Friday, December 28, 2007


The Spanish Bow, Andromeda Romano-Lax, Harcourt Inc, 2007, 547 pp

This first novel came in as an Advance Reader Copy. I liked it so much I convinced the owner to order it for the store.

The main character is Spanish, born in the early 1900s near Barcelona. Though he is poor, he grows up to be a famous cello virtuoso. As the novel follows his life, you also get a history of Spain in the first half of the 20th century. I learned the most about that country that I have ever learned and added to what I knew from For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway and from one of the Lanny Budd books by Upton Sinclair.

The cellist is loosely based on Pablo Casals though it is completely fiction. He has a musical partner, a pianist, who comes in and out of his life. I loved the way the author showed this relationship: they were in complete accord whenever they were playing music but were so different as personalities and politically that their association was often painful and torturous. Isn't that just the way it is with musicians?

The story also explores the question of what use is art in times of war and political upheaval. The power of music to uplift people is beautifully evoked and the power of war to break an artist's spirit is horrifically shown.

Not a page turner and a bit pedantic in writing style but a fine story not often told. I cannot dislike a book about musicians.


Blind Submission, Debra Ginsberg, Shaye Areheart Books, 2006, 328 pp

I read this in one day; I'd been planning to read it since I first heard of it last year because it is set in the world of publishing. In fact, it is the Nanny Diaries and the Devil Wears Prada of the publishing industry. Plus, who knew? It is a mystery though there are no murders or even bloodshed.

Though a definite chick lit aura abounds and the writing is a tad not that good, the story telling rocks and I was completely seduced. Angel Robinson was raised by a hippie mom, moving from commune to commune in her youth. She ends up working in an independent bookstore in Marin County where she meets a handsome aspiring writer. They fall in love and in a covert self-serving gesture, he convinces her to apply for the job of admin assistant to a hot literary agent when the bookstore closes.

Angel gets the job, figures out quickly what sort of psychopath the agent is, but is drawn into the work because she loves writers and is good at spotting potential and at editing. When an anonymous "blind submission" comes in, Angel gets caught up in the mystery of who is this author? Her boyfriend? An annoying pestering wannabe? And as the novel comes in chapter by chapter, it bears a creepy similarity to Angel's life.

Great stuff. Clever really. All is solved with a happy ending. Despite the writing, Ginsberg obviously knows books, literature and the business. Who could ask for more really?

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Ron Carlson Writes A Story, Ron Carlson, Graywolf Press, 2007, 112 pp

I also learned of this book through a book review. The author is a short story writer and teaches creative writing at UC Irvine. In this short volume, he takes the reader through his day of writing a particular story, showing his process.

I liked the book and the story he wrote was just OK. The main point he made was to "stay in the room"; meaning don't blow from the process and you will keep the creative mind open and flowing. The other point, which helped me the most, is that as a writer, I don't have to know how a story is going to end until I get there. Ha. Somehow I thought I did have to know that.


The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2007, 120 pp

I read about this book in the NYT Book Review, picked it up at a bookstore that week and read it in an evening. What a cool surprise of a book!

Bennett is primarily a British playwright and wrote "The History Boys" which became a movie; one I haven't seen yet. I certainly had never heard of him before. This novella is a fictional account, a "what if" story, about the Queen of England getting into reading and speculates on how reading changes her, makes her aware of people around her and humanizes her.

He is brilliant on all the little details of the monarchy and its ways, politics and English society in the 21st century. The book is funny, charming and an impassioned defense of reading and literature in its power to increase awareness in people, even Queens. I loved it.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


Back Roads, Tawni O'Dell, Viking Press, 2000, 338 pp

After reading Sister Mine earlier this year, I decided to go back to Tawni O'Dell's earlier novels. This one was an Oprah pick and why is it that Oprah's books are so often about wholly dysfunctional people? Still this book is equally as good as Sister Mine, though considerably darker.

Harley Altmeyer is 18 and as the oldest sibling with three younger sisters, he is trying to support and raise those girls without parents. Their mother is in jail for the murder of their abusive father. Due to the abuse, all five living members of the family are majorly screwed up. As the story progresses, Harley and the oldest sister learn what was really going on in their family.

Meanwhile, Harley begins having sex with the mother of his youngest sister's friend and it all ends up with Harley in jail for the murder of this woman, which isn't what really happened either. O'Dell is a master of highly skilled plotting and realistic characters and dialogue. (I don't think she attended any MFA writing programs.) I loved the spot-on encounters between Harley and his State appointed shrink. When Harley thinks about stuff, O'Dell includes certain words in capital letters, just like J D Salinger did for Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

Quite a book. I learned much about the insidious effects of abuse on children; effects that stay with them as they grow up and lead to all manner of social ills. I realized that most of the students I taught at a school for kids who had fallen behind were victims of either abuse or abandonment, which is what made them so hard to help.


Away, Amy Bloom, Random House Inc, 2007, 235 pp

Man! This book was amazing. I love it when I open a book, hopeful as always of a good read, and just get ambushed by such unexpected power of writing and uniqueness of tale.

Lillian Leyb is a young mother in a tiny Russian Jewish village when an attack by anti-Semitic neighbors kills almost everyone including Lillian's parents and husband. Her four year old daughter Sophie disappears.

That was in 1923. A year later Lillian arrives in New York City to live with a cousin. Then she learns on the immigrant grapevine that Sophie is alive and possibly in Siberia. She begins a journey across America, up to Alaska and intends to cross the Bering Straight into Siberia.

The characters in this story are completely human examples of the variety of beingnesses found on earth. Lillian's misadventures are myriad and her pluck is endless. She lives on love and a refusal to succumb to loss. This is extreme adventure, as described by Lynne Sharon Schwartz in Ruined by Reading, but it is the male and female types combined into one character.

The emotional impact of the story is huge and stayed with me for hours, days really, maybe forever.


Millicent Min Girl Genius, Lisa Yee, Scholastic Inc, 2003, 248 pp

My boss at the bookstore gave me this book to read when I first started working there. Lisa Yee lives somewhere in Los Angeles and did an event at the store before I came there to work. She now has three books out.

This is a wonderful book for readers aged 8-12. Millicent is a certified genius, going into her senior year of high school at age 13. She is a geek of course and quite socially challenged, so her mom makes her take volleyball in the summer. She also gets roped into tutoring another Chinese kid named Stanford Wong, who is a jock but failing English.

At volleyball, Millicent finally makes a friend named Emily and because Millicent is afraid to tell Emily about her IQ and all, plenty of trouble ensues. Especially gnarly is the attraction between Emily and Stanford Wong.

Yee does a great job with Millicent's geeky ineptness side by side with her intelligence. The emotions of 12 and 13 year olds are in the same turmoil no matter what else is going on, so that is where these three characters touch and affect each other. Even the ending, where everything gets worked out, is handled well and never feels sappy. I am glad I read it and recommend it often.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


The Painted Kiss, Elizabeth Hickey, Atria Books, 2005, 268 pp

This is one of those books that I very much liked while I was reading it, but whenever I think back on it I like it even more. I have recommended it to tons of customers at the bookstore where I work and they all liked it too. It is historical fiction about Gustav Klimt, told from the viewpoint of Emilie Floge, who was in love with Klimt and may have been his mistress.

I liked it because it is about artists and Vienna at the end of the 19th century before it was changed forever by two world wars. Emilie is a somewhat maddening character. In affairs of the heart, she was reticent and passive in the extreme, at least the way Hickey portrays her. She spent most of her life pining for Klimt but never actively made him hers. He was a womanizer and viewed life through his purpose as an artist.

All the same, Emilie grew up to be the owner of one of the most successful fashion salons of her time in Vienna and was an artist in her own right. For a woman of her time, she probably had one of the best lives she could have had.


A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson, Broadway Books, 1998, 274 pp

I read this book for a reading group and was totally surprised by it. Bryson tells the tale of his attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. His writing is brisk, clever and humorous and anyway I am a sucker for such quests.

The book is full of pertinent and interesting historical background on the trail, no-nonsense appraisals of ecological issues and the hilarious, uneasy relationship with his walking partner, so I was captivated most of the time. Of course, the idea of walking the trail from start to finish (called "through-walking") appealed to my compulsive A to Z nature. They did not achieve it but learned much in the attempt. The majority of the enterprise is just walking, up hill and down for hours and days and weeks. "Walking, that's what we do," he would say.

It is much like my Big Fat Reading Project: reading, page by page, book by book, year by year. Reading, that's what I do. I admire that approach to anything. I'm glad I read this book and if it weren't for reading groups, I never would have.


The Hummingbird's Daughter, Luis Alberto Urrea, Little Brown and Company, 2005, 495 pp

Here is another book I had on my shelves for quite a while. I bought it for the title. I proposed it for reading groups a few times (one of my strategies for getting to books on my shelves) but it was never picked.

I had mixed reactions. It took a long time to read and I was never dying to read it. Mostly I plodded along. But I liked the story, the characters and in the end he got me and I decided I liked the whole book. The ending was the best part but it wouldn't have been that good if it hadn't been for all that came before. Urrea's style is similar to Isabel Allende and a bit to Gabriel Garcia Marquez though without their magical sparkle. He creates his characters with empathy and humor. There was just something missing in terms of pulling the reader into the story.

Set in Mexico in the mid to late 1800s, it is the story of Teresita, whose father was a wealthy rancher and whose mother a lowly ranch worker, known as the Hummingbird. Teresita is abandoned by her mother and once she figures out who her father is, she worms her way into his household with her considerable wiles, where she is raised by a woman healer/midwife. Eventually Teresita becomes a symbol for the Mexican Revolution, though she is a passionate believer in non-violence.

I was glad I read it and learned new things about Mexico, but it sure was hard getting to the end.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006, 331 pp

I am probably the only person in the world who did not find this book to be completely wonderful. I received it as a Christmas present last year from a relative who told me it was her favorite book of the year. It stayed on the hardback and paperback bestseller lists forever and three out of the four reading groups of which I am a member chose this book. With all of that build-up, I was underwhelmed. (I also was not wowed by The Memory Keeper's Daughter.) It was the writing that was the problem.

It is a good story about a young man who loses his parents just as he is about to graduate from Veterinary College at Cornell University. It is 1931 and the practice which Jacob Jankowski was to inherit is bankrupt. So Jacob runs off and joins the circus.

The story alternates between the 98 or so year old Jacob living in an assisted living home and the 21 year old Jacob, who is vet to the Benzini Brothers circus. The old Jacob is looking back and telling his coming-of-age tale. Jacob, the old man, is a wonderful character and the author gets the voice of this cantankerous senior just right. The younger Jacob is not so convincing and therein lay my disappointment, since that is the bulk of the story. Whenever the younger Jacob takes over the story, I just couldn't believe him as a character.

It is true that the story carries you along. The author did her research on circus life in the 1930s and several of the circus characters are well formed and sympathetic. There are two dastardly villains, a lovely heroine and best of all the characters is Rosie the elephant, who literally saves the day. Rosie is worth the whole book. An improbable happy ending wraps it up nicely and every one in every reading group agreed that is could have ended no other way.

Monday, December 10, 2007


The Keep, Jennifer Egan, Alfred A Knopf, 2006, 240 pp

Wow! Wow! Wow! So good. I've been fascinated about this book since I first heard of it, but even so all the reviews did not begin to explain what it is really about. Yes, there is a crumbling castle with a keep in eastern Europe and yes there is a main character who is obsessed with staying connected by phone and email. But this story is really about crime and redemption; about the inexplicable connections people make; and about the power of imagination to redeem anyone.

It is also about the vast imperfections of human life. Nobody gets off easy and no one gets out alive. On top of all that, the writing is fantastic, the dialogue and pace made me breathless and even the most despicable character is lovable. One review called The Keep "deliciously creepy," because totally entwined with the modern hipness is a Gothic feel.

Already from early on in the story there are two layers or stories going; one in the castle and one in a prison. In fact, the person writing the story is a prisoner taking a writing class. I was impressed by the way Egan handled these two layers. Then in the last 25 pages she takes it a surprising layer deeper, which enriches the entire tale. Wow! Wow! Wow!

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

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Because I watch my movies on the Netflix plan, I am always hopelessly behind, often seeing movies that were hot two years ago. My method is to read the Movie Guide in the LA Times every Sunday morning and note down movies that sound good, then put them into a notebook as a list of movies I'd like to see. Finally they make it onto the Netflix queue. It is a good system for me, better than going to Blockbuster, where my husband and I used to end up watching all the action/adventure guy flicks because he would shoot down most of my choices. I won't bore you with our silly Netflix arguments except to say that we alternate on picks and sort of keep track on whose picks were good or bad.

So last night we saw "Akeelah and the Bee" and it was unbelievably great. I pick all flicks which have anything to do with writers, books or words, not to mention movies made from books I have read. This was the second in the Spelling Bee genre, the first being "Bee Season" from the book by Myla Goldberg.

Akeelah is an eleven year old girl growing up in a fatherless African American home in South Central LA. She is already a champion speller but more concerned with being cool with her girlfriends and hanging out than in going to school. Crenshaw Middle School is underfunded and in no way challenges her high intelligence. Along comes the spelling bee, the Principal's hope of gaining recognition (translation: funds) for his school and a challenge for Akeelah.

It is an oft told tale of the rise of an African American due to intelligence and education, directed by and also starring Laurence Fishburne who plays Akeelah's tutor. But the whole thing: the screenplay, the casting, the dialogue, are just perfectly put together. The movie could be called heartwarming and it is, bringing tears to both our eyes many times, but it is so much more. Akeelah is a righteous heroine; a combination of tough, hip, and smart with a loving nature. Angela Bassett plays Akeelah's totally stressed out urban Mom and is equally powerful in her role.

If you haven't seen it and love words, word origins, education and all that, just rent it and see it.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Free Food For Millionaires, Min Jin Lee, Hachette Book Group USA, 2007, 560 pp

In the end, this was a satisfying story. Casey Han is a bright young woman whose parents are Korean immigrants. She was raised in Queens in a small apartment and managed to go to Princeton University on scholarship. As the story opens, she has just graduated from Princeton, magna cum laud in economics. Now she is supposed to go on to law school but she doesn't want to. There ensues a huge fight with her father after which he throws her out of the house.

Casey proceeds to run up credit card debt, sleep with men (Korean and American), acquire and mess up relationships and finally figure out a couple things. There are a few other main characters, all Korean, who serve to show Casey's relationships as well as the troubles and triumphs of two generations of Koreans in America.

The writing is not great but pretty good. This reader felt concerned and irritated by turns, as the characters made their disastrous choices and suffered for them. The women especially were either too emotional (lots of crying), too hard or too pious (big Christianity thing going on.) But Min Jin Lee creates a believable account of what it is like for Koreans trying to achieve the American dream while integrating their beliefs and customs into our materialistic and godless society. She does particularly well with the question of women, their inhibitions, their roles and the nearly impossible track that younger women must tread. She also gets the class and economic thing quite well. It was certainly worth reading.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


American Gods, Neil Gaiman, William Morrow, 2001, 588 pp

This was a long read but I did it in four days due to an airplane flight, a leisurely weekend at my sister's and a whole afternoon and evening of reading at my mom's. I had just finished Harry Potter (5) and the Order of the Phoenix which was an almost perfect transition: from magic to ancient gods.

The hero is Shadow, who is not a god, though he is a Christ figure of sorts. Just as he is released from prison, he finds himself pursued by a very odd guy who wants to hire him as a bodyguard. From there on it gets weirder and more weird. Many characters who have certain down-and-out personae in modern American life (such as prostitutes, embalmers, etc) are actually forgotten gods of ancient religions. These gods were brought to America by immigrants, beginning thousands of years ago and then dropped as the immigrants became Americanized. There is a war brewing between these gods and the current gods of money, media and computer/cyber space/drug people.

Lots of satire here, lots of data on myths and ancient religions as well as lots of brilliant imagination. It is all hung on Shadow's journey to discover his destiny and his heritage which plays out like a good mystery story. In the end I liked it, though at times it dragged and made me sleepy. I am also fairly ignorant about some of these gods, though I was pleased to see that I know a bit because of all the reading I've done. In any case, it is a unique story which I suspect has changed me in ways that will become apparent later.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


The History of Love, Nicole Krauss, W W Norton & Company, 2005, 252 pp

Finally I have read this book and I loved it. It was like falling into a dream. It is beautifully and wonderfully written. Leo Gursky is an old, old man living in New York City who had escaped from a Polish village in 1939 just as the Germans were coming. His family was killed and he lost track of his one true love, who had emigrated to America. He had also written a novel about this woman whose name was Alma, but the novel was lost as well.

Now there is another Alma, a young girl named after the character in Gursky's book. She has lost her father and her mother is lost in grief for her dead husband. Through Gursky's novel, also titled The History of Love, many people are found again.

It is the way that Krauss unravels the story that touched me so deeply. Also the characters who are vivid and unusual but so real as human beings. A perfect combination of the stories of individual people and the universal experience of people losing each other and their creations because of the evil and violence in the world. Really very impressive. Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer, who are married, are a perfect match as writers. I hope they are happy together and that they both keep on writing.

Monday, December 03, 2007


The Highest Tide, Jim Lynch, Bloomsbury USA, 2005, 246 pp

Though labeled a Young Adult novel, I discovered that its appeal is to adults. The author won recognition and awards in the Pacific Northwest and I loved the story.

Miles is a 13 year old troubled insomniac, living on the shores of a bay on Puget Sound. He reads Rachel Carson and roams the mudflats when he can't sleep, obsessed with tides and the odd sea creatures he finds when the tide is out. His only friend is an extremely weird kid who is obsessed with sex (not that he gets any and not that Miles is not also permanently horny.)

His other acquaintances that summer are Angie, a 16 year old headbanger musician who is also troubled, takes too many drugs and was Miles' babysitter when he was little. He is hopelessly in love with her. Florence is a 90-some-year old former psychic dying of Parkinson's Disease but fighting against social services who want to put her in a home. Judge Stegner, Angie's dad, raises oysters and employs Miles to tend the beds. At the bottom of all the trouble is Miles' parents' crumbling marriage.

In the midst of all this, Miles finds a giant squid, thought to be extinct, and ends up pursued by the media and a bunch of New Age people who have a "school" nearby. A lot to deal with at 13 and Miles makes plenty of foolish moves. It is a coming of age tale set in amazing natural surroundings, peppered with environmental issues and a large dose of satire about the media. But what really makes it good is Miles. He is an endearing, super intelligent kid trying to figure out the world around him and survive his life.

I led a teen reading group at my store and none of them liked the book. They thought the characters were "types" and the teens unlikely. Ha. What do adults know about what teens like. Not much unless you are J K Rowling.

Friday, November 30, 2007


One Thousand White Women, Jim Fergus, St Martin's Press, 1998, 302 pp

May Dodd was a rebellious young woman from a rich Chicago family who ran off with her lower class lover and had two children. Her parents eventually took the children and had May committed to an insane asylum.

According to fact, Cheyenne Chief Little Wolf, in an effort to preserve the life of his people, journeyed to Washington, DC, in 1874 and proposed to President Ulysses S Grant that the US government give 1000 white women as brides to his tribe in exchange for 1000 horses. In this way, the Cheyenne warriors would produce children of the Indian and White race mixed and those children would integrate the Cheyenne into the life and culture of the White man.

Not a bad idea really but of course the leaders of our country would not consider such a savage and non-Christian endeavor. Jim Fergus decided to write a "what-if-that-happened" story. May Dodd becomes one of those brides in hopes of someday being free to return to her children and family. Through her journals she tells the story.

So it is all quite improbable but most of the time Fergus kept me in a willing suspension of disbelief. He is an engaging writer and creates quite some impressive characters among the women: daughter of former slaves Euphemia, a fallen Southern woman, a zealous Christian missionary, etc.

Finally by the inevitable disastrous ending, the conceit began to wear thin for me, but it was still an enjoyable read as well as a good piece of imagination backed up by competent research.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Sex Wars, Marge Piercy, William Morrow, 2005, 408 pp

Never before have I read a novel set in post Civil War America that was from the women's side of the story. Here we have Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, and Victoria Hull slugging it out for freedom and rights for women. Every main female character is strong, vehement about being in charge of her own life and completely flippant about what any man might expect of her. Which is not to say that they did not like men or engage in passionate sex (except for Susan B Anthony who was a virgin all her life, but also the most conservative.)

The writing was a bit odd; not bad exactly but certainly not literary or lyrical. However, once I got hooked on the story, I didn't care. I think every American woman should read this book, but especially young women in their 20s and 30s, lest the battles fought and won for women be forgotten. I am so glad I read this book and learned the history of those battles.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Continuing my memoir-in-progress, in which I ponder the way my life developed in the context of the main fiction published in those years. To read earlier chapters click on the label at the end of this post. This is the 13th chapter.

The Happy Family

My memories of this year of my life are slim. I went from 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 years of age and it seems to me now to have been a year of settling in to family life without a lot of change. The world was in a state of flux with major political changes in Israel, Iran, Ireland and Czechoslovakia, while the United States and Great Britain moved ever more towards conservatism. Congress passed the 22nd amendment, limiting service as President to two terms. The Korean War waged on with North Korea (and thus Communism) winning for most of the year. Because of this and due to some of his wackier ideas, General MacArthur was relieved of his command, yet all attempts to negotiate an armistice failed.

By the end of 1951, thanks to the Marshall Plan and billions of American dollars, many Europeans countries had recovered economically and production-wise to levels higher than before WWII. Americanization of Europe was well on its way in terms of pop culture, though resentment towards America was also present. Rearmament in Europe and the United States had raised taxes.

The problems facing the last years of President Truman's term as President of the United States included inflation, labor troubles, discrimination against Blacks (especially in the South with poll taxes and lynching still going on) and poverty. But the main story of the 1950s was the Cold War: the fight between communism and democracy and the threat of nuclear weapons. The discovery and conviction of Russian spies in 1951 was fomenting an extreme fear of communism in our country which would lead to the abuses by Senator Joseph McCarthy and other witch hunters. While the Korean War was anything by cold, I see it as a dramatization of this conflict between democracy and communism while the Marshall Plan demonstrated that democracy won when money and expansion were present.

In the books I read from 1951, war and military subjects dominated the Bestseller list with five out of the top 10 books being about WW II. Three of the bestsellers were religious in content and only two were historical fiction. The #1 bestseller was also my favorite: From Here to Eternity by James Jones was a big war book with strong emotional impact. The other novel which stuck with me was Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson which ranks with any of the top literary titles of today. I read five books of science fiction in which the authors were busy predicting futures which are the present today. Except for the war books and the religious, the literature of 1951 was mainly concerned with the present and the future.

In film, the award winning films were two about contemporary times and one historical. "All About Eve" won Best Picture and Best Director (Joseph L Mankiewitz), starred Bette Davis and told the story of an upstart young actress usurping the reigning actress of the day. "Born Yesterday" took Best Actress (Judy Holliday), who played a dumb blond who gets wise and busts her criminal boss. This movie was remade with Melanie Griffith in 1993 and it would be hard to pick which version is the better one. "Cyrano de Bergerac" took Best Actor (Jose Ferer). It was based on a play which is pretty much a romantic comedy set in 1640s France.

In popular music, two of the hit songs of the day were from "The King and I", which was playing on Broadway that year. "Hello Young Lovers" was recorded by Perry Como and "Getting to Know You" was recorded by many. "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine", a re-write by Leadbelly and Pete Seeger of an Irish ballad was made famous by The Weavers. Also this year, Gian Carlo Menotti wrote the operetta "Amahl and the Night Visitors" on commission from NBC TV. Once we got a television, I would see this every Christmas of my childhood. The great synergy of theatre, film, radio and television had begun.

The world of science continued to develop peacetime uses for discoveries made in wartime: chemicals for fertilizer and atomic energy for electricity. Penicillin and streptomycin were in wide use in the United States getting kids through their childhood ailments, thus helping the population grow.

In out little house in suburban Pittsburgh, my parents were creating a safe haven. Daddy went to work everyday and my mom was playing the role of 1950s suburban housewife. My sister Linda and I had chicken pox at the same time, but most of my memories are happy. There were evenings when Mom would play songs on the piano while Linda and I marched and danced around. We visited neighbors with children and went to birthday parties. An older man from across the street would come and take me for walks in the woods behind his house. Mr Muchow was childless with an invalid wife but to me he was a personification of Santa Claus and Jesus combined, as he took me quite seriously, talking to me about my life and the trees and animals around us. I've had dreams about this amazing man all of my life.

Sometimes we had guests for dinner, which was called "having company." I was always willing to sing a song or tell a joke for the adults. My mom says this was my idea and I never had to be persuaded. I did love that feeling of being the center of attention. My dad had a great sense of humor and taught me the jokes I told. My signature song was "Jesus Loves Me."

Mom always had a pile of magazines in a corner of the living room. I would sit there for hours and "read" them, making up stories about the pictures. I also had blocks to build with, though Linda would most often come along and wreck my structures while laughing with glee. I kept my rage in check because pretty much all was right in my world and I didn't want it any differently.

Despite the occasional crisis with my grandparents which Daddy would have to handle, even though money was probably tight, I think my parents felt they had somewhat arrived in their own life. Through education, Mom escaped her small farm town life and Daddy had escaped his parents' home. They shared a strong Christian faith, a work ethic and a love of children. The happiness and safety I felt that year were in a large part created by my parents in the spirit of the "better world" America was supposed to be building. Though the next year would bring new changes for them and me, I was content and adjusted to our home and my little sister.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Laurel Canyon, Michael Walker, Faber and Faber Inc, 2006, 248 pp

Interesting history of the area in Los Angeles where Joni Mitchell; Crosby, Stills and Nash and many other musicians of the late 60s and 70s lived and from where they built their careers. After giving a brief back story from before the hippies came, he goes into just enough detail to bring it all alive. Then he give his analysis of how it fell apart, including the Laurel Canyon scene as well as the music and careers of its musicians and the ideals of my generation. Michael Walker (and who is he anyway?) may have bit off more than he could chew.

While I didn't always believe the author or completely trust all of his information, I enjoyed reading about a period of time which was a sort of golden age of my lifetime. I still feel that the sentiments of peace, love and understanding were valid and it is significant that most of what hippies and their music were pointing out about the ills of the world turned out to be true. Right on!

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Sister Mine, Tawni O'Dell, Shaye Areheart Books, 2006, 405 pp

Shae-Lynn has had a tough life. Her mother died when she was six, just days after giving birth to her sister. Her father was an abusive coal-miner and Shea-Lynn learned to dodge him when possible and protect her sister. She has been a cop, both in Washington, DC, and in her small Pennsylvania home town.

Now she drives the town's only cab and her son is the deputy sheriff. Her sister disappeared some 16 years ago but has reappeared, very pregnant and pursued by an odd assortment of people: a Connecticut housewife, a lawyer and a Russian gangster.

Shae-Lynn is tough, sexy, gritty, wry and deep down still emotionally wounded. As this excellent tale unfolds you learn about her life and the eccentric coalminers in their failing town. The sister's story falls out like the best of mysteries and the ending is satisfying and just right.

Really an amazing piece of writing: equal parts heartrending, suspenseful and humorous. Deep issues with a breezy style that makes a perfect read for any season.

Friday, November 09, 2007


 A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz, Harcourt Inc, 2004, 538 pp

Here is another book I have been meaning to read ever since it was published. I loved it, even though he is sometimes wordy and repeats himself. I read it for one of my reading groups but it was my suggestion.

Amos Oz was born in Jerusalem to Jewish parents who had arrived in the forming country of Israel in the late 1930s from Poland. The parents were both highly educated and Amos' father's family were writers and scholars. Raised in this atmosphere, Oz became quite the bookish prodigy at a young age. He began writing poems and stories as a child.

I thought I would learn about kibbutz life since Oz moved to a kibbutz in his teens, but about that he told little. Instead he thoroughly explores the lives of his immigrant extended family in the 1940s and 1950s from his memories of being a child then.

It is a powerful story and brought me to understand, as I hadn't previously, the extreme oppression against Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia. I saw how that led to an almost fanatical belief in the concept of Israel and why Jews there would defend it even unto death. Oz does not so much excuse excesses that the Jews have engaged in against Palestine and Arabs, as he does show how such a state of affairs came about. The betrayals by Great Britain are enumerated but I saw the long history of the Jews as the roots of it all.

For Amos Oz and his family the losses of home, family members killed by Nazis and a whole way of life were hard in the extreme. His mother finally succumbed to depression and ended her life when Oz was just 12 years old. A Tale of Love and Darkness is his way of coming to terms with his mother's suicide and as he slowly revealed the details I found myself riveted to every page. The mother spent hours telling the young Amos tales that she knew or invented; Amos has told her tale.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier, Random House Inc, 2006, 252 pp

"The City" is a place where dead people hang out for a while, living somewhat regular lives, except they all know that they have died. Eventually they disappear. The theory amongst them is that as long as there is someone left on Earth who remembers any one of them, they remain in The City.

Meanwhile, the people of Earth are rapidly dying from a virus which has spread across the entire planet. In Antarctica is a woman who was part of an exploratory/promotional mission funded by Coca Cola.

I can't say more without giving away too much. I loved the wild imagination of this story. The book is like a dream: it doesn't all make sense but has a wondrous quality. There is nothing creepy or depressing about a story of dead people and the destruction of the human race. How did he do that?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007



 The Bookseller of Kabul, Asne Seierstad, Little Brown and Company, 2003, 288 pp

Back to Afghanistan. A Norwegian journalist, after spending six weeks reporting on the defeat of the Taliban in late 2001, spent months living with an Afghan family in Kabul. This book is an account of what she learned.
The head of the family is Sultan Khan, a bookseller who survived all the different regimes, the burning of his books, periods of exile in Pakistan and time in prison. He believes passionately in books, literature and education as the way for his country to enter the modern world. Yet he has two wives and is the undisputed patriarch over his wives, brothers, sisters and sons.
Seierstad portrays this welter of conflicting ideas and particularly the plight of Afghan women with a balanced reportorial prose. She seems to be saying, "This is the way it is." Once again I was left with a sense of my good fortune to live in America, but also from the author's interpretation, an understanding of the slow progress of a civilization from ancient customs and almost barbarian oppression to an awareness of themselves. I felt more strongly than ever the importance of books and interchange of ideas between cultures as a means to bring about more peace in the world.
If only the leaders of the world could or would better understand both the cultures they lead and those they oppose. Perhaps Plato was right about the qualities and education required for leadership.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


Archangel, Sharon Shinn, Ace Books, 1996, 390 pp

A writer friend of mine, who is currently shopping her first sci fi novel, recommended this author to me and as Anne McCaffrey says in the blurb, "I was truly deeply delighted." The planet Samaria has a perfect society with strict laws swiftly punished if disobeyed but a way of life that includes diverse peoples who respect each other. Angels guard the mortals and mystics guard forbidden knowledge. Jehovah is their God but is actually an armed starship programmed to unleash terrible destruction if peace is not maintained.

The head angel, the archangel, is corrupt and self-serving. He is to be replaced by Gabriel who must find his predestined mortal wife. She is Rachel, a girl with a tragic past and a rebellious prickly personality. Part of the story is about how Gabriel and Rachel work out their destiny. To do so involves defeating the evil plans of the current archangel.

What I liked best was the background of music and singing. The angels help maintain peace through harmonious singing. There is a tradition of arias which only angels can sing. But the whole book and the world of Samaria are created with such a rich imagination that I was pleased throughout. Rachel is a complex and vibrant character. Quite an unusual read.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Eat the Document, Dana Spiotta, Scribner, 2006, 290 pp

Excellent! Two young political protesters in the early 1970s have to go underground separately when one of their actions makes them wanted criminals. First you get Mary's story: changing her name, trying to live and work below the radar, moving around from place to place, cutting all ties with her parents. Spiotta evokes this life with its loss, loneliness and fear so well that I felt the woman's suffering.

Interspersed are chapters set in late 1990s Seattle with suburban kids doing their own forms of protest, which I think pales in comparison to the scene in the 60s and 70s. As a reader, you see that all these people are tied somehow to the original couple, but the story plays out mysteriously enough that I was pulled along wanting to find out how it all fit together.

A great read with realistic portrayals of both generations through the cultural language, technology and music of the times. I felt involved with each main character and nostalgic (if that is the right word) for the activism and feminism of my young adult years.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


The Traveler, John Twelve Hawks, Doubleday, 2005, 480 pp

This book caused a huge stir when it was released because the author has never been seen in real life by his agent, his editor, his publisher or his reading public. He communicates by satellite phone and lives "off the grid." His website is full of computer games which are way beyond me.

The Traveler is set in the future when the world is under full surveillance. A certain type of scientific/big business conglomerate, called The Vast Machine, has taken over with the intention of managing all of mankind for their own good.

Travelers are special beings who can exist in different realms and who challenge these world controllers. They are protected by super able fighters called Harlequins who are raised by their families for the sole purpose of protecting Travelers. Several of the main characters are Harlequins who, for various reasons, are resisting their role in life until a man who is possibly a Traveler gets captured by the bad guys. Actually there are two brothers whose father was a Traveler and left them and their mother years ago. One brother turns out to be the good guy, the other is bad.

Very exciting futuristic cyber-thriller stuff, which made me very aware of how much of our personal lives are watched and monitored every day. I believe Twelve Hawks coined the phrase "living off the grid." I also realized how hard it would be to do that, though we used to try back when we were hippies. My sons didn't even have birth certificates or social security numbers until I finally broke down and put them in public school.

This volume is call Book One of the Fourth Realm. OK, I am ready for Book Two.

Friday, October 26, 2007


All Over But the Shouting, Rick Bragg, Random House Inc, 1997, 328 pp

Last Christmas, two of my reading groups had book exchanges, where you take a book off your shelf, wrap it up and exchange it at the holiday party. I got this book that way. It is a memoir and I was completely absorbed while reading it. I finished it in one day.

Rick Bragg was born a poor white child in Alabama to a strong mother and an alcoholic father who deserted his family. Bragg grew up to become a reporter for various newspapers, finally working for The New York Times and winning a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. According to him, he did it all for his Momma, to pay her back for her devotion and sacrifices to her children.

He entirely evokes the life of the poor Southerner and his writing is first class. Highly recommended if you like memoirs and stories about strong mothers.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Astrid & Veronika, Linda Olsson, Penguin Books, 2005, 246 pp

This is a sad and quiet book which I read in my beautiful hotel room in Paris. Linda Olsson is Swedish, wrote the book in Swedish and so the translation has a bit of the lilt that is Swedish. Very nice.

It all takes place in a small Swedish village where Veronika, a writer, has rented a house in which to recover from a loss and write a book. Eventually she meets her neighbor Astrid, an old woman alone who has had an awful life and now keeps to herself.

These two women open up to each other and reveal their stories slowly over a year's time. This could have been a sappy novel but instead I was left with a feeling of wonder at the power of friendship and acceptance and communication.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Red River, Lalita Tademy, Warner Books, 2007, 414 pp

I read and enjoyed Tademy's first book, Cane River, a story of the women from whom she is descended. Red River is told from the men's side of the family. After the Civil War and for about 10 years, Negroes who had been slaves were free and could vote. Lalita Tademy's great-grandfather was one of a few hundred black men in Colfax, Louisiana, who tried to put the Republicans they had voted into office in their town, into office in actuality. They took possession of the courthouse and held off the southern white men who opposed them for many days, as they waited for federal troops to come to their aid. The troops never arrived and over 200 black men were massacred.

The incident came to be known as the "Colfax riot", a justification by whites for why the blacks had to be killed. Sam Tademy, who survived, went on to found the first colored school in Colfax and to hand down a legacy of hope to his fellow black people. The first half of Red River is the story of the massacre and the second half is life in and around Colfax from 1873 to 1937. It is a tale of perseverance, integrity, incredible suffering and strong family and community ties. She lays bare the effects of racism, especially on black men, while celebrating the human spirit and the miraculous results of people who have vision and purpose.

It is amazing to me how hard those people worked, how strong was their sense of survival and how completely insane racism is. Her writing is as powerful as Richard Wright's and though I liked Cane River better for its emotional impact, Red River is a very close second.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


The People's Act of Love, James Meek, Canongate, 2005, 387 pp

Here is one of the stranger books I have read in a while. Set in Russia in the early 20th century, on the edge of Siberia, it is a telling of the Russian Revolution from a perspective not usually employed. The characters are a widow, an escaped political prisoner, a stranded regiment of Czech soldiers left over from WWI and an extremely odd fanatic Christian sect who live communally after practicing castration.

As the story progresses, no one turns out to be what they seemed at first. This book is brutal and violent but laced with humor. The characters, while unique in some details, are mostly archetypes. Even though there are history, politics, love, religion, even a sort of mystery, I could not totally care about any of the characters, except to a degree, Anna, the widow.

I often found it hard to stay awake while reading, yet I do recognize that Meek has created a literary marvel. Ever since reading Ruska, by Edward Rutherford, I have felt that the Russian people are a subspecies of the human race who are hard for a Westerner to understand. No wonder they were once America's archenemy. In The People's Act of Love, James Meek has made yet another attempt to explain these people, but I don't think he understands them either.


Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature and I say Excellent; it's about time. Since I have been reading her books in chronological order, I feel a bit of a connection with her these days. According to her (and I don't blame her), it would have been nicer if it had happened sooner.

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield won best first novel in the Quill Awards. Now, I don't have a lot of respect for this award; it mostly seems like literature light, but I loved The Thirteenth Tale and I am happy for her that she got the recognition. The book just came out in paperback and is flying off the shelf at Once Upon A Time, the bookstore where I work.

I am working on my chapter for 1951 and as usual it is taking longer than I planned, so I will post about some recent fiction that I've been reading over the past months.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Finally we come to the end of the 1951 reading list. It is a long one: 34 books!

In this post, I will include the prize winning books for the year. Back in the early 50s, there were only four awards:

The Pulitzer Prize was created in 1917 by journalist Joseph Pulitzer for (among other categories) distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.

The Newbery Medal was created by the American Library Association in 1922 to award the most distinguished children's book. These books are usually for ages 8-12.

The Caldecott Medal is another American Library Association award, begun in 1938, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

The National Book Award (NBA) is the newest one, created in 1950 by a group of publishers to honor the best work in fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

I only read the fiction winners of these awards because that is the main focus of my reading project. Although there may be politics or other dirty dealing involved in the choosing of books for these awards, I am reading them as part of my research into what was being read, sold or esteemed in fiction during these years.

Onto the list...

The Witch Diggers, Jessamyn West, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1951, 441 pp

This is her second novel and it was odd but excellent. It takes place in southern Indiana where a young man named Christie has just lost his mother. He is starting out in life as an insurance agent after graduating from college. It is the turn of the century: 1899-1900.

Christie falls in love with two women and wavers between the two, but the real story is about the Conboy family. One of their daughters is Christie's fiancee for part of the story. They live at a "Poor Farm", where the father is the Administrator.

This book is full of characters, that is quirky people. One thing I like about Jessamyn West is that everyone of her characters is as unique as any real human being. She does not do stereotypes. The relationships between the Conboy family members are complex, contradictory and violently emotional. Sometimes I felt that I was learning way too much personal information about these people.

The witch diggers are two poor farm residents, brother and sister, who are somewhat cracked. They believe that the answer to what makes people happy was buried by the devil and spend all their time digging (literally) to find it. They are symbols in this story where each person is looking for happiness but mostly finding confusion, heartbreak and difficulties in connecting to other people.

I think our country was really like this a century ago. People were much different in that they were more involved in life somehow, more vital, yet similar in that they were looking for the answers to the same life questions. This story had a big impact on me.

Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron, The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc, 1951, 400 pp

I finished reading this first novel of William Styron's on the very day that he died (November 1, 2006). How weird! The novel is dark and depressing. From the articles I have read since Styron's death, I glean that his mind was dark and depressed but also sharp and brilliant, as a writer's mind should be.

I have read Sophie's Choice, his 1976 novel, twice. Of all the novels I've read, which are many, that book made one of the deepest and most lasting impressions on me. While reading Lie Down in Darkness, I could hear the writing voice of Styron, the voice I know so well from Sophie's Choice.

Lie Down in Darkness is about the suicide of young Peyton, told in back story as her mother and father live through the day of her funeral. It is a tale of mismatched people, lost connections and emotional cruelty stewed in a terrible brew of alcoholism and religion. There is no hope for these people, yet they go on trying, each in his or her own way, to redeem themselves.

Styron has said that he didn't consider himself a Southern writer but has been compared to and looked upon by critics as a literary descendant of Faulkner. He sounds and feels Southern to me but then I can think of several writers from around the world with a similar gloomy outlook and ability to portray the dark side of love and human existence. It doesn't matter. Styron was a masterful stylist with a distinct voice who has spoken in this novel for anyone who has ever felt depressed, whether for a brief period or a lifetime.

He was given hell by critics throughout his career which I consider a sign of success. It is a good thing to rile a group of people who mostly can only pronounce judgement but either cannot or dare not write fiction themselves.

The Puppet Masters, Robert A Heinlein, Doubleday and Company, 1951, 340 pp

Heinlein wrote this in 1951 and later revised it. According to his website, the revised version is the one to read, so I did. (Published by Del Ray/Ballantine in 1990.)

He is such a good writer. Of all the sci fi I have read, he is the best as far as writing chops go, not to mention story telling ability. The Puppet Masters is also extremely creepy. The story is set in 2007 and there has been an invasion of aliens who are parasitic on human bodies and even mammals. Sam Cavanaugh is an agent in an extremely under-the-radar security organization. The "Old Man" who runs it turns out to be Cavanaugh's father; a genius who regards all agents as expendable, even Sam. Mary is the other agent on the case and eventually she and Sam become emotionally involved.

Together they must determine where the aliens are from and how to get rid of them. Sam and Mary both spend some time as hosts (called being hag-ridden) and the descriptions of what the aliens do to the humans, emotionally and mentally, are truly harrowing. The book gave me nightmares.

It is a fantastic read. If you've got the mental stability, I highly recommend it.

Prince Caspian, C S Lewis, Macmillan Publishing Co Inc, 1951, 208 pp

In the Chronicles of Narnia series, Prince Caspian is #2 by publication date and #4 in the later order-to-be-read wishes of C S Lewis. In fact, it tells of the second visit to Narnia by Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. They are pulled into Narnia by magic from a railway platform where they are waiting for the train to boarding school. (What is it about railway platforms that are portals into magical worlds?)

Only a year has gone by in England but centuries have passed in Narnia. There is a new evil King and all the talking animals and magical creatures have been driven into hiding. Prince Caspian, the nephew of the evil King, has always been drawn to the "old stories" and now has his chance to put things right. The children are transformed back into High King and Queen status and along with Aslan they come to the aid of the prince.

I remember that this volume was less loved by me as a child compared to some of the others. Now I see why. It is more about the history of Narnia and less about the children. Also the vocabulary takes a huge forward leap. Even now, I had to keep the dictionary close by. When I was a child, no one ever taught me to look up words. It is a wonder that I became such a reader.


PULITZER PRIZE: The Town, Conrad Richter, Alfred A Knopf, 1950, 433 pp

It took me two starts to get into this book but once I did I found it more than good. Conrad Richter wrote a trilogy: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946) and this one. All are about the same family, who first came to Ohio as pioneers, settled and prospered. I did not read the first two, but by the time of The Town, their little settlement has become the county seat, it is about 1840 and "progress" is changing many things including the name of their town.

Sayward Wheeler is the matriarch of the tribe. She came to Ohio as a small child and is now the mother of nine children and the wife of the town judge. She has passed her childbearing years and now watches her children grow, marry and in some cases leave. Through this character Richter unfolds the growth of the town and its increasing gentrification.

It could have been a dull read about a subject that has been covered many times but the writing is good and the stories of these people have impact. I found myself turning the pages and caring deeply for the characters. Finally I gained a deeper understanding of the history of the Midwest, which was my home for many years.

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD: Collected Stories of William Faulkner, Random House Inc, 1950, 893 pp

The second ever NBA is this huge book of stories. I must confess that I did not read the whole collection but I did read about half of the stories. Some of them were very good but too many were either not exciting or too hard to follow. There are 42 stories in all, some of which were collected in other books and some from magazines. I read in a biography of Faulkner that he wrote short stories to pay the bills. I see.

NEWBERY AWARD: Amos Fortune, Free Man, Elizabeth Yates, E P Dutton & Co Inc, 1950, 181 pp

Amos Fortune was a slave who was brought to America in 1725. He had been the prince of his tribe in Africa. He has the great good fortune to be sold to a Quaker in Boston, who treats him well, teaches him the trade of weaving and allows Amos to learn to read.

So Amos' life goes that way. He eventually gains his freedom, buys the freedom of other slaves (one of whom becomes his wife) and becomes a respected tanner who even owns his own property. He suffers the slings and arrows of prejudice without reacting in violence. He is hardworking and thrifty so he and his family are not poor.

It is possibly an unlikely story or at least unusual but I liked it because it portrays a man with many excellent virtues who happens to be Black; a man who never agreed that he should be a slave and rose above his misfortune; a man who never deserted his race or looked down on those who did not have the strengths he had. I cried at the end out of admiration for all the suffering that he overcame.

CALDECOTT MEDAL: The Egg Tree, Katherine Milhous, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950, 29 pp

The winner of the Caldecott Award in 1951 was written and illustrated by the same person. It takes place in Pennsylvania Dutch country on an Easter Day. A large group of cousins are having an Easter egg hunt at their grandmother's. One girl finds a box of beautifully painted eggs in the attic covered in Pennsylvania Dutch designs.

The grandmother shows the children how to make such eggs and another cousin has the idea to cut a small tree for the eggs to be hung on. This becomes a tradition for the kids who make an even bigger egg tree the next year. The idea spreads through the whole area.

The story brought back happy memories of coloring Easter eggs with my sisters. Eventually one of my sisters had the idea of making an egg tree. My mother still cuts a branch of forsythia at Easter time and hangs colored eggs on it.

Friday, October 12, 2007


The Green Hills of Earth, Robert A Heinlein, Signet Books, 1951, 176 pp

Again we have a collection of stories which Heinlein published in various magazines in the 1940s. The stories all concern space travel and living on such locations as Space Station #1, Moon Base, Venus and Mars.

Heinlein's writing in these stories has developed. His characters are believable. His dialogue is good. The level of emotion is high and I felt what these characters were feeling. You get what it is like to be a spacer with family back on Earth, or to be a couple who have lived on Mars and try to move back to Earth.

So while it is a collection of stories, I enjoyed the book because I was drawn into a world where space travel and life on other planets is made very real.

Requiem For A Nun, William Faulkner, Random House Inc, 1951, 286 pp

Faulkner always has a surprise. This novel was written as a play. Before each act is a prose section which covers the history of Jefferson, a town in Faulkner's invented Yoknapathawpha County. The play concerns Temple and Gowan Stevens, whose baby has been murdered by their nanny. Gavin Stephens, the main character from Intruder in the Dust (see Books Read From 1948), is Temple's uncle and the lawyer who defended Nancy Mamaigoe, the nanny. Nancy is a local black women with a bad history.

As the play moves on though, it turns out that Temple has an unsavory past herself and all is not as it seems. The reader gets the whole story by the end; a story which began in the 1939 novel, Sanctuary, which I have not read. Also by the end, I could see why he began with the history of Jefferson. The courthouse and the jail where Nancy awaits execution both figure in this history. The history deals with truth vs lies and the way that events and history ultimately establish truth. Nancy's and Temple's histories have an odd relationship to truth as well.

So, while this was not one of Faulkner's classic novels, it is definitely Faulkner, his themes, his way with a story. The novel was adapted for the stage and the play ran in New York City for several months in 1959. I think I would have been less lost if I had read Sanctuary so I recommend reading them in order.

The Troubled Air, Irwin Shaw, Random House Inc, 1951, 418 pp

This is a story about the "Red Scare" and its impact on people who worked in radio. Clem Archer is the producer of a radio drama that airs weekly. The actors, writers and composer of music are all, to one degree or another, his friends. One day he gets word from the radio station head to fire four of them because their names are about to appear in a right wing magazine where they will be accused of being communists. The sponsor of the program doesn't want any trouble.

Archer is one of those 1940s style heroes: he has integrity and some guts, but he also suffers from a sort of innocence. He has a high-maintenance wife who is pregnant at the age of 39 and having trouble with that. He tries to hold out against the radio station and the sponsor, making his own investigation of the accused persons and even personally confronting the sponsor.

In the end, he is betrayed by a man whom he considered his best friend. He loses big time but preserves his family. The telling of this tale is fairly melodramatic, as I imagine those radio dramas from that time to be. But Shaw does an excellent job of portraying the unthinking hysteria of the times, the effects of a lack of due process on people's lives during a witch hunt and the individual fears and prejudices of the people who participate in or aid the hunt. The Troubled Air is the first book I have come across to deal with the communist threat.

The End of the Affair, Graham Greene, The Viking Press, 1951, 240 pp

This is one of Greene's dramatic novels dealing with love and infidelity, though the question of God and faith is there as well. Maurice Bendrix is a writer living in London. He recounts his affair with Sarah Miles, a married woman who lived across the common. It is one of those stories, like Penelope Lively's The Photograph, where you slowly learn the back story while the current story goes on. In fact, the two novels are similar in other ways. I wonder if Greene was an influence of Lively's.

In any case, the whole novel is a study in opposites: love/hate, atheism/faith, friend/enemy. The coin always flips and some of it is tragic but some is comic. It was not one of my favorite Graham Greene novels. He made all the characters real and flawed but I did not find one for whom I felt any sympathy. Maurice Bendrix was the least sympathetic of all.

World So Wide, Sinclair Lewis, Random House Inc, 1951, 250 pp

I had thought that The God-Seeker was Lewis' last book, but it turns out he had one more. Hayden Chart is an architect in a growing Colorado city set in the contemporary times of 1950. He is successful, somewhat unhappily married and feels unfulfilled in his life. Then his wife is killed in an automobile accident when Hayden drives off the road. Hayden himself is badly injured.

Once he recovers, he goes off to Europe to pursue a life of travel and study. The story starts out well with these big questions about identity and the meaning of life. In his usual ironic manner, Lewis makes fun of Americans living in Europe: the way they keep to themselves, their social pretensions and inability to learn the language of the countries where they live. Hayden ends up in Florence and begins his study of old European history and writing, but from that point on the book deteriorates into a rather screwy love story and loses its earlier promise.

Barbary Shore, Norman Mailer, Rinehart & Co Inc, 1951, 312 pp

One of the strangest books I have ever read. I can't say that I liked it. The Naked and the Dead, his first book, was so amazing. The only similarity here is the intensity.

Mikey Lovett is a young writer and tells the story. He seems to be an amnesia victim from WWII. He takes a room in a rooming house in New York City so he can live cheaply and write a novel. But he is drawn into a group of people in the house who are all so bizarre, quite mad and really the reader cannot tell what is going on for half of the book.

Finally you make out that there is an agent of some group (government? political?) who is trying to get something from the landlady's husband. That husband was prominent in a communist government somewhere. All very vague. The last quarter of the story is mostly composed of political, quasi-Marxist theory, expounded by the ex-communist. There are also two women and a child who are the oddest of all and it is not clear exactly how they figure in the story. Is this a book about the failure of the communist revolution? Could be.

The writing reminded me of Kobe Abe. I get that Mailer is known for a certain inconsistency in his books. I've read two so far and I see the pattern.

The Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger, Little Brown & Company, 1951, 192 pp

I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school. For some reason, it was a hot book in the 60s. Even my dad was into it. Maybe he was trying to understand teens. It is again amazing to me what I remembered and what I didn't. Mostly I remembered Holden Caufield's relationship with his sister Phoebe and the last section of the book when he was with her.

What I didn't remember is that he was a junior in prep school, that he'd been expelled for low grades and that the reason he was knocking around alone in New York City was that he ran away. That is so odd because I ran away from college in my sophomore year.

The vernacular way of talking that Holden has, in his first person account, seems to me probably not the way teens talked in 1951, but it sure is the way they've talked ever since. Did Salinger invent this? What is so true is the way everything that grownups say and want is boring to Holden. Anything that someone his own age does that he likes gets a "that kills me."

I also forgot the scene where his old teacher comes on to him. I could have sworn that wasn't even in the book before.

Well, he nailed it. The disturbed teen who is not with the program and doesn't fit in. Every teen feels that way at some time.

The Stars Like Dust, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1951, 169 pp

Not as good as his last, Pebble in the Sky, but not bad. It is a story about a group of planets under oppressive rule who want their freedom. The hero is a young man without social graces and with a bad temper. There is a romance and a mystery.

The mystery is the best thing about the story because you cannot tell who the bad guy actually is until the very end. Lots of action, plot twists and good outer space data about hyper-space jumps and how to find habitable planets for humans. Unfortunately it has a hokey ending.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


The next three posts will cover other books I read which were published in 1951. These include authors whose full oeuvre I am working through (such as Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, etc) as well as books I simply came across in browsing. Finally, I am also covering books that won the major literary awards.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, The Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers, Carson McCullers, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1951, 791 pp

This is a collection of most of the pieces of Carson McCullers' work. It includes:
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, a long story, very dark yet moving. A strong manly woman and a male dwarf with a hunchback live in a sort of co-dependant relationship. It all ends badly and reminded me of a scene from Dickens' Great Expectations.

Six short stories: The Jockey, Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland, The Sojourner, A Domestic Dilemma, A Tree-A Rock-A Cloud. In every story the characters are odd and eccentric, the way most people are inside. McCullers always delves for what goes on inside.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I remembered reading this in high school and thinking it was the saddest story I ever read. It is about how most people are basically alone but trying to connect somehow. Mick, the teenage girl and Singer, the deaf mute are the characters I remembered but in this re-reading I found Dr Copeland, the negro doctor; Jake, the crazy commie; and Mr Brannon, who owns the all-night restaurant. Each in his own way was watching out for Mick.

Reflections in A Golden Eye. Way dysfunctional people: army guys, their wives, infidelity and one crazed young soldier who reminded me of a guy in a Flannery O'Conner book.

The Member of the Wedding. I liked this one the best. Frankie, a 12 year old girl, wants to be part of a wedding just so she can feel included. The story evokes what it is really like to be 12 in the summer.

What I found in this collection was a complete dearth of hope, excruciatingly accurate descriptions of southern summer heat, the human heart and its sufferings exposed and raw. Powerful writing, powerful emotional effect, like Faulkner, et al.

The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury, Doubleday & Company, 1951, 253 pp

The illustrated man is an out of work side-show performer who is covered with tattoos. These tattoos are works of art but at night they also move and tell stories that predict the future. The Illustrated Man is a collection of those stories.

The stories are all futuristic, though some take place on earth, some on other planets. There are stories about nuclear war, racism, rockets, time travel and space travel. Most of the stories had been published earlier in magazines and the pulps. But aside from the theme of the future, the variety made for a book that did not come together as well as I, Robot or The Martian Chronicles.

However, one other integrating feature was that the author is unmistakably Ray Bradbury. The oddity, the slightly creepy feeling, side by side with the humanitarian concerns, are what I have come to expect from this author. He does not really bother with modern or futuristic technology but thru his imagination works out all kinds of frightening present and future prospects.

This Was the Old Chief's Country, Doris Lessing, Thomas Y Crowell, 1952, 175 pp

This was Doris Lessing's first story collection. Since it was published in England in 1951, I read it for that year. I actually had to get a later collection, African Stories, in which I found the 10 stories that were originally in This Was the Old Chief's Country, which may be out of print.

The country of the title was Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when Doris Lessing was writing the stories. She was born and raised there and her writing so excellently evokes that area that the reader feels she is there. The stories include racial issues but also deal with the social conflicts of the whites who farmed the land. Her accounts of the interaction between white landowners and the natives who worked for them are the work of someone who lived through those times and grew up to be miraculously free of racism. She clearly loves the land and ALL of its people.

One other thing I must say about Lessing's writing at this early stage of her long career, is that it is wonderfully good. As I read these stories, I was not even aware of the writing. I was just there and living the story along with the characters. How she did that, I have no idea.

Hangsaman, Shirley Jackson, Farrar Straus and Young Inc, 1951, 280 pp

Shirley Jackson is best known for her short story, The Lottery, which can be found in many short story collections and on college English reading lists. Hangsaman is her second novel and just the title is a bit creepy. The book is much more than creepy.

Natalie Waite is seventeen and setting off for college. Her father is a writer and she has a close but not fully comfortable relationship with him. Her mother is unhappy in her marriage; she cooks and drinks and likes to warn Natalie about the horrors of marriage for a woman.

Natalie herself lives mostly in a dream world where she creates stories about herself. She does not blend in at college. Her freshman experience is eerily similar to that of Lee Fiora in Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep which I read just three weeks before I read this novel. It is also vaguely similar to my freshman year. I was not as emotionally maladjusted as Natalie, but I surely was confused and unhappy.

As the story moves along, it gets more and more creepy. I thought that Natalie was going crazy and it would end in her suicide. But it does not. She comes out of it in a sort of female hero state. Not an outward hero, but an inner one who conquers demons. This was a very satisfying book and something new. Only so far has Simone deBeauvoir written this much truth about female life.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1951, 200 pp

OK, I read this once before but I didn't really get it, although I could tell it was good. Now I have learned that this book was compiled from stories he wrote in the 1940s for "Astounding Science Fiction". For the book, he wrote an intro chapter describing the psychohistorians and tweaked some of the stories to make them flow.

There was a Galactic Empire, it got bloated and complacent, it died. Hari Seldon, the original psychohistorian, used advanced math to predict the future. He wrangled a deal with the Empire in its dying days that would keep knowledge safe and made a plan that would shorten the inevitable dark ages after the Empire expired.

Each chapter deals with a moment of crisis, called a "Seldon Crisis", when certain individuals could see what needed to be done to move things along. The coolest thing was that it was never the established psychohistorians who could see what to do but some upstart guy who by chance also knew his psychohistory.

I really liked the book this time. I learned from Asimov's autobiography that he got his ideas for this series by reading Gibbons' Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire three times as he was growing up. Wow!

The Tentmaker, Julius Berstl, Rinehart & Co Inc, 1951, 312 pp

This is a story of the early life of St Paul. It depicts Paul as a high-strung, spiritual seeker born into a materialistic family. I got this book for free at a closing of a used bookstore in Burbank, CA, several years ago. It sat on my shelf and entered into the list of books for 1951. It is a translation from German.

I had to put the book down for a couple months in the middle of reading it. It was either the author's style or was intentional in conveying Paul's character, but it is so intense, Paul is so tormented and this goes on almost to the end of the book, that it was quite heavy reading. But good. It provoked in me many thoughts about seeking spiritual truth and freedom.

Poor Cousin Evelyn, James Yaffe, Little Brown and Company, 1951, 269 pp

I read this a few years ago when I was on a reading plan to take the first book in the fiction section of the library from each letter of the alphabet. I read some very odd books, some bad books and quite a few interesting books that I would otherwise have never come across. This was the first book I ever read, since I started keeping records, by an author whose last name started with Y. Since it was published in 1951, it made it onto the list.

These are short stories about Jews on New York City's West Side in the 1940s. How else would a girl like me learn anything about this except by reading a book? Good preparation for Amos Oz, Saul Bellow and others. Yaffe is a fine storyteller who writes about great characters and life truths.

Tracy's Tiger, William Saroyan, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1951, 143 pp

Thomas Tracy has an imaginary tiger that is really a black panther. Tracy falls in love with a girl but scares her off with his passion. Somehow the tiger becomes visible, is mistaken for an escaped zoo is really a silly story that is more like a dream. It ends happily.

But Saroyan gets to make fun of psychiatrists, newspaper reporters, policemen and the gullible common people. It is a kind of modern day fairy tale, quite short, with illustrations. The writing is not great, except here and there. Yet, Tracy is a good hero and love conquers all.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


The following books comprise the second half of the top 10 bestsellers of 1951.

The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat, Alfred A Knopf, 1951, 510 pp

Here is another of four books about World War II to make the list in 1951. At #6, The Cruel Sea takes place on the Atlantic Ocean and involves the British Navy.

Monsarrat takes the reader through the entire war, beginning with the building and staffing of a corvette in 1939. The corvette was a small and minimally equipped ship, designed to provide escort and protection for supply ships. In 1939, they did not even have radar, so life at sea was dangerous in the extreme. From 1940 through 1943, German submarines had the upper hand in the Atlantic and only about half of the supply ships reached their destination. The other aspect of the cruel sea was weather, the Atlantic being known for storms, cold and fog.

The two main characters are the captain, Ericson and his first lieutenant, Lockhart. After looking up Monsarrat on the web, I am sure that Lockhart is the author, who states that the novel is based on a true story. He keeps a good balance of adventure versus the human stories of various sailors and of defeats versus victories.

This is a patriotic story and very pro-British Navy, but not in an annoying way. You get a fair portrayal of the differences of viewpoint between military and civilian. He also gives a humorous picture of Americans from the British side of the story. It occurred to me, while reading this book, what a difference it made for the United States that the war was not fought on our land. We may have suffered from rationing, but American civilians had no concept of the devastation and losses which all European civilians had to undergo.

The Cruel Sea is, according to an article in "Bookmarks" magazine, one of the World War II books that is still read today. I think that would be because of the masterful descriptions of life at sea. I was bored a few times while reading this novel, but generally was involved and excited by it.

Melville Goodwin, USA, John P Marquand; Little, Brown and Company; 1951; 596 pp

This is the fifth bestseller I've read by this author since 1940. It was #7 on the list for 1951 and the fourth book on the list about war and the military. Marquand has a very smooth style which lays out a story for the reader and at the same time involves you emotionally with each character.

Sidney Skelton is a radio commentator and the narrator of the book. He has his own troubles with his amount of fame, the way his income is made and the entertainment industry in general. But the main character is General Melville Goodwin, US Army, West Point graduate, husband, father and overall good person.

The entire life story of Goodwin unfolds and Sidney Skelton's connection with him from WWII brings them together again. Goodwin is a career soldier and has clear, simple views about it all. As long as he is in action, he is happy and has no doubts about anything.

Peacetime is a different story and Melville Goodwin falls into various pitfalls including "woman trouble". Sidney feels obliged to try to help him out. The book then is a study of military life versus civilian life, between which there is a lack of reality on both sides. It is also a study of what happens to committed generals like Goodwin when the war is over. Basically peacetime is unexciting and all they really have to hope for is another war, because that is what they are trained to do.

In the background of all this is Marquand's signature viewpoint about women, which is that they actually run the show. So this was, I think, a representative novel of the times in 1951. It is a time of postwar malaise and adjusting to peacetime. While the wind down goes on in Europe, new wars are being cooked up. Yet, it is different from many of the postwar novels in its attempt to understand and even admire the military sector of our nation.

Return to Paradise, James A Michener, Random House Inc, 1951, 416 pp

Michener wrote this as a follow-up to Tales of the South Pacific, which came out in 1947 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948, starting off a long career of bestselling books for the author. Tales was a memoir of fighting World War II in the Pacific and in Return to Paradise, Michener revisits each island covered in the first book. I suppose it counts as fiction because he makes up stories about soldiers and the natives with whom they interact.

The format here is a report on how each island is doing in the late 1940s followed by a short story, island by island. It is not his best writing in my opinion and was quite boring to get through. I read this book about six years ago when I was attempting to do a full chronological read of Michener's books and in my report I wrote, "He also gets a bit of his own world political view in." I now do not recall what that view was except that Michener was not a writer to denigrate the United States in any way.

The Foundling, Francis Cardinal Spellman, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951, 304 pp

The #9 bestseller for 1951 was written by a Catholic Cardinal who was Archbishop of New York for 28 years beginning in 1939. I wonder how a Catholic Archbishop becomes a bestselling author of fiction. Judging from the book, it isn't because he is a good writer.

Peter Lane was found in the manger of the Christmas display in Saint Patrick's Cathedral by a young soldier just returning home from WW I. The soldier brings him to a home for foundlings and is prevented from adopting the boy because he is not Catholic, while the home for foundlings is a Catholic institution.

The book follows Peter's life and includes the way the young soldier and his wife stay in touch with Peter. It is horribly written, sappy and sentimental and a stunningly boring read. Spellman seems to be saying that all religions should be recognized but at the same time, supporting the idea that a Catholic can only be raised by Catholics. Sometimes I get so tired of double-speak.

The Wanderer, Mika Waltari, G P Putnam's Sons, 1951, 438 pp

This is the third and last of Waltari's books to be a top ten bestseller; in fact it was #10 in 1951. It continues the story of Michael, the main character in The Adventurer, which was #9 on the list in 1950.

Still in the 16th century, Michael and his faithful friend Andy set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem because Michael wants forgiveness for his sins. But they are soon captured by Moslems and must convert to save their lives. Even though they are slaves for the rest of the story, Michael becomes the right hand man to the advisor of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and lives a life of luxury for many years. Thus you get the story of Suleiman's attempts to rule the world.

Once again, as in his other two books, travel, adventure, war and political intrigue abound at a non-stop pace. Waltari's point is that war, politics and religion go together and keep a world in turmoil. The Moslems and the Christians are equally corrupt but this game of conquest, riches and power is what keeps everyone going, including the women, the slaves and the Jews. Michael is always looking for knowledge, wisdom and peace, but he never finds it.

Friday, October 05, 2007


This post contains micro-reviews of the first five of the top 10 bestsellers of 1951.

From Here to Eternity, James Jones, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951, 860 pp

The #1 bestseller in 1951 is also the longest book on the list. Along with many other books from this era, we are back in the army again, on Schofield Army Base in Hawaii, just before, during and a bit after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This is a very good book and hard to describe because it encompasses so much.

Using the microcosm of one army company, Jones writes about life including men, women, hopes, goals, love, politics, organization, justice, ethics and philosophy. The two main characters are career army guys; called 30 year men. They are in the army because it is the best thing they have found in life, but they are not upper class West Point officers; they are just guys.

Robert E Lee Prewitt is a Kentucky boy, a coal miner's son. After some youthful years riding box cars and being on the bum, he enlisted as soon as he was old enough. He is a musician, a tough guy full of energy, but he has certain limits beyond which he will not go. He is basically what's needed in a soldier when there is a war going on but he has a problem with authority, so he gets in lots of trouble.

Sergeant Milt Warden runs the orderly room. He is one of those guys who actually keeps the regiment organized and gets away with just about anything because he is the only one who can do the job.

But underneath all the politicking, the drinking, the whoring, of which there is plenty in this story, these men are looking for a woman to love, something to make sense of it all and, probably most basic, they are looking for action. Huge periods of time in army life are boring: either mind-numbing drills and drudgery or just plain waiting. In peace time it is one hundred times more boring.

So, great stuff for stories, trouble, humor and tragedy. This is my favorite kind of book. It might be thought of as a man's book but I was never bored because it is about people. The novel stands way above most of this genre because the characters are so real, so interesting and the writing is superb.

The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk, Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1951, 494 pp

The #2 bestseller in 1951 is also about World War II, but in the US Navy this time. Willie Keith was raised with money and comfort. He went to Princeton and was knocking around New York City as a nightclub entertainer when it was time to get into the armed forces and fight the war.

He is already a conflicted character, trying to escape his overbearing mother but not sure what to do with his life. His girlfriend is from an Italian family of recent immigrants and would not fit in his mother's world. So Willie joins the Navy and thus begins to grow up. He has to confront the discipline of military life, life on a small minesweeper, cranky incomprehensible commanding officers, etc.

When I read these novels about the military, it is truly a wonder that we won the war. The quality of people, in all levels of rank, was just not that high. It always sounds like they barely muddled through. On Willie's ship, the officers are guys like Willie, who rose up because of the demands of war. He is a spoiled boy, another is an aspiring novelist with no faintest sense of responsibility, a third is a blue collar fisherman who would rather be in the Navy than go back to fishing.

Between them, they actually create a mutiny on their ship. There is a Court Martial. Lives are ruined. Willie gets off fairly unscathed and figures out his love life. He is stronger, more responsible, but still has a bunch of silly illusions.

The Caine Mutiny was a pretty good story, too long and I'm not really sure what the message was. It represents a huge leap in writing quality for Wouk and won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1952.

Moses, Sholem Asch, G P Putnam's Sons, 1951, 505 pp

I dreaded another dreary slog through a Sholem Asch book, but this one was his best and actually moved along very well. It is the story of the Exodus. (I'll be reading the Leon Uris version when I get to the 1959 list.) Asch follows the bible story closely, at least as I remember it, but adds enough Egyptian history to place the story in the world.

I was the most struck by the plight Moses faced. He took a people who had been slaves for generations and had to make them into a nation united with a common purpose. He had to teach them their destiny as God's chosen people, teach them discipline and righteousness, teach them what he felt was God's will. He also had the role of intervening between God and the people and convincing God to have mercy on the people when they were disobedient and went astray.

As a child, learning this story in Sunday School, I did not grasp the many significances of the story. Who knows how much in this novel is Asch's interpretation? Since I have always been on some spiritual path in my life, I was intrigued by the concept of a group of people made responsible for mankind's destiny. That responsibility most assuredly sets such a group of people apart from the common, run-of-the-mill antics of human beings. It is a lot to ask and the big question is, would such a group ever achieve the goal of bringing all of mankind to a higher spiritual plane?

From my studies of religion, every different one has a version of that same goal. I think it is the dream of all people.

The Cardinal, Henry Morton Robinson

This book is a holdover from 1950, when it was #1. See my review in the post "BOOKS READ FROM 1950, PART ONE." I will just say here that this is one of three highly religious books on the bestseller list for 1951 which says much about the beginning of the decade.

A Woman Called Fancy, Frank Yerby, The Dial Press, 1951, 309 pp

Another Frank Yerby bestseller; #5 in 1951. I am not a fan of Frank Yerby.

Fancy is a poor girl from the Carolina hills who runs away to Augusta, Georgia in 1880. After escaping from lecherous men with her virtue intact, she falls for Courtland Brantley, son of an antebellum plantation family fallen on hard times. Court naturally is hopelessly in love with his brother's wife but he marries Fancy, who rises from her humble origins and helps Court make a fortune.

Improbable romantic historical fiction as usual for Yerby, though Fancy is a more rounded character than most of Yerby's heroines. He also gets in some good digs at racism and the treatment of Blacks in the South and the North.