Sunday, April 10, 2005

Glimpses of Paradise: 1920s Los Angeles

Glimpses of Paradise, by James Scott Bell, is a stand-alone novel that brings more of Bell’s historical fiction: early 20th century Los Angeles and courtroom drama. (Click here for an interview with the author about this book) Starting in 1916 in rural Nebraska, the story follows the lives of two young people – Doyle Lawrence, son of a well-to-do lawyer; and Zee Miller, a wild preacher’s daughter. Through various circumstances during and after World War I, the two find themselves out in Los Angeles, where most of the story takes place. Zee pursues an acting career in the silent-film era of Hollywood, and Doyle bums his way to Los Angeles as a down-and-out doughboy.

“Kit Shannon” series fans will enjoy this book, which introduces the lawyer again: now in her early forties, widowed, and still practicing law. Yet she is clearly not the star of this book, but more in the background. The courtroom drama is also at a minimum in this book – a few scenes of a pre-trial hearing, but nothing more. As with the previous books, the author does a decent job of portraying the setting – in this case, early Hollywood, bootleggers and the general crime of the early 1920s, within the Los Angeles setting. Bell’s research in Christian Apologetics and history is well done, too, with some biographical information about evangelist R.A. Torrey. Torrey is the only historical character in this book (aside from brief references to well-known movie stars, never directly featured, such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford), yet Glimpses of Paradise brings forth interesting information about this man. The information on Torrey, though – including a brief biography at the end of the book – is generalized, without reference to his particular beliefs; no mention is made of his involvement with the Keswick movement (part of the Holiness movement, a precursor to modern-day Pentecostalism).

The main weakness in Glimpses of Paradise is perhaps that the main characters are not particularly likeable, especially at the beginning. We all know about the returning soldiers from war, including the ones that had trouble readjusting to society. Yet these typically included soldiers that came back without a leg (or other physical impairment) and/or those that lacked strong family support. Doyle returns physically unharmed, and has plenty of love and support from many family members. He isn’t exactly shell-shocked, but just seems to have an incredibly bad attitude (exhibited to some degree even before the war), as he callously rejects and runs away from his family. Zee Miller doesn’t seem any better – a selfish, self-centered brat who takes rebellion to a level not usually demonstrated by young women raised in small-town America before World War I.

For all these initial shortcomings, the story does improve later on. We soon forget the original setting and focus on the activities of both characters in Los Angeles. Some new, likeable characters, such as Molly, are introduced along the way. The author uses the characters Doyle and Zee to provide great contrast in character study, as we observe how they react to their circumstances. Indeed, both characters left to themselves are hopeless and sinful (as we all are), yet through the grace of God at least one character changes and grows. Still, both Doyle and Zee have to learn life the hard way.

Glimpses of Paradise is overall a nice addition to Christian historical fiction. It offers fans of Kit Shannon a follow-up, and for readers generally an interesting story about life in Los Angeles (and the depths of depravity) during the early 1920s.

Friday, April 1, 2005

Ladies: A Conjecture of Personalities

Ladies: A Conjecture of Personalities, by Feather Schwartz Foster, is an interesting, educational and entertaining book. Not exactly historical fiction, it blends biography with some speculation, through short “autobiographies” from each of the pre-modern First Ladies.

Each First Lady, from Martha Washington through Mamie Eisenhower, “contributes” their story, for fairly short and readable segments. As such, the book can be read out-of-sequence, if you just want to skip around and read different short stories. Yet as a whole, the stories build a more complete history of life among Presidents and their wives for nearly two hundred years. We learn about 18th century etiquette, the excitement of the early years of the country, and the subsequent aging of the White House building, in bad need of repairs by the late 19th century.

Adding to the enjoyment, each story includes boxed comments, skillfully placed on each page -- off to the side or in the middle between paragraphs of the main page – in which the other First Ladies add their commentary. The “modern” ones, Jackie Eisenhower through Hillary Clinton, sometimes add their comments here as well, and all comments contribute to the overall material; the earlier First Ladies relate a particular story to themselves and their knowledge, and the later ones add modern insight, what history now says.

Ladies: A Conjecture of Personalities is definitely for women readers, and promotes their need to feel important, regardless of political persuasions. The stories especially bring out each woman’s personality, describing what kind of person she was: her temperament, background, and personal interests. Many were rather ordinary, living upright, godly lives as pleasing to their husbands and society, and some seem more likeable than others. Yet they all have interesting stories – some quite unique and entertaining.

Foster’s book is overall a great enjoyment, an easy and entertaining way to learn many interesting and trivial things about people now forgotten, a look at history that we don’t usually get from a history book. Above all, the information in this book clearly reveals how much history repeats itself, and how we are all so much alike. (If you thought, for instance, that the 2000 Election debacle was the first ever, you will learn differently here.) Ladies: A Conjecture of Personalities is definitely a good read, and brings out the best in Foster’s research and knowledge regarding this subject, of the Presidents and First Ladies.