Friday, July 31, 2009

THE LITTLE STRANGER

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters, Riverhead Books, 2009, 473 pp


One of the main stories of 20th century Great Britain is the decline of the landed gentry class. I have read many novels based on this sad tale, some of which were enjoyable, a few which were great. In these novels, there tends to be a dark family secret involved which is connected to the gradual dissipation inherent in inheriting money and land rather than having to work for it. The final death knells are the two world wars and the rise of the middle class.

Sarah Waters has brought all of these elements to bear in her story and centered it around a haunting. The Ayres family home, Hundreds Hall, is a crumbling Georgian edifice inhabited by a widow, her war damaged son, her unattractive spinster daughter, a teen aged servant girl and "the little stranger." Doctor Faraday, local doctor, long time bachelor, who worked his way up from humble beginnings and has a struggling practice, is called in one day when the Ayres' family physician is unavailable. He becomes rather injudiciously entangled in the family's affairs. In fact, he is besotted by them all but especially Caroline, the spinster.

The Little Stranger has gotten mostly glowing reviews from readers and critics. Just this week it was added to the longlist for the Man Booker Award. "Deliciously creepy," said one critic. "A stunning haunted house tale...as horrifying as...Shirley Jackson," proclaims another. I found the novel mind numbing and endless with a far from satisfying conclusion.

Too much repetitive description, painfully slow plot development and characters about whom I could not care, were my main objections. Doctor Faraday remained an unimaginative, bumbling clod throughout. Despite a glimpse of hope that Caroline would rise above it all and claim a life for herself in the modern world, alas the ghost vanquishes her as well. (Plot spoiler. I know. But you are probably not going to read the book now, are you?)

The worst epithet is that, like a joke that isn't funny, a ghost story that isn't scary is not worth a reader's time.


(If you DO want to read it, this book is available in hardcover by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

LOVE INVENTS US

Love Invents Us, Amy Bloom, Random House Inc, 1996, 205 pp


Amy Bloom's novel. Away, was one of my favorite books in 2008. While in Michigan for my mom's memorial in June, I stopped in at Shaman Drum Bookstore in Ann Arbor (which sadly closed its doors on June 30) and picked up Love Invents Us, Bloom's first novel. I had been slogging through Sara Water's lugubrious The Little Stranger (which I will review next), but once I read the first few pages of Amy Bloom's novel, I fell again under her spell.

I read all through lunch at Ann Arbor's Zingerman's Roadhouse (they serve 6 varieties of macaroni and cheese; I had the spinach and pancetta), I read while waiting to board my plane home at Detroit Metro, I read through the 5 hour flight and then in bed that night, when I finished this astonishing book.

The story opens thus:
"I wasn't surprised to find myself in the back of Mr Klein's store, wearing only my undershirt and panties, surrounded by sable.
'Sable is right for you, Lizbet,' Mr Klein said, draping a shawl-collared jacket over me. 'Perfect for your skin and your eyes. A million times a day the boys must tell you. Such skin' "

A bit alarmed that I might have stumbled into some modern day Lolita but hopelessly captured, I read on. Not Lolita, but erotic while heartbreaking, as Elizabeth, the pudgy, lonely middle-grade daughter of an interior decorator and a lawyer, searches for love and thereby clues to who she might be.

She falls in love with Mr Klein, then a piano teacher, her high school English teacher, and finally an African American basketball player from her high school team.

It is not that Elizabeth does not come to harm. She does and she has no one but herself to fall back on. But, as the title states, her loves do tell her who she is. She grows into a strong unique individual. Still lonely, still off the beaten path of normality, but fiercely the champion of those she loves, Elizabeth is a character only Amy Bloom could have created.

Love, like life, is dangerous, illuminating, messy and even humorous. While reading Amy Bloom's book, I got a new look at my own loves and how they have formed me.


(Both books by Amy Bloom are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

THE STRANGER

The Stranger, Albert Camus, Alfred A Knopf, 1988, 123 pp

(Originally printed in French by Librairie Gallimand, Paris, 1942; translated by Matthew Ward.)

Albert Camus, born to a family of French settlers in Algeria, journalist, essayist, playwright, and philosopher, also wrote three novels: The Stranger (1942); The Plague (1948) and The Fall (1956). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957 but died in an automobile accident in 1960, at the height of his career.

I missed The Stranger during my reading of 1942 novels, mostly due to my confusion between his French and English publication dates. Essentially this is his first published novel, written in his late 20s.

Meursault, the main character, is definitely among the class of anti-heroes. He lives alone in a rooming house, has a job he doesn't mind but cares little about, a mistress and an assortment of odd friends. He is not ambitious, has no concrete plans for his future and is not given to commitments. When his poor mother dies in a nursing home, his life begins to unravel as he involves himself unwisely in his friends' affairs.

Eventually Meursault kills a man but it is not clear whether it was an intentional murder or an accident. Camus obscures the nature of the killing for the reader in order to put us into the uncertain moral state of his main character. As Meursault languishes in prison awaiting trial, he passes through various mental states which are Camus' philosophical positions, but as in The Plague, the writing absorbs the reader in the drama, making the philosophy practically painless.

The accusations and investigations of the police, the advices of the lawyers and finally the trial itself, are as full of absurdities as anything by Kafka. I was left feeling that most of life is absurd, although questions of innocence and guilt hold importance.

In a little over 100 pages, Camus packs an amazing amount of incident and idea. The result is a deeply affecting story that has stayed with me for weeks.


(All three of Camus' novels are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. Sometimes they are also on the shelf in our classics section.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

NURSERY CRIMES


Nursery Crimes, Aylet Waldman, Berkley Publishing Group, 2000, 215 pp


This is the first in a series (The Mommy-Track Mysteries) of which there are seven titles. It was a fun, fast read; as enjoyable as any Janet Evanovich, though with a different twist.

The sleuth here is Juliet Applebaum who has given up her job as a public defender to be a stay-at-home mom. In an effort to enroll Ruby, her exuberant and fairly spoiled two year old, into a premier Hollywood preschool, Juliet runs smack into a murder when the school's principal is killed. Realizing that she is truthfully bored just being a mom, Juliet dives into solving the crime.

It is all good: the characters, the plotting, the dialogue and the satire on Hollywood/Los Angeles. Very up-to-date with email, newsgroups, cell phones and the wonders of Internet research and hacking. Juliet's husband is a writer who works at home. He writes at night, sleeps in the morning and provides childcare in the afternoons. Clearly he is patterned on Waldman's husband Michael Chabon.

I always claimed that I didn't read mysteries but now, along with the Sara Paretsky and Janet Evanovich books, I am hooked on a new series. But it is good light reading and a needed relief from most of the literary stuff. Do I dare start reading Tana French?


(As far as I can tell, this book is out of print and can only be gotten at libraries or from used book sellers.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

MAPS & LEGENDS

Maps & Legends, Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, Michael Chabon, McSweeney's Books, 2008, 210 pp


In this collection of essays and other writings from the early years of the new millennium, Chabon covers a good bit of territory. Basically though he is holding forth in his entertainingly wordy way, on his philosophy of reading and writing, exhorting us to get over being stuffy and pretentious and just read for enjoyment while praising those who write well.

In other words, the categories devised by the marketing departments of publishing houses and bookstores are no guarantee of anything in terms of quality of writing. A book of literary fiction can be boring and a mystery or science fiction book can reach the highest levels of literary skill.

I enjoyed every page because Chabon's literary skill is considerable and he himself admits, yea proclaims, that he writes to entertain. One of my favorite sections was "On Daemons & Dust," in which he riffs for 18 pages on Philip Pullman, fantasy, religion and the perils of writing in the borderland between worlds.

I also learned about the backgrounds of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and The Yiddish Policeman's Union, as well as another novel he wrote which was never published. Of course, he waxes eloquently on cartoons and superheroes and in "Golems I Have Known" answered many questions I had about those mysterious artificial Jewish beings, all the while spinning one of his most outrageous tales.

In my mind, a collection of essays can be one of the most mind deadening forms of reading, but in Maps & Legends I realized, it is all in the writing.


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

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

THE TATTOO MURDER CASE

The Tattoo Murder Case, Akimitsu Takagi, Soho Press Inc, 1998, 324 pp


I read this for a reading group and was underwhelmed, though I found out that Takagi is one of Japan's most respected crime writers.

I did learn much about tattoos as a forbidden Japanese art form, especially full body tattoos which are stripped from dead bodies and curated in museums. Even more interesting to me was a look at Japanese society in the years just following WWII.

However the writing was abysmal and the form seemed such a pale imitation of western mystery writers. Possibly the translation was partly at fault. I finished the book because I always do and because I had to discuss it with other readers, but I was alternately bored or laughing at the lame writing all the way through.


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

Monday, July 20, 2009

STONE'S FALL

Stone's Fall, Iain Pears, Spiegal & Grau, 2009, 594 pp


Three years ago, I read Iain Pear's The Dream of Scipio and it has remained in my mind as an intriguing piece of historical and philosophical fiction. Stone's Fall was an equally challenging read; Pears makes a reader work as far as paying attention to characters and time periods while keeping track of hints that he hides in the text.

The story begins in 1909, with the death of immensely wealthy financier and arms dealer John Stone, the Baron Lord Ravenscliff, a patriot, but essentially a businessman. His wife, Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, has summoned a lowly reporter on the judicial beat of a London newspaper and offered him an outrageous sum to investigate certain aspects of her late husband's life, in particular the identity of a previously unacknowledged child mentioned in his will.

In the space of nineteen pages, the reader has been thrown into a whole set of mysteries, not the least of which is the nature Lady Ravencliff's game. By the end of Part One, I was fascinated by Elizabeth and John Stone but felt more confused than ever and wondered how the author would make sense of the story.

Part Two is set in Paris during 1890. The origins of Elizabeth are revealed and she is not at all what she appeared to be. The abilities and power that John Stone wielded avert a potential financial collapse interestingly similar to the one we are currently experiencing. Henry Cort, a man who was inexplicably in Elizabeth's confidence during Part One turns out to be a British spy who almost causes more trouble that he averts. Each of these characters is complex with levels below levels of personality and desires.

Not until the very end of Part Three does all become clear. In Venice, 1867, John Stone is a young man trying to find his way in life. He makes the kind of mistakes that young men make and which haunt a man no matter how successful he becomes. The intricate puzzle of Stone's Fall was frustrating, even maddening to read. In the end I decided it was worth all I had been put through as a reader, because I had been entertained and informed as well as deeply drawn into these characters' lives.


(Stone's Fall is available in hardcover at Once Upon A Time Bookstore)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

THREE TO GET DEADLY

Three to Get Deadly, Janet Evanovich, Scribner, 1997, 300 pp


Janet Evanovich is as fearless as her bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum. This time she enters the seamy world of pornography. One of Stephanie's FTAs (failure to appear for a court date) is a beloved neighborhood candy store proprietor who "would never do anything wrong." You know the rest.

But the plotting here is some of her best so far. To add to the fun, Stephanie gets a new sidekick: Lula, one of the hookers from One For the Money, now works as a filing clerk at the bailbond office. Even though Lula has determined to go straight, filing is just a bit too tame. Besides, she is a great help to Stephanie finding people on the streets of crime, even if she longs to get violent with the crims, lock them up in trunks and so on.

I complained in my review of Two For the Dough about the lack of sex between Stephanie and Morelli. No problem. Plenty of build up in the sexual tension leads to their hottest encounter yet. Can't wait for Four to Score.


(All of Evanovich's books are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

IN THE KITCHEN

My review of In The Kitchen, by Monica Ali is now published at BookBrowse Magazine.

In The Kitchen, Monica Ali, Scribner, 2009, 436 pp


In the Kitchen is essentially a descent-into-madness tale, and we're warned of this in the novel's very first paragraph:

When he looked back, he felt that the death of the Ukrainian was the point at which things began to fall apart… it was the following day on which, if a life can be said to have a turning point, his own began to spin.


Read the full review at BookBrowse.


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

Saturday, July 11, 2009

GODS IN ALABAMA

Gods in Alabama, Joshilyn Jackson, Grand Central Publishing, 2005, 288 pp


I read this novel for one of my reading groups and while I gobbled it down in a few hours, I was left feeling a little queasy. Arlene Fleet, raised a Southern White Baptist, has fled to Chicago because she killed a young man and got away with it. She made a deal with God that included never going back home as long as the body was never found.

So, in the nature of deals with God, it all starts to unravel and Arlene finds herself back in Possett, Alabama with her African American fiance, her terrifying Aunt Florence, her mentally ill mother and her perfect cousin. As you read, you get the story of the murder and in the end, the truth you never saw coming is revealed. All told, it is good storytelling.

Except for all the sex and swear words, this could almost be a YA novel. Except for all the intelligent ideas about writing, race, religion and women, it could be chick lit. It if wasn't for large doses of laugh out loud humor, this would be a tragedy about Southern dysfunctionalism.

That sums up my problem with Gods in Alabama. What is it? Looking back on the reading of it, I feel similar to the way I feel after wolfing down an entire medium pizza with too many toppings that I might have ordered on a night my husband was out of town: very full, quite guilty and, well, queasy.

I got my copy at the library and had to take Large Print because all the regular copies were checked out. But I picture books like this being bought off big messy sale tables by women shopping at WalMart or Costco and while I am glad these women are reading a book once in a while instead of watching TV, I am afraid that they also ate the entire medium pizza and are now signing up for Weight Watchers. I'll take Toni Morrison and a chicken Caesar please.

(Available by special order in paperback from Once Upon A Time bookstore.)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

INTERVIEW WITH MARY HELEN PONCE

Senator AlarĂ³n presents MHP with Senate Resolution to commemorate the Lifetime Commitment to Literacy Award from the Friends of the San Fernando Library


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Mary Helen Ponce was born in Pacoima, CA. She attended Pacoima Elementary, San Fernando High School, earned BA and MA degrees from California State University Northridge. She has studied history at UCLA on a Danforth Fellowship, was awarded a UCSB Dissertation Fellowship, and obtained her PhD from University of New Mexico.

Publications include Taking Control, 1987; The Wedding, 1980 & 2008; Hoyt Street: An Autobiography, 1993.

Ponce’s work has been translated into French, German, Spanish and Romanian. She has presented her work at UNAM, El Colegio de Mexico, and published in “Fem”, Mexico’s leading feminist magazine. She taught literature and creative writing at UCLA and UNM. She contributes to “Hispanic Magazine”, “Los Angeles Times”, and “Saludos Hispanos.”

She has raised three sons and a daughter and lives in Sunland, CA. She is currently working on a historical novel about 19th century Mexican-Spanish women.

I see Mary Helen at least once a month at the meetings of the Sunland/Tujunga Reading Group, also known as “One Book At A Time.” We often meet at Mi Casita in Sunland, eat, drink magaritas and get rowdy and discuss like our hair’s on fire. They love us there even though they usually have to kick us out.

So for this interview, I attempted to get professional and sent Mary Helen my questions by email. I believe she took time from her intense writing schedule to jot down some answers, which was more than gracious of her. I have put her thoughts into sentences and now she will undoubtedly send me an email with edits. That’s OK. We are also in a writing group together, so I can get her back.

KTW: You originally wrote and published The Wedding in 1989 and then revised it for the publication in 2008. Is there a story behind this? What changes did you make to the book after almost 20 years?

MHP: Arte Publico (the current publisher) asked to republish the book. I rewrote it because the first edition had many typos and the editing was sloppy. This was difficult because the original manuscript was on old floppy discs which I had to transfer to CD, so I also typed from the book. Ughhh. I cut repetitive words, but overall the story remained the same.

KTW: I was touched by the plight of Blanca, who seemed to have really no future happiness after the wedding, and this appeared typical for women in the barrio. Is this still the case or have Mexican/American women improved their chances of finding a good man and creating a stable family?

MHP: You misinterpret Blanca. She was happy (blind, but happy) as her life would now change, her mother could brag about the wedding and weddings were such fun! Her future was not unlike that of other women, say in Appalachia or the Deep South during the early/late 1940s.

I would argue that Mexican/American women today are a far cry from those of previous generations. Many graduate from highschool. If any one group is living Blanca’s experience, it is newly arrived immigrants from Central America and Mexico. The influence and dictates of the Catholic Church still predominates.

When I wrote Op-Eds for the “Los Angeles Times”, I wrote, “Go forth and multiply, Latina,” as a rebuttal to the pastor’s sermons at my church. I can zap.

KTW: I think your book would touch both Chicana women as well as women in general. When you wrote The Wedding, who did you expect your audience would be? What feedback did you get?

MHP: I got some positive reviews, but one USCB professor, who used it in her teaching, called in a Pachuco novel, as did her students. I saw it more as a love story. Once male critic didn’t like it and men in general thought I was too tough on them. Think I hit a raw nerve?

As to the new edition, there were lots of positive responses. A neighbor (male, 26) loves it. Students at Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico, invited me to lecture and read from it. They found it fascinating and relevant. Weddings are still FUN!

KTW: Tell us a good story about your adventures in getting published.

MPH: I published very early in my writing career. I was first published at CSUN (California State University Northridge) in “El Popo”, the student newspaper in about 1980. I submitted three items and all were published.

My biggest thrill was to publish in Mexico (about 10-15 works), Spain (Catalonia), France, Germany, and Romania. The Germans like my work. I learned a lot about Catalonia. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is popular there as they seek autonomy.

KTW: What are you working on now?

MHP: Ay! You would ask. In 1984, while a Danforth Fellow at UCLA in history, I was assigned to research early Mexican/Spanish women in New Spain, as Mexico was called before 1848. The group I studied about was part of the first overland expedition to Alta California, as it was then known. I was intrigued by women who, although pregnant, would contemplate an 800 mile trek to Monterrey to establish a pueblo near the fledgling mission there. I conceived the novel then and wrote the first chapter.

I write in my head, so it has been festering for ages. Once could say it has had a long gestation. I began seriously putting it together about three years ago, then took three or four months to rewrite The Wedding, and in between wrote other stuff. The novel has been in my head for eons.

One problem is I like long, developed chapters (like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova), so my first chapters were long. Then I saw other authors were into minimalism; even Tolstoy wrote uneven chapters and here I was trying for parallelism. So I cut up chapters, made a mess, recapitulated, and am finally finished with Part One. Now I am tired.

KTW: Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers here?

MHP: I like literary works. Hoyt Street, I’ve been told is very literary, but not The Wedding. Much of what is out there today is trite and not developed. I don’t use a lot of metaphors and similes, as they interrupt narrative flow. Lyricism is one thing but some authors overuse metaphor. Still, it takes time and craft to infuse a story with so much baggage. I prefer to try for lyricism (which is harder), than metaphors, etc.

I once read what I think was the epitome of similes: “Her voice on the phone was like crushed violets.” WOW!

KTW: Thank you so much, Mary Helen. I eagerly await your next novel and wish you luck in getting it finished.

Friday, July 03, 2009

THE WEDDING

The Wedding, Mary Helen Ponce, Arte Publico Press, 2008, 195 pp


A couple years ago I read Hoyt Street, Mary Helen Ponce's memoir of growing up as a Chicana in Los Angeles. As things go in the world of books, I later met Mary Helen through a mutual friend and we are now in a reading group together.

The Wedding also takes place in a Chicano community located on the edge of Los Angeles. It is early 1950s, a time of zoot suits, big hair and big cars. Life in the barrio is grim, jobs are hard to find and about all a girl can hope for is a big wedding which will impress the neighborhood.

The story follows Blanca Munoz, high school dropout, who finally gets a job cleaning turkeys, as well as a boyfriend named Cricket. The boyfriend, whom Blanca has known all her life, is a gang member and lives to rumble. In fact, The Wedding is the Mexican version of S E Hinton's The Outsiders, told from a female point of view.

We follow Blanca's trials and troubles as she prepares for the wedding: choosing the wedding party, the dress, the flowers, etc. Then comes the ceremony and a full day of festivities including a breakfast, pictures, a reception and a dance. The specter of a possible rumble haunts the day but most heartbreaking of all is that Blanca's prospects with her future husband are dim: just children, lack of money, lack of love; really no security or happiness is in store for this couple.

The title says it all. The wedding is going to be Blanca's one big day of happiness. She worked hard to get it and by the end of the day, she has even begun paying for it.

I have not had a Mexican friend until I met Mary Helen. She is highly educated, has taught literature at university level and is a published author, but she came from the barrio, she knows this world and her books put me in it. The writing is simple yet highly evocative of place, people and customs. Quite an accomplishment.

(Both The Wedding and The Outsiders are available on the shelf in the Young Adult section at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. However, both books make excellent reading for adults.)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY

Today is the 4th anniversary of Keep the Wisdom. It has been fun for me and I hope for you, my readers.

My first post got the most comments ever--6!! Want to beat that?

Right now I am reading Claire Messud's first novel: When the World Was Steady. I sense an Iris Murdoch influence.

Next I will read The Fall by Albert Camus, as part of My Big Fat Reading Project.

What are you reading today?