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.