted to be involved so we brought her into the fold despite her serious handicap (she gets carsick and so did not have the 2 hour bus trip during high school advantage that Emmeline and I did).

I hope you all, nonni, zii and anonymii* enjoy our reading escapades!


*I initially had 'grandparents, aunties and anonymii' because the plural of one anonymous person must be anonymii. Then I couldn't go past the alliteration that writing grandparents and aunties&uncles in Italian would create.