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Check It Out

Courier Articles by Sandy Schultheis
Sunday, September 3, 2000

Fall Fiction Easy Reading

Biographies are among the most popular non-fiction books at the library but biographical fiction has its charms as well. Fiction allows the author to fill in the gaps or make some changes in an historical life with invented details and characters. A richer story is often the result. In the past few months I have read several wonderful fictional biographies and one biography that reads like fiction. These, as well as many other fictionalized lives are all available through your public library.

Blonde: A Novel by Joyce Carol Oats (HarperCollins, 2000).

This weighty novelization of Marilyn Monroe's life didn't initially attract me but was highly recommended by a friend. It has received widely diverging reviews. "…fat, messy and fierce… part gothic… part lurid celebrity potboiler, and .. seldom less than engrossing." said the reviewer in the New York Times Book Review. On the other hand, Kirkus Reviews thought it one of Oates' worst books and "a contemptible insult to her [Monroe's] memory." I got about half way through and then my interest faded. Fans of Oates won't want to miss it.

Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss (Dutton, 2000).

Born on a fishing boat in the Mekong Delta in 1811 the original Siamese twins were joined by a band of tissue at the chest. As children Chang and Eng were taken to the court of the King of Siam and then. they were brought to America and exhibited until they were old enough to become independent. They married sisters in North Carolina and began a rural life with occasional tours to raise money. This poignant tale is told from the point of view of Eng who is portrayed as the more intelligent and thoughtful twin. His longing to be separate and have a life of his own as well as the love of a woman is heart rending. For further information about this fascinating duo, check out The Two: The Story of the original Siamese twins by Irving and Amy Wallace.

Grant by Max Byrd (Bantam, 2000).

I spent a few days down at Kentucky Lake recently and took this new book by the author of Jefferson and Jackson along. Grant's story is told by a fictional journalist who is really the main character in this work. Incidental characters who aren't fictional are writer Henry Adams and his photographer-wife Clover, Mark Twain and an assorted cast of Civil War personages. The main action takes place after Grant's second term when he is being considered for nomination for a third term. I came away with a greater knowledge and respect for Grant (after 25 cigars a day for many years he succumbed to throat cancer). Byrd has a knack for pulling the reader into the lives of famous people in an indirect way by focusing on the actions of minor players.

La Grande Therese: The Greatest Scandal of the Century by Hilary Spurling (HarperCollins, 2000).

At the turn of the last century, Therese Humbert was one of the most powerful women in France; she was the toast of Paris, and her wealth-she claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of a billionaire-- was legend. But Therese's origins were in reality humble. Her lifestyle, her history, and her inheritance were just a hoax used to gain credit and loans. When the truth finally came to light, thousands of small investors and creditors were ruined. She was tried and sentenced to five years' hard labor. Upon her release from prison, she vanished, and the fantastic story of her life was hushed up because too many important people were embarrassed that they had fallen for her con-game. Most biographies are fairly lengthy but this little book can be read quickly. This is not fiction but I hope someone will turn it into a rich novel.

Sandy Schultheis is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.