By John Wilson
I've lost track of how many Narnia–related books have arrived in the office in recent weeks. (I stopped counting at a dozen.) Easily the standout so far is The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (HarperSanFrancisco), by Wheaton College's Alan Jacobs. You may have seen some of Jacobs' essays and reviews in B&C, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere (last week he had a superb piece on James Agee in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe) or heard him on the Mars Hill audio series. If so, you won't have to be persuaded to check out his new book, his finest to date, which takes the Narnia series as a point of departure for a penetrating study of Lewis' imagination.
Elsewhere on the same front, The Matthew's House Project (www.matthewshouseproject.com) is sponsoring a series of lectures on Narnia. Check out the schedule at www.narniaontour.com
With The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf), a harrowing memoir, Joan Didion has published her strongest book in years. Didion's husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack in December 2003, even as their daughter Quintana lay in the hospital in a coma. "Life changes in the instant," Didion wrote at the time. "You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends." Her marriage of forty years had been extraordinarily close. She recounts her faltering attempts to come to terms with John's death and with their daughter's mysterious condition. (Quintana, who seemed for a time to be recovering, died a few weeks ago, after galleys of the book had already been sent out. Didion chose not to add a postscript.)
Routinely we hear it said that "didactic" writing is by definition inferior writing. Nonsense. Didion's book is powerfully didactic, its message summed up in one piercing phrase: "No eye was on the sparrow." But to enter the world of this slim book and then leave it, a certain number of hours later, with a sense of having been purged—as if by Sophocles—it is not necessary to share, at the end of the day, Didion's credo.
"No major American writer wrote more frequently about dragons. Or seers. Or oracles." That's Tom Bissell's opening gambit in a superb introduction to John Gardner's novel October Light, reissued this month (fittingly enough) by New Directions. Gardner's own light burned brightly indeed, but in the twenty–odd years since his death in a motorcycle accident, his books have gradually faded from view, many of them—with the exception of his guides to the art of writing—out of print. A so–so biography published in 2004 had the merit of drawing attention to this neglect, and now New Directions—bless them! —promise reissues of Nickel Mountain and The Sunlight Dialogues as well. Although it was one of his most widely praised and most popular when first published in 1976, October Light is not among my favorite Gardner novels, but it is certainly worth reading. He wrestled with some of the same questions that Didion takes up, but he ended with somewhat different answers.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture and of Best Christian Writing 2006, just published by Jossey–Bass.
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