Tuesday, June 30, 2009


The Story of the Amulet, E Nesbit, T Fisher Unwin, 1906 (currently, Puffin, 1996) 281 pp

This was one of my favorite books when I was growing up. I decided to re-read it as part of my research for the memoir I am writing. I have a tattered copy of the 1965 Puffin paperback edition, which came free with any purchase at a used bookstore. The pages are yellowed but they are all there as well as the perfect illustrations by H R Miller.

The Story of the Amulet is a sequel to The Five Children and It, which I also read long ago. But the Amulet always stands out in my memory because I "discovered" it on the shelves of our local library in Princeton, NJ, where our mom took us every two weeks. Upon reading it, I had my mind blown for perhaps the first time in my life. I wanted to see if I could figure out why and I did.

There are four English children in this story who find themselves spending their summer holidays in a dreary old house on Fitzroy Street, London (near the British Museum) in the care of their old Nurse. Father has gone to Manchuria to report on the war and Mother plus The Lamb (the new baby in the family) is in Madeira recovering from an illness. When I first read this book, probably at the age of nine, I had no idea about any of these places. But the writing is like a spell that just pulled me in to these children's lives, their relationships with each other and of course, their adventures. I am sure I had already read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at least once, so I was in a sense primed but Nesbit is a magician whereas C S Lewis only wished he was.

Because what entranced me back then and again now, was the magic. It is magic the way children do magic, fully ensconced in their imaginations. In fact, most grownups are at least annoyed by such a degree of imagination and some are truly alarmed. I recall being told as a child that something I said was "all in my imagination" and thinking, "Where else would it be?" Children know full well what is imagination and what is reality plus are able to move freely between the two. Such is the case with Anthea, Cyril, Robert and Jane, though Jane being the youngest, is the most easily frightened and sometimes protests when the magic gets to be too much. Yes! That is just the way it was in my life.

So there is an amulet, but the children only have half of it. The Psammead, a sand fairy who helplessly grants wishes and was the "It" of Five Children and It, reappears and though the children had promised the Psammead at the end of the previous summer not to ask for another wish as long as they lived, he does inform them that should they find the other half of the amulet, they can realize their hearts' desire.

After learning to use the amulet's magic they are off: to ancient Egypt, Babylon, Atlantis, etc. All these places are dangerous in the extreme but full of wondrous delights as well. Again, as a child, I knew virtually nothing about these places, yet they were so real to me back then as I read. I grew up to love books about Atlantis and Egypt and with a hunger to know the history of such ancient times. That is truly magic on many levels.

Since I began working at Once Upon A Time Bookstore, which serves a whole community of children, young mothers, teachers and grandparents, I have rediscovered children's literature and much of it is still great reading, but Nesbit is the inventor of the children's adventure story. She influenced C S Lewis, P L Travers (Mary Poppins), Diana Wynne Jones and J K Rowling, but being the originator, she is still the best.

(All of the books mentioned in this review are available at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, June 29, 2009


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, Riverhead Books, 2007, 335 pp

Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning first novel sat in one of my many TBR piles for almost two years. I was tantalized by the white cover with the red woodblock image dripping and spattering its color across the title. I had read reviews and interviews with the author about his eleven years of writer's block following the wild reception of his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Drown. The first issue of "Poets & Writers" I ever read had his picture on the cover. None of this prepared me for the impact the novel would have on me.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of the best novels I have read in a long time. The fresh unique voice, the huge characters, the horrific details of life under the dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, juxtaposed with the humor and street smart dialogue; all these factors, layered into a plot that is really the history of a family, blew my mind.

Oscar himself, grandson of a famous wealthy Dominican doctor who fell out of favor (a very dangerous thing in Trujillo's day), is an obese nerd in the Dominican ghetto of Paterson, NJ. He is obsessed with food, girls, sci fi, cartoons and fantasy. As a teenager his greatest fear is that he will die a virgin, something no self-respecting Dominican man should be after the age of fourteen or so. Not that Oscar has any self respect.

He has a missing father; a demented, terminally ill but beautiful mother; a doting protective sister and a great aunt back in Santo Domingo. He reads sci fi and fantasy books incessantly, when he is not holed up playing Dungeons & Dragons or engaged in marathon sessions of writing his four-book space opera opus. Running like a virulent virus through his life is the fuku, the ancient curse (first named by African slaves brought to Dominican shores), that has doomed Oscar's family to all manner of violent tragedy. But the audacity of Oscar's hope is that someday one of the thousands of females he has fallen in love with will love him back (and have sex with him.)

As Oscar's life careens toward what you know from the title can only be his doom, in spite of the best efforts of least three people to protect him, you also get a brief wondrous history of the Dominican Republic, a history that is virtually unknown to the average American. Diaz throws in plenty of Dominican Spanish, both formal and slang, which I confess that, not knowing Spanish, I skipped over while feeling slightly annoyed that I was missing part of the story. I could have used my Spanish/English dictionary but I did not. One reason is that Diaz's prose is propelled by an energy that made me long for the next page, but another is my American arrogance when confronted with a foreign language.

In an interview with Junot Diaz by NPR's Terry Gross, he explains that he put the Spanish in there, not so much to criticize American insularity, but to create for the reader some of the experience of the immigrant who comes to the United States not knowing English and has to go around not understanding huge chunks of what he hears and reads. I get it.

I can't find anything significant to criticize. Diaz probably breaks all kinds of rules and personally I am in favor of that sort of daring, especially when it pays off so brilliantly. Reading the book was like hearing Bob Dylan for the first time. I want more: more novels by Junot Diaz and more novels like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

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

Saturday, June 27, 2009


A Jar of Dreams, Yoshiko Uchida, Aladdin Paperbacks, 1981, 131 pp

Approximately once a month, I send books to my three grandchildren in Ohio. I have been doing this for almost three years and they are now so grooved in that they have their requests ready for the next books whenever I ask. My ten-year-old granddaughter requested A Jar of Dreams because her fifth grade teacher was reading the book aloud to her Montessori language arts class. How cool is that?

Eleven-year-old Rinko is growing up on the outskirts of Berkeley, CA during the depression. She clearly loves her Japanese-American family who are struggling to make ends meet under the double burden of the depressed economy and virulent prejudice against the Japanese.

For Rinko, this means a conflict between home and school life which has made her feel shy and unsure of herself. Then her Aunt Waka, her mother's sister, comes to visit, twenty years after Rinko's mother emigrated to the United States as a bride for Rinko's father.

As Aunt Waka lives with the family through a summer of disturbing events, she brings an outsider's traditional Japanese wisdom but more importantly, her own strong sense of self to the family's situation. Rinko discovers the value of her heritage and her own strengths.

If that sounds a bit preachy, it is. But Uchida's writing is lovely and fluid with the ease of a practiced storyteller. Through the compelling story and Rinko's authentic first person voice, the ideas are relayed with just the right light touch.

(This book is available in paperback on the shelves in the fiction section for 8-12 year old readers at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Dear Readers,

I will be gone for a week. The memorial for my mother is this coming Saturday and I am hosting it at what was her home. Then we have to clear out the house because it is being sold. So it will be what one of my friends used to call a "family rebellion" including all my mom's wonderful neighbors. She lived on 5 acres in the country with a pond, a huge garden and all kinds of trees. We are sad about the whole thing.

While there, I will also pay homage to Shaman Drum Bookstore, which is closing its doors on June 30. Another sad thing. It is one of the coolest bookstores in the world but has fallen prey to all the woes of independent bookstores: the internet, the economy, the chains, etc. At least we still have Nicola's, which will now become the coolest bookstore in Ann Arbor.

If you miss me, check out some of the other blogs listed on the sidebar. Keep reading. Keep the wisdom.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Will You Take Me As I Am, Michelle Mercer, Free Press, 2009, 216 pp

The minute I heard about this book, I purchased and read it. By that you can know that I am a dedicated Joni Mitchell fan and have been since I first saw her perform in an Ann Arbor coffeehouse in 1967. There is a dearth of biographies on Joni that are based on actual interviews with the artist herself. Biographies of a living artist written only by rehashing magazine interviews make for unsatisfying reading. I would rather read the articles themselves and in fact many can be found on the official Joni Website.

Michelle Mercer has been writing about music and musicians for a decade and producing spots on NPR for almost as long. Her concentration is jazz and in 2004, she published a biography about saxophonist Wayne Shorter (Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter.) Wayne, who has played on some of Joni's albums, got Michelle an introduction to Joni, which led to Mercer spending hours and days with Joni, getting her own answers to her own questions.

The result is a book that feels at once based on solid Joni scholarship as well as a feeling of intimacy with this woman of heart and mind. The writing style is very much rooted in the music criticism genre though Mercer is clearly as much of a fan as I am. There are fabulous stories about the author's life as it intersected with her love of Joni's early albums.

She writes that at eighteen, "When a guy seemed like a decent prospect, there was one good way to find out. A true test of character. An absolute gauge of worth." She would proceed to play the "Blue" album. She'd watch carefully for the guy's reaction, draw him out with questions. " 'How do you like the music?' I'd ask. Meaning: can we disappear together to another time and place? A soul mate would hear the ingenuity of Joni's chords, the novelty of her song structure."

Any Joni Mitchell fan has a similar story. When I found out that my husband knew every word of the lyrics on "Blue", I was certain he was the right man. I watched my best music girl friend's future husband fall in love with her as my friend performed Joni song for about an hour in my backyard one summer evening.

The subtitle of this book is Joni Mitchell's Blue Period; the dust jacket shows an early picture of Joni with guitar and a band of transparent blue in the same hue as the "Blue" album. What you get as the reader is just enough biography to enhance Mercer's analysis of the songs on Joni's albums from "Blue" to "Hejira." If you know all those songs, word for word and chord for chord, as I do, it is fascinating. The balance between music writing and transparent Joni worship is pretty much perfect. For extra spice she adds the occasional acerbic Joni quote.

I could hear the songs as I read and for all of us who long to spend time hanging out with Joni personally, there is a feeling of doing so. That is Michelle Mercers gift. She got to get it straight from the creator and she has generously shared it with us.

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

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Little Bee, Chris Cleave, Simon & Schuster, 2009, 266 pp

There was big buzz about Little Bee when I arrived back at work after my sojourn in Michigan. The inside flap of the dustcover asks readers not to tell anyone else what happens in the story, after not telling the prospective reader much except that it is a story of two women whose lives collide until one of the women has to make a terrible choice.

Now I have read the book and must make the terrible choice about what to tell. Of course, by now you can almost get the whole story from various places on the internet. Fine. That saves me from having to rehash the plot which I don't think has much use in a book review.

Little Bee did not work for me. A Nigerian refugee and asylum seeker in nasty old post-colonial Great Britain has named herself Little Bee and taught herself the Queen's English, both actions being worked out by her as survival mechanisms. She is a terrorized teen suffering from the complete destruction and loss of her village life in Nigeria. Miraculously she is alive, intelligent, plucky, sympathetic and wise beyond her years. The author seemingly took two different characters and melded them into one and I found the result unbelievable.

The other woman is Sarah, an upper middle class British mum with a four year old son, a hip fashion magazine, a tragic husband and a married lover. She is selfish, self-centered, an airhead and would do just fine in a chick lit novel. Yet we are expected to believe that she also has a conscience, loves her son deeply and can take on responsibility for the consequences of globalization and capitalism all by her little own self. Sorry, couldn't believe that either.

My final complaint is an aversion I have to white people explaining what it is like to be a black person, whether that black person is African or American or Jamaican or any combination of the above. I am sure the author had good intentions and felt there was a story that needed telling, but it all comes off like an Oprah pick.

I am willing to accept rebuttal in the comments. Write on!

(Little Bee is in stock in hardcover at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


The Feast of Love, Charles Baxter, Pantheon Books, 2000, 308 pp

I read this because I was planning to watch the movie. The book was full of surprises. I knew that Charles Baxter taught at the University of Michigan, a school I once attended, but was delighted to find The Feast of Love set in Ann Arbor, MI, where I lived for many years. I often read just for the pleasure and experience of being taken to places I will probably never go to myself, but there is a unique pleasure to recognizing the details of weather, types of people, buildings and streets, while reading a work of fiction.

The novel opens with a writer named Charles Baxter who, suffering from insomnia, goes out for a midnight walk. He wanders into the U of M football stadium (one of those places I know well) and then on to a nearby park where he encounters a neighbor. They strike up a conversation and soon the neighbor, not a writer, starts to give Charles advice about writing a book, including a title and a plan: to talk to various people about love.

At this point, sixteen pages about a man taking a walk and describing what he sees followed by some clunky dialogue with his neighbor have me worried. I am definitely not hooked except by the fact that I know exactly where these two men are sitting. I decide to give both Charles Baxters one more chapter. (An odd point is that Bradley, the neighbor, has a dog named Bradley.)

By the end of Chapter Two I am intrigued. A story about Bradley and his first failed marriage has unfolded. I had a first failed marriage in Ann Arbor. So I keep going and more characters show up, who are all connected to Bradley in one way or another, who all have relationships of varying success. By the time Oscar and Chloe show up, a pair of quintessential Ann Arbor love children, I find myself completely involved in a feast of love that I hope will never end.

Chloe is my favorite character: she is young, reckless, intrepid and believes totally in love. There are several other female characters of different types and Baxter's writing chops are good enough that not one of them comes off as a type. Each is a fully realized personality. He is just as good with the male characters but especially with Harry Ginsberg, a professor of philosophy with a secret sorrow.

Bradley continues to be a clunky guy. It was his "bad dialogue" that I objected to, but that turns out to be a product of his personality and in fact, I know a guy from Ann Arbor who is amazingly like Bradley. Every once in a while though, Bradley comes up with a zinger, delivered in his clunky manner: "This song, 'My Funny Valentine,' as sung by Ella Fitzgerald, was going through my head as I walked. I always liked her; I liked it that she sang jazz while wearing glasses."

The Feast of Love, which is the name of Bradley's best painting (yes, he is a secret painter though he manages a franchise coffee place in the mall, the one I shopped in for years) turned out to be a little masterpiece of a book, celebrating people, life and love, with all the amazing moments of transcendence and many of the sorrowful depths of loss that most of us experience.

The very evening of the day I finished the book, I watched the movie. My advice is just read the book. Morgan Freeman as the Jewish philosophy professor? Please, skip the movie which does not begin to capture the magic of the book. Anyway, it is set in Portland, OR.

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Call For the Dead, John LeCarre, Walker Publishing Company Inc, 1961, 151 pp

I am no expert on LeCarre or on spy literature as a genre, but having read four of Le Carre's books, I decided I wanted to read them all. It is at times like this that I realize anew how valuable libraries are in providing access to all of an author's works. I decided to start at the beginning with LeCarre's first book. I also don't know much about George Smiley except that he appears in several books and is always mentioned by reviewers in the same breath as John LeCarre.

Now that I've met Mr Smiley and also learned that LeCarre himself worked for British secret services branches in the 1950s and early 1960s, it is clear that this author has been successful in part because he writes what he knows. But what amazed me most is how accomplished and excellent his first novel is. He has all the skills: characterization, place, plotting, pace and not least of all, voice. Because here in Call For the Dead is that relentless underpinning of sadness and loneliness from which all the spies I've met in his books suffer. For me, as much as I am excited by the thriller aspects of the stories and as intrigued as I am by the mysteries solved, as properly horrified as I am about the dirty deeds of international politics and finance, it is the sorry loneliness, the sad betrayals and the inner uncertainties of LeCarre's spies that hook me every time.

In 1960, when Call For the Dead takes place, spy craft is somewhat of a new thing compared to the modern gadget infested milieu of espionage we see in the Bourne movies, etc. No cell phone, no internet, no high tech weapons or identification documents or disguises. George Smiley is basically a bureaucrat doing a routine job and the things he runs into are your everyday kind with pistols and crowbars. The roads in England are bad and the cars don't run very well.

Still, a suspected communist spy, whom Smiley has interviewed and pronounced harmless, turns up dead. In order to save his reputation and possibly his job, George Smiley must solve the mystery in the face of bureaucratic incompetence and denial.

In such a short novel, the author packs an enormous amount of information, action, character study and suspense. Right out of the gate, John LeCarre is a master.

(Call For the Dead is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, June 07, 2009


The Angel's Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Doubleday, 2009, 470 pp

The follow up to The Shadow of the Wind will be released in bookstores on June 16. I got to read an Advance Readers Copy so I could give my opinion at BookBrowse, an on-line magazine about books which asks readers for their First Impressions about books which will be published soon. In fact, my first full review, of another new release, will appear on BookBrowse in July. More about that later.

Because I loved The Shadow of the Wind so much (and read it before it became so popular), I was anticipating Zafon's new book with excitement, the way I do with any author who has pleased me in an earlier book. Sometimes that anticipation is disappointed but not this time. The magic I found in The Shadow of the Wind was unique, but for a second novel (actually The Angel's Game is his sixth novel but only the second to be translated from Spanish into English) I found much more than enough to enjoy.

The story turns out to be a prequel to The Shadow of Wind. The setting is also Barcelona, just after WWI and on into the 1920s. David Martin, deserted by his mother at a very young age and an orphan by the time he is seven, grows up in the building of a large newspaper. He does odd jobs, lives in a basement room and is watched over by the aristocratic Don Vidal. Finally he gets an actual menial job at the paper and one day a chance to write a story to fill an emergency. He writes all night, the story is a huge success and David is launched as a writer.

Zafon owes a debt to Charles Dickens in style, mood and to a degree subject matter. David Martin is a David Copperfield type, Great Expectations is mentioned in the story, but Zafon's gothic horrors are even more horrible. The angel of the title is actually Satan and the plot concerns the struggle between David and Satan for the young man's soul. Of course, there is also a mysterious young woman whom David loves with a hopeless undying passion, but for some reason she will not allow it.

The setting of Barcelona, its ancient passageways and buildings, its weather, are just as present as in The Shadow of the Wind. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books as well as the Sempere and Son Bookshop figure in the story as well, so I felt like I knew just where I was while reading. David ends up living in a haunted old house which seemed to beckon to him and in which resides the key to the mystery of the story. Just delicious. Zafon has gone deeper into philosophy than in the previous book, pondering good and evil, the purposes of literature and the personal tragedies that underlie society's troubles.

I think that a good deal of Zafon's success rests in his ability to write a page turner that also addresses the issues of the world with intelligence, wonder and even humor. He is a reader's writer. Who can resist a book about books, writing, love and danger? If you can afford it, don't wait for the paperback. Just get your hands on this book and read it. It is that good.

The Angel's Game will be in stock at Once Upon A Time Bookstore as of June 16 and The Shadow of the Wind is on the shelf now.

Saturday, June 06, 2009


Lima Nights, Marie Arana, The Dial Press, 2009, 246 pp

Marie Arana's third book was not a hit with me. The plot is unoriginal, the writing is banal, the dialogue not realistic to the characters. Thankfully it was short and I got it over with in a day.

I am not generally in favor of snarkiness, but here I must indulge. Arana has been an editor-in-chief of the "Washington Post Book World"; she is married to a reviewer for that publication, Jonathan Yardley. From those facts I assume that she has read and reviewed many books. She has also written a memoir and a previous novel. She is not a very good writer. What up? My snarky assumption is that she has connections in publishing that got her published.

The story takes place in Lima, Peru. Carlos Bluhm (of German descent, married with two sons, not rich but well-off) begins an affair with Maria Fernandez, a dirt poor dark-skinned native Peruvian teenager, whom he meets at a tango bar. The affair ruins his marriage, his family, his life.

Perhaps there are men as unaware and easily fooled as Carlos. Perhaps there are young women as desperate and determined as Maria. I am sure there are. But these characters are so flat, so not well developed, that it is hard to believe in their actions and feelings or to care about what happens to them.

If you want to read about the tragedies, inequalities and oppressions of Peru, about adventures in love between disparate people, I recommend Isabel Allende's Eva Luna and Of Love and Shadows or Daniel Alarcon's Lost City Radio. Of course, if you really want to go deep in South American fiction, go directly to Jorge Amado, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

This book is available in hardcover by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.


I spent some hours this week reading about the state of the book business, technology, the Kindle, the threat of Amazon to independent booksellers, etc. It is all unsettling: almost as bad as reading the general news, which I rarely do. The chaos merchants, the doomsayers, the virulent emotional arguments.

Some of it is just good old "progress." Most of what is upsetting to me is the whole attempt to create the idiocracy, an "attempt" that is becoming the way it is. The internet contributes across the boards to most of the changes and who really knows what the world bankers are up to.

But another thing that both history and literature show is that human intelligence, spirit, goodwill, and so on, are not that easily suppressed. Some emperor or feudal lord or industrialist or banker or arms dealer will succeed in oppressing the masses, the ones who are really only fixated on what and how they are going to eat each day, but then a hero/rebel/saint rises up out of some unlikely corner and saves the day.

Funny thing: that is the basic story that most of us like to read, over and over everyday for a lifetime. It is the story of mankind. It is not a story of progress but a cyclical tale that repeats endlessly. We are all characters in this tale, we are not all heroes, but we sure are all in the story together.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009



SARA SNOW signs her new book 6-8 PM

If you watch Discovery Health, you have probably seen an episode or two of Living Fresh or Get Fresh With Sara Snow. Recipes, tips on organic and sustainable living products, how to have healthier kids, and other aspects of green living are what you get along with Sara's upbeat personality.

Now Sara Snow has published her first book: Sara Snow's Fresh Living, Bantam Books, 2009, 251 pp. It is in part a memoir of how she came to be the green living expert, from her childhood in an organic based family, through her dreams to be an actress and her first TV work to the development of her own shows. She then goes on to take the reader through the home, room by room with practical steps anyone can take to create a healthier, more environmentally conscious lifestyle.

What I like about Sara's approach is that she advises small, incremental steps rather than a complete makeover. I find that more realistic. In addition, her research is thorough on products, how to tell if the food you are buying is really organic, practical ways to recycle whether it is in the kitchen or the home office, etc. She even has a section on non-toxic sex in The Bedroom chapter!

Full disclosure: Sara Snow is my niece. I got Maureen, the owner of Once Upon A Time to stock Sara's book. Then Maureen got so excited she wanted to get her to come and sign books and it is happening, this Friday, June 5 at 6:00 PM! This will be her only Los Angeles appearance. So I hope some of you can make it to the store to meet Sara and get your signed copy. Sara is a beautiful woman inside and out and a wonderful speaker.

You can also send an email to reserve a signed copy if you can't make it on Friday.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, 2008, 555 pp

What Curtis Sittenfeld can do is create a character so completely that the novel becomes almost exclusively that character's world. Like Lee Fiora in Prep, Alice Lindgren Blackwell moves from the world of her family and small town into the privileged world of Charlie Blackwell. She is ever after an outsider though with a much stronger sense of self than Lee. That self is one of low-keyed, organized and well thought out actions. But it is the low-keyed approach, the subdued and repressed nature of this woman that permeates American Wife. When Charlie Blackwell enters the story with his dimwitted, devil-may-care and self-centered exuberant energy, it is like opening the windows of a stuffy airless room.

American Wife is supposed to be a fictionalized account of George and Laura Bush. But the Blackwells are from Wisconsin, their wealth comes from meatpacking; really they are completely midwestern. The American Midwest is so not Texas that I found the suspension of disbelief required impossible to sustain. Equally unbelievable for me was that Alice Lingren (the Laura Bush stand-in) could fall for and actually stay in love with Charlie Blackwell (George) for so many years. As this story goes, she found him entertaining and exciting compared to the quiet circumscribed world of her childhood, but she did not respect him and they had hardly anything in common. Somehow the sex was always good.

Because the novel is told in Alice's first person account, I wanted to like her but knowing that she married Charlie (George), I just could not. In the last section of the novel, when they are President and First Lady, which section just begins out of the blue, skipping to a decade or so after Alice has tried to leave Charlie and then gone back to him after he quit drinking and found Jesus, I wanted to feel sorry for her. She was so conflicted internally while having to put up a public front of support for her husband. She truly hated her life and the war and was counting the days until the end of the second term. Still she drones on in that well-measured, calm and reasonable tone about events that contain massive charges of emotion. If she was so capable and calm in the face of all that, what was she doing in that life? It just did not make sense to me, especially in the last half of the 20th century.

I admit though that Sittenfeld kept me reading, turning all those 555 pages. The feeling that I was reading an early 1960s edition of "Ladies Home Journal" was belied by my interest in what would happen next. In high school, my boyfriend and first great love of my life, was a kind, conservative young man who went on to study pharmacy and enlist during the Vietnam War. I went on to be a radical folksinger, hippie Mom and women's libber. I loved him completely through our last two years of high school, but even at that young and inexperienced age, I knew that I could not live my life with him. My upbringing was shockingly similar to what Sittenfeld portrays for Alice, who was intelligent, perceptive, well-read and had a rebellious streak. So what happened? To quote the Eagles, "Did she get tired or did she just get lazy?" Or lonely or bedazzled or just plain stuck? I can't stop thinking about it.

(This book is in stock in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, June 01, 2009


Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Ayelet Waldman, Doubleday, 2006, 340 pp

Emilia Greenleaf has lost her first baby, who died after only a few days of life. Though she lives in elegant digs on Manhattan's Upper West Side and her husband, a successful lawyer, is the epitome of a caring and understanding man, Emilia has huge problems: a three year old precocious stepson who apparently hates her, the husband's ex-wife who apparently hates her even more and her grief which is wild and unmanageable.

Ayelet Waldman is married to Michael Chabon, an author whom I worship after reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The reviews of this novel are mostly glowing. Maybe it is the New York setting, the income level or the style, but I felt like I was reading The Nannie Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada. Don't misunderstand: I enjoyed those books for what they were, just as I always enjoyed Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins. Somehow I expected something different from the wife of Michael Chabon. It is the reverse side of marketing ("If you liked..., you'll like...") and I am annoyed with myself that I fell into the category of a modern person who judges things in such a dumbed down idiocrat fashion.

Here is what I did like: Emilia Greenleaf as a character is believable, in her histrionic annoying yet appealing way. She know vaguely that she is acting inappropriately much of the time, but she can't really care. At least she knows.

I was impressed by Waldman's descriptions of today's Central Park and how she wove that location into the story. I love it when place becomes almost a character. William, the three year old stepson, is the best character in a story of "characters." This author clearly knows kids and in fact has four of her own and has written seven mystery novels in a series called "The Mommy-Track Mysteries." Last, but definitely not least, the sex writing is good.

The ex-wife and Emilia's parents were not as well done, the ending was a little sappy, but I read this novel in one day, was involved the whole time and maybe best of all, I felt absolved from some of my own parenting sins. I might have to check out one of those "Mommy-Track" mysteries.

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