Our Secret Country

November 16, 2019 at 4:47 am (Education, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

“Most of us, I suppose, have a secret country but for most of us it is only an imaginary country. Edmund and Lucy were luckier than other people in that respect,” C. S. Lewis wrote in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

The thing is, the thing that C. S. Lewis as narrator doesn’t address, is that everyone who has ever read the Chronicles of Narnia series *does* have that country. We all visit some version of Narnia in our minds once we’ve been there once. And as it says in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia.” 

So here I am, thirty-five, living in the magical world of Narnia as my daughter reads through the series for about the third or fourth time, but this time we’re reading it alongside our homeschool co-op. It is such a treat watching children enjoy the magic of Narnia, and furthermore bask in its magical glory with them.

Mr. Tumnus

The Chronicles of Narnia is a well known allegory of the Christian faith set in a fantasy world. Good and evil are clearly define, deadly sins and how they creep into our psyche, how unchecked they fester and change who we are. The stories enthrall children and adults alike, who have a thirst for the eternal, who long for the otherworldly aspect of our universe, the spiritual war that goes on every day unseen to the naked eye, but experienced in living color when you step through the Professor’s “Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe.”

Turkish Delights

We’ve been reading the books together and discussing them book club style with children ranging from 7 to 13 and moms from 27 to 50. At the close of book two, we took a Narnia party break, complete with homemade snowflakes (the kids got to learn about hexagonal snowflake patterns and how to recreate them with computer paper and a pair of scissors), try Turkish delights for the first time (and marvel at why Edmund would basically sell his soul for such an awful dessert), and pose in costume under a welcoming Narnia sign and the iconic lamppost (artistic cardboard craftsmanship compliments of my impressive fiancé, kiddo spray painted it black herself).

Queen Susan

Of course, in my typical fashion, I had to read “grown up” books in addition to re-reading the original stories. Because C. S. Lewis made such an imprint on society, there are more literary criticism books about Narnia than there are Narnia books. Most of them written by Christians. However, I found one written by a non-Christian which greatly intrigued me.

The Magician’s Book is an in-depth critical analysis of the Chronicles of Narnia. As much memoir in content as literary analysis, Miller chronicles her own relationship with Narnia and includes insightful conversational commentary by other big name writers of many faiths (Neil Gaiman being one of my favorites). I enjoyed her perspective a great deal and though I was saddened that Aslan the lion did not aid in her understanding the nature of Christ, that she did not come to understand God’s love through Lewis’s fantastical depiction of it.

Still, reading Miller’s work led me down a rabbit trail I’m happy to tumble through, and I’ve already lined up all sorts of other books regarding C. S. Lewis and Narnia to read during the rest of our Narnia journey. Join us. We start Horse and His Boy next and are reading The World According to Narnia by Jonathan Rogers as we go. We plan to finish all seven Narnia books by the end of the school year.

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People Aren’t Who They Say They Are

April 12, 2014 at 1:42 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , )

The most offhand statement, the smallest turn of phrase, a random word, can completely start my mind reeling for hours, days even.

A friend said to me, about nothing and no one in particular, “People aren’t who they say they are,” and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  As much as I try to let things roll off my back, I internalize and mull over everything and this statement today relates so well to a piece of fiction I started long ago.  In addition to that, about a dozen short story ideas popped into my head from the one phrase.

lieIt’s not a new revelation, it’s been the case since the dawn of time: people lie. And more than anything else, people lie about themselves.  Just watch an episode of “House.”

The thought that won’t leave me, though, is not that people lie, it’s that people don’t think they’re lying.  People aren’t who they say they are, but they are only capable of telling you who they think they are.

I can only tell the truth as I see it. I can only tell you what’s in my head, not what you perceive of my actions. Isn’t this why people read novels? In third person omniscient you get everyone’s version of the truth – and how very different it can look.

The Ugly Duckling kept telling everyone he was a duck, but in reality he was a swan.  He wasn’t who he said he was, but he was saying who he thought he was.

Along this line of thought, many novels and their characters come to mind: The Great Gatsby, The Fountainhead, the Harry Potter series, The Poisonwood Bible, and many, many more. But currently, what is most fresh in my mind is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

a tree growsThe book is about Francie Nolan, a bright, young, dreamer in a poor neighborhood at the turn of the last century. Her father, Johnny Nolan, however, is the focus of this discussion.

Francie’s father, Johnny is a talented, sweet, and incredibly handsome, alcoholic. He dreams and wastes away while his wife takes care of the family. He knows he’s a drunk, he thinks he’s useless and has nothing to offer, and his wife comes to a point where she believes this as well. Afterall, he has let her down over and over again with his failures. The only thing he seems to manage is to sing well and entertain his neighbors and friends.

Though he’s not conventionally a good man of the house, and is an awful care giver when it comes to providing food and rent money, but when it comes down to the children’s emotional needs he is there where his wife is not.

Francie’s mother admittedly doesn’t love Francie as much as she loves the son, Neeley. Francie’s mother sends the children to get their inoculations alone – the young kids were terrified and had no loving support from their mom. But she loves them best, right? She cares for them, keeps a roof over their head, and keeps them fed.

Clearly, both parents love their children the best they know how, that much is evident in the novel, but both parents are also not who they say they are – but they say exactly what they think they are.

Johnny meant what he said when he told Katie he would love her forever, that she was the one for him. He didn’t realize when he said it that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself once he became a father of two at age 20. He didn’t know what he was made of yet, or what he wasn’t made of.

A man like Johnny is a great babysitter, the best man to have on a family vacation, a little girl’s knight in shining armor. He will walk her to school, help her get into the school of her choice, because he’s a dreamer and by God he will teach his daughter that her dreams are relevant and important.

Johnny thinks he’s the worst father. He is dejected by his inability to hold down a job other than one as a singer/waiter, singing and bringing food and drinks for tips. He’s Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” had the man never managed to invent something and find Truly Scrumptious. [Completely random side note: Did you know “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was based on an Ian Fleming story (the author of the James Bond novels)?] An airheaded dreamer, but ultimately a good person with a big heart.

In Francie’s eyes, Johnny isn’t who he says he is – or even who other people say he is – but everyone says who they think he is, including himself.

“Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly. She was Katie’s secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father staggering home drunk. […] She was all of these things and of something more.”
– Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Ch. 8

Maybe if Johnny hadn’t started to believe that he had to be so ashamed, he wouldn’t have had so much to be ashamed of. Maybe if he’d let go of some of those bad thoughts and acted on the dreamy happy ones, life would have been better for everyone. The character of Johnny Nolan is a complete disappointment to everyone. I haven’t finished the book, yet. I’m not sure how it all turns out, but I do know one thing: Johnny may be a disappointment, but he isn’t useless no matter how much he thinks and says it. He isn’t who he says is his, but he definitely says what he thinks he is.

Obviously, that’s probably a reverse scenario than what is typical of that statement. Most people present themselves as better than what they are, I think. But unless you’ve been utterly broken, it’s highly likely that you think you’re better at things – at life – then others will believe or know.

Maybe it’s because they don’t see every aspect of your life, maybe it’s because you’ve had to shield yourself from truths that hurt too much, maybe you’re a little delusional, but I believe less and less that the majority of humanity is blatantly lying with purpose. The people I have met who do, are manipulative and underhanded and typically have large groups of people fooled, but these people are few.

Then again, maybe I see the world through rose colored lenses. Maybe Johnny Nolan is a useless piece of crap of a human, and I just only see the good in fictional characters. Sort of a difficult idea to embrace from such a self-proclaimed skeptic.  And maybe this is the worst piece of literary criticism and character analysis ever to come out of someone who pretends to understand literature so well.  But as we know, people aren’t who they say they are.


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Literary Journal Monday

February 25, 2014 at 1:42 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , )

P1010137Today, I picked up The Arizona Quarterly.  It was Volume 37 from the Winter of 1981, Number 4.  The ISBN is 004-1610.  I chose this one for the first essay listed on the cover – one on Montaigne, Melville, and The Cannibals.  It’s by one Gorman Beauchamp (what a name) and spells out what I now realize it is that keeps me coming back to Melville time and time again, even though I’m always slightly dissatisfied with his work.

“[…] being a work of intrinsic interest and inventiveness as fiction-autobiography-anthropology-travelogue […]”

Beauchamp identifies all my favorite subjects and genres, then attributes them to Melville.  Ah, I see now.

This entire installment is dedicated to Melville – every essay.  A poem by a Housman piqued my interest, briefly, but it wasn’t A.E., it was another Housman.

If I were to purchase this (roughly $5), I’d house it next to The Secret of Lost Things so the Melville cronies can bond… so it can be near something else that reminds me to tackle Melville with more zeal. After all, it is something to revisit once I have tackled Melville more thoroughly.

Until then, I’ve tucked it back on the shelf at Good Books in the Woods – with the rest of the A’s in the Literary Journal area in the back of the Gallery – to be revisited as long as it remains there while my child frolics in the rock garden out back.


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Aspects of a Novelist

October 28, 2013 at 12:10 am (In So Many Words, Reviews) (, , , , , , )

aspects-of-the-novelTitle: Aspects of the Novel

Author: E.M. Forster

Genre: Literary Criticism

Length: 176 pages

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a very small child.  So small that I don’t recall the first revelation or declaration.  I simply always knew it was something I wanted to do one day.  I also have always enjoyed books. I remember loving to read before I was even any good at it.  I remember devouring books before my peers had even mastered their letters.   This is not because I was smarter than them, not by a long shot.  This is just how much passion I had for the idea of language and the written word.

Naturally, I also love books about writers writing… like Stephen King’s On Writing and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden Letters.  I even like authors who get bossy about it like Umberto Eco and E.M. Forster.  They deserve to be bossy, as they are brilliant.

I fell in love with E.M. Forster in high school when my favorite English teacher of all time told me to get a copy of Howards End.  I remember devouring it almost over night and spending nearly a half hour after school discussing it with him.  I remember being utterly blown away by Howards End for reasons I cannot even vaguely recall now, but things amaze you at sixteen for no particular reason at all, it is a habit I have tried to keep as I age too.

My debut as a novelist comes out this week – a novella, actually – called The Bookshop Hotel.  I’m about halfway through writing the sequel, a book that will be a full length novel twice as long as the novella, and I’m already paranoid about potential reviews hailing my inferiority as a writer.  So, I’m consulting one of my heroes for advice, writerly wisdom from the talented author of Howards End.

As I read Forster’s famous lectures, it is becoming clear to me that I will never be E.M. Forster, John Steinbeck, or even an Audrey Niffenegger! I will never be a best-selling New York Times sensation.  I’m ok with that, it was never my intention to be infamous.  I have other aspirations.

What I would like to do, though, is to tell a few good stories, make some income for my family, and have the satisfaction of stumbling across my books on shelves in unexpected places.  That will be enough for me.

In the mean time, I’ll work as though my goal is to be the next Stephen King (on the prolific level anyway), because even though I am not the most talented, I don’t ever want to be accused of being half-assed.  I’d rather be untalented than lazy.

So here I am on a Sunday night perusing Aspects of the Novel, munching on every tidbit, taking notes, wondering if Forster himself would have anything positive to say about my stories because the vital elements to a novel he points out are vital indeed and I’m unsure as to whether my characters can live up to that vitality.

“Forster’s casual and wittily acute guidance… transmutes the dull stuff of He-said and She-said into characters, stories, and intimations of truth,” Jacques Barzun is quoted.  Let’s hope he’s right.

Whether it transforms me into something wonderful or not, the book is amazing.  Every student of literature, lover of books, or budding author should give this one a go.  Then again, I am partial, remember, I fell in love with Forster ages ago.

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