Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

The new movie production of Alice in Wonderland produced by Tim Burton is sure to introduce a whole new generation to this classic and favorite fairy tale by Lewis Carroll. If you are anywhere near me in age -- yes, I know, older than the hills -- you will remember the golden-haired Alice made popular by Disney Studios and the wonderful illustrations of Tenniel.

But, what do you know about the real Alice. There are a couple of new books out that introduce us to Alice Pleasance Liddell, the muse behind Carroll's Alice.

For the lover of everything Victorian, The Real Alice in Wonderland, a Role Model for the Ages by C. M. Rubin is a beautiful book. Filled with cut-out vignettes, the book has the impression of a tenderly and lovingly created scrapbook. There are photos of the Liddell sisters taken by Charles Dodgson, the shy Oxford professor of mathematics and amateur photographer, snippets of letters and journals, as well as sketches and watercolors by Alice. The book is a celebration of the complete Alice story, real and imagined.
The "Real Alice in Wonderland" book is dedicated to all those who inspire the minds and souls of human beings. What does it mean to inspire? In the Victorian age, when few children escaped tradition, Alice Pleasance Liddell inspired the greatest children's story of all time, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." This book brought Alice and Lewis Carroll together for their lifetimes and forever. The story behind the story is a rich history of a very creative, curious, and magnetic young girl who grew up to become a cultural icon and one of the most celebrated women of the last 100 years. It is a story of love, tragedy, duty, courage and loyalty to family and country - that will surprise and deeply move you. It will make you think again about what it means to inspire.
But, as beautiful as this book is, there are many unanswered questions about the relationship between Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas hosted A Lewis Carroll Centenary exhibit, in the Ransom Center’s Leeds Gallery in the fall of 1998 and the website has a wealth of information about Dodgson, his photography, and Alice Liddell. If you are interested in the story this is a great resource.

In an 1877 letter, Carroll tells his correspondent that he considers himself "an amateur-photographer whose special line is ‘children’." He then encourages the recipient to bring the children by to meet him "not [to] be photographed then and there (I never succeed with strangers), but to make acquaintance with the place and the artist, and to see how they relished the idea of coming, another day, to be photographed."

Carroll’s photographic style evolved from the straightforward work of his early family albums into a more adventurous and interpretive one. In an almost magical fashion, Carroll’s photography allowed the natural child and the fanciful artist to combine in the production of memorable images. In fact, Carroll has left us with some of the most profound portraits of children ever created.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the work for which Lewis Carroll is best remembered, grew out of a river outing by Carroll, his friend Robinson Duckworth, and the three young daughters of Dean Liddell - Lorina, Alice and Edith. Carroll first told the girls the story of Alice during that memorable day, July 4, 1862, and, upon their urging, expanded it into a manuscript version shortly thereafter. In November 1864 he presented his manuscript tale, "Alice’s Adventures Under Ground," to Alice Liddell.

The new historical novel by Melanie Benjamin, Alice, I Have Been, gives the reader a more nuanced view of the life of Alice, as the young girl immortalized in the classic tale, and then follows her into adulthood. Benjamin was intrigued by a photo showing the young Alice as a scantily clad "wild gypsy child" and her eyes which expressed innocence combined with a seductive quality well beyond her years.

The relationship between Liddell and Dodgson has been the source of much controversy. Many biographers have supposed that Dodgson was romantically or sexually attached to her as a child, though there has never been any direct proof for this and more benign accounts assume merely a platonic fondness.

The relationship between the Liddells and Dodgson suffered a sudden break in June 1863. There was no record of why the rift occurred, since the Liddells never openly spoke of it, and the single page in Dodgson's diary recording 27-29 June 1863 (which seems to cover the period in which it began) was missing. The only source for what happened on that day has been speculation, and generally centers on the idea that Alice Liddell was, somehow, the cause of the break. It has long been suspected that her mother disapproved of Dodgson's interest in her, seeing him as an unfit companion for an 11-year-old girl.

This mystery sets the backdrop for Benjamin's story. She explains:
As I was researching Alice's life, three major aspects seemed to speak to me—the childhood, obviously, which remains so fascinating to fans of Lewis Carroll; the possibility of romance with Prince Leopold; the fact she had three sons who fought in World War I. So concentrating on these three distinct time periods—which really span most of the Victorian era—made the most sense, and I knew that thematically, the link between them all was always going to be Wonderland, or rather—the impossibility of Wonderland, after all.

The first section was probably easiest to write, however; the third, the most difficult. This was where there were so many gaps in Alice's story; she simply went away to Cuffnells for years and years, only re-emerging near the end of her life with the auction of the book. Yet during these years, she raised three sons whom she would have to send to war; this intrusion of bigger events sometimes made it more challenging to keep Wonderland and Dodgson still in the center of the story in that third section.

To hear more from Melanie Benjamin listen to the interview at NPR Weekend edition or Fresh Air

Ladybug Girl at the Beach

I am looking forward to the release of this wonderful new picture book which is one of several books scheduled to be published this summer as part of Penguin's "Catch the Reading Wave" promotion.

Jacky Davis - author
David Soman - illustrator
ISBN 9780803734166
available May 2010

Lulu loves the beach. Well, she’s never been there before, but she knows she will love it. And then she sees the ocean and it is big and loud and rough.

That’s okay—Lulu wanted to build sand castles and fly her kite with Bingo anyway. But while they are building their sand castle, the sneaky ocean comes in and tries to steal Lulu’s favorite pail. This is a job for Ladybug Girl!

Lulu conquers her fear of the ocean when she remembers that Ladybug Girl can do anything, in this gorgeously illustrated companion to the popular series.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Who Pays When You Buy Tax-Free Online?

While economists nationwide argue over whether we have begun to recover from the Great Recession, one financial reality is beyond dispute. Our state is facing the biggest budget challenge in decades. Even in a slowly rebounding economy, Texas is faced with a projected mid-year budget shortfall of $10 billion. Without a state income tax, our sales tax revenues are a primary source of funding for public services.

The enormous irony in this troubling story is that Texas is allowing hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax to go uncollected by allowing remote online retailers with a significant business presence in our state to ignore their obligation to collect sales tax.

Given the sums involved, you would think there would be many in the state calling for this situation to be remedied. There are not. Perhaps it's because opponents of sales tax equity have, so far, managed to obfuscate the issue through a combination of misinformation and scapegoating.

Under current sales tax law, any out-of-state retailer is required to collect and remit sales tax for purchases made by residents in Texas if the retailer has a physical presence in our state. Current sales tax laws dictate that an out-of-state retailer has a physical presence in a state if they have a store, warehouse, office, or sales agent in the state. and other online giants have thousands of affiliates in Texas, and they are actively promoting products sold by these out-of-state businesses. When this promotion results in a sale of said product, the affiliate earns a commission. That, by any definition, makes the affiliate a sales agent, and that means that these online mega-retailers have the legal presence in our state that requires them to collect sales tax.

The Amazons of the world and online affiliates are naturally opposed to any steps that states might take to enforce existing sales tax laws. Strategically, their stance makes a lot of sense because it gives them a significant competitive advantage over our in-state businesses that must add the additional cost of sales tax.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that consumers enjoy this so-called advantage. Many people will shop at out-of-state e-tailers just to avoid paying sales tax. That sounds fine, but we need to ask ourselves, in the long run, who really is footing the bill for these duty-free purchases?

Well, I can tell you who is not paying the bill: Neither online affiliates nor remote retailers. We are not talking about just a few dollars here and there flowing out-of-state. The reality is that hundreds of millions of dollars are lost each year, and the figure is growing.

This is money that should be going to first responders, to local communities, and to lessen our tax burden. Instead, this money is flying out-of-state to remote retailers and the affiliates that pocket the cash while taxpayers subsidize their use of our in-state services, our roads, and their very business.

Taking advantage of our state's unwillingness to enforce sales tax laws during the best of times is egregious enough. However, during a recession that has hit our state and local economy so hard, it's an affront to every business and citizen in the state. And what's worse, on an economic level, it makes no sense.

Legislators who oppose sales tax equity tout their belief in fiscal responsibility. But, in truth, how fiscally responsible is it to maintain a public policy that subsidizes out-of-state retailers while punishing in-state, tax-paying businesses and residents? Does fiscal responsibility demand that our state government burden residents and businesses with higher taxes and fewer services to placate out-of-state retailers that only take from our state and provide nothing in return? Yet that's the stance our state legislators and Governor are currently taking.

And so I ask one more question: How's that working out for us exactly? The current budget shortfall tells me the answer is not so good. Opponents also love to argue that folks like me are calling for a new tax. The idea that any struggling retailer in our state would demand a new tax on consumers just doesn't pass the giggle test.

In truth, if an out-of-state retailer does not have nexus in the state, shoppers are already required by law to submit the sales tax to the state. The real question is over who should collect this tax – you as a consumer or the out-of-state retailer. Now, granted, our state has not really done much to enforce the collection of use tax from residents, but trust me, as the budget situation worsens, it will. So either you're going to pay it or someone is going to collect it from you.

Finally, as for those who worry that sales tax equity would somehow harm online business in the state, let me stress that most online retailers, including Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, and Sears, already collect and remit sales tax for online purchases. Technological advances have greatly simplified and automated this task. Huge corporate retailers like and are the few remaining holdouts and the money they siphon from our local community and residents is significant and growing exponentially each year.

So please, when you go to the Internet for some tax-free shopping, I would only urge you to remember that your purchase isn't really free at all. In fact, that tax-free purchase costs all of us and our communities a lot more than you might think.