Saturday, June 28, 2014


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This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett, HarperCollins, 2013, 284 pp

I do not usually read essay collections and that is what this book is. But I was going to see Ann Patchett speak in Santa Barbara for which I had already bought a ticket and had gas plus restaurant meals to cover. Why not splurge on an ebook?

It was not a splurge. It was a necessity! I have read and loved four of Ann Patchett's six novels. I adore her for opening an independent bookstore in Nashville, TN. Her approach to life and to fiction speaks to me. She is basically a kind and hopeful person but not perfect, not mushy, and she admits it. Both the book and her talk showed how she became the person she is.

The talk: she did not read excerpts from This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Author events where the writer reads from his or her latest book bore me to death. She spoke seemingly off the top of her head as she walked about on the edge of the stage. There was a podium but she never stood behind it once. It was like she was making up a rambling story full of many events, many emotions, humor and even suspense. By the end, I realized it was the story of how her new essay collection came to be.

The collection itself is as entertaining as her talk. How she became a novelist, how she got out of a bad marriage by making divorce a sacrament, how she integrated both a sad confusing childhood and a Catholic education into a happy successful life, and more.

Now that I think of it, I have read essay collections by some of my favorite authors: Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Sara Paretsky come to mind. Apparently if someone can write well, they write essays well.

(This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


A New Life, Bernard Malamud, Farrar Strauss and Cudahy, 1961, 367 pp

Having now read the first three of Bernard Malamud's eight novels, I am less than halfway to knowing him as a novelist. Already I have developed a strong affinity for him. He is drawn to creating stories of how men acquire wisdom through suffering, also a major concern of my father's, and you could say I was raised within a Christian interpretation of that theme. Malamud's was a Jewish viewpoint but I have been surrounded by Jewish people all of my life. It all adds up to feeling comfortable with Malamud.

Not that his protagonists are ever comfortable. They suffer, they have a lack of luck in life and a tendency to dither about most things. S Levin, a thirty year old teacher from New York City with a past soiled by excessive drinking, has been hired as an instructor at a small private college in the Northwest.

Levin sees the new job as a chance to start over and make something of his life. Though he has given up alcohol, he still harbors the traits that drove him to drink. Before long he has made enemies on campus and fallen into a relationship with the wife of his immediate superior.

The sense of impending doom begins in Chapter One and continues up to Levin's decisions and actions in the final chapter. Since the reader does not know the outcome of those decisions and actions, I felt he was most likely still doomed. Malamud's particular genius is to keep the reader hoping for Levin's success despite every wrong move he makes. Exquisitely torturous, as any good novel should be, but so close to the human condition where now and then a guy gets a break.

I have read a good share of campus novels, of which A New Life is one. A college or university setting provides a good microcosm and I suspect Malamud had read some campus novels himself because he covers the major tropes of professional conflict, intellectual competition, town vs gown, and the insularity that leads to immorality amongst the professors, students, and locals. 

He covers a broader array of life than he did in The Natural or The Assistant. That may be because of the woods and fields surrounding his fictional Oregon town and the range of issues both personal and political that Levin confronts. Though he writes with a less precise focus than the troubles of a ball player or a struggling small shopkeeper in a big city, A New Life is an expansion into bigger questions of what make a whole life successful.

Friday, June 20, 2014


The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, Valerie Martin, Nan A Talese, 2014, 258 pp

I did not really like this book until I got to the end but it was not because the author won me over. It just finally all made sense. Even then, because I felt a key factor was left unresolved, I had a similar reaction to earlier points in the story. I would just be settling in with a group of characters and a story line when it would switch to another place with other characters in a different time.

The other problem I had was the mash up of historical novel, ghost story, mystery, and an overview of spiritualism in the 19th century. Not that there couldn't be spiritualists or ghosts in a historical tale. My trouble was with the structure. As a reader I was constantly foiled by the way the author put her story together.

The Mary Celeste was a merchant vessel found sailing without a crew. Arthur Conan Doyle, near the beginning of his writing career, writes a story about the ship based on very few facts but filled with plenty of imagination. A medium named Violet Petra, a mysterious person in her own right, after much antagonism toward the writer, agrees to become a subject of study for the newly formed British Society of Psychical Research, of which Doyle is a member.

Plenty of readers raved about this book both on various book sites and in the reading group who got me to read it. If it sounds good to you, I wouldn't want to discourage you, especially because I read it ridiculously fast while on my road trip to see Ann Patchett (stay tuned for my next post). The most intriguing aspect of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste was learning about the life of an actual psychic and the exploitation she had to endure in order to practice her skill.

(The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, June 16, 2014


Falling Out of Time, David Grossman, Alfred A Knopf, 2014, 208 pp (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

Death is always a part of life no matter one's age, but at my age one begins to lose more and more people to death. I lost my dad ten years ago this month and my mom five years ago in April. Just two days after I fell ill in May, my favorite uncle passed away at 93 years of age. Simultaneously my favorite aunt fell and broke her shoulder. She had just turned 96 and was deemed too elderly to withstand an operation. She died in hospice care a week later.

I am not writing of all this death as a plea for pity or condolences. I had read Falling Out of Time two weeks before and felt my own grief about my parents understood by someone more fully than before, because this book is a work of mourning and an examination of the mourning process more precise, more reverberating, and yet more gentle than anything I have read or heard.

However, I do not recommend it lightly. David Grossman and his wife Michal, live outside Jerusalem where they have raised three children. Their youngest, Uri, a tank commander, was killed in 2006 in Lebanon. After writing To The End of the Land, a novel loosely based on the experience, he had more to say.

Most reviewers and even the publisher have scrambled to describe Falling Out of Time, calling it part play, part prose, part poetry. For us Americans, it rather defies labeling. The work is a hybrid and involves the reader best who takes her time and just lets the words and images sink in.

By involving several characters who are mourning those they have lost, Grossman hits on the truth that each person has his or her own unique reaction to death. No one ritual or series of steps is right for every person.

An even deeper concept is, whether you have a religious belief about where the dead go or if you believe that death is the end of a person, the saddest most unacceptable part is the annihilation of one's connection with the dead one in real time, because he or she has fallen out of time.

Then comes a final conclusion. It may not work for everyone but it clearly worked for the author. Because of that, I was left feeling unburdened of my own past and future losses somewhat. But reading David Grossman's deeply personal meditation on his loss also left me stirred up, my thoughts in a whirl, my heart aching.

The next to the last sentences: "He is dead, he is dead. But his death, his death is not dead."

Read at your own risk.

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

Friday, June 13, 2014


The Mapmaker's War, Ronlyn Domingue, Atria Books, 2013, 223 pp

Amazing! Another woman who can write and who tackles the conflicts inherent in being female with wisdom as well as a wry humor. The mapmaker is female and defies conventional roles for women. In her young years she manages to get pregnant by the Prince of her kingdom, impress him enough to get him to marry her, and unwittingly start a war between her kingdom and a peaceful neighboring people.

She pays dearly for her adventurous ways and lives a conflicted life. In this book, the first of a trilogy, she looks back over her life from the vantage point of an old woman. Despite loss and sorrow, she does not regret her past but only seeks to understand how she ended up with the life she has.

Though the book must be labeled fantasy, it is so much more. The time span gives it the feel of historical fiction and the intrigues provide plenty of adventure. Running beneath all this, like an underground river, is the clear intelligence of Ronlyn Domingue whose perception of humanity, male or female, old or young, is visionary. I know that sounds over the top but I have no other explanation for the impact The Mapmaker's War had on me.

This book is not for grumpy cynics or doomsayers, it is not for those who prefer the status quo and believe in puritanical, patriarchal, warlike societies. It is for dreamers of what mankind could be, believers in magic, kindness, equality, cooperation, and a joyful sensuality.

The second book, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, has just been released. Can't wait to read it.

(The Mapmaker's War is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, June 08, 2014


The Liar's Club, Mary Karr, Viking, 1995, 320 pp

I finished reading this six weeks ago, before I got sick, so my memory of reading it is foggy. I read it for a reading group and we had a lively discussion. In fact, we didn't want to stop talking about it.

In 1995, when The Liar's Club was published to glowing reviews and achieved a lengthy run on the bestseller lists, I was trying to live with a positive attitude and make a success of being an independent singer/songwriter. According to my reading log, I was reading historical fiction, trashy bestsellers, some literary novels I stumbled upon, the Stephen Lawhead King Arthur trilogy, but not confessional memoirs about dysfunctional childhoods. The Liar's Club was one of those memoirs and helped define the genre but I've put it off for almost 20 years.

Of course, since then I have read The Glass Castle, With or Without You, and many more. In fact, The Liar's Club is almost mild in comparison but the writing is excellent. I blew through the book in two days. I was the most impressed by how she showed her life so vividly rather than telling us about it. Also since there was an aura of mystery surrounding Mary's mother, not fully revealed until near the end, this is a memoir with a plot. And the ending is mystically wonderful, as one would expect from a poet.

There are two sequels: Cherry (sexual coming of age) and Lit (getting drunk and getting sober). I will be reading them.

Thursday, June 05, 2014


Since the best thing for my recuperation is lying about reading books, I guess I am fortunate that all 6 of my reading groups are meeting in June. At least I have read two of the books. Here is the line-up:

The New Book Club:

Once Upon A Time Adult Fiction Group:

One Book At A Time:

Tina's Group:
 Bookie Babes:

Tiny Book Group:

I've got a new question for you this month. If you could choose, what book would you love to discuss with your favorite readers?

Happy reading and discussing!