Checking Audible for something completely unrelated, I was pleased to see that Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia is now on audiobook. I thought I would provide a brief set of reviews on some good, new Audible C.S. Lewis finds. While sometimes audiobooks give us a new book discovery (like these “6 Surprising Audiobook Celebrity Narrators“), they are often for me a way of rediscovering a book or reading it with different eyes–or ears, as the case may be.
I have argued that Dr. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia is the most important resource for reading Narnia that has emerged in the new century. While one might argue with parts of Ward’s thesis–as I have done—Planet Narnia is a great book for providing close readings of Lewis’ greatest works in a literary way that invites us into a deeper understanding of the books behind the Narnian chronicles. I hope the publishers record The Narnia Code, the popular version of the Planet Narnia resource, but I am thrilled that they began with the magnum opus, Planet Narnia. Meanwhile, Audible also has Ward’s “Now You Know” audio course, “Christology, Cosmology, and C.S. Lewis,” a shorter but helpful resource for newcomers to the conversation. The audiobook reader, Nigel Patterson, is professional and even in tone.
I was thrilled when I heard that New Yorker James Como was writing the volume for C.S. Lewis when someone showed me the text in a galley proof form. Honestly, I was surprised this little volume was as good as it is. Not because of James Como, who has invested 50 years into reading C.S. Lewis well. But I have read about 20 of these Very Short introductions, and have looked at another dozen or so. Though they typically balance brevity and thoroughness, this one is peculiar for the strong voice of the text. Como writes in a lively style within a very understated series. Effectively, you have a 4-hour summary of Lewis’ life organized as a study of his texts. It works pretty well, and there are even a few surprises and refreshing moments, particularly in his treatment of Till We Have Faces and Letters to Malcolm. Roger Clark’s voice is engaging and professional, but needs to be sped up a little.
Patti Callahan turns from her career as a popular novelist to the study of Joy Davidman, American poet, literary convert, and ultimately “Mrs. Lewis,” late-of-life companion to C.S. Lewis. Callahan balances the historical work of people like Abigail Santamaria and uses some recently discovered love poems to C.S. Lewis to structure a novel about Joy’s life. It is a fictional retelling, so we should be aware of some of the conceits used to make the story flow. Callahan is a winsome personality and an enjoyable writer to read. Lauren Woodward’s voice is quite lovely, though she is new to audiobook narration. The accents are not well localized, and I wonder if Woodward’s softness contributes to my concern that Callahan doesn’t quite capture the edge, risk, and raucousness of Joy Davidman. I found I also needed to speed this reading up to enjoy it fully. This complaint, that we don’t quite see Joy in the novel, is not one that everyone shares, but it made the book ultimately unsatisfying to me–like an itch I can’t quite reach or a recipe I can never get quite right.
I have been anxiously waiting for this book for some time. Dr. Stephanie Derrick, while she was a Ph.D. student, was one of the people who revealed C.S. Lewis’ lost “Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” and I have her dissertation on the reception of Lewis. While I am disappointed that The Fame of C.S. Lewis is not a little longer–hardly a terrible critique for most writers–this conversion of a thesis to a popular-level book is a lot of fun. Based on research that many of us have no chance to undertake, Derrick keeps pressing on the question about why Lewis was so well received in the US, how he was viewed in the UK, and how his image grew globally in the 55 years since his death. I am rereading Fame this week as I write a review for Sehnsucht. Narrator Elizabeth Sastre has a gorgeous voice, and her experience reading fiction gives the audiobook a nice depth.
While there are some books on Lewis and spirituality–and quite a number of devotional style materials–intelligent, integrated conversation about C.S. Lewis and the spiritual life is still limited. Narrator Sean Runnette’s fatherly, backyard American-style BBQ afternoon voice is rich and enjoyable. It does add, however, to an anxiety I have about Rigney’s connection to Bethlehem College & Seminary, which does not accept women in their seminary programme. While the book is limited by the questions that Rigney brings, nowhere in Lewis on the Christian Life do I see Rigney bending Lewis to his perspective. Unless you know that Rigney is offering a double critique–on the one hand, inviting fundamentalist and conservative Christian readers to be shaped by Lewis, and critiquing Lewis on perceived weaknesses on the other hand–the chapter on “Theology” is a bit strange as it sits in the text. But it is a book that grows throughout the reading, so that the later chapters on “Pride and Humility,” “Christian Hedonics,” and “Healthy Introspection” are among the best. It is a very American book (Lewis was not American, but many creative readers are), and it is very evangelical (Lewis was not evangelical, but many faithful readers are), but it brings a strong reading to a great many topics that a diverse set of readers have questions about.
As I mentioned in my discussion with William O’Flaherty and Diana Glyer about the new Tolkien biopic, I think Glyer’s The Company They Keep is one of the most important books on Lewis and the Inklings in this century. It is a book that took decades to complete, offering a rereading of the Inklings by considering the ways that they worked together, wrote together, read with one another, edited one another’s work, offered criticism, and encouraged one another toward writing the books that ended up changing the face of literary history. Glyer is a careful researcher and a lyrical writer, so even in the depth of archival, historical, and literary analysis, we are still in the midst of a story. I was pleased with Bandersnatch, the popular version of The Company They Keep–also an audiobook, read by Michael Ward (see above). But I was thrilled when I heard that there was an audiobook available. Bev Kassis’ reading is a little flat, but is largely accurate and works better than most for the complex of materials in the book.
This book is perhaps as closely related to my work as Joe Rigney’s and came out the week after I submitted my thesis on the same topic. I am very curious to begin reading Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality next week. Like many of the writers on Lewis featured here, Selby is a teacher who has found Lewis to be an engaging classroom conversation. While Selby is doing what Rigney has done, Rigney has avoided the word “spirituality” and Selby includes it in the title. The difference could be telling, as is the focus: “By considering themes such as our human embodiment, our sense of awareness in our everyday experiences, and the role of our human agency–all while engaging with the writings of Lewis, who himself enjoyed food, drink, laughter, and good conversation–Selby demonstrates that an earthy spirituality can be a robust spirituality.” The audiobook reader, James Anderson Foster, is professional and even in tone.
Don’t forget to check out my review of Alan Jacobs‘ The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, which is now available on audiobook. Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J.R.R. Tolkien and his story of The Inklings are both available on Audible with stronger narrators.