Sunday, June 23, 2013

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Few works of literature are as universally beloved as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  In this historical novel we meet the young girl who was the muse for our unforgettable trip down the rabbit hole, Alice Liddell.  It blends fact and fiction to tell us Alice's story, from the time she was a young girl and captivated the heart of Carroll, on through into her adult life and later years.
The friendship between Alice and the man she knew as the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Carroll's real name) has been the subject of speculation by many of his biographers (for after all, when they first met Alice was around 5 and Dodgson was 26; and some of those pictures can seem a bit unsettling by today's eyes).   
Liddell dressed up as a beggar maid, 1858 (photo by Dodgson)

Dodgson went on many outings with Alice and her two sisters.  He was a mathematics teacher at Oxford and the Liddell sisters were the daughters of the Dean there. Like many Victorian bachelors, he became a sort of uncle to his friends’ children, making up stories and games and taking them on short trips. 

Alice and her sisters, 1859 (photo by Dodgson)

Alice was 10 when Dodgson told her his story of a little girl who fell down a rabbit hole, and she begged him to write this one down.

Of the approximately 3,000 photo­graphs Dodgson made in his life, just over half are of children—30 of whom are depicted nude or semi-nude. Some of his portraits—even those in which the model is clothed—might shock 2010 sensibilities, but by Victorian standards they were...well, rather conventional. Photographs of nude children sometimes appeared on postcards or birthday cards, and nude portraits—skillfully done—were praised as art studies.

I do stress that this is a work of fiction (not biography), but I found the book strangely compelling and it is one interpretation of how things might have occurred. 

Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon

I have always been a fan of literary forays and Arthurian legend, so I looked forward to reading this book.  And while I enjoyed the book, I think some that aren't quite as enamored of the backstory as I am might enjoy it a little less.  Essentially, this is the plot:  A recently divorced archaeologist, Donald Gladstone, is trying to discern the true origins of the Arthurian story.  The few fragments of chronicle and verse that mention him by name are enticing, but they do not prove his existence.  He soon meets a linguist, Julia Llewellyn, who works on the Oxford English Dictionary staff.  She agrees to help him in his search.  This quest becomes an intellectual and emotional journey in which we examine love in all its many guises (that between parents and children, professors and their students, and even love of language, history, and place as well as that of a good story well told).

I loved the layers of the historical landscape that were examined, as well as the secret places and half forgotten mythology of the British countryside. I found this a lovely read--intelligent, and mysterious. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Interview with a Pirate: Captain Paul Watson

This is the biography of someone I have admired for a long time.  Paul Watson is the co-founder of Greenpeace, which he left to establish the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.  He is a world famous eco-pirate and marine animal rights activist.  Time magazine named him one of the top twenty environmental heroes of the 20th century.  As Captain of the Sea Shepherd, he has acted as a human shield between whaling vessels and their prey and uses aggressive direct-action tactics against those who would slaughter and exploit marine resources.  He says that what people do not realize is that if we lose the animals, we will all die; the destruction of biodiversity will signal the death of humanity.  He believes that the ultimate act of goodwill toward people is to preserve the biosphere that keeps us alive.  Paul's organization prefers taking action to protesting:  they do not want to protest the whale hunt, they want to end it.  They do not serve the ecology movement, they serve the global marine ecosystem.  The fact is that we are going to lose more species of plants and animals between 2000 and 2065 than the planet has lost over the past 65 million years.  So, Paul Watson continues to work tirelessly to protect the oceans.  And, he is a happy man, because he follows the advice of Davy Crockett to "be sure you're right, then go ahead."  He has lived his life following his heart.  He has said:  "experience has taught me that the secret to happiness is detachment from material desires, a focus on the desires of the heart and a curious mind, regardless of what people might think.  Happiness is not about what you own, it's about what's in your heart, the things you try and what you do to make the world a better place, regardless of how you choose to get involved."  Petitions and banners will not be enough to save the oceans--but, committed activists like Paul Watson just might be able to accomplish it.  I, for one, am glad he's on the job.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag

As a fan of North Carolina writer Sarah Addison Allen, I enjoyed this magical book about an enchanted house and the women drawn to it due to their desperate need for change. The House has conditions. Its residents have 99 nights to turn their life around. The book's magic-realism is the perfect setting for the literary ghosts that live in this house, a house that gives you the things you need most to figure out the rest of your life. Charming and whimsical, this novel is just the sort of escapism most like to engage in during their summer reading.  It is fresh, whimsical, and full of heart. 

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

As most of his fans already know, Joseph Hillstrom King is the son of writers Stephen and Tabitha King. This book is dedicated to his mom, "a creative thinker of the first order" who taught him to love words, search for their secret meanings, and stay attuned to their private histories. You can tell he listened to his mother, because it's the language in this book that really resonates, as well as its first-class horror story. The fact that Hill uses Christmas as a backdrop for this story (the holiday that's every kid's favorite) is pure genius. Charles Talent Manx kidnaps children and takes them to a place he calls Christmasland. Victoria McQueen's uncanny knack for finding things is her own special kind of "magic." The life-and-death battle of wills between these two is disturbing, full of twists, and a real page turner.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I read this book because John Green recommended it with this quote:  "Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it's like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it's like to be young and in love with a book." Well, that was just too enticing to pass up.  And since I'm a huge John Green fan, his recommendation was enough for me.  And I wasn't disappointed.  It was a funny and quite touching read about two misfit kids involved in that first love relationship and their story will break your heart and leave an unforgettable  imprint on it as well.  The dialogue between the prickly Eleanor and the quiet Park is searingly honest and will have your emotions going up and down like a roller coaster.  This book is just so darn cute and pure and quirky that I'm not sure I could really do it justice in the short format I've set for these reviews.  Suffice it to say, just do yourself a favor and read it.  You'll feel all warm and fuzzy afterwards.

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