Alice in Wonderland: The Ultimate Self Help Book

"Drink me"

Fairies. Fairy tales. Stories. The Tim Burton movie Alice in Wonderland opens this week. I am usually a “wait til the DVD comes out” kind of gal, but I can hardly wait to see this movie!

I read Alice when I was eight years old and have used it as a reference guide my entire life. The alternate world created by Lewis Carroll has served me well as a sort of handbook to explain the vicissitudes of life.

I have always been able to relate to this picture

When I am dealing with difficult or incomprehensible situations, I think to myself. “I have simply fallen down another rabbit hole”  or “uh oh, I have wandered through the looking glass” and I look for the clues that will lead me out again. I can’t even list the number of times I have stood with a frozen smile on my face listening to someone who seems to be speaking jabberwocky.

Life, it turns out, is populated with red queens.

Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. We all know this person, don't we?

They all seem to wield enormous egos and having read Alice in Wonderland at such a tender age, I have always approached these individuals with a cheerful sort of cunning and my inner, instinctive reverse psychology that can be learned between the pages of Lewis Carroll’s funny, twisted, wickedly insightful books.

A.S. Byatt (who is completely brilliant and who is my writing hero and who I don’t even TRY to emulate) says it best in this article which is also a wonderful resource guide for young parents on the brink of guiding their children into a reading life. Her assessment of Alice also seems to suggest that this is a guidebook for life:

As she falls through the earth she doesn’t feel terror, she thinks, she talks to herself and analyses what is happening and may happen. She is prepared to give as good as she gets in arguments with pigeons, caterpillars, frog footmen, smiling cats and red and white queens. Her main emotion is trying to make sense against increasing odds.”

And isn’t that the very best life lesson of all?

Ah! The tea party ...

“There is one day that is ours. Thanksgiving Day is the one day that is purely American.” O. Henry

Pilgrims - An illustration for an old children's book

I love Thanksgiving. I love stuffing the turkey, making the pies, deciding how to prepare the sweet potatoes…I have a couple of recipes one old, one new. My daughter was born the night before Thanksgiving and her birthday falls every so often on this best of family holidays, in fact her birthday is today! I have so much to be thankful for… My husband, my darling, beautiful daughter, the life of my mother, my sisters, my gorgeous nieces, nephews, beloved first cousins a surviving uncle and his dear wife, the wonderful men I work for… I know there are more who should be on the list… like… my friends, near and far. What an amazing country we live in…

I hate to read stories about school districts and municipalities which are suppressing the traditional story of Thanksgiving such as this one. Making construction paper pilgrim hats, or drawing turkey feathers by tracing my little girl hands provide an especially strong memory of my little girl grade school years. The religiosity of Thanksgiving is part of our heritage, the relationship with the Indians, the Native Americans the Pilgrims encountered and were assisted by, can and should be told romantically. I am weary of political correctness. Let’s retain SOME of our traditions.

One of my favorite books from my girlhood was “Constance, A story of Early Plymouth by Patricia Clapp. I think I read it in fourth grade, but it gave me a firm foundation in understanding the Pilgrim story and the challenges they faced their first hard winter here in the New World. Naturally, it was written to appeal to a young, romantic reader such as myself. There was a a wonderful mix of romance and the hard realities of life experienced by those early Pilgrim souls. For years after reading the book, I wanted to name my child Damaris – the name of Constance’s younger sister. I checked “Constance” out of my public library in Naperville, Illinois in 1969 or so. Later, when Amazon came around, I ordered a used copy, so I would always have it, to share with my grandchildren someday.  I think it is out of print, which is a shame…

Apparently, the author is a descendant of the real Constance, who left the Pilgrim colony with her family to farm independently. The book is written as a diary and it is compelling reading, even if you are all grown up.

Have a wonderful, wonderful Thanksgiving….

“Click goes the camera and on goes life…”

I love biographies. I especially love biographies about writers. Interestingly, the more biographies you read about writers the more you learn how the skeletons of their novels are drawn from real bits of their lives.  Being something of a writer myself, I am fascinated by this since I also draw on my own past or observances of others as a starting point for characters or situations. (I stress starting point.)


Reading biographies of literary figures may intrigue me because rooting about in a writer’s personal history feels something like conducting an archeological dig. I love discovering the real history or inspiration behind some of my favorite novels. The Guardian has a review today of a new book by Paula Byrne, Mad World, about the real life family who influenced Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.


Apparently, Sebastian Flyte, Waugh’s teddy bear dependent friend who tragically descends into alcoholism was based on his real life friend Hugh Lygon. The beauty of fiction is exemplified in Waugh’s ability to transform the ‘dull dog’ Hughie into the heart achingly tragic Sebastian.

“Evelyn had been at Oxford with Hugh Lygon, the middle son, with whom, according to one not wholly reliable source, he had conducted an affair. Certainly, he had been bewitched by gentle, charming Hughie, many of whose characteristics – girlish beauty, floppy blond locks, the ubiquitous teddy bear – famously reappear in the portrayal of Sebastian, with whom Charles Ryder is so infatuated in the novel. Yet for all his charm, Hughie was rather a dull dog, and hopelessly alcoholic, and it was with Hugh’s sisters that Waugh formed a far more fruitful friendship, especially with Lady Mary and Lady Dorothy, or Maimie and Coote as they were more informally known. His letters to the girls – comic, tender, playfully obscene – are some of the most delightful he ever wrote.”

The English are the master of nicknames, aren’t the? This ability for nicknames is demonstrated by another family, the Mitfords,who translate poignantly from fact to fiction. I would highly recommend reading Nancy Mitford’s books The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate and then follow up by reading Nancy Lovell’s wonderfully moving biography The Mitford Sisters. The quote in the picture of the Lygon family inserted above may be my favorite quote in all of literature. If you do nothing else, read the first page of The Pursuit of Happiness. It is my favorite beginning of all time. These books are a wonderful glimpse into a vanished way of life.


The Mitford brood... an endlessly fascinating family.
The Mitford brood... an endlessly fascinating family.


Out for a Walk


Bronte Country
Bronte Country

“As early as 1850, Charlotte had observed that “various folks are beginning to come boring to Haworth, on the wise errand of seeing the scenery described in Jane Eyre and Shirley”. 

Something to add to your Bronte file, directions for walking in Bronte Country. This comes from Juliet Barker, Bronte biographer extraordinaire.

Have You Read “Trimalchio in West Egg?”


One of the most challenging things a writer does is choose a title for a piece.  It is a real gift to come up with something that fits the piece and grabs the reader. It is the ultimate first impression. This article reveals the working titles of some of our most iconic novels. 

“What’s in a name?” asks Juliet. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Yet, in this 60th anniversary year of Nineteen Eighty-Four (a brilliant title), you can only wonder about the fate of Orwell’s masterpiece if it had been published under its working title of “The Last Man in Europe”. And what about Portnoy’s Complaint (“A Jewish Patient Begins his Analysis”) or The Waste Land (“He do the Police in Different Voices”) or Gone With the Wind (“Baa! Baa! Black Sheep”)?

Would you have read Trimalchio in West Egg? How about The High Bouncing Lover? No? Then you would have missed reading The Great Gatsby. As far as I am concerned,  The Last Man in Europe is the best of the bunch…

“It is work however that I cannot do in the evening for if I did, I should have no sleep at night…”


A new online, digital archive of original manuscripts will soon be available for viewing. The scribblings, crossouts and letters of many literary giants from Charlotte Bronte to Oscar Wilde wil be accesssible to all the scholars and novices (like me) who would die to see source material we would never previously have had a chance of seeing. The collection includes”handwritten versions of Blake’s The Four Zoas, Emily Brontë’s Gondal poems, and complete drafts of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist.”

Also available the “heartbreaking correspondence by Charlotte Brontë as she struggles to come to terms with the death of her sister, Emily, and the poor health of her younger sister, Anne.”

And Emily’s Gondal poems – thrilling.

The Children’s Book – Not Just for Kids Anymore


I think a truly great book is one you can re-read and enjoy as much the second time as you did the first. I don’t re-read many books because there are so many new books to read. I feel I should spend my reading time reading new novels and biographies. Sometimes, it seems there is a dearth of new material and I flop around, fish out of water like, wanting a book that gave me the same expereince as such and such a book. It was during one of these unsettled in-between-a-good-book times I re-read ‘Possession’ by A.S. Byatt. It was every bit as satisfying as if reading it for the first time. 

Byatt’s novels can be very challenging. I have to admit, I have not read all of them. I was stumped in ‘The Virgin in the Garden’ by the brilliant boy, Marcus,  who sees what I can only assume is geometry, “He saw intersecting cones, stretching to infinity … he saw that he was at the, or a, point of intersection, and that if it could not pass through it would shatter the fragile frame to make a way.” Being able to see math or geometry in my head is certainly one of  my deficiencies. I can barely add and subtract mentally and when I do, it never turns out well. When I was reading the passages concerning Marcus, my eyes crossed trying to imagine what this child was experiencing and because I was working on a masters at the time, I decided I would have to save the Frederica books for another summer, winter, whatever…  

But I have read Byatt’s short stories and the two novellas in ‘Angels and Insects’ and I must say …ooo … they are very interesting and enjoyable in a voyeuristic, sometimes creepy kind of way. Those crazy Victorians! Imagine what they would do with the Internet! ‘Possession’ remains my favorite Byatt book.

She has written a new book and it sounds like she has returned to the novelistic form more similar to Possession than her more recent books. The reviews about ‘The Children’s Book’ appeal to my rampant Anglophilia. It takes as it’s subject the latter decades during the Victorian period leading up to World War I. This stretch of British history  is the decisive period where many of our ideas concerning idyllic childhood came from. It was also the time when fairy tales became required childhood reading.  It is a romantic time, but like so much of life, it had a seamy underbelly. I am torn between loving the romance and tradition it created and being enlightened and horrified by the untold secrets people kept. It is reminiscent of  my love of fashion plates. The engravings are idealized renderings of the fashions of the time. The reality was actually muddy hems, ruined shoes and little variety in the average woman’s wardrobe. The women portrayed by the fashion plates were a minuscule percentage of the female population. I know this and while I am comforted by the ideal, intellectually I am fascinated by the reality.

The bottom line is – I must have this book! It will not be released in the U.S. until OCTOBER! I can’t wait that long, so I am ordering from Amazon UK today, here is a link if you would like to read it now as well.  This is shaping up to be a great reading summer. So many books! So little time.