Tuesday, February 28, 2006


The Song of Bernadette, Franz Werfel, The Viking Press, 1042, 575 pp
This book was #1 on the bestseller list for 1942. Bernadette was a common French girl from a small town who saw a vision of a blessed lady. She was happy with her vision because it brought her peace and joy in the midst of a very hard life. But the world got involved, in the form of government officials, the church and the thousands of regular people who believed in her vision. After being hassled for years, Bernadette finally found solace in a convent and a life of service to others. After her death she was canonized as a saint.

This is her very interesting story and is a good and true accounting of how the world at large reacts to miracles. It was also made into a movie and won Jennifer Jones an Oscar for Best Actress in 1944. It is available on VHS and is pretty good, if you like old movies. Of course, the book is better.

The Moon is Down, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1942, 58 pp
This tiny book was #2 on the list. It takes place in an unnamed European town which was conquered by the Nazis. The townspeople put up resistance to the victors and do not lose heart.

I've been reading a biography of Steinbeck as I read through his books (John Steinbeck, Writer, by Jackson J Benson) and from there I learned that Steinbeck and other writers were formed into a group by FDR to do public relations during the war. The name of this group escapes me at the moment. So Steinbeck wrote this book to give Americans hope in case we were invaded. Interestingly, his is the only one that sold well enough to be a bestseller. It is very different from any other Steinbeck I have read, but you can tell it is him writing.

Dragon Seed, Pearl S Buck, The John Day Company, 1942, 378 pp
For some reason, I had avoided reading any Pearl Buck, but this was one of my favorite books from 1942. It was the #3 bestseller. She is a good storyteller with just the right balance of story, description and philosophy. In the book, China is being invaded by Japan and you get what this is like though the experiences of a farming family.

The message is how to resist evil and keep hope alive, how to fight for freedom and it is very moving. She touches on all the usual true values that are at the foundation of civilization. The book gave me a different picture of the Chinese than I had gotten from all those James Clavell books I used to read. Of course, the Japanese are the complete bad guys, which they continued to be all through the second world war.

This book was also made into a movie, but it is ludicrous with Katherine Hepburn as the mother of the Chinese family. Pulease.

And Now Tomorrow, Rachel Field, The Macmillan Company, 1942, 350 pp
Every bestseller list needs a pure romance novel and this was the one for 1942, coming in at #4. Two sisters are born into a rich family of textile mill owners near Boston. They lose both parents and are raised by their spinster aunt. The heroine, who tells the story, gets engaged to Harry, an executive at the mill, then she gets meningitis and goes deaf. Harry proceeds to fall in love with the sister behind the deaf girl's back.

Meanwhile the depression hits, there are unions and strikes and upsets in the rich family over this. A man from the worker side of town comes back as a doctor, cures the deaf sister, she finds out about Harry and in the end is planning to hook up with the doctor. Pretty predictable, slow moving and the heroine was weak.

Drivin' Woman, Elizabeth Pickett.
The only book on these lists so far that I couldn't find. It was #5. Anyone have it?

Thursday, February 23, 2006


The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra, Nan A Talese, 2004, 195 pp.

The author is an Algerian army officer who wrote in French under a female nom de plume to avoid military censorship. The book was first published in France in 2002, which makes it pre-9/11. It is Afghanistan under the Taliban. Life has already been disrupted by Russian communists and the Taliban is no better, perhaps worse. It is a totalitarian religious reign of terror. The women are back under the burqa, although in this country the veils are blue and yellow instead of black, as they are in Iran. The women are the swallows of Kabul.

By following the lives of various people and causing some of them to cross paths, the author creates a picture of the disintegration of a society. It is very bleak. In the end, you are left in complete mystery about the fate of one of the female characters and you are not given any hope for the rest. Whatever position, possessions or happiness anyone had (especially women), has all been taken away along with freedom.

I can't say I really liked the book, but I am glad I read it. Compared to The Kite Runner, this is a personal book on a deeper level, partly because none of the characters leave the country. It made me appreciate anew the abundant freedom of The United States and reminded me of the importance of protecting and preserving that freedom while refraining from abusing it.

(The Swallows of Kabul is available in hardcover, paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find this book at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)


I'm inserting a couple current books here before I dive back into the 1940s.

The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby, Believer Books, 2004, 140 pp
This was a totally fun read. My very cool sister-in-law from Seattle sent me a subscription to "The Believer Mag" for Christmas. Along with the first issue came two books; one was a book of interviews with writers which I am still making my way through and the other was this book. It is a collection of columns about reading which Hornby wrote for "The Believer" from September, 2003-November, 2004. (He still writes the column and it continues to be really good.)

Because I love reading about what other readers read and think and because I love Hornby's writing, which makes me smile and laugh out loud, I loved reading this slim volume. (He includes excerpts from several books. I hate excerpts, I don't read them anywhere and I didn't read them here.)

For each column, he lists the books he bought that month and then the books he actually read. He is another person who buys more books than he can possibly read. Then he does a quick bit of comments on each book, how it moved him (or n0t) and how it fit in with the rest of his life at the time. Somehow he manages to be witty, earnest and personal all at once.

I used to write a book column for a local paper where I would comment on all the books I read in a month. The editor (a singularly unimaginative, Rotary Club type) wanted me to scale it down to writing about only one or two books. Since I wasn't getting paid anyway, we parted ways. Well, hah, here is a famous writer doing the same thing in a hip magazine. I guess hip is the operative word here.

Monday, February 20, 2006


This is the second installment of the memoir through reading which I am writing. I have been reading books from all the years and decades of my life, beginning with 1940 as the first year of the decade in which I was born. The first installment can be found in the December archives and was posted on December 4, 2005.

I would call 1941 "the end of the innocence" for America. Sure there were earlier hard times in our country, but memories are short and even the Great Depression no longer had such a grip on the people. Those earlier hard times only made Americans unwilling to get involved in more trouble, but trouble was coming and by the end of 1941 it would come to America.

The books I read for this year were not quite as exciting as the ones from 1940. Possibly I was now more used to the era and the style of writing. World War II or any war is the main topic on the list of books, but also included are themes I found in 1940: love, family and religion. Then there were the historical novels, including China, the beginnings of the abolition movement in England, railroad barons, post Civil War New Orleans, etc.

There was no Pulitzer awarded in 1941 and no Nobel Prize for Literature. In film, "Rebecca: won the Academy Award for Best Picture; "Grapes of Wrath" for Best Director (John Ford); "Philadelphia Story" for Best Actor (James Stewart); and "Kitty Foyle" for Best Actress (Ginger Rogers). The pop songs were "Deep in the Heart of Texas", "Chattanooga Choo-Choo", "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."

The United States was watching the war in Europe. While most citizens were hoping we would not get involved, our government and industry were busy getting us involved. There were already price freezes by the Office of Price Administration on steel, rubber was rationed so people were careful about their tires, and US Savings Bonds and stamps were being sold to build up money for financing war. FDR was in his third term and knew we would be in the war eventually. He had to tread lightly because American popular opinion wanted nothing to do with it and it was his job to convince the American people that we had to fight to preserve democracy and all that. For the first time, the Supreme Court set a minimum wage for businesses involved in interstate commerce. Most telling was the beginning of the Manhattan Project, formed to research atomic energy.

My parents became a couple in this year, during the last semester of their senior year in college. They were both in the choir at Valparaiso University in Indiana. That spring, while on tour with the choir in southern Indiana, they fell in love amidst the blossoming fruit trees. My mother graduated with a degree in Music Education, while my father received his in Business Administration.

Mom went home to Port Hope, Michigan and got a job as a telephone operator, while she wrote to schools looking for a teaching position. She was hired that summer to teach music at a public school in Grand Blanc, Michigan. In the fall she found a room there in a house full of teachers and went to work. Grand Blanc was a very small town but the school was filled with kids bussed in from the outlying farming areas. During the war, General Motors built a plant there to make tanks, so many people moved into the area and the schools got over-crowded. As the male teachers began to be drafted, the women had to take up the slack. Before she left to get married, my mom was teaching a health class and an English class in addition to teaching music to first, second and third graders as well as junior high students.

My dad went back to Pittsburgh, PA to live at home while he began his career with United States Steel. He got a job as a bookkeeper in an outlying plant and had to commute. He would be a commuter all his working life, but later would live in the suburbs of New Jersey and commute to New York City. The lovers wrote to each other every day and visited when they could. They would meet in Cleveland, OH, each taking the train, or my dad would come to Michigan. His mother wondered why he didn't stick with his girlfriend from highschool, instead courting some girl from "way out west". My mom's aunt, with whom she had lived since the age of three, had planned that my mom would teach and during her summers they would travel. She was bitter and disappointed that my mom planned to marry and later destroyed all the letters my mom had saved from those courtship days with my dad.

In December, 1941, one of the bachelor teachers at the school in Grand Blanc was trying to convince my mother to go on a date, when they heard the news of Pearl Harbor on the radio. Within days, the United States had declared war on Japan, Germany had declared war on the United States and we were at war.

Germany and England were bombing each other to pieces that year and Germany had begun her foolish invasion of Russia. Most Americans were clueless about the extent of horrors being perpetrated by the Germans (the treatment of the Jews, the concentration camps, the reign of terror by the Nazis) and knew even less about the Japanese. The only book I found about all this in 1941 was The Scum of the Earth, by Arthur Koestler, which was a memoir about prison camps in France where Jews, liberal writers and other undesirables were sent in those early years of the war.

While people in Europe were suffering all the fear and inconvenience and losses of war, Americans were trying to go on with daily life, including my parents. But the writers of the time almost unilaterally were opposed to war and saying so and showing in their writing the stupidity, waste and spurious causes of war. While the governments used propaganda to fire up their citizens against the "enemy", they also participated in getting the wars going for foolish and greedy, imperialistic reasons. It was and always is, the regular common citizens who carry out and pay for the actual fighting and killing, while the industrialists make money hand over fist. There are still three and a half years of war to go.

The writing in these books from the 40s is overall better writing than much of the current literature, but it is dense and thick and after reading it for days and days, I would start to feel stuck in that time and those sensibilities. As I read, I found some of my faith in mankind and many of my viewpoints and philosophical ideas being sorely tested. I wondered if reading fiction might be giving me too big a dose of the hardship, sorrow, suffering and loss in life. I felt like Will Durant, who after studying so much history, lost his faith in the Catholic religion.

I began to see the hugeness of the breadth of experience in life and my little American, Protestant upbringing, my 1950s Pollyanna education (which taught that if you are just good, hardworking, kind, not too much into sex or daring adventures, you will be okay and have a happy life) looked to me like a big denial of what life is actually about. All the emphasis on success, money, getting ahead, which is the mantra of the current society, became thin and unreal.

The lure of safety, security through money and possessions, is a strong, mostly uninspected, deeply inculcated thing in our society. I am not saying that I think we should be existential or hopeless, but where is the adventure in all this? Where is the big game; throwing oneself whole hog into life, live or die in the attempt? I just felt fed up with worrying about what people wear, what cars they drive, how big their houses are, who they know, blah, blah, blah.

Reading takes me into so many ways that people live, so many types of experience. I love that and I see that in every area or culture or type of society, you still find all the levels of mood, attack on life, awareness, ethics. I began to wonder what kind of world it would be if everyone just agreed and was nice and worked together for a common purpose. It sounds good sometimes, sounds really boring at other times. I also became aware of what my parents had experienced in that decade before I was born and why they raised us the way they did. They were born just after the first World War, their parents suffered all the economic uncertainty of the Depression, their young adult years were disrupted by war again and they wished for their children to have a calmer, more secure and better life. Possibly we have had a better life or have we spent all these years in a denial of what life is really all about? In 1941 I was not even born yet and I did not seriously begin to question anything until my late teens. I've got a good twenty years of reading ahead of me but I am already beginning to see the currents and moods that led to that questioning.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


The Illmade Knight, TH White, GP Putnam's Sons, 1941, 200 pp
We come to Book III of The Once and Future King. This is Lancelot's story and was the easiest read so far, though maybe I am getting used to his style. There was not a boring moment. What a different view of Lancelot from Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon.

The Castle on the Hill,
Elizabeth Goudge, PF Collier & Son Corporation, 1941
As I mentioned in the 1940 list, this is one of my favorite authors. I have read all of her fiction and her autobiography. This one takes place during World War II. She had only been publishing novels for six years at this point and was just 37 years old. She has such amazing insight into people. Was I that wise and able to perceive at 37? I don't think so.

Miss Brown is the heroine. She is plucky but shy, capable but a dreamer. She assists a young man who is upset by the war. The message of this book is that the way to find happiness is to embrace all of life, confront your demons, be kind and believe in the power of good over evil. The book could well be laughed out of existence in today's world.

Wild is the River, Louis Bromfield, PF Collier & Son Corporation, 1941, 326 pp
Here we are in New Orleans again, the time is post Civil War. The main characters are Yankees and are portrayed as repressed, humorless and dishonest people preying on a conquered city. Tom is a Yankee soldier with a wild, promiscuous streak. The young countess is a Creole woman with a hard controlling heart. Agnes is the young fiancee of Tom, and she comes to New Orleans with her spinster aunt to visit Tom.

Amidst conflicts and rebellions, all these people resort to other relationships. Some find true love, some get what's coming to them and some get away unscathed physically if not emotionally. I found the book annoying and boring by turns. The characters were cardboard, the plot obvious and the author has that irritating way of having a character think or feel one way and then instantly have an opposite thought or feeling, similar to Edna Ferber. Really it was just a silly romantic historical novel of the 40s.

Without Signposts, Kathleen Wallace, GP Putnam's Sons, 1941, 298 pp
This story was an interesting but little known aspect of life for women in England during World War II. Just before England got into the war, people were being evacuated from London into the countryside for safety, especially children and mothers. Tamsin Heywood is a widow with two small children and among the evacuees. She must find housing and schools for the children on little money.

They end up in a boarding house run by Russian emigres from the revolution. It is a similar scene to the one in The Family, which I read in the 1940 list. Genteel poverty and various cultures trying to live together. In the end, everyone finds love including Tamsin. The writing is not great but the happy ending with the underlying potential for loss because of the war is a true portrayal of life at that time, particularly for mothers.

Now we come to the award winning books. There was no Pulitzer Prize winner in 1941.

The Matchlock Gun, Walter D Edmonds, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1941, 50 pp
The Newbery Medal winner is a story of an Indian raid on a family in upstate New York. The 10 year old son fires off an old matchlock gun and saves his mother and sister, while his father has gone off to try to prevent the Indians from getting that close.

Make Way For Ducklings, Robert McCloskey, The Viking Press, 1941, 64 pp
The Caldecott Medal winner features great illustrations and the story of a family of ducks settling in Boston. The way the mother duck wants to keep looking until they find a safe place to raise ducklings reminded me of the beaver story in James Michener's Centennial.

That completes the books I read from 1941 and my plan worked. I am now ready to write up the chapter for my book that corresponds to that year. I should have it posted tomorrow.


The rest of the 1941 list are non-bestseller books, chosen for various reasons.

Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, The Macmillan Company, 1941, 222 pp
This was one of my favorites from 1941 and is a completely intense book about a communist leader who is no longer in favor under Stalin. He has been imprisoned (not for the first time) and undergoes a whole series of "hearings" to convince him to confess to crimes he did not do, for the good of the party. The scene where he is arrested was so moving and touches the reader with that fear of unreasoning authority that I believe all people have buried somewhere deep. The "hearings" portray injustice as it is practiced here on earth with perfect pitch.

The main character has to figure out the ethics of it for himself and to examine his communist beliefs, hopes and dreams, compared to what has become of the revolution as they try to hold onto power. The stable datum for communism is that the end justifies the means. The party is also having trouble getting the masses to understand what communism has done for them. Basically they have a PR problem.

This book will resonate deeply with anyone who has been part of a group or espoused a philosophy that claims to have "answers" for mankind.

The Scum of the Earth, Arthur Koestler, The Macmillan Company, 1941, 287 pp
This one is not fiction but memoir; a harrowing story of prison camps and hiding and running during the early months of World War II. It is one of those stories you never get in the history books they make you read in school.

Basically as the French government continued the ass-kissing of Hitler which led to a German victory over France, all foreigners and especially writers of any left-wing color became suspect and were thrown into French prison camps. Human rights were unknown, red tape and extreme incompetent bureaucracy were rampant. All this was going on as Koestler was writing Darkness at Noon. He is a great writer and he honors many voices of freedom that were permanently silenced, some by their own hand in despair.

It seems to be a law of some kind: when the forces of destruction gain the upper hand, the voices of freedom are not allowed to be heard. But a second law is that they can never be entirely wiped out.

Between Two Worlds, Upton Sinclair, The Viking Press, 1941, 859 pp
This is the second volume in the Lanny Budd series which began in 1940 with World's End. It is very long and gets monotonous at times but it was part of my continuing education on the real story behind our two world wars. This one takes Lanny up to the stock market crash of 1929.

What gets monotonous is the theme of the stupidity of politics between the wars. Also tiresome is Lanny's continuous vacillation between being a wealthy artist or a socialist who works to change the world. He goes through three love affairs, the third being his marriage to a multi-millionaire heiress, largely engineered by his mother and her friends. I suppose that since this is Lanny's true coming of age tale, which is going on during a severe breakdown of the western world, that the story must be told this way. I also suspect it is somewhat autobiographical for Sinclair. The story picks up near the end and at that point I was grateful for the educational aspect of it all, though I still felt it could have been a couple hundred pages shorter.

The Real Life of Sebastion Knight, Vladimir Nabokov, New Directions, 1941, 205pp
I don't really like Nabokov. I read him because it seems that any literary person must know about him and his writings. I feel the same way about Henry James, though thankfully he wrote before 1940, so I don't have to deal with him right now. Anyway, I digress.

I was mystified by this book. It is the story of a writer's life told by his brother after the writer's death. It might be partially autobiographical. Nabokov's first language was Russian; then he learned to write in English. He likes to use big words and literary references. He can really nail people and make them alive, but I am never sure why he writes what he does. I think Russians as a people are mysterious to me and yet I feel a spiritual kinship. I think my Dad had some Russian character in him.

At the end of the book the narrator has a realization: something about how all souls are the same and a living person is a constructed personality that only lasts a lifetime. I agree with this and as far as Nabokov goes, it is a good thing.

A Curtain of Green; Eudora Welty; Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc; 1941; 289 pp
I became interested in Eudora Welty when I learned that one of my favorite singer/songwriters (Kate Campbell) was inspired by Welty's writing. This is her first book and is a collection of short stories. It contains a motley crew of southern small town people. There is violence, insanity and other dark stuff; also a certain nobility of poor people and lots of poverty. She has her own unique voice which is never boring.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Oliver Wiswell, Kenneth Roberts
This book was #6 in 1941 and #7 in 1940. See my review at BOOKS READ FROM 1940, PART TWO, January 9, 2006.

HM Pulham, Esquire; John P Marquand; Little, Brown and Company; 1941; 432 pp
Marquand won a Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for a book called The Late George Apley, so I suppose that gave him a shot at the bestseller list. This book was the #7 bestseller in 1941. HM Pulham, known as Henry, was raised in a moneyed family in Boston at the end of the 19th century. He was educated in a private prep school and at Harvard and fought in World War I. He is another typical hero of this time; conscientious, conservative, steady and honorable.

After the war, he works in New York City in an advertising firm. He has been shaken up by the war and is trying to find himself. He falls in love with Marvin Myles, a college educated career girl. They are from widely different backgrounds and Henry finds that he cannot fit his lover and his family into the same life, so he goes back to the bosom of his family and marries a girl from that circle of people.

Twenty years later, both Henry and his wife dally with the persons they loved in their youth but realize that they can't go back. I enjoyed reading the book and the author created great tension as you wondered if Henry and his wife would stay together. Ultimately it is a conservative view, though mixed with humor, and stands up for family and class values.

Mr and Mrs Cugat, Isabel Rorick, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940, 211 pp
At #8 we have a light, entertaining, somewhat humorous novel that obviously started out as a series of short stories about the same people. The Cugats are in their late 20s and are upper-middle-class New England people. They are in love. She is a vivacious woman who can't balance a checkbook. He is a conservative banker who excuses his wife's foibles because she is so cute. Ah, if life were still that simple; as if it ever were.

Saratoga Trunk, Edna Ferber; Doubleday, Doran & Company; 1941; 352 pp
Edna Ferber comes in with the #9 bestseller in 1941. I found it to be a silly piece of historical fiction. Clio is the orphan of a Creole courtesan from New Orleans. (As we will see, New Orleans was a hot location for bestsellers in the 1940s.) Clio is a manic-depressive female who hooks up with Clint, a Texas cowboy. They go to Saratoga, NY, home of the racetrack, with the understanding that Clio is looking for a millionaire to marry and Clint is planning to become a big man in horse racing. Naturally they end up getting married and Clint becomes a millionaire in railroads.

The women in this novel are portrayed as conniving, bitchy husband hunters and the men are all uncouth, greed-driven people. Clio and Clint come out winners, but in his old age Clint becomes disillusioned about how he has lived and about the state of business, so he tries to do some good with his money. It is a tired old story though part of the American way.

I am not a big fan of Ferber's writing; it seems forced and artificial to me. She was the Danielle Steele of her generation in my opinion. I have read two of her later books as well and this was my least favorite.

Windswept; Mary Ellen Chase, MacMillan Company, 1941
I read this book back in 1995, before I knew anything about bestsellers in the 1940s. I picked it up at a used bookstore for almost nothing, since the store was going out of business. I totally loved it and here it is at #10 on the list. It is easily one of my favorite books of the year.

Windswept starts out so slowly and dreamily that I was worried, but it grows into a beautiful story. The central character is John Marston. When he is just fourteen, his father buys a piece of property on the coast of Maine, where he plans to build a summer home, but then is killed in a hunting accident. One of John's best friends had fired the shot.

John is now orphaned but inherits the land, which his father had named Windswept. It is the end of the 19th century and John is more strong, steadfast and sensible than you would expect for a boy of fourteen. He decides to go ahead and have the house built in Maine, over much opposition from older folks including family members.

Windswept becomes the Marston family home and many and varied are the characters who make up the Marston clan along with their associates. Their lives are real, rich and honorable. A friend of mine who is a great reader was born and raised in Maine. This is one of her favorite books and she is like a character from the novel. I highly recommend it as an example of what is good and right about Americans.


The Keys of the Kingdom, AJ Cronin, Little, Brown and Company, 1941, 344 pp This book was #1 on the bestseller list for 1941. Father Francis Chisholm, the main character, is a Catholic priest who spent a couple of decades as a missionary in late 19th and early 20th century China. Part of the book is the story of his early life and how he came to be a priest; a truly Dickensian tale. As a priest, Father Chisholm is a humble, very decent man who never feels successful but who achieved much through hard work and love of people. In the end, war, old age and church politics bring him back to England. He is a renegade in the eyes of church authorities because he has integrity and speaks aloud what is true for him, regardless of how it will affect his position or comfort.

This is a very English book, it is religious and pacifist, sentimental but contains many truths. The writing is excellent, the style is one of conservative storytelling. I enjoyed reading it and found it to be one of the gems of the year.

Random Harvest, James Hilton, Little, Brown and Company, 1941, 327 pp
James Hilton is the author of Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr Chips. I read Lost Horizon many years ago and remember it as a somewhat spiritual story and a very emotional tale. Funnily enough, I will get to revisit it soon since one of my reading groups is reading it.

Random Harvest, at #2 on the 1941 bestseller list, did not strike me as strongly but it is good storytelling. Charles Ranier, son of a prosperous merchant family in England, goes to fight in World War I, is wounded and loses his memory. After a period of trying to put together a new life, he finds out who he was and his memory returns, but in an interesting twist he then loses the memory of his period of amnesia.

By the end of the book he has pieced it all together, with the help of a woman he fell in love with during his amnesia, and there is a happy, romantic ending. Charles is the typical hero of those times. He is upright, hard-working and not quite in the mainstream, though of it. Once again, the novel is against war.

This Above All, Eric Knight, Grosset & Dunlap, 1941, 473 pp
The #3 bestseller in 1941 is another war-time romance. World War II is raging, it is just after Dunkirk and the Germans are beginning to bomb London.

The main characters are Clive and Prudence. Clive is a soldier who grew up in the slums but through many different jobs and plenty of reading, educated himself. He is on leave and meets Prudence, an upper-class girl who is serving in a WAF (Women in the Air Force) camp.

Clive has become disillusioned with war and has turned into a conscientious objector. He is planning to desert when his leave is up. They go on holiday, fall in love and it is all a tragedy from there. The story is extremely well told and like most of the other war books of this time, is basically anti-war. Very enjoyable.

The Sun is My Undoing, Marguerite Steen, The Viking Press, 1941, 1176 pp
It took a long time to read this one; so many pages and such small print. It was #4 on the bestseller list. It is a historical romance with lots of bigger-than-life characters, passion and heartbreak.

Matthew Flood, the main character, is the grandson of a wealthy shipping magnate in Bristol, England, during the 1700s. The wealth was made from slaving and Matthew inherits the fortune. He is a wild, impulsive young man who wins the love of Pallas Burmeister, but fails to win her hand in marriage because she is a strong, independent-minded young woman who is opposed to slavery.

So Matthew sets out on one of his own ships, picks up another fiery woman on the Gold Coast (Sheba: the ultimate proud and passionate Negress) and they head for Barbados and Cuba. Many misadventures follow for Matthew and his offspring. Forty years later, he and Pallas meet up again in Bristol and together push an abolition bill through Parliament.

The most interesting aspect was how slavery was so tied in to the economy in England, due to all the plantations in the various colonies; how prejudice, social conventions and money are what controls this planet; how change comes about often due to a combination of sexual passion, human love and strong-minded individuals who actually have a sense of ethics. At least that is the way it looks in a historical romance novel.

For Whom The Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
I read this in the 1940 section when it came in at #5 on the list. It was also the #5 bestseller in 1941. For my review, see post of January 6, Books Read From 1940 Part One.


As foolishly promised weeks ago, I am working on Chapter 2 of my pre-book, which has the working title of Reading For My Life. (To read Chapter 1, go to the December 2005 archives, then to December 4.)

I've made a couple attempts to pull this chapter together but so far I am not satisfied. Since I read the books for this period about three years ago, it has been hard to really immerse myself in the emotions and thoughts I had at the time. (To learn about the entire project see My Big Fat Reading Project, July 6, 2005; in the July archives.)

In an attempt to break through the writer's block here, I have decided to blog about the books I read in 1941. We will see if it works. Thanks to my readers for being patient with me. Charles Dickens I am not and besides there is no paycheck involved...yet?

Friday, February 17, 2006


The Dream of Scipio, Iain Pears, Riverhead Books, 2002, 396 pp

I had heard good things about Iain Pears and read rave reviews of this book when it first appeared. It is one of those books that has been on my list of books to read for several years. Browsing through the library one day, I spotted it and checked it out. Then I recommended it for one of my reading groups, they agreed and I had a good reason to spend a weekend reading it.

The Dream of Scipio is historical fiction with the twist of running three different historical periods along together, tied by location, philosophical ideas and a manuscript called "The Dream of Scipio." It was a hard book to get into at first, but once I learned who everyone was and did some map study to get oriented, I got hooked by the philosophical idea: how do you save civilization when the barbarians are invading and destroying it?

The location is Avignon, France. The three periods are the final days of the Roman Empire; the years of the Black Death; and World War II. Each period follows the story of a man who has some kind of philosophical bent and a woman who is loved by the man and complements his life in some way. There is lots of historical intrigue in each period to keep the stories exciting and the "Dream of Scipio" is the thread that keeps turning up to show that civilization did in fact survive and re-surface. Each character feels that he or she has failed in the quest and Pears seems to be saying that they did not.

In the end, I almost loved the book. I don't know of many novelists who are writing these days about such large and deep ideas. I even wrote a letter to the author.


Tracking Backward, Alice Zogg, Aventine Press, 2005, 234 pp

I first met Alice Zogg when I was writing a column about books for my very small, very local paper. She emailed me to acknowledge me for being a reader and also mentioned that she wrote mysteries. She was kind enough to get me a copy of her second book, Turn the Joker Around, which I reviewed in the column. We had met for coffee and a bit of an interview before I did the review and I learned much about her. (Authors seem to like to talk about themselves and about just about anything. Perhaps it is all those lonely hours spent writing.)

Alice was born in Switzerland and emigrated to the United States as a young woman. It was a dream come true to be in America and one for which she had to fight, as her parents did not want to let her go. Eventually she married and moved with her husband to California. She is now retired and took up writing mysteries when she couldn't find any current ones that she enjoyed reading. She has read all of Agatha Christie's books but I think she has her own style.

Tracking Backward is her third book. She self-publishes, not wishing to join the fray of new authors looking for publishers but just wishing to write for the joy of it. Her books are available on amazon.com and Barnes & Noble's website. I liked Tracking Backward better than the earlier book, though I also liked Turn the Joker Around. This one is more exciting, the writing is better and the dialogue is crisper. Zogg's PI is a woman, R A Huber, who is also retired and has her own agency. A 13 year old boy hires her because he feels that his father was murdered, not the victim of a plane-crash accident. The trouble is, it is now four years later and R A must "track back" to uncover what happened. This involves a trip to Mexico and Zogg does some very creditable travel writing in that section. The final scene when the mystery is solved is full of suspense and tension.

Having recently read Birds of a Feather, by Jacqueline Winspear, which won several awards, I had a comparison and felt that Alice Zogg's book stood up well in the competition, even though Alice has no desire to compete.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


With Billie, Julia Blackburn, Pantheon Books, 2005, 334 pp

Wow, what an intense and wonderful biography. In the 1970s, a woman named Linda Kuehl began to research the life of Billie Holiday by interviewing anyone she could find who had known the singer. Ms Kuehl never completed her book and in fact, committed suicide. All of her research was eventually sold by her family to a private collector. At some point Julia Blackburn picked up the project, studied all that Linda Kuehl had done and wrote this book.

She calls it a documentary of Billie's life and most all of the book is transcripts of those interviews. It was actually an unhappy experience to read the book. Billie Holiday's life was one of racial discrimination, parental neglect and poverty in her early years. She grew up in the slums of Baltimore. By the time she reached her teens she was sexually active, sometimes making money as a prostitute, and already hooked on alcohol and experienced with drugs. Music, sex and alcohol were the magic ingredients which made life bearable.

This is the story of a black woman with a great gift of talent. Without that talent, her life would have been just another miserable statistic and the same goes for the many musicians she played music with throughout the years. The racial discrimination never ended for these folks, even when they were famous and in demand by white audiences. Billie in particular was singled out and harassed at every turn, the "reason" being her drug use, but Blackburn cites evidence that she was used in a drug bust program exactly because she was so high profile.

I was struck once again by how here on earth the great artists live in another universe. The rules and patterns of everyday life are not theirs. They may interact with and even try to imitate the lives of regular people, but for them life is different. There may be money, even riches at times, as well as fame and awards and recognition, but it is a life with really no safety, no predictability and almost always there are drugs, criminality, promiscuous sex, brushes with the law and failed relationships. So, so strange. In my view, artists are the gods among mortals and should be honored and treasured. Could it be that fame, riches and honor are not what an artist seeks, but only freedom to practice her art?

I learned that Lady Sings The Blues was Billie's ghostwritten autobiography, was full of falsehoods, and made her last husband look like her savior when in fact he brought about her downfall. Billie was looking for love and a good man yet these things were the most elusive part of her life. She had no experience or knowledge of how to be a good woman to a man or how to give the love she wanted in return. She was a loving person according to almost every person interviewed for the book, but with a fatal flaw that made her seek men who would harm her. Love, happiness, pride; those things came in short bursts and lasted about as long as an evening singing, sometimes artificially prolonged by substance abuse, until she died. So sad but for the music she left for us.


Birds of a Feather, Jacqueline Winspear, Soho Press, 2004, 309 pp

Another mystery, another reading group pick and another disappointment. Maisie Dobbs is a young English woman in 1930s London. She is a private investigator who is also trained by a mentor in the psychological practices of the times. She is a "good girl", very prim and proper and much too good for me. Winspear tries to make her modern for her times by giving her a red MG and making her single. (She lost her lover to amnesia in WWI and still visits him at his sanitarium monthly.)

It was all done correctly: the descriptions, the issues, even the characters, but it never really grabbed me. The most annoying aspect was the way the mystery was revealed. The author would let Maisie discover a clue but then withhold it from the reader. I like to feel that I am working alongside the investigator and that I am allowed inside her mind. Maisie kept her distance as she did in every other aspect of her life.


Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, Maureen Corrigan, Random House, 2005, 184 pp

A pretty good book about reading. I read it because this woman makes her living by reading, which is my dream. She writes reviews, originally for the Village Voice and now reviews mysteries for The Washington Post. She is the book critic for NPR's Fresh Air and also teaches literature at Georgetown University. She got a PhD in her 20s but has nothing good to say about the process.

The most intriguing part was her premise that there are extreme-adventure books with women as central characters, but instead of sailing the seas or climbing mountains, the adventures are internal, spiritual and emotional and mostly involve endurance, waiting and serving others. She was raised in the Catholic Church, educated in Catholic schools and read lots of stories about martyrs and saints as she grew up in bluecollar Queens. Then she broke away, married a Jew and adopted a Chinese baby. I suppose that makes her a Renaissance woman and I am glad she shared her experiences, insights and the ways that reading influenced her life.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Making It Up, Penelope Lively, Penguin Group, Inc, 2005, 215 pp

I had read a couple good reviews of this book and had always wanted to read something by Penelope Lively. The book is an odd form of memoir/fiction. Timely, considering all the noise about memoirs vs fiction lately, but she admits to what she is doing. She looks back over her life and makes up stories of what might have been, had her life taken different paths. It is a fascinating idea but the results in this case are uneven .

I liked the first story the best. In fact, it was so gripping and well-written and emotionally satisfying that I kept reading, waiting for more of the same which never came. The rest of the book was a long slump, ranging from boring to mildly interesting. The final to last, "Number Twelve Sheep Street", was again good because it concerned books and a bookseller.

Her writing is smooth, the sentences are noble, but the style is more like an essay than like storytelling. The value in reading it, for me, was in studying the memoir form.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, 1999, 1130 pp

Sometime last year I began to hear about this author. I believe it was when the third volume of his trilogy, The Baroque Cycle, came out. From all the reviews and blurbs he sounded almost hopelessly cool. Well he is. In my usual way I started with his early books. I have read Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, both great. Cryptonomicon is even better. The trilogy comes next.

So we have a bunch of computer nerds in the 90s who work together in start-up companies. They are based in San Francisco naturally, but their current venture is located in the Philippines. The book opens with a Prologue. It is 1941, Shanghai. Bobby Shaftoe, American Marine Corporal, and his squad are headed for the Yangtze River. The Nips are coming. Meanwhile, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, descendant of a South Dakota Congregational preacher, has found himself stationed at Pearl Harbor, playing in the Army band. Being an unconventional math whiz, he winds up doing cryptanalysis for the entire war.

In the present day, Shatoe's granddaughter and Lawrence Waterhouse's grandson are on a collision course towards each other's affections. I am a fan of historical fiction, from James Michener to Margaret George. One of the great things about reading bestsellers from the 1940s, is that about half of them were historicals. But Neal Stephenson tops them all. In any other historical fiction I have read before, it is either all swashbuckling testosterone driven or bodice ripping romance charged, but Stephenson somehow combines both in a perfect mix. His heroines are feisty, smart and liberated and his heros are of all types.

During World War II, the Japanese and the Germans colluded to hide all the gold they could round up on a Philippine island. It is still buried there in the 1990s and the computer geeks have found it, but to avert total financial disaster they have to decode a wartime code which even Waterhouse, the grandfather could not crack.

That is just the bare bones. It is a huge, sprawling book with a lot going on. Plenty of WWII history, action and adventure, hilarity, insight into today's information age and financial insanity. Highly entertaining and educational at the same time. It was easy to read 150 to 200 pages in a day, which is a good thing because this book is LONG. Can't wait to get into the trilogy.

(Cryptonomicon is available in paperback and ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Sunday, February 05, 2006


Betty Friedan passed away yesterday at the age of 85, on her birthday. I just came home from two hours with my best girlfriend, toasting Betty with a couple of martinis and talking about the state of the world and the state of womanhood.

The Feminine Mystique was first published in hardback in 1963. It made not much of an impact. The next year it came out in paperback and became a million seller as women around the country caught on and said yeah, I don't have to feel weird because cooking, cleaning, changing diapers and driving the kids around the town doesn't really do it for me. I am a woman, yes I am, but I have a mind and I have abilities that go beyond this.

In 1964, I was starting my senior year in highschool. I was learning to play guitar and singing songs by Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Bob Dylan. I was planning to get as far away from home as possible when I went to college. I was trying to decide how far to let my boyfriend go which was not as far as I wanted to go, but you know, a girl from a good Christian middle-class family just cannot get pregnant in her senior year of highschool. So you see, I was pretty hip, I was pretty with it, but man, I had no idea what I was in for.

It wasn't until about 1972, when I was the mother of one boy and about to be the mother of another; when I was the macrobiotic cooking teacher of my town; when my husband was the natural foods king of the town but if I didn't make sure the bills got paid they didn't get paid; when I was expected to be at home cooking and taking care of those babies no matter what he was up to; when I had agreed to stop performing my music because he didn't want me up there on stage where other men could look at me; etc. That is when I needed Betty Friedan.

But she was there for me along with all those other great feminists. And even when they all started fighting amongst themselves, like strong, powerful people who start movements always do, still they gave us courage. So we formed our women's groups and we met and we discussed and we got it all off our chests and we supported each other and we moved into freedom. We made lots of mistakes. We were mean to our men. We went through stages of irresponsibility. We created havoc in our kids' lives. But we got free. We stopped being doormats and servants and we got a voice and we spoke our minds.

And some of the men got wise to what was going on, because they were into love and self-actualization and we all wanted to be happy and raise strong children and we wanted peace in the world. What I learned today, reading some of the articles about Betty Friedan, is that she was into the same thing. You can't have a strong, peaceful, lasting civilization when some groups of people are on top and others are on the bottom. But that idea will always be attacked. The ones on the top don't want anything to threaten their power and some of the ones on the bottom are scared to rise up. So it is not all worked out yet. There is a legacy from Betty which we must carry on. And we must teach our daughters and daughters-in-law and granddaughters the lessons learned, so they do not forget and lose ground. And we must teach our sons and sons-in-law and grandsons the lessons, so they do not forget.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Yesterday I had lunch with a writer friend of mine, who also faithfully reads my blog. She pointed out that I hadn't blogged since January 19th. Yikes! Well she got me inspired. She has just completed the first draft of her fourth book. Nothing like somebody else's work to get me off my excuses and whining. Work has settled back into a manageable roar of activity, so now it is Saturday and I have just finished the first draft of my second chapter. You will see it soon here and find out what I found out about life and books in 1941.

As I mentioned in "Aaarg", I have managed to keep reading. In fact, I met my goal of 10 books in January and February is off to a pretty good start. I've got piles on the bedside table, piles on the coffee table, piles on the hearth and bags I haven't even unpacked yet. About half the books are the reading from 1950, which you will hear about later, but here is an update on other books I've read lately.

Back in mid December, I finished Goldie, a lotus grows in the mud, by Goldie Hawn (with help). Wendy Holden is named as assistant writer but the voice of Goldie is definitely there. The book has a lovely dust jacket: a picture of Goldie's face with lotus flowers scattered around it. Jane Fonda's autobiography came out at the same time, but Goldie's cover won me over. I always liked Goldie Hawn, especially her laughing and silliness. Oh yes, and her hair. She is my age and she maintained some kind of balance in her life despite Hollywood, stardom and riches.

I mostly liked the book. She doesn't dish on other Hollywood people. The emphasis is on her family, her adventures as she went through her career and her spiritual searches. Like myself, she was always looking for happiness and working to be a kind and loving woman. She had two marriages fail, she was a single Mom of three kids for a long time and her first efforts to use her power came to bad results because she is a woman and because she is a good person. She finally found love, she stayed on top of her career and she raised good children. Kate Hudson, her only daughter, also became an actress and two of her sons are Buddhists. She also gave away a large amount of money to causes and people less fortunate.

At the end of each section, she summarizes what she learned and it comes across as New Age preaching or advice, but that only bothered me a little. What I liked was the way she would take big, relaxing breaks after periods of hard work. That is definitely part of my philosophy. Also I was interested in the book as an example of how to write up a life, since I am engaged in a similar activity. If you are a Goldie Hawn fan, I recommend the book to you.

The week between Christmas and New Years, I took a trip to Cambria, CA, which is one of my favorite places in the world. It is a little (but growing, a bit too fast if you ask me) artsy town on the coast about halfway up to San Francisco. I went to chill by myself, read and visit a friend. Jean Brody is an author and owns a bookstore in Cambria, called The Cambria Book Company. About 10 years ago, she moved to Cambria and began working at the store part time. Actually she was first a customer, but since she was always giving the owners advice on what to order, they hired her. Eventually she bought the store and has run it ever since.

She published 3 novels in the 80s and 90s, but hasn't finished a book since she took over the store, so I was sad to hear that she was closing it down, but happy to know that she plans to devote her time to writing because I love her books. I have read two of the three as I was under Jean's orders not to read her first novel. I would probably like it also, but I respect her wishes. My favorite of the two is Cleo, published in 1994. I loved this book with a strange and strong passion and have recommended it to everyone. I bought it from Jean at her shop when I first met her in 2004. You can find this book on Amazon and at libraries, though I believe it is out of print. Cleo is the last book Jean published and she has the usual horror stories of editors moving on to another publisher before her book was released, etc. Personally I think Cleo should be required reading in any Women's Studies program, possibly required reading for all young women growing up now.

But this time I bought her second novel, A Coven of Women, published in 1987. I read it all that very night and was again drawn into the world of a strong, rebellious woman named Vida Austin, born in 1890 in Oklahoma. Vida was big, strong, sexy and liberated when women hadn't even thought of the term. She was raised along with her sister, to know everything a boy would know on a big farm in those days. She had a series of teaching positions and love affairs in her adult life but never married. Her most pronounced oddity was that she would catch the spirits of certain people who died and keep them in a box. This began when she was six and had a fear of people she loved being buried underground. As an adult, she would bring these people out and interact with them until they became so real that they actually went on and had further lives.

Vida's great niece inherited the box, tells the story and has her own life vagaries which she resolves by the end of the book thanks to Vida's legacy. I liked Vida's story better than the niece's, but most of all I love Jean Brody's vision of feminism and I think any woman would.

More to come, hopefully tomorrow.