Goodreads: The Fire
Series: Northwest Passage #4
Source: Received from author
Published: August 2013
Twenty-two year old Kevin Johnson has dreams of going to grad school, but first plans to give himself a well-deserved vacation on an old family estate. His ancestors harbored a time travelling secret, however, and soon Kevin finds himself in the midst of the Great Fire of 1910.
The Fire returns readers to the magical world of John Heldt’s Northwest Passage series, a place where the past intersects with the present and characters have the ability to change not only their destinies, but also the destinies of the people they love. Though the plot may seem familiar from previous installments of the series, the characters make the story their own. Smart, caring, confident, and thoughtful, these are people with whom readers can feel comfortable, like talking with friends.
Though the cast proves varied and each character possesses enough depth to stand on his or her own, even when they appear only infrequently, the three standouts are protagonist Kevin Johnson and the two women he comes to love. Kevin, a recent college graduate, may seem at first a standard college kid– naively optimistic and perhaps a little overconfident–but he also shows real maturity, a trait not often granted to his age group. In fact, he sometimes seems meant to travel back to 1910, not because it is in his genes but because he seems so seriously focused on working hard, making a career, and building a family. And here we all thought millenials were entitled narcissists glued to the Internet.
The two women who help Kevin clarify his goals in life are Sadie and Sarah, respectively an orphan determined to better herself and a clever schoolteacher attempting to forge her own way. Though both find themselves drawn to the handsome stranger in town, neither ever falls into the trap of building their identity around the man they desire. Even Sadie, less confident in her abilities and charms than Sarah, continues to work toward her own dreams, apparently knowing that vision is very attractive indeed. Their intelligence, dedication, selflessness, and kindness inspire Kevin, so that their friendships are mutually beneficial. Even if you are not a fan of love triangles, this may be the literary relationship you were looking for–the one where the players already know themselves and do not expect someone else magically to complete them.
All this plays out against the charming background of 1910 in the western United States. Kevin jumps back in time from the year 2013, so readers get to experience the thrill of exploration through his eyes–it is a little like walking into Diagon Alley for the first time. Horses still draw wagons, men and women alike observe strict social codes, and the old red light district is actually in operation. Even as Kevin delights in the novelty, however, he comes to realize that the past is not strictly idyllic–women experience pressure to leave their careers for marriage and do not yet have to vote. Also, Kevin happens to know from history that the nation’s largest wildfire is about to rage through the town.
Fans of history, time travel, and romance are all sure to find something to please in The Fire. Filled with vibrant characters determined to live life to the fullest–even if that means changing the course of history–the book by turns delights, surprises, and touches. Readers will be eager to follow Heldt on his next literary journey.
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Goodreads: The White Bone
For years, young Mud and her family have roamed the high grasses, swamps, and deserts of the sub-Sahara. Now the earth is scorched by drought, and the mutilated bodies of family and friends lie scattered on the ground, shot down by ivory hunters. Nothing-not the once familiar terrain, or the age-old rhythms of life, or even memory itself-seems reliable anymore. Yet a slim prophecy of hope is passed on from water hole to water hole: the sacred white bone of legend will point the elephants toward the Safe Place. And so begins a quest through Africa’s vast and perilous plains-until at last the survivors face a decisive trial of loyalty and courage.
Presenting the world through the eyes of elephants, The White Bone is a powerful and moving novel about nature and the vast intelligence and awareness of animals. The protagonists, ranging from visionary Mud to the “link bull” Tall Time to flirtatious She-Snorts, encompass a wide variety of developed personalities. These elephants laugh, cry, doubt, and rage—experiencing emotions that until recently we believed unique to humans, but experiencing and acting upon them in distinctly animalistic ways.
Gowdy imagines her elephants as a spiritual species. Each family group includes a visionary and a mind talker, the only ones who can communicate with other animal species. The elephants worship a powerful She and carry a long tradition of legends about their creation, the corruption of humans, and their afterlife. The plot focuses on a mystical white bone, which, if found, can lead them all to the Safe Place, where they need fear drought and human poachers no longer. Although some of the elephants’ beliefs could bear a little more explanation, and the mind talkers are not entirely necessary to the plot, Gowdy’s vision of elephants as a spiritual and contemplative group seems fitting.
However, Gowdy does not neglect the extreme physicality of elephants, as she grounds the novel in realism and animal instinct. For instance, there are frequent references to animal dung and urine, and their surprising number of uses—tracking other elephants, food during a famine, a poultice for a wound. The elephants are also highly sexual, and while a few of the characters explore concepts like love and the unnatural state of monogamy, many are happy to recount their various sexual desires and escapades with less emotional attachment. The book even opens with Mud’s renaming to She-Snorts, as she has mated for the first time and official become a cow.
The emphasis on the daily lives of elephants means The White Bone is not quite as much of a quest story as the summary might suggest. The elephants are indeed looking for the white bone, having experienced enough recent tragedy to make the adventure worthwhile, even if some elephants believe the bone is merely a myth. However, most of the elephants tend to keep an eye out for the bone as they do other things—track lost family members, look for food, mourn their dead, avoid poachers. In many ways The White Bone is “slice of life” about the lives of elephants—and it is nothing but fascinating. Gowdy’s combination of known elephant fact with speculation about their thoughts, desires, and abilities makes her characters both real and awe-inspiring.
The White Bone will resonate marvelously with animal lovers, but is such an interesting exercise of the imagination that its artistry, emotion, and creatively should impress any reader. Highly original, and highly recommended.
Goodreads: The Fall of Arthur
Published: May 2013
The world’s first publication of a previously unknown work by J.R.R. Tolkien, which tells the extraordinary story of the final days of England’s legendary hero, King Arthur.
The Fall of Arthur recounts in verse the last campaign of King Arthur who, even as he stands at the threshold of Mirkwood, is summoned back to Britain by news of the treachery of Mordred. Already weakened in spirit by Guinevere’s infidelity with the now-exiled Lancelot, Arthur must rouse his knights to battle one last time against Mordred’s rebels and foreign mercenaries.
Powerful, passionate and filled with vivid imagery, The Fall of Arthurreveals Tolkien’s gift for storytelling at its brilliant best. Originally composed by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s, this work was set aside for The Hobbit and lay untouched for 80 years.
Now it has been edited for publication by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who contributes three illuminating essays that explore the literary world of King Arthur, reveal the deeper meaning of the verses and the painstaking work that his father applied to bring it to a finished form, and the intriguing links between The Fall of Arthur and his greatest creation, Middle-earth.
Arthur eastward in arms purposed
in war to wage on the wild marches.
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending. (1-4)
Tolkien’s retelling of the King Arthur legend is lyrical and imaginative. It draws on medieval sources and the Old English poetry form to create a version that is fresh yet a worthy addition to the tradition. The poem, of course, is unfinished, but the parts that do exist are interesting and well-written. A few lines might be better phrased, but readers can excuse them based on the fact this poem is still a draft, even if a later version of drafts that had already seen multiple revisions. The poem’s most intriguing facet may be Tolkien’s unique portrayal of the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere. The pair loved each other at some point, before the start of the poem, but are drifting farther apart, appearing “strange” to each other when they meet again. Unfortunately, their story, like Arthur’s, is incomplete, and readers must rely on the outlines of projected cantos that Christopher publishes later in the book in order to approach anything resembling a sense of closure.
The poem is certainly worth reading. A better combination than King Arthur and J.R.R. Tolkien can hardly be imagined. As a medievalist and an author interested in creating mythology for England, Tolkien doubtless must have known and loved the Arthurian legend and it is only right he incorporate it into his own writing. Readers who love Tolkien will love seeing him work with this classic tale, just as he worked with Norse legends, Anglo-Saxon poems, and other medieval romances.
The rest of the book, however, readers can probably take or leave based on their preferences. The first section Christopher contributes is called “The Poem in Arthurian Tradition” and is essentially lengthy summaries of his father’s major soucres: Historia Regum Britanniae, the alliterative Morte Arthure, the stanzaic Morte Arthure, and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. I, having read most of these works in the original, did not find this section very interesting. Those who have not read the originals may find the section either enlightening or tedious, based on whether they enjoy reading such summaries. Christopher does helpfully point out what is different between these works and his father’s work, however, so readers need not bother to flip back and forth between the poem and this section to figure it out for themselves.
The second section is “The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion.” Christopher publishes some of his father’s notes about The Fall of Arthur and highlights potential relationships between Lancelot and Earendil and Avalon and Tol Eressea. Unfortunately, Christopher does not always know what to make of potential parallels or relationships between The Fall of Arthur and The Silmarillion and often simply observes their existence without drawing any interpretations or conclusions. This section also contains detailed outlines J.R.R. Tolkien intended to follow when finishing th poem and some drafts of cantos not included in the officially published poem.
In the third section, “The Evolution of the Poem,” Christopher publishes various drafts of each canto and points out some changes his father made as he wrote and rewrote. This chapter will be interesting to those readers who enjoy exploring the evolution of texts but can be skipped by those who do not.
The appendix is a brief explanation of the alliterative Old English poetry form that Tolkien adopted for The Fall of Arthur, mostly in J.R.R. Tolkien’s own words, as Christopher tokien publishes parts of a talk his father gave on the subject. This section may not be the most accessible explanation to readers completely unfamiliar with the verse form, but it does nicely highlight the major features of Old English poetry. The appendix closes with an excerpt from The Fall of Arthur, with the “patterns of strong and weak elements in each half-line” listed, so readers have a clear example of how the patterns work.
Each section of the book can be read on its own, and it will behoove readers to determine beforehand which they may find useful. The book itself seems unclear on whether it is intended for an audience who loves Tolkien but knows nothing about Arthur or an audience of medievalists who love Arthur but may not particularly care about Tolkien. It tries to walk a middle ground, speaking to both a scholarly and a popular audience—and therefore will leave both types of readers a little unsatisfied. The poem itself is beautiful and worth a read by anyone. Christopher’s commentaries can be read or skipped with discretion.
Goodreads: The Enchantress of Florence
Summary: A blonde-haired foreigner arrives in the court of the Mughal emperor Akbhar claiming he carries a secret that will kill anyone who hears it—save Akbhar himself. His tale spans decades and continents, following the life of the princess Qara Koz, whose decision to forge her own destiny caused her name to be erased from the annals of history. The foreigner’s tale captivates not only Akbhar, but also the entire capital—but is it true?
Review: In The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie mixes history, legend, and fantasy to create a story breathtaking in its scope and imagination. Although the narrative seems to build slowly at first, each word is like an exquisite jewel woven into an increasingly intricate tapestry; readers will find themselves drowning in the depths of a story so rich, so sensual, and so luscious that the plot could stand completely still and the beauty of the world Rushdie has woven would still ensnare them. Though the story ostensibly revolves around the titular enchantress of Florence, Rushdie is the true enchanter here.
Perhaps best classified as magical realism, the book seamlessly blends the fantastic and the factual, playing with the readers’ suspension of disbelief. Because some of the most outrageous claims are actually rooted in history, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction; the readers experience the confusion of the characters as they desperately try to untangle the threads of the foreigner’s tale to discover the truth of his journey. As his words begin to take on a reality of their own, however, the question arises: if lies can create so much beauty, is it still worth searching for the truth?
The Enchantress of Florence is a rare treasure among books, one that will make readers want to slow down to savor it, rather than rush through to discover how it ends. It casts a spell with its unique sense of the absurd, as well as its acceptance of that absurdity as a condition of life. Like the foreigner’s audience, readers may find themselves unwilling to break the enchantment.
Goodreads: Beau Brocade
Summary: King George’s troops scour the countryside of Derbyshire for traitors after the failed rebellion led by Bonny Prince Charlie. Falsely accused of siding with the pretender, Philip, the young Earl of Stratton, hides on the moors until his sister Lady Patience can deliver to London letters that prove his innocence. The man who accused Philip, however, remains hot on his trail. Only one man can help the Earl and his sister outwit their adversary, but dare they place Philip’s life in the hands of the notorious highwayman Beau Brocade?
Review: Beau Brocade should please fans of Orczy’s better-known work The Scarlet Pimpernel as it contains many of the same elements—a beautiful young aristocrat with her brother in danger, a dashing hero with a double identity, and a ruthless villain who will stop at nothing to catch his prey. Although the plot is unlikely to catch any readers by surprise, it proceeds apace—the majority of its interest lying in the budding romance as well as the various tricks played upon the villains by the audacious Beau Brocade. As is usual with Orczy’s books, the characters carry the story; hating the villains is almost as fun as cheering on the protagonists.
Beau Brocade has immediate reader appeal as he functions as a slightly more questionable version of the Scarlet Pimpernel–a man who lives outside the law, but who steals from the rich only to give to the poor (and always while wearing the latest fashion). Thus, although Orczy takes care to draw attention to his chivalry, his boyish laughter, his zest for life, and his ability to win the loyalty and love of all the poorer folk in Derbyshire, an air of mystery surrounds him; if this man is so noble, what crime in his past forces him to hide upon the moors like a common thief? That nagging doubt plays into his relationship with Lady Patience, who finds herself attracted to his honorable qualities but fearing to lose her heart to a man who could betray her for personal gain.
If Beau Brocade is the Scarlet Pimpernal (or perhaps a better parallel can be drawn to Blakeney’s ancestor Diogenes, hero of The Laughing Cavalier), Patience obviously corresponds to the Pimpernel’s love interest, Marguerite. Fortunately, however, she lacks that lady’s talent for falling captive to her enemies every so often so they can more easily blackmail the hero. I admit I had high hopes for Patience. Her brother thinks highly of her intelligence and good sense, and early on in the story she takes the initiative to discover his whereabouts and formulate a suitable plan for his recovery. She, too, quickly discerns the identity of their hidden enemy and takes various precautions to attempt to elude his clutches. By the end of the story, however, she finds herself unable to resist the relentless plots of her adversary and meekly places herself in the hands of the hero. Admitting one’s weaknesses and deferring to another’s strengths indeed counts as good sense. Even so, I wish Lady Patience had had a few more opportunities to exhibit the intelligence she clearly possesses. She has the ability to take stock of a situation much more quickly than anyone else in the story and tries to use this to her advantage. For some reason, however, things never work out in her favor, which leads to the sense that Beau Brocade is forever rescuing her–even though I think they would work remarkably well together as a team.
I thought the villain of the story was particularly notable, especially in light of comparisons with the Scarlet Pimpernel’s main adversary, Chauvelin. I suspect Chauvelin can gain the sympathy of readers much more easily, especially considering the implication in various adaptations (such as the musical) that he and Marguerite were once a couple. Chauvelin’s defining trait, after all, is merely his obsession with capturing the Scarlet Pimpernel–an understandable one considering his precarious position in the new hierarchy of the French Revolution. As book after book progresses and Chauvelin always loses, he increasingly becomes more pitiable than threatening. The villain of Beau Brocade, however–well, there’s a villain for you.
This villain lacks all honor, all chivalry, all trace of any finer trait. Perversely, however, he acts always with the intention of winning the hand of the Lady Patience in marriage. His love turned to obsession paints the picture of a truly warped mind–one so far gone that he would hurt the one he claims to love simply to possess her. He may not be threatening physically, but he is truly terrifying psychologically. One can almost see him tottering on the brink of madness. Even more terrifying, he retains the ability to enlist others in his cause–solely because of his place in society.
Though I am a fan of Orczy’s Pimpernel books, Beau Brocade still surprised me with the depth of its characterization (often hidden behind seeming stereotypes), the gripping nature of its plot, and the general feel-good quality of the story overall. If you like dashing heroes, scheming villains, and a good romance, Beau Brocade is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.
Goodreads: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Summary: After losing his job as a web desginer, Clay Jannon finds himself working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a store that has only a few patrons who keep coming back, borrowing–not buying–books in a pattern. When Clay attempts to solve the mystery of their behavior, he finds himself drawn into a secret world of puzzles and texts–which he just might need the help of a cute Google girl to help him figure out.
Review: Mr. Penumbras’ 24-Hour Bookstore is a quick read, with great pacing and a highly readable style. It features a great cast of quirky and intelligent characters, ranging from the mysterious Mr. Penumbra to a young Googler obsessed with the idea of immortality. It is strange that nearly all the characters appear extraordinarily talented and successful at whatever they choose to do, but I suppose the experience is similar to that of reading fantasy, where everyone is a hero, the world’s best sorceress, etc.
Many books are touted as “a book for book lovers” but Mr. Penumbra’s deserves the name. It does not attempt to appeal to bibliophiles with constant literary allusions, but instead takes on seriously the question of reading in an increasingly digital world. Sloane expertly combines these two worlds, paper and electronic, searching for a way to keep the heart of reading—the words and meaning—intact, no matter what the meaning. It is an optimistic vision, but it seems as if it could work.
When not philosophizing, the novel relies heavily on mystery and suspense. Readers, like the main character, want to know what is going on in Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, what all these eccentric patrons are reading or doing. On a first reading, the questions are pressing, and readers will want to keep plowing through to figure out what happens next, to see if plots will begin to come together. Unfortunately, the flaw of a book that builds itself with surprise is that is not surprising upon rereading. While I enjoyed Mr. Penumbra’s, I am unsure it is a book I plan on coming back to, or if I would enjoy it as much if I did.
Mr. Penumbra’s is a truly creative endeavor that will apply to anyone seriously interested in reading. It respects books, nerdiness, a desire for the fantastic in everyday life. Basically, it features anything readers will love—most obviously a mysterious bookstore as one of its main settings—featuring it intimately and seriously. It believes in reading and in making sure it has a future in a world of technology.
Published: October 2012
Goodreads: New Chronicles of Rebecca
Series: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm #2
Review: New Chronicles of Rebecca defies easy categorization as it constitutes neither a sequel nor a companion book to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. The stories contained in it take place during the same time as many events of the first book, so that it can almost be thought of as an extension to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Reader reaction to it will thus largely depend on what they expected to find in a sequel.
Personally, I always wanted to see Rebecca grow up and I looked for this book for years in hopes of discovering what sort of career she might choose or whom she might marry. Wiggin left hints but nothing concrete, and I longed for some sort of certainty. This book spans enough time that it suggests, once again, that Rebecca’s marital prospects lie in a certain direction, but readers never get to follow her on that journey. I had to accept this disappointment before I could judge the book on its own merits.
Since the stories in New Chronicles fit in between those of Rebecca, the timeline can prove confusing, especially to those who have not read the first book in some time. However, if readers feel comfortable not quite remembering who all the characters are or their actions in the past, they will find that Wiggins provides enough clues to allow them to orient themselves in a general way. As long as they can recall that certain characters are friends, others outcasts in Riverboro society, the reading proceeds smoothly enough.
Unfortunately, I did not find the stories in this book as captivating as those in the first. The focus of the stories seems to lie on how impressionable Rebecca is—thus, we have the rather standard account of how she forms a missionary society to save souls after hearing a speaker or the story of her attempt to find a young orphan a home. Some laughable consequences occur, but largely Rebecca seems to realize her own mistakes and clashes with her strict aunts are reduced to a minimum. It is hard to believe these events occur at the same time as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm—a time when a young girl struggled valiantly to make herself fit into a new society and please her relatives.
I did appreciate, however, the realism Wiggins brings to the stories. Even though the incidents she narrates are not highly original (a lot of them occur in L. M. Montgomery’s stories or similar works), she does not romanticize them too much. Thus, readers can never feel assured that the orphan with a home will stay in that home. Likewise, Rebecca’s amateur missionary society does not succeed in making churchgoers of all of Riverboro. Such doses of reality can make hackneyed plot points more palatable to the general reader.
If such stories had comprised the entire book, I would have been pleased enough with more adventures of Rebecca’s, if not overly impressed by the execution. However, portions of the beginning of the book are written as diary entries of Rebecca’s. I did not find these precocious entries, with their earnest attempts to sound eloquent and profound notwithstanding the poor spelling, very amusing. I think a lot of girls who longed to be writers have been there. Some will empathize with Rebecca and think back fondly on their own childhoods. Some will probably grimace in pain and a bit of embarrassment. I was with the latter, even though I think Wiggins’s attempt to write with the voice of childhood was a bit too naïve and earnest to be convincing.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is rightly considered a children’s classic, but New Chronicles of Rebecca lacks much that gives the first book its charm. Relationships and personalities are considered established, so that readers never see how much the love of certain people means to a lost young girl or how desperately that young girl wants to be accepted. Rather, Rebecca moves through Riverboro as if in her own world, going through the motions of what young girls do—play with their friends, go to school, make mistakes. She does not seem to live on the page in the same way and even a glimpse into her diary cannot make her seem real. After years of searching, I find myself disappointed by New Chronicles of Rebecca.
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Goodreads: The Lost Prince
Summary: War has rocked the small Eastern European country of Samavia since the fifteenth century when an uprising overthrew the king and his son apparently faced death by an assassin. Centuries later, exiled Samavian patriot Marco Loristan and his friend the Rat believe that the prince may have survived and that his heirs wait in hiding for the day they can reclaim the throne and restore peace to their country. They dream of serving him and aiding his return, but what can two small boys do to help spark a revolution?
Review: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s works will perhaps inevitably always face comparison with her classic stories A Little Princess and The Secret Garden. Even without having to stand in the shadows of these works, however, The Lost Prince would never have stood the test of time. Its predictable nature and flat characters prevent all suspension of disbelief—never did I believe this story was taking place or even could. It presents itself merely as a mess of sentimentality and clichés.
Readers will most likely discern the trajectory of the plot from the first pages. Burnett provides enough heavy-handed clues for her audience not only to know who and where the prince of Samavia is, but also how he will regain his throne. Predictability, of course, does not immediately doom a plot; Shakespeare feels comfortable enough with his storytelling skill that he can announce the ending of Romeo and Juliet at the beginning and know that his audience will not abandon him. The Lost Prince, however, does not explore the idea of an empty throne in a new way. It does not raise interesting ideas. It does not even provide interesting characters. I almost wonder that Burnett did not bore herself writing the story.
The characters could have redeemed this book. However, they are too stereotyped and sentimentalized to seem real. Burnett presents Marco as the perfect young gentleman, trained from early days to act discreetly, politely, and bravely. He befriends a poor street urchin (the Rat) who has brains and wits, but lacks the means to develop them. This would have been quite enough for readers to accept, but the Rat must also lack the use of his legs. His name stems from the way he scurries about as a result. I almost stopped reading the book at this point because the treatment of people with disabilities was so sickening.
I also found myself annoyed with the inability of the characters to identify the lost prince. They possess the same knowledge the readers have about Samavia, so their ignorance can only stem from Burnett’s desire to maintain some sort of imagined suspense. Her clumsy manipulations of the story were prevalent throughout and always distracting.
The most obvious of the authorial insertions was the spiritual aspect. Midway through the book, Marco suddenly reveals that his father once met a Buddhist monk and received a divine mission to teach to the world the Law and the Order. Marco and his father never evinced any evidence of spirituality before this point, yet suddenly Burnett wants her readers to believe that they will restore order to the cosmos through their teachings. Restoring a king to his nation seemed hard enough, so this new goal seems unnecessarily complicated. It also seems unlikely, since Marco and his father do not even seem to live out this religion on a daily basis.
As a fan of The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and even Little Lord Fauntleroy, I wanted to like this book. After all, sentimentality and predictability do not necessarily disturb me. However, the plot seemed too forced to be taken seriously and the characters generally proved flat, unlikeable, or simply uninteresting. I will read more of Burnett’s lesser-known works in the future, but it seems clear that the majority of them must have fallen out of favor for a reason.
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Goodreads: The Great Divorce
Summary: Finding himself in a grey town full of quarrelsome characters, one man boards a bus and embarks on a journey to heaven. The country there seems to him pleasant and desirable, but the pride and self-love of his fellow passengers prevent many of them from choosing to continue on.
Review: In The Great Divorce, Lewis envisions a heaven and a hell that, while not meant to be taken as literal representations of what might occur after death, explain some very thorny and some very nuanced theological questions. From the types of choices that can keep a man or a woman from entering heaven to the reason why a loving God could permit hell in the first place, Lewis posits answers in the form of an allegory that seems startlingly new even as it draws inspiration from a long tradition of Christian writers.
Although The Great Divorce may lack some of the subtlety found in the allegory of his more popular Narnia books, the ideas raised in it prove interesting enough to keep readers engaged even without a plot. Intriguing descriptions of a heaven where the grass is hard enough to injure and the leaves too heavy to lift mix are interlaced with the reactions of souls encountering heaven and the reality of their lives for the first time. The combination beautifully illustrates Lewis’s theme that heaven is real, earth the “Shadowlands”; heaven will give this life meaning and make even pain and suffering significant.
Lewis thus holds out to readers the promise of everlasting joy, if only they choose God. However, the obvious question raised is: what does choosing God mean? If readers hoped that no outright violations of the Ten Commandments would constitute a good life, Lewis quickly begs to differ. Through various characters, he illustrates a host of sins that may prove obstacles to getting to know God—not “big” sins like robbing a bank but the “smaller” ones so much more familiar to us all. Many of take the form of selfishness or pride: controlling someone’s life because one needs to feel needed, exaggerating the pain or suffering one has experienced so as to seem special, refusing to forgive someone who has done wrong. Reading The Great Divorce, readers may feel uncomfortably reminded of themselves.
To say that Lewis was pointing fingers or saw the world and its people in a negative light would, however, be a mistake. Lewis clearly counted himself among the sinners: his reflections on the nature of intellectual pride and the proper purpose of art suggests problems with which he himself would have struggled. But he does not leave humankind without hope. In a beautiful passage in which a soul dies to his sin, Lewis shows the sin transformed—the lust that controlled the man during his lifetime proves a small, sad thing compared to the virile thing that emerges when the desire is oriented properly. Lewis’s book is an opportunity for readers to examine their lives and redirect them.
Although Lewis clearly wrote The Great Divorce for a Christian audience, the ideas underlying it reach across religions, exploring timeless topics such as the nature of love, the meaning of life, and the definition of morality. It furthermore provides an illumination look at the philosophy that drives his perhaps more popular Narnia books. Christians, philosophers, fans of Lewis–The Great Divorce appeals to a broader audience than it might at first appear.
Summary: A square from a world of two dimensions explains the customs of his land and his life-changing encounter with a sphere.
Review: My understanding is that Abbott meant this book to function as a satire of Victorian society—hence, the ridiculously sexist and classist nature of Flatland. However, though I found Flatland intriguing, I did not continue to read for the social commentary, but for the mathematical fun. From the descriptions of how shapes recognize one another in a two-dimensional world (everyone appears as a line segment) to the depiction of Pointland, Flatland brims with mathematical humor and wit.
The first half of the book deals with Flatland and its inhabitants, customs, and history. Though this proves vaguely interesting, the narrator skips over the types of questions I most wanted to learn about—how the shapes move without feet and build houses or write letters without hands. The repression of women and the follies of the aristocracy provide some scandalous material, but I had trouble buying it all without knowing how these shapes do anything without limbs. Some pertinent background information would have greatly helped my attention. As it was, I had to make a conscious effort to suspend my disbelief and I was never certain the history of the color rebellion was worth it.
The second half of the book really makes reading worthwhile. The descent of a sphere into Flatland introduces our narrator square to the concept of three-dimensions, though, of course, he initially finds this as difficult to grasp as we do the fourth-dimension. A hilarious give-and-take between the sphere and the square ensues. Once the square experiences three-dimensionality for himself, however, he can make the mental leap to fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, infinite dimensions. If this seems crazy, readers only have to think back to the square’s former ignorance and suddenly the world seems full of possibility.
Lovers of mathematics should not pass this book by; the slog through the history of Flatland is well worth it to arrive at an exploration of some great mathematical concepts. Abbott then turns mathematics into a fascinating, but troubling, commentary on society and its resistance to new ideas. An insightful, eye-opening, yet humorous book.