Monday, August 30, 2010

Go Ask Alice

Every summer, my family, like thousands of other Michigan families, would go "Up North" for a vacation. "Up North" is Michigan talk for "anywhere North of Flint", but when each family says that they are going "Up North", they are referring to a different specific city, and you would know which one they meant if you really knew that family. When my family went "Up North", we went to Charlevoix, which is at about the tip of your ring finger, if you are using your left hand to model Michigan.

I clearly remember going to the little grocery store at the end of the street that took you to our cottage in Charlevoix when I was about 8 or 9 years old, and choosing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll from the metal rack that also housed Archie comic books. At the time, it seemed like Alice's Adventures was a solid choice. It was literature, after all, and it was written for children. As such, I should read it. And I tried. But the book that I picked was in the form of a paperback novel, with black and white line drawn illustrations, and it was boring to read on the beach when I could be splashing in the waves or building in the sand. I decided that I was probably still a little young for the book, so I took it home, where it sat on my bookshelf unread, until one day I realized that really, I was too old to read it. It probably wound up in a garage sale when my mom cleaned out my room when I was in college.

Decades later, my book group decided to read Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin, and it became important to me to read Alice's Adventures for once and for all. But now a new dilemma. There are so many versions of it! I started off with the strange idea that the circa 1975 paperback that I had discarded would be available at my local library. Not quite. The library had many versions, all with the same author, but with very different illustrators, and not a single black line drawn illustration among them. After stalking the shelves for a few weeks, I decided on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as illustrated by Michael Foreman. This was the ideal choice for me.

Both Michael Foreman and Melanie Benjamin used the picture of Alice Liddell at the top of this post as the centerpiece of their work. Alice Liddell is the real life person upon whom Charles Dodgson (the real life Lewis Carroll) based the Alice character. The picture at the top of this post was taken of Alice Liddell by Charles Dodgson about three years before the story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was first told. The author, Benjamin, and the illustrator, Foreman, take the subject of this picture in completely different directions, and both are contrary to the image of Alice that has thrived over the past 150 years.

Michael Foreman, as you might have guessed, uses this dark, shortish haired girl as a model for his illustrations, as opposed to the long blond haired girl who is in many versions of Alice's Adventures. It does not seem to cross Foreman's mind that the photograph upon which he bases his Alice could have been entirely inappropriate for the Victorian era in which it was taken, and he may be right. Perhaps Alice's parents, Dean and Mrs. Liddell, commissioned this photo of Alice in her Halloween costume or dressed for a play. Or perhaps Benjamin is right when she implies that this photo may be an early example of high society child pornography.

Alice I Have Been starts with the proposition that Alice and Dodgson had an inappropriate relationship. From there, we watch as that one photo, and possibly a kiss, shape the future of both characters in ways that are dark and haunting. Alice is punished throughout her life for Dodgson's questionable advances, and loses some chances at love while finding others. I kept wondering how Alice could be held responsible for the way a grown man treated her when she was 7, but Benjamin writes the story in a way that makes that accountability seem unavoidable, if not reasonable. Alice herself wonders, as I am sure victims of exploitation do, if she was really the person responsible for all that came after. After what? is the question of the book.

Alice I Have Been is historical fiction, but Benjamin does the reader a great favor by revealing at the end of the story what was true, and what was created. Not much fiction was required to make this an engaging story. The Victorian notions of blame and consequence have carried forward to the twenty first century more than I might have thought. Would you want your son (or daughter) to marry a person who was featured in child pornography when they were younger? Although we feel for the victim, we also want to disassociate ourselves from her. Perhaps we even want to escape to a nicer place, where all one has to do to change is to eat from different sides of the same mushroom.

Particularly poignant for me, although this part may have been entirely Benjamin's creation, was Alice's regret at not reading the story of her adventures earlier. To that, I can relate!

Next Up: Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Book Group Report

Last night, my book group met to discuss The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. My group is a little eclectic. It started off as a group of moms who all worked outside of the home, and had first graders at the same school. We have transitioned into a group of people who all have kids, all live in the same school district, and all like to read. We have about 12 regular members, but only 6 or 7 people come to each meeting.

This month, we had 7 people come to the meeting, of which 6 had read the book. That's pretty good for us, as the reading is not necessarily required. As I discussed in a July post, we voted in May to read Edgar Sawtelle as our BFB (Big Fat Book) for the summer. Throughout the summer I heard a lot of moaning about the book, including one book club member who refused to read it (and did not come to the meeting) because there's a bad guy in the story. Laura, my friend who warned me about Edgar, is also in the club, but I pretty much knew she would not be there for this discussion.

Of the people who were there and did read Edgar, we all pretty much agreed that it was a great book. We didn't have much sympathy for Edgar's mom, and everyone loved Henry. I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more disagreement among us, because it's hardly worth the post to say we all loved a best selling book.

For next month, we will be reading Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin. This is a book of historical fiction (!) written about Alice Liddle, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's famous story. And now you know why I needed to read Alice in Wonderland at this point in my life!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I Heart Historical Fiction

Guilty pleasures . . . I have a few. . .Ketchup on steak (I know!) . . .the TV show, Glee . . .and most importantly, historical fiction. I especially love historical fiction that involves Henry VIII or Josephine Bonaparte. Oh that they lived in the same era! In a world populated only with people holding English degrees, historical fiction would be known simply as "smut", containing no more literary value than a Harlequin Romance. I sometimes find myself arguing about some historical fact when the little light bulb comes on in my head reminding me that most of my historical knowledge comes from works of fiction, and I am forced to back down.

Imagine my surprise (and my glee, so to speak) when Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize in 2009. The Man Booker Prize is given for the best original full length novel written in English by someone who lives in The Commonwealth of Nations, Ireland, or Zimbabwe, and past winners include Disgrace by Coetzee, The Blind Assassin by Atwood, and Life of Pi by Martel. Wolf Hall also won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Finally, a book of historical fiction that I could proudly read as "literature".

Wolf Hall is told by Thomas Cromwell, who held various posts during Henry VIII's time. If you do not know who Thomas Cromwell is before starting Wolf Hall, then this is not the book for you. In fact, if you don't know what the "Field of the Cloth of Gold" is you might want to read something lighter first. In my opinion, this book was written for people like me, who devour historical fiction, for people who majored in history in college, or possibly for upwardly motivated businesspeople looking for tips from history. If you're not there yet, start with The Other Boleyn Girl, The Constant Princess or The Boleyn Inheritance, all by Philippa Gregory, or if you are up for a BFB, The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George is worth the read. The Gregory books all focus on periods of time in which Cromwell was involved, while the George book covers Henry's life from beginning to end, in which Cromwell figures prominently.

Somewhere around page 420 of Wolf Hall, with about 100 pages left in the book, two questions popped into my mind: 1) why do all of the other books that I read that include Cromwell make him out to be such a bad guy; and 2) how is Mantel going to wrap this up in 100 pages, when all of the juicy parts are yet to come?

I was quickly reminded of the answer to my first question, when Cromwell suggested to Henry that a law should be enacted requiring every English person to swear to uphold a line of succession to the throne that included Anne Boleyn's daughter, Elizabeth, and excluded Katherine of Aragon's daughter, Mary. To believe that Mary had a legitimate claim to the throne was to be a traitor, for which the penalty was hanging and disembowelment. Granted, it was not Cromwell who enacted the law, but he deserves blame for suggesting it, and to a large extent, for implementing it, resulting in the deaths of many Englishmen. Cromwell is remembered as the villain, and Henry is remembered not for having so many of his subjects put to death, but for having so many of his wives executed.

I learned the answer to my second question when I did a wikipedia search of Thomas Cromwell, and learned that Hilary Mantel is writing a sequel to Wolf Hall. Yes, this whole 532 page novel details Cromwell's ascent to greatness, but does not go on long enough to get us to the good parts. In fact, the title, Wolf Hall, in itself, references a more scandalous period in Cromwell's life, which Mantel leaves yet to come, with the title of the first novel serving only as a teaser of what will happen in the second.

If Mantel's sequel were available at my local bookstore, I would not run out today to get it. Wolf Hall is amazing in that given that it is a book written for those who already know the story, Mantel was able to leave out the best known parts of Cromwell's history, and still write an interesting and award worthy novel about one of England's more infamous bad guys. By the time the sequel is out, I am sure that I will be ready for more of Cromwell and Mantel.

Next up: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Yes, in addition to having guilty pleasures, I also have guilt about the book not yet read.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Devil Wears Brooks Brothers

I just finished reading The Story of My Life by Jay McInerney. So why, you may ask, did I just read a book of questionable literary value which was first published in 1988? Two words: John Edwards. As you know, John Edwards, while running for president, was having an affair with a woman who became pregnant, named Rielle Hunter. I mean Lisa Jo Druck. I mean Rielle Jaya James Druck. I mean Alison Poole. The baby was born, The National Enquirer figured it all out, and Edwards denied everything. Then he admitted everything. The question for me was how the mother of this child ever got close to Edwards in the first place.

Rielle Hunter was well known in certain circles before she became pregnant with John Edwards' child. Here is her Wikipedia entry now, although I don't know what it said before she had this baby. Thank God for Obama, because if The National Enquirer had broken the love child story with John Edwards as the Democratic Presidential nominee, it would have been like handing McCain/Pailn the election on a silver platter.

What does this have to do with reading books from 1988? Seriously, read the Wikipedia entry. Or better yet, read this. It seems that Rielle Hunter, or Lisa Jo Druck as she was then known, was the inspiration for a character named Alison Poole, who appears both as the main character and voice of Jay McInerney's The Story of My Life and as a less significant character in Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho. Both authors have included her in their later works as well.

I read American Psycho several years ago, and was so disturbed by it that I wanted to throw it away so that some innocent reader didn't stumble upon it at my garage sale or among books donated to my local library. Instead, my friend, Suzy, insisted that she was going to read it anyway, and that I might as well lend her my copy so that BEE didn't make any more money on it. I agreed, on the condition that she throw it in the trash as soon as she finished. I never followed up on that one. Still, the idea of two authors sharing a character was enough to make me want to read another book that included Alison Poole.

Is Rielle Hunter really Alison Poole? Or did Rielle Hunter feel pressured to act more like Alison Poole after reading about her supposed self? In many places, Jay McInerney seems to see the future. One of the passages that resonated with me was this: "When I was thirteen I started wearing my father's Brooks Brothers and now my standard outfit is one of those big old fat businessmen's shirts - sixteen and a half thirty-four, untucked of course - leggings, white socks, and loafers or sneakers." Don't Edwards' people read? The GQ people sure do. This is a photo that they published when they did a story on Rielle/Lisa/Alison.

Obviously the implication is that she is wearing John Edwards' shirt. I guess that she forgot the leggings, socks and loafers. And the underwear. I did a quick Google search to see if I could find out Edwards' shirt size. No luck but 16 1/2 34 doesn't seem out of the question. Then there is this passage, where Alison is surprised that the sex was good, even though they ". . . didn't do anything special. No video cameras, costumes, equipment or special effects. Just good old-fashioned sex, like the kind Mom used to make." Seriously. And I was shocked that someone would make a sex tape while enormously pregnant and leave it in someone else's house? That is definitely something that Alison would have done.

While The Story of My Life is nothing like American Psycho in terms of violence, it still won't be on my shelves for the long term. It is a book that was written for the 1980s, and just doesn't stand the test of time. I fell asleep several times while reading this book, which is unusual for me, especially with such a short book. The Story of My Life does serve, however, as a proper introduction to Alison Poole, whoever she may be. And now I do find myself replying "that's the story of my life" anytime anyone voices a complaint to me, like Alison would have. At least the only residue from my brief relationship with Alison is an annoying catch phrase.

Next up, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I've already started it, and can't wait to read more!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Peace in Tragedy

Last night, at about 1:30 a.m. (I should say this morning), I finished reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. This was a book that I could not put down, and stole away to find time to read whenever I could. It was that good.

As you know from my last post about this book (click here to see it), I had been warned. I knew to expect tragedy, and tragedy did indeed come. However, based on the warnings that I had received, I imagined a much greater, much more cruel, and much more unjust tragedy than that which occurred. Not to say bad things don't happen in this book - they do. However at the end, I expected to feel angry and full of adrenaline, and instead, I was left with a feeling that everything ended peacefully, and to some extent, fairly.

This was an amazingly well written book. One of my favorite aspects of this book was the obvious foreshadowing. Sometimes, especially in children's books or first novels, the foreshadowing is so obvious that it is annoying and clumsy. In Edgar the foreshadowing is blatant. You stop yourself and say "Remember this. This will be important later." And it is. But instead of feeling clumsy, it feels like you are being told a secret that you need to keep. This is David Wroblewski's first novel, but it doesn't feel like it is.

Some of the questions that I wanted answered were not. I expected to feel disappointed if I didn't find out certain things. Instead, I felt a sense of peace, and realized that I already knew the answers, really, and I didn't need to be told.

This book will undoubtedly become a movie that I will not see. There may be a temptation to write a sequel, as enough is left loose at the end that there is room to move forward. I hope that temptation is resisted, and the readers are left to create their own endings to the stories that remain unfinished.

Next up: The Story of my Life, by Jay McInerney.
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