Wednesday, December 28, 2011


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Wherever You Go, Joan Leegant, W W Norton & Company, 2010, 253 pp

I have always had a fascination with Israel and the whole history and idea that Jews should have their own country. Trying to understand the seemingly endless conflict in Israel by reading the news never fails to leave me hopelessly confused. I've gotten much better results reading novels.

Wherever You Go is set in contemporary Israel, mainly in Jerusalem. Joan Leegant has tackled two gigantic though related aspects of the conflict in her short and rather light novel. One is the relationship of American Jews to Israel and the other is the debate about Jewish terrorism versus political attempts to structure some form of peace between Israelis and Arabs.

Employing the device of three American characters who are in Jerusalem to work out personal issues is a thin disguise for Leegant's views which are clearly anti-extremist. The characters themselves are well drawn however.

Yona is an unfulfilled promiscuous young woman who seeks reconciliation with her estranged sister, a radical proponent of the Jewish state. In fact, the sister, raising her five children under extreme duress in a small Israeli town, is the most intriguing character in the novel.

Mark Greenglass, former drug addict in New York, son of a domineering businessman, turned to Orthodox Judaism but has doubts and conflicts about his teaching life in Jerusalem. Then there is Aaron, a failure at the age of 20, who comes to Israel for specious reasons and ends up in a terrorist cell.

It sounds overly dramatic and somewhat cliched but Leegant is skilled enough as a writer to draw the reader into these lives and tell a good story. She paints a clear picture of life in Jerusalem today.

So it was an interesting read; better than Leon Uris' Exodus as literature goes, not as exciting as Herman Wouk's The Hope in its dramatic arc. What I appreciated most was her attempt to put individual human faces on the conflicts. Leegant's novel is one of the few I have read to avoid the pitfall of ideology. In fact, in her own way, she exposes ideology as the potentially destructive role that it plays in human interaction whether on a personal or political level.

(Wherever You Go is available in paperback, hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your local indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


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The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick, Scholastic Press, 2007, 533 pp

I kept putting off reading this book, winner of the Caldecott Award in 2008. A few days before the movie ("Hugo") came out, I picked it up and read it in a couple hours. It is astonishingly good and speaks to adults as well as children.

Hugo Cabret has had much sorrow and loss in his young life. Orphaned, then abandoned, he lives a secret, lonely life in a Paris railroad station, keeping the clocks running and stealing food. His fascination with an automaton, a mechanical man who can write messages, and his technical skill are the only means Hugo has of making sense of his life.

The story of how he solves the mysteries and problems besetting him is full of danger, chance encounters, determination and wonder. Hugo is a child hero in the spirit of Harry Potter, David Copperfield, and Nobody Owens. While courage and intelligence are essential to his survival, it is imagination which drives him.

Brian Selznick's illustrations are sublime. In a unique arrangement that transcends both picture books and graphic novels, those illustrations tell parts of the story in the place of text. Somehow the transitions from pictures to text and back again are seamless.

I had started to read The Invention of Hugo Cabret to my granddaughters this past summer but we never finished it. The ten-year-old read it on her own, also in anticipation of the movie. Then we all saw "Hugo" together. It was so cool to sit next to Emma and whisper about what was just like the book and what was changed. The film completely captures the wonder of the book and enhances the story with clips from the silent movies that are integral to it.

Read the book!

See the movie!

(The Invention of Hugo Cabret is available on the children's book shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your local bookstore click on the cover image above.)

Sunday, December 25, 2011


Merry Christmas or Happy Whatever Sacred Event you celebrate. My wish for you and all mankind is that illusive thing called Peace On Earth. At least for today we could practice Good Will Towards Men. It is a start.

Thank you to all of you who read my blog or just stop by. As I told some friends the other night, literature is my religion. In America it is still possible for writers to tell their truths in the books they write. In all parts of the world, you can kill or imprison the writer, you can burn the books, but you cannot kill the ideas. They always get out and circulate eventually.

My gift to you today is a song. I wrote these lyrics to what I call "The Christmas Song" many years ago when we had a family feud going between some members and that was making some other members sad. Today feuds abound in every land. This may be the age of feuding. So the words are for all.

On a cold winter night in the desert a light did shine
From the silky black sky on a baby and mother so fine
Mary looked down on that innocent face and feared
Shepherds looked as they wondered what brought them there

Can a child of love live in this evil world
Can he change the hearts of men
Will we make it safe for him to enter in
Can we live in peace again?

Look all around, there are reasons a'plenty to hate
Do you ever wonder if the time comes when it's too late
Can you see the gift comes to those who can love friend or foe?
Look to yourself for it's only there that you know

Can a child of love live in this evil world
Can he change the hearts of men
Will we make it safe for him to enter in
Can we live in peace again?

Friday, December 23, 2011


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Ellen Tebbits, Beverly Cleary, William Morrow & Company, 1951, 160 pp

Continuing my reading of Beverly Cleary's books as research on the 1950s, I read her second novel for middle-grade readers. Ellen Tebbits is a third grader with two main problems in life. She needs a best friend and she wants her teacher to like her so she can get picked to clap the erasers. Interesting to me because those were my main problems in third grade. She also has an over-protective mother who is a neat freak.

The story opens with a chapter about ballet class. Ellen has been made to wear long underwear because it is winter but she doesn't want anyone else to know and tries to hide it under her ballet outfit. It is funny but also captures those things that were so important yet made you feel so squeamish at the age of eight.

Despite all those points of similarity to my eight-year-old life, I didn't find this one as exciting as Henry Huggins. The girls in the story were so girly girl, while the boys seemed to have more fun. I suppose that is an accurate picture of how things were for us females in the 1950s.

(Ellen Tebbits is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time and in other formats by order. To find it at your local bookstore click on the cover image above.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


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The Barbarian Nurseries, Hector Tobar, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2011, 422 pp

I read this wonderful novel simply because the author lives in Los Angeles. Hector Tobar, son of Guatemalan parents who immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1960s, is an LA Times columnist. The Barbarian Nurseries is his third book; his second novel. He has created a unique hybrid: a factual portrayal of a city and its immigration woes couched in fiction and driven by characters who surprised me at every turn.

Araceli is an undocumented Mexican immigrant working for an affluent family inside a gated community in Orange County. Scott Torres made his money in the days of the dot com boom but now holds down an uninspiring IT job while trying to maintain the standard of living he overspent to attain. In an effort to economize, he and his wife have laid off their full-time gardener and nanny, leaving Araceli to pick up dropped hats in addition to her job as maid. She cooks and cleans, is paid in cash, lives in a tiny guest house and has one day off every two weeks. Now she is expected to also help with the three children.

Back in Mexico City, Araceli had studied art in college while she dreamed of el norte. She has not a motherly bone in her body. When Scott and his wife both vanish after a violent argument, Araceli is left with the two older children, with no news of or contact from the parents, and not much food in the house.

So begins a journey to and through Los Angeles using public transportation, a picture of the boys' grandfather and what turns out to be a long outdated address. Naturally various types of hell break loose.

I have lived in LA for twenty years but Hector Tobar and Araceli took me to places I have never been; pockets of neighborhoods populated by all levels of Hispanic society from the homeless to educated politicians. We have a Mexican gardener who mows and blows once every other week. We eat Mexican food in restaurants regularly. And that is all I know except for when immigration issues get enough press to penetrate my virtually complete neglect of the news media.

At first I was put off by Hector Tobar' writing style. I have read enough novels by former journalists to be wary. But this author uses his reportorial chops to create places, occurrences, and characters, making it all so real that you feel you are there yourself. He lets us into his characters' minds and souls by chronicling their thoughts and then describing their actions. By the end of what became a more gripping story page by page, I was in a fever of anticipation to learn how it would all turn out. I never could guess or predict the fate of Araceli or the family she ultimately saved until the last few pages.

Did I mention the kids? The eleven-year-old son who reads like crazy and processes his experiences in LA by relating them to all the fantasy novels he devours? The homeless boy taken in by a single mom and made to serve her and her children to the point that the OC kids think he is a slave? Tobar knows kids.

As any avid reader of fiction has found, many and various are the high points, disappointments, and sometimes slogging boredom involved. The Barbarian Nurseries is a shining high point. Except for Native Americans, every American citizen is ultimately a descendent of an immigrant. We are a country of immigrants built on the backs, the labor, and the hopes of other immigrants. Despite the hardships, the ridiculous prejudices, the exploitation, the immigrant story may be the most romantic story our country has to tell. Hector Tobar certainly made it so.

If you only get through a novel a month, or less, I highly recommend you squander some reading time on this one.

(The Barbarian Nurseries is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available by order as an eBook. To find it at your local bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011


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The Stupidest Angel, Christopher Moore, William Morrow, 2004, 275 pp

I'm in a grinchy, grumbly, bah humbug mood today. Ordering Christmas presents on-line is easier than fighting through the mall, but it is hard enough to get the Christmas spirit in So Cal, so that doesn't help. It feels kind of stupid.

As did this book, read for one of my reading groups. At least it wasn't as stupid as the stupid Christmas mysteries we have read in years past. But it felt like reading a TV show. Since I don't watch TV anymore, I guess I shouldn't complain, but the guy humor did not make me laugh.

There are zombies in this "Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror." They are gross but not as scary as the characters in The Graveyard Book. As far as the other dysfunctional, heavy drinking, stupid characters go, my heart somehow never warmed.

Most of the readers in the group found it hilarious. Now I know the difference between Christopher Moore and Michael Moore. I could only recommend this "book" to people who are going to have a monumentally sucky Christmas in the hopes that it might cheer them up a little.

(The Stupidest Angel is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your local indie store click on the cover image above.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


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The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson, Viking Penguin, 1959, 246 pp

This turned out to be my least liked novel by Shirley Jackson. In fact, I like the early Hangsaman, 1951, the most.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Dr Montague, an occult scholar, has gathered with three individuals selected for evidence of psychic abilities, in the old unoccupied mansion with its sad history of deaths, including suicide. The Doctor hopes to find solid evidence for what is called "haunting."

Eleanor, the protagonist, is a typical Jackson heroine. She comes from unhappy family experiences and has a vaguely alluded to record of causing poltergeist activity. During her journey to Hill House, which takes up the entire first chapter, it becomes clear that she is an unbalanced personality.

My trouble with the novel began in Chapter 2 when Eleanor arrives at Hill House and begins to meet the other characters. We only ever get glimpses of them and I never was sure if any of them were good people or bad; certainly they were unreliable.

Hauntings occur every night and Jackson's descriptions of them are harrowing but they don't mesh with the rest of the narrative. The characters pop in and out of several personalities which enhances the instability. I got the feel of a horror story but was not convincingly alarmed.

An unforeseen twist at the end threw me into doubt about the whole book I had just read. Was the author making fun of psychic phenonemena? Was she saying such things are real but unpredictable? I don't know and I was not a happy reader being left that way.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Naguib Mahfouz, December 11,1911-August 30, 2006

Naguib Mahfouz was born 100 years ago yesterday. He is credited as one of the first modern novelists of Egypt and one of the first writers of contemporary Arabic literature. He published over 50 novels beginning in the 1930s, but was not translated into English until around 1970. In 1988 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature after which many of his novels began to appear in English.

In 1999 I read The Memoirs of Cleopatra, a novel by Margaret George. Around that time I also read Wilbur Smith's River God. After reading The Egyptian by Mika Waltari in 2005, I suddenly began to wonder how Egypt of the Egyptian empire became the Egypt of today. I made a quick study of the history of Egypt on Wikipedia, just enough to feel overwhelmed by the county's long and tumultuous story. By that time I had heard of Mahfouz because his Cairo Trilogy had been translated into English, a project overseen in part by Jackie Kennedy Onassis during her stint as an editor at Doubleday Books. Each volume was conspicuously reviewed as it was released and Mahfouz became widely known in the United States for the first time.

Mahfouz wrote his novels about contemporary times in Cairo with his overall theme being the impact of social change on the lives of ordinary people. If you wish to learn what it has been like to be an Egyptian person since the 1930s, reading Mahfouz will give you that insight.

I first read Midaq Alley, published in Egypt in 1947, in the United States by Doubleday in 1966. I entered a world of eccentric characters living in an alley in the old section of Cairo during World War II. The influence of Western culture, particularly British, was gradually eroding the religious faith and morals of these people, causing conflict between generations and the sexes. I became a fan.

I have since read The Beginning and the End, from 1947 and the entire Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, & Sugar Street. Once I became accustomed to Mahfouz's pace and style, his characters and their lives captured my interest. I intend to read through all of his novels that are available in English as I move through My Big Fat Reading Project.

In 1994 an attempted assassination by Islamic extremists reduced Mahfouz to ill health leaving him unable to write for more than a few minutes a day. He lived for twelve more years under constant bodyguard protection. He was the oldest living Noble Literature laureate, the third oldest of all time and the only Arabic language writer to win the prize.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


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Henry Huggins, Beverly Cleary, HarperCollins, 1950, 175 pp


The Luckiest Girl, Beverly Cleary's Young Adult novel from 1958, was one of my favorite books in my preteen years. After re-reading it a few months ago, I decided to read her middle grade books as research for the memoir I am writing. Henry Huggins was the first of these and the first book she published.

I don't remember reading it as a child but I very well may have because it is about a boy who got a dog. I wanted a dog so much when I was in third grade that I convinced my friend across the street to say that her dog was half mine.

Beverly Cleary's intention and genius was to write stories that kids in the 1950s could relate to. She had been a children's librarian and had spent countless hours talking to kids about what they liked to read. Finally she decided to write such books herself and started an entire trend.

Henry Huggins is a small town, middle-class third grader who feels his life is not very exciting. He rides a bus, by himself, to the center of town every Wednesday to go swimming at the YMCA. One day while waiting for the bus home, he finds a stray dog, names him Ribsy because the dog is so thin, manages to get Ribsy home and convince his parents to let him keep the dog.

The entire first chapter is full of excitement. The book goes on to relate Henry's life with Ribsy and other pets on Klickitat Street. I love that name! Every time I came to it I would say it out loud.

The atmosphere on Klickitat Street is a microcosm of 1950s American small town life. The kids play, roam the neighborhood, perform in school plays and enter their pets in a dog show. From the moment that Henry gets Ribsy his life is full of exciting problems and Henry turns out to be very good at solving problems.

The kids talk the way we talked in those days. "Hey, cut that out!" "Golly." "Gee whiz." " Beat it!" And even "Shut up!" to any friend who was teasing.

Lessons are learned but these kids already have a moral sense, so the lessons are practical, how-to-get-along-in-life type experiences illustrated by the story rather than relayed through the mouths of adults.

I think parents today could learn more about child rearing from Beverly Cleary than from any modern book on parenting. Maybe the kids could read her books on their iPhones.

(Henry Huggins is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in an indie bookstore nearest to you, click on the book cover image above.)

Friday, December 09, 2011


A Charmed Life, Mary McCarthy, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1955, 313 pp

Mary McCarthy sets her novels in small claustrophobic locations. In A Charmed Life a tiny community of unsuccessful artists crowd each other socially, artistically, even personally. They get together for dinners or play readings, are literary or experimental, or just plain cracked, but all harbor secret unpleasant opinions about each other. Husbands and wives manipulate each other through lies and half truths. If these omissions have consequences, they are not relayed in the novel, but make the reader uncomfortable and nervous.

Martha Sinnott is the exception. She is a former actress, a playwright, seven years into her second marriage and specializes in bad decisions. Along with her current husband John, she has moved back to New Leeds, where she had lived with her first husband, Miles. He is remarried but still in the area.

When Martha and Miles meet up again at a party, they reconnect in the worst possible way. The consequences wreak havoc with Martha's plans for her life with John. By the time this disaster is fully in place, I was weary of the characters, New Leeds, and the story. It could only end in tragedy.

McCarthy's use of the omniscient third person point of view is impressive. All the thoughts and emotions of each main character were fully exposed. After immersing her readers in everyone's heads, she then tortures us with a drawn out, suspenseful second half of the novel.

I did not like the end though I made myself wait to see what it would be. I could not admire a single character. I felt manipulated myself even to the point of grudging admiration for McCarthy's skill and wit. To one degree or another, everyone I know including myself has some of these characters' unlovely attributes.

(A Charmed Life is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find the novel at your nearest indie bookstore click on the cover image above.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


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I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith, Atlantic-Little, Brown Books, 1948, 343 pp

Some novels about the teenage female experience are best read when you are a teenage female, such as the Twilight series. Others, such as this one, are brilliant for reminding you what it was like to be a teenage female, whether you are now 26, 45, or over 60.

Cassandra Mortmain, seventeen, living in poverty with her family in an ancient crumbling English castle, is writing a journal. Having realized that she is a terrible poet, she is now "capturing" her family, her life and the castle in order to train herself to write prose. Wonderful prose it is.

Cassandra is naive in the extreme for her seventeen years. She has never been kissed or even felt desire. But she has lived a sheltered life for the past eight years since her mother died, her father leased the castle and remarried and fell into deep writer's block. James Montmain was once an acclaimed writer due to his first "modernist" novel, but now he is a has been and the family is selling off their furniture in order to eat.

It is March, cold and dreary. Rose, the older sister, is 21 and bitter because she will never "make a good marriage." It may be the 1930s but I Capture the Castle sits firmly in Jane Austen territory, socially and emotionally. When the American sons of the castle's owner arrive on the scene, Cassandra and Rose begin to act out Pride and Prejudice.

Not exactly though, for Cassandra is well read, smart and resourceful. She also possesses deep insight into people, excluding herself, and has a huge heart. She loves her self-centered sister, her hapless father and her quirky stepmother. Most of all, she knows that she wants to be a writer and has doubts about marriage; a very 20th century viewpoint.

The arrival of Neil and Simon Cotton brings excitement, hope and a much improved financial condition. Dinner parties, who loves whom, trips to London, involve a whole new set of problems. These events also provide entertaining contrasts between the English social classes and humorous comments on the English versus the American.

As a reader, I was captured by Dodie Smith and put through everything I have loved about books like The Little Princess, Jane Eyre, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and many more. At this point in my reading life, I would not be happy with a steady diet of such books but strangely enough, I could see reading I Capture the Castle again someday. The end of the story is unexpected; much more realistic than any of the above. It left me thinking about Cassandra.

(I Capture the Castle is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


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Chime, Franny Billingsley, Dial Books, 2011, 361 pp

This YA novel is the book that got all that backlash attention during the lead up to the 2011 National Book Awards. Through an error never fully explained, Shine by Lauren Myracle was announced on NPR as a finalist for the Young Adult category, though by the following day it turned out that the judges had actually chosen Chime. Despite all the upset, Chime did not win the award but was beaten out by Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones.

I have not read either of the other two books, but ever since I read The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, I was hoping she would win for Chime.

Briony is a 14 year old girl who believes she is a witch. She lives with her twin sister Rose and her father, a widowed minister, in an imaginary English village. In Briony's times, witches are hanged. If Briony tells anyone she will be hanged but if she does not tell, she fears herself as a danger to those around her.

The brilliance of Billingsley's tale lies in double layers. One layer illustrates through the voice of Briony how children can develop a false picture of who they are as they try to make sense of the adult lives around them. Briony's mother died giving birth to the twins and they were raised by a complicated stepmother. The second layer is a drawn out reveal, a mystery in which we learn what actually happened to Briony, Rose and their father.

So much goes on that any attempt to explain would be full of spoilers. Eldric, a young man who awakens love and self-awareness in Briony; Rose, who is "odd" in some emotional but gifted way; the superstitious beliefs of the villagers; and some highly supernatural beings all combine to create the atmosphere of Briony's life.

I love Billingsley's writing because she does not spell out anything but by hints and through multiple viewpoints, draws on the reader's imagination so strongly that I almost feel I am creating the story with her.

Chime is the sort of book you give to a strong reader with a healthy ability to suspend her disbelief and just say, "Read this!"

(Chime is available in hardcover, audio and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your nearest indie bookstore click on the cover image above.)

Monday, December 05, 2011


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The Astounding, The Amazing, and The Unknown, Paul Malmont, Simon & Schuster, 2011, 416 pp

Having read so much Heinlein and Asimov, I could not resist reading this. It falls into a category I have named Reading Fun. It is a rather specific category for me. It means books that are just big fun to read the whole way through.

It is a fact that mid World War II several pulp writers were recruited by the US Navy and set up in a lab at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. Their orders: to turn the science fiction wonders they had written about into scientific fact in an effort to win the war. Death rays, force fields, invisibility and the creation of a super weapon inform their experiments. The reason: unknown to them and to the reader until the end of this highly entertaining novel.

Robert A Heinlein heads what he has named the Kamikaze Group, which includes Isaac Asimov, Sprague de Camp, and various other writers from the Golden Age of pulp science fiction. Even L Ron Hubbard shows up, on leave from the Navy after barely escaping the worst from a court martial. John Campbell, editor of the zines which make up the title and icons such as Doc Savage, Lester Dent, and Walter Gibson all play their parts.

Key to what turns out to be a mystery is the old conflict between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Even Albert Einstein makes a cameo appearance. Then there are the romantic escapades involving Heinlein's wives, Asimov's only wife, and Hubbard's various flames including one he shares with the drug addled magician Jack Parsons.

The pace is non-stop, the inside jokes are LOL funny, but best of all is Malmont's capturing of the pulp writing style. Heinlein, Asimov, de Camp, and Hubbard become the dare devil heroes they wrote about, facing danger and deceit, secrets and intrigue, as well as female entanglements.

At the same time, he satirizes these characters and their times, reminding us that all heroes have their foibles.

(The Astounding, The Amazing, and The Unknown is available in hardcover, eBook, and audio CD by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in the indie bookstore nearest you, click on the cover image above.)

Friday, December 02, 2011


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Pattern Recognition, William Gibson, G P Putnam's Sons, 2003, 356 pp

I have been meaning to read William Gibson for a long time. I have all of his early books on my shelves. Now I am hooked.

Pattern Recognition put me in mind of Alex Shakar's first novel, The Savage Girl, in terms of the whole global marketing issue. But Cayce Pollard, the heroine in Gibson's book, is a much cooler character. I liked all the techie computer stuff and felt good about my aging self because I could follow it quite well.

The novel is a blend of mystery/thriller, romance and modern concerns. In that regard it doesn't stand out particularly from others of that combined genre. But the secret ingredient is the mysterious film clips that Cayce must track down. Gibson brought art into the mix and it brightens up the whole story. It also doesn't hurt one bit that he is a great writer.

(Pattern Recognition is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in the independent bookstore nearest you, click on the book cover above.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


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The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli, St Martin's Press, 2010, 386 pp

I have tirelessly suggested The Lotus Eaters for consideration to all of my reading groups. (Currently I am a member of four.) Finally it was chosen and read for the November meeting of the One Book at a Time group. We meet at a Mexican restaurant in Sunland, CA. We drink margaritas, iced tea and diet coke. We all talk at once. We are writers, lawyers and ex-school teachers. Not everyone finishes their books but the ones who did finish The Lotus Eaters were as enthralled as I was.

The novel opens as the city of Saigon falls in 1975. Americans are fleeing like rats on a sinking ship and Tatjana Soli deftly paints the picture of our country's utter abandonment of the Vietnamese people. Photojournalist Helen Adams is about to be airlifted from the roof of the American Embassy, along with her mortally wounded Vietnamese husband, when she suddenly bolts from the helicopter and heads back into Saigon. She is unable to leave before she has seen the final end of the war including the takeover by the Vietcong. It is one of the most powerful opening scenes I have ever read.

The remainder of the novel covers the twelve years this American young woman spent photographing the war. She arrived, a college drop out, looking for adventure and hoping to somehow process the loss of her brother, who died in Korea. A complete amateur, she can barely load her camera. Although she is a fictional character, loosely inspired by Dickey Chapelle who was one of only three female photojournalists in Vietnam, she is a complex mix of insecurities, losses, fears, determination, and a growing political awareness.

Her drive to succeed in a profession dominated by men leads her into extreme adventure, love, and fame. One of those men is a hardened, long time war journalist. He becomes her mentor, her lover and a source of endless frustration. The other main character is Lin, Vietnamese photographer's assistant as well as spy, who has lost his wife, family, village and profession because of the war. Eventually Helen marries him. But Helen's inability to walk away from the war is more than the addiction to violence as in The Hurt Locker. Her love affairs go far beyond romance becoming a way to find human connection in the face of the violence, devastation and daily threat of death that make up a photojournalist's life.

The Lotus Eaters is not like anything else you have ever read about Vietnam. It is without doubt the best book I have read this year. How Tatjana Soli was able to seamlessly combine the elements of possibly the stupidest war in which America has ever been involved, into such a deeply moving story is a testament to her abilities as a writer. It is her first novel, it took her ten years to write and get published, and she had never been to Vietnam until after it became a New York Times bestseller in April, 2010.

Her website is fascinating and includes an illuminating bio. This interview with Michael Silverblatt of BookWorm gave me more insight into why and how she accomplished the writing.

The best aspect of an amazing novel is a certain magic. The Lotus Eaters has that magic woven throughout and tells the Vietnam story in a way that heals as it relates the horrors. Perhaps mankind will always fight stupid wars. Perhaps if enough writers like this get read by enough readers, we can move on to something just as exciting but not so destructive.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


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Blackberry Wine, Joanne Harris, William Morris, 2000, 357 pp

This was a reading group pick and I voted for it because I liked the movie "Chocolat" so wanted to read some books by this author. Blackberry Wine is pretty good; a romance made better because she addressed creativity, community, financial greed and a few other issues.

Jay Mackintosh is a blocked novelist, living in London with one of those business-like, smart, pushy young women who seem to run the world these days. He wrote one good novel but now can only write trash. Luckily the trash brings him good money, so when he spies a real estate brochure for a farmhouse in a remote French village, he can just buy it and move there.

Despite the girlfriend, a few troublesome villagers and a mysterious neighbor, Jay's wishes all come true in a year's time. He even finds love.

Because this is Joanne Harris, a magical element runs through the story. I do love magic in stories, though I wasn't entirely thrilled by the ways this author employed it. Most surprising was how most of my fellow reading group members did not have a problem with it because they are absolutely NOT fantasy readers.

My favorite character was Jay's childhood friend, a gypsy girl named Gilly who helped him man up when he was a wimpy kid. I also liked the French villagers who preferred their tight-knit community and small vineyards to becoming a tourist town in Provence.

Joanne Harris has her heart in the right place and I like her whimsical outlook as well as her humor. I found her almost too lightweight but she will be one of those authors I turn to after a stint of the dark, heavy, literary reading I love the best.

(Blackberry Wine is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. Click on the image above to locate the book in your closest independent store.)

Monday, November 28, 2011


Anne McCaffrey was a prolific science fiction and fantasy writer. She passed away at her home in Ireland this past Monday, November 21. She was 85, born on April 1, 1926.

I first discovered her books when I bought a used book containing the first three books in her Dragonriders of Pern Series. I read Dragonflight, the first in the series, in 1992. I liked the characters and the concept but was only mildly impressed.

Back then I had started my reading log but was not very good at writing about the books I read. Here is what I had to say about Dragonflight:

takes place on Pern, a planet colonized by Earth. About every 200 years another planet swings into Pern's orbit and drops "threads" which are very destructive to vegetation on Pern. This is the story of how the traditions which keep Pern safe from thread, including dragons and their riders (an elite race called Dragonkind), have fallen into disrepute over the past 200 years and must be revived. Threads are about to fall again.

The heroine, Lessa, is a feisty, courageous, and impatient young woman who usually turns out to be right and saves the day. I liked it a lot. The dragonkind get bonded with their dragons when the baby dragon hatches and can communicate by telepathy. The dragons are more level-headed than the humans."

I went on to read many more in the Dragonriders series, growing more and more impressed by Lessa and caught up in the whole dragonrider thing. Dragonflight was first published in 1968 and I always thought that the thread concept was based on the napalm dropped during the Vietnam War.

My next discovery was the Crystal Singer Trilogy. Those three books are my favorite Anne McCaffrey novels because of Killashandra Ree, the heroine, who is a failed singer, a tough chick along the lines of the Dragon Tattoo girl, and has a fabulous lover named Lars.

Crystal Singer, Anne McCaffrey, Ballantine Books, 1982

I read this one in 1993 and said:

"Great science fiction. Killashandra Ree doesn't make it as a singer after years of training but makes it big on another planet 'singing crystal.' (Crystal is a valuable commodity which must be mined out of rock by means of hitting it with a clear note sung in perfect pitch.) The price she pays is being forever captive to the planet Ballybran and forever addicted to the pleasures inherent in handling crystal.

Not much freedom but high adventure for Killashandra."

Killashandra, Anne McCaffrey, Ballantine Books, 1985

This is the sequel to Crystal Singer. I had this to say:

Killashandra goes offworld on an assignment, falls in love and helps bust a mind control operation. She loses her lover and suffers a complete memory loss. But the lover ends up on Ballybran as a crystal singer. Again good adventure as well as romance."

Crystal Line, Anne McCaffrey, Ballantine Books, 1992

The final book in the trilogy was Crystal Line. My extremely short comment contains spoilers:

"Killashandra goes through numerous changes and finally gets her memory back. She and Lars (her lover) take over the Guild and attain eternal love."

The series made a huge impression on me, got me back into music after a rather long absence and made me feel that all my attempts to save the world in my early adult years were worth the adventures I had. I even named my indie record label "OffWorld Records."

Finally, in 2004 or so, my husband and I took a trip to Ireland. Thanks to Anne McCaffrey's website at the time (apparently no longer on the internet) I figured out how to email her and how to find her house in the Wicklow Mountains. On the site at the time was a google earth type map by which you could sort of fly in as though you were a dragon. She also had an open invitation to come to tea.

I didn't get an answer to my email before we left but we decided to try to find her house anyway. Well, actually my husband was shocked that I would be so bold and afraid we were being rudely intrusive, but I insisted. We got completely lost but then came upon a coffee house out in the middle of nowhere, which is so Irish. I had a feeling we were close and figured that if anyone would know the whereabouts of a famous local author, it would be the coffeehouse staff.

Sure enough. We got directions along the lines of: Go down that road. When you get to the fork with the big tree, take the left fork. Curve around a few times and you will see the house.

Well we did and we found it! The house, her stables and all, looking out over the mountains. The front door was ajar and I heard voices, so I called out, walked in and found Anne in her kitchen with a young woman and her father who were visiting from Australia! Anne offered us tea or coffee. Since we were American she totally understood that we might prefer coffee. She was so relaxed and gracious, as though these visitors were an everyday occurrence.

She gave us a tour of her house, her office, her library. Her walls were covered with works of art by fans; drawings of dragons, suggestions for book covers, etc. Her library was a hallway that ran the entire width of her house with shelves on each side. Then she took us out to the stables. She told us she could not ride anymore due to arthritis but still kept a couple horses and boarded others. A totally energetic, wiry, semi-friendly woman took care of it all.

After posing for pictures with us, she walked us back to our rental car. The last time I saw Anne McCaffrey was in Hollywood at the Writers of the Future Awards, about four years ago. She looked not a bit older and was smiling, cracking jokes and signing books. She was known for being extremely open and interactive with her fans, encouraging new writers, accepting all that proposed book cover art. I felt all of that when I saw her that day. She just did not seem one bit bothered by any amount of people.

For me she was an example of a woman who did what she wanted, had a great time doing it, and would never consider she should not do something just because she was a woman. A huge shining creative spirit.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Shop Indie Bookstores

Solar Lottery, Philip K Dick, Ace Books, 1955, 200 pp

I have always steered clear of this author. Somehow I had gotten the impression that he was insane in some way or at least egregiously weird. But I read a review or two of the recently released The Exegesis of Philip K Dick, noting that Jonathan Lethem was one of the editors, and decided to give him a try. He wrote 44 novels! Solar Lottery is his first.

I did not get any impression of insanity or weirdness at all. He seemed to be fitting right in with the way science fiction was in the 1950s. In fact, I thought I got a glimpse of a theme that I found while reading The Hunger Games.

The ruler of the Universe in 2203 is chosen by random. Everything runs on games of chance which are wildly popular among the general populace. Workers have to sign up via fealty oaths to the various companies available. A huge proportion of people are just, as Margaret Atwood called them in Oryx and Crake, plebes: semi-homeless, unemployed folks who are cared for by social welfare programs. Honestly, I felt right at home.

The big surprise for me in the novel was the overall theme; that self determined individuals who can think for themselves have the power to bring things back to rights. Now that is a rather 1950s concept but it is also one of the major themes of literature all through the ages.

Hm. Maybe he got weird later? Who said he was weird anyway? I like this author. I added all 44 novels to My Big Fat Reading Project list. That will slow me down some but I look forward to a nice counterbalance to the increasing deterioration in the quality of the bestsellers in the coming decades of the project.

(Solar Lottery is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. Or click on the book cover image above to find it at the local bookstore closest to you.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011


The Borrowers Afloat, Mary Norton, Harcourt Brace & World, 1959, 191 pp


In the third book of The Borrowers series, the family takes to the water. At the end of The Borrowers Afield, Pod, Homily, and their daughter Arrietty finally arrived at the cottage where Uncle Hendreary and his family lived. Their dwelling was between the walls behind the fireplace in the cottage of the gamekeeper for the Big House.

Initially they were all relieved to have found shelter and safety, but in this story it soon became apparent that being dependent on relatives and in very cramped quarters was far from ideal. Arrietty had become used to the wide outdoors and began to pine away for more space.

When the cottage humans moved out, leaving no food or other necessities for "borrowing" a crisis was reached. Arrietty and her family decided to move on.

This time they head for a miniature village called Little Fordham, all Borrower-size, where human visitors pay admission to wander through. The plan is to float two days down the river in an old teakettle.

The escape, the river journey and another run in with the Gypsies make for dramatic adventure. Homily gains even more strength, daring and insight. While Arrietty and her father have always been brave and resourceful, Homily is the true heroine in this book.

The Borrowers Afloat was the most exciting story in the series so far, though reading the books in order makes each story mean more.

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

Friday, November 18, 2011


Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2010, 562 pp

Like many other readers, I loved The Corrections. I bought the hardcover of Freedom soon after it came out in August, 2010 and I don't buy a lot of hardcover books. Somehow I did not get around to reading it until now; another reason I don't buy hardcovers. I think I was worried that he could not write another book as good as The Corrections, even if it did take him nine years. Well, he did.

I love a long book, unless of course it is one of those endless bestseller tomes from the 1950s that I have been reading lately. Franzen writes so smoothly that while he may go over the top a few too many times and he may preach a little bit, he is never boring.

Freedom is about our times, our American issues, about family and families, about love, ideals and dreams. These are the timeless themes of literature from Homer to the present day, but I consider it a feat to write a good old-fashioned narrative and make it crackle with modernity.

I won't go into any more detail as to what takes place in the story. You can go to any major review outlet from The New York Times to The Guardian and read about that in exhausting detail. Perhaps because it is a long book, the reviewers felt they must write long reviews. I find it interesting that the critics gave the book high praises but readers were quite equally divided across the spectrum of one star to five.

I will say that while Franzen digs deeply into our failings as human beings and as a society, even to the point of irritating the wound his digging causes, he did not write a depressing tale or even a cautionary one. The final chapters of Freedom are romantic in the way an old couple who have preserved their love through all the trials of a long life together are romantic.

He seems to be telling us that our insistence on freedom is both our curse and our salvation; that anyone has the potential to finally grow up and make something good out of life. How old-fashioned is that?

(Freedom is available in hardcover and paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in several other formats, including e-book, by order.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Finding Nouf, Zoe Ferraris, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008, 305 pp

This book was a reading group read. Fortunately I had wanted to read it anyway because it is a mystery set in Saudi Arabia.

Nouf, sixteen year old daughter of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family, is found dead in the desert after she had been missing for ten days. Nayir, family friend, desert guide, pious but single Muslim, is asked by Nouf's family to find her murderer, even though the family had also paid off the authorities to avoid any police investigation.

When Nayir determines that the family does not really want to know what happened to Nouf, he begins to investigate on his own. This requires him to interact with Katya, a female from the coroner's office. Katya is single and relatively free for a woman. Though she must wear the veil when out of her house and have an escort wherever she goes, she causes Nayir many uncomfortable moments with her forward ways.

So the book puts a different spin on the mystery genre because of the setting. Looking at it from another viewpoint, the author's decision to write her book as a mystery is a brilliant ploy because it gets a broad readership to learn about modern Saudi Arabian culture and the ways of Muslims.

The mystery is well done, if a bit slow to get started. A bit of romance, Muslim style, between Nayir and Katya brings the interaction between the sexes to life. The scenes in Nouf's home clearly depict the stifling protection under which every female there lives. Ferraris spent some years in Saudi Arabia and her nuanced picture of the conditions for women and the slow changes in their status comes across as very true to life.

I was also fascinated by the way American culture and ideas get past the walls, the burkas, the protective parents, and infect female teens with the longing for freedom. Equally gripping was the progress for Nayir from an obsessively pious Muslim to a man enlightened about women.

(Finding Nouf is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in hardcover and ebook by order.)

Monday, November 14, 2011


And Both Were Young, Madeleine L'Engle, Lothrop Lee & Shepard Co, 1949, 241 pp

Madeleine L'Engle's career did not take off until the publication in 1962 of A Wrinkle in Time, which went on to win the Newbery Medal and remains her most well known book to this day. But she began writing adult novels in 1945, novels that were published but did not sell very well and quickly fell out of print. She almost gave up writing in 1958.

Had these early novels been around when I was in my teens, I would have read and loved them I am sure. Reading them now, I like them better than A Wrinkle in Time.

And Both Were Young was her first novel for young adults, published in 1949. It was revised and reprinted in 1983 and that is the version I read. In the Foreword to the revised edition, Ms L'Engle says, "When And Both Were Young was first published, there were a great many very simple things that could not be put in a book that was to be read by children and young adults." She goes on to mention attitudes about death and sex in those days. She says, "So the portions that are now in the book that were not in the original are truer to the original typescript than what was actually printed." Good! I did not miss anything by reading the later edition.

No matter her understandable discouragement, L'Engle's early novels are well written with more believable characters than much of the fiction I have read from the 1940s and 1950s. Her female characters especially say and do things just the way actual people would.

In this novel, Flip (nickname for Philippa), has been sent to boarding school in Switzerland, just one year after her mother died. Her father, whom she adores, is an illustrator of children's books. He has a new woman in his life who "lusts after him" as Flip says, and whom Flip cannot stand. His current assignment will take him to China, a place he considers unsafe for Flip. The solution is boarding school and daily letters back and forth.

Flip is homesick, still missing her mother, angry at being abandoned, and hating the new woman; all appropriate feelings for a 14 year old girl. She does not fit in and cannot make any friends. But she is a Madeleine L'Engle creation, so figures out how to sneak away from the confining regulations at school and walk by herself in the woods. She meets Paul, who is also troubled and angry for his own reasons. Slowly and beautifully they become friends and then fall in love.

One could complain that a few too many unlikely coincidences bring Flip and Paul through their troubles to a happy ending. One could also make the same complaints about the Twilight series, but Madeleine L'Engle does it without vampires or werewolves, in 241 pages, and with just as much sexual tension.

And Both Were Young was reissued in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2010; then in paperback by Square Fish in 2011. It is for ages 12 and up. I think the book would make a lovely Christmas gift for any female teen on your list who loves to read.

(And Both Were Young is available in hardcover, paperback, audio and e-book versions by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 11, 2011


The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy, Harcourt Brace & World, 1952, 255 pp

Another campus novel of the several I read this fall. (You Deserve Nothing; The Secret History) I wonder if Donna Tartt read Mary McCarthy. One difference from Tartt's book is that in The Groves of Academe the professors and President of Jocelyn College are the focus of the novel rather than the students. A similarity is that in both books the colleges are small and progressive though the stories are 30 years apart in time.

Henry Mulcahy, middle-aged, unsuccessful, overburdened, renegade literature instructor, gets a letter from President Maynard Hoar informing him that his appointment will not be confirmed in the next academic year. Henry has a wife and four children living with him in substandard conditions. They are permanently in debt and his wife has had health issues since the birth of their last child.

In desperation, he cooks up a plot based on exaggerations of his wife's condition and an untruthful account of his political past. He intimates these "facts" to one of his students and to a young, beautiful, Russian colleague in his department. The student is responsible for a viral rumor line and Domna Rejnev becomes his accomplice, tirelessly gathering faculty support for Mulcahy. The gist is that by means of pity and political pressure, President Hoar will be forced to keep Mulcahy. Hoar is a published opponent of the current loyalty oath and Mulcahy claims to have been a communist in his youth.

It is all quite complex to read about in 2011. As much as I have come across about the anti-communist witch hunts in the fiction of the early 1950s, I felt that I would have caught on faster if I had been reading the newspapers in those years. More than that, the political implications aside, the entire novel is a continuous spoof on colleges, progressive education, the claustrophobic infighting and personality conflicts on a small campus, topped off by a hilarious send up on poets.

Mary McCarthy is a perceptive, intellectually rigorous writer and assumes that her readers are on a similar level. She is also a savage satirist given to mocking pretensions and dearly held ideas. Once I got my head around the various views and vested interests of the characters, I was amused, intrigued and a victim of the suspense inherent in her story. Most hilarious of all, after all the drama is over, nothing really has changed. Life goes on at Jocelyn College.

This is McCarthy's third novel. She achieved bestseller status with her fifth, The Group, in 1962 and made her name through political journalism. I think her novels were almost too brilliant and intellectual for the male dominated publishing world of the 1940s and 1950s. I love fiction written by dazzlingly intelligent women. If only they could run the world.

The Groves of Academe is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011


A Case of Conscience, James Blish, Ballantine Books, 1958, 188 pp

I am not well read in the science fiction genre, but in comparing A Case of Conscience to science fiction novels I have read, it stands as one of the oddest. It won the Hugo Award in 1959.

A four man exploratory team is investigating Lithia, the first planet found so far with sentient life. The aliens are reptilian, have no experience of faith or religious belief, and their complete reliance on reason has produced a society devoid of evil or sin.

Father Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit and a biologist, is one member of this team, who are charged with recommending to their superiors what should be done with Lithia. The physicist on the team proposes making it into an atomic research planet, but the Jesuit decides it is a product of the Devil and wants it sealed off to protect mankind from temptation.

My only knowledge of Jesuit scientific philosophy come from Mary Doria Russell's excellent novel, The Sparrow. James Blish did nothing but confuse me as I attempted to follow the reasoning of Father Ruiz-Sanchez. (Hilarious plot element: the Jesuit is studying Ulysses by James Joyce to learn more about the Devil.)

In the second half of A Case of Conscience, the team returns to Earth with one of the alien creatures. This little Lithian grows up to become a psychopathic menace to society; a character who could have been created by Truman Capote. Is this supposed to prove the Jesuit's theory?

The book was actually a good exciting read. I just could not figure out what the author meant by his obviously deeply pondered theme of science vs religion. Does anyone want to help me out here?

(A Case of Conscience is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


My Brother Michael, Mary Stewart, William Morrow & Company, 1959, 255 pp

The Greek theme continues with Stewart's fifth mystery novel. Camilla Haven is traveling in Greece and feeling free after having left a long, stifling relationship but trying to regain her self-confidence. After a hair-raising drive from Athens to Delphi in a rented car, she finds herself mixed up with a mysterious Englishman named Simon.

Simon's idolized older brother Michael had met his death outside Delphi during World War II. His last letter to the family hinted at a find of great importance which Simon is determined to track down. Out of the recent past come Grecian revolutionaries who put Simon and Mary into danger.

Stewart's usual ingredients of a young English woman meeting up with romance and danger in a foreign country are embellished by excellent description of 1950s Greece combined with classical Greek history. Her characters are much more deeply developed than in the previous books and the romance is more mature.

Best of all is a whiff of the mythological invoking The Kindly Ones (also known as The Furies), whose ancient role was to wreak vengeance on mortals who wrongly committed murder. Simon and Camilla discover a cave containing a very old statue of Apollo, hidden away by devout worshipers, bringing the spiritual world of over 2000 years ago into the story.

I got a spine tingling sense that Ms Stewart was a good Greek scholar herself and had deftly woven that knowledge into her tale. She was telling us that the past is ever with us; the gods and goddesses never far away.

(My Brother Michael is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 07, 2011


The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2011, 416 pp

A new novel by Jeffrey Eugenides is a big event. It has been nine years since Middlesex. Though this is a much different sort of story I enjoyed it just as much.

The Marriage Plot begins in the middle of the story on the day of Madeleine Hannah's graduation from Brown University; the day after her breakup with Leonard and the morning after the kind of night you can never tell your parents about. Weaving between past and present, he brings the reader up to date on Madeleine's love triangle featuring Leonard , the brilliant but bipolar science geek and Mitchell, Religious Studies major of Greek descent whose dearest wish is to marry Madeleine. But Madeleine loves Leonard. But Leonard is crazy.

I mentioned the other day about the threads of college and Greece in my recent reading. Here they are again. Later in the story Mitchell goes on a quest for religious experience which begins in Greece.

Madeleine is an English major and on the first page alone, eleven authors are mentioned. She met Leonard in a semiotics seminar and her senior thesis is called "The Marriage Plot." A reading geek like me just loves books about books and writers and stories and plots.

For the remainder of the novel Eugenides moves around the triangle until we know all three characters about as well as you can know anyone. I became intimately involved with both the manic and the depressive Leonard. I followed Mitchell as he searched for the meaning of his life. And while Madeleine can be maddening with her middle class ideas about cleanliness, relationships and duty, she is also admirable for wanting the independence and selfhood promised to young women in the 1980s. I wanted all three characters to get what they wanted even though it was impossible.

Eugenides has a way of meandering with his own plots, but he still burrowed into my heart. With plenty of humor he satirizes the early 80s and especially the Semiotics era of literary instruction. "Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights."

He is wordy, his prose is never flashy. Like a good friend telling an overlong story, he goes on and on, but the result is an immersion into a time, a place, and a big idea. Hermaphroditism is a big idea. Romantic love is a bigger idea. But Madeleine and her boyfriends are not ideas. They are unique individuals newly graduated from college who are each discovering how to turn their passions into a life that can be lived.

Ultimately The Marriage Plot is very much a moral tale while at the same time being a literary romp through 80s style sex, love and marriage. I think both women who don't hate themselves and men who like women will find it absorbing.

(The Marriage Plot is available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available by order in eBook and audio editions.)

Sunday, November 06, 2011


Advise and Consent, Allen Drury, Doubleday and Company, 1959, 760 pp

One of the burdens of My Big Fat Reading Project is slogging my way through long tomes like Advise and Consent. It was the #4 bestseller in 1959 and went on to be the #1 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner in 1960. The New York Times Book Review stated, "Advise and Consent will stand as one of the finest and most gripping political novels of our era..." The book stayed on that paper's bestseller list for over 100 weeks!

It is the story of a fictional American President's attempt to put a new Secretary of State into his cabinet, an action which requires confirmation by the Senate. Robert Leffingwell, the nominee, is seen as an appeaser of Communist Russia by the more conservative senators but is a darling of the liberals. The fight to get Leffingwell confirmed is down and dirty, ruining lives and causing great upheaval in the Senate.

Interestingly, though I was being taught the forms of United States government in high school during the same time the book was popular, not much of it stayed with me. I had to do a quick review of Congressional terminology and positions, but once I got a grip on ranks such as Majority Leader, President of the Senate, Senior Senator, etc, the characters and their battles came alive. Reading the book then became an education in how the Senate works; its relationship to the Presidency, the media, and the voters back home; as well as the daily life of a Senator. (You could not pay me enough to be a Senator and I was confirmed in my belief that democracy in practice differs widely from it high flown ideals.)

Advise and Consent is not the pageturner its fans claim it to be, but it is a dramatic story still read today and is considered to have started a genre: political novels set in Washington, DC. Allen Drury, who started his professional life as a US Senate correspondent for United Press International, became a ponderous fiction author. His attention to detail drove me to distraction, his characterizations are complex but artless, and he repeats himself. Compared to a civics textbook however, the book is wildly exciting and humanized the Congressional men and women we hear about in the news.

I am glad I read it. The novel did more to explain the 1950s and 1960s American views on communism that almost anything else I have read so far.

(Advise and Consent is out of print and only available in libraries and from used booksellers.)

Saturday, November 05, 2011


Prospero Regained, L Jagi Lamplighter, Tom Doherty Associates, 2011, 476 pp

Prospero Regained is the final book in the Prospero's Daughter trilogy. The entire series is an impressive feat of fantasy writing that stands up to the accomplishments of such bestsellers as China Mieville, Philip Pullman and JRR Tolkein. This final volume was the best of all. The mysteries, the supernatural enemies and the purposes of the Prospero family introduced in the first two volumes are all fully explained and revealed. Each of Miranda's siblings and Miranda herself find the strength to rise above his or her flaws and overcome the demons who plague them. I give nothing away when I say this because Miranda's deepest desires and the future of Prospero Inc, not to mention the future of humanity are all at stake and the suspense is palpable.

To fully enjoy Prospero Regained you really must read the whole series in order. (See my reviews of Prospero Lost and Prospero in Hell.) This final volume takes place for the most part in Hell. Many of the earlier mythical creatures, friends and foes, make appearances and we finally meet Prospero himself. Miranda's love for the elf Astreus goes through surprising developments and we learn who her mother really was. After losing her connection to the Goddess Eurynome in the last book, Miranda gets another chance for redemption.

Underlying the suspense, adventure and mystery is a strong sense of hope for mankind and the world. Lamplighter draws from a deep well of mythological and centuries old religious wisdom meshing it together ingeniously. I finished these books with much of my faith in mankind and in the power of personal integrity restored; something I sorely needed at this time in my life.

(Prospero Regained is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, November 03, 2011


The Secret History, Donna Tartt, Alfred A Knopf, 1992, 524 pp

My October reading was a month of books set in schools and books with references to the Greeks. The Secret History fell into both categories. I read the book for a reading group meeting that never happened. It was chosen by the group's leader because it is one of her all time favorite books. It took me a full week to read and it did not become one of my all time favorite books, yet it left a strong impression. It is a book I will never forget.

The school theme actually began for me in September, appropriately enough, with Alexander Masik's You Deserve Nothing, featuring the charismatic teacher Will Silver. The Secret History (set in Vermont at Hamden College, a fictional somewhat progressive institution and featuring five students and their eccentric Greek professor Julian Morrow) follows these students through one year during which they commit two murders and try to live with the hell they have created for themselves.

Steeped in literary references, the chill of a Vermont winter, the peculiar madnesses that afflict each character, the novel is atmospheric, dreamlike, and haunting. All of the above are elements in many unforgettable books I have loved: The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfeld; The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruis Zafon; Atonement, by Ian McEwan; The Likeness, by Tana French and many more. Curious that I can't think of any written by Americans.

Donna Tartt is clearly well read and brilliant. It makes sense that she was raised in Mississippi and educated in New England. The students in the novel are the sort of oddball tortured misfits I always sought out in college. But I had one heck of a time reading the novel.

The plot takes forever to get going. Huge chunks of text go by with the five friends just hanging out and each one of these chunks felt like a repeat of the ones that came before. Richard Papen, who tells the tale and is something of an outsider in the group because of his widely different roots and upbringing, spends pages maundering about what happened. He is a pawn in the strange games that these kids are acting out and gets used and fooled by everyone else. He is also not quite believable as a male though he acts more like a guy that the other three male friends while he falls in love with Camilla, the only female. Camilla herself is practically androgynous.

Even in the second half of the book, where an actual plot becomes apparent, I felt I could not grab hold of anything to anchor me as a reader. Possibly that is a problem most of us had in college. What with the drinking, the drugs, the casual sex, the bad food and the lack of sleep, it all becomes an amorphous daze until we either dropped out or graduated.

Which goes a long way to explaining why the novel has hung around and haunted me for the past two weeks since I finished it. College is a strange rite of passage during which people aged 18 to 21 are not really responsible for anything yet have left home. Somehow one's college years don't count for much in the real world, whether you studied your head off, partied continuously or committed murder. Yet whatever one did in those years follows you for the rest of your life just as deeply as if you had spent those years fighting in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. At least that seems to be Richard's conclusion ten years later.

I might need to read The Secret History again someday. By the way, after I finished the book I found a website called Book Drum with a deconstruction of this novel. All the phrases in other languages are translated, the cultural references explained, and the literary figures introduced. Working my way through all that explication, I had to admit that Donna Tartt is way more intelligent and much better educated than I. Part of my problem with her novel may have been that I was in over my head.

(The Secret History is available in hardcover, paperback and audio cassette by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)