BOOK REVIEW: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Controversy swirls around this kid-friendly fantasy novel, a controversy not dissimilar to that which plays out among diehard “Star Wars” fans. This book was the sixth of seven books to be written by Lewis as part of what became “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but it’s a prequel that describes the creation of Narnia. Therefore, some people claim that it must be read first because it shows the dawn of the alternate world on which the rest of the series is based. Others, however, insist that the books should be read in the order written, i.e. beginning with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” [Lest one think one is offending the author’s sensibilities by reading this one first, it should be pointed out that Lewis, himself, said he had no intention of writing more than the first volume when he started, and – therefore — it’s not as though reading this one first is an assault on his plans.] While I have no dog in the fight, per se, this is the first book of this series that I’ve read. I intend to read “Lion / Witch / Wardrobe” at some point, as it is one of the most popular books in the series. [After that, we’ll see; I’m not a huge fan of series books.]

The titular nephew is a boy whose mother is ill and his father is working in India, and, therefore, the boy and his sick mom are living with an aunt and uncle. Soon after Digory meets the next-door-neighbor girl, Polly, who will be his partner in adventure, the young explorers accidentally stumble into the uncle’s office / laboratory. The uncle is what Christopher Booker calls a “Dark Father-figure / Tyrant” – i.e. he is a manipulative and cowardly old man who uses others recklessly to his own advantage. In the case of Digory and Polly, he tricks the girl into donning a ring that will send her into a parallel universe, and then he manipulates Digory into going after her so that he can get a report in order to learn what is on the other side (The rings come in pairs and she has no “return ring.”) [Note: for the adult reader — and even many older and / or more sophisticated young readers – the weakest part of this book is the fact that the uncle was able to create these rings when it’s clear he doesn’t even know how they work. This element requires one to check one’s credulity at the door, and just accept the answer is “magic.” It is, after all, a kid’s book.]

The ring transports the dynamic duo to a forest that serves as a transshipment station between worlds. It is a quiet and peaceful place. Once Digory follows Polly through, the natural question arises as to whether they should go straight back home or check out one of the other worlds. They decide to go into another world to see what it’s like. One of the prevailing themes of this book is the very Biblical question of how one confronts temptation. When they get to the parallel world, they find that its inhabitants have been frozen by some sort of magic. The first [major] temptation of the book regards whether they should ring a bell, an action that will have unknown consequences. In a switch on the Bible story, this time the girl is the voice of reason who urges against temptation, while Digory is quite insistent and – ultimately — gets his way. This unfreezes the world, waking up a beautiful “queen” who turns out to be a witch and completing a collapse of the city that the freezing had interrupted. When Digory and Polly escape back to the forest, they unwittingly bring the Witch along with them, and – even worse – she manages to follow them back to their world.

While the Witch doesn’t retain all her magical powers on Earth, she is quite strong and does manage to create quite a ruckus. Realizing he is responsible for the mayhem, Digory realizes he must get rid of the Witch. In the process of trying to get the Witch back to her own world, Digory, Polly, the magician / uncle, a cabman, and the cabman’s horse are pulled into a different alternate world, a world where Aslan, the lion, is in the process of creating Narnia. The Witch escapes off to do mischief, happy to be back in a place of magic. In Narnia, some of the animals are of an intelligent / talking variety, and – as it happens – this includes the cabman’s horse, Fledge.

Digory believes that Narnia, being a magical place, might have something that can save his ill mother. While he tries to get Aslan to give him some such magical medicine, what Aslan actually gives him is an opportunity for redemption, a chance to again face temptation and to decide whether he will do the right thing. This opportunity involves Digory, Polly, and Fledge going on a mission for a magical MacGuffin, a mission that ultimately, Digory – alone — can complete.

I read an illustrated version of this book. The illustrations might be nice for reading to children, though they didn’t add a lot for adult readers, and were fairly sparsely placed throughout the story.

If one can get past the implausibility of the uncle – who is a bit of a doofus – creating these high-powered magic rings that allow trans-dimensional travel, a power beyond that of the Witch who is shown to be in all ways more advanced than the uncle with respect to magic (except, with regards to the rings,) then the rest of the story is reasonably sound for a fantasy novel. I found the book to be engaging and worth reading. As I said, I can’t say whether it is better to read this volume first or sixth, but it does read as a standalone story.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Gothamites by Eno Raud

The GothamitesThe Gothamites by Eno Raud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While the English translation of this children’s book just came out this summer, the original book (in Estonian) dates to 1962. I don’t point that out because it’s incomprehensibly dated, but because some readers may find the basis of the story to be misogynistic by today’s standards. There is a nation of people (the Gothamites) that is so known for their great wisdom and erudition that all of its men are hired abroad as counselors and advisers. The women find it untenable to have their men gone all the time, as well as finding their own nation is falling into shambles, and so they call all the men back home for a pow-wow. It’s decided that as long as their reputation for wisdom precedes them, the Gothamite men will always be called away to serve other nations, and so the only solution is to immediately give up their clever ways. Which they do.

The opening chapter lays out the backstory I discuss in the previous paragraph. Each chapter thereafter shows the Gothamites bumbling through a simple problem for which they are now unable to find solutions because they’ve given up being contemplative. It’s a bit like the movie “Idiocracy” but set in an ill-defined past instead of in the future, and geared toward children rather than adults. If it was meant as a jab at the Soviets for the bumbling ineptitude in which their system of governance resulted, it seems to have escaped the wrath of the USSR and – in fact – the author seems have done well for himself.

This is one of those children’s books, where I believe the age of the child matters greatly. Let’s consider just one of the stories from the book. Facing a salt shortage, the foolish Gothamites plant a field with little crystals of salt. When weeds begin to sprout, as will happen in a fallow field, the Gothamites are sure they are on the right track. There is an age at which this story is humorous and / or provides a teachable moment, but an older age at which the recipient of the story finds it boring and cringe-worthy. I think at the sweet-spot, the stories are funny and may offer ways to encourage judicious thinking. It’s certainly not laugh-out-loud funny for an adult reader, but it’s all about finding the right audience.

There are whimsical artworks throughout, depicting scenes from the various misadventures of the Gothamites. As far as how individuals are drawn, it reminded me of the old Popeye cartoons, but most of the plates show a chaotic scene with many silly things going on at once.

As l said, I think one has a limited window for an ideal readership, but within that window I think children will find the stories amusing and playful, and parents will find it to be wholesome humor. For that readership, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Jabu and the Lion ed. by Tanya Munshi

Jabu and the lion (Folktales)Jabu and the lion by Tanya Munshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a simple children’s book about the virtues of keeping one’s word and the nature of karmic justice.

Jabu is a boy, a cowherd in Africa. One day he’s taking his cattle to the river to drink when he comes across a lion in a trap. The lion implores Jabu to let him go. While the boy doesn’t trust the lion at first, he ultimately agrees. The lion decides to renege, but Jabu reasons with the big cat that it would be wrong to go back on the promise not to make a meal of the young boy. Jabu, recognizing he’s not an unbiased party, asks two animals—a donkey and a jackal—to give their view. The sly jackal helps Jabu.

This is book for young children. It has colorful graphics, and the entire book is less than 30 pages. It has a simple story that conveys a moral.

If you’re teaching kids about being true to one’s word, this simple tale will help illustrate the point.
This folktale also nicely conveys something of life in Africa, which may be of value to students living elsewhere.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Murry family feels mopey. There are a number of run-of-the-mill factors in the family malaise. Meg, the story lead, doesn’t fit in in school, and is frequently in disciplinary trouble. Her younger brother, Charles Wallace, is thought to be mentally deficient because he doesn’t talk to strangers, but he is—in fact—a genius. However, the big cloud hanging over this family’s head is that their father hasn’t been heard from for a year. He isn’t the type of father who goes out to the store for cigarettes and never comes back. Instead, Alexander Murry—Meg’s dad—is a loving father and husband who happens to be a renowned scientist who sometimes does work for the government. Even when he’s off doing top-secret work, however, he checks in with his wife and kids on a regular basis, but now there’s been no communication for months. The townspeople both pity the Murrys and think them to be living in denial because they maintain that Alexander Murry will soon come back.

While the book begins with a real world premise and feel, it soon becomes apparent that things aren’t what they seem–at least not around the Murry household. (Things not being as they appear recurs as a theme throughout this book.) Our first inkling of this unusualness comes when we realize that Charles Wallace isn’t only a genius and preternaturally mature, he also appears to be psychic. Events really turn strange when Meg’s mother, Katherine, goes out to investigate a noise and comes back into the house with an old lady who—surprise of surprises–Charles Wallace knows, a Mrs. Whatsit. And, as he seems to do with everyone, Charles Wallace begins talking to the old lady as if he were a sage old man.

The story follows the adventures of Meg, Charles Wallace, a boy named Calvin O’Keefe as they go with three mysterious visitors (one of whom is the aforementioned Mrs. Whatsit) in search of Alexander Murry. While O’Keefe is a popular kid and a jock, he doesn’t really feel he fits in. In that way, he’s a counterpoint to Meg. Meg doesn’t fit in and it gets her in trouble. O’Keefe pretends to fit in, but has angst about it. Furthermore, O’Keefe seems to have some sort of supernatural ability—perhaps not of the level of Charles Wallace, but enough to exacerbate his feeling of being an outcast among his own family and community. It’s Calvin’s feeling that he’s at home with the Murrys that accelerates his inclusion in the story.

The sci-fi elements of this book, as with many other great works of children’s science fiction, facilitate the teaching of simple moral /ethical lessons. Don’t rush to judgement about people—Aunt Beast is one of the most endearing characters of the book. Fitting in is not all it’s cracked up to be, and if everyone were the same, what a dreary existence life would be. And, ultimately, love conquers all.

I’d highly recommend this book for children and adults alike. The story is highly readable owing to narrative tension and mystery.

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BOOK REVIEW: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-GlassAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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These are two separate children’s books, but the edition I read is one of several in which they are bundled together. Besides the fact that each is only a little over 100 pages, they are conveniently bundled because they share the same lead character, Alice, and take place in similar (arguably the same) alternate realities: Wonderland and the Looking-Glass World. These are worlds in which strange events are common place and there’s little compulsion to behave logically– worlds in which imagination rules and reality only provides a subconscious shaping of events.

In the former book, Alice enters the alternate world by tumbling down the rabbit hole and in the later she does so by stepping through a mirror (i.e. a looking-glass.) Each of these books follows Alice from her entry into the alternate reality, through a series of adventures, and then back to the real world.

Not much of a review is necessary because even though—given you are reading a review—you probably haven’t read the books yet, you will be familiar with many of the characters and references from widespread appearance in pop culture. I already mentioned the tumble down the rabbit hole, as does Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in “The Matrix.” That movie also references chasing the white rabbit, as does a famous song by Grace Slick. You’ve also probably seen or heard references to the grin of the Cheshire Cat and the frenetic behavior of the Mad Hatter. “Through the Looking-Glass” features several well-known characters from English nursery rhymes (e.g. Tweedledee & Tweedledum as well as Humpty Dumpty.)

It’s also not so important to get into plot because the stories are purposefully chaotic and exist in a world of loose logic. The strings of causality are not so strong, but it’s on purpose. It’s supposed to be a strange and surreal world, and it achieves great success in this regard. Events don’t have to make sense; they just have to be imaginable. This doesn’t mean that there is no flow or transitions between the adventures in these books. There is. It’s more easily recognized in “Through the Looking-Glass” in which a game of chess provides an underlying structure for the unfolding of events.

I’d recommend everybody read these books. While I referred to them as “children’s books,” I also agree with Neil Gaiman’s point that that is a nonsense term. So one shouldn’t think one missed the boat and there is no going back.

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