The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

The Screwtape Letters
by C. S. Lewis
1961

Having enjoyed The Great Divorce and found it extremely thought-provoking and had a casual book club with various members of my family, it was proposed that we read The Screwtape Letters next. It was just as thought provoking, if not more so, although somewhat less enjoyable. It consists of 31 chapters/letters plus one toast, and it’s all told from the perspective of a demon, the titular Screwtape, who is giving advice on how to lure humans into sin.

Despite having been written 80 years ago, it is decidedly timely today, as it addresses the devil’s goal of keeping humans constantly focused on doom scrolling and headlines and thoughtless denigration of anyone who disagrees with you, while avoiding humility, charity, respect, or thoughtful consideration. I felt decidedly called out at various points. I should be better! I will try to be more thoughtful and focused and enjoy the pleasures that are available to me in the present and worry less.

At other points, however, it feels dated in the way that it appears to be arguing about social trends that I’m not even aware of. At one point the devil is recommending that people should stay focused on government policies rather than prayers since those are so much less important and I really hope that Lewis had no expectation of “thoughts and prayers” becoming such a catch phrase for politicians refusing to update policies. As Screwtape presents himself as the arbiter of what is evil, Lewis comes across as an arbiter of what is good, and that is, occasionally, rough. Historians, modern artists, and unions are all mentioned as being misleading to Good Christians.

Lewis definitely takes the opportunity to call out some of his personal most and least favored theologians, placing them either as godly agents or thoroughly controlled by the devils’ temptations to sin. This book also has a nearly Ayn Randian Objectivist perspective on the world: what is Good is very clear and natural and unaffected by different lives, perspectives or understandings. Devils provide temptation and people provide false information but a Good Christian will just know what is right due to God, much the same way that Ayn Rand’s protagonists will know what is right due to Logic, despite any lack of education or resources for either. Peak individualism, despite the differences in both methods and goals.  

I found that I needed to read this book one chapter at a time and take at least a little break between. They were thought provoking and inspiring and occasionally quite funny, but they were also quite dense and more than occasionally rather florid.

This book also made me think that I should get around to reading Lolita, at some point, as the only other book I can think of that has the protagonist/narrator also be the unrepentant villain of the story. I did wonder how many people read this book and think Screwtape is an anti-hero instead. Some of his advice came across as fitting right in with big business and some of my least favorite managers at my job, so it’s not out of the question.

I got a lot out of this book and enjoyed talking about it with Anna as we progressed through, but the book started out strong and then got progressively more wearying as it continued. It’s worth reading, but be prepared to decide what you take seriously. (Note: Cherry-picking what to take seriously is also advice that Screwtape would offer a human and C.S. Lewis specifically rejects when it comes to religious contemplation. So, you know: Enjoy!)

The Screwtape Letters

By C.S. Lewis

Rebecca and I both enjoyed The Great Divorce so much that we decided to read The Screwtape Letters, another Christian fantasy by C.S. Lewis (her review to follow). This novel is a collection of letters from Screwtape, a demon, giving guidance to his nephew on how to corrupt people’s souls. And it comes out of the gate swinging!

“Your business is to fix his attention on the stream [of immediate sense experiences]. Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’.” (p. 2!)

C.S. Lewis is scolding me for wasting time on social media from beyond the grave!

“But the best of all is to let him read not science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation’. (p. 3)

80 years ago, C.S. Lewis was dunking on do-your-own-research guys!

So, it’s been a real eye-opening seeing the ever-green traits of humanity that I used to ascribe to the digital age. I initially enjoyed the novelty of it, but the narrative structure of letters leads to far more proselytizing than The Great Divorce, which took a more show-don’t-tell approach. As Screwtape enumerates all things that can lead a person to hell, the path to heaven becomes narrower and harder to define. The reader gets all sorts of negatives (just going through the religious motions will surely lead you to hell, but so too will interrogating your faith too thoroughly), and no positive directions, as far as I can tell.

Of course, this falls in well with the conceit of letters from a demon. Lewis even gives himself a clever and all-encompassing disclaimer in his preface by saying that all demons lie and even have their own bias, so any issues with the letter lie solely with the fictional demonic letter-writer. So, while it’s hard to argue with this, Lewis clearly intends the book for Christian instruction, and for me, at least, this type of negative direction is not so helpful.

After a while, as the ways humans stray kept piling up, I started bracing myself for some ugly prejudice or another to rear its head. However, nothing overt emerged, though Lewis is pretty dismissive of women, when he gives them any thought at all, and it’s probably all for the best that he doesn’t give any thought to anyone non-white, non-Christian, or even non-English. It was hard to escape the feeling of just being constantly scolded, though.

The book contains 31 letters in all, each only being 3-5 pages, and it made me wonder if it was intended to read one letter a day, to allow the reader some time to really think through each one. But Rebecca read that they were originally released in serial on a weekly basis, which is an even better, longer break between each one! It ends with a longer essay, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which Lewis wrote years later, and in which Screwtape is addresses a new graduating class of demonic tempters. In it, Lewis once again expresses a surprisingly current sentiment, though more retrograde with a “kids these days, with their participation trophies” hack.

The Half Life of Valery K

By Natasha Pulley

I really like Natasha Pulley, but man, it feels like she is in a challenge to make her readers root for the most problematic character possible. I had some serious issues with her previous book The Kingdoms, but I think she might have outdone herself this time. (Unlike her other books, The Half Life of Valery K doesn’t include any magical realism and is even based on real events, which makes it worse, quite frankly.)

The protagonist, the titular Valery K, is a radiation scientist in Russia in the 1960s, which simply can’t be anything but problematic given the field of study and time period. When the novel starts, Valery has been in a Siberian work camp for 6 years, and has only survived that long due to some lucky circumstances. The description of the work camp is devastating, especially given how well researched it seems to be. Valery has every expectation of starving to death in the following year when he is released and brought to ‘City 40’ to help study the effects of radiation on the general ecosystem. City 40 is kept in deep secrecy to hide it from the western countries (the US in particular), and once in the city, no one leaves.

Valery quickly befriends the head KGB officer that holds them all there, another strangely sympathetic but deeply problematic character. It is a much more comfortable imprisonment than the work camps, so Valery is content until he discovers deeper secrets that even his very compromised morals cannot accept.

And that gets to the crux of the book – it is all about the evils that people have to accept to survive in impossible situations. And also when people reach a breaking point where they can’t accept any more, and fight back, often becoming evil in their own opposing way. This obviously makes for a very difficult read, and I think I’ll be wrestling with the questions this book raises for a while.

I haven’t read much about the Soviet Union, so this book more than any other I’ve read gave me insight into what the Soviet communist government was trying to achieve as an ideal and some of the ways it failed so badly in practice. Anti-west Soviet propaganda is a pervasive background throughout the novel, with most characters living in constant fear of US bombing, especially after Hiroshima. Soviet citizens would ascribe most unexplained explosions to US bombing, and I realized that I had no idea if the United States had bombed the USSR in the 50s and 60s, and that I likely wouldn’t know.

Though the US is somewhat more sophisticated in how it influences its citizens,* it made me really interrogate the degree to which I’ve bought into western propaganda (the Soviet characters are shocked by the strict gender roles imposed in western cultures, for instance). Awareness is all well and good, but there’s no clear answer for how individual citizens can combat this ideological warfare, which left me feeling a little hopeless about the state of humanity in general.

*I was reminded of a joke I’d heard a while ago: A Russian and an American get on a plane in Moscow and get to talking. The Russian says he works for the Kremlin and he’s on his way to go learn American propaganda techniques.

“What American propaganda techniques?” asks the American. “Exactly,” the Russian replies.

At the Feet of the Sun by Victoria Goddard

At the Feet of the Sun
Lays of the Hearth-Fire, Book Two
by Victoria Goddard
2022

If I had any sort of self-control, I would not have finished this book quite so quickly, because it’s essentially five books all presented together in one omnibus. Which I’m glad of! Because otherwise there would have been some real cliff-hangers. But, it’s really long with multiple interlinked plot arcs and side quests that are massive enough to be regular quests all on their own. And, also, the book (that’s really five books) does come to a satisfying emotional conclusion at the end, but it doesn’t actually conclude the original plot that was set up at the end of the first book. So I’m already looking forward to Book 3, but am glad enough to have a breather before presumably reading another 1000+ pages.

This book starts up soon after the end of Book 1: The Hands of the Emperor, and the first part runs parallel to The Return of Fiztroy Angursell, and then just keeps going with the adventures and development of Cliopher “Kip” Mdang. Kip is a wildly successful bureaucrat who has spent his life successfully dismantling an empire and replacing it with a more egalitarian system of government. And now he’s retiring. He’s not yet officially done, but he’s transferred the majority of his work and responsibilities to others and has the space to figure out who he is now that he’s not so driven anymore, and that’s not an easy path. And also, this whole universe is an amazing creation where there are nine interconnected worlds, magic and gods are real, religion is complicated and diverse, and time fluctuates wildly. Kip’s career is somewhere between 45 and 1100 years long, depending exactly where you stand, and his own personal experience varied as well as he experiences long periods of timeless effort. The story moves seamlessly between practical struggles and legendary adventures; travels on the sea around Kip’s home archipelago and travels on the Sky Ocean between the stars; searching for Kip’s lost cousin Basil and going to get a new fire from the Palace of the Sun.

Kip is amazingly and wonderfully competent in achieving his goals for the greater good of the world, but still struggles to find his place and self-promote when it’s about him and not some greater achievement. And figuring out how to communicate with his emperor as a person whom he loves after spending decades/centuries working with him as an untouchable god is an ongoing struggle, even as they both want equality between them. Through all the struggles, there’s a sense of certainty that it will all work out, or if it doesn’t, then it will be a loss of what could have been but what already is, is still sufficient.

It’s a beautiful and optimistic book, and I really enjoy it immensely.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

By Marina Lewycka

“Extremely funny” says The Times.
“Mad and Hilarious,” Daily Telegraph.
“Uproariously funny” from The Economist

Guys, this was one of the most mean-spirited books I’ve read in a long time. Sisters Vera and Nadia hate each other and seem contemptuous of their elderly widowed father. When he becomes attached to a much younger woman, they try to intervene, seemingly more out of immediate hatred for this new woman than any concern for their father. Their father, in turn, disdains his daughters for a variety of reasons, and fights their intervention, even as the new woman turns out to be despicable and abusive.

The back blurb teased that this struggle uncovers long buried family secrets, which is what hooked me (as well as the unusual title). And the central story is interspersed with background vignettes on the parents’ and grandparents’ lives in Ukraine, though there is no big reveal or epiphany. Instead, by spending just a little more time talking about their different experiences growing up, the two sisters reach a basic level of empathy for each other that they probably should have managed a long time ago. Oh, and there are also passages from a short book the father is writing about tractors. The history of mechanical invention is not really my thing, but I actually welcomed the breaks from the central characters.

I wanted to quit a couple of times, but was too embarrassed after the librarian had looked so intrigued by the title when I was checking it out and made a note to check it out herself. Plus, I feel like I’ve been losing interest in books halfway through lately, and that I should really see one through to the end. That said, the ending was surprisingly satisfactory and even a little touching after all the meanness, so that was kind of nice.

Pigeon English

By Stephen Kelman

I thought this was a murder mystery with an atypical narrating protagonist, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which I loved) and The Maid (which I liked well enough), so I wasn’t really prepared to for this very literary novel about poverty in the UK. It was very good for what it was, but in this third year of the pandemic, I really need to stick to my low-stress cozies. That said, as much as I felt that I really didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for this, I also couldn’t put it down.

12-year-old Harri lives with his family in one of London’s housing projects, and when an older boy he recognizes from school is found dead, he and his friends decide to investigate.  Harri himself is cheerful, enthusiastic, and generally optimistic in a quite grim world, that his narration kept me pulled in, even when his young London slang was almost entirely incomprehensible to me. As a warning,  there are also a number of slurs, insults, and general ignorance, which seems entirely accurate to the protagonists but also got occasionally tiresome.

However, the hardest part of reading this was seeing how poverty grinds up everyone in it, regardless of how they try to escape or even claw out some bits of joy. It is beautifully written, with some surprisingly poetic narration woven in, but very much a gritty study of often-overlooked communities, framed around this one murder, rather than a mystery novel.

What I Read When I Dropped Off the Face of the Earth

Whew, 2021 and 2022, huh? The last, let’s see, 18 months have been a rollercoaster ride for me and for seemingly everyone else I know. I may not have been posting here, but I have been reading and books have become even more important to me as a comfort and a distraction. So just to catch up a bit before I jump back in to more detailed reviews, here are the highlights of my last 18 months of reading–not necessarily the best books I’ve read, but the ones that most soothed my soul when I needed it.

Fun YA Series

YA is always a solid place to start when you need something engrossing and distracting, but also a bit hopeful. The two series I’ve enojyed most lately have both been discussed on this blog before, but I am still talking about them.

  • Rebecca talked about the first two books in Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, but The Golden Enclaves comes out in just a few days! The series has magic, and a boarding school, and some romance, while being completely unlike Harry Potter at all. This world is dark, while also managing, especially in the second book, to show how people, even deeply pessimistic people, can change the world and people around them.
  • I really enjoyed Maureen’s Johnson’s Truly Devious trilogy when it was focused on the main characters solving the initial mystery about the founder of their mysterious boarding school (I do like a boarding school story). But I was surprised by how much I like the fourth book in the series, The Box in the Woods, where our heroes branch out and solve a new mystery. In all of these books I’ve been impressed with how complex the mystery stories themselves are–Johnson doesn’t skimp on the twists and turns of the crimes and cover-ups, while also drawing really layered teen characters.

Cozy Gay Period Mysteries

A nice English country house with some gentlemen falling in love? That’s my sweet spot. Magic is nice, but not required.

  • Cat Sebastian’s Hither, Page and The Missing Page are both really sweet romances/mysteries between a country doctor reeling from his experiences in the first World War, and a spy who might be ready to get out of the business and find a more settled life. She’s written loads of books that are all fun, but I think I like the 20th-century setting of these more than all her others.
  • A Marvellous Light, the first in a planned triology, is set Edwardian England–according to the publisher’s website, this makes it a “gaslamp” story–but has similar sort of “odd couple fall in love while solving a mystery” vibes. This one does happen to involve magic, and I do always love it when books have scenes–and this one has many!–where non-magical people suddenly learn that magic exists. It’s like the book version of “It’s bigger on the inside!”

Non-fiction about Archaeology

This is a very specific category of books, but somehow reading about the ancient world is very calming?

  • Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox is actually about 20th-century efforts to decipher an ancient language, with a little everygreen sexism in academia thrown in for good measure. Fascinating for anyone who likes process-y stuff and/or grammar nerds, since it walks through how scholars figure out unknown languages.

  • Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson is technically about the archeologists who do the work, not the history itself, but it was also fascinating and totally made me want to go dig in the dirt.

Actual Literature

I do read literary fiction, although it can be a hard sell when I’m looking for comfort. Of late I’ve felt overwhelmed when I see a big doorstop of a book, but both of these were comparatively short, which made them feel achievable.

  • Matrix, by Lauren Groff, was probably the best thing I’ve read all year. It’s the story of a medieval nun who runs an abbey in France. It mostly focused on her internal life as she travels through a life that may seem very small by modern standards, but is huge in spirit. I feel like every description of this book made me less interested in reading it, but it was very compelling and felt more modern than it had any right to.
  • I remember enjoying Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark when it first came out and I also liked the TV adaption of it. But for some reason, her second book Piranesi never caught my attention. I think something about the cover, and maybe the title, made me think it was going to be weird? I don’t generally mind weird, but something turned me off of it. Well, it was kind of weird, but not in a “weird for weird’s sake way.” Instead, it was one of those stories where you have to roll along for the first about 40% not really knowing what’s going on, just having faith that things will become clear. And then suddenly clues start dropping and the rush you get when you start figuring things out is so fun!

Finally, I’ll give a plug to something I was extremely skeptical of for a long time: book podcasts. I love podcasts and listen to many, many hours of true crime and comedy and pop culture discussion every week, but I’ve actively stayed away from reading-related podcasts. I think I was worried that I would feel bad about all the books I hadn’t read and would just end up adding to my already endless To Be Read list? But I’ve found two podcasts that are nicely calibrated to avoid those problems. Currently Reading and Reading Glasses are similar in structure, in that the hosts will talk about the books they are reading or have just finished, but then also address more general topic like remembering what you read, or the best tote bags for books, or how to get into books in translation or in a certain genre. And while I have definitely read things based on their recommendations–I read Piranesi after one of the Currently Reading hosts said it was basically a murder mystery–most of the time they describe books in such clear ways that I often end up deciding that the books they describe are not for me after all. Plus, these shows both manage to release an episode every week, so if you’re looking for book talk more often than the once-a-year schedule I seem to be working on, these could be for you!

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

The Great Divorce
by C.S. Lewis
1946

I’ve been having trouble getting into any of my usual genre books and then my aunt recommended this book, which felt like a bit of a palate cleanser. It’s a fascinating premise with a somewhat disinterested perspective and it gave me so many thoughts. I really enjoyed it. It’s fourteen chapters across only 128 pages, but took several days to read because I had to pause and think about it periodically, to give each character their due.

The premise is that the narrator is on a bus trip from hell to heaven. It’s a regular bus route and anyone is welcome. Many are even eagerly awaited by those in heaven. And yet, very few of the travelers choose to stay. Each character is unique in their circumstances, but also the same in the way they consider themselves to have been in the right, and yet their self-defense is also their condemnation.

It gave me so many thoughts.

I’m going to make a cut here more for length than spoilers. In part because I think the experience of this book is not something that can be spoiled by advance knowledge. It’s not exactly plot driven. It’s characters and perspectives and metaphors. They’re fascinating and I want to talk about them.

Continue reading

Beware of Chicken by Casualfarmer

Beware of Chicken (Book 1)
by Casualfarmer
2022

This was a free online story posted serially that built a large enough following to get turned into a book. I actually read this (plus book 2, and several chapters of book 3 as well) on Royal Road earlier in the year before the author took a break to format and edit book one for publication. But since the online serial is still ongoing, this is a review of the ebook which has the distinction of being complete.

This book is absolutely ridiculous and also the quintessential pandemic lockdown book. It’s like The Swiss Family Robinson for anime lovers. Do you dream of leaving all the anxiety and stress of the world behind and go start a small farm that takes a lot of work to create but also is wildly, improbably successful? How about just have everything work out all right and be loved and respected as a powerful person while also being a friendly goof who enjoys life? There is no conflict that isn’t resolved nicely in our main character’s favor, with every protection that an author with world-building abilities can provide. This is the comfort book to end all comfort books.

The basic plot is that our main character, a guy from Canada, wakes up in a Xanxia (fantasy China with magic and demons and swords, etc.) in the body of Jin Rou, a lowly outer disciple of a great cultivation sect. Jin Rou is clearly fated to be the protagonist of an epic story — poor and abused, he will struggle and fight epic battles and rise to greatness, etc. — and our main guy decides to nope his way right out of that. He takes a quick exit from the top of that mountain temple, does his research to find the least dangerous, least magical location in the land and starts a farm. He still has the strength and speed of a disciple of a great cultivation sect, as well as the education of a modern farmer/handyman, so everything goes very well for him. He also has a rooster he calls Big D.

The rooster is the titular chicken of Beware of Chicken. This rooster does understand fantasy Chinese but not modern English, wakes up to being sentient and considers himself to be named Bi Di. It is also absolutely clear to him that he, Bi Di, is the first disciple of Jin Rou, a Hidden Master of great power. Bi Di rises to greatness, the farm is amazing, and absolutely everything is ridiculous. Jin Rou is the Mary Sue to end all Mary Sues, and absolutely nothing goes wrong.

A Splendid Ruin

By Megan Chance

Alison Green recommended this book a few weeks ago on her blog, Ask A Manager (one of my daily reads), and it sounded so gothic, full of the secrets and decadence of the very wealthy, that I was hooked! It actually turned out to have unexpected similarities to The Maid, which I’d just previously read, both featuring fish-out-of-water protagonists who face serious endangerment from the society around them. In this case, May Kimble is an impoverished orphan who is invited to live with her estranged, extremely wealthy aunt and uncle after the death of her mother. Once there, she faces a whole slew of warning signs that she tries to explain away with her own inexperience.

Like The Maid but even more so, the tension ratchets up until the worst has happened, but then May faces the truth and finds her own strength in recover and it is very satisfying. It also has the subtlety and depth that I missed in The Maid, which in retrospect I think was the detail of the setting. Author Megan Chance gives 1900s San Francisco such color that it is almost its own character. The first half of the book leads up to the devastating fire that destroyed most of the city, and the second half occurs right afterwards, and Chance does an amazing job of bringing it all to life.

Every scene unfolded new and intriguing details about each individual character and the society as a whole. Between the vibrancy of the historical setting and the taut suspense of the impending doom, I truly couldn’t put this book down. I basically read it straight in three days in any free time I had, and then found the ending completely satisfying.