Books

Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

Off The Shelf this April: The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters: Letters From A Senior to a Junior Devil

by CS Lewis

Published in 1942

Genre: adult; part satirical novel, part mindful self-help book

C S Lewis

CS Lewis is arguably best-known, and best-loved, for his children’s classics the Chronicles of Narnia, starting with The Magician’s Nephew and culminating seven books later in The Last Battle. The Screwtape Letters, however, is no children’s fantasy, so be warned!

The Screwtape Letters

As its title suggests, The Screwtape Letters: Letters From a Senior to a Junior Devil, is a collection of letters from Senior Devil, Screwtape, to his bumbling nephew, Wormwood. It is Screwtape’s job in these letters to mentor his nephew in his role as “tempter”. And in case you can’t guess, the job of a diabolical tempter such as Wormwood is to meddle in the lives of us humans and steer us from the path of right and good, thereby tempting us over to the dark side and along the path to Hell. The human in question, known only as “the patient”, is a young British man, falling in love for the first time and living his life, blissfully unaware of Wormwood’s interventions, against the backdrop of the Second World War.

Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil

Through Screwtape’s 31 letters, Wormwood is given detailed advice on how to undermine the patient’s good qualities and Christian values, and in this way various facets of human life, along with our many failings, are highlighted.  War, religion, sex, love, pride and gluttony are all put under the microscope. But, coming straight from the mind of a demon, it is – for us – as if this examination is being conducted in a mirror where black is white and good is bad. Get your head round this “diabolical ventriloquism” and suddenly what you have in your hands is a book full of mindful hints and self-help insights.

The Mundane and Ordinary

It is not just the big issues which are tackled in this back-to-front way. As Screwtape gives Wormwood a step-by-step guide on how to ruin the patient’s relationship with his mother, for example, we glimpse the more mundane everyday situations in which our own habits can easily cause arguments and irritation. Perhaps it is to these we should pay most attention. As Screwtape himself says: “the safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

I love Screwtape’s understanding of passive aggressive behaviour, wanting the patient to “demand that all his own utterances are…taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and context and the suspected intention.” You end up with the perfect situation of being able to say things expressly to cause offence and then innocently being able to feign grievance at this when that offence is actually taken. Win-win!

Similarly, I adore Lewis’ depiction of the old lady who believes she is being virtuous when, presented with a plate of food, waves it away declaring “oh that’s far, far too much. Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it.” Her determination to have things her own way, being couched in temperance like this, allows her to feel completely self-righteous without any compassion for the people who brought her the food in the first place. But she would be appalled if you actually called her on it!

Self Help Back to Front

Earlier, I described this book as being a mindful self-help book, which might seem strange given that on the surface at least, it appears to be the antithesis of mindfulness. For example, Screwtape urges us to “enter into” our emotions rather than step back and reflect upon them and to feel without acting. But remember, we are looking into a diabolical mirror and “whatever he welcomes, we should dread”. He advises us to live in the future “which can inflame hope and fear”.  It is the future, he points out, which has the greatest hold over us humans. Gratitude, he says, looks to the past; love to the present while fear, avarice, lust and ambition are all firmly rooted in the future. Wise words indeed! You can see, therefore, that this is far more than just a novel. You need to give yourself time to really digest some of the bigger issues it raises.

Take time to really digest some of the bigger issues it raises.

And, for a few more interesting facts about Screwtape and his letters, check out https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/64351/12-things-you-might-not-know-about-screwtape-letters .

Happy reading and even deeper thinking!

Want to read more? Check out last month’s blog: The Ides of March and Whether you Should Beware!

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Posted by TA Blezard in Adult Literary Fiction, Books, Literature, Reviews, 0 comments

Wimbledon BookFest is back in Town!

Stop playing with your food!

It’s October and that means many things. Pumpkins won’t just find their way into soups and stews but out onto window ledges and doorsteps. Questionable American traditions will be imported to the UK for the last night of the month. (Okay, okay, that’s just me being a bit bah-humbug about it all but honestly I’ve never truly understood this Trick or Treat malarkey.) But most importantly, to my bookish mind at least, October means Wimbledon BookFest returns once more to the common!

This annual charitable event, which has been going since 2006 starts off on the 3rd October with Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat) talking to Jennifer Cox about her new novel in the Chocolat series: The Strawberry Thief. The festival closes ten days later with the equally sweet Nadiya Hussein (our Bake Off hero), with fewer strawberries but more self-reflection as she discusses her new and very personal book: Finding My Voice.

From Politics to Poetry

Sandwiched between these two delights (I think I’m done with the food analogy now) is a plethora of diverse and interesting events. We have politics with speakers such as James O’Brien, Gavin Esler, Emily Maitlis and Lord David Owen. (Mmm, I wonder if Lord Owen is pleased that the satirical puppet show Spitting Image is making a comeback? Who remembers the two Davids of the 80s: David Owen pushing David Steel around in a shopping trolley?) There’s a host of topical environmental talks such as Climate Change Poetry and Performance and Mike Berners Lee tackling the hot green issues of the day: should we all become vegetarian? How can we fly without leaving a giant carbon footprint on the face of the earth? There are workshops and walks and even a gin tasting event (though I shall be pouring it rather than tasting it on that particular night, unfortunately). The organisers have lined up sports-themed events with the hugely popular Brian Moore (Rugby) and Alistair Cook (Cricket) in conversation with Mike Atherton, as well as cramming in live music and various children’s events. (The Moomins make an appearance and are a favourite of mine. I even have a Moomin cookbook, with recipes for such fancy Finnish delights as Snufkin’s Thinking Bouillon, Moomintroll’s Chanterelle Temptation and Little My’s Peppery Spaghetti.) There are also two comedy nights featuring the likes of Adam Kaye and Rachel Parris, amongst others.

With 2 comedy nights you’re likely to…

With close to a hundred events to choose from, you are definitely spoiled for choice. If your interest is the Middle East, say, you have Hannah Lucinda Smith’s Battle for the Soul of Turkey, Levison Wood’s Journey Through Arabia and Ed Hussain’s The House of Islam to pick from. History buffs can gorge on William Dalrymple’s The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, Sir Max HastingsThe Dambusters Story and Natalie HaynesTroy Story to mention just three. There’s poetry from Ben Okri and Simon Armitage, a celebration of African voices in the New Daughters of Africa event and a chance to hear from literary crowd-pleasers such as Patricia Cornwell, Tracy Chevalier and Alexander McCall Smith.

Getting Better All The Time

Personally, I’ve always had a bit of a girl-crush on gravel-voiced Mariella Frostrup but I would also love to hear from the creator of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson. I could go on, but you get the point: there’s loads to choose from, which is probably why the festival has gone from 1,000 visitors in its first year to over 15,000, with any money that is raised being ploughed back into the festival and its education work with local schools. With that in mind, you can enjoy yourself and feel morally good about it too.

So check out the full listings at https://www.wimbledonbookfest.org/Events/EventsCalendar2019.aspx

And get yourself up on the Common!

See you there.

We’ve got some work to do!

Posted by TA Blezard in Books, Literature, Opinion, Reviews, 0 comments

Your August-Themed Reading List!

It’s a Word-Nerd Kind of Summer

Back in February I wrote my Ode to February…a bleak month in many senses coming as it does in the middle of winter–a month which needs as many odes as it can get to cheer itself up as it shrugs off the financial drains of Christmas along with the regrets of January’s broken resolutions. Poor February, sluggishly crawling along in its winter coat, never quite believing that there will ever be another spring. But that was six months ago. Spring arrived just as it always does. And now we come to August, an altogether different affair as for years this month has signalled the complete freedom of our summer holidays. An entire month not nibbled away at either end by homework and assignments. Yay! No more school. No more college. Its days are long and sunshine-filled. It is robust and healthy and needs no odes to feel good about itself.

The Word-Nerd’s Perfect August Accompaniment!

So how do you fill these long sunny days without the structure of school or college? Well, if you’re a word nerd like me, you take the time to do projects and read books, of course! Oh happy days, August, thank you! But what to read, I hear you cry. Well, how about these five offerings, brought to you (in no particular order) courtesy of the month itself, for they all have August-named characters waiting to entertain you.

Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene

(1969)

 This hilarious novel charts the travels of Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager who up until now has lived a suffocatingly safe life, and his elderly but eccentric Aunt Augusta whose life, in direct contrast, has been wildly adventurous. Henry’s safe cocoon is blown wide open when he reconnects with this woman, the catastrophic chaos starting when the urn containing his mother’s ashes is used as a dope container for Aunt Augusta’s lodger and lover. Well, the book was written in the late sixties after all.

Augusta persuades Henry to leave behind his dahlias and the rest of his safe suburban world in order to accompany her on her adventures, giving the pair of them a chance to reconnect after fifty years apart. Travelling to Paris and Istanbul and South America, Henry learns about this free-spirited relation of his. Augusta is the original wild-child, having affairs and children out of wedlock, mixing with hippies and war criminals, showing a complete disregard for authority and laws and many of the social norms of the time. Given that she is in her 70s, she’s not exactly your typical elderly aunt from the 1960s. In fact, as Henry is about to find out, she’s not really an aunt at all…

But don’t take this amoral auntie too seriously. The book is great fun and a good summer read!

Wonder by R J Palacio

(2012)

In this children’s novel you will meet August “Auggie” Pullman, a young  boy with severe facial differences which have been bad enough up until now to keep him out of mainstream school.

Wanting him to experience as normal a life as possible (hard when you have had 27 operations on your face to date), his parents have now enrolled their son in Beecher Middle school at the start of the new academic year. All Auggie wants from this is to be treated like everyone else, but that might be a tall order for a ten-year-old kid who looks nothing like his classmates. And as you would expect, the children react in different ways to the boy with the facial deformity. While he makes some good friends, most closely with Jack and Summer, another boy, Julian (who the headmaster has assigned to help Auggie fit in) sets about bullying him.

What is most wonderful about this book is its complexity. It is not just a question of Jack and Summer = good and Julian = bad. We all have times when we act less than heroically, when we side with the wrong people through our own desperate need to fit in. And so do these characters: Jack allows himself to join in with the bullying at one point and Auggie’s older sister, Olivia, also struggles at times to be her own person whilst also being the sister of the boy with the facial disfigurement. Then Julian’s friends unexpectedly come to the rescue one night in the woods when Auggie is being beaten up by older boys. There is good and bad in everyone, clearly.

This novel is heartfelt and thought provoking and will most certainly make you cry. But that’s all right. It’s just the mark of a really excellent book!

The Fault in our Stars by John Green

(2012)

 Now, talking of crying…what better subject to shed tears over than kids with cancer? But what a book! This young adult novel is a love story between sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster and seventeen-year-old Augstus ‘Gus’ Waters who meet at a cancer-support meeting that Hazel’s parents have forced her to attend.

After a rocky introduction, the two hit it off and agree to lend each other a copy of their favourite books. Hazel gives Gus a book called “An Imperial Affliction” by her favourite author, the reclusive Peter Van Houten. “An Imperial Affliction” is a book about a girl called Anna who is also afflicted by cancer and whose life appears to parallel Hazel’s own. Gus is intrigued by the novel and its frustrating lack of conclusion, but more intrigued by Hazel for whom the book is so important, and with whom he is clearly falling in love. And what better way to show your love for someone than to use your dying wish for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Amsterdam to track down the author himself?

You may have seen the film, but I urge you to read the novel. It is wonderful and heart-wrenching and contains one of my all-time favourite lines:

“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly then all at once.”

An absolute must-read for this month!

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

(1953)

If you liked Huckleberry Finn, or you love the characters of Dickens, then you will surely be drawn to Saul Bellow’s Augie March. Opening in Chicago during the Depression, we meet the March family: Augie and his older brother Simon and their other brother George, who we would describe today as having “learning difficulties” (not a phrase you’ll find in this book). They live in a household with their down-trodden mother and overbearing grandmother, Grandma Lausch, originally from Russia and described as being “as wrinkled as an old paper bag”.

Through Augie’s eyes, the novel describes his scrapes, trials and tribulations as he grows from boy to man, delightfully detailing a series of odd jobs and the host of colourful characters who populate his life. Revel in this very different world…at a time when Sundays saw “balloon pedlars” on the street and one of Augie’s jobs was to go with Mr Einhorn senior to the beach for his daily swim and feed him lighted cigarettes while he floated near the pier in his stripy swimming costume!

I reckon the book is worth reading for that image alone.

And finally, for a bit of light relief, return to one of your childhood favourites with:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

(1964)

 Again you may have seen the film–either with Gene Wilder (1971) or Johnny Depp (2005) as the great Willy Wonka, owner of the Chocolate factory–but as with so many great films, first there was the book!

You know the story: eleven-year-old Charlie Bucket lives a poverty-stricken life with his parents and grandparents but is a jolly nice kid who happens to have the kind of good luck that falls upon such jolly nice kids. In his case luck means finding a ten-shilling note in the snow, which he uses to buy a Wonka Bar, and which then just so happens to have the fifth and final golden ticket inside the wrapper inviting its recipient onto a tour of Willy Wonka’s famous factory. As you already know, the first four tickets have gone to less jolly nice kids, namely the TV obsessed Mike Teavee, gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde, spoiled and abrasive Verucca Salt and gluttonous Augustus Gloop (whom we have to thank for getting this book, however tenuously, included on our August-themed reading list).

In the way of such books from this era, you just know nothing good can come to someone like Augustus Gloop and sure enough, greed leads him to fall into the Chocolate River after which he gets eliminated from the tour by being sucked up into a pipe which squeezes him thin before spitting him out again. Similar nasty ends then befall all our similarly nasty children leaving Charlie and his grandfather to finish the tour safely and learn of the true reason for Willy Wonka’s competition: that he was looking for a successor for his chocolate empire. Charlie and his family now get to live with him in the factory (every kid’s dream, right?) and Charlie goes on to have more adventures in glass elevators.

Perfect!

So that’s August all sewn up for you. What more could you want? Happy reading!

Posted by TA Blezard in Adult Literary Fiction, Books, Literature, Opinion, Reviews, YA, 0 comments