Friday, September 26, 2008

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

The closest I ever get to science fiction is listening to Tony Bennett sing, “Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars…” Recently my husband read me a fabulous quote from C.S. Lewis’ first novel, Out of the Silent Planet. Later when I asked him to find it again, he couldn’t and I decided to read the book myself. I won’t say I loved this book because Sci-Fi just isn’t “me”. But it fit my criteria for a worthwhile book: good writing, important ideas to mull over, and great words (bellicose, philologist, empyrean, vermiculate, coprologies, to name a few.)

The book begins with the protagonist, Ransom, being kidnapped and taken to the planet Malacandra. He describes his varying emotions as he speeds through space, the main one being that it is not as “empty” as he’d thought. Instead it seems to be pulsating and vibrating with life. “He could not feel that they were an island of life journeying through an abyss of death. He felt almost the opposite – that life was waiting outside the little iron egg-shell in which they rode, ready at any moment to break in, and that, if it killed them, it would kill them by excess of its vitality.” (p. 146)

One of the book’s themes is the misuse of science. Weston and Devine (the two villains) are planning to use Ransom as a human offering (to placate the “gods” of Malacandra) so that they can take over the planet for their own “scientific” purposes. They tell Ransom he should be inspired by the role he is being asked to play, “that even a worm, if it could understand, would rise to the sacrifice” of prolonging humanity. (p. 27) Ransom questions their autonomy by saying, “You think your are justified in doing anything – absolutely anything – here and now, on the off chance that man may crawl around a few centuries longer in some part of the universe.”

“Yes, anything whatever,” responds Weston. “And all educated opinion – for I do not call classics and history and such trash education – is entirely on my side.” (Don’t you love that jab at scientific snobbery?!)

There is much more I could tell you, but I don’t want to give the whole story away. Lewis is a genius at subtly weaving in spiritual themes and chapter 18 on the origin of evil on Thulcandra (earth) was mind blowing. The references to evil (called “bentness”) and to spiritual beings (called “eldila”) will make you think about these subjects in new ways.

You may be familiar with C.S. Lewis apologetic works or his Narnia series, but not with his space trilogy. If you like science fiction you’ll appreciate his incredibly imaginative descriptions of life on another planet. (By the way, I never did find that initial quote, but I’m glad I let my tastes in reading branch out a little.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen

I recently read Sense and Sensibility  for the very first time. (If I have read it, it was over 20 years ago before I started keeping a book log). I have enjoyed the Emma Thompson movie version on several occasions and thought I knew the story pretty well. The book, however, added new dimension to the characters. (Obviously movies are limited in that area.) Marianne’s imprudence was much more understandable when we discover in the opening chapters that she is only 15 years old! I also found Willoughby's lengthy apology to Elinor (not in the movie) quite interesting.

The loving (and sometime anguished) thoughts expressed by Elinor in the book make her a much more admirable and loveable character than the film version is able to do. What struck me the most from the book was the sacrificial love of both Elinor and Colonel Brandon. Although thwarted (initially) in becoming attached to their love interests, they continued to genuinely wish the best for the other parties. Instead of wallowing in vindictiveness or self-pity, they did all in their power to ease the burdens of others.

It reminded me of a movie I saw several years ago called Pot O' Gold with Jimmy Stewart and Paulette Goddard. (If you can ignore the movie’s negative depiction of African Americans it is a sweet love story.) Even when the two lovers quarrel they are extremely civil (not in the sense of coldly polite, but in the sense of never lashing out to hurt the other.) What a huge contrast to the film Hitch  that I saw shortly afterwards! I hated the evil things that those two angry lovers did to each other out of their hurt. How they ever got back together again, I’ll never know. When the going got rough their true characters came through and there was nothing admirable in them. Elinor and Colonel Brandon, on the other hand, were tested and “came forth as gold”. I highly recommend Sense and Sensibility as a case study on true love – both the romantic and friendship kinds.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I must confess I’ve watched quite a few movies based on Sherlock Holmes’ stories, but have not read any of Doyle’s books. I was pleased with my first foray into his mystery novels. The writing in The Hound of the Baskervilles  was good enough to keep me interested and was suspenseful without being horrific. The opening of chapter fourteen (told from Watson’s point of view) gives just one example of the book’s charm:

One of Sherlock Holme’s defects – if indeed, one may call it a defect – was that he was exceedingly loath to communicate his full plans to any other person until the instant of their fulfillment. Partly it came no doubt from his own masterful nature, which loved to dominate and surprise those who were around him. Partly also from his professional caution, which urged him never to take any chances. The result, however, was very trying for those who were acting as his agents and assistants. I had often suffered under it, but never more so than during that long drive in the darkness. The great ordeal was in front of us; at last we were about to make the final effort, and yet Holmes had said nothing, and I could only surmise what his course of action would be. My nerves thrilled with anticipation when at last the cold wind upon our faces and the dark, void spaces on either side of the narrow road told me that we were back upon the moor once again. Every stride of the horses and every turn of the wheels was taking us nearer to our supreme adventure…

(Before I lost my internet connections I listened to the first half of this book via the Classic Tales Podcast. B.J. Harris does a great job. Check out his site to see if it’s still available. If not, check out the book!)

Monday, September 1, 2008

King Lear by Shakespeare

After my success with Much Ado About Nothing, I dug out my CDs of King Lear  (purchased years ago) and decided to give them a try. In spite of the stellar cast (Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Brannagh, etc.) I was floundering to understand the story. It was confusing to try to discern each speaker just by their voice. So I checked out the book from the library and gave it another try. After all, WORLD magazine in its 2003 summer issue named it one of the top 5 masterpieces of Western literature. A quote from their review:

This play is probably the bard´s most moving and most profound. What is left when your country comes apart, when your family comes apart through your own fault, when you lose your very mind? Only self-sacrificial love.

I liked the play much better the second time through, but I still found it unusually difficult trying to remember which sister was which and which man was her husband. Who was really insane and who was just pretending? The illegitimate son and the legal son had similar names (Edgar and Edmund) and I had to keep reminding myself who was the good guy and who was the bad one. The only thing that kept me going was the World review AND the juicy quotes that I kept scribbling onto my bookmark. Truthfully, I was a little overwhelmed with the tragic ending.

Some favorite quotes: When Albany tells Goneril to stop being so cruel and conniving he tells her to "be-monster not thy features". (!) Cordelia kisses her crazed father and asks "Restoration to hang its medicine on her lips." Albany´s quote in Act 5, scene 4 has been my theme for the week: Our present business is general woe! Of course, my friends and relatives aren´t dying all over the place so I should be grateful. The best line of all comes in Act 4, scene 1. "The worst is not, so long as we can say, This is the worst!"

The word lover in me came away from the play somewhat confused, yet at the same time deeply satisfied. Now I think I´ll give the CDs another listen. Of course, the very best thing to do would be to SEE the play!