Monday, June 28, 2010

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Release date (Australia): 1 March 2010
Rating: 7/10

“I was inspired to write Alice I Have Been after unexpectedly viewing a photographic exhibit called ‘Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll’. Among the many photographs there, one stood out to me. It was of a young girl clad only in rags, but with an expression on her face that stopped me in my tracks. She was so adult, so frank, so worldly, as she gazed at the man behind the camera. She was 7-year-old Alice Liddell. It was to her that Lewis Carroll - or Charles Dodgson, as she knew him - told the story of a little girl who tumbled down a rabbit hole. She was the one who begged him to write it down.
I wondered what happened to her after she grew up; I wondered what happened between the two of them to result in such a startling photograph. I wondered so much that I decided to write about it, write her story in her own ‘words’ - although of course, with historical fiction, I got to make those words up.” Melanie Benjamin

I am incredibly in love with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and have been since I was a little girl. I have a collection of different versions of these books and really, I’m just a complete nerd about them. When I first read about Alice I Have Been being released, I was a little excited but a mostly apprehensive. I didn’t want the story to possibly taint my love for Alice by focusing too much on the relationship between Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell when there is not a great deal of fact to work with in regards to this relationship. Luckily, it only made my love for Lewis Carroll's stories stronger and it is a true credit to author Melanie Benjamin’s beautiful writing. The fluidity and poetry of her writing makes me wish I could ever write so well.

Try as I might, I could not understand how one man – one shy man with a camera, a stammer, and an endless supply of stories – could be responsible for so much disarray.

In the story, readers’ see Alice in three phases of her life - as a young child, a young woman, and an old woman. It is as a young child, up until the age of 11, that the reader largely see Charles Dodgson’s involvement in Alice and her siblings’ lives while they were growing up. The lack of facts surrounding Alice Liddell and Mr Dodgson’s relationship is at least partly as a result of missing diary entries around the time in which their relationship ceased. Hence, in Alice I Have Been, this is largely made up and in my opinion, dealt with quite well.

A man who fancied himself a child and a child who thought she was a woman turned to each other on a hot summer day , mindful of nothing, no one, but each other – not even the sister who sat opposite, watching.

One thing I really liked about the book is the reminders of the era that it is set in, because odd things occur which would not happen to the same extent these days (especially in the relationships between those higher up in society, such as Princes, and women or children). The reader is reminded of what is controversial at the time (such as having a skirt a certain distance above the ankle but still below the knee) and how commonplace it is for a young woman of 16 to marry a man 15 years her senior (especially if he is equal to or above her in the social hierarchy).

I was grateful to be in Oxford, at least, where young ladies attending lectures and reading books wasn’t quite as shocking as it would have been in a more fashionable place, such as London.

I enjoyed the way the story unfolded in a non-linear format, from one important era in Alice’s life to another rather than simply year to year. I found older Alice far more fascinating to read about than Alice as a child, which seems to differ to most readers of this story. Small things such as Alice’s sons finding out she is “Alice in Wonderland” after finding her original copy of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (published as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) made the story touching and beautiful at times without being over the top. As a fan of Lewis Carroll’s books, I did not find Alice I Have Been to ‘ruin’ Alice for me or anything to that effect and simply found it to be an enjoyable read which shed some light on Alice Pleasance Liddell and her life.

For eighty years I have been, at various times, a gypsy girl, a muse, a lover, a mother, a wife. But for one man, and for the world, I will always be a seven-year-old girl named Alice.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Reading By Moonlight by Brenda Walker

Release Date (Australia): 29 March 2010
Rating: 7/10

The first time Brenda packed her bag to go into hospital, she wondered which book to take. Her life had been built around reading and writing. Now she was also a patient, being treated for breast cancer, battling for her life and terrified for herself and her family. But turning to medicine didn’t mean she turned away from literature. Books had always been her solace and sustenance, and now, choosing the right one was the most important thing she could do for herself.

A book that has the subtitle “How books saved a life” is naturally going to catch my eye. I am a firm believer in the idea that art, whether it be in the form of books or music or any other kind, can save your life. It can help you through things you don’t believe you’re strong enough to survive and sometimes you don’t want to burden the people you love with how much pain you might be in or how sick you feel. There are books that I have re-read more than ten times and with those books are the individual memories of who I was and where I was in my life at each reading. “My” books, as I tend to call the ones I hold close to my heart, are the ones that such memories are attached to. They are my lifelines.

Brenda Walker is a Perth author who has written of the books that helped her through the surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer. Reading By Moonlight is beautifully written and shows the reader how the process of reading can almost mirror the process of healing. Many authors are delved into throughout the book, but some of Brenda’s favourites seem to include Samuel Beckett, Dante Alighieri, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, and Charles Dickens. The insights into the writers and books are fascinating, intelligent, and often beautiful.

Empathy, the way that we can place ourselves, imaginatively, in the position of another person, is at the heart of what we do as readers, as people striving for a generous understanding of one another.

The book is broken up into Brenda’s five stages of treatment – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, reconstruction, and survival. Her writing enters a positivity to the horrific process of breast cancer, a disease that affects almost everyone in some way, whether it be directly, or through a family member or friend with the disease. Stories are told with emotional optimism; Brenda’s first thought after her diagnosis was that she can’t leave her son alone.

That’s when it came, the simultaneous sense of falling and of being crushed. I was thinking about my son. He was fourteen then. I knew, urgently, that I couldn’t leave him...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and being given the opportunity to gain understanding about many authors I knew, many authors I have read, and a few authors I hadn’t even heard of until now. I do hope that readers are not put off reading a biography such as this simply because of the protagonist’s breast cancer and the assumption it will be a depressing read; they will miss out on one of the most optimistic and uplifting stories of survival and an author with a natural love of reading and of life.

When I tell myself that books can save a life, I don’t mean that books can postpone death. That is the job of medicine. I mean that certain books, by showing us the inner fullness of individual life, can rescue us from a limited view of ourselves and one another.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Castle in the Pyrenees by Jostein Gaardner

Release Date (Australia): 1 May 2010
Rating: 8/10

Two former lovers meet across space and time. But what brought them back together? And can they really trust their pasts? A dialogue between world views reopens and an old love burns again...

I love Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaardner. I think it’s one of the most amazing creations in this life. That book is a significant part of the reason as to why I became fascinated by philosophy and history at quite a young age. It was a difficult read the first time I read it; I was 11 years old. Reading about Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Descartes, Satre, Marx, Darwin, and Freud, among others was a lot to take in when I didn’t really know any of them or their ideas when I began the book. My favourites were the empiricists, John Locke and David Hume. (Is it any wonder I fell in love with Lost?) I went on to study these two, and Freud, in particular at university and loved every second of it. I thoroughly enjoy reading about the different theories behind human existence and human actions. This and my love for history (especially Russian) is not something I often talk about, but when I find someone that is interested in the same kind of things, I can ramble for hours.

What Jung called synchronicity is just pure, simple coincidence in my opinion.

I’ve never read anything else by Jostein Gaardner, which might seem a bit strange to some people, but sometimes a book has such an impact on me I almost don’t want to ‘taint’ it with another book by the same author that might not live up to my expectations. When A Castle in Pyrenees was released, I gave into temptation given that it is written in a similar style to Sophie’s World and returned to the world of philosophy as well as the possibility of psychic phenomena. This time it is intertwined with a love story that makes the sometimes dry facts much easier and more fluid to read. The overwhelming questions within the book are the issues of science vs. faith, facts vs. destiny, control vs. destiny. Is reason the only aspect that sheds light on human existence or are there greater forces at play?

I see this new contact as a stream of thought vibrating between two souls rather than an exchange of correspondence which will be there between us forever.

Told in correspondence format, similar to Sophie’s World (except this time via email, as it’s no longer 1995), Steinn represents the firm belief in science and Solrunn can’t understand a lack of belief in fate or destiny. Between their emails written over a couple of weeks after they fatefully (or coincidentally) meet again after decades apart, they discuss their different opinions and ideas on how and why they met again and also their contrasting versions of their history together. I loved this book, but I can certainly see how it would not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you have even a minor interest in philosophy or the issue of science vs. faith, you will most likely love it as I did – but if such things bore you, the book’s love story may not be able to make you fall in love with the story alone.

Perhaps Jesus was able to walk on water because the Sea of Galilee was covered in ice!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Favourite Author Focus: John Marsden

Seven young people go camping in a wild place known as Hell. They emerge to find their homes empty, their animals dead, their country invaded. How much courage does it take just to stay alive?

As a break from exam study, and due to my lack of time to read more than half a book in the last week, I thought I’d update about my favourite author of all time. I started reading John Marsden’s books in 1993 at the age of eight. Since then, I always think of him first as my favourite author. He would be the author I would choose if I could only read one person’s books for the rest of my life, without a doubt. (Sorry, Neil, you know I love you, too.)

Is there something wrong when your main ambition in life is to be dead?

John Marsden, for those of you not from Australia (or somehow not aware of if you are Australian) is an Australian author who is most known for the Tomorrow series, the first of which is soon to be made into a movie. He writes about hard hitting topics in many of his novels - parental abuse and looking different in So Much To Tell You, psychiatric wards in Checkers, juvenile detention in Letters From the Inside, suicide and sex in Dear Miffy, parental deaths with an unexpected twist in Winter, and of course the possibility of invasion and war in Australia in the Tomorrow series. Homosexuality, anorexia, self-injury and many other ‘controversial’ aspects are also delved into across Marsden’s stories.

Dreamed about you again. Like I do most nights. Sometimes it’s nightmares. Sometimes it’s good dreams. Sometimes I have to change the sheets.

There is a band I believe saved my life, because I feel like without them I would never have been able get through some of the things I went through as a teenager. I think the same about John Marsden’s books. I have scattered memories of reading his books in numerous different hospitals, in waiting rooms, while listening to doctors’ have group meetings to talk about their future “plans” for me: taking my face off or breaking my jaw or cutting through my skull behind my ears to reconstruct my ear canals. I pulled ‘packing’ (special gauze) out of my right ear after having surgery when I was 12 years old because I was absent-mindedly fiddling with my ear while reading Burning For Revenge. When it came out, blood went everywhere. While my mother was panicking about my ear and the damage I might have caused, I was only upset about my now blood-covered book. The following year, when I first heard someone say something nasty to my face about the way I look, I thought, “This is how Marina felt.” That’s why So Much To Tell You is my favourite book of all time and the title of this blog.

I don’t know what I’m doing here. Well, I do, really... I have been sent here to learn to talk again. Sent here because my mother can’t stand my silent presence at home. Sent here because of my face...

John Marsden’s stories were, and still are, a significant part of my life and I truly cannot imagine my life without them. He is the only person I’ve ever drafted a fan letter to, multiple in fact (unless you count the letters I’ve drafted to the craniofacial surgeon I saw for 16 years; he is the person I admire most in the world). I felt like I couldn’t put into words what John's stories meant to me and still feel like that today. So let’s just leave it as this: they changed my life.

I’m an expert on fear now. I think I’ve felt every strong feeling there is: love, hate, jealousy. But fear’s the greatest of them all. Nothing reaches inside you and grabs you by the guts the way fear does. Nothing else possesses you like that.