Tuesday, September 26, 2006


This is the final post about my reading for 1948. It contains the award winners for the year.

The City and The Pillar, Gore Vidal, E P Dutton & Co Inc, 1948, 207 pp
This is Gore Vidal's third novel and it was scandalous at the time because it is about male homosexuality. It was a good read. He has developed as a writer and he draws you in.

Jim is the central character. He has a sexual encounter with a highschool classmate named Bob in his hometown of Virginia. Bob leaves town after highschool and Jim leaves a year later. Jim wanders as a seaman, then as a tennis instructor and then in the army, all the time looking for Bob since they have fallen out of touch. He moves in and out of the gay world in Hollywood and New York. He finally finds Bob but it is a tragic ending for Jim.

The book is a sympathetic look at what it was like to be a gay man in 1940s America, how it is a subculture, and mostly how one man discovered his sexual orientation and how he dealt with it in his younger years. I learned more about that part of life.

Catalina, Somerset Maugham, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1948, 275 pp
Catalina is a poor Spanish girl who was crippled by a run-away bull and deserted by her lover. She is visited by The Lady and thereby unfolds a tale of religious intrigue during Inquisition times. Catalina remains under the Blessed Mary's protection and her life goes well.

This is the same historical period as in The Golden Hawk, by Frank Yerby (#6 bestseller of 1948) but the story takes place in Spain. Maugham's wonderful writing gives insight into the practices of the Catholic Church at that time. He is so smooth. He never censures but you get it anyway: the fanaticism, politics, power plays and the control of the poor by the church.

The best part was that it had a happy ending due to Catalina's strong spirit and refusal to be controlled by the church, men or her disability.

Cry, The Beloved Country, Alan Paton, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948, 312 pp
Out of all the books I've read from 1940-1948, this is only the third that takes place in Africa. Midaq Alley (1947) by Nagrib Mahfouz, was set in Cairo, Egypt during WWII. Mine Boy (1946) by Peter Abrahams, took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, in about the same time as Paton's book. But Cry, The Beloved Country was the first book about Apartheid in South Africa to reach and be read widely by an American audience. Alan Paton was the superintendent of a reformatory for native youths in South Africa and instituted changes there which attempted to educate these youths and teach them a trade so that they could get work in the cities.

In his book, Paton tells the story of a native man who is a Christian minister in a small native town and has lost his sister and his only son to the city (Johannesburg). The land around his village has been ravished by erosion and tribal life has been disrupted by years of working for the white man. Reverend Kumalo receives a letter from a minister in Johannesburg, informing him that his sister is ill. The impoverished minister scrapes up all the meagre savings that he and his wife have managed to put by and sets off in search of his sister and son.

In Johannesburg, he finds that his sister has become a prostitute and his son a theif. He learns about the state of natives in the slums, the efforts of churches to help these people, the politics, the racism. He also finds many good people, both native and white, who help him. It is a heartrending story but not completely tragic. Kumalo is able to effect some good changes back in his village, because his experiences in the city galvanized him into action and enlightened him on what needed to be changed.

The book is disturbing and hopeful at the same time. The writing is not great but it is acceptable and the story stands as a document of an era in South African history.

Now for the Award Winners. The Nobel Prize for Literature went to T S Eliot of England.

Pulitzer Prize:
Tales of the South Pacific, James Michener
Published in 1947, I read it for that year. See review in post of August 13, 2006, Books Read From 1947 Part Three.

Newbery Medal:
The 21 Balloons, William Pene duBois, The Viking Press, 1947, 180 pp
What a wonderful story! Balloon travel, a secret volcanic island in the South Pacific, scientific inventions and diamonds. This was one of my favorite books of the year. It is about a utopia that would have survived except for the violent ways of nature.

Caldecott Medal:
White Snow, Bright Snow, Alvin Tresselt, Lothrop Lee & Shepard Books, 1947, 27 pp
This is an award for illustration, won this year by illustrator Roger Duvoisin. I was not impressed. The colors of the illustrations were not pleasing. The story is about a snow storm in a very small town followed by melting and the beginning of spring. If this was read to me as a child in Pittsburgh, PA, I think the outside world would have been more colorful even in a blizzard.

Monday, September 18, 2006


The City Boy, Herman Wouk, Little Brown & Company, 1948, 317 pp
This is Wouk's first novel, written while he was serving with the United States Navy in the Pacific during WWII. Herbie Bookbinder is eleven and lives in Brooklyn. His parents are Jewish immigrants and it is 1918. Herbie is fat, intelligent and romantic, therefore mildly unhappy. He always has a hopeless love for some girl. The novel covers his adventures during one spring and summer, including a trip to summer camp.

Like most other books by Herman Wouk, it starts out slowly and put me to sleep a couple times. It picked up in the middle and the humor is what kept me going. I am glad Wouk became a better writer.

The Living Is Easy, Dorothy West, Houghton Mifflin, 1948, 347 pp
Pretty good story. Cleo is the oldest daughter of a sharecropping Black family, who is sent to Boston by her mother when she is a teenager. She works in service to a white spinster and then marries an older Black man who has made himself fairly wealthy as a fruit distributor.

But Cleo has no use for men except as a source of money. She misses her mother (who has now died) and her three sisters, each of whom is married with one child. Cleo schemes, lies and finagles until she has gotten her husband to rent a big house in Brookline, where the upperclass Blacks live. She then brings her sisters and their children to live with her. She is the ultimate bossy oldest sister and actually ruins all her sisters' marriages. In the end, her husband's business fails and he leaves for New York City to try again.

Lots of info on how the moneyed Blacks fit into society, Black and white. Even if a Black is light-skinned enough to pass as white, race is still a big issue. This still goes on today, as in The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Stephen L Carter. Dorothy West was a contemporary of Zora Neale Hurston and a forerunner of today's African American female writers.

One Clear Call, Upton Sinclair, The Viking Press, 1948, 626 pp
Another volume in the Lanny Budd series, which goes up through the liberation of Paris from the Germans in WWII and the re-election of FDR at the end of 1944. As usual, Lanny is all over the place. Even Laurel, his current wife, gets to travel and be a reporter on the war, though they don't spend much time together.

I learned in this book and the last, Presidential Mission, how the United States gets a country to be one of its allies: by putting into power whoever in that country views the US as their best bet, which is usually the money guys, not the resistance, socialists or freedom fighters. No wonder wars don't get us anywhere. The same guys keep running things.

I also learned how the Cold War was germinated. Near the end of World War II, these money and industrial folks still hate and are afraid of communism. Therefore, once Hitler was eliminated, communism became the next enemy. I wonder what we will do for fun and news once we "eliminate" terrorism.

Seraph on the Suwanee, Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948, 322 pp
Fantastic writing and a wonderful story from an author who has become one of my favorites. This was her last novel. Arvay is a young Cracker girl in the early 20th century, born and raised in a small Florida town on the Suwanee River. She has lost her first love to her sister and in heartbreak, has sworn off men to become a missionary.

Along comes Jim Meserve, descended from plantation owners but scrabbling like everyone else in the South after Reconstruction. He is a big confident schemer and doer, he courts and marries Arvay and moves her to the central Florida citrus groves and a town called Citrabelle.
Arvay has children, raises them and cares for them, but after 20 years and all the riches Jim procures for her, she is still an insecure Cracker girl at heart. Finally she comes through and grows into a confident woman.

Hurston tells this story of a woman's flowering by bringing to life all the color and ways of these Florida people. It was an unputdownable book. I was entranced by the style on which I could just float along, hardly aware that I was reading.

Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner, Random House Inc, 1948, 247 pp
I made it through another Faulkner. He is really hard to read, hard to follow and he doesn't even bother with commas. Still there are not too many authors who can evoke quite the emotional pitch that he does.

The story is about how a lynching gets averted because a 12 year old white boy, his 12 year old Negro friend and a woman in her 70s, are brave enough to find the evidence which proves that Lucas Beauchamp, a black man, did not murder a white man. The message is that if you want something done in the name of truth, give the job to children and women. Men are too caught up in playing out their roles and fixed ideas. I liked that message and think that it is probably correct.

I didn't dislike the book. A little Faulkner goes a long way with me, but this one was not as dark as others I've read. It actually tells a good story and has some humor.

Friday, September 15, 2006


Beginning with this post I will write about other books I read from 1948. Besides the usual American and British writers, I also read novels by a French , a Japanese and a South African writer.

Snow Country, Yasunari Kabawata, Random House Inc, 1948, 175 pp
This Japanese author won the Nobel Prize in 1968 and Snow Country is considered to be his masterpiece. It is the story of a rich man from Tokyo who goes to the snow country for skiing and relaxation and has a love affair with a girl who is not quite yet a geisha.

He is a dilettante and a man out of touch with himself and others. It is not a particularly satisfying story but was probably quite literary for a Japanese reader. I read it in English translation, and even in English there is a haiku-like beauty to the prose. I think the beauty of the construction means more to a Japanese than the story itself. I felt I was overcoming a cultural barrier in reading this book.

Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote, Random House Inc, 1948, 231 pp
I read this because recording artist Nanci Griffith named a CD after the book, and has said that it was a favorite book of hers in her youth. Capote wrote the book when he was 23 and it is amazingly mature, yet obviously the work of a very young man.

The hero, Joel Knox, is thirteen and has recently lost his mother. The father he barely knew has called for him to come visit. It takes place in the South and the characters are like people out of Carson McCullers. Joel is looking for someone to love him.

What he finds is the cousin of his father's second wife, an asthmatic, alcoholic insane man. The father turns out to be a vegetable, stroke victim or something, and it was the cousin who sent for Joel, though you never really discover why. All the characters are incredibly weird and messed up in some way.

The book did not grab me. It is a bit too pretensious and possibly Capote was trying to write like William Faulkner. I haven't seen the movie about Capote yet, but maybe there is something in there about his writing of this first novel.

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene, The Viking Press, 1948, 306 pp
A love story, a religious problem, and a tale of the human condition. Scobie is a General of the military police in a British-governed town on the west coast of Africa. World War II is going on, but the real scene is a British Colonial one, with wives who can't stand the climate and who suffer from the lack of culture and who miss the English life to which they are accustomed. Scobie's wife is one of these women. She is unhappy and very high maintenance. Scobie is trying to balance his military responsiblilties with making her happy.

He breaks his own moral code in an attempt to handle his wife and spirals down from there. The story then becomes a treatise on the Catholic doctrine versus real life. I found it fairly melodramatic. To me, the problem is not one of faith, but one of Scobie basing his life on the idea that he can create another person's happiness. Even so, it was a pretty good story.

The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh, Little Brown and Company Inc, 1948, 146 pp
What an unusual little book. The setting is Hollywood in the early part of the 20th century. There is a group of Englishmen (Hollywood lured English writers in an effort to bring more class to the movies in those days) who have a club and try to keep up appearances for the sake of good old England. Most of them are old has-beens, but there is a young poet who has failed at the studios and has taken a job in a pet mortuary, next door to the human mortuary which we know as Forest Lawn.

There is a love story but the book is a big spoof on Los Angeles, the movie business, the mortuaries and other things, from an English point of view. It is fun to read, the story-telling is top notch and the spoofs are hilarious.

The Plague, Albert Camus, Alfred A Knopf Inc, 1948, 308 pp
This was a surprisingly good book. I thought it would be dry and philosophical, but it was beautifully written and emotionally engaging. The theme was how people deal with pestilence. I understood the message to be that people are flawed but are basically good and try in their different ways to rise above evil and pain and suffering. He also is saying that hope is the key.

This is the first book by Camus that I have ever read, after hearing about him all of my life. He won the Nobel Prize in 1957 and I would say he deserved it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


The Golden Hawk, Frank Yerby, The Dial Press, 1948, 312 pp
Another Yerby book, #6 on the bestseller list for 1948. It takes place in the Caribbean where the Spanish, English and French are fighting for supremacy amidst pirates, called free-booters.

The hero is Kit, bastard son of a Spanish grandee and a French woman. Kit is a pirate and the grandee is his arch enemy. Kit does not learn until near the end of the book that this man is his father. He blames the man for the death of his mother.

Kit has a faithful friend, a Jew (who is Inquisition fodder back in Spain.) Our hero is also in love with two women and conflicted about that for the whole story. It is the usual Yerby romantic historical novel, but better than The Vixens which is the one I read in 1947.

Raintree County, Ross Lockridge Jr, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948, 1060 pp
What a book! It was my favorite book from 1948. Long, sweeping, historical, philosophical, with love stories and humor. It was the #7 bestseller in 1948 and I was prepared to be bored but I never was, even for one of its 1060 pages. The time was 1892 and the whole book dealt with one day, the fourth of July, but most of it was flashbacks in the life of John Wickliff Shawnessy, local Indiana boy, dreamer, teacher and writer.

Besides the flashbacks, Lockridge used many other devices: songs from the era, fragments of invented newspaper reports, and dream sequences. Perhaps a bit overdone, but it didn't bother me. He is writing about the dream of America as seen in the microcosm of a small mid-western town. So much truth about the forces and evils that eroded that dream. The Civil War is a large part of the story, from the Northern point of view this time.

So I loved it, I am so glad I read it and I feel that it could stand up today as literature. I'm not sure why it did not become a classic. It is to me.

Shannon's Way, A J Cronin, Little Brown and Company, 1948, 313 pp
This was #8 on the list. It was a fairly fast read, quite melodramatic, but interesting historically. The story begins in 1918 with Shannon as a young medical researcher in a British university department. He is unhappily working on someone else's project but tries to sneak in his own research. He is caught and his troubles begin.

Robert Shannon lives for his research. He is trying to discover the cause of influenza, which was occuring in epidemic proportions in Europe, Great Britain and America at the time. Of course, there is a girl and of course their love is doomed, because he is Catholic (sort of) and her family is some strict Protestant sect.

After many hardships, including the near death of the girl and a mental breakdown for Robert, it finally works out. This is the third book I have read by Cronin and Keys to the Kingdom is still my favorite.

Pilgrim's Inn, Elizabeth Goudge, Coward-McCann Inc, 1948
At #9 is a book which I read some years ago when I was reading all of Goudge's books. It has also gone under the title of The Herb of Grace. She wrote it as a sequel to an earlier book, The Bird in the Tree. It is a story of healing, grace and doing the right thing. Sometimes Goudge goes a bit far on the religious theme and it gets almost too transparent, but there is so much integrity and reality in her characters that she pulls it off.

I don't think anyone could get away with writing so blatantly about goodness in today's world. But I find it fortunate that someone has done it in the past; a past that is only 60 years ago.

The Young Lions, Irwin Shaw, Random House Inc, 1948, 689 pp
The #10 bestseller for 1948 was another one of my favorites for the year. It is WWII again and is the story of two American men and one Austrian man (fighting for the Germans.) The action takes place in France and Africa, where these men's paths keep crossing.

Shaw makes you totally love his characters and totally hate the impersonal nature of armies and the futility of war. His writing is smooth, unobtrusive and pretty much perfect. Again, it is amazing that this was a first novel, but the author went on to write many bestsellers and I will be reading him again.

The thing that proves it was a great book is that I got lost in reading it even though I was so weary of reading about that damn war.

Monday, September 11, 2006


Moving right along to the next year, here are the bestsellers that I read from 1948.

The Big Fisherman, Lloyd C Douglas, People's Book Club, 1948, 503 pp
The #1 bestseller in 1948 was this story of the disciple Peter, the fisherman, the Rock, the man whom Jesus assigned to build his church. I learned about the age-old enmity between Arab and Jew. It goes back to Abraham, who had one son, Ishmael, by his servant Hagar and another son, Isaac, by Sara, his actual wife. One of my reading pals reminded me that this is also explained in The Red Tent by Anita Diamante (in a much more exciting story, I might add.)

The book moves along, then bogs down in the middle, then moves along again. There is a character from Douglas' earlier book, The Robe, who makes a brief appearance. It was OK but not as emotionally gripping or as entertaining as The Robe.

The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer, Rinehart and Company Inc, 1948, 721 pp
As I mentioned in my chapter on 1947, the war comes back this year as a topic in fiction. The #2 bestseller is a powerful story about war and the army. A company is on a campaign to capture a South Pacific island from the Japanese. The descriptions of the jungle, the physical discomforts of the soldiers, and their physical and emotional states are graphic and disturbing. It is a very different view from Michener's Tales of the South Pacific.

He also covers the viewpoints of soldiers and officers all the way down the command channel from general to private; the philosophy of war; the game of promotions and demotions; the petty actions of men at all levels as a result of their pasts and their personal issues. That is a lot of territory to range over and he makes no noble or heroic thing of war.

The privates are the pawns in the game, as they were in civilian life as well. I found it a very disturbing book and was amazed (as were all the critics at the time) at the depth and reality of writing from a man who was only 24 when he wrote it.

Dinner at Antoine's, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Julian Messner Inc, 1948, 422 pp
At #3 on the bestseller list for 1948 is this piece of fluff which I would call chick lit for the 1940s. What a contrast to The Naked and the Dead.

It takes place in New Orleans in the current times of the 40s and the famous restaurant plays a key role in the story. Keyes tries to make it a murder mystery with little success. Her usual overly wordy style is unrelieved by a good story, as in The River Road and the dialogue is simply atrocious. I suppose the society and clothing details are interesting to some and that sort of thing goes on in bestsellers to this day. Unfortunately there are three more bestsellers by this author in the 1950s. Well, she can write a good book, so there is hope.

The Bishop's Mantle, Agnes Sligh Turnbull, The MacMillan Company, 1948, 359 pp
This story is also set in the postwar 1940s. A young man takes over as minister to a big Episcopal church in New York City and has to learn his way amongst the parishoners, the Trustees and the neighborhood. He wants to bring things more up-to-date and minister to other social and economic levels, rather than just the white, upper-class. He also marries a woman who is not quite suited to being a clergyman's wife, as she is a modern woman and likes a good time, so they have to work out how to be happy together.

It is from a time of much different values from today although human failings are the same. I was a bit bored and not exactly hooked through most of the book, but I am sure it was realistic for people of those times, which is why it made #4 on the bestseller list.

Tomorrow Will Be Better, Betty Smith, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1948, 247 pp
This was #5 on the top bestsellers list for 1948. The theme is how hope keeps people going in the face of hard times. The main characters are poor folks in Brooklyn. It was not nearly as powerful a story as her earlier A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but probably was more realistic. The story actually dealt with the negative things that poverty-stricken parents do to their kids because of the frustrations of a life that does not match up to their hopes and dreams. The earlier book is sentimental in the extreme compared to this one.

Margy, the heroine, does not succumb to discouragement, but you wonder if she can hold out. After all, she is 18 and full of dreams at the beginning of the story and many of those dreams are tarnished by the time she reaches 20 at the end of the book.

Friday, September 08, 2006


Le Divorce, Diane Johnson, Penguin Putnam Inc, 1997, 309 pp

OK, I read this because I want to see the movie, but I like to read the book first. I bought it in trade paperback which has a cover that totally led me to think it was chick lit. I had read maybe one review years ago of which I remembered nothing except a tone of respect in the reviewer.

So I get halfway through and I am loving it. Two girls from Santa Barbara in Paris; step-sisters. One is married to a Frenchman and pregnant with her second child. The other has just arrived to be a help to her step-sister. Isabel is 19, a film-school drop out and sort of black sheep because she doesn't know what to do with her life.

Through Isabel's eyes we see all the cultural conflicts between French and Americans. We see the allure of Paris for the newcomer. And because Roxanne (the sister) has a husband who has left her for a lover, we see through Isabel's mostly non-comprehending eyes, the way the French deal with infidelity-basically a combination of denial and c'est la vie acceptance.

Then I made my big mistake. In the morning, drinking coffee, thinking about how much I am surprised by the book, I think, "Who is Diane Johnson anyway?" I google her. I learn all about how she writes novels of manners in a Henry James style but from a female point of view. I personally cannot stand Henry James and those English novels of manners. I can only take Jane Austen in very small doses.

So I finished Le Divorce but it was now spoiled for me. I felt outside of the book now. I felt like a critic. Never again will I look up a new (to me) author before I have completed her novel. I'd much rather be ignorant and feel the magic.

I didn't like the ending. It seemed that a mystery had developed during the latter half of the book but there were lots of clues and loose ends that were not wrapped up. The only thing is, now I will never know if I would have felt that way, regardless. All is not lost however. I want to read her other books.


March, Geraldine Brooks, Penguin Group Inc, 2005, 273 pp

Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize this year for this novel. I read it for one of my reading groups. It was pretty good but I had some problems with it.

The main character is Mr March, a fictional man who is supposed to be the father from Little Women, but is based on Bronson Alcott. He enlists in the Union Army during the Civil War as a chaplain for the troops. He is an impossibly idealistic man when he leaves for the war (even though he is middle-aged), but comes home a year later broken in body and spirit with many of his ideals shattered. As is often the case with idealists, he is not very practical.

It is a good story. There are plenty of gruesome battle scenes, interesting historical points and even sex. There is a good account of the woman's point of view through Marmee and a female slave. My problems were, first of all, that it seemed too obviously contrived. Secondly, although Brooks is good at showing divergent viewpoints, I get annoyed with her for not quite taking a stand as the author. I also had this problem with her last book, Year of Wonders. Perhaps this is because her background is journalism, but fiction is not journalism. I like an author with a moral stance.

Finally, Mr March was not a likeable character for me. Everything he did because of his ideals turned out badly and harmed more than it helped. The message that came across was that it is dangerous or even useless to have ideals.


Reading, Writing and Leaving Home, Lynn Freed, Harcourt Inc, 2005, 234 pp

This collection of essays about the writer's life was written over the past several years (since 1988) and originally published in various magazines. Amazingly they fit together very well in book form.

Freed was born and raised in South Africa. Her parents were theatre people, rather flamboyant and unconventional. All the essays are about being a writer but also about her life and her attempts to order that life around being a writer. I love reading about that subject and read the whole book in an evening.

She is witty and pithy and does not hold back on much. The key moment in the book for me was when she already had a husband, a child, a home to run and being unhappy, finally asked herself, "What do I really want to do?" That is such a quintessential question for a woman. She realized she only wanted to travel and to write. She then arranged her life accordingly, which did not bring her happiness, but it made her life make sense to her.

I realized from Lynn Freed's experience that what matters is for one's life to make sense to oneself. Sometimes you win, are happy, feel content for a few hours or days, but that is not the point. I felt what any good writing makes me feel: I am not alone. I also felt that I am working on the right things for me.

Good quote: "Leaving home is perhaps the central experience of the writer's life. It is this enigma that informs the writer's perspective-the restless pursuit of a way back while remaining steadfastly at a distance."

Thursday, September 07, 2006


White Ghost Girls, Alice Greenway, Grove Atlantic Inc, 2006, 168 pp

An impressive first novel. I may never have heard of it if not for independent bookstores. One of my favorite local independents, Portrait of a Bookstore, in Toluca Lake, had an author event with Alice Greenway. She was a nervous speaker, but the excerpt she read hooked me and I bought her book.

Two sisters, Kate and Frankie, have been parked in Hong Kong with their mother, while their father photographs the Vietnam War. Kate tells the story from the perspective of a grownup looking back on her life as a teen. The author perfectly captures the viewpoint of a 12 and 13 year old girl. Kate says that it is Frankie's story but it is also very much Kate's.

You know from the beginning that it will end in some kind of tragedy, but you never know exactly what until almost the end of the book. Kate and Frankie's mother is a painter. She hates being in Hong Kong instead of her New England home. She is almost unconscious in her dreaminess, her loneliness for her husband, her fears for his life and his faithfulness to her. The girls are mostly cared for by a Chinese nanny; a bitter old woman who is a refugee from Mao's communist regime and who believes wholly and completely in a Chinese saint. The girls are taken to mass occasionally by their mother, but they believe much more in the Chinese saint.

Frankie is a year older than Kate; reckless, wild and daring. No one can handle her, so Kate decides that she is responsible for her sister. They live for their father's infrequent visits, compete for his attention when he is home and play Vietnam War games of their own imaginings when he is away.

The writing is amost like Haiku. Fragments of sentences, unfolding the story in flashbacks and dreamlike sequences, describing the setting so well that you smell it, feel the heat, hear the cacophony of Hong Kong. Reading this book was like eating a fine, flavorful meal. I savored every page and was sorry when it was over. When I eat such a meal, I don't brush my teeth before bed because I want to taste those flavors all night. That is how I felt at the end of White Ghost Girls.


Zorro, Isabel Allende, HarperCollins Publishers, 2005, 390 pp

As usual, after I finish a year and chapter of "Reading For My Life," I like to catch up on current books. When I am not reading a novel from the past (right now I am finishing up the novels for 1951), I try to work away at that ever growing TO BE READ pile. I am also in four reading groups and sometimes read stuff I would not otherwise read. This is a good thing because I discover new authors to love, but also a bad thing if the books are stupid. Sometimes they are, though I put up with it because it is such a relief to discuss books with people.

I have read all of Isabel Allende's novels and loved them all. I bought this one in hardback the minute it came out, but alas it drifted in the TBR pile until I got it picked as a read at one of my reading groups. Allende was approached by the owners of the copyright to the name Zorro and asked to write the story of how the man became Zorro. I was a big Zorro fan as a kid and never missed the TV series, so I am glad she accepted the challenge.

It was a good read. At first I couldn't quite comprehend what she was doing stylistically. It was recognizable Allende with quirky characters and the influence of the spirit world. It was a superhero story with improbable plot twists and larger-than-life characters. It was historical fiction with the happenings of early California, Spain and Mexico in the 1800s. But it was emotionally off somehow, a bit dry and not fully engaged.

I was also reading The Illiad, a chapter a day, at the time, and suddenly realized that she had melded her style into the epic format. Homer did not waste time mourning the personal troubles of Achilles, Helen and Paris. He just reports the battles, the moods of the humans and the gods, and moves on. From the point of that realization, I just sank into the epic and had a good time.

There is a wonderful character in Zorro named Isabel. She loves Zorro secretly while Zorro hopelessly loves her sister. Isabel is not beautiful, she learns sword fighting and hangs out with gypsies in Spain. She is adventurous. I loved her throughout the book and in the epilogue you find out two surprising things about her which I thought were thrilling.

Allende also gets quite a bit of her uniquely feminist viewpoint into the story. The book is a tour-de-force by an author who continually challenges herself to explore new things in her writing.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


I started reading for this project in June, 2002, beginning with books published in 1940, even though I was born in 1947. I had the idea that I could get a sense of the times I was born into by reading fiction from the entire decade. It took me two and a half years to read from 1940 through 1947 and I began to wonder if I had set myself an unrealistic goal.

My intention is to put all these posts together into a memoir that considers the way in which the literature published during my lifetime has influenced the life I have led. Here on the blog, each year gets its own chapter. As I wrote this chapter, I was reading the last few books from 1951 which did strange loopy things to my memory, due to working in two different time periods at the same time. In 1951 I was three years old going on four. All week as I was writing and rewriting I felt distinctly odd: trouble sleeping, headaches, sinus trouble and a strange uneasy feeling about everything. This is the first chapter where I am present in the narrative, so I presume that is why it felt so bizarre. Starting a life! What an undertaking for any person, no matter what kind of life one ends up having.

But I am now glad that I read about all those previous years, because I can see where it was that I landed in 1947. My parents were still living in Pittsburgh with my dad's parents. Daddy worked at United States Steel. Mom stayed home, pregnant and doing housework with her mother-in-law, but they did not get along. There was a miniature cold war going on right in the house where I was born.

According to history books, in 1947 the biggest problem for the United States was Europe, which was in ruins from the war and threatened by communism from the Soviet Union. Stalin was in power and though the United Nations was formed and operating, Russian delegates opposed everything the other Western powers wanted. The Soviets were unruly in all conferences and wanted extensive lands in Europe under communist rule, not democracy. Truman was still President of the United States and George Marshall had been made Secretary of State. Most Americans wanted "normalcy" and prosperity, a million vets were going to college on the GI bill and no one wanted any more responsiblity for Europe or the Far East. However, the government was faced with the fact that a new enemy had arisen, one who had been an ally just two years previously. The Cold War had begun and atomic weapons were a big issue.

The Marshall Plan was proposed to Congress, calling for billions of dollars of aide to Europe, including Greece and Turkey. The theory was that people with no hope will embrace communism, but at least some hope of prosperity will keep them wanting democracy. The UN was also working out a plan for Israel, since Britain had now withdrawn from Palestine and neither the Arabs nor the Jews were happy with Britian's plan to partition the country. India gained her independence from the Commonwealth in this year as well and was another victim of partitioning, which created Pakistan. Here are many roots of the very situations that are making headlines and trouble now.

In my imagination, I think of children born in Israel, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India and China in the same year I was born. In fact, some of those individuals are finally getting a voice in literature and film to tell the stories of their lives and societies. The themes are change, political unrest, displaced peoples and a conflict between traditional, spiritual values and the growing influence of Western money and views. An example of such juxtapostion is the excavation of the Laws of Hammurabi and the Dead Sea Scrolls, both of which came to light in 1947, while billions of dollars of United States aide was pouring across the globe.

Congress also passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, restricting labor unions. Big business was fighting back against the Democratic majority which had been in power since the Depression and through the war; a time during which labor had made a good bit of progress toward better wages and working conditions. I would guess that industry will cash in on the Marshall Plan while trying to avoid paying their workers any more than they have to. Also in 1947 the United States flew the first supersonic planes, Bell Labs invented the transistor and flying saucers were sighted. Henry Ford died and fashion was promoting the New Woman.

In film, "The Best Years of Our Lives" won Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler) and Best Actor (Fredric March). It is a postwar film about three World War II soldiers returning to life in small town America. "To Each His Own" won Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland) and is another war story about a small town girl who has an illegitimate child with a soldier and has to give up the child. How the war affected small town America was a popular subject.

Popular songs were more light-hearted and as usual dealt with love and dancing: "Almost Like Being in Love," "Papa Won't You Dance With Me?" and "I'll Dance at Your Wedding" were the hits.

In the books and literature, about half of the bestsellers were historical fiction and the other half about contemporary life, but war books were not selling in this year of "normalcy". Even in the other books I read for the year, only one was about WWII. The rest were also about postwar city life and work life except for two historical fiction novels. The stories about contemporary life included poverty, anti-semitism, racism, the entertainment business and efforts to get ahead in a postwar economy. A new development is the publication of science fiction and speculative fiction in book form. Those kinds of stories were being published in the pulp magazines all through the 30s and 40s, but due to the emergence of the paperback, could now be put into book form and reach a wider audience. They also give a feeling of looking towards the future.

I was hugely relieved not to have to read about World War II for a few months, but it was a short reprieve. The war books came back the very next year and as of 1951, are still going strong. Overall from the 1947 fiction I got a spirit of recovery from war, looking ahead, building families and futures for them.

I was born at 9:33 AM on August 18, 1947 at Allegheny General Hsopital in Pittsburgh, PA. I was delivered by Dr B O Hawk and weighed 8 lbs 8 oz, measuring 21 inches long. This is a completely average size for a baby and I have been average in size my whole life. As far as I know I was healthy and though the labor was long and they yanked me out with forceps, there were no complications. My Aunt Lois, who was a nurse at the time, was present at my birth. She was not Dr Hawk's nurse, but entered the delivery room along with my mom and was permitted to stay since she was family. That is all she remembers about it.

My mom remembers the long labor, the fact that it was about 90 degrees in the delivery room and that she missed breakfast and lunch. She decided then and there that she would have no more babies in the summer. In those days, they kept new mothers in the hospital for at least five days. The babies were kept in the nursery and only brought to the mothers at feeding time. My mom had her abdomen kneaded several times a day and went home with a flat stomach. Aunt Lois was her post-partum nurse and since she still lived at home in those days, I already knew her by the time they took me home.

I was baptized on September 21, 1947, at St Matthew's Lutheran Church by Reverend Martens. Since I was about three weeks past the due date when born, I held up the baptism of two other babies. Their mothers were friends of my mother and all were due to have babies around the same time. The other babies were born on time but the mothers decided to wait until I could be baptized too. Pastor Martens was the father of one of those babies. Until that day, the mothers in that church always held their babies during the rite, but Pastor Martens wanted to hold his own baby, so he held the other two as well, which my mom says was a big deal for him. I was good and did not cry when the water was poured over my head, but this did not please my dad. He felt that babies should cry in protest at giving up their sins, so I guess he started worrying about me right then and there.

Life at home was a tumult of issues. There were five adults in that house who were all thrilled to have a baby in the family, so I was surrounded by love and was the center of attention, a position I still enjoy. But my mother was of the mind that babies should be on a sleeping and eating schedule as soon as possible and should not be given in to at every cry, lest the baby become the ruler of the household. My grandparents believed that babies should not ever have to cry and insisted on picking me up every time I did. My grandfather in particular would walk into my parents' bedroom, where I slept, and pick me up, even if it was the middle of the night. This drove my mother to distraction. She felt he was undermining her attempts to get me on schedule and also that she and my dad had no privacy. I am pretty sure that I was the ruler of that household.

According to the baby book my mom kept, none of this did me any harm growth-wise. By the end of the year I had doubled my birth weight and grown to 27 inches. At first I was breast fed with supplementary bottles, but after a few weeks Mom and her doctor decided she did not have enough milk, so that was the end of breastfeeding for me. I never even had a cold until I was five months old and have always been healthy. I could hold my head up at two weeks and I laughed at around five months. By then I was also sitting up alone.

My first trip to town was at seven weeks, for a check-up at the doctor. On November 8, I went to my first dinner party at the home of my Great Aunts Lou and Moll. I still love dinner parties. I ended the year with my first Christmas, at which it was reported that I liked the ribbons on the packages but cried when shown a toy dog given to me by Aunt Shirly and Uncle Jim from Michigan. (I've been afraid of dogs for most of my life.)

I don't have any memories of those first four and a half months except for the impression that I was loved completely by everyone around me. I wonder if I could perceive that not everyone around me loved each other. Perhaps that awareness came later, but I seem to have always wanted all the people I loved to get along with each other. In fact, it has always bothered me when people around me are in conflict and somewhere along the line I got the idea that it was my role to resolve those conflicts. So there you have it: the training ground for a pacifist and an anti-war protestor. I would also bet that my dad was caught in the middle and did his best to smooth things over with communication, becoming my first role model for the skill of diplomacy.


If you are new to my blog, you might have noticed that I have an ongoing project here. About once a month or so, I post on the topic "Reading For My Life." I began these posts last year and if you would like to read the entire series, you can find each section back in the archives at the following dates:

July 6, 2005-My Big Fat Reading Project
December 4, 2005-Reading For My Life 1940
February 20, 2006-Reading For My Life 1941
March 12, 2006-Reading For My Life 1942
April 2, 2006-Reading For My Life 1943
May 21, 2006-Reading For My Life 1944
July 14,2006-Reading For My Life 1945
July 31, 2006-Reading For My Life 1946

If I were fully computer literate, which I am not, I would have a groovy sidebar with all these posts listed for you to click on. Frankly, I would rather read and write than learn the fine points of computers, so you will have to search around in the Archives to find these dates.
Someday, in the distant future, I hope to publish it all in a book, but this is what I have so far.

Happy reading to you intrepid types.