Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Monday, 19 May 2008

I'm Late, I'm Late...

What do you do when you don't have time to complete your planned blog about the Turner Prize?

You dig out some old book reviews you wrote about Alice In Wonderland related books and post them instead.

Alice In Blunderland (John Kendrick Bangs)

Alice In Washington (Richard Pray Bonine)

What is it about Alice that, more than any other book, it draws people with all sorts of motives to write pastiches? There are enough books and articles in the style of Alice to fill a decent sized library. From explanations of quantum mechanics to treatises on saving the rain forest to books of mathematical puzzles it seems there is no end to it. I even won a T-shirt myself once with a letter of the month to a magazine in the style of Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty. But I digress. Beyond all those things it draws political satirists like raths to a sundial. Whenever someone wants to point out the absurdities of any political landscape the first metaphor out of the bag is always Wonderland. I’d assumed this to be a modern phenomenon but I find I was mistaken.
Two recent additions to my collection have been Alice In Washington by Richard Pray Bonine and Alice In Blunderland: An Iridescent Dream by John Kendrick Bangs. The latter was published in 1907 so a new thing this most definitely isn’t.
Satire by its very nature has a short shelf life. Targets that are well known and in the public eye today could well be largely forgotten tomorrow. Today’s satire can all too easily become tomorrow’s incomprehensible gibberish.
So how does the 1907 book fare? Surprisingly well, is the answer. Bangs chose to satirise concepts – specifically the concept of state ownership as opposed to private enterprise. He also managed to do it in such a way that while not understanding the point would remove some of the pleasure from the book it would nonetheless remain quite amusing for the absurdities used as illustration - the train that completely encircles the city and doesn’t actually move (you get on at your stop and walk along the train until you reach the stop where you want to get off) for example or the attempt to run cars on a mixture of cologne and hot air which is very logically and reasonably explained.
It’s a brief but moderately entertaining read and by targeting ideas and concepts remains at least partially relevant today.
Alice in Washington is another thing altogether. Published in 1999 it’s already past its sell by date. It chooses to satirise the life of Bill Clinton. It’s with a little shamefaced nod of self-deprecation that I admit to giving up halfway through it. Put bluntly to an Englishman not familiar with all the ins and outs of the Clinton Governorship and Presidency it is the aforementioned incomprehensible gibberish. It probably is to most Americans too unless they can name all the major players in the Whitewater affair or list in alphabetical order the members of the Clinton administration. I found the book pretty much unreadable and am, now that I think about it, astonished that I managed to get as far as I did. The cover blurb describes it as “a gentle satire full of puns and poems and galloping alliterations”. Well, perhaps it is but a less accessible book I have yet to see.
Perhaps someone who is American can read the thing and enlighten me. Is it just my British perspective or am I being over generous in thinking I’d like it better if I came from Baltimore instead of Birmingham?

Alice’s Journey Beyond The Moon (R.J. Carter. Ill. Lucy Wright)

Sequels by other hands are often tricky beasts and never more so than when, as here, presented with the central conceit that they are a “lost manuscript” by the original author. This, like other pretenders, is of course no such thing. It is a new story. The problem with it is that the pretence that it is a lost Carroll manuscript extends to a series of long footnotes explaining how the various jokes and whimsies fit into the lives and events surrounding both Dodgson and Alice Liddell. These footnotes are done in the style of “The Annotated Alice” side by side with the text. For example the footnotes to one of the poems (giving the recipe for a rather unusual pie) explain that the ingredient “wet collodian” was a photographic chemical with which Dodgson would have been familiar and the nonsense word “queechy” refers to a novel by Elizabeth Wetherell that he gave to his sister Henrietta on her twelfth birthday. The depth of research into Dodgson’s life is impressive but as a literary device it all rapidly becomes rather tiresome and it’s a good idea to read the book through and ignore the footnotes altogether until you have finished.
What, then, of the story itself? At ninety pages it’s quite a thin tale but pastiches the style of Carroll quite well. Some of the puns and jokes are good and there are quite a lot of amusing touches. The artwork while not in the Tenniel style complements the story nicely and I suspect that there are many references and subtleties that a single reading has failed to reveal to me. The main problem is that at times it tries rather too hard to be clever. References to Descartes and an exposition of Zeno’s paradox are deftly handled but seem a little out of place. The insistence on explaining some of them in those annoying Gardneresque footnotes doesn’t help. As soon as you need to explain a joke it ceases to be funny.
The story has Alice journeying to the moon through the eyepiece of a telescope and while there having the kind of adventures that she had in Wonderland and through the looking glass. The style doesn’t quite hit the mark but comes much closer than Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice (though not as close as Gilbert Adair’s Alice Through The Needle’s Eye ). This is “explained” by suggesting that the work was written some years after the original stories, again an explanation that is necessary only because the author insists on maintaining the fiction that this is a lost story.
What of the poems and songs? Once again they are in the correct style and character and with a nice whimsy but they lack the surety of Dodgson’s metre and caused me to stumble in trying to get the rhythms right.

Final verdict? A slight but diverting dreamlike tale which would have been all the better if more attention had been given to crafting a longer story and less to the learned and mock-erudite footnotes.

Bad Alice (Jean Ure)

It’s impossible to review this book adequately without giving away the major plot points so if you are likely to read it -- and in spite of it being a very disturbing read I recommend that you do -- and don’t want to know in advance what it’s about then skip to the end of the review now.

Still here? Then let’s get on with it.

Bad Alice concerns the friendship between two children one summer. Duffy is a teenage boy with mild Tourette’s syndrome and Alice is the girl next door. Alice is a child that is universally agreed to be a bad sort – universally that is except for Duffy who strikes up an immediate friendship with her.
As the plot unfolds the disturbing nature of Alice’s family set up is revealed and the abusive relationship with her father is readily apparent to adult eyes reading the book if not to the adult characters. Duffy’s gradual realisation that his friend’s obsession with Alice in Wonderland masks very deep and real problems is poignant and painful to us because we have seen coming what we know he must eventually realise. Alice’s problems become most apparent through the version of Alice in Wonderland which she is secretly writing and allowing him to read. These sections are at times a little too knowing and articulate for a thirteen year old to have written but that is the only slight flaw in an otherwise brilliant but deeply disturbing book. This should be on recommended reading lists for all teenagers as the handling of one of the worst problems that exists in society is sensitive and intelligent and raising the awareness within teenagers that such problems don’t have to be simply endured must be a good thing.
Come to that raising the awareness of the problem among adults is also not a bad idea. Maybe, if enough people had their awareness raised then we could eradicate this kind of thing altogether and books like this would become unnecessary.

Final verdict. A sensitive, disturbing and above all necessary read.


Cycho Librarian said...

Have you seen "Alice in Sunderland" by Bryan Talbot yet? Great quasi-non-fiction read, and it's a graphic novel!

Bob Hale said...

I have. A friend gave it to me last year. It's an amazing tor de force from an amazing writer. I love the apparently effortless way that Talbot weaves so many artistic styles and narrative threads together. The only downside ( :) ) was that I then had go out and buy a George Formby film because Talbot had mentioned that it had an Alice inspired scene in it.

Great book. Highly recommended.