Monday, May 14, 2007

Fictionalized Biographies

Returning to some more kidlit and sticking with the biography theme of the last week or so, here are two interesting books by E. L. Konigsburg (my readers who don't read a lot of kidlit will know her as the author of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.)

In these books, Konigsburg has taken mountains of historical research and turned it into a story based on the life of a famous person.

First up, we have A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. This book is, to say the least, quirky. The frame of the story is that Eleanor of Aquitaine is hanging out in heaven. Now, after she died, she didn't go Up right away, but the world's poets and musicians plead her case and she's been there for 800 years. Her second husband, Henry II has had to wait even longer. Today is his judgment day (even though he died before she did). Lawyers are pleading the case for Henry (who laid the foundation for England's legal system) and well, it takes awhile to get enough lawyers in heaven.

So, Eleanor is hanging out on a cloud with Abbot Suger, Matilda-Empress (Henry's mom) and William the Marshal (a knight) waiting to see if Henry will come Up. While they are waiting, Eleanor's friends each tell a tale about the period of Eleanor's life they were involved in. The last tale is hers. The story is well-done and the historical detail spot-on. The framing works, but only because Konigsburg is a genius. Immediately after finishing, I wanted to know more about this woman, so I also read Eleanor of Aquitaine and the High Middle Ages. (This is not getting reviewed, because, as a rule, I tend to only review things that have over 100 pages, and this doesn't, but it was a great supplemental material.)

Next up is the more straight-forward, and yet more imagined, The Second Mrs. Gioconda. In this tale, Konigsburg takes just a few mentions of Salai in Da Vinci's notebooks and turns it into a fascinating look at what might have been. Salai, we know, is a thief, but for some reason, Da Vinci paid his sister's dowry and left him a house in his will. And this is all we know.

In this story, Konigsburg shows Salai as Da Vinci's apprentice, enjoying the boy's cheekiness. We learn of Da Vinci's day to day life, and the joy of being a court painter. Then Beatrice, the new duchess enters their lives, and everything changes. This book explores a possibility behind the Mona Lisa, the painting itself is a small mention at the end, the tale is really about the friendships between these three people and how they changed each other's lives. This is a tale of real people--angry people in love, jealous people, stressed out people. But good people trying to make the most out of their lives at the same time, and trying to find beauty in the everyday.

I've never seen such a wonderful meditation on beauty, especially for the middle-to-YA-reader set. Very well done.

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