Saturday, November 23, 2013

Books Like Whoa: Where to Start with C.S. Lewis?

Whew- it has been a great week o' Lewis! I have loved dusting off the old bookshelf and revisiting some of my favorite books - not just favorite Lewis books, but favorite books full stop. My modest dream is that someone who has not read any or much of C.S. Lewis may have been encountering my posts and be intrigued to start reading some of his work. How would I feel if I convinced someone to start reading Jack?

Just a little excited.

Anyways, I wanted to give some parting guidance as to where one could go from here. First, if you are interested in hearing more about C.S. Lewis' life and thought, Regent College Audio has a number of lectures available (for free until November 26, 2013). 

As for where to start with the Lewis oeuvre...

I think the best place for anyone to start with C.S. Lewis is The Screwtape Letters. It is where I started, as a matter of fact, I am very thankful that I did. It represents most of what is great about Lewis: humor, satire, his mastery of the epistolary form, philosophical musings, and religious insights. I firmly believe this is the place to start with C.S. Lewis.

There are a few different streams to follow from here...

If you are interested in Lewis' literary and philosophical writing:

1) An Experiment in Criticism
2) The Discarded Image 
3) God in the Docks: Essays on Theology and Ethics
4) On Stories
5) Of Other Worlds
6) A Grief Observed
7) The Four Loves

If you are interested in Lewis' fiction:

1) The Chronicles of Narnia (starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and then going back through chronologically with The Magician's Nephew and so on)
2) Til We Have Faces
3) The Great Divorce
4) The Space Trilogy (starting with Out of the Silent Planet)
5) The Pilgrim's Regress

If you are interested in Lewis' religious and apologetic writing:

1) Mere Christianity
2) Letters to Malcolm
3) The Great Divorce
4) The Four Loves
5) The Weight of Glory
6) The Abolition of Man
7) The Problem of Pain
8) God in the Docks: Essays on Theology and Ethics

If you are interested in Lewis' own life:

1) Surprised by Joy
2) A Grief Observed
3) The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (Vols. 1-3)
4) Letters to Malcolm
5) All My Road Before Me: A Diary

These are my recommendations, though of course there are other books that I turn to for different moods. 

Thus endeth the week of Lewis... For those of you who also love Jacks' work, where would you tell people to start?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Books Like Whoa: Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis (Jesus Corner)

Finally, we wrap up the week with my favorite C.S. Lewis book:

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer
by C.S. Lewis

This book was originally published in 1964.

We've reached the zenith of our week and of my feelings about the Lewis oeuvre: today is the 50th anniversary of Jack's death and today's book is my favorite work by him.

Letters to Malcolm isn't one of the "marquee" books that people associate with Lewis. It's small, quiet, and on a topic that is very specifically aimed at religious people (i.e. prayer). It was one of the very last things he wrote before he died, so it didn't have time to build notoriety in his lifetime. And it doesn't have a sexy premise like in The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce

Nevertheless, this book is teeming with wisdom, humor, and insight into the human condition. It is Jack at his most pastoral and practical- I think there are few places where his personal warmth and spirit come through more clearly, save his personal letters. For those who pray, it is also a tremendously helpful volume to cultivate and deepen your prayer life, or at least to understand it better. 

The excerpt I chose for today has Jack describing the "festoons" that he has placed around the Lord's Prayer - the explanatory framework that he uses to think through each element of the prayer. This passage was when I fell in love with the book on my first read:

"Thy kingdom come. That is, may your reign be realized here, as it is realized there. But I tend to take there on three levels. First, as in the sinless world beyond the horrors of animal and human life; in the behavior of stars and trees and water, in sunrise and wind. May there be here (in my heart) the beginning of a like beauty. Secondly, as in the best human lives I have known: in all the people who really bear the burdens and ring true, and in the quiet, busy, ordered life of really good families and really good religious houses. May that too be 'here.' Finally, of course, in the usual sense: as in Heaven, as among the blessed dead.

And here can of course be taken not only as 'in my heart,' but as 'in this college' - in England- in the world in general. But prayer is not the time for pressing our own favorite social or political panacea...

Thy will be done. My festoons on this have been added gradually. At first I took it exclusively as an act of submission, attempting to do with it what Our Lord did in Gethsemane. I thought of God's will purely as something that would come upon me, something of which I should be the patient. And I also thought of it as a will which would be embodied in pains and disappointments. Not, to be sure, that I supposed God's will for me to consist entirely of disagreeables. But I thought it was only the disagreeables that called for this preliminary submission - the agreeables could look after themselves for the present. When they turned up, one could give thanks...

But at other times other meanings could be added. So I add one more. The peg for it is, I admit, much more obvious in the English version than in the Greek or Latin. No matter: this is where the liberty of festooning comes in. 'Thy will be done.' But a great deal of it is to be done by God's creatures; including me. The petition, then, is not merely that I may patiently suffer God's will but also that I may vigorously do it. I must be an agent as well as a patient. I am asking that I may be enabled to do it. In the long run I am asking to be given 'the same mind which was also in Christ.' 

Taken this way, I find the words have a more regular daily application. For there isn't always - or we don't always have reason to suspect that there is - some great affliction looming in the near future, but there are always duties to be done; usually for me, neglected duties to be caught up with. 'Thy will be done - by me- now' brings one back to brass tacks...

I am beginning to feel that we need a preliminary act of submission not only towards possible future afflictions but also towards possible future blessings... It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good...These occasions, I now suspect, are often full of their own new blessing, if only we would lay ourselves open to it. God shows us a new facet of the glory, and we refuse to look at it because we're still looking for the old one. And of course we don't get that. You can't, at the twentieth reading, get again the experience of reading Lycidas for the first time. But what you do get can be in its own way as good.

This applies especially to the devotional life. Many religious people lament that the first fervors of their conversion have died away. They think - sometimes rightly, but not, I believe, always- that their sins account for this. They may even try by pitiful efforts of will to revive what now seem to have been the golden days. But were those fervors - the operative word is those- ever intended to last?

I would be rash to say that there is any prayer which God never grants. But the strongest candidate is the prayer we might express in the single word encore. and how should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once. 

And the joke, or tragedy, of it all is that these golden moments in the past, which are so tormenting if we erect them into a norm, are entirely nourishing, wholesome, and enchanting if we are content to accept them for what they are, for memories. Properly bedded down in a past which we do not miserably try to conjure back, they will send up exquisite growths...

I expect we all do much the same with the prayer for our daily bread. It means, doesn't it, all we need for the day - 'things requisite and necessary as well for the body as for the soul.' I should hate to make this clause 'purely religious' by thinking of 'spiritual' needs alone. One of its uses, to me, is to remind us daily that what Burnaby calls the naif view of prayer is firmly built into Our Lord's teaching. 

Forgive us... as we forgive. Unfortunately there's no need to do any festooning here. To forgive for the moment is not difficult. But to go on forgiving, to forgive the same offense again every time it recurs to the memory - there's the real tussle. My resource is to look for some action of my own which is open to the same charge as the one I'm resenting. If I still smart to remember how A let me down, I must still remember how I let B down. If I find it difficult to forgive those who bullied me at school, let me, at that very moment, remember, and pray for, those I bullied...

I was never worried myself by the words lead us not into temptation, but a great many of my correspondents are... So that the petition essentially is, 'Make straight our paths. Spare us, where possible, from all crises, whether of temptation or affliction.'... It adds a sort of reservation to all our preceding prayers. As if we said, 'In my ignorance I have asked for A, B, and C. But don't give me them if you foresee that they would in reality be to me either snares or sorrows.'...If God had granted all the silly prayers I've made in my life, where should I be now?

I don't often use the kingdom, the power, and the glory. When I do, I have an idea of the kingdom as sovereignty de jure; God, as good, would have a claim on my obedience even if He had no power. The power is the sovereignty de facto - He is omnipotent. And the glory is - well, the glory; the 'beauty so old and new,' and 'light from behind the sun.'" - pp.24-28

C.S. Lewis is my favorite author and this is my favorite book by him. So I guess this is the best answer I have to the question, "what's your favorite book?"... And I am quite content to have this wonderful little tome as my answer.

That wraps up my countdown of favorite Lewis books... I'll finish off our week o' Jack tomorrow with recommendations on where to start for Lewis newbies.


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Books Like Whoa: The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis (Favorites Edition)

Rounding the corner with my favorite Narnia book....

The Magician's Nephew 
by C.S. Lewis

This book was originally published in 1955.

The Chronicles of Narnia are well-known and beloved. It's no news that they are some of Jack's most lasting literary contributions. Most people focus on the more popular books, particularly The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian. I love all the books, but those aren't my favorites. I've always preferred The Horse and His Boy and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader... but especially The Magician's Nephew. From the first time I read it, I fell in love. The humor, the character sketches, the imagery - I just loved it all. 

There are two parts of this book that particularly speak to me: Aslan singing Narnia into existence and Aslan & Digory talking about the apples...

“A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. It was hardly a tune. But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.” 


“Far overhead from beyond the veil of blue sky which hid them the stars sang again; a pure, cold, difficult music. Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody) either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children's bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: "Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” 


“He thinks great folly, child,' said Aslan. "This world is bursting with life for these few days because the song with which I called it into life still hangs in the air and rumbles in the ground. It will not be so for long. But I cannot tell that to this old sinner, and I cannot comfort him either; he has made himself unable to hear my voice. If I spoke to him, he would hear only growlings and roarings. Oh, Adam's son, how cleverly you defend yourself against all that might do you good!”


“But please, please - won't you - can't you give me something that will cure Mother?' 

Up till then he had been looking at the Lion's great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion's eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory's own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself. 

'My son, my son,' said Aslan. 'I know. Grief is great. 
Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another. ..."


“But length of days with an evil heart is only length of misery and already she begins to know it. All get what they want; they do not always like it.”... “Child, that is why all the rest are now a horror to her. That is what happens to those who pluck and eat fruits at the wrong time and in the wrong way. Oh, the fruit is good, but they loath it ever after.” 


Also, any time Uncle Andrew comes up, that is basically my favorite... especially when he and Jadis go through London together. Love it! I know that The Magician's Nephew is kind of the dorky, unloved younger brother of its series siblings, but I still love it best. Hopefully there will be a decent movie made about it some day...


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Books Like Whoa: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis (Jesus Corner - Favorites Edition)

Next, we turn to my favorite allegory from Jack: 

The Great Divorce
by C.S. Lewis

This book was originally published in 1945.

I didn't realize how greatly this book had impacted my thinking until I got to college and started leading a small group. Nearly every time I was walking through issues with someone, the words, "There's this part in The Great Divorce..." would come out of my mouth. There are so many types represented in this book, which makes it an endless applicable tale.

One scene has always stuck out in particular to me, where a woman explains to her husband why she cannot leave Heaven to go back to Hell:

"'Darling,' said the Lady to the Dwarf, 'there's nothing to face. You don't want me to have been miserable for misery's sake. You only think I must have been if I loved you. But if you'll only wait you'll see that isn't so.'

'Love!' said the Tragedian striking his forehead with his hand: then, a few notes deeper, 'Love! Do you know the meaning of the word?'

'How should I not?' said the Lady. 'I am in love. In love, do you understand? Yes, now I love truly.'

'You mean,' said the Tragedian, 'you mean- you did not love me truly in the old days.'

'Only in a poor sort of way,' she answered. 'I have asked you to forgive me. There was a little real love in it. But what we call love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you.'

'And now!' said the Tragedian with a hackneyed gesture of despair. 'Now, you need me no more?'

'But of course not!' said the Lady; and her smile made me wonder how both the phantoms could refrain from crying out with joy. 'What needs could I have,' she said, 'now that I have all? I am full now, not empty. I am in Love Himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak. You shall be the same. Come and see. We shall have no need for one another now: we can begin to love truly.' ... 'Listen to reason. Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenseless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed? For it was real misery. I know that now. You made yourself really wretched. That you can still do. But you can no longer communicate your wretchedness. Everything becomes more and more itself. Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness; but your darkness cannot now infect our life. No, no, no. Come to us. We will not go to you. Can you really have thought that love and joy would always be at the mercy of frowns and sighs? Did you not know they were stronger than their opposites?"

...'You do not love me,' said the Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice: and he was now very difficult to see.

'I cannot love a lie,' said the Lady. 'I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.'

(pp.125-26, 132-33)

Whew. I just love that.

I know that allegories aren't everyone's bag, but when they are well-executed, I love me a good allegory. This is a great one. 


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Books Like Whoa: An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

Next, we turn to one of my favorite books from Clive's scholarly life...

An Experiment in Criticism
by C.S. Lewis

This book was originally published in 1961.

Jack has a number of books that get overlooked by people who want to put him in a box as a children's author or an apologist. Chief among his overlooked books, at least in the mainstream, are his works on literature and the medievalists. The Discarded Image is a particularly wonderful book that helps explain the epistemological basis of medieval society. 

One of my favorite works in this area is An Experiment in Criticism. It's basically trying to answer the questions "what is good literature?" and "how do we recognize it?" In the course of answering these questions, Jack meanders through many great musings on what literature means and what reading does to us. His thoughts on visual media are particularly prescient. There are so many bon mots throughout... I thought I'd compile a "best of" list:

Impact of Media on Reading

"We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it." p. 19

"In general the parallel between the popular uses of music and of pictures is close enough. Both consist of 'using' rather than 'receiving.' Both rush hastily forward to do things with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them." p. 25

"He reads only narrative because only there will he find an Event. He is deaf to the aural side of what he reads because rhythm and melody do not help him to discover who married (rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered) whom. He likes 'strip' narratives and almost wordless films because in them nothing stands between him and the Event. And he likes speed because a very swift story is all events." p. 30 ... "Let us be quite clear that the unliterary are unliterary not because they enjoy stories in these ways, but because they enjoy them in no other." p. 38

On What Makes Good Writing

"When a good writer leads you into a garden he either gives you a precise impression of that particular garden at that particular moment- it need not be long, selection is what counts- or simply says, 'It was in the garden, early.'" p. 34

"[Stylemongers] judge [style or English] neither by its sound nor by its power to communicate but by its conformity to certain arbitrary rules." p. 35

"If it means those things which 'grip' the reader of popular romance- suspense, excitement, and so forth- then I would say that every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less." pp.91-92

On How to Read Well

"We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can't be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader." p. 116

"Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person's place and thus transcending our own competitive particularly. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; 'he that loseth his life shall save it.'" p. 138

"Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world... Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality." p. 140

"In the course of my inquiry I have rejected the views that literature is to be valued a) for telling us truths about life, b) as an aid to culture. I have also said that, while we read, we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself. And I have discussed from the Vigilants' belief that nothing can be good as literature which is not good simply."p. 130

Other Words of Wisdom

"The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable." p.43

"Nothing is more characteristically juvenile than contempt for juvenility." p. 73

"...many young people derive the belief that tragedy is essentially 'truer to life' than comedy. This seems to me wholly unfounded. Each of these forms chooses out of real life just those sorts of events it needs. The raw materials are all around us, mixed anyhow." p. 80

There's also a great section on what healthy day-dreaming looks like. He calls productive exercise of our imagination "normal castle-building," and destructive, all-consuming day-dreaming that keeps us from engaging fully with life "morbid castle-building." Great stuff. 

Anyhoo, this is a wonderful and underrated book that I think any thoughtful consumer of media could benefit from reading. 


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Books Like Whoa: The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis (Jesus Corner)

Let's start with one of Jack's books that has impacted my thinking the most directly:

The Four Loves
by C.S. Lewis

This book was originally published in 1943. 

Unlike many of Jack's books, I did not read this one in the infancy of my faith. I read it once I well along the road... and I didn't technically read it. I listened to it. As it was narrated. By C.S. Lewis himself. Bam!

The Four Loves has profoundly impacted the way I think about many things: the purpose of parenthood, the nature of family, the beauty of friendship. But the passage that touches me most deeply comes near the end when Lewis describes the risks of love:

"In words which can still bring tears to the eyes, St. Augustine describes the desolation into which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him (Confessions IV, 10). Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one's heart to anything but God All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.

Of course this is excellent sense. Don't put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don't spend too much on a house you may be turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as 'Careful! This might lead you to suffering.'

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground - because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving? Would you choose a wife of a Friend - if it comes to that, would you choose a dog- in this spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love himself than this.

I think that this passage in the Confessions is less a part of St. Augustine's Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up. It is closer to Stoic 'apathy' or neo-Platonic mysticism than to charity. We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he 'loved.' St. Paul has a higher authority with us that St. Augustine- St. Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that he ought not so to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died (Phil 2:27). 

Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom, does God Himself offer them? Apparently not. Christ comes at last to say, 'Why hast thou forsaken me?'

There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. 

I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God's will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness. It is like hiding the talent in a napkin and for much the same reason 'I knew thee that thou wert a hard man.' Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it." (pp. 120-22)

This passage pierces my soul, because it speaks to my own condition so pointedly. I want to keep my heart locked up. I don't want to gamble. I don't want to risk my love and sanity for the sake of others. It would be easy to pass off that kind of safety-first approach as holy work of saving my heart for God, but Lewis will not allow that kind of hypocrisy. The life of Christ, if nothing else, is one of reckless love.

This is a beautiful, small book that is a great entry point for Lewis' work, for those who have not yet delved into his oeuvre... it's also one that hold up to rereading. I reread it at least once a year, and I never fail to be touched and challenged by it. 


7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Books Like Whoa: Remembering C.S. Lewis

On November 22, 1963, two notable figures died: John F. Kennedy and C.S. Lewis. Though his death was not as dramatic as JFK's, Lewis did die that day in his home after an extended illness. In the clamor around JFK's assassination, Lewis' passing went largely unnoticed. However, as the years have passed and his work continues to be an important part of our cultural landscape, it is well worth taking a moment (or in this case, a week) to muse on his life and work. His books have been a huge part of my life - which is weird, considering that he died 24 years before I was born. But I would not be who I am, or doing what I'm doing right now, without having encountering this man.

What strikes me when I look over his work is how varied it is. Medieval scholar, science fiction writer, popular apologist, poet, children's literature icon, mythmaker, philosopher, memoirist, literary critic - he tackles so many genres and, while he excels in some areas more than others, it is amazing how successful he is on the whole.

I've reflected before on what Jack has meant to me in my life - this week, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death, I'm going to revisit five of my favorite C.S. Lewis books. I've tried to pick ones that both have meant a lot to me personally and that represent the breadth of his output.

So join me tomorrow, when we take a look at The Four Loves.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

November Hiatus: On Shading Out

We have entered possibly the craziest month of the year - holidays coming up, lots of papers and finals prep, various job planning craziness. Where does all of this work come from?

Regardless, I'll be shading out for a good chunk of this month, in all likelihood. When I need a break from the crazy, I'll be back. And I will DEFINITELY be back to mark the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis' death. In the mean time, however, I am not dead or kidnapped (at least, I hope not). Just buried under the work.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Books Like Whoa: America in 10 Books

I was intrigued by a challenge recently laid down by one of my favorite book podcasts. The challenge was to describe your country through 10 books that would give someone moving to your country the most realistic picture of what life is like. To be honest, I found the "realistic" bit quite difficult. 

Let's take my home state/region: Tennessee and the Southern USA. I'm not sure that I've ever read a book that realistically depicts what life is like today in that area of the country... almost all Southern fiction worth its salt is concerned with "the Old South" and all the horrors and glories that go along with that extinct way of life. That being said, I still think that those books accurately capture the atmosphere of the South, whether they are set in 1863, 1963, or 2013. 

NYC, I daresay, has the largest quantity of "realistic" fiction set within its boroughs. That being said, it still is only depicting a certain kind of New York experience. Considering it is the most linguistically diverse city in the world, with an enormous range of income and education levels, I think it's safe to say that writing a definitive New York novel would be basically impossible. 

So, rather than torturing myself by trying to find genuinely realistic portrayals of American life, I am going to stick to books that realistically convey the mood or atmosphere of a place. Most of these are not set in the present day, but I think each of them still uniquely captures the essence of their setting. I've tried to cover most of the country, though (and I'm sure this is true for most countries) that is difficult given the diversity of experiences in our various regions. 

Some of these are non-fiction (A Walk in the Woods, Devil in the White City, and All the President's Men), some are books I personally don't like (Grapes of Wrath and My Antonia), and some are books that are high on my all time list of favorites (Gilead and The Great Gatsby). What they all have in common is a strongly evoked sense of place.

1) Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (American West)

2) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (American Mid-West)

3) My Antonia by Willa Cather (American Prairies)

4) Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (Chicago, IL)

5) The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (New Orleans, Lousiana)

6) The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor by Flannery O'Connor (American South)

7) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Alabama)

8) A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (The Appalachian Mountains - Eastern Seaboard)

9) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Long Island, NY)

10) The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (New York City, NY)


11) All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Washington DC)

I'm sure that if 50 different Americans played this game, we'd have some overlap, but a plethora of different titles would emerge. That's the agony and the ecstasy of having a vigorous literary tradition (similarly, I don't envy a Brit trying to represent the UK in 10 books). It would also be interesting to have people make lists based on their home regions - I suspect more nuance and richness in experience would surface in those lists. 

I'm curious - to my fellow Americans, do you think this is a solid representation of our rather diverse country? What would you have added or left out?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Friends Friday: Episodes 2.13 and 2.14 (Recaps)

Episode 2.13: "The One with the Prom Video"

AAAAAHHHHH!!! This is such a great episode!!!

I know that the main event comes at the end of the episode, but seriously guys, stick with me here, because BRACELET BUDDIES!

So Joey is raking in the DOOL money these days, and he wants to pay back all the money Chandler's lent him over the years and sweetens the pot with a sweet ass gold bracelet. Oh, the bracelet. It is the essence of tackiness and gives Chandler the opportunity to make about 100 hilarious bracelet jokes (see below for a smattering). There are some tears, some lost bracelets, some found bracelets, but by the end, Joey and Chandler are firmly ensconced as bracelet buddies. Rejoice!

(Also, I should mention here that Jack and Judy Gellar show up, which is always my favorite, basically to get the plot mechanics for Ross and Rachel into place. Plus, they feature in a sex tape at the very end of the episode that Monica accidentally sees.)

Ross is nearing despair in his pining for Rachel. She is starting to actively pursue other men. Phoebe tries to reassure Ross that he and Rachel are made for each other - they are each others' lobster (if you haven't seen seen this episode, it's hard to explain, but it's mostly just a sweet way of saying that two people are destined to mate for life). He tries to communicate this to Rachel, who completely crushes him - "accept that." *Sob* 

HEARTBREAK. Seriously, this is the first episode when I am fully invested in the two of them being together, because it is the first episode when it is clear that what Ross feels for Rachel is something besides just adolescent puppy love. I actually hurt for Ross here.

Finally, we come to the prom video of the title. So many delights feature here - Rachel's old nose, Fat Monica, Ross' afro, Jack's double polo, and Judy's 80's hair. But most importantly, Rachel finally sees how much Ross loves her and for how long that candle has been burning. It's enough for her to finally get over her petulant grudge holding and make it happen.


No new sexual partners, though we do get a horrifying glimpse into Jack and Judy's love life.

The Great Hook-Up Round-Up:
Monica: VIII
Phoebe: VIII
Joey: VII
Chandler: VI
Rachel: V
Ross: II

Ross 'n' Rachel State of the Union
Ross likes Rachel: 22
Rachel likes Ross: 6
They like each other but aren't together: 7
They like each other and are together: 1
Nothing's going on: 0

Best line:

"He wants to do a little dance, make a little love, and, you know, pretty much get down tonight." - Chandler

"That must have cost you quite a few dabloons." - Monica 

"The eyesore from the Liberace House of Crap! I pity the fool that puts on my jewelry! I do!" - Chandler

"A woman in my office is a lesbian... I'm just saying." -Jack Gellar

"Oh, Jack, look. It's that house paint commercial you like." - Judy Gellar

Joey: "Is this friendship? I think so! Check it out, we're bracelet buddies!"
Chandler: "That's what they'll call us!"

Episode 2.14: "The One Where Ross & Rachel... You Know"

Guys, for me, Friends has finally hit it stride by this point in Season 2. The characters and character dynamics have been firmly established, the tone of humor has leveled out at consistent hilarity, and, by getting Ross and Rachel together, the writers are not leaning on plot histrionics to get people tuning in. Finally, they are trusting the humor and characters to be enough. 

With that said, things keep picking up for Joey at DOOL. They picked up his option! And so, he buys the first set of barcaloungers for him and Chandler. Awww... 

Also, now that Ross and Rachel are together, all seems right with the world. They are both so gooey-eyed in love that Rachel's difficulty in transitioning into a sexual relationship with Ross is clearly a temporary obstacle. After some giggling during a make out session, Rachel is able to get over her nerves, and she and Ross get down to business at the museum. In the planetarium. I remember this scene very distinctly from my first viewing as a young teen - it seemed so sexy to me (I mean, besides the juice box thing, which I didn't get at the time). Chris Issak's "Wicked Game"? Looking at the stars? Swoon.

Alas, the mood doesn't last...

In other news, Monica enters the first serious relationship that she has during the series and it's with the fantabulous Tom Selleck.

Tom Selleck plays Richard Burke, the ultra suave, handsome optometrist .. who is also Monica's parents' best friend. He's 21 years older, yes, but the chemistry between the two of them is off the charts and for Monica, it totally makes sense that she would be with an older man. They try to fight the attraction, but by the end of the episode, they are definitely an item. You go, Monica!

We end the episode with two of the shows' most memorable couples together, Joey and Chandler happily lounging in their apartment, and Phoebe doing her Phoebe thing. All is right in the Friends universe.


The Great Hook-Up Round-Up:
Monica: VIIII
Phoebe: VIII
Joey: VII
Chandler: VI
Rachel: VI
Ross: III

Ross 'n' Rachel State of the Union
Ross likes Rachel: 22
Rachel likes Ross: 6
They like each other but aren't together: 7
They like each other and are together: 2
Nothing's going on: 0

Best line:

"If you buzz our door, there's no tip for you." - Chandler

"You guys are so pathetic... Oh my God, XANADU!" - Phoebe

Ross: "No! Australopithecus was never fully erect!"
Chandler: "Maybe he was just nervous?"