Saturday, March 31, 2007


Finally after much procrastination and fiddling around, I present the latest installment of Reading For My Life. It is a memoir about me, my life and books. To read the earlier chapters, just click on the Reading For My Life label at the end of this post. (You might want to get some coffee or whatever beverage gets you through long stints of reading from a computer screen. There are 11 previous chapters.) I value any and all comments, such as: Wow that was great! or Huh? I didn't get it. Also, corrections of typos, historical or technical inaccuracies, etc.

Fear and Loathing in Pittsburgh

1950 is the year I ceased to be an only child and became a big sister. Politically the world was in a mess. The USSR and Communist China signed a 30 year pact and Europe was half controlled by communism. The first war of my lifetime, the Korean War, began a decades long effort by the United States to keep communism at bay. (It is not even funny that England and France had thought Hitler would get rid of communism as they dithered with him before World War II finally started.) Congress passed the McCarran Act, hoping it would keep communists out of America, while the Atomic Energy Commission worked on the hydrogen bomb. My take on all this is that the ennui of middle class America was one big state of denial about the extreme dangers bubbling just below the surface. About all that science brought us in 1950 was Miltown for anxiety and antihistamines for colds and allergies.

About half of the books I read from 1950 were historical novels and the other half concerned contemporary times. Only one, The Wall, by John Hersey, was about WWII. The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing took place in Africa (riots against apartheid in Johannesburg were in the news that year.) Bright Green, Dark Red, by Gore Vidal was about revolution in Central America. There were best sellers about the Catholic Church; a writer who was a fictional version of F Scott Fitzgerald at work in Hollywood; social upheaval in Boston and another female writer who became a bestselling author and lived an immoral life. There were three science fiction books on my list, all predicting political and social breakdown on Earth. World Enough and Time, by Robert Penn Warren, though it was historical, probed questions about truth and justice that are relevant today.

In film, "All The King's Men" took Best Picture and Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), though I do not think it captured the book well at all. "A Letter to Three Wives" won Best Director (Joseph L Mankiewicz) and was the story of three wives worrying about whether or not their husbands were faithful. Best Actress went to Olivia de Havilland in "The Heiress", a film based on Henry James' novel, Washington Square, which is set in New York society in the 1840s.

Of the songs that were popular in 1950, the only ones I recognize were "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd've Baked a Cake" (first song title with a double contraction?) and "Good Night Irene."

Way back then, so near to the beginning of my life, what was going on? As the year opened, I was almost two and a half years old. It was winter with snow on the boughs of the fir trees surrounding the house. Before spring was more than a suggestion, on March 15, my sister Linda was born. The Ides of March and what used to be Income Tax Day, brought this intruder into my family. Here was another person with whom to share my parents' attention. My first response, when they brought her home from the hospital, was to unwrap her from all her blankets and look her over. What do you know? She was NOT perfect! The second and third toes on each of her feet were stuck together. Well, I had been instructed that I would have to be Mommy's helper with the new baby, so off I ran in search of the screwdriver. I figured I could separate those toes with the tool my father had taught me how to use. Right away, I was in trouble. Laughter and then disapproval greeted my efforts to be the big sister.

And so it went. This baby had colic, she cried for hours, had to be held and carried. She spit up her formula and smelled bad to me. Secretly I thought maybe she could be sent back, but after the screwdriver incident, I kept this idea to myself. I was saved by the regular visits of my grandmother, who seemed to understand my position without having to be told. I had my own little table in the dining room and there she would sit with me, teaching me how to cut with scissors, how to color inside the lines, how to put clothes on paper dolls. With Grandma, I felt smart and special and interesting.

This year also brought new terrors. I seemed to be afraid of everything. I still had nightmares, but there were dangers in the daytime as well. Though I had happily gone to the basement at my grandmother's house, I was in an agony of fear every moment I spent in the basement of our new house. First of all, there were no backs to the stairs. You could see through to the floor far below. It took me forever to get down those steps as I fantasized that my feet would get stuck in the spaces. It was a big basement and had dark corners and spiders and webs, but if I wanted to stay close to my mother (and I followed her everywhere), I had to go down there when she did the laundry.

Outside were further challenges. Behind the house was a narrow strip of flat ground and then began a slope down to the creek. Once I was down there, I loved to watch the flow of the water, the frogs and the minnows. But I needed someone to hold my hand because I was convinced that if I fell, I would roll down the hill and drown in the creek. Where do these terrors of childhood come from? Do we hear the adults worrying over us to each other? Are we told too often to be careful? Do we feel that their dismay over our falls and minor injuries hurt them too? All I know is that a black, shaggy dog as big as I was would visit our yard and jump up on me and I would become hysterical if I was anywhere near that slope to the creek.

But Daddy was good. He would take me outside and patiently show me how to walk down a hill, how to keep my arms at my side when the dog came around and how to say, "Go home!" We would walk around and examine the wonders of the natural world together. My dad knew birds by their songs and he would have me listen and look for the birds. As the good weather came, I had a favorite spot on the top step of the stoop outside our kitchen door. It faced the road in front of the house, so I would watch the cars and trucks go past, look at the shapes in the clouds, sing songs and make up stories in my head.

I turned three years old in August. I knew songs and nursery rhymes by heart because my mother took time to read to me and sing with me. I loved books and the piano and crayons and colored paper. I loved jumping in the piles of leaves my dad would rake up and when winter came again, I loved my snowsuit and my boots and walking in the snow. Linda could sit up now and crawl and she had a great laugh. She survived the bottle and could eat real food. We could play and have our baths together. Perhaps it would turn out all right.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Mrs Kimble, Jennifer Haigh, HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2003, 394 pp

This was a book club book and we were all sorry we picked it. It is the story of a man who had three wives, told from the viewpoint of each of the wives, though in third person. The man is not a good man. He is a con man and lures each of these women by pretending to care for them but actually playing on each one's weaknesses. Yet, you are never given any insight into why Mr Kimble behaves the way he does. In fact, by the end of the book, you feel you don't even know him.

I did not like or admire any character in the story except for one of Kimble's children; a son who eventually pulls some of the people in the story together. But the way she structured the plot gave an urgent propulsion to the novel and made me read on to find out what happened. I suppose there are women who are fooled the way these three women were but the author simply did not make me believe it.

The writing is only barely good, as far as style goes, but it made for fast reading. Jennifer Haigh is another one of those Iowa Workshop MFA grads and her writing is disturbingly similar to that of Kim Edwards, who wrote The Memory Keeper's Daughter.

Monday, March 26, 2007


Ruined By Reading, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Beacon Press, 1996, 119 pp

I don't remember where I heard about this book. I was trying to read Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose but bogged down because it was way too much like being in English class. Then I started Ruined By Reading and just read it straight through. She meanders, she ruminates, she recaptures the wonder of childhood reading. I loved it.

Reading is truly such a personal thing. Rather like sex, it is unique to each individual. Those of us who are enraptured by books try to share this very intimate connection to the authors of books with other readers. It is a difficult thing to articulate and rarely do I feel completely understood. At those times when comprehension occurs between myself and another reader, the conversation generally devolves into oohs and aahs and oh wows; the expressions of emotion or enlightenment.

Still we try and Ms Schwartz has done well here. I don't agree with or share all of her personal reactions to books. On several books though, it is as if we had one mind. Like me, Schwartz read early and much of what we read was too advanced for our level of knowledge about life. When she described trying to understand such books, I was right there with her. She made me remember some of the odd ideas I picked up when I was small that still influence me today.

Then there is that wondrous aspect of reading: finding what you secretly believed to be true, though others never told you so. Writing about reading The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, she writes:
"Occasionally when I mention A Little Princess I find someone who is startled into rapt recall and we exchange a look of recognition. There is nothing to match the affinity of people who were defined and nourished by the same book, who shared a fantasy life. What we dreamed together, in whatever distant places we grew up, was of something amorphous-large, open and exotic-something for which there was no room at home and even less in school. We groped for the knowledge A Little Princess confers, which is that we truly are what we feel ourselves to be, that we can trust our inner certainty regardless of how others perceive us or what they wish us to become."



Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra, HarperCollins Publishers, 2007, 900 pp

Yes, this book is long. Yes, it is wordy and heavy to hold while reading. He uses lots of Indian words and though there is a glossary, it doesn't contain all the words he uses. But I liked it anyway.

The story has two main characters. Inspector Sartaj Singh is a divorced, middle-aged Bombay policeman. Ganesh Gaitonde is the ruthless criminal boss of his underworld company. In an unusual story form, they clash at the beginning of the book. From that point on, Sartaj Singh's life continues but Ganesh Gaitonde's backstory unfolds in first person. The result is not unlike watching a tapestry being made.

Chandra covers a wide swath of history and territory, issues and ideas. Certainly readers whose usual diet is fast-paced cinematic thrillers will feel that Sacred Games is too densely packed with unnecessary passages. Personally I like a long story with a balance of action and thought. The sex and violence is heavy but not overdone. I got a sense of what life is for several levels of Bombay inhabitants: the booming economy next to the poverty; the remnants of class prejudice and religious intolerance; the influences of both Hollywood and Bollywood.

Vikram Chandra was born in India but now teaches literature and writing at UC Berkeley. In Sacred Games, he has fused Indian and Western storytelling while depicting an ancient and troubled country's emergence into the 21st century and has done it well.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card, Tom Doherty Associates, 1985, 226 pp

Wow! I had heard about this book for a long time, but all I knew was that it was sci fi. It turned out to be one of the most powerful stories I have ever read.

Ender, at the age of six, is a gifted child who is whisked away to battle school. He is the third child in his family at a time when only two are permitted. His older brother has always tortured him and his sister has protected him. At battle school he is on his own.

Ender has been chosen by the military leaders of the world as "the one" who might be able to lead the world's troops against an interplanetary enemy who will attack within the next ten years. His "training" consists in part of experiences where he must perform without any hope of help or rescue from anyone.

As a mom, it was excruciating to read about what Ender was forced to endure at such a young age. Card seems to be saying that the loneliness of command is balanced only by Ender's extremely high intelligence. What I saw was a child who was tricked into doing what he most abhorred: killing. Somehow he did not become psychopathic and while I'm not sure it is realistic that he would not, it sure made a gripping story.

My husband also read Ender's Game and had a distinctly different response. Is that because he is a man or because he's never had his own kids? I was intrigued by Ender's way of atoning for his deeds at the end of the book. My husband was impressed that it was Ender's most humane ability that led him to victory.

Monday, March 19, 2007


The Mercy of Thin Air, Ronlyn Domingue, Washington Square Press, 2005, 308pp

I was surprised by this book. I read it for one of my reading groups and by the cover I thought it was some kind of chick lit. Well, it is about a chick, but she is dead and has been since the 1920s. She is hanging around New Orleans as a spirit. It is the late 1990s and Razi, as she still thinks of herself, is "haunting" the house of a young couple. In her efforts to help them through a hard time, she finds the answers she has been seeking for 75 years.

Razi died in an accident, leaving behind her one true love, her dream of becoming a doctor and her conflict between the man and the career she wanted. The author does wonders in this story, portraying the spirits who have chosen to remain "between", evoking the different eras in New Orleans, and most of all giving us one of the better love stories I've read in a while.

There is mystery here as well, because despite her efforts Razi has lost track of Andrew, her lover. I actually had to pay close attention and do some work as a reader to follow the shifts in time and the many characters, as Razi pieced together the remnants of the lives she had left behind. By the end I felt like I was Razi; quite a feat of good writing.

As an extra treat, there were strong feminist characters throughout the story and a light but clear exposition of racism. All in all, a satisfying read and another example of fiction being alive and well in the new millennium.

Friday, March 16, 2007


Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier, Random House Inc, 2006, 420 pp

It took me a week to read this book. It just wouldn't let me read fast, but I liked it so much. Will Cooper was orphaned at a young age and take in by his aunt and uncle, who sold him into an indentured position when he was 13. His job was to run a remote trading post deep in the Appalachian wilderness, populated by the remnants of the Cherokee nation.

Eventually he is adopted by Bear, an old Indian chief. He also falls in love with a Cherokee girl named Claire, but she is married to another Indian chief. The story winds through the "removal" of the Cherokee nation to the West and Will's passionate but doomed love affair with Claire.

As in Cold Mountain, Frazier's description of the natural world in Virginia is exquisite. His depiction of Indians is the most unique I've read. The tone is sad but ironic and Cooper is a hero of mythic proportions. This is one of those books that grabbed me and wouldn't let go, that inhabited my dreams and made me feel privileged to be a reader.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Gothgirl, Barry Lyga, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, 315 pp

I read this as part of my foray into Young Adult lit. This is Barry Lyga's first novel. Fanboy is a 14 year old high school sophomore who suffers from social ostracism at school. He hates jocks and is a comic book geek; very intelligent and creative but tortured. Gothgirl dresses in black with white makeup. She is also an outcast but deals with it defiantly.

The two become friends and she encourages him as he creates a graphic novel on an ancient Mac. I was annoyed by the emotional immaturity of Fanboy but I suppose it is realistic for an introverted boy of his age. His mom is divorced, remarried and pregnant. He despises his stepfather and barely communicates with the man.

For a teen reader into comics and graphic novels, a genre with which I am not very familiar, I would imagine that all the references to books and authors (including Neil Gaiman) would be cool. In the end, Fanboy grows up a bit, figures out about girls and has other moments of enlightenment, all of which feels pretty authentic. I liked Fanboy, Gothgirl and the book by the time I finished it.

Monday, March 05, 2007


Plainsong, Kent Haruf, Alfred A Knopf, 1999, 391 pp
I read this for one of the reading groups I attend. I had heard only good things about the book, even from my Mom. I was not disappointed.

On the High Plains of Colorado, east of Denver, lies Holt, a small town peopled by the usual suspects. Guthrie is a school teacher with two young sons and a depressed wife. Victoria is a pregnant teen whose single mother has kicked her out of the house. The two McPherons are aged brothers, raising cattle on the outskirts of town. They had never married and had become as dried and set in their ways as a skull on the windy plains. Maggie Jones is another teacher at the high school who rescues Victoria and plays the role of goddess of the plains.

Eventually these people are involved with each other, due to Maggie's wisdom and actions. They find in each other the family they have needed but lost.

It takes a while to get into the story but the spare prose which failed to draw me in at first becomes what saves the novel from too much heartwarming sentiment. If we are disconnected and lonely in the madness of cities, there is no saving grace in the country. What saves anyone is the kindness of the rare individuals who still have a heart no matter what life has done to them.

Quite a satisfying read and despite its darkness and scenes of despair and cruelty, an optimistic story.


Yes, I went missing again. I have been reading. I have been getting used to our new computerized check out system at the bookstore. I have been exercising and getting rid of the winter flab. I have been working out in my yard.

I noticed when I logged in to blogger tonight, that the last post was #200! Pretty good for me who doesn't stick to things very well. Except reading. So here is a book I read so that I could rent the movie. Jennifer Weiner is a serious defendant of chick lit. It was the first of her books I had read.

In Her Shoes, Jennifer Weiner, Atria Books, 2002, 421 pp
This is the story of two sisters, now adults, who lost their mother to mental illness and an accident when they were small. They were raised by a grief-stricken dad and a stepmother whom they despised. Rose is the elder, the responsible one who tried to take care of her younger sister Maggie. Rose is a lawyer, has a big body, no social skills and is clueless about fashion, except shoes. Maggie is wild, irresponsible, always in trouble but thin, gorgeous and has extraordinary fashion sense. They both wear the same size shoes.

The writing is just below OK. The plotting is odd: goes well for a while, then gets unbelievable, back and forth. The characters are not what is called well developed in literary fiction. But this is chick-lit, not entirely serious and has enough quirks to raise it above the level of, say, Marian Keyes.

Anyway, now I've read it so I can watch the movie and say I've read a Jennifer Weiner book.