Monday, July 23, 2012

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

Title/Author: Moloka'i by Alan Brennert
Publisher: St Martin's Griffin
Pages: 383
ISBN: 978-0-312-30435-5

In a nutshell
This novel is set in the 18t90's to 1970's. The female protagonist, Rachel Kalama grew up in Honolulu and is part of a big Hawaiian family. Her father, was a merchant seaman and she dreamt that she'd travel to places her dad had visited. However, at the age of 7, her dreams shattered as they discovered she had leprosy, ma'i pake and was sent off to Kalaupapa, the isolated leper colony on the island of Moloka'i, because the disease was believed to be contagious. As the disease reached epidemic proportions, the government felt isolation was the best and only solution.

There, Rachel found a new family - Healer, Haleola who became her adopted 'auntie', Sister Mary Catherine Voorhies, one of the many Franciscan sisters who cared for the young girls at Kalaupapa and Leilani who taught her love.

What I liked
Kudos to Brennert for successfully documenting 5 decades of Rachel's story and those who suffered the pain of being a leper. A great topic chosen indeed. Overall, Moloka'i covered a little bit of everything. The focus is on the sufferings of the people in Moloka'i and how they grew as a community then subsequently as a family.

I liked the settings and atmosphere set in Hawaii. One can't deny the charms of that place - its beautiful landscape and people. And being able to escape into that magical island while reading the book is truly the cheapest getaway ever.

I enjoyed reading the author's note too. Although this novel was a work of fiction, it was set in a real place where real people lived and died. The author interweaved real life patients and caregivers with his fictional cast of characters, hence blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Reading this section, the reader will discover fact from fiction and will be more appreciative of their part of the story.

What I didn't like
Honestly, despite the rave reviews, I didn't quite enjoy Moloka'i. I think the author was trying to cover as much as possible, wanting to document more than narrate the story. The beginning looked promising; watching the curtains unveilling the life of Rachel and her family in Hawaii. But as the story progressed, events 'skipped' from one to another, point of views changed from one person to another, true deep emotions barely delved into.

The attempt of telling the story from various characters' point of views didn't quite work for me in this story. It didn't add any weight nor impact. I think in the attempt of trying to do a lot, the author did too little, leaving many characters 'weak' and storyline bare, in that it 'sweeps' through from one decade to another, so gently like the breeze, that it hardly rustled any leaves. There were also many different point of views which did help (a teeny weeny bit) intensify the story, but not enough. I did though, appreciate the relationship between Rachel, her dad and husband.

I've read authors who did much better at using different point of views (one of them is Kathryn Stockett who wrote The Help. Will review this soon). This would've been a much better read if it was written somewhat like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; lots of facts and details yet still made a very compelling story.

In its entirety, Moloka'i neither swept me off my feet nor left me intrigued as Henrietta Lacks did. That story made me google, youtube, read all other resources about the issue. It is that kind of impact that would make a story, be it historical fiction or autobiography, serve its purpose.

It'd be helpful too if there were some references at the back of the book to help the reader remember some of the Hawaiian terms used earlier in the story.

My verdict? 2.7 / 5 (Doubt I'd be reading Honolulu)

These were some of my favourite quotes from Moloka'i:
"God didn't give man wings; He gave him the brain and the spirit to give himself wings. Just as He gave us the capacity to laugh when we hurt, or to struggle on when we feel like giving up. I've come to believe that how we choose to live with pain, or injustice, or death...is the true measure of Divine within us."

"Fear is good. In the right degree it prevents us from making fools of ourselves. But in the wrong measure it prevents us from fully living. Fear is our boon companion but never our master."

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Title/Author: Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 365
ISBN: 978-0-385-34414-2

In a nutshell
Alice Liddell Hargreaves is the 'Alice' in Wonderland; the girl who followed the White Rabbit into a land of quirky characters such as the Mad Hatter, Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat. If not for Alice, Lewis Carroll wouldn't have written Alice in Wonderland. If not for her, we wouldn't have known Wonderland.

This story takes us back to Alice's childhood. At seven, she was different from other girls her age; young, innocent yet wise beyond her years, who felt a special connection with Lewis Carroll (whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). He loved taking Alice and her sisters out for walks and boat rides which they enjoyed immensely. However, Dodgson showed a special interest in Alice and his feelings were reciprocated. She felt he was the only one who understood her, who allowed her to be 'Alice' and loved her as she was.

Time passed and Dodgson somehow stopped seeing her and the sisters, and began phasing out of their life much to her dismay. In her 20's, she fell in love with Prince Leopold, who she felt loved the long yellow hair 'Alice' in Wonderland. Although they were head over heels with each other, the Queen didn't approve of it and that ended their relationship.

Alice married Reginald Gervis Hargreaves, a sportsman (a cricketer), whom she would never love him the way she loved Leo. Regi did not care about books at all; his simplicity sometimes ticked her off but also tugged at her heartstrings. Though married, she still often wondered about Prince Leopold, while Dodgson still haunted her thoughts, like a shadow, never leaving her.

What I liked
Everything about this book is beautiful. I didn't want it to end, but couldn't help turning the pages because it was, once again, so beautifully written, except for, maybe the last part (more on that later).

I especially liked Alice's voice and seeing her change from an innocent, free-willed girl to a strong, confident young woman. Benjamin is excellent at capturing Alice's conflicts emotionally. (She managed to do the same with 'Mrs. Tom Thumb') My favorite is the 7-year-old Alice. She was exactly as depicted in Alice in Wonderland - vivacious, full of wonder and ever so vocal!

Alice's love life was nothing but complicated. It's almost as though she was not meant for love. She attracted it for sure; men were drawn to her like moth to a flame, but maybe she was not meant to live it. Prince Leopold was the only man she ever professed her love to, but it ended up bitter. Mr Hargreaves claimed she was his love at first sight. But Alice never truly loved him, until it was too late.
Mr Dodgson on the other hand, as much as she hated to admit it, had a special place in her heart. There was always that longing for him in her voice.

'"Alice", the man in the hat said tenderly - only it was Leo. "Alice, be happy. Be happy with me."

"Of course," I said with a contented sigh. "Of course. I'll always be happy with you, my love."

But no - the man in the hat was not Leo, he was not Regi. He was Mr. Dodgson. I opened my eyes, my girl's eyes, clear and sharp, no need for spectacles, and saw only him. His soft brown hair curling at the ends, his kind blue eyes, no higher than the other.'

That summer, that particular moment that started and ended it all, she was happy, 'I will always believe - the two of us were."'

Ever since that day, she hated talking about him, too afraid the truth will tear her apart.

They were both such romantics. Mr Dodgson, I think, was the only man who was capable of loving her as she was, accepting her eccentricities, her passion for life and intelligence. He was her equal. I think their relationship would have turned out differently if they had met at a different time.

I admire Benjamin's ability to bring a character as enigmatic as Alice come to live. Like 'Mrs Tom Thumb', she created another poignant historical fiction based on research. It takes a very skillful writer to turn a novel of this genre into a keeper.

In my opinion, to be able to write a historical fiction as good as this, one must let dream take over...

'Words, pictures, questions, and finally - dreams; it always begins with a dream, doesn't it? Alice's dream by the river, her head in her sister's lap, dreaming of a rabbit, a white rabbit; my dream also. My dreams.' (p. 338)

What I didn't like
Didn't matter much, really. I just felt bad I couldn't empathize with Alice when she lost her sons; maybe a little for Rex (as he was obviously her favorite) and Edith, her sister. I felt the son's characters were rushed through and were written just to complete Alice's story.

Like I mentioned, not that it mattered, because the central point of this novel, to me, was her love life and the mysterious relationship she had had with Dodgson, which will remain in Wonderland, forever.

My verdict? 4/5 (If you are into historical fiction)

Book bite
Find out what really happened and what was made up in Benjamin's chapter on 'Alice in Wonderland - The True Hollywood Story' found at the end of the book.

My take-away message? Life's happiness is yours to define. Let me end this review with this:

I did not choose this, Peter had said.
I did, I had replied. And so I did; so, now, I do. (p. 344)

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