Tea or Books? #33: a Thomas twins crossover special!

C.S. Lewis, Meryl Streep, and Alfred Hitchcock! What do they have in common? They all appear in this special crossover episode – where Tea or Books? meets my brother’s podcast The C of Z of Movies.

Tea or Books logoThat’s right – Rachel agreed to sit this episode out, as did Col’s podcast partner Zijian, and we combined our two podcasts. In the first half, Colin talks about his reading tastes – and we look at The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. Briefly. In the second half we pick our favourite and least favourite Meryl Streep films, and quiz each other on some Alfred Hitchcock films.

So, yes, this is all pretty shambolic. We had fun… hopefully you did too? Maybe? And Rachel and I will be back next time as normal – as Col will be on his podcast. His plot to steal all our listeners might just work. (Btw, if you want to join in our reading for next time, Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield is very cheaply available on Kindle. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse is not.)

You can find the iTunes page for Tea or Books? over here – many thanks for the reviews that I found! I didn’t realise you could only see reviews for your country unless you went hunting.

Here are the books – and films! – we talk about in this episode. In an effort to avoid some confusion, I’ve put the films in non-italics.

How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg
The Grasshopper King (I guess??) by Jordan Ellenberg
But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman
The Death of Noble Godavary by Vita Sackville-West
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
Tune In: The Beatles by Mark Lewisohn
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Agatha Christie
The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis
The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis
The LionThe Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
Elena Ferrante
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Hours
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
The Secret Garden
It’s a Boy/Girl Thing
She’s The Man
Life in a Day
La-La Land
Bridget Jones’s Baby
The Devil Wears Prada
The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Sophie’s Choice
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
The Iron Lady
Death Becomes Her
Mamma Mia!
Lions For Lambs
Evening by Susan Minot (not Anne anything)
The Deer-Hunter
Kramer vs Kramer
Florence Foster Jenkins
Postcards From the Edge
Into The Woods
Rear Window
The Birds
Strangers on a Train
Shadow of a Doubt
Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
Hacksaw Ridge
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith
Throw Momma From The Train
Lawrence of Arabia
The Grapes of Wrath
Going My Way
The Lost Weekend
On the Waterfront
The Apartment
Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield
A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse

Talking of Grief

I hope I don’t sound odd when I say that I am rather fascinated by the idea of grief.  Not in a sadistic way, of course, but simply because it is a fundamental aspect of human life which I have yet to experience.  Recently I have read two very different non-fiction books on the topic, and it seemed to make sense (briefly) to consider them together – Calvin Trillin’s About Alice (2006) and C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961).  Both are by husbands who are coming to terms with the premature loss of their wife to cancer, but from that point, they are incredibly different.

As the title suggests, Trillin’s book is about Alice, his wife.  It is essentially a memoir of their marriage, concentrating on those qualities he most loved in Alice – and how bravely and determinedly she was when she first had cancer, which went into remission, and then returned.  What made About Alice moving to me was, actually, the fact that I didn’t warm to Alice at all.  The characteristics Trillin adored – such as bluntness,  or a willingness to use her beauty to avoid speeding tickets – weren’t ones which I admire, which made Trillin’s portrait all the stronger and affecting.  Reminiscences – in fact or fiction – which detail how uniformly perfect the deceased was, and how terribly they are mourned by everyone, never quite ring true.  We all know that our very favourite people are not everyone’s favourite people, and a personal grief is much more powerful for being personal.

I’m struggling to know what to write about About Alice.  It’s a beautiful portrait of a relationship, as well as a woman.  It is not really a book about grief – that isn’t the sort of book Trillin chose to write.   I found it moving, but as the reflection of a life that has sadly ended, rather than reflections upon Trillin’s own ongoing life.

Lewis’s A Grief Observed is the flip-side of the coin.  There is little about Joy’s character and life, because Lewis’s focus is the process(es) of grief – particularly, grief as a Christian.  A Grief Observed isn’t a work of theology, though, because that would suggest settled conclusions, with arguments and illustrations to support and work towards them.  Lewis writes that sort of book very well (c.f. Mere Christianity), but in A Grief Observed he is openly flailing.  It really is the documentation of an ongoing process.  Lewis hasn’t edited the book to make it feel consistent or conclusive – indeed, he often backtracks or offers alternative interpretations of what he has already written.

I wrote that last night.  It was a yell rather than a thought.  Let me try it over again.
Somehow, Lewis manages to write down the varying states of his mind and spirit without sounding self-absorbed or introspective.  Grief genuinely seems to confound and puzzle him, as he tries to ascertain how he really feels, and how he will manage the future.  Part of this is concerned with his faith, and re-assessing his understanding of God.  In soaps or light fiction, grief would have ended his faith – Lewis’s relationship with God was too strong and real for that, but the pain of losing his wife does make him reconsider God’s character, and how he has previously misunderstood it.  Again, Lewis doesn’t have any predetermined conclusions here, and he doesn’t really come to any by the end of the book, but he is remarkably eloquent about his journey here.  (Sorry, I meant to avoid the word ‘journey’, but… well, it felt like one.)

A Grief Observed is starkly, vividly, astonishingly honest.   It is also eloquent and thoughtful, without losing spontaneity or genuine emotion.  Through the nature of Lewis’s approach, it is of wider applicability that Trillin’s book.  Although nobody else will have the exact experience Lewis did, plenty of people will probably agree with the general points he discovers along the way.

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow.  Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.  It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop.  There is something new to be chronicled every day.  Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.
I read A Grief Observed with the interest of the outsider, keen to understand a facet of emotion I cannot grasp.  One day, presumably, I will need to turn to it as a fellow-griever.  I found Lewis’s book so powerful and wise even without having experienced grief – and now, thankfully, I will know exactly where to turn when I first experience it.  And I imagine it will feel like a completely different book then.