Tuesday, January 29, 2013


The Fault in Our Stars, John Green, Dutton Books, 2012, 194 pp

Here I go with the second book I read from the Tournament of Books list, another book I was not ever going to read because of the subject matter. I know I am going against the grain here because it won four awards and is that rare book that has 5 stars everywhere you look. But I was right. I did not need to read this book.

In another way, I'm not sorry I did. It was an informative example of a certain type of emotional enslavement accomplished by writing fiction. Call me what you want but I am not an emotionally cold person. I have strong feelings across the entire spectrum every day. When it comes to writing of any kind though, I subscribe to Wordsworth's dictum that "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." 

Some subjects are still too raw and unprocessed, at least to me, and though I would never endeavor to suppress the creativity or right to communicate of any artist, such subjects must be handled with extreme care in order to produce what I consider art. I understand that this view is utterly personal and that is as it should be.

Having said all that, I also am aware that a large proportion of our society just loves to be emotionally manipulated in ways that I find abusive. This is equally true of the lesser proportion of people who read books. Hence the wild popularity of certain books with reading groups, hence Oprah Winfrey, Dr Phil, etc. Hence most of what is on TV and our news coverage these days and the astonishing pervasiveness of marketing in shaping our society. I won't even begin on our political process.

It was not lost on me that the book Hazel reads over and over turns out to have been written by an alcoholic psychopath. Because adolescence is the most highly charged emotional period of life, it is not surprising that many teens loved The Fault in Our Stars. I don't begrudge them that. But the fault in John Green is that he should have been more careful and less emotionally abusive, because he is a good YA writer and could have pulled it off.

One more thing: (from Chapter 4) "Cancer kids are essentially side effects of the relentless mutation that made the diversity of life on earth possible." Really? Hazel says it but where did that idea come from? I searched the web but only found references to John Green's book. If this idea is part of current cancer research I would like to know how it came about. Does anyone know?

(The Fault in Our Stars is available in hardcover on the Young Adult shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, January 26, 2013


Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, Crown, 2012, 444 pp

OK. I have read one of the most talked about books of 2012. I read Sharp Objects last year and didn't like it much, so I was not going to read Gone Girl, but it is on the Tournament of Books list.

So. Plotting leading to compulsive page turning. Check.
The two voices of the wife, the one of the husband. Check. (But an overused device these days.)
The Patricia Highsmith influence. Check.
The surprising twist at the end. That was the best part of the book.

Bad parents do produce dysfunctional offspring sometimes (Flynn's theme in both books, it seems) and often, said offspring never recover. Sometimes great parents, like mine, produce troubled offspring. There are no answers in Gone Girl.

My opinion: the good points including the timeliness (about the current economic scene), do not make up for a novel that is mostly a spectator sport. It might make a good movie. Keep your eyes peeled for that.

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

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Faithful Place, Tana French, Viking, 2010, 400 pp

Tana French manages never to write the same book twice while staying in her police procedural/mystery genre, her location in Dublin, Ireland, and among the same main characters, all members of the Dublin Murder Squad.

Frank Mackey, the cynical and controlling Undercover guy who put Cassie Maddox in harm's way over and over again in The Likeness, shows his softer side. Faithful Place is a street in one of the most downscale neighborhoods of Dublin and is where Frank grew up. The whole lower-class Irish life, complete with abusive alcoholic father, crazy controlling mother, and squabbling siblings, provides the setting that made Frank who he is.

But even assholes can have fallen in love once, lost that love, and become cynical. As a matter of fact, the same thing happened to Frank's father but Frank managed to get out of his personal ghetto when he became a cop. Turns out, as always, that you can't get the ghetto out of the man.

French is at her best, again, combining murder, plot, and personal turmoil. It is almost ridiculously easy to read her novels yet she never lets up with the literary writing or the deep characters. I hope she never lets up period and keeps on giving me a new novel to love every two years.

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

Sunday, January 20, 2013


NW, Zadie Smith, The Penguin Press, 2012, 401 pp

My husband is a recording engineer and sound mixer. He is also one of the most tasteful guitarists I know. He spends his days recording and mixing music for both professional clients and his songwriter friends.

He is always studying and learning from the masters. One morning he played for me a comparison demo he had set up to show the results of what has come to be called the Loudness Wars. Since the 1980s, recorded music has gotten louder and louder. It started out as a kind of King of the Hill thing: the louder the CD, the more it would stand out, particularly on the radio. The result is that the contemporary wall of loudness has submerged the clarity of the human voice, the brilliance of solo instruments, and the punch of the drums.

I could go into the technical nuances of Zadie Smith's writing in NW and they are many, making her latest novel a challenging read. I finished her book a week and a half before writing this review. After listening to my husband's demo, I suddenly saw the brilliance of NW.

Fiction is tales of the myriad particulars of the human condition. Each novel gives us the big picture of human life by telling the details which make up a certain group of characters in certain times and places. My main beef with the modern world is a relentless extinction of the details due to factors like marketing and the internet, until a homogenization of the particulars brings about an ennui of sameness. In what I would call current popular fiction, it all begins to sound alike. We read what is the agreed upon synthesis of emotion, experience, and possibility for life.

NW takes place in a neighborhood of London where this homogenization effect is in process but not by any means complete. The characters are in various stages of either resisting or flowing with the process.

Thus I got the nuances, the exotic differences, the extinction factors, and the pressures to conform because of the techniques used by the author. Most of all I got the psychic distress experienced by each character. Once again, it is the end of the world as we know it and Zadie Smith bears witness.

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

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


The Chapman Report, Irving Wallace, Simon and Schuster Inc, 1960, 383 pp

The #4 bestseller of 1960 is yet another confirmation that the 60s was THE decade when sex took its place of prominence in fiction. Now it is a commonplace, almost required or expected in contemporary fiction, but by the end of the 1950s most of the big censorship cases against sexually explicit novels had been defeated and the Pandora's Box of literature was forever opened.

Too bad then that The Chapman Report is also an example of the worst trashy bestseller writing; so bad it made me laugh. But Wallace made his point: when you get women talking about their sex lives, anything can happen.

A team of sex researchers are finishing their rounds of surveys in a Los Angeles suburb. The location is fictional but resembles a mix of the Santa Monica/Brentwood/Bel Air neighborhoods. The women are married, widowed, or divorced. They are also well-off and many have small children. Additionally, each female character is a type: nympho, intellectual, frigid, Daddy's girl, adulteress, and driven career woman. The lives of each of these women blow up once they begin to participate in the interviews.

Wallace has a second point to make: a soulless, scientific, numerical approach to female sexual practices leaves out the emotional life of these women. It was after this book that Erica Jong and others came along in the 1970s to reveal the female side of the story.

Wallace, a prolific journalist and screenwriter, clearly did his research. The major sex researchers of the day and their conflicts with each other are mentioned, including Alfred Kinsey. Wallace claimed that his researcher is not based on Kinsey or any of the others. Having read T C Boyle's The Inner Circle, a novel based on the life of Kinsey, I beg to differ.

In the end, despite the laughable prose, this melodramatic and juicy story was a titillating read. Apparently the American reading public of 1960 also found it to be so.

(The Chapman Report is out of print but can be found as a used paperback, an eBook, and in audible form by searching the internet.)

Friday, January 11, 2013


How the Dead Dream, Lydia Millet, Counterpoint, 2008, 244 pp

I have always meant to read Lydia Millet. Instead of starting with her first novel, as I usually do, I decided to begin with the first of her trilogy.

How the Dead Dream is an intriguing title. I was expecting something like Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead. I didn't get that but I got something equally astounding and good.

A curious mix of dry humor, tragedy, and unique characters makes up the story of T. As a boy he grows up with a reverence for money and institutions. He becomes a savvy and successful real estate developer only to be felled in the end by loss. After learning the truth about his distant and indifferent father, finding and losing the love of his life, and taking on the burden of his loopy, Christian, and somewhat senile mother, T turns to animals for comfort and answers.

Not just any animals but animals who are on the verge of extinction become his obsession. When Barbara Kingsolver writes about what mankind is doing to each other and the environment, she lays it on the line in no uncertain terms. Lydia Millet takes a different approach.

By way of T's gradually developing awareness of how the practices that have made him successful are the very actions causing losses in the natural world, Millet shows the answers to two of my most perplexing questions: how will mankind ever wake up to the damage being done and will we wake up in time to avert our own extinction? Her answer to the first is, very slowly. To the second, possibly not.

One of the recent developments in writing style is evident in How the Dead Dream. It is a certain deadpan, reportorial, removed voice. I am coming across it more and more in contemporary fiction and sometimes find it disconcerting. I wonder if the trend in non-fiction writing toward a more creative, literary style is having an inverse effect on fiction toward a fact-based journalistic style.

Millet took me into the psyche of T but with a distinct lack of sentiment. And yet, when he loses his girlfriend, her rendering of the grief process is one of the best I have ever read. Some of the scenes between T and animals have the potential to rend the heart with a Steven Spielberg-type sentimentality, but she never crosses that line. She keeps her distance. It is as though she were practicing tough love on her readers, saying this is what real life is made up of, so you better just suck it up and keep trying for some semblance of being admirable.

In the end, the book did not end but left me hanging. Then I remembered it was the first of a trilogy and there is more to come. Some readers complain about author manipulation. I've never been much bothered by it. I expect an author to have her way with me. Why else would I read so much? Along with the voice I mentioned above, Millet's prose is also poetic, even other worldly at times.

Reader, beware. You will be manipulated and you might just like it.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013


Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell, Random House Inc, 2004, 509 pp

What can I say? I had a hard time with this book, extremely hard. If it hadn't been made into a movie this year, it would still be on my shelf where it has been for many years and I would still be filled with the anticipation of a great read. But the movie was released, I have read the book, and I feel like a failure because I did not really love it and I can't gush.

All my pride as a reader is gone. After dissing reading group members who whine about too many characters, too much jumping around in time, having to read dialect, I have been defeated by all of the above.

I wonder if I should take a class on Cloud Atlas so I can have it explained or at least be made to write a paper or take an exam, forcing me to find and answer the right questions.

OK, there were some parts I liked, some characters I remember. I can admit, grudgingly, that Mitchell created and mastered all those different voices and styles. I got his message that we are ruining our planet and our fellowmen. 

I can tell you one thing for sure: at a 2.5 hours running time, I will not be seeing Cloud Atlas in a theater. I would have to pee at least once and I would surely need a smoke.

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

Thursday, January 03, 2013


The House at Tyneford, Natasha Solomons, Penguin Group, 2011, 351 pp

I read this for one of my reading groups and found it fairly good historical fiction. It stands out as yet another story derived from the global event called World War II. I don't suppose we will run out of tales about that for a good long time.

Elise Landau is 19 and forced to emigrate from Vienna to England in 1938 because she is Jewish, her father is a novelist out of favor with the Third Reich, and her parents want to keep her safe. Apparently, many young, affluent girls escaped Europe on a domestic service visa to Great Britain in those years.

Elise had been spoiled by her family's comfortable circumstances in Vienna including a rich social life due to her mother's status as an opera singer and her father's fame as a novelist. Arriving at the Tyneford House on the wild Dorset coast, she found it difficult to adjust to being a servant rather than being served.

In truth, the story was like The Secret Garden for adults. The writing is nicely done, except for a tiresome tendency of the author to begin each chapter with a page of description. Fortunately Ms Solomons writes well about the beauties and fitful weather of the area.

Most of my fellow reading group members found it improbable and even cringe inducing. Elise and the son of this family fall in love, so she rises from her servant station to family member. Because of the war, the love affair is doomed.

In my view, historical fiction of this sort must include a love story; war usually sends love into disastrous and sad directions; disruption of family life, economic conditions, and treasured traditions is inevitable. The House at Tyneford touches on all of the above. It made me cry once and sob near the end.

Not bad. More than a piece of fluff. And I am now determined to learn to make a Sacher torte. (Did you know it is a gluten-free dessert?)

(The House at Tyneford is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013


This past year I read 138 books; not too bad but not as many as I had planned to read. Some were for reading groups, some were for research, some I read just to keep up with the unusually large amount of good novels published in 2012. This list is compiled from the ones that gave me the largest kick or pleasure or just plain awe.

I got an iPad for my birthday and navigated the changes necessary to read in a digital format. It turned out to be fine and an e-reader is especially good for reading those huge tomes that give me reader's elbow. Like most modern people, I am now hooked on being able to get a book in minutes without having to leave the house. 

My goal this year is to read 161 books. That is one more than my highest ever total books read in one year. Please, let's not have anyone I love getting sick, dying, or deciding to need me for large chunks of time. My mantra will be, "Leave me alone, I am reading." I can dream, can't I?


Among Others, Jo Walton
As Though She Were Sleeping, Elias Khoury
Childhood's End, Arthur C Clarke
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon
Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
Henderson The Rain King, Saul Bellow
Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley
How the Dead Dream, Lydia Millet*
The Inner Circle, T C Boyle
Last Night in Montreal, Emily St John Mandel
Lovers and Tyrants, Francine du Plessix Gray
NW, Zadie Smith*
The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson
Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas
A Partial History of Lost Causes, Jennifer duBois
The Patagonian Hare, Claude Lanzmann
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Jonathan Evison
Stoner, John Williams
Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon
Tete-A-Tete, Hazel Rowley
Truman, David McCullough
White Teeth, Zadie Smith
Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafur
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson

* review coming soon. The rest of the list can be found reviewed on this blog.