Monday, August 08, 2005


I am a member of four reading groups. This is a little crazy but it is working out pretty well. I joined the first one because I wanted someone to talk to about books. Then one thing led to another and I ended up being in four. It is good because a) I read books I would otherwise have never read (actually a mixed blessing. I had to read one by Nicholas Sparks a few months ago-yuck.) and b) I read books on my to-be-read pile that I otherwise was not getting around to. Also, as a budding writer, it is fascinating to me to hear all the different reactions from actual readers, not critics, to the same book. Being in four groups means I have a meeting about once a week which is a bit challenging but not impossible.

This month so far, I read Little Scarlet, by Walter Mosley and The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler together with Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen. I had been meaning to read The Jane Austen Book Club ever since it came out. The story involves five women and one man who read and discuss all of Jane's books over a six month period and I thought I would read the Austen books first, but reading a Jane Austen book just doesn't get me excited so I never got around to it. I did read Pride and Prejudice while I was reading Reading Lolita in Tehran last fall and it wasn't bad once I got used to all that stupid dialogue that she puts in to make fun of how people talked in those days. At least now I know what people mean when they talk about Darcy.

Anyway, The Jane Austen Book Club was a disappointment. It is the second book about book clubs I have read. (The other one was a reading group pick as well, entitled Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons.) I always think I will like this type of story because I love reading and I am in reading groups, but in both books, there are too many characters and you never really get deeply into any one of their lives. Plus this one was just too much like any other modern book about modern women and all their issues. She obviously was drawing comparisons between these women's lives and the women in Jane Austen's books, but the fact is that Jane Austen does it better.

So part of the plan this month was to also read Northanger Abbey in combination with the other book. (I will be interested to see how many group members managed to read both.) I finished the Fowler book yesterday and the Austen book tonight. Catherine is the heroine in Northanger Abbey, and she is the most likeable of Austen's women so far, in my opinion. She is a bit ditzy and unaware, mostly because she is young and also because she doesn't realize, as all the other women do, that getting a husband is THE THING. She suffers agonies over the stupid things she does and has a lovely sense of what is right socially, but has not a duplicitous bone in her body. And of course, in the end she gets her man.

Well, that is enough of Jane Austen for now. I am going back to the William Faulkner book I interrupted to read these two.


Well I am still on 1949, but I am getting close. Lots of reading getting done, but some of it is for reading groups. My eyeballs are not burning yet though, so I know I can do more, if only life would let me.

The Beginning and the End, by Naguib Mahfouz. He is Egyptian and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. This is a good thing because then his books got translated into English. I am a big proponent of reading fiction by writers from other countries. I think it is a perfectly plausible road to world peace. Fiction by foreign authors is always a surprise to me, sometimes difficult to read, has viewpoints that are refreshingly not American and Mafouz did not disappoint me. He is one of the first Egyptians to write novels and he began writing them in the 1930s.

In this story, a family falls into poverty after the father dies. They were only barely middle-class when he was alive. The mother stoically keeps the family going. The daughter must go out and earn money as a seamstress, a source of dishonor for a woman in 1930s Egypt. Two of the sons finish school and assume positions. A third son has always been a reprobate, but he finds income through unsavory connections with crime and drug dealing and is the one who puts up the money to get the other boys started in life.

All of the children have various love interests but it is the middle son, who sacrifices his own wants to help his younger brother yet finally finds a wife, while all the others' lives end in tragedy. The whole book is a study on the degrading effects of poverty on otherwise fairly normal people. Each one has a character trait that becomes emphasized all out of proportion by circumstance, which makes the novel universal rather than local.

The book was published in 1949 and marked Mafouz's change from writing historical fiction to contemporary stories. I started to wonder, after I read this book, about Egypt. I've read countless books about ancient Egypt and two books by Mafouz about 20th century Egypt. What happened in between? Does anyone know of a good book about Egyptian history? What I would love is a James Michener or Edward Rutherfurd type of book that traces the whole history of the place.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


I read The Season of Comfort, by Gore Vidal, as part of My Big Fat Reading Project (see post of this title from early July.) It was published in 1949 and is Vidal's fourth novel. It was just OK. I think he was trying to write a bestseller in the style of the time but it just didn't have that zing.

It is a family story. The head of the family is a Virginia politician who was once Vice President under Wilson. He is no longer in office, but his daughter is having her first baby as the book opens. It is actually this child's story and you watch him grow up and break free of his overbearing and slightly crazy mother. But just as he finds himself and decides to pursue a career as a fine artist, he goes off to fight in World War II and the story ends. It was not a bad story, but did not enlighten me in any way.

All of the four Vidal novels I've read so far concern young men finding themselves, but the best one was the first, Williwaw, which had some actual excitement in it. Of course Vidal went on to write many books including some lengthy historical fiction. It will be interesting to see how he develops as an author as I read through the years.

Speaking of which, I am very close to finishing the reading for 1949. I am excited. I will finally move into a new decade; the decade which most shaped my life. I started this project reading books from 1940, so this will be the ninth year I've finished. Every time I get to the last few books of a year, it seems that time slows down or all kinds of stuff comes up in life that keeps me from reading. I wanted to finish the last five books last week and only got through one of them. I get a bit frantic about it. Well, I get very edgy whenever I can't get in the amount of reading time I want to. I realized yesterday that reading is what I use to create space in my life. All the daily stresses and issues press in around me, but when I am reading I feel free of all that and am off to other lands, other lifestyles, other viewpoints and new ideas. I wonder how it is for other people who read lots of books.

Monday, August 01, 2005


I saw Walter Mosley speak at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this spring. He talked about making the experience of black people real to other people. He read from the first chapter of Little Scarlet, his latest Easy Rawlins book. He is an excellent reader and I could still hear his voice when I began to read the book.

The setting is the Watts District of Los Angeles, 1965 in the aftermath of the riots there. A woman has been murdered and the only suspect is a white man. The Deputy Police commissioner does not want that to be true, as it will only cause a new eruption of violence. He summons Easy to help smooth the waters. Easy does more than that. He finds the real murderer.

This was the first I read about Easy Rawlins. He is quite a guy. Born dirt poor in Texas, he came and lived in the ghetto of LA but raised himself up. He owns a house outside of Watts, has a family of sorts and besides his job as a school janitor, he has a sort of private eye service for his people in Watts. He is serious about the evils of racism, but he is no prude. He does what he has to, to get the job done. He has a heart of gold and a chest full of anger towards the white establishment, including cops.

I thought the book was great. It works on many levels and does what I think fiction should do, which is put into words what people feel and know but cannot always express. But I read the book for a reading group discussion and was amazed to find that about half of the group disliked the book. They felt that it was too sympathetic towards violence and crime and could not see why blacks should still be so angry when slavery has been abolished for all these years. Why don't these people just get an education and get a grip and move on, was the attitude of this part of the group. Geez! I was dismayed at the blindness. I suppose that a writer can write the truth, but can never be sure it will be heard.