the low down on new books


A Severe Mercy

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Sheldon Vanauken. 240 p. Published by Harper & Row, 1997.  Borrowed from the San Francisco Public Library.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Who Cares? Adult Non-Fiction – Memoir

Not-so-Short Bio (from Amazon):

A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken, is a heart-rending love story described by its author as “the spiritual autobiography of a love rather than of the lovers.” Vanauken chronicles the birth of a powerful pagan love borne out of the relationship he shares with his wife, Davy, and describes the growth of their relationship and the dreams that they share. As a symbol of their love, they name their dream schooner the Grey Goose, “for the grey goose, if its mate is killed flies on alone and never takes another.”

While studying at Oxford, Sheldon and Davy develop a friendship with C.S. Lewis, under whose influence and with much intellectual scrutiny they accept the Christian doctrine. As their devotion to God intensifies, Sheldon realizes that he is no longer Davy’s primary love–God is. Within this discovery begins a brewing jealousy.

Shortly after, Davy acquires a fatal illness. After her death Sheldon embarks on an intense experience of grief, “to find the meaning of it, taste the whole of it … to learn from sorrow whatever it had to teach.” Through painstaking reveries, he comes to discover the meaning of “a mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love.” He learns that her death “had these results: It brought me as nothing else could do to know and end my jealously of God. It saved her faith from assault. …And it saved our love from perishing.”

Eyewitness Account: This was our April book club selection.  The piece that was most interesting was hearing a guy so articulately describe his love for his wife – how rare is that?  Also, it was extra-intriguing to hear his “pagan” philosophy on how to have a love/marriage that lasts forever, and then hear how that view was challenged when he and his wife became Christians while at Oxford.  He concludes a beautiful love story by saying that he came to accept his wife’s death as a mercy wrought by God for his own best interest (pretty ballsy).

Unfortunately, those bits were wrapped up in too much slow-moving memoir for me to find it an overall engaging book.  I’ll caveat that by saying that memoir is not one of my favorite genres, and those who enjoy reading bios or autobiographies will probably get a whole lot more enjoyment out of this book.   Also, you might like it if you 1) read poetry, as Vanauken has his poetry peppered throughout the story, or 2) like reading anything by C.S. Lewis, as his letters to Vanauken are also scattered throughout.

A side beef – I thought the book would have been better if the guy hadn’t been pushing his relationship with C.S. Lewis to the forefront throughout it.  Even if Lewis really was such an influence, I continually felt like Vanauken (or his editors) stressed it more than he would/should have in order to make it a selling point for the book.  I’m an avid Lewis fan, but the constant interjection of the letters kept annoying me because this was not supposed to be Lewis’s story – it was Vanauken’s. Just my two cents :).

Notable Quotes:

“Under the surface of the visible world, there is an echoing hollowness, an aching void — and it cuts one off from the beloved.  She is as remote as the stars.”

“Considering the prayers and their answers and considering the events . . . I cannot escape the impression that Somebody was being very gentle with us.  Perhaps she had to die — for me, for our dear love, for God.  And I had to live with grief, for God.  But He was, perhaps, as gentle with us both as He could be.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying? What’s Wrong With the World, Lisa Notes, Reading to Know


★★★☆☆ Writing Style

★★★☆☆ Organization

★★★☆☆ Original Idea

★★☆☆ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆


Alice I Have Been

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Melanie Benjamin.  368 p. Published January 2010 by Delacorte Press.  Read for my book club.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Who Cares?:  Adult Historical Fic (Memoir-style)

Short Bio:  Meet the “real” Alice in Wonderland – Alice Liddell, princess of Christ Church at Oxford and favorite photography subject of Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll).  As an enigmatic 11 year-old defying the strict constraints for girls in Victorian England, a young lady blooming under the attentions of Prince Leopold, or as an imperial mother of three sons who worries which ones won’t return home from World War I, Alice tells the story a life that seems both completely separate from her fictional namesake, and yet forever altered by Mr. Dodgson’s story.

Eyewitness Account:  Alice I Have Been seems like the perfect book club choice – the fictionalized memoir of Lewis Carroll’s real-life muse.  However, this is one of the few books that I wish I hadn’t read.  While the author’s voice and flow was above par, the actual content of the story and portrayal of Alice’s cast of characters left me feeling disturbed and depressed. 

The main characters that Benjamin creates are not exactly stereotypical, but don’t quite make it to fully-dimensional.  Charles Dodgson comes across sometimes as a gentle, lonely professor and sometimes as a creepy pedophile; Alice’s sisters are either older and bossy, or young and sweet; Alice’s future husband is the antithesis of her first-love, and even “old Alice” becomes a re-creation of her mother, Lorina.

To be fair, Benjamin stuck faithfully to all known facts about Alice Liddell’s life, but of course filled in the numerous (and sometimes very deep) holes left by historical documents. My main beef is that if you’re an author who gets to fill in the holes with your own imagination, why take it in such a dark way?  Alice’s life is portrayed as one series of misfortunes and disappointments after another, until at the end of her life she gives up the memories of all the real people she has loved and resigns herself to being the “Alice in Wonderland” that she has always sought to escape.  Benjamin masterfully holds your attention through the entire book by withholding the one piece of information that you want to know – what causes the breach between Alice and Mr. Dodgson?  The answer is somewhat anti-climactic, and becomes the reason Alice “deserves” such a disappointing life.

As I commiserated with one of my other book club friends, I can never view Alice in Wonderland the same again . . . and it saddens me.  I have no problem with learning about real historical facts, but I’d rather not believe a depressing version of history if I don’t have to.  I doubt I’ll recommend this book to anyone.  I will, however, still try other Melanie Benjamin books as she did prove to be a good writer in many other respects.

Notable Quotes:

“I myself suffer it each time I consult a looking glass, only to wonder how the glass can be so cracked and muddled–and then realize, with a pang of despair, that it is not the glass that is deficient, after all.”

“How could I tell her that I–seemingly alone of all the literate world–had never read the entire book?  How could I tell her that I had no idea whether I was truly Alice–or Alice was truly me? For as long as I had lived with her–on the other side of the looking glass, staring back at me every day–I’d never dared to ask her how much, or how little, we were alike.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying? A.V. Club, Good Books and Good Wine, BookNAround


★★☆☆☆ Plot Development

★★★☆☆ Characterization

★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆