Tuesday, June 28, 2016


The Secret Chord, Geraldine Brooks, Viking, 2015, 290 pp
 This was a reading group pick, suggested by me. I have read every one of Geraldine Brooks's novels and she always does something unique. The Secret Chord is historical fiction about the life of King David, one of the most well-known figures in the Old Testament. For me, who was raised with a heavily Christian influence, David loomed large because Jesus Christ is considered by prophecy and history to have been descended from the House of David.

Despite which, I knew very little about him. I have tried many times to read the Old Testament only to be defeated by the long genealogical lists in the early books. In preparation for reading this novel, I did plow through the First Book of the Chronicles. I skimmed much of the genealogy but actually got a pretty good account of how David became the King of the Jews and re-established them in Jerusalem. However, it took Geraldine Brooks to bring the story to life.

Those were extremely violent times! I am getting the idea through my reading that the Middle East has mostly been a violent area since time immemorial and truly do not see much hope that it will change. Since it is supposed to be the birthplace of humanity, it looks to me that war and violence are in our DNA.

So, the book. I liked it. Through the narration of David's prophet Nathan, she presents the King as a deeply flawed character whose tragic childhood and successful life as a warrior made him a man who craved power but had some difficulty handling all the adulation he received.

I suppose that for any person who believes in and tries to follow the commandments of God, it is personal weaknesses and character flaws that make such obedience difficult. In the Old Testament God is seen as jealous and vengeful, so in my view God was also flawed.

There there are the women. David had numerous wives, some of whom he loved, some he married for political reasons, and all of whom were meant to provide an heir and successor. Brooks paints him as a heartbreaker and a sometimes cruel husband whose powerful life force spilled over into lust and womanizing. Right up there with Henry VIII he was. I was left thinking that in fact women have achieved the most change in history as far as taking charge of our own existence and being a force for peace, justice, and balance in the world.

Obviously, as suggested by the title, there is music. In fact, that title is taken from Leonard's song, Hallelujah. 
"Well, I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord."

Brooks makes much of David's genius as a musician, his hours of harp playing, composing songs and Psalms. She has his prophet and spiritual guide say:
"I think that few grasp the connection between waging war and making music, but in the long evenings when firelight flickered on cave walls and the voices joined and rose with his, I learned the unity between the two...
You cannot harmonize in song or play instruments together without listening one to the other, sensing when to be loud and when soft, when to take the lead and when to yield it."

As fascinating and complex a character as David was, his seer was equally so. I first came across the role of a King's seer in Nicola Griffith's amazing Hild. They see things, have visions and in David's case can be considered the voice of God. The visions and words of God came to and through Nathan without his volition, giving him headaches and other ills, but because Nathan was almost always right David counts on him and mostly does what he says. The seer role calls for much finesse and judgement and since Nathan is the narrator of this tale, you get to experience the tensions and burdens that go along with the role.

Finally, the man who was King David did produce an heir who brought about wisdom and a less violent era for the Jews. He was King Solomon and Nathan was his tutor.

(The Secret Chord  is available on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, June 26, 2016


Three Strong Women, Marie NDiaye, Alfred A Knopf, 2012, 293 pp (translated from the French by John Fletcher
 Summary from Goodreads: In this new novel, the first by a black woman ever to win the coveted Prix Goncourt, Marie NDiaye creates a luminous narrative triptych as harrowing as it is beautiful.

This is the story of three women who say no: Norah, a French-born lawyer who finds herself in Senegal, summoned by her estranged, tyrannical father to save another victim of his paternity; Fanta, who leaves a modest but contented life as a teacher in Dakar to follow her white boyfriend back to France, where his delusional depression and sense of failure poison everything; and Khady, a penniless widow put out by her husband’s family with nothing but the name of a distant cousin (the aforementioned Fanta) who lives in France, a place Khady can scarcely conceive of but toward which she must now take desperate flight.
My Review:
I've wanted to read this novel since it first came out. I proposed it to a couple of my reading groups but it did not get picked (and I am glad-more about that in a minute.) Then her second book at Knopf (Ladivine) came out this spring and got me excited again so I read this one first.
It was not difficult to read, in fact I couldn't put it down, but it was emotionally tough. The three women (called Three Powerful Women in the French title) are loosely connected mainly by the experiences of either being born in France of mixed French/Senegalese parents, emigrating from Senegal to France, or desiring to emigrate. These connections are skillfully created by the author similar to the way the three sections of The Vegetarian are. 
What was tough was the dire lack of love or happiness in these women's lives. Americans put a lot of belief into creating happiness for their children. Whether we achieve it is another story. So, despite all the literature I have read about dysfunctional families, it was just a kick in the teeth to read about these people who did not even consider happiness an option.
Survival is another issue altogether and that is also what connects the three women. Each one has personal strength or power but it is directed toward other outcomes than happiness. And yet, in another stroke of writing brilliance, you see that they each have hearts that beat and are aware of the happiness they have been denied.
Marie NDiaye has a Senegalese father and French mother. She was educated as a linguist at the Sorbonne, the alma mater of Simone de Beauvoir, from whose autobiographies I got the idea that one has to be super intelligent to succeed there. Also tough and, at least for a female, in touch with your inner power.
All of that is to say that an almost pitiless intelligence shine through in these stories as well as a firm belief that it takes some kind of spiritual strength to keep pushing forward into lives that are so far from even normal, much less ideal.
Do I recommend the book? Not for everyone. For readers who enjoy translated literary fiction, who want to know how people, particularly women, live in other countries and locales, yes. For readers who prefer not to read about the grittier realities of some peoples' lives, no.
I will read Ladivine. Also today I learned, thanks to the wonder of Twitter, that there is a second publisher, Two Lines Press, who have published two other novels by NDaiye and are preparing a third.

(Three Strong Women is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, June 23, 2016


The Man Without a Shadow, Joyce Carol Oates, HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, 369 pp
 Summary from Goodreads: In 1965, neuroscientist Margot Sharpe meets Elihu Hoopes: the “man without a shadow,” who will be known, in time, as the most-studied and most famous amnesiac in history. A vicious infection has clouded anything beyond the last seventy seconds just beyond the fog of memory.

Over the course of thirty years, the two embark on mirrored journeys of self-discovery: Margot, enthralled by her charming, mysterious, and deeply lonely patient, as well as her officious supervisor, attempts to unlock Eli’s shuttered memories of a childhood trauma without losing her own sense of self in the process. Made vivid by Oates’ usual eye for detail, and searing insight into the human psyche, The Man Without a Shadow is eerie, ambitious, and structurally complex, unique among her novels for its intimate portrayal of a forbidden relationship that can never be publicly revealed.
My Review:
I wouldn't say this was my favorite JCO novel but it was surely the most interesting. 
Elihu Hoopes is an amnesiac whose short term memory only goes back 70 seconds. Margot Sharpe is beginning graduate school and has been accepted into the neuropsychology program headed by Milton Ferris, a harsh taskmaster but also a brilliant neuroscientist, headed for a Nobel Prize. Both Ferris and Margot go on to make their names because of Project E H.
First paragraph: "Notes on Amnesia: Project 'E H' (1965-1996)
She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
At last she says goodbye to him, thirty-one years after they've first met. On his deathbed, he has forgotten her."
That is a synopsis of the novel but everything that happens between those lines is what makes the story. Every time Margot comes to work with Elihu, he is meeting her for the fist time as far as he can remember. Over the thirty-one years, Margot falls in love with E H, he becomes her entire life, and she (secretly) takes the lab protocol quite a ways beyond professional limits.

Dr Ferris's team, but especially Margot, make huge advances in the understanding of amnesia, the brain, and the psychology of memory, but Margot lives under the constant stress of being found out concerning some of her methods.

Elihu also has disturbing memories from his childhood, full of guilt and fear over the death by drowning of his favorite cousin when he was only 5 years old.

The novel is full of tension, mystery, and the psychology of love as well as the psychology of psychologists. Only Joyce Carol Oates could have written it. I was left aghast at the end. What a read! Two of my reading groups have selected the book for this summer. One has met and we could not stop discussing!

(The Man Without a Shadow is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair, Upton Sinclair, Harcourt Brace & World, 1962, 330 pp
I think most people, if they know who Upton Sinclair was, know of him through his early muckraking novels such as The Jungle and Oil. After years of hand-to-mouth living and writing, The Jungle was his breakthrough. Decrying the wretched conditions for both animals and people in Chicago's meatpacking industry, the book captured the attention of Teddy Roosevelt, President at the time, and resulted in legislation which made the meat we eat safer and gave the workers some right. Upton Sinclair, as is evident in his autobiography, dedicated his life to balancing unfairness in human society.
I came to know of him in a different way. When I started My Big Fat Reading Project, I found him on the Pulitzer Prize lists. He won that prize in 1943 for his novel Dragon's Teeth, in which he tells about the rise of Hitler and his persecution of Jews.

Eventually I read all 10 books of his Lanny Budd series, published once a year from 1940-1949. Quite a writing and publishing feat, as each book is 600-700 pages long! In the Autobiography I learned that he had always written at that pace and continued to do so for decades.

Anyway those 10 books gave me an education on Europe and American in the first half of the 20th century that I never got in school. So when The Autobiography came up on my 1962 list, I just had to read it and find out how he was able to penetrate the history of those times and ferret out the truths behind the two World Wars that defined the period. And find that out I did!

Upton was kind of a goofy guy-a teetotaler for his entire life and somewhat of a prude when it came to sex. I found out why. He mostly learned everything the hardest way possible. But his drive to give the underdog a fair chance; to right the wrongs of greedy industrialists, capitalists, bankers, and arms dealers; and, perhaps a bit too innocently, to make a difference in the world, makes him a hero to me.

His writing in this volume continues in the voice I got to know in those thousands of pages about Lanny Budd. He actually had a pretty good sense of humor about himself, but he just never backed down.

It is my opinion that he, along with many others, did make a difference. The Autobiography reads like a history of what he called Democratic Socialism in the United States. It is a rocky, dirty, demoralizing history that is still ongoing, based on the idea that a democracy is meant to be "of the people, by the people, for the people" (Abraham Lincoln)
The Lanny Budd Series with links to my reviews:

(The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair is available in hardcover and paperback but for some reason is quite expensive. I found a copy at my local library.)

Saturday, June 18, 2016


LaRose, Louise Erdrich, Harper, 2016, 372 pp

I have been reading Louise Erdrich for over a decade. She has been writing novels for over three decades. She never lets me down. The new novel, set in familiar territory, the remaining Ojibwe lands of North Dakota, is engaged in spanning: generations, cultures, the spiritual world, and the moral universe. If that sounds deep, it is but her dazzling prose and sophisticated plotting create a novel that is quite impossible to put down.

LaRose is a young boy, descended from at least five generations of Native American women, all of whom were named LaRose and employed courage as well as Ojibwe skills and spiritual practice in the face of violence and oppression. Throughout the course of the novel this heritage reveals and builds the character of a remarkable being, LaRose, who spans every gulf between the troubles in his family.

One morning, Landreaux Iron is out hunting and accidentally shoots his young nephew Dusty. Emmaline Iron is half-sister to Dusty’s mother Nola; Dusty’s father Peter is Landreaux’s best friend. Tragedy, loss, and near insanity invade the lives of these two families. The tribal police and county coroner rule the death an accident but Landreaux’s guilt sends him to the sweat lodge with Emmaline to work out what amends will satisfy the spirits. They decide to give their five-year-old son LaRose to Peter and Nola as atonement for and replacement of their lost son Dusty.

As Erdrich continues to spin this desperate tale, the past comes rushing in to complicate the already delicate relations between Emmaline and Nola, between Landreaux and his mortal enemy, the substance abusing Romeo, between Native American and White culture. In a situation as tangled as a Gordian Knot, she never lets the reader become lost but builds suspense and dread. You feel the emotions of each character while you become immersed in the history of what the American settlers and government have wrought on the natives of the country we conquered. In the end, you are left marveling at the intricacies of the whole sorry situation.

Often in her novels, Louise Erdrich posits that a child will leap across all these chasms and bring about a healing resolution. LaRose is that child here. From the bewilderment caused by having to leave his own loving parents and siblings to live with a woman deranged by grief and a young female cousin raging against her bitter mother, he grows into a wise and funny and brave young dude. Eventually, Emmaline wants LaRose back, so he begins to live in alternate weeks with each family. His increasing love for the new family and a deep loyalty to his birth family bring about an untangling of the many knots of distrust, betrayal, and loss of identity from which the adults suffer. Basically, the kids save the day.

Louise Erdrich writes stories no one else is telling these days. Her books are a study in the ways a conquered people endure living within a different civilization. Although that adjustment has been the problem of millions of people throughout history, the plight of the Native American is not often considered in 21st century America. She can conjure up healing and resolution as a realistic option without falling prey to sentimentalism. She can imagine people who have the humanity to build a hopeful future without festering in past bitterness, even as she reveals the disintegration of self, caused by culture clash. She is a LaRose herself.

Note: This review was originally published at Litbreak Magazine.

(LaRose is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Big Sur, Jack Kerouac, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1962, 212 pp
Read from my 1962 reading list, this is the third Kerouac novel I have read. (The Road, Dharma Bums are the others.) I am even more impressed. 
Don't get me wrong, it is not a happy book. In fact, it is the most disturbing of the three. But his power to describe: the natural world, the intricacies of friendship, the inner life. And the sheer propulsive energy of the writing. Finally, he captured in all these books a lost era, the Beat generation, an important, if under-the-radar, element of American society. If it had not been important he would not have become so famous.

But in Big Sur, he paints the life of an author ruined by fame, having a major identity crisis, and driving himself deeper and deeper into depression. Also he is clearly in the grip of the alcoholism that will send him to an early grave-he died at age 47.

I know there are those who decry any writing done under the influence of alcohol and probably they are right. Even more then the wonder of this writer who could so vividly write the experience.

Throughout the novel he alludes to a breakdown he had, while telling of all the weeks leading up to it, as he careens back and forth from a cabin in Big Sur to San Francisco, from solitude to being surrounded by people, from moments when he transcends his existential anguish to the depths of depression. The pages where he describes the actual hours of his breakdown felt true and real to me. And then, overnight, he is fine.

I don't know what that ability is, to recall and record moments from drunkenness and psychic meltdown so accurately. Certainly not an ability that promotes a stable or happy life. But if, as mental practitioners claim, memories are lost in blackouts and during madness, Jack Kerouac belies that theory. 

(Big Sur is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, June 13, 2016


Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins, Riverhead Books, 2015, 339 pp
Summary from Goodreads: In a parched southern California of the near future, Luz, once the poster child for the country’s conservation movement, and Ray, an army deserter turned surfer, are squatting in a starlet’s abandoned mansion. Most “Mojavs,” prevented by armed vigilantes from freely crossing borders to lusher regions, have allowed themselves to be evacuated to encampments in the east. Holdouts like Ray and Luz subsist on rationed cola and water, and whatever they can loot, scavenge, and improvise.

For the moment, the couple’s fragile love, which somehow blooms in this arid place, seems enough. But when they cross paths with a mysterious child, the thirst for a better future begins.

Immensely moving, profoundly disquieting, and mind-blowingly original, Watkins’s novel explores the myths we believe about others and tell about ourselves, the double-edged power of our most cherished relationships, and the shape of hope in a precarious future that may be our own.
My Review:
Oh my, I loved this story! If you are tired of gritty, violent, and/or depressing post-apocalyptic books, this one is not for you. But if you loved The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi or Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, etc, you would want to check out Gold Fame Citrus.
It concerns the southern California drought in a future gone very dry. As in true history, such as the dust bowl story The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, there are people who have chosen to stick around. Two of those, Luz and Ray, are equally damaged characters, though for widely different reasons. Luz is a casualty of the modeling and advertising world. Ray suffers from severe PTSD, the military kind, and has a tendency to desert people.
As the story opens, they are hanging on to each other, but prone to making bad decisions. Eventually a couple of these decisions send them on a road trip and quest for safety. Of course, that is not what they find. The writing is so amazing and creative that you feel you are there and become deeply invested in these and several other characters.
I am always curious about cults, both cult leaders and the people who join them. The one in this story is on beyond the craziest southwestern UFO cult you ever read about. Even more interesting to me are the people who wake up and manage to escape.
Luz is one of those. She is such a broken person but also has courage, so I watched her keep trying. I was rooting for her all the while I was pretty sure she was doomed.
When I finished the book I seriously considered moving back to Michigan. The economy there may be one of the worst in America right now but at least it rains! 
(Gold Fame Citrus is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)