Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A batch of book reviews

The majority of these were read in the car while we drove to or from Michigan.  I would have gotten even more read had we not borrowed a friend's copy of the complete BBC radio show Cabin Pressure, starring Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock fame.  Possibly the wittiest thing I've come across in a good long while, and well worth looking up for anyone who hasn't heard it!  (How many otters can you fit in a charter plane?  Yellow car!  Surprising rice!  And also the most excellent game of "which books get better when you drop the last letter of the title?")

I loved The Egypt Game as a child, and possibly enjoyed it even more now.  These five kids create an entire world in the unused backyard of the local antique store, crafting an Egypt that is based on fact but becomes entirely their own as they decorate altars, create an alphabet, invent their own Egyptian names and costumes, and imagine a whole set of finicky rituals.  When I was a kid, I loved the game, but I think now I enjoyed reading about children of different ethnicities playing together as if their race was no big deal - in a book written when race was a VERY big deal - even more.

In contrast, I hated the Narnia books when I was little, perhaps because, growing up in such a Christian community, I was supposed to love them.  My parents bought me a complete box set, which I outright refused to read.  Of course, any kid in a Christian youth group knows the story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and with the live-action film a few years ago, its narrative is even more familiar.  So I didn't learn anything new from finally agreeing to read this book other than that it wasn't as bad as I thought when I was younger.  Griping about how Lewis's book contributed to an entire Christian culture's ignorance of any other atonement theory besides penal substitution would turn into a very long rant, so I won't.

Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux came out after I grew out of childhood, but it's been on my radar because it seems to have turned into a modern children's classic, at least if you judge by its prominent place in children's book sections and the fact that it's been turned into a movie.  So I've been meaning to read it for a while.  However, I didn't love it; I'm not even sure I liked it.  Mostly, I yelled at it a lot.  This is a very odd little book that doesn't even manage "charmingly quirky."  There's some really weird Catholic allusions being made, and it bothered me that I couldn't often tell whether the author was using it in a positive or really negative manner.  The narrative is HIGHLY scattered.  Turns out that the perplexing subtitle, "Being the story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread" is actually a good summary of a story that reads as if it was the result of a particularly stream-of-consciousness attempt at National Novel Writing Month.  On the other hand, there are some fascinating tidbits thrown in for the informed adult; I particularly liked "chiaroscuro," although my husband thought DiCamillo's use lacked subtlety.

I read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein years ago for a book report (in middle school, perhaps?  I can't remember.  Late elementary school feels more likely, though this would have been a really odd selection for me to have picked at that age.)  Turns out that I didn't remember any of it other than a good bit of wandering around the European countryside and peeping into cottages.  This is a book that everyone should read, if only to dispel the incorrect cultural assumptions.  As I read, I mostly felt bad for the monster and irritated at Frankenstein for his absolutely terrible treatment of his creation.  This novel can be read as a fascinating addition to the nature-vs.-nurture debate, or even as a commentary on academic publication (what are the consequences of your creations, and who should take responsibility should they go wrong?)

Enid Bagnold's The Squire was by far my favorite book of the trip.  About an Edwardian household of servants and children that, with its master away, revolves around the unnamed pregnant "squire" expecting her fifth child, I assumed it pondered pregnancy and motherhood.  It is indeed about maternity, but with a surprising amount of dwelling on mortality as well.  I wanted to read this book because a number of my friends are pregnant or recently had children, and I'm curious to get some insight into their experiences.  This truly lovely book reminds me of Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent in its slow unfolding of introspective musing, but with four highly individual and beautifully-sketched children added to the mix (well, okay, three...one of the children is almost entirely ignored, and I didn't have a clue what his personality was like until over three-quarters of the way in).  It is a novel I need to buy for myself, and I hope to return to it periodically as I get older and I can continue comparing my own life experiences and thoughts about them to those of the squire, her daughter, and the squire's young and unmarried friend.

Narnia book 2: Prince Caspian.  As a good Anglican, it feels completely irreverent to dislike anything C.S. Lewis has written, but I thought Prince Caspian was dreadful.  Lewis pushes his (potentially problematic!) Christian allegories so far that the narrative itself doesn't make any logical sense.  I almost abandoned the series right here, but I had made it a goal to read the entire set this summer.  This is one book I'll never return to, at least not for free reading, and I don't imagine I'll ever do much academic writing on Lewis and Narnia.

Adam of the Road is another book I read for school as a kid, this one in a group.  For our final presentation, I got to dress up in my Renaissance garb, which was good fun.  It's a decently well-researched and engagingly-written historical fiction novel about England in the 13th century.  Young Adam is a minstrel, like his father Roger, and travels the roads of England with Roger and his beloved spaniel, Nick.  But when Nick is stolen and Adam and Roger get separated, Adam must live by his wits and his harp in order to find food and lodging each day and finally reunite with his family.  Kudos to Elizabeth Janet Gray for looking up some actual medieval English secular and sacred songs.

Narnia book 3: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  In fairness to Lewis, this book was all right.  Its plot made sense and some of the adventures were really interesting (Eustace turning into a dragon?  Definitely didn't see that coming.  Definitely got irritated by the heavy-handed baptism imagery reversing it though.)  Eustace is kind of a snot, and the only thing snottier was the narrator's barbed commentary about his family's lifestyle (apparently we're supposed to agree with the narrator and mock vegetarianism, pacifism, and fresh air.  Hmph.)

Right now I'm continuing my classic horror novels kick with Dracula on my Kindle, and am in the middle of yet another children's classic that I missed out on, The Borrowers.

So what do you think - have you read The Egypt Game or The Tale of Despereaux or Adam of the Road?  Am I too hard on C.S. Lewis?  Have you read The Squire and if so, what did you think, is it a decent portrayal of maternity?


  1. What a lot of fun reading you've done this summer! I have to admit, I really, really liked The Tale of Despereaux (although not to the level that I LOVE The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane).

    You know I've been reading The Chronicles of Narnia this summer as well. I only have The Last Battle left, and out of the six I've read, Prince Caspian is by far my least favorite. I loved The Magician's Nephew.

    I've never read The Egypt Game, but now I want to!

    1. I would really love to hear your thoughts on Despereaux (or did you do a blog post on it that I missed?)

      I'm glad I'm not the only one to dislike Caspian. And I'm with you - prior to this summer, The Magician's Nephew was the only Narnia book I was willing to read, and I loved it. But then, I've always liked creation stories. I adored the creation story in The Silmarillion (then promptly got bogged down by the histories).

      Yes, yes, I hope you read it! The Egypt Game is wonderful - a well-written story accompanied by great messages about friendship and imagination. Its sequel, The Gypsy Game, less so, unfortunately.

  2. I've just come across your blog and I'm enjoying exploring it. And you've already added a book to my reading lists - I haven't heard of Enid Bagnold but The Squire sounds very intriguing. I read The Egypt Game many times when I was younger, in large part because I was fascinated with Egypt too, and I was pleased to find that it was good as I remember.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Lisa! And I'm delighted that I've added to your to-read list - I've come across so many wonderful books through blogs (including The Squire!) that it's nice to be able to pass along a recommendation myself.