Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2017 Evelyn C. Leeper.


THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE by C. S. Lewis:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/23/2005]

Last week I read KING KONG; this week it was THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (ISBN 0-060-76489-9). While the book KING KONG is but a pale imitation of the movie, the movie THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE is not as good as the book. However, this does not mean I think the book is great either. But while the movie has some stunning visual scenes, it cannot convey some of what can be done with narration. Take the children's reaction to Aslan. When they first hear of him in the book, Lewis writes, "And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everybody felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something that you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning--either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you get when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer." So you have some idea of what the children feel about Aslan. In the movie, all you can see is that they seem oddly deferential to a talking lion.

Lewis's background as a professor shows through in some odd ways. When Mr. Beaver calls out, "It's all right! It isn't her!", Lewis adds, "This was bad grammar of course, but that is how beavers talk when they are excited; I mean in Narnia--in our world they don't usually talk at all."

And in what seems far too modern for 1950 (when the book was written), he writes "And when each person had got his (or her) cup of tea, each person shoved back his (or her) stool. . . ." (But I notice that Lewis's "battles are ugly when women fight" was changed in the film to just "battles can get ugly".)

There is some irony in that the film based on Lewis's work often seems to be a "Lord of the Rings" wannabee, because Lewis himself had disdain for Tolkien's Middle Earth and its "non-Christian" mythology. But when I read THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, it seems like a fairly mundane children's book, with some heavy-handed symbolism ladled on. (And it is arguably the best and most popular of the "Narnia" books, which makes me wonder how well the film sequels to it will do.)

And it's worth noting a recent change in the series. Traditionally, they have been numbered in the order of their publication:

  1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  2. Prince Caspian
  3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  4. The Silver Chair
  5. The Horse and His Boy
  6. The Magician's Nephew
  7. The Last Battle

Now, however, they have been re-ordered to match the internal chronology:

  1. The Magician's Nephew
  2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  3. The Horse and His Boy
  4. Prince Caspian
  5. The Voyage Of the Dawn Treader
  6. The Silver Chair
  7. The Last Battle

Which is why we old folks think of THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE as the first book, while newer readers think of it as the second and may possibly wonder why Disney started with that one.

To order The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from amazon.com, click here.


OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET by C. S. Lewis:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/06/2014]

OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET by C. S. Lewis (ISBN 978-0-743-23490-0) (159 pages): This is the first book of the "Cosmic Trilogy" (a.k.a. "Space Trilogy") and was followed by PERELANDRA (1943) and THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH (1945). The last was also nominated for a Retro Hugo, but lost to THE MULE by Isaac Asimov (itself part of the "Foundation Trilogy").

It is claimed that OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET was inspired by David Lindsay's A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, but frankly I saw the imprint of Jonathan Swift's GULLIVER'S TRAVELS all over it, particularly Swift's "Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms". This was especially noticeable in the first paragraph of Chapter Nineteen:

"They were much shorter than any animal he had yet seen on Malacandra, and he gathered that they were bipeds, though the lower limbs were so thick and sausage-like that he hesitated to call them legs. The bodies were a little narrower at the top than at the bottom so as to be very slightly pear-shaped, and the heads were neither round like those of hrossa nor long like those of sorns, but almost square. They stumped along on narrow, heavy-looking feet which they seemed to press into the ground with unnecessary violence. And now their faces were becoming visible as masses of lumped and puckered flesh of variegated colour fringed in some bristly, dark substance... Suddenly, with an indescribable change of feeling, he realized that he was looking at men. The two prisoners were Weston and Devine and he, for one privileged moment, had seen the human form with almost Malacandrian eyes."

This is amazingly similar to Gulliver's reactions to other humans when he returns to England from the land of the Houyhnhnms.

OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET is clearly science fiction and does an excellent job of describing an alien planet, alien races, and so on, but it is also thinly disguised polemic (particularly Chapter Twenty-One), and suffers for that. It is true that THE SWORD IN THE SWORD has a message to deliver, but it does it with a lighter touch (in my humble opinion, of course).

To order Out of the Silent Planet from amazon.com, click here.


PERELANDRA by C. S. Lewis:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/02/2003]

Our library book discussion group read C. S. Lewis's PERELANDRA. Actually, it was both our groups--the science fiction one and the general one--but interestingly, only one person showed up who wasn't in the general group. My conclusion on reading this for a third time was that as a theologian Lewis was an acceptable science fiction writer, and as a science fiction writer he was an acceptable theologian. Only one person really seemed to like it, and she said that was because she had been attending church services all through Holy Week and could see a lot of what she was hearing about in the services.

To order Perelandra from amazon.com, click here.


THE ASSASSINATION OF LINCOLN: HISTORY AND MYTH by Lloyd Lewis:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/18/2013]

THE ASSASSINATION OF LINCOLN: HISTORY AND MYTH by Lloyd Lewis (ISBN 978-0-8032-7949-3) was written in 1929, so a lot of the conclusions Lewis comes to may have been superseded by new evidence. Then again, Lewis often seems purposely to come to no conclusion, as for example when discussing the rumors that Booth was not shot in the barn, but rather escaped and lived on.

To order The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln from amazon.com, click here.


ARROWSMITH by Sinclair Lewis:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/21/2014]

ARROWSMITH by Sinclair Lewis (ISBN 978-0-451-53086-8) is the story of one man from boyhood through medical school and then career. Martin Arrowsmith is constantly coming into new situations full of idealism and noble intent, but running up against entrenched ideas, commercialism, greed, and all of humanity's other flaws. Unlike many such novels, though, he is also imperfect. He has a terrible bedside manner and, indeed, shows little interest in actually using his discoveries to help humanity--he desires the knowledge of the causes, cures, and prevention of diseases for its own sake. He is abrupt to everyone around him, especially his first wife, Leora. However, one aspect that has not stood the test of time so well is Lewis's seeming attitude toward women/wives. Although it is seems clear that Lewis is critical of Martin for his attitude towards Leora, Lewis also seems to hold her up as the perfect wife, completely devoted to her husband. This does not play so well these days; although Joyce Lanyon is often shallow, she at least has some spirit and will of her own. Lewis seems to emphasize the shallowness, with passages such as:

"They really had, it seemed, to stay with the Principessa del Oltraggio (formerly Miss Lucy Deemy Bessy of Dayton), Madame des Basses Loges (Miss Brown of San Francisco), and the Countess of Marazion (who had been Mrs. Arthur Snaipe of Albany, and several things before that), but Joyce did go with him to see the great laboratories in London, Paris, Copenhagen. She swelled to perceive how Nobel-prize winners received Her Husband, knew of him, desired to be violent with him about phage, and showed him their work of years. Some of them were hasty and graceless, she thought. Her Man was prettier than any of them, and if she would but be patient with him, she could make him master polo and clothes and conversation ... but of course go on with his science ... a pity he could not have a knighthood, like one or two of the British scientists they met. But even in America there were honorary degrees...."

In this we see one constant of Lewis's writings: cynicism about people and their motives. We see it in MAIN STREET and BABBITT before ARROWSMITH, and in ELMER GANTRY and DODSWORTH after it. Here we see it in such passages as:

"Roscoe Geake was a peddler. He would have done well with oil stock. As an otolaryngologist he believed that tonsils had been placed in the human organism for the purpose of providing specialists with closed motors. A physician who left the tonsils in any patient was, he felt, foully and ignorantly overlooking his future health and comfort--the physician's future health and comfort. His earnest feeling regarding the nasal septum was that it never hurt any patient to have part of it removed, and if the most hopeful examination could find nothing the matter with the patient's nose and throat except that he was smoking too much, still, in any case, the enforced rest after an operation was good for him. Geake denounced this cant about Letting Nature Alone. Why, the average well-to-do man appreciated attention! He really didn't think much of his specialists unless he was operated on now and then--just a little and not very painfully."

Lewis is even cynical of his protagonist, noting how fickle Arrowsmith is in his hero worship: "And the great god Sondelius had slain Dean Silva, as Silva had slain Gottlieb, Gottlieb had slain 'Encore' Edwards the playful chemist, Edwards had slain Doc Vickerson, and Vickerson had slain the minister's son who had a real trapeze in his barn."

I suspect (though have not verified) that Arrowsmith's "Prayer of the Scientist" is one of the more quoted passages of the book:

"God give me unclouded eyes and freedom from haste. God give me a quiet and relentless anger against all pretense and all pretentious work and all work left slack and unfinished. God give me a restlessness whereby I may neither sleep nor accept praise till my observed results equal my calculated results or in pious glee I discover and assault my error. God give me strength not to trust to God!"

One of the issues Lewis touches on--though not perhaps as deeply as one might wish--is the morality of conducting clinical tests with control groups when testing vaccines or cures against deadly plagues. If the untreated group is sure to die, then what is the purpose of leaving them untreated?:

"'It comes to me that there is pneumonic plague in Manchuria and bubonic in St. Hubert, in the West Indies. If I could trust you, Martin, to use the phage with only half your patients and keep the others as controls, under normal hygienic conditions but without the phage, then you could make an absolute determination of its value as complete as what we have of mosquito transmission of yellow fever, and then I would send you down to St. Hubert. What do you t'ink?'

Martin swore by Jacques Loeb that he would observe test conditions; he would determine forever the value of phage by the contrast between patients treated and untreated and so, perhaps, end all plague forever; he would harden his heart and keep clear his eyes."

It is not just for the ideas and "philosophy" that one reads ARROWSMITH, but also for the style, the turn of phrase, such as:

"He had not merely to get through each minute as it came; the whole grim thirty minutes were present at the same time."

and:

Watters's house was new, and furnished in a highly built-in and leaded-glass manner. He had in three years of practice already become didactic and incredibly married; he had put on weight and infallibility; and he had learned many new things about which to be dull. Having been graduated a year earlier than Martin and having married an almost rich wife, he was kind and hospitable with an emphasis which aroused a desire to do homicide."

and:

When Leora received the idea that he was going off to a death-haunted isle, to a place of strange ways and trees and faces (a place, probably, where they spoke funny languages and didn't have movies or tooth-paste), ...

Another reason I read ARROWSMITH is that it has been given as an example of a book that seems to meet many definitions of science fiction, yet few would actually claim it was science fiction. For example, Barry N. Malzberg wrote, "[Collier's Encyclopedia says,] 'Science fiction is that form of literature with the effects of technological change in an imagined future, an alternative present or a reconceived history.' Workable and cautious, but it does not evade what could be called the ARROWSMITH problem--Sinclair Lewis's novel, that is, which all of us science-fictioneers would instinctively agree is not of the genre, would probably fall into it under the terms of this definition."

Martin Arrowsmith is born and grows up in "the state of Winnemac [which] is bounded by Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana." Zenith is its largest city; the state university (with five thousand students at the start of the twentieth century, but twelve thousand in 1924) is in Mohalis. Martin is from Elk Mills. All this certainly seems to be "an alternative present or a reconceived history." And the book is about "the effects of technological change," the technology in this case being medicine, which Martin constantly in conflict with doctors who want to stick to the old-fashioned ways (which certainly to us in the twenty-first century look like little more than patent medicines and humbug), while Martin wants to develop new, more effective methods--better diagnoses, vaccines, effective public health measures.

Yet I must agree that this is a book that shows that Collier's Encyclopedia's definition does not fully capture science fiction, or rather, like trawling nets for tuna, captures a lot that it is not intended to.

(Winnemac and Zenith figure in other Lewis works, and there is some cross-over. For example, Arrowsmith meets George F. Babbitt at lunch one day. And the concept of "boosterism" plays a role in ARROWSMITH.)

To order Arrowsmith from amazon.com, click here.


BABBITT by Sinclair Lewis:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/23/2007]

BABBITT by Sinclair Lewis (ISBN-10 0-553-21486-1, ISBN-13 978-0-553-21486-4) is a classic that is still relevant almost a century later. It is not just the theme of a man who is the ultimate conformist, a man who will justify whatever path is most convenient. It is all the fine details. It is about people who want an easy path to success: Babbitt's son believes all the "learn-by-mail" offers he sees. "We teach boxing and self-defense by mail. Many people have written saying that after a few lessons they've outboxed bigger and heavier opponents. The lessons start with simple movement practised before your mirror...." When Babbitt says, "But I thought they taught boxing in the school gymnasium," his son answers, "That's different. They stick you up there and some big stiff amuses himself pounding the stuffin's out of you before you have a chance to learn." In other words, he wanted to have learned boxing, not to learn boxing, without realizing that the latter is a requirement for the former. This desire for a quick path dates back at least as far as Ptolemy I (who was told 2300 years ago by Euclid, "There is no royal road to geometry") and up to the present day, though now it seems more focused on entrepeneurial ventures and less on learning by mail (or learning in any form, alas).

Babbitt is completely self-delusional. He says things such as, "We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place. Now, I haven't got one particle of race-prejudice. I'm the first to be glad when a n***** succeeds--so long as he stays where he belongs and doesn't try to usurp the rightful authority and business ability of the white man." [my asterisks]

Another classic element is Babbitt's speech on how wonderful their city of Zenith is because of "the finest school-ventilating systems in the country" and "the second highest business building in any inland city in the entire country."

I put BABBITT on my reading list because everyone says it is a classic, and because I kept seeing allusions to it, but I kept reading it because it was a great book.

To order Babbitt from amazon.com, click here.


IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE by Sinclair Lewis:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/14/2017]

In 1933 Rezso Seress wrote a song titled "Vege a vilagnak" (in English, it was titled "Gloomy Sunday"). It was reportedly so depressing as to drive listeners to suicide and so was reportedly banned from radio stations. While this may be apocryphal, it was actually banned on the BBC during World War II because it was detrimental to morale, and the ban was not lifted until decades later.

Assuming that people did commit suicide because of its depressing nature, I can only say that reading IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE by Sinclair Lewis (ISBN 978-0-451-46564-1), I know exactly how they felt. Written as a near-future story of a fascist take-over of the United States by a populist candidate, it was undoubtedly patterned somewhat after Huey Long, but has some frighteningly similar (and in some cases, identical) examples of claims, promises, etc., by current candidates as well. When I tell you that when the book got to a point several months after the election and things are getting really bad, it was actually less depressing because it was not so much of a mirror of current events (although it could be a look into the future).

To order It Can't Happen Here from amazon.com, click here.


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