Tuesday, June 29, 2010


The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir, Alfred A Knopf, 1953, 732 pp

 I began reading The Second Sex in August, 2008; I finished it in May, 2010. It is not a book one reads for pleasure, in the usual sense of the word. It is written in the style of a textbook, with Jean Paul Sartre's version of existentialism as the underlying philosophical base. Since de Beauvoir wrote it in the late 1940s, it is to some degree an historical document with a French middleclass viewpoint. When I began reading and experiencing the density of the prose, I attempted to read 50 pages a day, then decreased to 20 pages every few days and finally put it down for about a year. When I picked it back up, I finished it at the rate of about 10 pages a day a few times a week. If I hadn't studied up on some of the basic vocabulary and tenets of existentialism, I would never have made it.

 Since so much has been written, critically as well as hysterically, about The Second Sex, I will leave that stance alone and merely attempt to state what the book meant to me. I am very glad I read it. The author was born eleven years before my mother, so that is the generational context. My mother was an intelligent and perceptive woman with musical aspirations. She married at the age of 28, after a short career as an elementary school music teacher, and for the next twenty years devoted her days to housekeeping, marriage,  raising three daughters and contributing to her church as Sunday school teacher and choir member. She made her compromises and it wasn't until my youngest sister was in high school that she even stopped to wonder who she had become and who she might have been. She raised us in the conventional attitudes towards women in 1950s middle class America.

 Even though I began to consider myself a feminist in the 1970s, that was primarily an attitude towards my first unhappy marriage. I have read The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer and other feminist writings, but it was The Second Sex that opened my eyes to the insidious examples, teachings and attitudes that pervaded my childhood concerning what it meant to be female.

 Reading this book was an experience in emotional upheaval. I discovered thought patterns and methods of existing which I hadn't even known were deep in my makeup. I have had countless hours of mostly beneficial therapy but none of that went as deep into personal self-knowledge as did some of the chapters in The Second Sex.

 Ultimately I finished the book feeling that I hadn't done too badly for a girl. Yes, I have missed several golden opportunities to become a more self-realized person but I feel at peace about all that. Now I am in my 60s, living the life I want to live with goals and achievements still ahead of me. I am writing a book which I hope will be enlightening for my grandchildren's generation as well as easier to assimilate than Simone de Beauvior's tome.

  The very week I finished the 1952 translation by H M Parshley (a male professor of zoology), a new translation, by two American women who have lived in Paris and taught English there for many years, was released. Reviews have been mixed but so were they in 1953. I will probably not attempt the new translation in the years I have left to read. I am not sure that women who could be my daughters need to read The Second Sex. In some ways it is dated for modern women growing up in Western democratic societies. But to anyone of any age who has the stamina, I would recommend reading some version of it. The book is not a man-hating work. It is a demonstration of the truth that to be oppressed you must agree with oppression; to be free you must agree with freedom and take responsibility for your own.

(The original 1953 translation of The Second Sex is available in paperback; the new 2010 translation is available in hardcover; both by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, June 28, 2010


The Last Battle, C S Lewis, HarperCollins Inc, 1956, 228 pp
(Warning: Contains spoilers)

 Now we come to the end of The Chronicles of Narnia and everyone goes to heaven. I see why I did not ever read the whole series as a kid. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the best, the strongest of the series. The Voyage of the Dawntreader is almost as good. Maybe I did read them all and those are the only two that stayed in my memory.

  In The Last Battle, an evil ruler from Calormen tries to take over Narnia by suborning a Narnian ape named Shift. The ape is indeed shifty and shiftless. He puts forth Puzzle, a donkey dressed in a lion skin, in place of Aslan, trying to fool the public. Narnia is clearly in a decline. Even Eustace, Pole and King Tirian cannot save the day in the last battle.

 When the real Aslan arrives he brings the whole world to an end and the good characters are united in eternity with Lewis telling us that life in England and Narnia was in the Shadowlands and that for us, "this is the end of all stories...only the beginning of the real story."

 Well, he had to end it somehow and I suppose he and most children want the good guys to win forever. What if we could?

(The Last Battle is available in paperback on the fantasy shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Highlights from June:

Rachel Kushner visited, read and answered questions at Once Upon A Time!

The Portrait of a Bookstore groups (yes, there are two because it is such a popular group plus there is a waiting list) held our combined annual summer picnic. We brought French food and wine to consume while we discussed My Life in France.

At Bookie Babes we had such a deep discussion about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that two members got into a conflict and we may have lost a member.

Do you get lonely reading all by yourself? Join a reading group. There is rarely a dull moment.

Here is what is coming up in my reading groups in July:

Adult Discussion Group
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
Tuesday, July 13, 7:30 pm

Sunland/Tujunga One Book At A Time
Meets at Mi Casita, Sunland, CA
Contact for Reservation: Lisa
The Angel's Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Thursday, July 15, 7:30 pm

The Help, Kathryn Stockett
Monday, July 26, 7:00 pm

Mystery Reading Group w/ tea & scones
Gallows View, Peter Robinson
Wednesday, July 28, 8:30 am

Bookie Babes
Barnes & Noble, Burbank, CA
Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon
Wednesday, July 28, 7:30 pm

Tales of your reading group are welcome in the comments. 


Friday, June 25, 2010


The City and the Stars, Arthur C Clarke, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1956, 310 pp

 Being somewhat new to Arthur C Clarke, this being only the second of his books I've read, I find him unique to the point of odd amongst science fiction authors. He comes across as a philosopher as much as he does a sci fi writer. 

  The city is Diaspar, set in a desert on Earth, completely closed off from the outside world which is now all desert, no oceans. It was designed a billion years ago, after mankind had already been to the stars, created an empire and then been defeated by invaders. The place is run by a central computer, the inhabitants programmed to be content there while they harbor an automatic terror of going outside the city.

 Except for Alvin, who we learn is a Unique, and yearns for nothing more than to get out of the city and explore the world and the stars. He does accomplish his desires and learns the history of mankind back to the era when man first went to space. The story is interesting though not that exciting and often improbable.

 I have not been able to decide what point Clarke was trying to make. He introduces an entity named Vanamonde, created by human scientists over a billion years earlier, who is described as pure intelligence. There is also another city on Earth whose inhabitants are telepathic where Alvin goes to learn about life outside Diaspar. 

 After all his adventures, which include a journey to the stars, Alvin decides to stay on Earth and help bring it back to life, making it worthy for his ancestors who went off to another Galaxy, in case they should return. Yet one of the characters foresees a possible end of the Universe and of time itself. Well, yes, I suppose that is the way it could go, that there is an end to eternity as we know it, but what does that have to do with anything?

 I was left with the idea that the decade of the 1950s, with its deadly boring bestsellers and its somewhat out there ideas in authors like Clarke, Iris Murdoch, William Golding and others, was a big pivot point in history. The old ways of Western civilization were beginning to fade and some new era beginning to arrive. Is it the legacy of the nuclear bomb or an advance in human consciousness? If reincarnation and multiple lifetimes are real, I'd like to be around to find out.

(The City and the Stars is another older science fiction novel that is tricky to find. Libraries, used booksellers are your best bet.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Time for the Stars, Robert A Heinlein, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956, 244 pp

 Earth is over-populated, families are only allowed three children and the Long Range Foundation is a non-profit with the goal of finding planets that could support human life so some of Earth's population can be exported. The Bartlett family had decided to pay the tax for having an extra child but the fourth birth produced twins. With the tax and two extra mouths to feed, money was tight.

  Pat and Tom, the twins, are smart, inseparable but competitive (they share a girlfriend but she likes Pat better) and as it turns out, can communicate telepathically. The Long Range Foundation's plan includes sets of telepathic twins, one to stay on earth and receive reports of the planet finding mission from the other out in space. Telepathy is instant and overcomes the problem of communicating between two points that are light years apart. After some brotherly tricks and one upmanship, Pat and Tom get accepted.

  Clever ideas, no? And they open the door to a story that includes all kinds of Einsteinian data about time and relativity, not to mention that while the twin in space ages slowly, his telepath on earth must eventually be replaced because of the discrepancy in time. This is the opposite to the way time behaves in the "multiverse," where children go to Narnia, for example, live for decades and come back to find that no time at all has passed.

 I liked the book though the science got a bit over my head and the author did too much preaching. I forgive him because he is such a good storyteller. I think this is the first science fiction to take up the question of time differences scientifically; at least it is a first in my chronological reading system.

(Time for the Stars a bit hard to find. You could try a special order at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available at Powells in paperback. It is always good to support your local library, which is where I found my copy.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Telex From Cuba, Rachel Kushner, Scribner, 2008, 322 pp

 What a great idea for a novel! The Cuban revolution seen primarily through the eyes and lives of American families living there during those times. These families are not colonialists themselves. The husbands are employees of American companies who operate in Cuba as a result of older colonial practices. The wives are trying to live an American life in an exotic location while being served by natives. 

  Rachel Cushner has created this viewpoint so well. Behind an entertaining, easily grasped story is a wealth of intelligence, thought, political views and sheer love of her topic.

  The characters are the key: the American couples, the French arms dealer, the Cuban politicians and workers, but especially the American kids. Even the Castro brothers are brilliantly realized. It is rare to find a book with no flat characters.

  I enjoyed every page. There was never a lag in momentum and Kushner got her ideas across by means of the story. I look forward to anything else she writes.

(Telex From Cuba is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Frog Went A Courtin', John Langstaff, Harcourt Brace, 1955, 30 pp

  In honor of the birth of my grandniece early this morning, I will give you a picture book review today. The Caldecott winner for 1956 was illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky with some pages in green and black, others in full color. The style is pen and crayons. Something about the eyes of all the animals and insects give them a human look, similar to the Mickey Mouse of the time.

  Frog goes a courtin' and marries Mouse. The text is an old Scottish tune which Langstaff wrote up by combining different versions. He was an American folk musician and educator as well as the founder of "Christmas Revels," a Solstice and Christmas stage show which involved the audience in singing and dancing and has been performed annually since the 1970s. Susan Cooper, author of the Dark is Rising series, was a friend to Langstaff and a writer for "Christmas Revels." 

 Back in the day, when I used to teach music to help cover the tuition at the Montessori school where I sent my boys, I taught this song. Later I wrote my own courtin' song called "No Promises," for my future and current husband. Courtin's songs are very powerful.

(Frog Went A Courtin' is available on the picture book shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, June 21, 2010


An Unfinished Score, Elise Blackwell, Undbridled Books, 2010, 264 pp

 This brand new novel is best read in one day. The narrative arc and the emotional depth had a sumptuous impact. I never wanted to stop reading it.

 Suzanne is a classical violist with a non-attentive husband (also a musician as well as a composer) and a lover who conducts orchestras. On the first page Suzanne is cooking dinner when she hears on the radio that her lover has died in a plane crash.

 Also living with Suzanne and her husband are Petra, a violinist, Suzanne's best friend and single parent to Adele, who is deaf. The ghost of Suzanne's lost child takes up additional space in this household. None of these other characters knew about Suzanne's affair though it had been going on for several years.

  The sheer volume of unspoken and unheard communication amongst these people would be enough to sink such an odd "family," but Suzanne is a strong and complex person who can care for them all including herself. When the vengeful widow of the dead lover enters the story there is just no telling how it will all turn out.

  The world of classical music, which has become an anachronism in our modern times, is a world I know. I studied violin, played in orchestras and sang in choirs for a couple decades. Suzanne's home is in Princeton, NJ, the town where I grew up. So many elements like this made the story itself feel familiar, but in the end it was the writing that gradually seduced me and then captured my imagination. One of the best books I have read this year.

(An Unfinished Score is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, June 18, 2010


Pincher Martin, William Golding, Harcourt Brace and World, 1956, 208 pp

 Pincher Martin is the second book from 1956 about shipwreck on a deserted island. (Boon Island by Kenneth Roberts is the first.) Pincher Martin however, is alone on his rock in the mid-Atlantic and though he thinks of himself as a rational, educated and resourceful fellow, when faced with death he goes quite mad.

  "Pincher" is British slang meaning a nautical person, one who serves on ships, etc. This pincher's Christian name was Christopher and as we enter his mind, we learn that he has been a greedy, self-centered man who liked to force people, including women, to give him what he wanted. Golding is a master at telling a story completely through the eyes of a character. His description of Martin's struggle in the freezing Atlantic waters and his gradual awareness of the surroundings when he comes to on the rock, is so grueling and realistic as to be almost unbearable. He causes it to play in your mind like a movie that includes actual physical feelings, smells, tastes, every sense experienced.

  As in his two earlier novels, (Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors), Golding plumbs the human psyche for the hidden violent animal nature that is a part of everyone. Not a pretty picture, not a comfortable reading topic, but an unvarnished look at one aspect of humanity.

(Pincher Martin is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff, Random House Inc, 2008, 507pp

 After reading Under the Banner of Heaven a couple years ago, I swore I would never read another book about Mormons. Well, I am in five reading groups, so what were the odds? I liked The 19th Wife better mainly because Jordan Scott, the kid of fundamentalist Mormons, who is trying to save his mother, is such an endearing character.

  I have to agree with some of the reviews I read: jumping back and forth from the present to the 1800s was all right as far as contrasting Mormon history with it modern configurations, but Jordan's story was the more compelling and I got annoyed that Ebershoff kept leaving Jordan hanging from a cliff for as much as 50 pages at a time, while I had to read about Brigham Young and his rebellious wife.

  I did find the examination of the faith-based cult mentality enlightening and sensitively done. Having participated in a few of what I would consider cults in my life, I was intensely interested in contemplating the reasons I got hooked myself. My conclusion? At the bottom of any cult is a con man. I guess that makes me a sucker, at least in my young and foolish years.

  Now I have spent enough time on this book.

(The 19th Wife is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


The Fall, Albert Camus, Alfred A Knopf, 1956, 147 pp

 On the cover of the Vintage International edition of The Fall is a quote from the New York Times: "An irresistibly brilliant examination of modern conscience." I found the book to be easily resistible and hard to get through. A man in a bar tells another man that his life has been a sham, meanwhile plying his listener with drinks to keep him attentive. It could be that is part of the joke, and I wasn't in the mood. I think it is called a shaggy dog story.

  Certainly there is irony and wit but not much plot. The combination of story and ideas was what made The Stranger and The Plague so compelling but in The Fall, Camus has lost his faith in man and absurdity has become the disillusioned rant of a man in midlife crisis.

(The Fall is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


Ghost Country, Sara Paretsky, Delacorte Press, 1998, 389 pp

 Sara Paretsky's ninth novel is one of only two which do not feature private investigator V I Warshawski. It is set in Chicago and focuses on homeless women and females raised by oppressive adults. 

  Mara and Harriet Stonds are half sisters (same mother, different fathers), who lost their mother soon after Mara's birth and have been raised in luxury by their grandfather. He and his housekeeper are horrid people who control these girls by a perverted sort of behavior modification. Harriet has become a successful lawyer but has no emotions. Mara is a moody, rebellious teenager.

  Dr Stonds, the grandfather, is chief neurosurgeon and head of the psychiatric department at a large Chicago hospital. He believes in medication over psychoanalytic therapy and favors the use of psych wards as containment and punishment for unruly, abnormal people, including his granddaughter Mara, though he carefully excludes those with no health insurance. All of this is so Sara Paretsky.

  Hector,  a resident at Midwest Hospital, who prefers therapy over medication, gets himself assigned to run a clinic at a homeless shelter and becomes embroiled in a volatile scene which eventually includes Mara, Harriet, Dr Stonds, an alcoholic opera diva, and a bevy of mentally ill homeless women.

  It all leads to drama, disaster and deliverance. Mara and Harriet discover the truth about their mother and grandfather. The various bad guys get what is coming to them. The strange and psychic Starr--homeless, wild, bigger than life--is like an avenging goddess.

 This is a big story, ambitious and sprawling. The writing is not great but Paretsky knows how to create tension and I was turning the pages, completely involved with the characters and their fates. The author's best characters were the homeless women: she made them real, demonstrating how they are invisible yet feared by society. Behind the imagery of the city's underbelly is a deeper layer of mythical spirituality which could have been developed more but possibly at the expense of the book's pace as a thriller.

 As much as I like her detective novels and V I Warshawski as a heroine, I hope that Sara Paretsky writes more novels outside the series. From Ghost Country, I got the idea that a deep well of learning and a vast understanding of human nature lies yet untapped in her psyche. Through her novels she is working out important issues about American society and I will read anything she writes.

(Ghost Country is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, June 11, 2010


Seize the Day, Saul Bellow, The Viking Press, 1956, 115 pp

 This was Bellow's next work of fiction after The Adventures of Augie March (1953). It is that problematic piece of fiction called the "novella," somewhere between a short story and a novel. In fact, it was published in a volume containing an additional three short stories and a one-act play. Even over fifty years ago, publishers worried that the public would not pay the price of a whole book for such a short work. Of course, since Bellow packs so much in just a sentence, this is not a valid concern.

  In Seize the Day, Tommy Wilhelm, so unsure of who he is that he changed his name as a young man, is now facing up to being a failure in early middle-age. He has tried to make it as an actor in Hollywood, he has lost his job as a salesman, left his wife and landed in a residence hotel filled with retired old men, including his father.

  Tommy is a typical Bellow character: basically despicable but somehow endearing. We follow him through a tortured day. He has a sadly contentious breakfast with his father, takes a beating from the wife via phone and hangs out with the mysterious Dr Adler, who poses as a successful psychologist but may just be a hustler.

  You see, Tommy has not been a good 1950s American male. He has been impulsive, emotional and most damning of all, he has not made much money. In fact, he is out of money and has allowed Dr Adler to convince him to invest his last $700 in the commodities market.

  I enjoyed, if that is the right word, Bellow's story because it was so apt in today's times, with our extreme emphasis on material success. Due to the tanked economy, we may be in for a large shift of importance and have to suffer Tommy Wilhelm's agony as an entire culture. Tommy is looking for his humanity in the falling price of lard. So poignant, yet so hilarious.

(Seize the Day is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, June 10, 2010


The Help, Kathryn Stockett, G Putnam's Sons, 2009, 444 pp

 As of this writing, The Help has been on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list for 61 weeks. That is a phenomenon in today's publishing business. The average stay on this list appears to be about 3 weeks. When my sister and my niece kept urging me to read the book, I concluded that I had better see what all the excitement was about.

  In my opinion, The Help might just be the perfect bestseller. It is a wholly American story, a women's story, the writing is light but acceptable and it has a short, memorable one-word title. Also in this year of compulsive bashing of our first African-American President, how could one go wrong with a story about deep Southern racism in the 1960s?

  Kathryn Stockett, a lovely youngish White Southern woman, managed to trump one of my main beefs: White people writing about Black folks. She does it realistically, sensitively and makes it work because her story takes place at the exact place where Black met White: working in their homes, cooking, cleaning and raising their children.

  I will not regurgitate the plot here because it has been covered innumerable times in reviews. In fact, I'll just say: read it! It is good. It is about all of us. It tells the truth: give oppressed people a voice and they will run with it, take it to heart and work out their own ways to break free.

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

Tuesday, June 08, 2010


Freedom or Death, Nikos Kazantzakis, Simon and Schuster, 1956, 433 pp

 In his third novel, Kazantzakis turns to his birthplace. He was born in Crete in 1885 and in 1897, Greek Christians took up arms to rebel against the Turkish conquerors who had ruled Crete since the mid 1600s. This novel is the story of that rebellion. In my reading of The Life of Greece, The Story of Civilization, Volume II by Will Durant, I learned that Crete was the center of Europe's most ancient civilization: the Minoan, from which we got the legends of King Minos, the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus.

  Reading Kazantzakis is challenging for me. In all three novels, he spends many pages introducing characters and describing the surroundings without much story going on. Because of unfamiliar names, I started a list of characters and locations. I was up to 26 found on just the first 40 pages. But what characters they are! Full of life and exhibiting all the strengths and faults of human beings, no matter which side they are on.

  Once the story of the rebellion gets going, it is as gripping as any of the best historical fiction I have read. His themes of freedom, religion and the fully lived life are explored against the backdrop of the oppressions, honor and passion involved in any rebellion. And the ultimate question of whether it is better to die for freedom than to live under oppression gets told from another location in this crazy world.

(Freedom or Death is out of print. It is best found in libraries or from a used bookseller.)


Blue Ridge Billy, Lois Lenski, J P Lippincott Company, 1946, 203 pp

 This is the third book in Lois Lenski's American Regional Series. Billy Honeycutt lives in the far northwest corner of North Carolina near the Tennessee border. He is ten years old, living and working on the family farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

  The family grows chickens, corn and vegetables, but Billy's father can't stand being tied down to farming. He considers himself a hunter and logger, leaving most of the farm work to his wife and children. Billy is the second oldest of four children and likes music more than anything, but his father thinks musicians are lazy, unreliable people when it comes to all the hard work necessary to stay alive in the mountains.

  The story follows Billy as he pursues his musical dreams and tries to get around his stern father. He finds allies in his mother (who comes from a fiddling family), Granny Trivett (a healer and herb gatherer who may be more than 100 years old and teaches Billy the old Scottish ballads), as well as his Uncle Pozy (who weaves baskets, plays the dulcimer and can cook a delicious roast possum.)

  It is a wonderfully told story which brings to life the peoples and times of Southern mountain living in the early 20th century. Being a former folksinger and a fan of roots music, I loved getting this look at country life in the South, way before country music was cool.

(Blue Ridge Billy is out of print and best found at your local library in the kid's section.)

Picture of a Dulcimer

Saturday, June 05, 2010


I have not posted much this week, so today I will give you a bunch of posts. It's more fun than cleaning the bathroom!

I read 13 books in May. The best accomplishment for me was finishing the list of books for 1957 in My Big Fat Reading Project. The next best was finishing The Second Sex, which I have been wading through for almost two years!

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy: Recollections of her years growing up, from 1957. I like this author so much and this was one of her best.

Blue Ridge Billy, Lois Lenski: I am reading through her Regional Series for kids. This one is from 1946, set in the Blue Ridge mountains. She does great with children as characters.

The Long Song, Andrea Levy: Read and reviewed for BookBrowse. (See last post.) One of the best books I read in May.

Sugar Street, Nabuib Mahfouz: From the 1957 list; the final volume of his Cairo Trilogy. I like a set of novels set in the same city. After a while, I feel I have been there.

The Oasis, Mary McCarthy: I missed this when I was reading the 1949 list. A novel about some people who attempt a utopian community; full of irony; not her best.

Ghost Country, Sara Paretsky: This is a stand-alone though still set in Chicago, with the homeless, a musician and a strange family tale. I love Paretsky.

The Town, William Faulkner: I haven't read a Faulkner I liked for a while but this one was great. The second of a trilogy set in his imaginary county with a fine tale to tell. From 1957.

Rat, Fernanda Eberstadt: Reviewed for BookBrowse. Best thing I read in May. I was blown away and have a new author to read: she has several earlier novels. Teenage girl looking for father, great road trip, set in southern France. READ IT!

The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff: Actually not bad, if you are in the mood for Mormons and polygamy. Read it for a reading group, but finished it 20 minutes before the meeting and hadn't had a shower, so didn't go.

Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austen: Three down, three to go. She is not my favorite by a long way, though it made a funny juxtaposition with The Second Sex. Read it for a reading group. Most of the members found it amazing that people cared so much about who had how much money. I found it amazing that they found it amazing. I mean this is LA in the 21st century.

A Winter's Love, Madeleine L'Engle: One of her early novels for adults from 1957. A wife and mother is torn between a man she loves and the man she is married to. I know, not an original story but her writing is so beautiful, yet real and true. I will take her over Anita Shreve any day.

The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir: It was long, hard to read, emotionally wrenching and eye opening. I am so glad I read it. 

That Hideous Strength, C S Lewis: A book I missed from the 1946 list. It was, IMHO, awful. But now I have read all the C S Lewis on my lists. So.

What great book(s) did you read last month?
Comments welcome on any of these books if you have read them.


The Long Song, Andrea Levy, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2010, 307 pp

My review of Andrea Levy's new novel is up at BookBrowse. It begins thus:
     Andrea Levy is one of the best storytellers around. Her follow up to Small Island (set in 1950s Britain) moves to the even smaller island of Jamaica to tell us the history of slavery's end on the sugar plantations. Our unreliable narrator is the feisty Miss July. From the first scene...the reader knows that she can expect an unblinking look at this period in Jamaican history related through the eyes of a former slave. (Read the rest of the review here.)

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout, Random House Inc, 2008, 270 pp

 The Pulitzer Prize winner for 2009 is another collection of connected short stories, called a "novel in stories." In fact, six of the chapters were published as stories in various magazines  between 1992 and 2007. The small town of Crosby, Maine and the character Olive Kitteridge tie the stories together.

  As with Let the Great World Spin, I had problems reading this one. I did not entirely like it until I got to the very end. Olive Kitteridge spent her life teaching math at the local grade school. She was a successful teacher but an impatient, overly protective and sometimes cruel mother to her only child, a son who grew up to be an odd, troubled man. Most of the stories are set later in Olive's life with flashbacks to her earlier years. As far as I could tell, there were only a few reasonably sane and fulfilled individuals in the town, the rest being dysfunctional in all the usual human ways plus a few other ways unique to small coastal towns in Maine.

  Elizabeth Strout is clearly a gifted writer. I had deep feelings for all the characters, except strangely enough, Olive. She was a hard woman to like or admire, though outside of her family, she exuded a down-to-earth, calm wisdom which was valued by other hard-pressed individuals. Improbably, I thought, her husband loved her and was always kind to her.

  Despite the good writing and my usual interest in what makes dysfunctional human beings tick, I was not thrilled. It took a lively, passionate book group discussion to lead me to my main objection. Short stories are pieces of writing in themselves and must necessarily come to a stop, an ending, a conclusion. A novel generally flows along with a narrative arc that may skip around in time and place, but for me as a reader, takes me through something (a plot, a theme, etc.) from some kind of beginning to what feels like a more or less satisfying denouement.

 The journey through Olive Kitteridge's story had too many stops, like traveling on a local train, so that by the time I reached the quite satisfying final story/chapter, I was happy to see Olive finally show growth as a character but irritated because of all the stops. I do agree that Olive Kitteridge is a uniquely American story ( one requirement for the Pulitzer Prize) and also a worthy addition to the body of fiction set in Maine. I was reminded of one of my favorite mid-20th century authors, Mary Ellen Chase, whose novel Windswept is a masterpiece of regional fiction. (Interestingly, Chase wrote her own version of Olive Kitteridge. The Edge of Darkness, 1957, is a collection of stories about a small coastal town in Maine, connected by a strong woman who lived there for decades. I had similar problems with that volume.)

  This is one of the longest reviews I have written in a while. Apparently Olive Kitteridge got to me more than I had realized. I finished reading it a few weeks ago and it is still ratcheting around in my mind. I will have to read Elizabeth Strout's earlier novels.

(Olive Kitteridge is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)