Wednesday, December 29, 2010

ALICE I HAVE BEEN by Melanie Benjamin

Alice Liddell is the daughter of a dean at Oxford. Charles Dodgson, known to most of us as Lewis Carroll, is a professor there, who routinely takes Alice and her two sisters, Ina and Edith, out for picnics and boating excursions. Alice is clearly his favorite. She is not the prettiest—just the spunkiest. Mr. Dodgson dreams up a dream for Alice and tells the story during one of their outings. Alice loves being the star of the tale and begs him to write it down. The rest is history. Well, not exactly. I guess we'll never know if Mr. Dodgson was a pedophile or just a lonely man who enjoyed entertaining children. Of course, there are all those photographs that he made of young girls, including Alice, in somewhat provocative poses. On the other hand, Alice comes off as a bit of a Lolita, acting innocently coquettish without grasping the impact on poor Dodgson or the possible consequences. His relationship with the Liddell girls is broken off and Alice's reputation soiled for reasons she doesn't understand or perhaps remember. The book follows Alice into old age, and her life is full of tragedies, both related and unrelated, to the Dodgson business. As a child she had hoped never to grow up and ironically meets Peter Llewelyn-Davies, who was the inspiration for Peter Pan. Alice does live on as a child in the Lewis Carroll novels but hesitates to embrace the story or even read it, because she doesn't want to revisit what really happened with Dodgson. Benjamin uses suspense to keep our interest, as we, too, want to know what caused the sudden breach in their relationship. That and just the novelty of imagining Alice of Wonderland fame as a real person make this book an enjoyable read, but the author's frequent habit of burying sentences within sentences, set off by dashes, was annoying and prompted a lot of rereading. Although a minor theme of the book is that of accepting and embracing one's identity, even when it includes a modicum of celebrity, its more overriding message is that of facing and accepting one's mistakes, forgiving all the guilty parties, and hoping that they have returned the sentiment.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith

Wellington is a fictitious college somewhere near Boston. Howard is a white art history professor who cheated on his black wife, Kiki, with a white poetry professor, Claire. Howard is a staunch proponent of affirmative action and liberal politics in general, and Howard's nemesis, Monty, a black professor, is a stalwart of the religious right who wants to take the "liberal" out of liberal arts. There is a fair amount of contention among Howard's colleagues over Monty's right to espouse his right-wing opinions in a series of lectures and over Claire's right to include poor but talented students in her very exclusive poetry class, even though they are not enrolled at Wellington. These issues, however, are not as compelling as the more intimate ones facing Howard's family. The book opens with the very uncomfortable scene where Howard attempts to break off the engagement of his son Jeremy to Monty's daughter, Victoria, when the whole thing was a rather unfortunate misunderstanding. In fact, the book's most memorable events are all somewhat embarrassing, including Howard's youngest son Levi's attempt to rally his co-workers to refuse to work on Christmas Day. The irony is that Levi's family members are mostly atheists, and his coworkers are actually pumped about the opportunity to be paid double-time for the holiday. Howard and Kiki's daughter Zora's forte is argument, and she manages to blackmail her way into Claire's poetry class. The ten or so main characters become tangled in relationships with one another that are often surprising and usually regrettable. Although Kiki is the emotional and ethical conscience in the family, no one person is truly the central character; it's more of an ensemble cast. The finale happens in sort of a flourish that puts the finishing touches on this colorful canvas of a family with still a few challenges ahead.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE by Heather Gudenkauf

Sandwiched between a disturbing opening and a too-neat ending is a nail-biter of a story. At first I thought, oh, no, not another book about an abusive, alcoholic husband and father, but that impression quickly faded. Two 7-year-old girls, Petra and Calli (best friends) have gone missing. We know that Calli is with her drunken father, Griff, who has eschewed his fishing trip to drag his daughter barefoot through the woods at 4 a.m. His muddled purpose is to take her to the home of Deputy Sheriff Louis, who Griff thinks is Calli's real father. Petra coincidentally disappears at the same time, following someone into the woods, of her own accord. The anguish of these two families steers the plot, especially as they come under the suspicion of special agent Fitzgerald, who is brought in to help locate the girls. Certainly both families have significant flaws and secrets, and the parents have to re-evaluate where they went wrong. The only truly likeable characters are the children, and they're not faring very well. Calli hasn't spoken a word in 3 years, since her father pushed her mother down the stairs, causing a miscarriage. Petra is Calli's full-time interpreter at school, reading Calli's expressions and actions to ascertain her thoughts and intentions, and then conveying them to teachers and classmates. When the girls disappear, there's more than enough guilt and blame to spread around among the parents. Several narrators alternate in the telling of events, both past and present, and no single narrative is very long. If you find yourself exasperated with one character, have no fear, because a different narrator is just a few pages away. This approach also helps build suspense, as we frequently have to abandon Calli's account of her abduction to hear what her mother or Petra's father is going through. It's nifty and thoroughly spellbinding.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


A book of over 1000 pages has to have several villains, and this one has at least four. Two are monks, one is a murderous nobleman, and one is an overrated carpenter. The action takes place in England in the 1300s and follows its main characters from childhood to middle age. During that time the plague rips through Europe, leaving entire families demolished, houses abandoned, and fields uncultivated. Religious figures rule and see the plague as God's punishment for man's (and woman's) lascivious ways. Simple health procedures like avoiding contact with victims and hand-washing are just coming into practice, but the clergy sees these precautions as unnecessary and even heretical. Caris is a forward-thinking woman who reluctantly becomes a nun on the eve of her wedding in order to avoid a death sentence for witchcraft. Her erstwhile fiancé Mirthen is a talented architect who is also way ahead of his time and devastated by Caris's fate. Gwenda is a peasant, forced to help support her family by pick-pocketing, and her father trades her to an outlaw in exchange for livestock. I had to marvel at the author's ability to manage a zillion characters and intertwine their lives. However, his writing style is neither lyrical nor memorable. I do remember enjoying The Pillars of the Earth, this book's prequel, but that was at least 15 years ago, and my literary tastes have changed since then. So I'm curious as to who's the audience for this book. Not the book clubbers. And not the casual reader, because its length is far too intimidating. I guess it's readers like myself who just wanted to relive their Pillars experience. Also, I was under the incorrect assumption that Fall of Giants was a follow-up to this book, but, no, it's the daunting (almost 1000 pages) first book in a projected trilogy.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


I've read a spate of books lately about two brothers where one brother is a nice guy and the other is bad news. Consequently, this book's plot seemed tired, familiar, and predictable. In some ways it reminded me of the movie Legends of the Fall, because there's a woman in the middle. My chief complaint, in fact, is about the women in this novel. Why do women authors portray their women characters as gullible and easily seduced by handsome, charismatic, unscrupulous men? Why are the men in this novel the only ones who see Jake for what he is—a cowardly liar and reprobate? His salt-of-the-earth brother Arthur is a farmer with a beautiful wife, Laura. While they were growing up, Arthur dealt Jake a severe blow when, for once, Jake wasn't crying wolf. Guilt causes Arthur to cut Jake a little too much slack after that, but not nearly as much as Arthur's mother does. Ian is the teenage son of the town doctor (in northern Ontario), who comes to work for Arthur so that he can be near Laura. I found Ian's story to be much more captivating than Arthur and Jake's. He struggles with choosing a career path, but that issue also resolves itself in predictable fashion. Ian's fishing buddy Pete is conflicted by his heritage, with one foot in the white man's land and one in the land of his native people, and his conflict also has a predictable outcome. Despite the fact that I found the book sort of hollow, it wasn't a chore to read by any means. I had to keep bracing myself, though, for Jake's next thoughtless or cruel move, and that's just not particularly fun.