Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Alice I Have Been (Melanie Benjamin)

Alice I Have Been is a thoroughly researched, extremely impressive, strange dichotomy of a book. This work of historical fiction tells the story of Alice...you know, Alice...not the young girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a mystical wonderland, but the young girl named Alice Liddell, of whom Charles Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll) wrote Alice in Wonderland for.

Alice and her highbrow family lived in Oxford in a time when girls wore corsets and carried parasols and Victoria ruled the land. Mr. Dodgson was a professor at the Deanery where Mr. Liddell was the Dean. Mr. Dodson took Alice and her sisters along on picnics and boat rides, where he told them many fantastical stories. One was the story about Alice, which she begged him to write down. Needless to say, literary history was made.

However, the story does not stop there. Alice lived a long life, and along the way, had many, many sorrows. Everyone she associated with the "Alice" time period of her life died before her...some way too soon. Benjamin's writing is absolutely breathtaking as she develops the true story of Alice, and sometimes, in her own admission in the author's note, fills in the blanks (particularly as she states with the story of Mr. Ruskin).

In the beginning, I called this book a strange dichotomy, and that is simply because I don't know how to feel about it. Mr. Dodgson's infatuation with the very young Alice makes the reader very uncomfortable. I did not much care for the "true" person of Alice Liddell, as she does and says quite a few things in Alice I Have Been which do not make her very likable. However, when she begins to go through her many, many heartbreaks, the reader can see through the Victorian shell. Benjamin's book is beautifully written and should be read by all fans of Wonderland for the inside story.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers (Sharyn McCrumb)

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers is historical fiction based on the 1935 trial of Edith Maxwell in Wise County, Virginia. What I found so interesting about this novel is that the trial is just an afterthought. The real story lies in the journalists who come to cover it, some honestly and some not so honestly.

Erma Morton is a beautiful, young schoolteacher accused of a hideous crime...the murder of her father, Pollock. Is she guilty or innocent? To McCrumb, it hardly matters, as we do not find out until the last few pages. To the journalists covering the case, this is a goldmine trial. A young girl "pretty enough to be in the pictures", living in the "backwards part of the country in them ther hills". Whether true or not, Henry Jernigan, Rose Hanelon, Shade Baker, and especially Luther Swann, will write what their editors want to see in the newspaper. Carl Jennings, on his first major assignment and the only one to report the truth, refuses to resort to writing stereotypes. The only way he can get ahead of the others is if he uses his young cousin, Nora, who has the gift of Sight.

As I love historical fiction, I found this novel fascinating, but not as fascinating as it could have been. As we read the story from the points of view of the major characters, the novel at times can seem hurky-jerky. It is not seamless as a Picoult novel might be. However, McCrumb should be commended for writing about a trial in the Depression-era United States that is not well-known.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Desirable Residence (Madeleine Wickham)

First, a word of warning...A Desirable Residence is NOT a new book. It was originally published in 1996, so I am confused as to why it has been reissued in hardcover. The only information I could find is from "The Daily Beast" website, which calls the novel "a reissued classic on 90s suburbia by Sophie Kinsella (AKA Madeleine Wickham) just in time for the beach." I think it is a little much calling this book "a classic", especially with To Kill a Mockingbird's 50th Anniversary this year, but so be it.

A Desirable Residence is a sordid tale of the Chambers, Weatherstone, and Prentice families and their interconnections with each other. Jonathan and Liz Chambers, along with their daughter, Alice, have just bought a tutorial college and are deeply in debt. Ginny and B-list actor, Piers Prentice, have just rented out the Chambers' home. Marcus and Anthea Weatherstone try desperately to make their marriage work, despite very different views on parenting. One can guess correctly that the connections between these three couples will result in adultery, obsession, and greed.

There is nothing really new here (literally). This is definitely a great novel to read on the beach in the dog-days of July. Just know that if you purchase this book in hardcover, chances are, you already read the exact same thing in 1996.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

When the Smoke Cleared at Gettysburg (George Sheldon)

I happen to have the good fortune of living about 2 hours from Gettysburg; therefore, a yearly fall trip is always on our calendar. While there, we visit the usual memorials and museums. After reading this almost minute-by-minute account of the 3-day battle where so much blood was shed, I have a much better understanding of the horror that happened there.

When the Smoke Cleared at Gettysburg not only focuses on the battle, but also the before and after. The reader is able to create vivid pictures in the mind through diary accounts of Gettysburg residents, surgeons, and nurses. We learn that free African Americans, if captured by the Confederacy, would be marched to the South into a life of slavery. We learn about Tillie Pierce, whose diary accounts are studied thoroughly by historians today. We learn about the new practice of embalming the dead, so that soldiers could be shipped back to their loved ones for proper burial. We learn the minute details of the fascinating 50th and 75th reunions of the blue and the gray.

This book is not for the faint of heart, as the descriptions and especially the photos, are very graphic. However, When the Smoke Cleared at Gettysburg is not a dry textbook rendition of the battle. Sheldon takes a humanistic approach, which no textbook could ever compete with.