Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Wingshooters, Nina Revoyr, Akashic Books, 2011, 250 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Michelle LeBeau, the child of a white American father and a Japanese mother, lives with her grandparents in Deerhorn, Wisconsin--a small town that had been entirely white before her arrival. Rejected and bullied, Michelle spends her time reading, avoiding fights, and roaming the countryside with her dog Brett. She idolizes her grandfather, Charlie LeBeau, an expert hunter and former minor league baseball player who is one of the town's most respected men. Charlie strongly disapproves of his son's marriage to Michelle's mother but dotes on his only grandchild.

This fragile peace is threatened when the expansion of the local clinic leads to the arrival of the Garretts, a young black couple from Chicago. The Garretts' presence deeply upsets most of the residents of Deerhorn--when Mr. Garrett makes a controversial accusation against one of the town leaders, who is also Charlie LeBeau's best friend.
My Review:
I had no idea how powerful this novel would be. Nina Revoyr's other novels have been set in California but this one takes place in a small Wisconsin town, though the Japanese angle is still represented by Michelle LeBeau, daughter of a white American father and a Japanese mother. She is the sole person of color in Deerhorn and is an outcast at school where she is tormented by her classmates.
When her father brought a Japanese wife home the family disapproved. Michelle's mother eventually abandoned them and her father took off after her, leaving Michelle with a grandfather who doted on her and a grandmother who fed and tolerated her.
It is a heartbreaking story, all the more because of what Michelle goes through as her father's promises to return for her go unfulfilled and her hero worship for grandpa is foreshadowed to be destroyed. 
When an African American couple from Chicago come into this hidebound, racist, and ultimately violent community, all of their prejudices and inhumanity are exposed and put to the test. It is a chilling portrait of a small and insulated town where no views have changed for generations. The ultra-conservative wing of America holds sway as the townspeople do whatever they feel they must to "preserve their way of life."
This is the second book I've read this year set in the Midwest. (Kitchens of the Great Midwest was the other one.) When I first moved from Michigan to Los Angeles in 1991, I missed what I had experienced as the open friendliness and strong family ties of the region. But like anywhere, a dark underbelly of human fears and close mindedness dwelt side by side with those American values.
So if you want your eyes opened further to the great divides in American society that is what you will get, right up close and personal, with accurately drawn characters. But if you can't take cruelty and violence perpetrated by men against women, children, and animals, be warned.
One of Nina Revoyr's many sobering truths comes at the end. No one ever fully recovers from trauma. We live with our hurts and losses for all of our lives. To me that explains why humanity doesn't change much. The wonder is that some people rise above it all and still care for and about their fellow humans.
I haven't looked back over my year in reading yet, but this just may have been the most emotionally powerful book I read all year. 
(Wingshooters is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Sunday, December 27, 2015


Fail-Safe, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, McGraw-Hill, 1962, 286 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Something has gone wrong. A group of American bombers armed with nuclear weapons is streaking past the fail-safe point, beyond recall, and no one knows why. Their destination -- Moscow.

In a bomb shelter beneath the White House, the calm young president turns to his Russian translator and says, "I think we are ready to talk to Premier Kruschchev." Not far away, in the War Room at the Pentagon, the secretary of defense and his aides watch with growing anxiety as the luminous blips crawl across a huge screen map. High over the Bering Strait in a large Vindicator bomber, a colonel stares in disbelief at the attack code number on his fail-safe box and wonders if it could possibly be a mistake.

First published in 1962, when America was still reeling from the Cuban missle crisis, Fail-Safe reflects the apocalyptic attitude that pervaded society during the height of the Cold War, when disaster could have struck at any moment. As more countries develop nuclear capabilities and the potential for new enemies lurks on the horizon, Fail-Safe and its powerful issues continue to respond.
My Review:
This novel was the #6 bestseller of 1962. It was originally serialized in three weekly issues of the Saturday Evening Post in October, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was an eerie and discomforting read covering a possible breakdown of technology leading to nuclear war.
Of course, that was the fear I lived under in high school. That some mad man would "push the button" and within 24 hours we would all be fried and gone.
The book is liberally loaded with technical terms and nuclear gear, systems, etc. Much was made of the psychology behind military commanders. It gives a look into the secret bunkers and procedures for dealing with threats, attacks, and technical hitches. All of that was as fascinating to me as it must have been to the American public at the time.
The scenes where the President (obviously Kennedy though his name was never used) and Krushchev are on the top secret phone line working out a deal required a lot of suspension of disbelief on my part. It was pretty far from what I read in the Kennedy biography last year. The King Solomon-like deal that Kennedy made in this book was as melodramatic a climax as I have ever read.
I gained a new appreciation for what every President since Truman has had hanging over his head like a Damocles sword. Imagine holding the power to bring about the end of the world! I am still a pacifist, I still believe in nuclear disarmament, but I have got a more realistic idea about the possibilities of my dreams for our planet and mankind coming true.
Hands down the most relevant book I have read this year.
(Fail-Safe is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende, Atria Books, 2015, 322 pp
Summary from Goodreads:
In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis, young Alma Belasco's parents send her away to live in safety with an aunt and uncle in their opulent mansion in San Francisco. There, as the rest of the world goes to war, she encounters Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet and gentle son of the family's Japanese gardener. Unnoticed by those around them, a tender love affair begins to blossom. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the two are cruelly pulled apart as Ichimei and his family, like thousands of other Japanese Americans are declared enemies and forcibly relocated to internment camps run by the United States government. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love that they are forever forced to hide from the world.

Decades later, Alma is nearing the end of her long and eventful life. Irina Bazili, a care worker struggling to come to terms with her own troubled past, meets the elderly woman and her grandson, Seth, at San Francisco's charmingly eccentric Lark House nursing home. As Irina and Seth forge a friendship, they become intrigued by a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma, eventually learning about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.
My Review:
I have loved Isabel Allende ever since I read The House of the Spirits in 1996. By now I have read all of her novels and each one pleased me in different ways. I particularly admire her portrayals of women as strong passionate individuals who do not shy away from using feminine wiles, because they usually do so for the good of most of the people involved. If God is a woman, Isabel Allende was created in her image.
The Japanese Lover is an intriguing mix of history, locations, and issues. Some readers and reviewers have caviled about her trying to stuff too many issues into one novel. I find that an unhelpful objection. Life in the 21st century is a global mix of issues from which none of us are free.
Because of World War II, several characters in the story found themselves displaced and eventually landed in San Francisco, where they became involved with the wealthy Belasco family. Alma was sent by her parents to the Belascos as a teenager  in order to keep her safe from the Nazis. Lonely and sad, she befriended the son of her aunt and uncle's gardener. 
Ichimei Fukuda became the love of her life but they could never marry because of the laws against marriage between whites and Orientals, as they were called then. Just as Ichimei and Alma began to fall in love, the Fukuda family was evacuated to the camps.
Near the end of Alma's long and complicated life, others who are helping her with her memoir get drawn into her story and find answers to the mysteries of their own troubles. 
This intricate dance of fate, love, heartbreak, and redemption demanded that I pay attention to the many individuals and time periods. Yet I was hooked by the urgency to know what happened. It is not that love conquers all. It is that without love we would be sunk. 
(The Japanese Lover is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Last Song Before Night, Ilana C Myer, TOR Books, 2015, 415 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Long ago, poets were Seers with access to powerful magic. Following a cataclysmic battle, the enchantments of Eivar were lost–now a song is only words and music, and no more. But when a dark power threatens the land, poets who thought only to gain fame for their songs face a task much greater: to restore the lost enchantments to the world. And the road to the Otherworld, where the enchantments reside, will imperil their lives and test the deepest desires of their hearts.
My Review:
This is a debut fantasy novel for adults and I was drawn to it because the central characters are poets and songwriters. One of these is a young woman passing as a male, because women are forbidden to follow the call of that muse.
Sure enough, Lin turns out to be the heroine of the tale and is the most fully realized character, though her fellow poets and musicians are each interesting in their own ways.
Eivar is an invented land with rich merchants and an evil Court Poet who has a strange hold over the King. The story opens as the annual festival of arts and music is about to begin. Poets will complete for the Silver Branch, an award that opens doors at court for the winner.
The country has a glorious past, a Golden Age, when poets and magic flourished, but this past is hidden and almost forgotten due to secret practices that had unleashed a plague. Called The Red Death, it appears to be returning.
The world building and description are wonderful but the plot is convoluted to the point of being hard to follow. Though the characters are all complex and their motives made clear, they never quite came alive for me.
I enjoyed the ideas behind the story and the ventures into magic and lore. That is what kept me reading. But I did not love the novel because it failed to move me emotionally. I think Ilana Myer has much potential though and I would read her next book. 
(Last Song Before Night is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Saturday, December 19, 2015


Dracula, Bram Stoker, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003, (first published in 1897), 444pp
Summary from Goodreads: A true masterwork of storytelling, Dracula has transcended generation, language, and culture to become one of the most popular novels ever written. It is a quintessential tale of suspense and horror, boasting one of the most terrifying characters ever born in literature: Count Dracula, a tragic, night-dwelling specter who feeds upon the blood of the living, and whose diabolical passions prey upon the innocent, the helpless, and the beautiful. But Dracula also stands as a bleak allegorical saga of an eternally cursed being whose nocturnal atrocities reflect the dark underside of the supremely moralistic age in which it was originally written -- and the corrupt desires that continue to plague the modern human condition. 
My Review:
I am not recommending this as a holiday season read but it is next in the reviewing queue, so here it goes.
Sometimes my reading groups surprise me. When The Bookie Babes, the first reading group I joined about 10 years ago, chose this one for our November read, I was dismayed. I've never understood or been drawn to the vampire genre. Guess what? I read Dracula and now I get it!
My first surprise was how easy it was to read. Apparently Stoker wrote many novels in his spare time, though this is the only one that has remained in publication. He was an Irish theater manager and critic and lived in the era of Britain's and Europe's emergence out of the old world and into modern times. He kept up on psychology, evolution, and women's rights. He would have killed it on Twitter.
I was also surprised to learn that vampires have featured in folk tales and literature from the earliest times, including Greek and Asian civilizations. A personification of evil and fears perhaps?
Bram Stoker's Dracula is both an origin story for the world's most well known vampire and a thriller. A group of men and one woman use Sherlock Holmes style investigative methods to run the undead menace to ground and annihilate him.
I enjoyed every page and so did everyone else in the group. Who knew?
(Dracula is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson, Hogarth Shakespeare, 2015, 273 pp
Summary from Goodreads: The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s “late plays.” It tells the story of a king whose jealousy results in the banishment of his baby daughter and the death of his beautiful wife. His daughter is found and brought up by a shepherd on the Bohemian coast, but through a series of extraordinary events, father and daughter, and eventually mother too, are reunited.

In The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson’s cover version of The Winter’s Tale, we move from London, a city reeling after the 2008 financial crisis, to a storm-ravaged American city called New Bohemia. Her story is one of childhood friendship, money, status, technology and the elliptical nature of time. Written with energy and wit, this is a story of the consuming power of jealousy on the one hand, and redemption and the enduring love of a lost child on the other.
My Review:
There is probably not another writer who could make me read a Shakespeare play. Jeanette Winterson, whose writing always excites me, has filled the role that no English teacher ever played for me during my school days. Because I had not realized she included a summary of The Winter’s Tale at the beginning of her retelling, I read the play first and enjoyed it more than I expected I would. That in turn enhanced the sheer fun of reading The Gap of Time.

It is a story that works on the equation of jealousy plus power equals bad stuff happens. Leo, an unemployed banker following the crash of 2008, was so talented at making money that he started his own hedge fund in the middle of the ensuing recession and became disgustingly wealthy. Then he convinced the beautiful and talented MiMi, famous songstress, to marry him. Yet within eight years, just before the birth of their second child, Leo fell into an insane jealous conviction that MiMi and his best friend were having an affair, meaning the baby was not his. Using his wealth and power he proceeded to ruin numerous lives and lose everyone he cared about.

In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes is a King, Hermione is his queen, and Polixenes, also a King, is Leontes’s childhood friend. Leo is the modern equivalent of royalty, a king of finance. Xeno creates brilliant games and takes the video sport to sophisticated new levels of content. He is also gay, in love with both Leo and MiMi, though not cuckolding Leo. It’s complicated, as we say in modern parlance. A tragic love triangle as they said in the 1600s.

Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, spiced his play with humor. I don’t know enough about his oeuvre to speak of his talent for tragicomedy. I do know that Jeanette Winterson ran with the comic bits, making use of the dark hilarity in our modern era. As far as philosophizing about tragedy and time, her talent is equal to the bard’s.

Within the first twelve pages she is slinging around sentences like this: “You think you’re living in the present but the past is right behind you like a shadow.”  “What is memory anyway but a painful dispute with the past?” “I discover that grief means living with someone who is not there.”

The Winter’s Tale has a dearth of back story. Winterson provides us with plenty: how Leo and Xeno became best friends in boarding school after some severe maternal rejection; how Leo met MiMi and got Xeno to play Cupid during his days of courting; how the man who ended up raising Perdita, the daughter Leo gave away, came to be the wise and cool dude he is; and a few more. Brilliantly done because the somewhat unlikely happy ending in the play becomes a believable outcome in the novel.

I could say more. It is a complex tale and several other characters help make it so. An abundance of delectable scenes, snappy dialogue, and digressions about the vagaries of time, make the reader feel she is watching a Shakespeare play. I don’t want to spoil the magic.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Henry and the Clubhouse, Beverly Cleary, Dell/Yearling, 1962, 192 pp
As part of My Big Fat Reading Project, I am reading my way through Beverly Cleary's books. The Henry series are for young readers aged 8-12.
Good old Henry, the youngest paper boy in town, decides to build a clubhouse in his backyard, along with his friends Robert and Murph. But Murph doesn't like girls so he insists it be a "Boys Only" clubhouse.

Henry as usual is juggling multiple problems: One of his good friends is Beezus, who is a girl. He has to keep his paper route going while also working on building the clubhouse. The paper route includes collecting from customers and he is trying to get up the guts to sign up new customers.

Then there is Ramona, the troublesome younger sister of Beezus. She begins following Henry around on his route. Then one day she locks him in the clubhouse and won't let him out until her tells her the secret password. He has to get out so he can do his route that day.

Henry's number one worry is that he wants his father to be proud of him. He bungles his way through and comes out a winner all around.

What I liked best about this one is the way it shows how much kids worry. Harry Potter is a top worrier in children's fiction but here Henry takes second place as the world's most worried boy.

(Henry and the Clubhouse is on the shelves in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, December 10, 2015


The joys and overeating of being in so many reading groups:
 Five extra Christmas/Hanukka parties.
Voting on our favorite book of the year.
Secret White Elephant book exchanges where you get books no one wants to read.
Eating, drinking, and celebrating the reading life.
Here are the books my groups are reading in December. (One of these days I will get this post done at the beginning of the month. Ha Ha.)
New Book Club:
Tiny Book Club:
Tina's Group:
Bookie Babes:
Party Only!!
One Book At A Time:
And not one sappy holiday book in the bunch. Well, Art of Racing in the Rain has the potential for sappiness but is not a holiday story. I will let you know.
What are your reading groups doing this month?

Monday, December 07, 2015


The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing, Simon and Schuster, 1962, 568 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Anna is a writer, author of one very successful novel, who now keeps four notebooks. In one, with a black cover, she reviews the African experience of her earlier years. In a red one she records her political life, her disillusionment with communism. In a yellow one she writes a novel in which the heroine reviles part of her own experience. And in the blue one she keeps a personal diary. Finally, in love with an American writer and threatened with insanity, Anna tries to bring the threads of all four books together in a golden notebook.
My Review: I have read eight books by Doris Lessing, mostly in order of publication. Each one has had an impact on me. The Grass Is Singing, her first novel, is still my favorite but all the others remain important to my reading life and to me as a woman.
One of the things I admire is her utter disregard for the critics. She has never pandered to them or to the Western white male dominated literary establishment, possibly not even to her readers. It is an entire travesty that she had to wait until she was 88 years old to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. But as she said at the time, "Oh Christ. It's been going on now for 30 years, I can't get more excited." This was after she had won almost every other prize!
That down-to-earth lack of vanity has got to be what makes her books so meaningful to me. She was a woman, born in the same year as my mother, possessed of a brilliant mind and a high level of courage. All of that comes through in her writing.
The Golden Notebook is a tough read. I don't recommend it lightly. The structure is odd but does serve to illustrate how a woman who wishes to be independent of men, who is creative, who is raising a child by herself, and who at the same time loves men, sex, being in love and being loved, has to compartment her very psyche in order to handle it all. I found that truthful.
Anna's four notebooks are where she records these fragments of herself. Only four, I thought? I must be a basket case because I have many more notebooks than that. Her golden notebook is a symbol of the successful integration of her disparate selves.
The copy I read, procured from the library, is big and heavy. I've had a crick in my neck ever since I finished it. It also has a new introduction, written by the author in 1971, nine years after the novel's original publication. In this introduction she refutes the reviewers, friendly and hostile, in their belittling claim that the book is about the sex war. Nor did she intend for it to be a "trumpet for Women's Liberation."
Her main intent was to present the broad range of women's thoughts and emotions and experiences. Also she worked with the theme of a breakdown being a way of self-healing and rearranging false dichotomies. She admits that "here (the writing) is rougher, more close to experience...more valuable perhaps because it is rawer material."
Anna's breakdown is made so visceral, so disturbing, and yet it was so understandable, at least for me. I would say that Doris Lessing was about 40 years ahead of her time in writing to expose the female psyche.
Due to my upbringing, or possibly my horoscope, who knows, I have been a woman dedicated to "keeping it together" in front of others. I have had the idea that unlovely emotions and breakdowns were something to be ashamed of and should be hidden. Reading this novel was healing for me because, though I will probably still keep it together in front of most people, I no longer feel ashamed of my emotions or breakdowns. 

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

Thursday, December 03, 2015


November went by in a blink. I also lost a week making our Thanksgiving journey. I read a few long books and there you go. The stats are low.

Stats: 7 books read. 4 by women. 1 translated. 1 children's book. 1 speculative.
Favorites: Kafka on the Shore, The Golden Notebook, and The Gap of Time. I did not have a least favorite so that is one good stat!

How did your November reading go?

Tuesday, December 01, 2015


Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami, Alfred A Knopf, 2005, 467 pp, (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, published in Japan 2002)
Summary from Goodreads: Kafka on the Shore, a tour de force of metaphysical reality, is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom. Their odyssey, as mysterious to them as it is to us, is enriched throughout by vivid accomplices and mesmerizing events. Cats and people carry on conversations, a ghostlike pimp employs a Hegel-quoting prostitute, a forest harbors soldiers apparently unaged since World War II, and rainstorms of fish (and worse) fall from the sky. There is a brutal murder, with the identity of both victim and perpetrator a riddle - yet this, along with everything else, is eventually answered, just as the entwined destinies of Kafka and Nakata are gradually revealed, with one escaping his fate entirely and the other given a fresh start on his own.
My Review:  I am no longer a Murakami virgin. He has had his way with me, it was painless, and I am more than satisfied while being left wanting more. 
I had mistakenly thought it would be a challenging read. Instead it was smooth and moved along like a bullet train. Though the novel is set in 21st century Japan, somehow having read The Makioka Sisters just a couple weeks earlier, I felt oriented in the country. Also the story opens with an incident that happened during WWII so at first it almost felt like I was reading a sequel.
I loved the David Mitchell-style way that the story jumped back and forth in time and slowly revealed the connections between the characters.
I loved the ghost story atmosphere, the references to music and literature both Japanese and American, but most of all I loved the characters, even the insane artist dad.
Kafka himself is one of the greatest characters I have come across in all my years of reading. Just to prove that he is an evolved human male, Murakami also created several awesome and believable female characters. He takes the motherless boy trope to new heights.
And yes, it is a metaphysical, magical realism, philosophical novel at the same time.
Since all I can do is gush, I will end here. 
(Kafka on the Shore is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


I will be off the blog for the rest of this week. We are taking a road trip to visit with family. I plan to eat and drink and eat and drink and so on. The next generation is doing all the work. There will be lots of talking and laughing and playing of music. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers and followers. Keep The Wisdom is ten years old this year! It is hard to fathom that I have been at this for a decade. If you get bored, you can read my blog on your device while you digest. This is post #1294 and most of them are about books.

If you go back far enough you will even find some early rough drafts of chapters for my memoir, another parallel project begun a decade ago. It has turned into a version of the Myth of Sisyphus as I read the books described in My Big Fat Reading Project because I keep finding more books to put on the lists as well as more memories and thoughts to incorporate into the memoir. Who knows if I will ever finish it, but the journey so far has been amazing.
My prayers go out to all the refugees, the orphans, the homeless, the poor, and the hungry. No single one of us can feed the world or stop the wars. But I do have faith in the power of literature to shine the lights of knowledge and wisdom even into the darkest of places.

Friday, November 20, 2015


Shop Indie Bookstores

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J Ryan Stradal, Viking, 2015, 310 pp
Summary from Goodreads: When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.
My Review: This book arrived in my mailbox in advanced reader proof form. One of the perks of being a book reviewer is that publishers sometimes send me books without my requesting them. All of my family on my mother's side either live in Michigan or were born there. I lived there for over 20 years. We all cook or are otherwise involved in the food business. We consider ourselves Midwesterners.
So I was intrigued by the title though somewhat put off by the cover. The book summary did not excite me: a woman "finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota." Not my kind of book, I thought.
Many months later I listened to the OtherPeople podcast interview with the author and something clicked. Then one of my reading groups picked it and so I read it. It turned out to be my kind of book: Fractured families, an absolutely unique heroine named Eva, laugh-out-loud snarky commentary about all things foodie and, while he could have gone that way, no heartwarming ending.
Eva lost both her parents early. Her mother got a taste, literally, of wine in the life of a sommelier, and realized she was not cut out for motherhood. She vanished without a trace. Eva's father was a consummate chef and wanted to feed his newborn pureed pork shoulder. Alas, she was still on the bottle when he met his end.
The baby was raised by her aunt and uncle in near poverty but she was super smart and clearly had the food gene. In fact, after an almost fatal fling with hot peppers in middle school and despite her clueless though loving stepparents, she goes on to become an amazing chef herself.
J Ryan Stradal began his career writing for TV. You can see that in the quick flashes of scenes going by, the hyper awareness of modern culture, and a pitch perfect command of snark. But he is from Minnesota himself and probably at heart a half-grown Midwestern boy. His characters come leaping off the page as he finds the goodness inside almost every one of them. He is a master of voice and nuance.
The story flies by so it wasn't until about halfway that I realized I was only seeing Eva through the eyes of the characters who intersect with her life, making for an unusual but quite effective structure that is cinematic in style. The novel would make a great movie.
Though Eva suffers, she always prevails. And isn't that the dream of any human being? To grapple with all the hurts and misfortunes but to emerge as the superhero of one's own life. 
In summary, a delightful real-life fantasy. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


The Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare, early 1600s, read in The Riverside Shakespeare, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974. Play is 38 pp.
Summary from Goodreads:
One of Shakespeare's later plays, best described as a tragic-comedy, the play falls into two distinct parts. In the first Leontes is thrown into a jealous rage by his suspicions of his wife Hermione and his best-friend, and imprisons her and orders that her new born daughter be left to perish. The second half is a pastoral comedy with the "lost" daughter Perdita having been rescued by shepherds and now in love with a young prince. The play ends with former lovers and friends reunited after the apparently miraculous resurrection of Hermione.

My Review:
My reading friends know me as a Shakespeare hater. When I've had a drink or two I can come across that way. In reality I am a Shakespeare wimp. Reading his plays are just too much work. But I was planning to read and professionally review The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson's retelling of The Winter's Tale. Her novel is the first in a series of retellings of Shakespeare plays planned by the Hogarth Press.

So I hunkered down on Halloween weekend with my friend's Riverside Shakespeare and one of those plot summaries you can find on the internet and I made my way through, footnotes and all. I have read that this is considered one of his "lesser" plays. I liked it, but what do I know?

The theme is jealousy, specifically male jealousy. King Leontes observes his best friend King Polixenes being overly nice to Leontes's pregnant wife and spirals down into insane and violent jealousy. Everyone is harmed: the friend, the wife, the young son and heir, and the newborn baby.

The rest of the play trails through a complicated maze of secrets, mistaken identities, comedy, and madness. It's a mess and ends with some things made right though the damage cannot be undone. Jealousy + Power = Bad.

I was made to read Othello and maybe a couple others in high school and college. All I remember is "the quality of mercy is not strained" and "to be or not to be." As an adult I have read A Midsummer Night's Dream and liked it. The Tempest was also not bad.

I know the Bard has influenced literature as much as, if not more than, the Bible and folk tales. Having read The Winter's Tale surely did enrich my enjoyment of The Gap of Time which I finished last night.

Have I made a breakthrough as a reader? Have I grown up enough? Do you read Shakespeare?

(The Winter's Tale is available in many paperback editions with summaries and footnotes by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 13, 2015


The Chrysalids, John Wyndham, Michael Joseph Publishers, 1955, 200 pp
I like this cover better: 


Summary from Goodreads: John Wyndham takes the reader into the anguished heart of a community where the chances of breeding true are less than fifty per cent and where deviations are rooted out and destroyed as offences and abominations.
My review:
One more by John Wyndham. Then I am moving on. 
This one is radically different in a few ways. Though set in the future after what appears to have been a nuclear disaster, called "The Tribulation," the tone is more elegiac than in his earlier books and Wyndham is addressing a different set of issues.
The hero, David Strorm, is coming of age in a strictly religious community. His father is one of those fundamentalist types that creep me out more than any other variety of human. They live by the Bible and any plant, animal, or human showing a genetic abnormality is ruthlessly obliterated or shunned.
David's abnormality is invisible. He is a telepath and by that skill? gift? fatal flaw? communicates nonverbally with several others. The build up is slow but inexorable until David and his fellow telepaths make a break for freedom. At that point the story takes on an extreme adventure tone as the characters travel through woods and wastelands pursued by a posse that includes David's father.
It was quite the relevant read in these days of mega attention on "differences," those who want them accepted and those who consider them abnormalities.
Of course, the rogue characters are the most interesting. David's much younger sister Petra is an extremely strong telepath who has little control over her ability at age eight and inadvertently causes major troubles. She reminded me of Ramona in the Beverly Cleary books. In the end, she plays a large role in saving the others, a bit like super tech savvy kids these days who some say are leading mankind to a singularity.
Petra makes contact with an advanced female being who is from Zealand, where people have obviously recovered from "Tribulation" and rebuilt a civilization. This character put me in mind of some of Anne McCaffrey's best galactic heroines.
It is a thought provoking and complex story. Wyndham made a big leap with it and I look forward to reading the rest of his books...someday.  
(The Chrysalids is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham, Ballantine Books, 1953, 288pp
Summary from Goodreads: It started with fireballs raining down from the sky and crashing into the oceans deeps. Then ships began sinking mysteriously and later sea tanks emerged from the deeps to claim people . . . For journalists Mike and Phyllis Watson, what at first appears to be a curiosity becomes a global calamity. Helpless, they watch as humanity struggles to survive now that water one of the compounds upon which life depends is turned against them. Finally, sea levels begin their inexorable rise . . . The Kraken Wakes is a brilliant novel of how humankind responds to the threat of its own extinction and, ultimately, asks what we are prepared to do in order to survive.
My review:
I had never heard of John Wyndham until I read Jo Walton's Among Others (a book I loved in deep inexplicable ways.) The teen protagonist in that book joins a sci fi reading group at her local library and Wyndham's The Chrysalids was one of the books discussed.
I have since learned that Wyndham single-handedly redefined science fiction by not writing about "the adventures of galactic gangsters" but instead about stuff that could happen on earth if we kept going the way we were going. He called this "logical fantasy" but today it is called speculative fiction. He influenced Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale and The Maddaddam Trilogy.
His first book, The Day of the Triffids featured an attempted takeover by monstrous carnivorous plants, his speculation on genetic engineering. The Kraken Wakes involves an invasion of aliens, visible only as dots of bright red lights coming in from space and going directly to the deeps of the oceans. They begin sinking ships, capturing people from shoreline towns, and melting the polar icecaps. 
Mike and his wife Phyllis, favored journalists for the English Broadcasting Company, follow the story for years. Professor Alastair Bocker, a visionary scientist, after much ridicule, finally develops a way to obliterate the alien monsters without destroying the planet.
The writing is intelligently humorous and moves at a typically British sedate pace but you can't hold a gripping tale down. It is a leisurely page turner, if you can imagine.
Relevance for today: How earth might deal with rising sea levels. The way governments and business influence the press to keep the real magnitude of disasters from the public.
Connections with other books I've read: 
The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson where I first learned about the Deeps.
The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch in which a kid finds a possible almost extinct Giant Squid on the shores of the Olympic peninsula. He was a Rachel Carson fanboy who read The Sea Around Us over and over.
The Deep Range by Arthur C Clarke, about whale farming and the sea monsters who threaten it.
Kracken by China Mieville; the weirdest story ever about a Kraken. 
(The Kraken Wakes is a bit hard to find in print. I got my copy from the library: a John Wyndham omnibus.) 

Sunday, November 08, 2015


The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki, Alfred A Knopf Inc, 1957, 530 pp (translated from the Japanese by Edward G Seidensticker)

Summary from Goodreads: In Osaka in the years immediately before World War II, four aristocratic women try to preserve a way of life that is vanishing. As told by Junichiro Tanizaki, the story of the Makioka sisters forms what is arguably the greatest Japanese novel of the twentieth century, a poignant yet unsparing portrait of a family–and an entire society–sliding into the abyss of modernity.

Tsuruko, the eldest sister, clings obstinately to the prestige of her family name even as her husband prepares to move their household to Tokyo, where that name means nothing. Sachiko compromises valiantly to secure the future of her younger sisters. The unmarried Yukiko is a hostage to her family’s exacting standards, while the spirited Taeko rebels by flinging herself into scandalous romantic alliances. Filled with vignettes of upper-class Japanese life and capturing both the decorum and the heartache of its protagonist, The Makioka Sisters is a classic of international literature.

My review:
I came across this book in the fourth edition of The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classic Guide to World Literature by Clifton Fadiman. I bought that book several years ago as an aid to my autodidactic quest to become well read, a quest that eventually morphed into My Big Fat Reading Project. Reading The Makioka Sisters now dovetailed nicely into my current quest to read modern translated literature.
There are four sisters whose parents passed away when only two of them had married, leaving those sisters to take care of getting husbands for the younger two. When the story opens it is the mid 1930s and for upper class families marriages had to be arranged using a go-between. All sorts of ritual surrounded this procedure including the "rule" that daughters had to be married by order of age.

The third sister is shy to the point of barely being able to speak in front of a man. She is a hard sell to prospective husbands and her family is picky. Throughout the book, which spans several years, the search for this one's husband drives the plot.

Japan is already involved in their war with China and WWII begins in Europe. The family is not as well off as they used to be and the youngest sister is a wild non-conformist who could care less for tradition. She always has a man she is ready to marry and her tarnished reputation adds to the difficulties in finding a husband for her older sister.

So the drama of the marriage plot along with encroaching Western ideas gives the novel its tension. It is also a study in the inner lives of the women and their relationships as sisters. During incidents of meetings with prospective husbands, disagreements between the two older sisters, a terrible flood, illnesses, and the youngest girl's exploits, the author paints a vivid picture of Japanese society in transition. 

I found it easy to read and got involved with all the women even though it is such a long book. In the end I decided it is the Japanese version of Pride and Prejudice.

Thursday, November 05, 2015


October was another adventurous and excellent reading month for me.

Stats: 11 books read. 6 by women. 3 speculative fiction. 2 translated. AND 1 play by Shakespeare no less. 

Favorites: I loved them all in different ways though reading Shakespeare is always a challenge for me.

Reviews to come on the last four books.

What good books did you read in October?

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


The Hundred Year House, Rebecca Makkai, Viking Penguin, 2014, 335 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.

The Hundred-Year House unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate and the incredible surprises life can offer.
My review:
The more I read, the more I see that there are infinite ways to tell a story. Why shouldn't it be so? I like the variety and that only gets broader as I read more translated books and more novels written by women.
I first heard of Rebecca Makkai when she published her first novel, The Borrower, in 2011, a book about libraries, librarians, and a geeky kid who reads compulsively. All the negative stupid reader reviews I read only made me want to read it, but alas it has languished on my huge TBR list. Now I will! Because:
The Hundred Year House was so good! The eponymous house has been in the hands of one family for a century. During the Depression it was rented out to an artist's colony. That was all I needed to know. Favorite sub-genre of mine: Artist Colony/Utopian Community fiction.
The story is told (brilliantly in my opinion) by moving backward. It starts in 1999, on the eve of Y2K, with an unstable couple. Zee, a Marxist scholar and professor, and her husband Doug, out of work in the academic world and way overdue on publishing the book that could save his career. Reading Part One, you realize that both of these people are hapless in their own unique ways but Zee is also a bit whacked. Of course, it turns out she has good reason to be.
Part One is half of the book, written in a contemporary style appropriate to hapless 21st century characters and maybe it did go on a bit too long and did have me scratching my head. It was entertaining in a John Irving kind of way but not that impressive. However, though I am a slacker in many areas of life, I am not one as a reader. I read on.
Man, was I rewarded. It makes you realize the truth behind cutting weird people some slack because you don't always know what they have been through before you met them. 
In Parts Two and Three we learn what Zee has been through, why her mother is so very odd, how a portrait of an ancestor in the house makes bad things happen and is suspected to contain a ghost, but most of all what it means to a group of artists to create a community and how far they will go to preserve it.
In my usual, mostly unsuccessful practice to get my reading group members to read outside their own boxes, I pitched this, got it read by one of these groups, and was shamed by how much vitriol they exuded-toward the book, not me. (It is a thing in reading groups. You never blame the person who suggested the book, maybe because she is sitting right there and it is easier to pick on the poor absent author.)
Most of the people in this group are lawyers. I think The Hundred Year House is meant for artists and those who love artists. Or at least for people who don't need everything in life and in books to be wrapped up in neat packages with no rough edges, no "inexplanities," all mysteries solved and culprits punished.
(The Hundred Year House is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)