Friday, November 30, 2012


A Partial History of Lost Causes, Jennifer duBois, The Dial Press, 2012, 369 pp

After a series of less than wonderful reads, I wanted to read a book that just called out to me from my shelves. I chose this book for its title. Also because it is set partly in Russia and I am a sucker for books set in any time period of that country. I was so rewarded!

It is not a perfect novel, whatever that means. Ms duBois is young, named one the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" for 2012. This is her first novel though according to her bio she has studied hard and practiced much. All of that speaks well for her but I think her biggest asset is her imagination.

The story opens as Aleksandr arrives in 1979 Leningrad, a young chess prodigy having traveled for six days from the extreme eastern end of Russia. He is unsophisticated and clueless, but has escaped a hopeless, dreary life and dares to hope for his future. His arrival coincides with Stalin's centenary and within a year he will have survived the indignities of substandard communist housing, the cold, and the chess academy, while befriending a wanted trio of dissidents and falling in love.

In the second chapter Irina begins her story. It is 2006 in Cambridge, MA. Irina learned to play chess from her father, a college level music teacher, fierce student of Cold War politics, and eccentric, who died of Huntington's disease. Irina observed at close hand his ten years of decline and death. Knowing that Huntington's is hereditary, she got herself tested and learned at age 22 that she had a 50% chance of hitting the onset of symptoms at age 32.

Meanwhile, Alexandr became the chess champion of the Soviet Union; Irina's father had sent him a letter and received a reply but not an answer to an impassioned question. So began the connection which powers the plot.

When I was in college, one of my best friends got cancer and was given a year to live. She had been blind since the age of three but was an extremely adventurous, empowered person. She rode bikes, knitted, played guitar and was doing extremely well at the University of Michigan. She spent the last year of her life touring the world.

In 2004, my father died in an Alzheimers home after his own decade of decline. I have a slight worry about going that way myself. I often wonder if I should just throw caution to the wind and live as wildly and dangerously as I can before I fall into any sort of reduced condition. That may be why I loved this book so much.

When Irina turns 30, she goes to Russia looking for Alexandr. Her father's question in his letter was, "How does one proceed in a lost cause?" By this time, Alexandr has faced a few lost causes of his own. Irina needs an answer. She has become equal parts depressed and driven.

I did not love every page. Ms duBois weaves a convoluted tale. Irina is hard to know, maddening at times; Alexandr a most unlikely hero; St Petersburg and Moscow dangerous, mysterious cities protecting secrets both ancient and modern. I often felt lost and confused, but never was I tempted to give up reading. Ultimately what is a mash-up of tragedy, philosophy, humor, and adventure came together in marvelous ways and a finale of hope for the world.

(A Partial History of Lost Causes is now out in paperback. It is available as an eBook as well by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 26, 2012


The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1968, 432 pp

After finishing Back to Blood, I felt curious about Tom Wolfe's beginnings. My beginning with Tom Wolfe was reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1969. I married my first husband in April of that year and we set out on our "honeymoon" which was really a glorified road trip across the country from Ann Arbor to San Francisco, inspired by Kerouac's On the Road. We camped the whole way, intending to end up as teachers in a "free school" in San Fran. 

Reading Acid Test was our preparation, our Rick Steves. We were among the hippest drug-taking heads in Ann Arbor but wanted to be sure we were cool enough for Haight Ashbury. As it turned out, I was most assuredly not.

Reading the book again some forty years later was actually a fabulous experience (fabulous meaning "resembling a fable; of an incredible, astonishing or exaggerated nature" (Webster's dictionary.) It recaptured for me the entire mindset we had at the time: the mistrust and disgust we had for middle class values and morality; the disregard for authority and cops and the war in Vietnam; the pure hatred for the military industrial complex; the willingness to ingest any drug; the utter trust and camaraderie we had with all hippies.

Wolfe was already an engaging writer. Acid Test is nonfiction but reads like a novel. I recognized in Ken Kesey the birth of the quintessential Wolfe hero: a guy who drops out of his respected role in society and becomes a desperate, sometimes failing, often wanted man, spurred on by a vision and a quest for meaning. I wonder if Tom Wolfe had ingested Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces, another seminal text for literate hippies, which was curiously reissued in 1968.

Weird side note: In Back to Blood, the main protagonist Nestor Comacho, pulls himself up a rope, hand over hand, without using his feet, in his first manic feat of the novel. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (on page 385 in the original hardcover Book Club edition I got from the library) Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters plan a similar manic feat. By this time Kesey is wanted, jail-bait in fact, for numerous drug busts, so they are planning the Acid Test of all time at Winterland in San Francisco. All the cops will be there checking out all the stoned people and looking for Kesey. At midnight on Halloween, "Kesey, masked and disguised in a Superhero costume...will come up on stage and deliver his vision of the future, of the way 'beyond acid.' Who is this apocalyptic--Then he will will rip off his mask--Why-it's Ken Kee-zee!-and as the law rushes for him, he will leap up on a rope hanging down from the roof at center stage and climb, hand over hand, without even using his legs, his cape flying, straight up, up, up, up through a trap door in the roof, to where Babbs will be waiting with a helicopter,...and they will ascend into the California ozone looking down one last time..."

That was the current fantasy for the day. Either you were on the bus or off the bus. Did it happen? No spoilers here. I'm just saying that Wolfe felt the need to use the prank again 44 years later.


(The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is available in paperback or eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe, Little Brown and Company, 2012, 704 pp

How does Tom Wolfe annoy his readers? Let me count the ways:

He inserts a cartoon-like soundtrack into his prose: 

     "SMACK the Safe Boat bounces airborne comes down again SMACK on another swell in the bay bounces up again comes down SMACK on another swell and SMACK bounces airborne with emergency horns police Crazy Lights exploding SMACK in a demented sequence SMACK..."

This goes on intermittently for 10 pages in the first chapter.

He illustrates with words in explicit detail the inner visions and outward activities of the pornographically inclined male. 

His female characters are weak, vacillating creatures who chase after men, using their sex appeal to acquire money, status, or material goods except when they are pushy, demanding witches harrying men they have already captured for the same desires.

He freely admits to writing "realism" and does it so well that some 21st century readers, perhaps accustomed to a more glossed over, air-brushed approach, just get annoyed, taking him much too seriously and missing the fact that he is mostly making fun of us.

Back to Blood is about immigration and sex and Miami and sex and art crime and sex and city politics and sex and manhood. Tom Wolfe's Miami is a city where African Americans, Cubans, and various other Latinos outnumber white people. The Blacks and Latinos live in a continuous state of mocking the whites while wanting what they have.

Specifically, 25-year-old Nestor Camacho, second generation Cuban, buff and ripped in his cop shades and extra tight uniform, is clawing his way up in the Miami police force. After an utterly manic and heroic feat, during which he saves a Cuban refugee only to have the poor fellow sent back to Cuba, Nestor loses respect among his own people while his girlfriend leaves him, all in one day.

Magdelena did not dump Nestor for betraying their people. She wasn't even watching the news. She is living with her boss, Dr Norman Lewis, a media whore, a psychiatrist who treats porn addicts, including one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in Miami. Magdelena is lusting after the luxury of sleek automobiles and fancy parties, and the attention her voluptuous Latina beauty elicits.

Miami has a Cuban mayor and an African American chief of police who co-exist in an uneasy alliance. The Miami Herald, owned by the newspaper conglomerate from Chicago which owns most of America's major newspapers these days, is edited by a spineless, white guy who was shipped in from the Midwest and hopes to make his mark. He is unknowingly harboring the ambitions John Smith, a young white reporter who recently graduated from Yale with his journalist idealism intact.

Like a pyramid with serious structural flaws, Miami's immigrant base supports an apex of wealthy whites who most recently have erected an art museum, funded by contributions and filled with what are rumored to be copies of famous, priceless paintings. Nestor, the cop and John Smith, the young journalist, form an alliance of their own, as they sleuth their way through Russian oligarchs and gangsters to the truth about this art scandal. Will their rash and youthful bravado bring down their corrupt superiors? Or will money, privilege, white skin and crime prevail?

I have been reading Tom Wolfe for decades, from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, through A Man in Full. The manic rhythms and hip verbosity of his prose are instantly recognizable while he repeats various tropes, including a propensity for naming and counting the musculature of male characters as well as the delights of female bodies. Though I have acquired a taste for his methods, many were the times I threw down Back to Blood and vowed to read no further, weary of the same old stuff and wondering if he hadn't passed his prime. Had he really gone too far this time?

But I was drawn back by the plot, by my curiosity as to where he was going with his story and what would happen to the characters, especially Nestor the cop, Magdelena the slut, and John Smith, the reporter. They represent the new blood of our times. We see Miami through their eyes, though they often sound more like the author than themselves. 

Critics abound who complain that Wolfe does not begin to measure up to the finest literary authors. To me, that is like complaining that Tom Clancy doesn't write good romance. Wolfe tells a good, rollicking story and if rumors about the size of his advance for Back to Blood are remotely true, he doesn't write for the critics. He writes for his own amusement and to give his readers a good time.

(Back to Blood is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 19, 2012


The Year We Left Home, Jean Thompson, Simon & Schuster, 2011, 325 pp

In this moving novel, Jean Thompson follows a small-town Iowan family through thirty years of changes beginning in 1973. Those are the years when the insulated, land-bound Midwest was invaded by every social and economic upheaval and became once and for all, for better or for worse, integrated into American life.

The Erickson family came from a long line of hardworking stoic Norwegian farmers, but the most recent generation is having nothing to do with all that. The blows to patriotism brought about by Vietnam, the economic devastation of the farm crisis, drugs, feminism, and marketing have driven wedges into the family unit.

I have not been a fan of novels composed of connected short stories but Jean Thompson mastered the form. Each chapter ends abruptly, leaving the reader hanging from the proverbial literary cliff, the next chapter begins at an unspecified later time, yet she made it all meld into satisfying character development and exciting plot twists. Finally in a sadder but wiser tone, she ties up all loose ends.

A large part of my extended family are Midwestern people, descended from immigrant farmers. They are of sturdy stock, strong on religion, family, morality, and thrift. The women could usually stand up to anything, unless they broke down early. Most problems were solved by food, I suppose because for farmers food was forever available even when money was scarce. The men worked until they dropped unless they were sickly. God was always on their side though He worked in mysterious ways.

I have first hand experience of the bewilderment such people suffered in the face of kids who would rather get high, young women who would rather get a job than stay at home, all of us who followed rock bands, food fads, Eastern religions, and free love. The Year We Left Home captures these changes with just the right tone.

The Ericksons' story is sad, even tragic at times, but not hopeless. It is filled with sharp-eyed humor but is not ironic. I read it in one day. I loved it.

(The Year We Left Home is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Truman, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 1992, 992 pp

I am 65 years old. I have spent my whole life thinking that politics was stupid and not worth knowing anything about; that even in a democracy, politics and therefore government offered no solution to the troubles of mankind. Now I have to eat at least some of my words and admit that as an American it is important for me to have a glimmering of how politics works. That is what reading this endless biography about Truman did for me.

I read it, in part, as research for my memoir. Harry S Truman was President the year I was born. I was inspired to read it because of a blog I discovered some months ago: At Times Dull. "In which Janet reads a biography of each American President in chronological order, learning things about America, its presidents, and the fact that the phrase 'at times dull' finds its way into every review of every presidential biography ever written." 

Janet has apparently had to turn her attention to making a living (she is a staff writer for The Millions.) She got as far as Abraham Lincoln and has not posted on her blog for several months. But her proposed reading list includes McCullough's biography of Truman. It was at many times dull.

Ever since I was a hippie and took a firm position as anti-war, I figured I had to hate Harry S Truman because it was his decision which unleashed two atomic bombs upon the world. Now my eyes have been pried open as to what factors lay behind that decision. Two realizations followed:

1) Truman inherited WWII in much the same way that Obama inherited a decimated economy and the War on Terror. When things get that screwed up, the options shrink in terms of making decisions.

2) Truman, at least as presented by McCullough, was one of the more qualified presidents we have had due to a large amount of sheer nerve and having an unshakable moral compass.

So I'm glad I read it, glad I persisted all the way to the end. I know there is always more to learn but it makes me happy when I actually do learn new things.

I still hold most of the views I've held but without a deeper understanding of how the world actually works, those views are just pipe dreams. I would not ever want to work in politics or be the President of the United States, but I am now more interested in being involved in determining the presidents we get. (Yes, I voted!)

(Truman is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 12, 2012


The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton, D Appleton and Company, 1920, 362 pp

I had the idea that I didn't like Edith Wharton but in fact I had only read one other of her novels, The House of Mirth. I read it in 2000 and I wrote in my reading journal that I found Wharton to be an excellent writer and had enjoyed the book very much.

I also enjoyed The Age of Innocence; in fact I liked it more than the movie which I remembered as being excellent. Even though she is blond, Michelle Pfeiffer played the Countess to perfection; Winona Ryder captured May; and Daniel Day-Lewis was splendid as Newland Archer. I know that Scorcese's favorite color is red but he may have gone overboard with it in that movie.

While Newland Archer was as spineless in the movie as he was in the novel, there was a distinct difference when it came to the women. It was the women who actually ran things in Wharton's portrait of upper class Old New York. Behind the scenes they spoke to each other in a special language, almost a code, as found in Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Propriety and maintaining the status quo were the touchstones among those females, constraining even the Countess and meaning that passion did not stand a chance. Newland Archer had no clue that he had been manipulated. He only knew that somehow the Countess got away from him.

I am not in favor of such feminine scheming. It only serves as a backlash to male patriarchal oppression and prevents the human male from attaining enough enlightenment to allow a parity between the sexes. I do however have to admire Wharton's stunning literary feat in portraying it so well.

1921 was the fourth year the Pulitzer Prize was awarded. Edith Wharton was the first woman to take the prize for a novel. She made me pity Newland and the Countess, she made me never want a female adversary such as May. Most of all she added immeasurably to my awareness of how women and men make each other miserable.

(The Age of Innocence is available on the Classics shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 09, 2012


The Detour, Andromeda Romano-Lax, Soho Press, 2012, 320 pp

Andromeda Romano-Lax is worthy of being much more widely known. In other words, she would be loved, feted, and sought after if she were promoted more. But she is not published by one of the big houses and she doesn't write about vampires or sado-masochistic love affairs. Soho Press is fairly small in today's publishing scheme of things. For what it is worth, I am here to tell you that she is truly a great writer.

The Detour is her second novel, following the wonderful Spanish Bow. Again it is historical and lies on the fault line between art and politics. If it were not so beautifully written, it would be labeled a historical thriller. The unwitting Ernst Vogler, thinking he is really getting somewhere in the Third Reich, has been sent to Rome to pick up a famous ancient marble statue, The Discus Thrower. 

All he has to do is get it to the Italian/German border and turn it over to the Gestapo. The Fuhrer has added art thief to his roster of dastardly deeds, but it turns out he has gotten in over his head. There are more dastardly art thieves who are counting on Hitler's sudden interest in art to raise the stakes.

Ernst Vogler has a sorrowful past including an alcoholic and abusive working class father and a secret physical deformity. In the 1938 world of Germany's fascination with youthful physical perfection, Ernst has nothing going for him except his recently acquired position with Hitler's Sonderprojekte (translates as Special Project.) On all levels, personal, political, and passionate (the young man is an art geek bordering on obsessive), he needs to make good.

Of course nothing goes right and Vogler spends the entire story getting a grip, finding his strengths and losing his innocence both politically and in matters of the heart. Once the novel gets going, it is a hair-raising bloody tale filled with desperate characters both Italian and German.

This was the first book I downloaded onto the iPad I got for my birthday in August, so I had to overcome two barriers. I got 22 pages in and felt so adrift that I quit reading it for two months, blaming my troubles on being an eReader virgin. But truthfully, the novel has a slow, confusing opening that does not draw the reader into the story. Risky!

Once I got back to reading it, I saw that the author was putting me directly and immediately into Ernst Vogler's viewpoint: his lack of self confidence, his bumbling ways, and his confusion about what was happening with the statue he revered. The protagonist's traits became mine as a reader. Risky indeed!

Ernst finally completes the transaction with the Italian art dealer and gets the statue loaded onto a truck. He has hired two drivers, Italian twins, but doesn't speak Italian. He can barely decipher the map they are following. Eventually it dawns on him that they are far off from the planned route to the border and have taken a detour for reasons known only to the drivers.

Underlying what becomes a thrilling tale is the theme of the ways that evil infects those who become involved with it. The reader perceives all this through the eyes and mind of Ernst. The lulls in the plot serve to depict this young man's dawning self-knowledge. He moves away from the fear that was driving him into the most intense human involvement he has known thus far in his short life.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012


The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Muriel Spark, J B Lippincott Company, 1960, 160 pp

As usual, Muriel Spark was enough over my head that I finished this highly comic novel and was not quite sure what I had just read.

Peckham Rye is a small town outside London and the setting for all kinds of poking fun at members of the English lower middle class. These characters dwell amongst their stodgy British habits but carry on in quite a modern style for the times. Lots of illicit sex going on, gossip and rumor of course.

When Dougal Douglas comes to town and insinuates himself into two rival companies as a "human research" man, ostensibly to improve productivity and thereby profits, he upsets many fixed conditions. He is quite the con man, hardly ever shows up at work, has the business owners completely fooled and messes with various relationships in the town.

If I were to give the novel my own title, it might be "Sympathy for the Devil." It is clever, dastardly, and no one escapes this man's antics including the reader. Though each character is an archetype, or at least a type, they have at the same time a unique humanness. 

Muriel Spark has taken the mannered, upper class English novel and turned it on its head. Dougal Douglas does his human research, looking for the fatal flaw in each subject. Thus does the author release the fatal flaw concept from its association with heros and grants the condition to everyman.

(The Ballad of Peckham Rye is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 04, 2012


Nine Days To Christmas, Marie Hall Ets & Aurora Labastida, Viking Press, 1959, 44 pp


The Caldecott Award winner in 1960 was a co-production between an author of Mexican heritage and an American illustrator. Unfortunately it is out of print and I could not even find a good image of the cover which would do justice to the illustration.

Ceci is a kindergartner who is finally old enough to stay up for a Mexican Christmas celebration called "Posadas," celebrated for nine days at the homes of different families with the final party on Christmas Eve.

This lucky little girl gets to have her own pinata! The story covers her anticipation and excitement, a day of shopping for the pinata, and the event itself.

The illustrations are pen and ink with splashes of pink, orange and yellow. I think they show how kids see the world. The pen and ink parts are just the background that children take for granted. The splashes of color are the things they actually see.

Ceci's family is clearly well-to-do, so I got the feeling of a middle class Mexican family living somewhere in an American city with a Mexican shopping area. But the book could also have been set in a Mexican city.

Typically, five-year-old Ceci is enchanted with her pinata and cries when it gets broken to release the treats inside. While the rest of the kids scramble for oranges and candies, she stands behind a tree. Her imaginative take on the experience is lovely.

Most interesting to me is that Nine Days to Christmas is the first Caldecott winner to address a multicultural topic, a sign of the new decade.


Saturday, November 03, 2012


White Teeth, Zadie Smith, Random House Inc, 2000, 448 pp

If literary fiction could always, or at least more often, be as good as this...well, I guess I would be an even more voracious reader than I am. I decided to read White Teeth before I jumped into NW because I read somewhere that both books are set in the same neighborhood of Northwest London. I have not felt as satisfied as I did while reading White Teeth in quite a while--well except for two weeks earlier when I read Telegraph Avenue.

In fact the two books have some parallels. Both throw together families of varying backgrounds who are joined together by a friendship between two men. Both are grounded in a neighborhood and poke around into what makes people the way they are.

I have only been to London once when I was a teen, but I could see, even smell, the setting of this book. I think watching movies helps, but the descriptions put me there, in the streets, in the apartments, restaurants, bars, and schools.

Working class Archie Jones and Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal have been friends since fighting together in World War II, when one saved the other's life. Samad lost the use of one hand and Archie has a piece of metal forever in his thigh. Archie's second wife Clara is the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant who is a devout Jehovah's Witness. Samad's wife came to him via an arranged marriage in the Deshi community. Each man in his own way is bewildered by his offspring as well as by his wife, not to mention the pace of life in the last decade of the century and the millennium. 

Smith uses multiple viewpoints and various bits of history which she calls "root canals" to build the intertwining strands of three families. The children of Archie and Samad get tangled up with a middle class English family, the Chalfens: progressive, liberal, educated idiots with their beliefs in science, psychology and enlightened parenting. 

They all have white teeth. The each want love, a better life, a belief in something beyond themselves. That sounds serious but they ricochet off each other in the most comic ways. White Teeth is a comedy show and a reality show resting on a keen awareness and observance of the multicultural lives we now lead.

Though Zadie Smith takes her time developing the stories of these characters, she begins right off with a sense of tension, maintaining it at a disturbing steadily intensifying rate until the final explosion. Really, I had no idea where she was taking me but went willingly only to have it brought home to me that these root canals are reproduced in every generation.

"But first the endgames. Because it seems no matter what you think of them, they must be played, even if, like the independence of India or Jamaica, like the signing of peace treaties or the docking of passenger boats, the end is simply the beginning of an even longer story."

(White Teeth is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)