Category Archives: Nonfiction

Updates: Recent reading and 35 weeks

I hope everyone is having a great holiday season. All is well here, although everything feels slightly strange, in a not-bad way. Hobgoblin and I usually spend Christmas with my parents, but this time we didn’t want to drive the six hours required to get there so (relatively) close to my due date, so Christmas was quiet, with just the two of us and Muttboy. But we had fun opening presents, eating Hobgoblin’s awesome cooking, and seeing The Hobbit (not my kind of movie, really, and not perfect, but enjoyable nonetheless).

And now I … wait. After submitting final grades last week, I now have no obligations at work until I return 6-8 weeks after the baby is born (at which point I won’t have many obligations — it will be nothing but putting in an appearance in the writing center a couple times a week during the remainder of the spring semester to keep the paychecks coming). So all I have to do is stay healthy, take care of a few things like buying a car seat and arranging the nursery, and sit on the couch and read in between muttering complaints about my sore back. I’m extremely lucky to have so much time to rest before the baby is born (extremely!), but at the same time, I’m wondering what the next few weeks will bring. I generally don’t deal well with having a lot of time on my hands. I get anxious and cranky and find myself doing nothing at all. But this time I’m going to keep telling myself to enjoy it while it lasts, because it won’t last long, and maybe I’ll convince myself. We’ll see.

As for what I’ve read recently, I’ve been ploughing through Francis Burney’s long (900+ page) novel Camilla and should finish it in a day or two. It’s been a fun read. Yes, it could be shorter — there are episodes that could easily be cut — but it’s obviously not the kind of book you pick up when you want a quick read; it’s the kind of book you pick up when you want to be absorbed in a long story, and it’s perfect for that. Camilla is that very typical 18th/19th novel character — the young woman venturing out into the world for the first time without the protection of a mother, finding that all is not what it seems and that people can be treacherous and deceitful. Even those who appear to be kindhearted and friendly can pose dangers — in fact, these are the most dangerous of all because they seem so trustworthy. But they are all too often frivolous, or friends with the wrong people, or profligate with their money, or vain, and they lead poor, susceptible Camilla down dangerous paths. The book is all about the dangers of having the wrong friends, and also, although Burney wouldn’t frame it this way, about how horrible it is that women of Camilla’s background can’t easily earn money. As the novel goes on, it gets more and more obsessed with money and the problem of not having any, and Camilla can do nothing about it except look for new people to borrow from and hope her relatives can come to her rescue. If only she could just work a small part-time job for a while, she would be fine, but, of course, she doesn’t live in that world. And I don’t live in Camilla’s world, a fact for which I’m very, very grateful. The restrictions she lives under are absurd, but no one in her world sees it that way.

I also finished Virginia Woolf’s diary, volume 2, which I’ve been reading off and on for several months now. I’ll admit I skimmed over some of the passages where she talks about her social life, except those where T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster appear, in favor of passages where she discusses her writing and reading and her mental state. Those passages are fascinating, particularly toward the end of this volume where she is working on Mrs. Dalloway. She struggles with it at times, but she also seems to know that this is going to be one of her masterpieces. She is writing in a way that pleases her and she doesn’t much care, at least in her best moments, about what people think. She’s found her style and her subject, and it’s fun to know from the perspective of the future that her confidence is justified.

A few quick notes on other books I’ve read in the last month or so: first, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which was as great as everyone seems to be saying it is. It’s an absorbing story, and at the same time it leads you to thoughts, questions, and conclusions about global economic structures without being at all didactic. She has a great way of keeping her focus on the story, but getting the reader to realize the implications of the story without spelling them out. Surely that’s not easy to do.

I also read Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which I liked very much — it has a satisfying structure and is the sort of book that makes you turn back to the first page after finishing it to see what you missed the first time around. It turns out to be worthwhile to take that extra look because then you understand the book as a whole so much better. It’s a book about art, specifically about being a writer, and it’s also about faith. This is where I balked a little bit, for the very personal and non-literary reason that I didn’t understand the religious conversion the main character undergoes. Hers is a kind of faith I have a hard time wrapping my mind around. I’m still undecided as to whether Sophie makes sense as a character. But in a way this is okay because the narrative purposely keeps a distance from her and she is meant to be mysterious (as the novel’s title indicates). I liked the way the novel circles around her, trying and never quite succeeding to understand what happened.

And, finally, I finished Christina Schutt’s novel Prosperous Friends, which was a dark and difficult read that I liked very much. The characters are complicated and frequently unlikeable and the prosperous friends are not always friends you actually want to have. It’s a book about relationships and marriages gone wrong and only occasionally going right. I think I’m in the mood for unlikeable characters these days, so all this was fine, but I particularly liked the writing, which was rich and poetic — not always a good thing as far as I’m concerned, but it worked well here. The writing makes you work a bit, as Schutt does not always fill in all the pieces of the narrative, but it captures the mood of the novel perfectly.

I’ll close with my latest picture, which shows me looking a little bit harried — which is only to be expected, I guess! I hope to be back soon with my year-end round-up.

35 weeks

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In the Freud Archives

I recently finished another book by one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Janet Malcolm; I’d already read The Silent Woman, about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Two Lives, about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, and now I have finished In the Freud Archives, a book about psychoanalysis and Freud scholars. The Silent Woman is my favorite so far, and will probably stay my favorite, but In the Freud Archives is a close second, and possibly is second only because psychoanalysis isn’t all that interesting to me, whereas Plath and Hughes are. With Malcolm, though, it doesn’t matter much whether the topic at hand is inherently interesting or not, because she makes it interesting. All these books follow a similar format: Malcolm takes an academic, literary, or cultural controversy and digs deep into the story, interviewing the major players and charting out the various sides of the conflict. She herself is a part of the narrative; although she is good at keeping the focus on the story at hand, she does give her personal impressions of the major characters and offers her particular slant on the story.

In the Freud book, as in the others, Malcolm is writing on a number of different levels. In the Freud Archives (published in 1984) is a book about controversies among Freud scholars, specifically about who will control the archives with many letters that scholars have not had a chance to study. It’s a story about Dr. Eissler, a distinguished Freud scholar and analyst, and Jeffrey Masson, a younger man who started his career as a Sanskrit scholar and found his way into the world of psychoanalysis. Eissler becomes a mentor to Masson, grooming him to take control of the archives. But Masson is a controversial figure among analysts; he is too pushy and too overtly ambitious, he seemed to come out of nowhere and made his way to the top of the field all too easily, and his views on Freud are increasingly unorthodox. The “plot” of the book is about the relationship between Eissler and Masson and about Masson’s status in the psychoanalytic world.

But In the Freud Archives is about Freud, too; we learn about what kind of a thinker and analyst Freud really was and about the development of his thought in his early years, the focus of Masson’s research. We learn about the history of the discipline and of scholarship on Freud. The way Malcolm describes it, psychoanalysis and Freud studies seem to be at a crisis point in the 1980s — or at least at a vulnerable moment — with a comfortable scholarly establishment too willing to overlook flaws in their theories and in their founder, an environment ripe for someone like Masson to come in and shake things up.

The book is also about Malcolm as well; she describes the settings in which she conducted her interviews and her impressions of all the major players. It’s also about her in a sense she couldn’t have predicted when she first wrote the book. My edition, from NYRB, contains an afterward written by Malcolm that describes the book’s aftermath: Masson sued her for libel and she spent 10 years fighting him in the courts. She was ultimately successful, but the episode shows the dangers of writing this kind of nonfiction. It’s impossible to know how one’s subjects will react to having their lives and careers dissected in print.

I kept thinking as I read the book that it would be interesting to have some one pull a “Janet Malcolm” on Malcolm herself — to write about the making of this book, the book’s reception, and the ensuing lawsuit and to follow up on what has happened in psychoanalysis and Freud studies in the years between then and now. In the Freud Archives is an absorbing read and an intriguing look into one corner of the scholarly world, but I have the feeling that there’s more of this story to be told.

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Recent Reading

First, some numbers:

  • bike miles logged since January 1st: 1,775.
  • Hours ridden: 114.
  • Races completed (in unspectacular but acceptable fashion): 1.
  • Books read: 16.
  • Hours worked: too many.

Rather than writing reviews, I’m busy enough to be reduced to lists, but that’s better than complete silence, so here’s what I’ve been reading since I last posted:

  • I finished Zadie Smith’s essay collection Changing My Mind, which was absolutely fabulous. If you like essays on literature and culture, read this! Smith is brilliant and charming, and I have become a fan (I read White Teeth a while back and liked it fine, but my response to this essay collection has been much stronger).
  • I finished Essayists on the Essay, a collection edited by Carl Klaus, which is exactly what the title promises. It’s very good if you want to get a sense of the essay as a genre and also if you want essay recommendations.
  • My mystery book group read Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, which I can appreciate as a very good example of a particular kind of mystery/thriller, but which I struggled with a little. I’m not a plot person, basically, and this was a lot of plot. I get tired of struggling to keep everything straight. But still, lots to appreciate here.
  • David Shields’s Reality Hunger deserves its own post, which it may not get. I give it five out of five stars for articulating a nonfiction aesthetic that I like very much and for having awesome book recommendations, and two out of five stars for being obtuse when it comes to the value of fiction. Also, I was never completely won over by the argument it implicitly makes about collage, quotation, and plagiarism.
  • Lorrie Moore, Anagrams, which was funny and inventive. It has an interesting structure, with four chapters or so that give you the same two characters but in different permutations: with different backgrounds, personalities, careers, etc. Eventually it settled down into one version of these characters and told a more coherent story. I was a little disappointed the opening structure didn’t continue through the whole book; once it settled down into one story, the whole thing got a tiny bit less interesting. But still, very good.
  • Darin Strauss, Half a Life: A Memoir. This tells Strauss’s experience of accidentally hitting and killing a high school classmate in a car crash when he was 18 and about to graduate. The accident wasn’t his fault, but of course the experience was still devastating. The story is well-told, and Strauss does a great job articulating what the experience was like. At times, I found the writing too vague and abstract for my taste; sometimes it was hard to wrap my mind around the thoughts and images. But still, it’s a brave book.

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How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

I loved How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, although I think I loved it as much for its tone and attitude as for the arguments it makes. I thought Bayard’s arguments were fascinating, if limited, but the real attraction was his way of saying things few others are willing to say (an attitude his title indicates well) and his refusal to take reading so terribly, terribly seriously. There was something very freeing about reading this book (and it’s not the fact that I now feel I can talk about books I haven’t read!).

The title is a little misleading, because even though Bayard says he is going to give advice about how to talk about books you haven’t read, he only does that occasionally. Mostly the book is a meditation on what it means to have read something and on how small and uncertain the difference is between having read something and not having read it. If you think about it, is it meaningful to say that you have read a book you don’t remember a thing about beyond its title? Isn’t it possible to know much more about a book that you have recently skimmed than one you read 20 years ago and have completely forgotten? Isn’t it possible that you could say something more insightful about a book you have read a review of and understand from an exterior, distanced point of view, than one you have read and in whose details you have lost yourself?

I’m not in the least interested in pretending to have read books I haven’t, but I realized as I read Bayard that I talk about books I haven’t read all the time: I do it in blog posts where I talk about what I want to read or why I bought particular books that are as yet unread. I recommend books I haven’t read to people I think might possibly like them (while admitting I haven’t read them), and I allude to books I haven’t read while I’m teaching class, in order to make some point about history or context. It’s this kind of book knowledge Bayard is interested in; he talks a lot about cultural literacy, which to him means knowledge of the ways books fit together, their relationships with one another and with their contexts. I can tell you something about a Trollope novel I haven’t read because I know a little about Trollope and a fair amount about the Victorian novel. I understand the context from which his novels come, and, for that matter, I know a lot about novels. If this is the kind of knowledge about books that matters, then actually having read the Trollope novel is kind of a minor detail.

I don’t buy that argument fully — it leaves little room for the actual content of books to surprise you after all — but it does seem true that just by surrounding yourself with bookish people and culture, you can absorb a whole lot of knowledge about books you will never pick up. A bigger problem with Bayard’s argument is that he nowhere acknowledges that reading books might actually be fun. I don’t read solely for the purpose of gaining the kind of cultural literacy he describes (especially now that I’m out of grad school); I read because I want the experience of being absorbed in a book.

But these disagreements aren’t what matter to me. What really matters is the fun of exploring the complexities of reading. Bayard deconstructs the reading/nonreading distinction, but he also undermines the very notion of a book, or rather, he makes up a whole bunch of “books” in addition to the actual book you hold in your hand. Because as soon as you have finished reading a book, you immediately construct your own version of it, a “book” that is only a little bit like what you have read. Every reader brings to books a certain history, capacity, and set of interests that shape how they make sense of them, which means the books they read are a little (or a lot) different than other people’s readings of the exact same books. So when we talk about books, we are really talking about entirely different things: I’m talking about my book and you are talking about yours, no matter whether the words we read are the same or not.

So, given that logic, why not talk about books you haven’t read? One excellent point Bayard makes is that readers should lose the shame they feel about unread books. In fact, any reader’s relationship with books is primarily one of not having read them, since we can only read a very small percentage of all the books out there. Not only that, but our relationship with books we have read is one of loss: once we stop reading, our “inner” book becomes a separate thing from the book itself, and we immediately start the process of forgetting. The small percentage of what we remember, out of the tiny percentage of what we have actually read, leaves us with not a whole lot.

These arguments don’t strike me as all that original; if you’ve studied philosophy or literary theory or just thought deeply about reading they won’t be particularly surprising. But Bayard does a great job of making the ideas fun. The book makes an interesting pairing with Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction; they seem like very different books in many ways, one urging us to read for pleasure and the other not even acknowledging that pleasure in reading exists. But both urge a certain freedom in our reading, whether it’s the freedom to read at whim, or freedom from the shame we feel at not having read things. Reading is a serious endeavor, yes, but we could all stand to lighten up a bit.

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The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Full disclosure: a former professor of mine wrote this book, and it was a professor I liked very much, so I suppose I’m biased. But I’m quite sure I would have liked this book anyway, and I did like it very much. My guess is that book bloggers who like books about books and reading will enjoy it as well, since it touches on a lot of topics that get debated on blogs: how to choose what to read next, how best to do that reading, “serious” reading vs. reading purely for pleasure, the value (or lack thereof) of keeping lists and making reading plans, the danger of technology pulling us away from our reading. This book is also great for anyone who feels uncertain about their reading choices and abilities. I want to recommend it to all the people I can think of (and it’s a lot of people, including many students, and including, sometimes, myself) who have ever expressed a doubt about their status as a reader. My guess is that it will make them feel much better.

What I liked best about this book is how successfully it makes recommendations and gives advice without coming across as preachy or judgmental. Jacobs has very definite opinions on things, but I got the feeling that he would not mind a little disagreement. His main argument is that you should read at whim and that pleasure in reading should be your first goal. He also believes that you should mark up the book as you read — or at least you should if it’s something more complex than a thriller that’s not meant to be analyzed that closely. You shouldn’t worry about reading a lot of books; in fact, he believes you’re probably reading too fast and should slow down. He strongly dislikes books such as How to Read a Book, and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die because they encourage the mindset of reading only in order to cross something off a list. Rereading is very much a good thing.

But the tone that comes across is warm and generous, not scolding. (In fact, while I was in the middle of reading the book, I tweeted something about being absorbed in it but allowing myself a Twitter distraction now and then, making a little joke about his title, and he tweeted back, “It’s allowed!”) Mostly, he just wants people to enjoy their reading and to read exactly what they want to, because that’s the practice that will make reading meaningful and take the reader in unknown and exciting directions. To complicate the reading for pleasure idea, he talks about whim vs. Whim. Lowercase whim is “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both.” Uppercase Whim, however, “can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge.” We learn, over time and by paying attention to our own responses and feelings, what it is we really want from books. We figure out when we want something challenging and difficult and when we want to reread an old favorite or to pick up a book we won’t have to think about too much. We figure out when to put down a book that isn’t working for us or to keep at it because we might come to like it later, or even because we think we might want to reread it in ten years and appreciate it only then. Reading for pleasure is not a simple thing — pleasure itself is not a simple thing.

One of my favorite sections of the book is on serendipity, the unplanned, unexpected discoveries when you read at whim and let accident guide you:

Fortuity happens, but serendipity can be cultivated. You can grow in serendipity. You can even become a disciple of serendipity. In the literature of the Middle Ages, we see reverence for the goddess Fortuna — fortune, chance — and to worship her is a religious way of shrugging: an admission of helplessness, an acknowledgment of all that lies beyond our powers of control. But in the very idea of serendipity is a kind of hope, even an expectation, that we can turn the accidents of fortune to good account, and make of them some knowledge that would have been inaccessible to us if we had done no more than find what we were looking for. Indeed, it may be possible not only to cultivate the sagacity but also the accidents. It may be possible, and desirable, to actively put yourself in the way of events beyond your control.

This is a philosophy of life as much as it is of reading, and I like it very much on both accounts. It can be wonderful when reading — or life — takes you in unexpected directions  (it’s much less risky when it’s reading we’re talking about, though), and it seems worthwhile to strive to be the kind of person who can take full advantage of, and indeed to seek out, the accidental.

Jacobs says his book is aimed toward people who find themselves struggling to read because of the lure of technology and their inability to concentrate after too much time spent multitasking, skimming websites, and following links. He does have a lot to say about this problem, but his potential audience is actually much wider: it’s anybody who likes to think about reading. It’s a book that will inspire you, I think, and inspire you not to read like Jacobs does, necessarily, but to figure out how to read like yourself.

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Lying

I couldn’t decide for a while whether I loved or hated Lauren Slater’s book Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. Finally, maybe a quarter of the way into it, I decided I loved it and I never changed my mind again. But it’s the kind of book I would think carefully about before I recommended it to anyone, as it strikes me as potentially hateable. It seems that Slater has a talent for stirring up controversy (whether this is what she intends or not, I’m not sure). My first introduction to her was the 2006 edition of The Best American Essays where she was the year’s guest editor. Her introduction to the anthology told the story of how her book Opening Skinner’s Box provoked all kinds of anger from all kinds of people, but especially professional psychologists, of which she is one herself. Apparently, people didn’t like her portrayal of famous psychological experiments, and they disliked it enough to start an email listserve called “Slater-Hater,” which she followed for a while. The openness with which she discussed this episode, which surely was extremely painful, impressed me, and I’ve been intrigued by her ever since.

So, as you can guess from the title, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir is no traditional memoir; instead, it’s a book where she claims to have epilepsy, but also refuses to tell you whether that’s actually true or not. It might just be a metaphor for something else she is trying to communicate about her life, something about mental illness. She describes the experience of epilepsy in great detail, though, telling about her first seizures and the process of figuring out the disease, describing the various forms of treatment she received, and describing the way she would pretend to have seizures or purposely induce seizures for dramatic effect. The most dramatic part of the book comes when she describes surgery to have her corpus callosum severed — the part of the brain that connects the right and left hemispheres. Her doctor believed that this wouldn’t cure her fully but would cut down dramatically on the number and severity of the seizures, which is did — or which she says it did. It also left her with some strange side effects, such as not being able to read with her left eye closed, since the right side of the brain processes language.

All this is described in a totally convincing way, but the reader has no way of knowing what to believe. Slater discusses this directly, though, telling the reader why she’s writing the way she is:

Is it possible to narrate an honest nonfiction story if you are a slippery sort? I, for one, am a slippery sort, but I believe I’m also an honest sort because I admit my slipperiness. And, therefore, to come clean in this memoir would be dishonest; it would be to go against my nature, which would be just the sort of inauthenticity any good nonfiction memoirist, whose purpose is to capture the essence of the narrator, could not accommodate. I truly believe that if I came completely clean I would be telling the biggest lie of all, and at heart I am not a liar, I am passionately dedicated to the truth, which, by the way, is not necessarily the same thing as fact, so loosen up!

I love this. She writes a book called Lying in which she refuses to tell us the facts but says she is not a liar! Which is totally possible, of course — she’s exploring lying, or she is revealing the truth indirectly, using lies, or the possibility of lies, to tell a kind of truth. This passage comes from a memo she (supposedly) wrote to her editor about how to market the book, which shows her other interest: reader’s expectations of genre. She says in this memo that her purpose is:

among a lot of other things, to ponder the blurry line between novels and memoirs. Everyone knows that a lot of memoirs have made-up scenes; it’s obvious. And everyone knows that half the time at least fictions contain literal autobiographical truths. So how do we decide what’s what, and does it even matter?

For me, it didn’t matter much. I didn’t care whether she really had epilepsy or not; the book was meaningful to me whether the epilepsy was literal or a metaphor, and I liked going back and forth between the two possibilities. There’s an emotional honesty that comes through all the playfulness. I came to trust her, oddly, for just the reasons she said we should trust her: she may be telling lies, but she never claims to be telling the truth either.

She also tells some riveting stories, especially the one about her time at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. She applies during the summer before she begins college, lying on her application that she is 19 years old, the minimum age. She gets rejected. She is sure this is a mistake, however, so she changes her name and applies again, making sure she gets a different reader. She gets in this time. But the fact that her writing sample is erotic in nature and that her new reader is male are both significant to what happens next. And then there is the story about accidentally joining AA, a group that becomes hugely meaningful to her but which she has joined under false pretenses, and she doesn’t know how to come clean.

There is so little that’s certain in this book, beginning with the introduction and continuing through to the end, but living with that uncertainty was surprisingly enjoyable, and even exhilarating. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some readers find Slater to be unbearably coy, and some might find her tricks irritating, such as putting her acknowledgments page in the middle of the book. But I loved all that, and I admire Slater’s courage, for surely it takes courage to refuse to give the reader solid ground to stand on, and surely it takes talent to make such a book so fascinating to read.

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The Magician’s Book

Laura Miller’s Magician’s Book, about C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, was a hugely enjoyable read, and I say that not being the biggest Chronicles of Narnia reader. I read at least some of the books when I was a kid, but I’m not quite sure how many. I reread some of them as a young adult, although again, I’m not sure how many. I liked them fine, but I didn’t fall in love. Miller talks about those who fall in love with Narnia and/or Tolkien’s Middle Earth and those who fall in love with realistic novels like Little House on the Prairie and Little Women, and I definitely fall in the latter camp. But that didn’t matter much in terms of how I felt about The Magician’s Book; it was a great meditation on childhood reading, as well as on the meaning and context of Lewis’s work.

I particularly admired how much Miller pulled together into one book and how she kept all her material orderly and coherent. She writes about her obsession with Narnia, how it happened and how it influenced the rest of her reading life. She writes about children’s literature in general and the ways people value it, or don’t. She writes about Lewis’s life, his literary friendships, his scholarship, and his religious beliefs. She also writes about the meaning of the Chronicles themselves. Oh, and there are discussions of things like allegory, myth, and romance, of medieval literature and the medieval mindset, of the different ways Lewis and Tolkien thought about Englishness.

It’s a lot of material, but Miller makes it work, partly by using short-ish chapters that each focus on one aspect of the series or its context, and also by using a loose overarching structure that keeps it all feeling coherent. The larger story of her book is one of first falling in love with the Chronicles, then becoming angry with Lewis and rejecting the books after discovering their Christian content, and finally rediscovering the series as an adult and accounting for the fact that she still loves the books even if she rejects their religious argument. Miller had no idea as a child that the Chronicles were meant as a retelling of sorts of the gospel story — that Aslan was supposed to be Christ, for example. When she found this out, basically by accident, she felt betrayed, a feeling made all the stronger because of how much she had loved the books in the first place. She had already decided she had no use for Christianity, so Lewis’s piousness and his attempts to proselytize through fiction did not go over well.

So, with this structure in place, a story that forms the book’s three main sections, Miller first discusses the value of children’s fiction and tells her own reading history, as well as what it was about the Chronicles she loved so much. The second section on rejecting Lewis includes chapters on his various failings, for example, his (arguable) misogyny and racism. The last section is partly about how it’s possible to value the Chronicles even if you reject the Christianity in them, and also how the Chronicles sprang out of Lewis’s love of allegory, myths, and fairy tales and about Lewis’s friendship with Tolkien and their different approaches to writing fantasy.

Miller is a companionable guide through all this. I like the balance she struck between her personal narrative and the more critical material; the personal element gives the book drive and interest as well as a sense of why the project matters, and the critical material provides a fabulous background to understanding the Chronicles and thinking about children’s literature, fantasy in particular. My one quibble is that I sometimes felt she portrayed Christianity in a way that’s a little too simple; she conflates evangelicalism and fundamentalism, for example, and doesn’t really acknowledge the many other, particularly more liberal, forms of Christianity that are out there. But otherwise, her command of the material is impressive. I didn’t find that my unfamiliarity with most of the Narnia books was a problem; her descriptions of the books provide enough detail that I could follow along. If I hadn’t ever read any of the Chronicles, I probably would have found the book less compelling, but you don’t have to be a Lewis fan to appreciate what Miller has done.

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