Tuesday, December 22, 2009

BAND OF ANGELS

Band of Angels, Robert Penn Warren, Random House Inc, 1955, 313 pp


Of the three novels I have read by this author, this was the weakest. Robert Penn Warren likes to take a big theme or idea and expound on it through a story. All The King's Men was about truth; World Enough and Time about justice; and Band of Angels explores freedom, which because the author is a southerner, centers on slavery.

The trouble for me with this novel was twofold. The story itself covers time before, during and after the Civil War. I have read so many tellings of this tale and in this one found nothing new in either details or insights. The other more distressing problem is the main character.

Amantha Starr learns at the age of 16 that she is the offspring of her beloved father and a slave. Her mother died in childbirth so Amantha was raised by a mammy and her doting father. Once this father dies and the shocking truth is revealed, she is sold off as a slave. Eventually she gets her freedom and marries a white man.

But Amantha is not a convincingly drawn character. She dithers like some Frank Yerby heroine, yet has deep pondering ideas. The first person voice is not consistent because Amantha often sounds more like Robert Penn Warren than a mixed race southern woman.

So, not a success, not a good or fun or edifying read, but an interesting study in the exigencies of first person writing.


(Band of Angels and World Enough and Time are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. All the King's Men is available in the store in the classics section.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

MOVIES FROM BOOKS

Welcome to another new feature on Keep the Wisdom. I find it interesting to watch movies made from books I have read. Usually they disappoint me but I have decided that in this visual age, it is probably good for authors that their stories get made as movies. It might, just might, promote reading. Not since the 1940s have so many books, even literary novels, been made into movies.

I do hate it when the mental pictures I already have for a story are trashed by the movie, but lately I think even that has been less a problem for me. The trick for the screenwriter and the director is staying true to the ideas that underlie the story, which is my main criterion for whether or not the movie is a success.

Here are the ones I watched this month:



SNOW ANGELS is from the 1994 first novel by Stewart O'Nan. While it was extremely sad and dark, I liked the book and always intended to read more by that author, though I haven't yet. I liked the movie because it brought the story back for me with all of the considerable emotion I felt while reading the book. A teenage boy is getting through the first months of his parents' separation. Looking perhaps for a mother figure, he gets involved with the babysitter he had as a young child, but tragedy strikes her life. The characters are dysfunctional, small-town people, similar to those in Richard Russo's books, though without the hope. The movie came out in 2006, from an indie studio (Warner Independent.) Kate Beckinsale, who plays the baby sitter, gives a stunning performance. Not recommended if you are prone to depression.




MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY was saved by Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew. If this book had not been made into a movie, I would not have had to read the book for a reading group. I was not as charmed by it as most readers seem to have been. Amy Adams drove me completely crazy and the story was changed (unnecessarily, I thought) to the point where it lost what charm it may have had. But Frances: there is nothing she can't do as an actress. And the clothes were fabulous.




ELECTION: The book was OK. The movie was entertaining but poor Reese Witherspoon, whom I love, had to play that horrible Tracy Flick. I realize that it is something of a cult flick, it is a great spoof on high school life, but it just did not do it for me.




What movies made from books have you seen lately and how did they match up to your reading experience?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

GUARDIAN ANGEL

Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky, Delacorte Press, 1992, 370 pp


In Paretsky's seventh V I Warshawski novel, the private investigator is pulled into neighborhood problems when her dog Peppy gets knocked up by a neighbor's black lab. The poor, eccentric old woman, who loves dogs more than her distant son, is being preyed upon by gentrification fanatics and before long ends up in hospital.

V I shares Peppy with her downstairs neighbor Mr Contreras, who has appointed himself the detective's guardian. Their contentious relationship has been going on for several books now, but in this one it finally develops into a somewhat cooperative friendship.

Soon enough, one of Contreras' old union buddies disappears, so while she is trying to fight for her elderly neighbor's rights, V I also falls into some very suspicious industrial activity at a derelict steel plant. The scandals she uncovers involve her ex-husband the lawyer, an old Chicago industrial family, union fraud and junk bonds. In fact, V I has so much going on that there is hardly any time for romance, though she does spend a night or two with an African American cop. The woman just has to get mixed up in anything that draws the ire of others.

The action and danger are at the usual pitch, it is easier to keep track of the characters than in some of the earlier books, but I wasn't as involved in the story. She does a good job with the financial and feminist issues of the early 90s and deals with the worst challenge to her friendship with Dr Lottie so far. By the time I finish this series, I will know my way around Chicago, should I ever go there again in the future.


(Guardian Angel is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

WORD OF THE DAY



It is Wednesday, which means it is time to play Word of the Day.

Today's word is one that it seems I always have to look up whenever I come across it. The word is not even in my Webster's College Edition, so I have to look it up on-line. Pictures are always good to help lock in a word, especially if it is something you will not be likely to see anywhere around you in the world.

The word is manticore and comes from page 86 of Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

According to Wikipedia, it is a legendary creature having the body of a red lion, a human head with three rows of sharp teeth, a trumpet-like voice, and the tail of either a dragon or scorpion. Being mythical in nature, its characteristics can change depending on which tale is being told.

The original manticore myth was Persian where the name meant man-eater. The English word manticore was borrowed from Latin, mantichora, that being borrowed from Greek, mantikhoras, an erroneous pronunciation of the Persian word.

My sentence: While strolling through the enchanted forest with my girlfriends, I was given a shock when a manticore leaped from the shadows, threatened in a loud voice to eat me and bared its many teeth. My best friend saved us by pointing out that we were women.

Your sentence? And please let us know if you have ever read a tale with an manticore in it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

MUDBOUND

Mudbound, Hilary Jordan, Algonquin Books, 2008, 324 pp


Mudbound was the 2008 winner of Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize, which is awarded to an as yet unpublished manuscript. The purpose of the prize is to support a literature of social change. The winning books are all novels, described as "serious literary fiction" on the Bellwether Prize website.

I am not in disagreement with the purpose of the prize. In fact, I feel that fiction dealing with issues that need social change ought to be of high quality. My problem with Mudbound is that the writing is far below what I would describe as high quality and in fact is pedestrian, dull and lacking in any magic.

It is a story of racism, family troubles and feminist issues; a story with much potential for greatness. Told through alternating chapters in the points of view of its main characters, the various beliefs about whites, blacks, men and women show up loud and clear. There is no preaching but neither is there any clear sense of where the author stands. Jordan seems to be presenting all the sides and views and leaving the social change up to chance.

Laura, destined to live as a spinster, is courted by Henry, a self-absorbed Southern man who yearns to farm his own land. They marry, he buys a farm without consulting Laura, and when his attempt to set up a house in town for his wife and two daughters falls through, he expects her to suck it up and live amongst the mud, floods, insects and isolation, keeping house with no electricity or plumbing in the 1940s!

Then there are Henry's ultra racist and patriarchal father as well as Henry's flighty, war-damaged, alcoholic but charming brother, both of whom join the household. Along with a family of negro sharecroppers and a Jim Crow local doctor, everything that could go wrong does. It is all heartbreaking but some characters emerge with hope in their hearts. Laura learns to love her blockhead of a husband after slaving for him after all those years.

I am sure there are readers for this novel, just as there are readers for Water For Elephants, The Memory Keeper's Daughter and Little Bee, etc. If those readers are wading into issues of injustice, abuse and racism for the first time then these novels have served a purpose. They are not, however, literary fiction. I just want to make that clear.


(All of the novels mentioned here are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

THE DEER PARK

The Deer Park, Norman Mailer, G P Putnam's Sons, 1955, 375 pp


I did not find much to admire in Mailer's third novel. After spending some time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, he turned his experience into this novel portraying the insanity, the deals, the sex and the drinking of Hollywood players.

Most of the story takes place at an imaginary resort out in the desert east of Hollywood. Mailer switches back and forth between first person (for a young man who comes to the resort with money he won in a poker game as he was being discharged from the air force) and the third person (for other characters who include an actress, a failed writer, a producer and several other unsavory characters.) This device is not wholly successful and gave me an uncomfortable jolt each time he switched.

There is lots of sex, which is not badly written, and places Mailer in his usual position of being ahead of his time, because sex hits the bestsellers big time beginning in 1956 with Peyton Place, among others. This book is one of the few I've read so far in this project which shows the sick underbelly of Hollywood, another story which will become a genre in itself.


(The Deer Park is currently out of print, as far as I can tell. I found it at my local library and it is also available on-line at various used bookseller sites.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood, Nan A Talese, 2009, 431 pp


The long-awaited companion novel to Oryx and Crake is also brilliant but in a different way. The story in Atwood's new novel occurs simultaneously with the Oryx and Crake tale, taking place out in the "Plebelands", where the destruction wrought by Helth-Wyzer and the other industrial/scientific compounds impacts the regular people of the world.

No matter what many reviewers have said, it is almost imperative to have read Oryx and Crake first. In the earlier book, a dangerous virus, embedded in the BlyssPluss "harmless" sex pill has caused a worldwide plague, known in the new book as the Waterless Flood. As in the Bible, most of mankind has been wiped out. The remains are a few humans who miraculously escaped infection; the bio-engineered animals (rakunk, liobam, wolvogs, and those frightful pigs implanted with human brain tissue); and Crake's ultimate creation, the immortal and naked Children of Crake.

The Year of the Flood story is anchored by the God's Gardeners sect, a religious group dedicated to living green and preserving life. Atwood has created an entire religion complete with hymns and sermons delivered by Adam One, the group's leader. Ren, a high-end sex worker, and Toby, a former God's Gardener, are the main characters, both with former connections to Jimmy and Crake.

So you get the whole story again from a new perspective which fills in many curious omissions in the first book. As I said, brilliant, because now you see in detail the horrendous consequences of Crake's madness. Also brilliant in a way unique to Atwood, because while Oryx and Crake has a distinct masculine tone, The Year of the Flood is feminine and feminist. The women save the day. Through strength, bravery, intelligence and heart, these women extract whatever hope can be found for a possible future.

Atwood claims that these books are just stories. That's a bit ingenious. Speculative fiction often begins with the premise: what if we keep going the way we are? Our future may not include a waterless flood, but it is bound to be unpleasant in some way. It may very well depend on some of us paying attention, preserving useful knowledge and having some sense of spiritual or moral vision.


(The Year of the Flood is available on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

ORYX AND CRAKE

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood, Nan A Talese, 2003, 383 pp


Though I read this dystopian novel back in 2003 when it was first released, I gave it another read before tackling her new novel, The Year of the Flood. I had forgotten a good bit of it and rereading made the new novel more clear, as both cover a similar time period, each being told through the eyes of a different set of characters and from opposite sides of the story.

Here is what I had to say after the first reading in 2003:

She did it again! It is the future and bio-engineering has screwed up everything. Snowman, who used to be Jimmy, is out in what is left of the world, hanging out with some bio-engineered "people", trying to survive.

Most of the book is back story explaining how they got where they are. Atwood creates a whole futuristic world with "compounds" for the science/business guys who run things and the "plebelands" for the rest of the world.

It is scary, hilarious and a logical progression from where we are now with global warming, screwed up weather, fake food and science gone out of control. My only complaint is that the book was over so soon.

Now I have this to say:

The most striking and ominous result of re-reading Oryx and Crake in 2009 was how much more realistic it now seems. It was a gripping futuristic tale six years ago but now feels like a world that could be just around the corner.

Having read over 300 books since I first read Oryx and Crake made for another interesting comparison. I am that much more experienced as a reader which makes me able to get more out of reading. This time I really got the connection between Jimmy and Crake who are the two main characters. It was Crake who unleashed his madness on the world with Jimmy as his unwitting accomplice. In many ways, the book is a coming-of-age story, showing how these two boys reacted so differently to their dysfunctional and soulless upbringings.

Atwood's fiction has always been complex, working on many levels simultaneously. Now I wonder how much I missed in her earlier novels and am determined to reread all of her novels as they come up on the lists of My Big Fat Reading Project.

If you have read any of Atwood's novels, I would like to hear from you on which you liked and why. It would be great to form a Margaret Atwood reading group someday.


(Oryx and Crake is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The Year of the Flood is available on the shelf in hardcover.)

SOLACE OF THE ROAD

Solace of the Road, Siobhan Dowd, Random House Inc, 2009, 261 pp


This is a fantastic Young Adult novel by Irish author Dowd. Solace is a 14 year old foster kid who sets off to find her birth mother and ultimately to find herself. I reviewed it for BookBrowse and you can read the review here.

(Solace of the Road is available in hardcover by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

WORD OF THE DAY

Today's word comes from page 18 of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. It is one of the oldest words I have come across lately and is in fact obsolete (meaning no longer in general use) and archaic (meaning very old.)

wight, a noun

1. [Obsolete] a living being; creature.

Sentence: That wight doth seem to haunt my garden.

2. [Archaic] a human being; person: now sometimes used in a patronizing or commiserating sense.

Sentence: As I strolled the halls of the nursing home, a wight called out to me for a glass of water.

(The origin of this word traces back through Middle English, wiht; to Old English; is related to German wicht when it meant creature and the Gothic word waihts which meant thing.)

From Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition.

Please contribute a sentence in the comments.

WHAT I HAVE BEEN READING

Here is the post I meant to put up last Saturday as part of the new improved Keep The Wisdom blog schedule. It is a quick summary of books I read in the month just ended, in this case November. People who know that I read incessantly are always asking me what I have read lately. Well, here it is.

I read 11 books in November. I was intending to read more. Ever since I spent the early months of 2009 caring for my poor Mom and getting hardly any reading done, I have been trying to catch up. Because My Big Fat Reading Project is so huge, I push myself to get a certain number of those books read each year as research for my memoir. As of today, I still hope to read 15 more books by the end of the year, but man, Christmas, work, family stuff, you name it.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize winner for 2009, was one of the best of the month for me. Excellent, smart and entertaining historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell, the man who helped Henry VIII get his divorce from his first wife so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood was another stand out. It is a follow up and companion to her 2003 Oryx and Crake, which I reread before reading this current one. If you like futuristic dystopian fiction, it is great. Margaret Atwood is one of my top three favorite authors. I have read all of her novels.

I read Four to Score, by Janet Evanovich and Guardian Angel, by Sara Paretsky as part of a reading plan I have going to get through all the novels of each. Janet Evanovich I use to cleanse my reading palette with something light and fast paced. She never fails me. Sara Paretsky, aside from Margaret Atwood, is one of the best feminist writers around, disguised as a mystery author.

Blueberry Girl, by Neil Gaiman turned out to be my favorite picture book of the year. I am giving lots of copies to friends who are moms for Christmas.

I only had to read one book for a reading group this month, because I had already read all the other picks. Mudbound, by Hilary Jordan came highly acclaimed, because it won the Bellwether Prize, which is sponsored by Barbara Kingsolver (another one of my top three favorite authors.) The book was a dud in my humble opinion. A story of racism and misogynism that has been told many times in much better books.

For My Big Fat Reading Project, I managed to read four of the books on my list for 1957. Finally the books of the 1950s are getting a little more life in them. And a lot more sex! By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens, the #1 bestseller, takes on life, law, family and community in a small Maryland town during the 50s. It was long and lugubrious but had plenty of hanky panky. Compulsion by Meyer Levin, at #3, is a fictionalized account of a true crime from Chicago in the 1920s. It includes law, crime, sex of many kinds and psychology. Juicy and entertaining. Rally Round the Flag Boys by Max Shulman is a humorous account of 1950s suburban life complete with sex and a Nike missile base. It took the #4 bestseller spot. I turned 10 years old in 1957 and I recall being obsessed with boys and trying to find out what sex was all about. Hm.

Another 1957 book I read was The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov. It had sex in it too! Well, Asimov, early sci fi style sex, which is fairly tame. But it is also a mystery, has more robots than humans, takes place on another planet and was a great read.

Pretty good list, if I do say so myself. But there is always room for more on my reading lists. What have you read? What was great? Not so good? A waste of time?

Monday, December 07, 2009

SATAN IN GORAY

Satan in Goray, Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Noonday Press, 1955, 239 pp


Welcome to a strange and foreign world. At least it was to me. I have seen this world before in books; in The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova; in the opening scenes of Away by Amy Bloom; in Amos Oz's autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness. But here we are much further back in history.

Into a remote village in Poland in the mid 17th century, an area where change happened so slowly it was almost imperceptible, where Jewish tradition was virtually solidified in place, comes a wild and charismatic man proclaiming the "End of Days" and the coming of the Messiah. The villagers throw law, morals and hard work to the winds and chaos ensues.

This is an ancient tale, originally written in Yiddish, where traditional Judaism meets mystical thought. The superstition that lies just beneath most religious philosophy breaks through, revealing all manner of strange characters and forces.

The translator's note in the front of the edition I read interprets Singer's message to be that a lack of solid faith opens the door to Satan and evil, that the story is a warning against heresy. That may have been the author's intention, but what he made manifest here is how thin the veneer of civilization truly is. A haunting read.


(Satan in Goray is available in paperback by special order at Once Upon A Time Bookstore, as are the other three books mentioned.)

NEWS

Last week I made a resolution to be a good little blogger and post everyday. Well, that lasted for a few days, then life got busy and I was reading a good book. So there you go. I am hopeless when it comes to routine.

But I am going to try again. I'll post extra for a few days and get caught up. Stay with me.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

FOUR TO SCORE

Four to Score, Janet Evanovich, St Martin's Press, 1998, 294 pp


After reading bunches of historical fiction, I was ready for something contemporary and light. And was I ever thrilled to find out that a couple in one of my reading groups also secretly reads Evanovich for fun!

In the fourth Stephanie Plum adventure, though it was published over a decade ago, we find a transvestite and a gay musician mixed up with car theft, jealous lovers and counterfeit money. Enough to give a reader indigestion. (Was I maybe just a tad naive in the 90s? Yes.)

Actually the mystery in this one is slightly lame and Stephanie moves more slowly than in the previous books. The crimes seem tame, though she does barely escape death by explosion and fire. What is most exciting are the developments between Stephanie and Morelli, the horny cop. They actually "do it", many times, in Four to Score. Get it?

So I wasn't disappointed. I laughed long and out loud many times. I thrilled to see something more than lust between Plum and Morelli and my reading palate was cleansed for more serious fare.


(Four to Score is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

WORD OF THE DAY

Wednesday is Word of the Day Day!

Today's word comes from page 6 of The Mystic Masseur, by V S Naipaul.

pundit noun

1. in India, a Brahman learned in Sanskrit, Hindu philosophy, etc.

Sentence: After years spent in study of the Bhagavad Gita and other works, he proclaimed himself a pundit.

2. a person who has great learning.

Sentence: Do you have to go to college to be a pundit?

pundit comes from Hindi which comes from the Sanskrit word pandita


Please contribute a sentence!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF HENRY VIII

The Autobiography of Henry VIII, Margaret George, St Martin's Press, 1986, 932 pp


On the day the Booker Prize was announced, I asked my editor at BookBrowse for an assignment to review the winning novel, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. My request was granted so while I waited for the book to arrive, I thought I ought to learn more than I knew about Henry VIII. All I could recall is that he had six wives and that Anne Boleyn was one of them.

Sure enough, I found this excellent novel by Margaret George on my bookshelves where it had rested for over ten years. Back in the 1990s, I had read Mary, Queen of Scots and The Memoirs of Cleopatra. Margaret George has a wonderful smooth style and though her books are long, they are page turners for sure.

I raced through this one in just a few days, learning about the Tudors, finding Henry the man inside Henry the King, and discovering that it was the unshakable belief at the time that a king must have a male heir which drove him to all his crazy acts. In fact, Henry had two daughters with his first two wives and each of them eventually reigned as Queen of England: Mary I for five years and the indomitable daughter of Ann Boleyn, Elizabeth I for 45 years!

Henry finally did have a son with Jane Seymour, his third wife. That son was crowned Edward VI when Henry died, but the boy was only ten years old and never really ruled England during the six short years that he was King. Meanwhile, Henry formed an entire new church, beheaded two of his wives and became very fat.

He had certain feelings of inferiority, he was the son of a distant, cold mother, he was impulsive and actually quite stupid about women. His reign coincided with the Renaissance, the Reformation and the opening of the New World. There were plagues, brilliant new discoveries in science and bibles in English for the first time.

Probably many people already know all this, but it was it was new for me to put all these historical happenings in their proper alignment. In a recent NPR interview with Barbara Kingsolver, she said, "There's always a part of the story you haven't heard that would influence your judgement if you knew it all." I saw the movie, "The Other Boleyn Girl" and learned one story, now I've read The Autobiography of Henry VIII and gotten more aspects of it. Next I will read Wolf Hall and see it from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, Henry's lawyer. Big fun for a reading nerd like me.


(The Autobiography of Henry VIII is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. Wolf Hall can be purchased in hardcover at the store.)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

THE WHEEL ON THE SCHOOL

The Wheel on the School, Meindert DeJong, Harper, 1954, 298 pp


Per my new schedule and this being Sunday, I present a micro-review of the Newbery Award winner for 1955, written for 8-12 year old readers. The story is set in Holland in a fishing village on the North Sea. A group of school children decide to bring storks back to their village. In order to get the storks to nest on their school house roof, they must procure a wagon wheel.

It is a great adventure story filled with challenges and insights into life in such a place. The kids find old people who become their friends as they work together to bring back the storks. They brave all sorts of weather and find their strengths. I was entirely drawn into the story.

The illustrations are by Maurice Sendak, very early in his career. They bring the story of a foreign place alive. Altogether a book worthy of the award.


(The Wheel on the School is available on the Newbery Award shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

DECEMBER READING GROUP ROUNDUP

Somehow November got away from me and I completely forgot to post the reading group report. Well it is all over now so we will move on.

ONCE UPON A TIME


Adult Discussion Group
Tuesday, Dec 8; 7:30 pm
A Season of Gifts, Richard Peck
Note: We always read either a holiday themed book or a children's book in December. This year it is both. Richard Peck's book is for ages 10 and up, takes place at Christmas time and is a sequel to his Newbery winners A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way to Chicago.





Mystery Reading Group w/ tea and scones
Wednesday, Dec 23, 8:30 am
Child 44, Tom Rob Smith


One Book at a Time, Sunland/Tujunga Group
Thursday, Dec 17, 7:30 pm
Meeting at Mi Casita Restaurant, Sunland, CA
(Contact Lisa for reservations.)
To Siberia, Per Petterson




Bookie Babes

We normally meet at the Burbank, CA location of Barnes&Noble, but in December we have a private party for current members only outside the store. And we always read a short light holiday book, because really we just want to eat and drink. For fun we exchange books from our personal bookshelves and vote for our favorite book read during the year. This year we are reading:
The Christmas Cookie Killer, Livia Washburn


PORTRAIT OF A BOOKSTORE
Another private party. We don't even read a book, but we do a book exchange and play literary games.

So there you have it. What books are your reading groups reading in December?


Thursday, November 26, 2009

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!


I have much to be thankful for this year, including you my readers. Here is a gift for you.

I wrote the lyrics to "I'd Thank You" several years ago as a Thanksgiving prayer for an ecumenical group's November meeting. Later I set it to music and had my friend Dale LaDuke arrange harmony parts for the chorus. When Greg Krueger and I recorded this version for my last CD, Inspiration, I recruited my songwriter friends to form a Folk Choir.

Enjoy the music, enjoy your day, enjoy your life!

video


I’D THANK YOU

If I could see life as a game
With a purpose and some freedom
Then I’d thank you for the barriers
That make a game a game
If I could look upon my family
With love and understanding
Then I’d thank you for the trying ones
And love them just the same.

If I had a destination
A place I’d really like to go
Then I’d thank you for the journey
And delight in passing here.
If I could know that deep inside
My lover is a shining being
Then I’d thank you for the quirks
That make him difficult yet dear

But I am in need of mercy
For ingratitude has been my way
Of dealing with life’s vagaries
And getting thru the day
I have lashed out with my anger
I have given in to fear
While you go on giving life
Year after year.

Copyright 2004 Bearded Iris Music/BMI

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

WORD OF THE DAY

I've had a request from a reader of this blog to resume the "Word of the Day" feature. Well at least I can do a word of the week.

Contrary to modern education methods, I was trained to look up any word I read that I didn't understand; learn each definition of that word; make up sentences for each definition to increase my understanding of and ability to use the word; then learn the derivation (the origin of the word.) It is a good method. It builds vocabulary, helps my writing skills and speeds my reading because the next time I come across that word, I already know it in any possible context.

This week's word comes from Guardian Angel, by Sara Paretsky, page 2.

thews (thyooz) noun plural, singular thew
1. muscular power; bodily strength
Sentence: She went to a personal trainer to increase her thews.

2. muscles or sinews
Sentence: After admiring each others thews, we went at it.

Derivation: Old English theaw, custom, habit

(Webster's New World Dictionary Student Edition)

Now for the fun: Contribute a sentence using the comments. Use your mental thews!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND

A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1955, 252 pp


This is Flannery O'Connor's famous collection of stories about various characters and situations in the South. The characters run from flawed to evil, the situations from hard times to tragedy. Each story is extremely dark and hopeless with lightning flashes of wry humor.

You could say that human weakness is the theme, with both the attacker and the victim drawn to each other by that very weakness. O'Connor's compatriot in terms of setting and time period is Eudora Welty, but the point of view of each author, though dealing with similar subject matter, is almost diametrically opposed. Welty makes the quirks and weaknesses charming and understandable, while O'Connor's view is shadowed by doom.

I do see why O'Connor is so acclaimed. There is never a dull or boring moment in any of these stories. Somehow she lets you know that doom is coming, so you read eagerly, cringingly, almost guiltily, to find out what form that doom will take. It seems to me though that it is our own weakness that fuels the curiosity.

Released this year is a new biography, Flannery, A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Gooch. It has been called "the definitive biography" by Booklist, but got a snarly review from Joyce Carol Oates, who is surely a literary descendant of O'Connor. It sits on my shelf waiting for me to get through all of her own writing before learning what was behind it. I still have her two novels to go.


(A Good Man is Hard to Find is available in hardcover or paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The biography is only available in hardcover, again by special order.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

THE PLAGUE OF DOVES

The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, 311 pp


Another great story from Louise Erdrich, told through the eyes of three different characters. Thus does the author demonstrate the tangled threads of Native Americans, French explorers and other European immigrants who have woven their destinies together. In generations past, in North Dakota, the slaughter of a white farming family was blamed on Ojibwe Indians, but the truth of the incident lives on in fragments among both the white and Native American descendants.

One of these is Evelina Harp, daughter of a white father and an Ojibwe mother. Evelina, coming of age and prone to falling hopelessly in love, finds herself drawn to the old tales discussed between her Grandfather Mooshum and her Great Uncle Shamengwa, who also have a propensity for hopeless loves. As she matures and navigates life with her mixed blood, learning the truth about the murders is also the path to understanding herself.

The revelations come about in the pattern of a woven basket: over and under, back and forth, around and around. Truth, legend, tall tales and spiritual lore all contribute to the collective memory of a small town and its nearby reservation. The realities of modern life branch back through time, through love and through the inevitable conflicts of different cultures coming together.

I discussed The Plague of Doves with one of my reading groups and was among only three readers who liked it. The lack of linear structure in the story gave the remaining readers a hard time. But as any child grows and gradually pieces together her family history, the process is not linear. As peoples with varying traditions and world views learn how to live together, truth is a fluid thing.

Erdrich brings a large dose of wisdom to this book, teaching us lessons that I suspect she has struggled to learn. Despite the violence and heartbreak, there is a distinct lack of bitterness or recrimination in the telling and much insight in the resolution of its central mystery.


(The Plague of Doves is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

BLUEBERRY GIRL

Blueberry Girl, Neil Gaiman, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009


In a sort of early New Year's resolution, I will attempt a slight upgrade at least in terms of content here at Keep The Wisdom. Sunday posts will now be devoted to children and young adult literature. I start off here with my favorite picture book of 2009.

Neil Gaiman wrote the text, which is in the form of a prayer to female spirits for an as-yet-to-be-born daughter. The slightly psychedelic illustrations by Charles Vess are bursting with intense color, myriads of animals, and various incarnations of the Blueberry Girl to be.

I did not have a daughter but I have two granddaughters, as different from each other as any two females could be, but to me of course, equally precious and delightful. I wrote a poem for the elder and a song for the younger, so I am a bit in awe to find Neil Gaiman's lines so similar in intention to mine: "Keep her from spindles and sleeps at sixteen. Let her stay waking and wise. Nightmares at three or bad husbands at thirty, these will not trouble her eyes."

I am giving this book to every expectant mother I know, as well as a copy to my daughter-in-law.


(Blueberry Girl is available on the shelf in the picture book section of Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

THE LACUNA

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009, 507 pp


My review of Barbara Kingsolver's latest and wonderful novel is now on-line at BookBrowse. I am going to post an excerpt here, but I must make it clear that I completely loved the book and admired it and think that any criticisms you might read in other reviews are ridiculous. Feel free to let me know your opinion if you have also read it. If you haven't, read it!

"The title of this novel is also its continuous imagery. A lacuna is a blank gap, a missing part...a hole, a vacancy. Harrison Shepherd (the main character) is haunted by lacunae. He discovers them, he is tortured by them, and ultimately it appears he is saved by one."
Read the full review here.


(The Lacuna is available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

TEN NORTH FREDERICK

Ten North Frederick, John O'Hara, Random House Inc, 1955, 408 pp


This novel was last on the Top 10 Bestsellers list for 1955. However, it also won the National Book Award in 1956. It was a fairly entertaining read about the top layer of society in a small Pennsylvania town. From what I have read so far of O'Hara's books, that seems to be his theme and location. In fact, there is not a great deal of difference between Ten North Frederick and his 1949 bestseller, Rage to Live, except that this novel included what happens to a fairly decent and cultured man who goes into politics. Nothing good of course.

Therefore to me, this was not an important book despite its bestseller material for the times (old money, family saga, sexual peccadilloes). It is another example of the cusp apparent in mid 1950s popular literature, sitting firmly on the end-of-an-era side. To see another viewpoint, check out the review on the National Book Award 60th Anniversary site.


(Ten North Frederick is out of print. I found a copy in my local library. Otherwise you will have to troll the used bookstores or on-line sellers.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

ELECTION

Election, Tom Perrotta, G P Putnam's Sons, 1998, 200 pp


Election is somewhat of a cult book due to the 1999 movie, starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. I came across mention of the movie a while back and decided to read the book first. It is Perrotta's second novel, his first being The Wishbones, a rock and roll novel on my TBR list. Besides, Perrotta was raised in New Jersey.

This novel is a spoof on high school: the students, the teachers, the sex and promiscuity, as well as the politics. My, my, things were comparatively tame in my high school years, though it is possible that I was just a tad naive. Now that I think of it, one of my best friends was having sex with her boyfriend, but we didn't talk about it.

The election process at Winwood High is supposed to educate the students in the ways of democracy. What makes the novel funny is that the students recreate all the worst aspects of American electoral politics, with teachers and parents giving plenty of help.

The writing is clever, tongue-in-cheek style, alternating between the first person voices of the three student candidates and the teacher who runs the election right into the ground, despite his high-minded intentions and because of his own low-minded issues. It is a light, fast read and owes a nod to the travails of good old Bill Clinton. I have a feeling the movie will be even better.


(Election is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

BOG CHILD

Bog Child, Siobhan Dowd, Random House Inc, 2008, 322 pp


This is the sort of YA literature I like these days: somewhat historical with a regular protagonist who must make sense of the world around him. In Ireland, during "the troubles", some members of the IRA and the Irish National Liberation army went on a hunger strike while imprisoned. Fergus is the younger brother of one these soldiers.

It is 1981 and Fergus is a high school senior trying to study for and pass his college entrance exams. All around him are the people affected by his brother's ordeal, including his parents who have conflicting views. Meanwhile, during a clandestine peat cutting mission with his uncle, Fergus finds the body of a dead child, strangely preserved in the peat bog.

Not long after that, he is approached by Michael, a freedom fighter and asked to carry packages over the border during his habitual morning run through the hills. That is a lot to deal with for a 16 year old and of course, during it all, he falls in love for the first time.

Siobhan Dowd's writing is almost perfect and her book is an example of literature that straddles the boundary between YA and adult. (Note to parents: not in content or language but in issues.) It probably helps if the reader knows something about those times in Ireland, but the story could also spur an uninformed reader to do a little research.

As I read, I recalled my visit to Ireland a few years ago. I could see the peat bog, the misty hills; I could smell the rashers and the sheep. The Cranberries' song "Zombie" played in my head and I thought about how there are always decisions to make for any human being trying to understand the conflicts in the world, knowing how and when to take a stand, searching for love and attaining some measure of control over one's destiny.

Recommended for readers age 14 and up.

(Bog Child is available in hardcover by special order at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in the spring, 2010.)

Monday, November 09, 2009

THE TONTINE, VOLUME 2

The Tontine, Volume 2, Thomas B Costain, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1955, 464 pp


I made my way through the second half of this tale and despite my curiosity about the winner of the Tontine, it was just too long. Perhaps the trouble was that this is the winding down portion. All those intrepid figures from Volume 1 grow old, suffer the slings and arrows, but the younger generation just doesn't measure up.

Even the outcome of the Tontine, which finally comes down to three contenders as well as some violence and trickery, feels anticlimactic and just as tired and old as the three themselves. The most enjoyable part was the manner in which the feud between the original families was resolved by the third generation.

I have enjoyed Costain's historical fiction, this being the fifth one I have read. The best were two of his earlier ones: The Black Rose, 1945 and The Moneyman, 1947. He only began writing fiction in his late 50s and by 1955 was getting on himself. The first big financial meltdown after the rise of industrialism occurred in the late 1800s and is covered in The Tontine, Volume 1. (Also see Stone's Fall by Iain Pears.) It is interesting and instructive in these odd financial times we are having, to see the effects of that earlier one.

(As mentioned in my last post, Volume 2 of The Tontine is most easily acquired from used booksellers. Stone's Fall is available on the shelf in hardcover at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

THE TONTINE, VOLUME 1

The Tontine, Volume 1, Thomas B Costain, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1955, 408 pp


Imagine my consternation as I reached the last page of the rather long #9 bestseller of 1955, only to notice that this was only Volume 1. Then I discovered that none of my libraries had Volume 2, so I had to order it from Alibris. When it arrived I found I had another 464 pages to go! Apparently books of over 800 pages were not published in one volume in 1955.

Fortunately, it is a good piece of historical fiction, set in England beginning on the day Napoleon was defeated at the battle of Waterloo. A tontine was a sort of gamble plus insurance scam people could buy into, which then became a lottery because the last living person holding a share won the final large amount of money.

Meanwhile the story moves along through the 19th century as industrialization and commerce grow into the main games and as two key families and their descendants feud through all the changes. Stock and bonds, slavery and colonialism, love and careers, are all part of the story. A large cast of characters ranging from kings and millionaires to sailors and portrait painters, from rich and powerful to poor and striving, includes all types of personalities both male and female.

As Volume 1 ends, George Carboy, who has become the richest man in England through his many ventures, is being challenged by his very own lawyer over conditions in his factories. I predict then that Volume 2 will deal with the rise of the very bottom of society, the workers, and after many more pages, I will learn who reaped the benefits of the tontine.


(I found Volume 1 of The Tontine in my local library. It is also available from used booksellers on line and probably in used bookstores.)

Saturday, November 07, 2009

SUNNYSIDE

Sunnyside, Glen David Gold, Alfred A Knopf, 2009, 553 pp


The production of illusion, the competitive spirit of creative people, the magnetic appeal of the truly adept; these are the themes of David Glen Gold and also his techniques as a writer. Carter Beats the Devil, his amazing first novel, was about a magician. Sunnyside takes us into the early world of motion pictures through Charlie Chaplin.

It is a long novel and in my opinion it is as long as it needs to be, though some critics disagreed. Gold takes a good 75 pages to get it all going. The three main characters are introduced, each with a compelling entrance, but I didn't know why the other two were there, because I had thought it was Charlie Chaplin's story. In fact, though their paths cross, you don't actually get the connection until almost the end of the book.

Meanwhile, there is plenty to enjoy. Chaplin's early years in Hollywood, his rivalry and later friendship with Mary Pickford, his crazy mother and first marriage. In fact, all of the three main characters have their difficulties with parents. Gold has the same wonderful story telling style as in his earlier novel, a combination of irony, sentiment and dazzling set pieces.

Several stunning scenes stand out including a Liberty Loan rally in San Francisco. Also a Hollywood party where Charlie meets his first wife and has a hilarious encounter with Mary Pickford's best friend. Then there is a miraculous dog rescue in the middle of war torn France. In fact, animals are everywhere in this story.

What I loved most was the insight into Chaplin's creative process, which made me want to see his pictures, something I have never done. I could say that the end of Sunnyside is hopeful but not happy. An underlying tone of sorrow permeates the story, partly because of the war and mostly because no one gets what he or she truly desires.

But I was increasingly drawn in by all the elements of this tale until when I finally came to the end, I wanted another 500 pages and more about an artist who for years was everywhere. At least I wanted another Glen David Gold book to read. I hope he doesn't make me wait so long for the next one, but if he must, I will just have to reread the first two.


(Sunnyside is available on the shelf at Once Upon A Time bookstore.)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

BURN THIS BOOK

Burn This Book, Toni Morrison (Editor), Harperstudio, 2009, 113 pp


I like to read essays about writing by writers. This collection, edited by Toni Morrison, who also wrote a powerful introduction, and published in conjunction with the PEN American Center, is especially meaningful. It deals with censorship, the role of literature in keeping us self-aware, and the importance of keeping writers out of jail.

The ten writers sampled here of course include Salman Rushdie but I was most moved by Pico Iyer's story of his encounter in Burma (now Myanmar) with a trishaw driver. This desperately poor man teaching himself English and hoping to become a teacher of mathematics in a land of zero opportunity, now a land of less than zero opportunity, wrote regular letters to Iyer until he disappeared into the oppression.

Russell Banks' sentences on the role of the novelist also struck deeply. "No other species needs to be constantly reminded and taught what it is to be itself. And it is our storytellers, our poets, our novelists and dramatists, who have always performed this task. And surely, in this moment in the history of our species, when there is such a danger of forgetting and so much inducement to forget, we must not waste our limited time here doing anything else."

The next time someone tries to make me guilty for reading so much, Burn This Book can remind me why I do. I've also just about decided to take some of the hard earned cash of a bookseller and join PEN.


(Burn This Book is available in hardcover by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

SOMETHING OF VALUE

Something of Value, Robert Ruark, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1955, 560 pp


This long novel was #6 on the bestseller list for 1955 and falls in my newly named category of "dick lit." But even though it took me almost a week to read, I liked it. The setting is Kenya in the 1940s and the viewpoint is mostly from the English white men who own farms and use native labor. Shortly after WWII, the natives in Kenya began a terrorist uprising called The Mau Mau rebellion, which several decades later led to Kenya achieving independence from Great Britain.

Ruark has his own views about all this and they come through transparently. He has sympathies with both white man and native but does not seem to think that colonialism is inherently wrong. He clearly loves Africa and in fact made many trips there, primarily to hunt wild game. But his knowledge of the natives, their customs and superstitions, is extensive and he has as much affinity for them as he does for the rich white farmers.

This the book is a fascinating historical study and appropriate as we move through Barak Obama's presidency. It is also without doubt, one of the bloodiest and most violent books I have ever read. There are scenes of slaughter, at least one hunting trip, incidents of life in the hiding places of the militant natives, etc. Ruark was an unabashed worshiper of Hemingway and aspired to be that writer, though he was at least ten times more wordy. I think that he was even more manly in his writing style.

Truly another adventure in reading the bestsellers of the second half of the 20th century.


(Something of Value is out of print, though available in libraries and from used book sellers. The link here is for alibris.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE

The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie, Random House, 2008, 349 pp


At last I have read a book by Salman Rushdie after intending to for years. I must admit, I was somewhat intimidated by just the idea of this author and worried that I might not understand him. I've not read any of his earlier books.

The Enchantress of Florence
is historical, set in India and Florence in the 1500s. I have read loads of historical fiction so I was fine with that. Also Rushdie studied history for years in college, so while the four and a half page bibliography at the back shows he did his research, he has a historian's background as well, making him enough at ease that the fictional liberties he takes feel smooth.

If you are the type of reader who begins to whine when the cast of characters goes above five, do not read this novel. If you must have everything nailed down to the real and provable, chose another book. In fact, there are many characters in Renaissance Florence, including Niccolo Machiavelli; myriad characters in Akbar the Great's Indian empire; some characters who move between locations; and imaginary persons as well. In addition, the dates of the historical personages do not quite match up, a fact that is freely admitted during the telling of this magical tale.

The Enchantress of Florence is a fairy tale for adults and had me as enthralled as I ever was when I loved Cinderella, Snow White, etc, in my much younger years. There are several mysteries throughout the tale, all of which are nicely resolved. With lighthearted aplomb, Rushdie delves into questions of love, power, religious belief, freedom and all the variations of those weighty ideas.

I finished feeling that I had been conducted through a magical mystery tour while being invited and allowed to contribute to the entire experience. As my sister would say, fabulous!


(The Enchantress of Florence
is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

AFTER THE FALL, A STILL SMALL VOICE

After the Fall, a Still Small Voice, Evie Wald, Pantheon Books, 2009, 296 pp


My review of this excellent first novel is now up at BookBrowse.

Here is an excerpt: "Suffering from uncontrollable rage and an inability to handle relationships, Frank Collard escapes from Sydney to the small beach town of Mulaburry on the southeast Australian coast. There, amid the cane fields, rip tides and other lost souls, haunted by the Creeping Jesus in the dark, he fights with his demons and comes to terms with his history."

Read the entire review here.


(After the Fall is available on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ANDERSONVILLE

Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor, The World Publishing Company, 1955, 760 pp


This endless tome was #3 on the bestseller list for 1955 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956. Because of the number of words per page, the book was probably equivalent to about 1400 pages. It took me thirteen days to read it. That was frustrating but it is not a bad book; though I can't imagine it being a bestseller today.

It is a recounting of the creation, maintaining and dissolution of Andersonville prison, which held up to 27,000 Yankee prisoners of war during the last two years of the Civil War. That's 27,000 at a time. The crowding was intense, the rations amounted to starvation and scurvy, there was no shelter nor were there any sanitation facilities. Hundreds of prisoners died every day. Just gruesome.

The author tells the story through various points of view including that of certain prisoners complete with each one's personal back story. We also hear from a local plantation owner who could be classified as a "good" slave owner, several confederate army officials, a doctor, etc.

The book definitely dragged at times and was almost too horrific to read. The only other POW camp book I had read previously was King Rat by James Clavell, a much shorter book leavened with some wry humor and quite a bit more excitement. I have since read Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard. All three books show a prison camp to be an extreme microcosm of life on earth, because the entire range of human qualities exists even there. All that is missing is women. Actually there are women in Empire of the Sun.

I will be thinking about this book for a long time.


(Andersonville and Empire of the Sun are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. King Rat is probably best found in your local library.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

BURN MARKS

Burn Marks, Sara Paretsky, Delacorte Press, 1990, 340 pp


In her sixth V I Warshawski mystery, an old friend from the detective's days as a public defender solicits her support in a political campaign. No sooner does V I contribute a check and appear at a party, than she is accused of prying into her friend's affairs and told to back off. At the same time, Aunt Elena, the derelict sister of V I's deceased father, appears after being left homeless because her fleabag hotel has burned to the ground.

Before long a combination of possible arson, unethical practices in granting contracts for Chicago's newest urban renewal project, and another burnt down hotel have V I neglecting her paying clients and fearing for her life, as usual. The police don't believe her and even her closest friend Dr Hershel tells her to leave the whole mess alone. But V I's sense of justice and a certain stubborn disregard for good sense, drives her to find the answers.

So finely tuned is Paretsky's writing that I was truly worried about the possibility that this was it for Warshawski, though I knew that she appeared in six more mysteries. Even the humor that usually provides moments of light is in short supply here. But two new factors enter into the picture. V I does not learn any lessons about taking better care of herself but she seems to have achieved some perspective. She can stand up for what is right on a case by case basis but she cannot put the whole city of Chicago right.

In the end, she also gets her point across to Bobby, her arch nemesis in the police department, as she gains a deeper understanding of the various ethnic tensions that make up her city. In this way and throughout all her books, Paretsky explains the uniqueness of Chicago and makes it more than just another American urban center. That is an impressive feat and keeps this author many levels above any other mystery series writer I have read.

(This book is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

AUNTIE MAME

Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis, Vanguard Press, 1955, 280 pp


Madcap is not my favorite genre and madcap this is. In fact, I found it downright silly and formulaic. It was a huge bestseller and ended the year, 1955, at #2 on the bestseller list.

Ten year old Patrick is adopted by his wild and wacky aunt after his father's death. He grows up in a breathless rush of parties and adventures with his aunt among the wealthy, artistic and famous in New York City. Between times he has to go to a drab boarding school because the conservative executor of his estate tries to follow the deathbed wishes of Patrick's father.

I will read a sequel, Around the World With Auntie Mame, because it was a top bestseller in 1958. Auntie Mame was made into a hit Broadway play, then an award winning movie, followed by a Broadway musical and a bad movie from that. By the 1970s Patrick Dennis had blown all his money and his books were out of print. My point exactly.

(Auntie Mame was reissued in paperback in 2001 and is available by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY

Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1962, 246 pp


Travel writing, like any other genre, depends on the quality of the writing. Steinbeck being one of the best writers ever in my opinion, also being a man who understands a quest, made Travels With Charley a piece of literature. At the age of 58, he set out to drive around the United States and rediscover first hand the country he had been writing about for 25 years.

He traveled in a three-quarter-ton pickup truck with a small cabin built in the bed. With his truck named Rocinante (the name of Don Quixote' horse) and his large bleu French poodle named Charley, if Steinbeck needed lodging it was right there and if he needed company there was Charley.

The hardcover original Viking Press edition I found at my local library has a map of the journey from Sag Harbor up to Maine, across the northern states, down the west coast and across the southwest through Texas to New Orleans and back up the eastern side of the country. It is a complete package of road trip with a purpose, map, dog and Steinbeck's inimitable style of personal quirks, wry wit and unique view of life.

Rather than recount Steinbeck's adventures, which anyone can read about on the cover flap, let me just say that it was a highly successful trip with enough excitement to counteract the boredom of all the miles driven. Like many trips, it came to an end before he reached home and like any good travel book, it made me long for the open road.


(You can buy this book off the shelf in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

BONJOUR TRISTESSE

Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan, E P Dutton and Company, 1955, 128 pp


Why is it that little French novels become big hits in the United States? This book, which is barely a novella, was the #4 bestseller in 1955 and is the quintessential little French novel. The author was seventeen when she wrote it and had failed to pass her first year at the Sorbonne. No Simone de Beauvoir here.

The story is an inverted "Parent Trap." A privileged seventeen-year-old girl lives with her exciting father. They party, stay up late and are having a summer on the Riviera. Cecile has failed at school and would rather swim, go to casinos and hang out with her amusing father, his current mistress and flighty friends. See what I mean? So French.

Enter Anne, a fashionable friend of Cecile's dead mother. She is responsible, works hard in the couture world and has been like a fairy godmother to Cecile. But now she captivates the father and they become engaged, which means an end to Cecile and her Daddy's carefree life. Cecile begins to plot a scheme to get rid of Anne, which works only too well.

Amusing chick lit. I am so glad it was short. The writing, at least in translation, is not bad but the story is so predictable. It was made into a movie with Jean Seberg in 1958 but is not available on DVD as far as I can tell. The book, most recently reissued by Harper Perennial in 2001, is only available from used book sellers and of course in libraries.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

PAYBACK

Payback, Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Margaret Atwood, House of Anansi Press, 2008, 204 pp


Margaret Atwood's latest collection of essays is highly accessible and entertaining, though it rests on her usual level of scholarship. Here she tackles questions about the balance of give and take in living, the correlation throughout man's history between debt and sin, the way debts of all types are intrinsic to plot in literature. If you have ever been (or currently are) up to your ears in debt, this book will hold your interest and even to a degree, ease your mind.

Not to say that anyone gets off easy; not the individual credit card abuser, not the guy who fails to pay his child support, not the government, banks or big business. At first it was amazing to me that Atwood researched and wrote AND published this book before the crash of 2008. It is possible that Margaret Atwood is a witch or shamaness, but more likely that she has such a sensitivity to and grip on global conditions, that she intuitively found herself investigating world financial conditions before most of us knew we were headed for trouble.

Lest you worry that this is another polemic on economics, it is altogether something else. After addressing the above mentioned topics, she moves into a parallel of Charles Dickens' 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol, starring Ebenezer Scrooge. As the archetype for rapacious capitalists who build their wealth on the backs of oppressed workers, he is also the recipient of the ultimate payback. Furthermore, he repents in a 12 step program manner and actually undergoes a change of heart. Perfect.

By the end of the final and fifth essay, entitled "Payback," a delightful trick has been played on the reader. I will not reveal the bait and switch that Atwood works on us because it is too delicious to spoil. I'll just say, it is not so much that she does not assign blame for the state of our modern world: she does! But for those of us who would rather be part of the solution, she dispenses hope and tasks in true witch fashion.

I highly recommend Payback. You will never look at life in quite the same way again.

(This book is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

THE CELLIST OF SARAJEVO

The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway, Riverhead Books, 2008, 231 pp


Imagine an account of human history told by stringing together all the incidences of cities under siege. Ever since mankind began to congregate in densely populated urban settings (and I am too lazy at the moment to look up when that was), we have been subject to siege by enemies. In my imaginary collection of siege tales, The Cellist of Sarajevo would have a place.

I read this book during the week of wildfires that raged just north and east of my home this September. During the day, smoke-filled air filtered the sunlight to an eerie orange. At night we could see flames on the hillsides just a few miles away. I had friends ordered to evacuate their homes and others who lived hour to hour as they waited for such orders.

Yet I could sit at my computer and read the hourly updates on LATimes.com with never a worry about food, water or safety. Which was strikingly similar to the way America experienced the Bosnian War.

Steven Galloway's account of just a few weeks in Sarajevo, told through the eyes of three characters, told me of their sufferings much as my friends in Tujunga, La Crescenta, La Canada and Pasadena, told me the stories of the wildfires. For my friends, it was only for a couple of weeks and not one of them died or even lost a home. In Sarajevo it went on for almost four years.

The author is not a Bosnian, he is a Canadian. I generally disdain stories written by Western white people about other races and cultures, but he is a good enough writer and more importantly a good enough listener, to have taken the stories told to him by survivors of the siege and create a moving sense of those times. As he weaves between his three characters, a bakery worker who managed to go to work everyday, a father who had to walk miles through sniper fire just to get water for his family, and a young female sharpshooter, we discover that courage, humanity and love can triumph over fear, dehumanization and hatred. The cellist who played for 22 days in a row to memorialize the same number of fallen friends and neighbors is the symbol of all that.

It was almost too much for me. I found that I would never want to be in that much danger and doubted that I would stand up to it as well as these characters. Sometimes I could hardly bear to read another page, but from the security of my bed or sofa, I felt that reading about it was the least I could do.

(This book is available on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)