Famously, the story that would become the enduring classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland began as a tale told aloud to a young girl named Alice Liddell. The author, Charles Dodgeson, had done some writing in the past under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, but he did not dream of becoming a novelist or a children’s entertainer. Instead, he spent his pittance of a salary from his low-level position at Oxford on the new and exciting art of photography. Much of the surviving evidence of his relationship with the Liddell family comes from the photographs he took of the children. A particularly enigmatic photograph of Alice dressed as a beggar serves as the focal point for Winchester’s examination of Dodgeson’s photographic passion and his relationship with the girl whom he would immortalize in his tales of Wonderland.
Although I have enjoyed some of Winchester’s other works, I found this book underwhelming. He devotes a significant amount of time to discussing photography practices and other photographs Dodgeson took, occasionally losing the focus on Alice and the Liddell family. Furthermore, the book contains no reproductions of the many photographs it discusses–a true limitation since the comparison and contrast of Dodgeson’s relationship with the Liddell siblings and other children largely depends on the reader’s ability to imagine and mentally compare the photographs. Winchester also mentions Dodgeson’s diary frequently when discussing his relationship with the Liddells and his relationships with and attitudes toward young girls, but the book would have benefitted from more direct excerpts from these diaries to help support Winchester’s conclusions.
Overall, if you are interested in the subject matter, this is a brief and interesting read, but it lacks a certain amount of depth and supporting material which could have elevated the book to a truly engaging narrative.
In the third installment of his memoirs, Stephen Fry briefly reviews the most formative events of his childhood and university years before meandering through the cocaine-laced journey of his career. The memoir is littered with anecdotes about his own personal life and his star-studded friendships–although he makes a point not to tell any scathing or overly embarrassing stories about famous people other than himself. The story of his initial introduction to cocaine and early, high-functioning usage is much more detailed and direct than the story of its negative impact on his life (told through the publication of a litany of his actual diary entries which focus primarily on people and events). But he makes a point of telling the reader that cocaine dependency negatively impacted his professional and personal life, and he would recommend it to no one.
Fry’s non-chronological reminiscences follow thin thematic threads, which makes the book difficult to follow at times. There is no real arc to the overall points he makes (they are somewhat scattered throughout), so the memoir reads more as a collection of anecdotes than a cohesive narrative of its own. That said, many of the anecdotes are quite entertaining. One of the highlights of the book is an anecdote about Prince Charles and Princess Diana paying a visit to Stephen Fry’s home over the Christmas holiday while he had house guests (including Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson). The majority of his anecdotes, however, will be of most (perhaps exclusive) interest to fans of Stephen Fry and his closest colleagues (Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, etc.). I would recommend this memoir specifically to such fans.
On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, resulting in the deaths almost 1500 people (over 2/3 of those on board). Deborah Hopkinson brings the Titanic’s tragic story to life by focusing on the stories of individual survivors. Using their memories and words, she reconstructs the narrative of the Titanic from its initial departure to its sinking and the aftermath for the 700 survivors—most of them women and children whose husbands and fathers perished in the wreck. Titanic: Voices From the Disaster is engaging, horrifying, and informative. Although the book is marketed to upper-elementary school-aged children, I highly recommend it to anyone (children, teen, or adult) who is interested in learning more about the Titanic or who enjoys survival stories.
If you liked Titanic: Voices From the Disaster, you might also like Revenge of the Whale.
SHADOW DIVERS: THE TRUE ADVENTURE OF TWO AMERICANS WHO RISKED EVERYTHING TO SOLVE ONE OF THE LAST MYSTERIES OF WORLD WAR II by Robert Kurson
The world of commercial diving is competitive. The minute a shipwreck’s location is leaked, dive teams will sprint to it, hoping to get their hands on some of its fascinating artifacts. The divers that received the secret coordinates to “something big” lying sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey (and 230 feet below the ocean’s surface) were excited to explore an untouched wreck. But they were not prepared for what they found: a sunken German U-Boat, undocumented in any historical record. The divers were elated with the discovery–especially John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, two experienced and adventurous divers who also shared a passion for history. Each diver hoped to be the one to discover the U-Boat’s identity and its story. But diving to 230 feet is perilous, and it wasn’t long before the wreck began to claim lives. As most of the surviving divers gradually gave up on the dangerous wreck, only Chatterton and Kohler remained, determined to discover the U-Boat’s identity–even at the risk of their own lives.
I could not put this book down! Before I began reading Shadow Divers, I knew nothing about commercial diving. The logistics and dangers of deep sea dives are fascinating, as are the stories of the people who engage in such a life-threatening activity. Between the danger and suspense of each dive and the intriguing mystery of the U-Boat, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough! I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in history, who likes survival stories, or even who enjoys reading thrillers. It is wonderful–a new favorite!
Thanks for the recommendation, Sally!
A CENTURY OF WISDOM: LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF ALICE HERZ-SOMMER, THE WORLD’S OLDEST LIVING HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR by Caroline Stoessinger
Alice Herz-Sommer was an accomplished concert pianist when the Nazis invaded her home of Prague. Through her years in the Theresienstadt camp, it was music that kept Alice and her young son alive. Alice played numerous concerts for the Nazi officers, and her name never appeared on any of the deportation lists for Auschwitz. Now at age 108, Alice still plays daily and is described by her family and friends as eternally cheerful and optimistic.
Caroline Stoessinger tells the story of Alice’s life with a focus on the positive worldview that has filled her difficult life with so much joy. The chronology in this vignette-style biography is often confusing, but the story is moving and uplifting. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys biographies and memoirs with an optimistic tone.
Thanks for the recommendation, Helen!