Sunday, October 30, 2005



1. How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn. Historical, religious, sentimental. Family is very important as it is being pulled apart by the Industrial Revolution in coal mining Wales. M
*2. Kitty Foyle, Christopher Morely. Modern life, beginnings of feminism, class consciousness in Philadelphia of the 20s and 30s. M
3) Mrs Miniver, Jan Struther. War time in England (WWII) with a traditional view on women, very sentimental, made into an Oscar winning movie. M
*4) For Whom The Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway. Spanish Civil War, issues of freedom, democracy, communism.
5. The Nazarene, Sholem Asch. Life of Jesus and the relation of Christian and Jew.
6. Stars on the Sea, F van Wyck Mason. Revolutionary War and the forming of the first American Navy.
7. Oliver Wiswell, Kenneth Roberts. Revolutionary War again but from the Tory view. They don't teach that in school.
*8. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck. The Dust Bowl story; poverty, oppression of the worker, human greed vs human spirit. Pulitzer Prize M
9. Night in Bombay, Louis Bromfield. Leisure class men and women coming of age vs a man who wants to be of use.
10. The Family, Nina Fedorova. War in China, White Russian immigrants, family, honor, religion.

*1. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene. Religion suppressed by political change in Mexico, questions of faith.
2. The Hamlet, William Faulkner. Good and evil, stupidity and cupidity in small town southern America.
*3. Native Son, Richard Wright. Racial suppression in Chicago, the Black experience.
*4. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers. Loneliness, social disturbance, Reds, discrimination, coming of age and search for love and connection.
*5. The Morning Is Near Us, Susan Glaspell. Family issues and the healing spirit of a woman and love, not sentimental but real.
*6. The Sword and the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, TH White. The first two books of The Once and Future King, which is the Arthur legend. Dreams of peace and unity, history of the fatal flaw.
*7. World's End, Upton Sinclair. First of a 10 volume series which begins pre WWI. This book introduces Lanny Budd, the hero of the books and follow his young life. War, the truth about war, art and its purpose, coming of age.
8. Farewell My Lovely, Raymond Chandler. Crime in LA, severe societal dysfunction.
*9. The Bird in the Tree, Elizabeth Goudge. (One of my favorite writers.) Family, a strong woman, religion, the ravages of war on personal lives, art.
10. Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Willa Cather. Racial discrimination, the difficulty of women's' lives whether black or white.
11. My Name is Aram, William Saroyan. Immigrant life, rising above poverty and lack of opportunity.
12. Call It Courage, Armstrong Sperry. Polynesian boy has adventures on the sea and overcomes his fears. Newbery Award.
13. They Were Strong and Good, Robert Lawson. A family genealogy of people who built this country. Caldecott Award.

* means I especially liked the book.
M means it was made into a movie.


In 2002 I decided to write up the story of my life. I didn't know what I would do with it but at least I could leave it for my children and grandchildren and hopefully put down whatever wisdom I had gleaned. As I started on the project I was struck by how little I knew about the history of my family. In times gone by and in other cultures, the family history is told in stories and children learn it so that they can pass it on to their children. As I was growing up, there were no stories like this. It was as if it all started with our nuclear family. We visited our grandparents and cousins every summer, but no one ever talked about the past. The only thing I could figure is that my parents were only third generation Americans, my grandparents being born to German immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were more interested in becoming Americans than in preserving the old country tales and traditions. When I was young I cared little about the past. Like most children, I was interested in the present and the future, because as a child one is not aware of having a past, but rather is striving to grow up and see what one's life will become. Now I am past the middle of my life and possibly have more past than future as far as this lifetime goes. Probably my children and grandchildren would find this history I am writing of little interest, but possibly when they reach my age they will have the same kinds of questions I now have.

One day I had the idea that I have probably been influenced all my life by the books and literature of the times I have lived through. I was read to by my parents regularly until I could read myself. I've always read lots and lots of books and in fact, in 1991 I started keeping a log of all the books I read, with a short write-up about each book. I wish I had started doing that earlier, especially during my teen years which I remember as a time of delighted and voracious reading. Anyway, I thought that it would be interesting to find out what were the main popular and important books of fiction throughout my lifetime.

I was searching the web about books and came across a college syllabus for a course in contemporary American literature, which had lists of the top 10 bestsellers for every year since about 1910. Luckily I downloaded the lists beginning with 1940, because that website no longer exists. I was born in 1947, so I began reading the books of 1940. I figured I could find out about the decade into which I was born. I began this reading project in June, 2002. This month I completed reading through the lists all the way up to 1949, so I have completed one decade of reading. For each year, I read the top 10 bestsellers, about 10 other novels by authors I was interested in, the prize winning books of the year (in the 40s there were only the Pulitzer, the Caldecott Medal (for illustrated children's books) and the Newbery Award (for young adult books.) I also read (if I could find them) the Best American and O'Henry Prize Short Story collections.

It has been a fascinating reading journey. I feel as though I was living in rather complete ignorance about the social, political, spiritual and philosophical forces at work in the world as I was growing up. I guess they try to teach you that stuff in school with history and social studies and all, but I found those subjects extremely boring and not much of it sunk in. But the moods and beliefs and stresses of the society around me did sink in. I have always been against war, against racism, against any sort of totalitarian oppression of peoples. One of my earliest memories is from 1950, when I was three years old. On the front page of the New York Times were pictures of people who were obviously suffering. I asked my Dad what it was about and he told me there was a war (the Korean War, of course) and those were pictures of the people who lived where the war was going on. I didn't know what war was, but I was against it from that day on.

This weekend I have been working on gathering the writings I've done since beginning the project. I wrote a summary for each year and now I am attempting to summarize the decade. I will post the decade summary when I get it in some readable form. But some of my reading acquaintances have expressed interest in the lists of books I read. I think the blog is the best place to put this information. Then it is recorded and can be looked up at any time by anyone who is interested.

So coming in the next post is the list for 1940. For each book, I have merely made a short note about the themes in the book. If I especially liked the book, I will put an asterisk. I found all of these books in my local libraries, but I am reading as fast as I can because I am afraid they will be taken off the shelves to make room for newer books. There is quite the controversy going on right now about the Google project to get books digitized. I think it is a great plan. What if all these old novels were lost? Keep the wisdom!

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Knight's Gambit, by William Faulkner, Random House, 1949, 246 pp

I read this off and on over several months. It was one of the remaining books on the 1949 list. I did not find it gripping. It is a set of short stories and one novella (Knight's Gambit), all about the lawyer Gavin Stevens, who was a main character in Intruder in the Dust (1948). I loved the earlier book, which had all kinds of wisdom in it. Knight's Gambit features Gavin Stevens' particular wisdom and tolerance for the ways of his local people, as a theme that runs through the stories.

When a crime is involved, as it is in each of these tales, Stevens is the man who can suss out the perpetrator while everyone else is running around perplexed. It is never who it seems and his ability to track down clues is prodigious, but he also has a certain sympathy or empathy for the criminal. At times though, even the reader can't see how he figured it out. But then, Gavin Stevens is a chess player. This reader is not.


Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson, Little, Brown and Company, 2004, 310 pp

There was quite a stir of reviews when this book came out last year. Her first novel in 1995, Behind The Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Award, so she was an author to keep track of. When I heard it described as literary crime fiction I was intrigued. Then the LitBlog Coop ( picked it for their first Read This! selection in May. So I read it, at least to keep up with the discussion on the blog.

It was not a bad book. It kept me interested and somewhat amused. Jackson Brodie, the PI on the case, is really the weakest character. Yes, he has issues in his personal life and yes, he has all the obligatory dangers of a detective to live through, but he is almost a flat character; a foil against which the other characters reveal themselves.

The "case histories" are three families who each lost someone dear to them but never found the culprit. Now in these families we have some real characters who go through change as people while Jackson solves the crimes. I finished the book about two months ago and it is telling that I do not remember much about who the murderers actually were.

The other problem for me is that keeping three whole different family histories going for more than two decades in one novel of only 300 pages, necessitated many mere glimpses of each story. This was not as bad as in a book like The Jane Austen Book Club, but any one of the family histories would have rivaled Ian McEwan's Atonement had it stood alone. Therefore the whole book is more like a clever device in a novel's drapery.

The summary of these worrisome aspects is that the book was just OK and I will move on to other authors before I read her earlier work.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


No Country For Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy, Alfred A Knopf, 2005, 309pp

This is McCarthy's latest book. I have only read All The Pretty Horses previously but decided to read this one now before finishing the trilogy, because I wanted to and because a respected reading friend read it, on hearing about it from me, and wrote me a long email about it. He found it a bleak and hopeless story.

Some drug runners have a big shoot up somewhere deep in the heart of Texas. A young man riding around in the country comes across the remains of the debacle and finds a case with a couple million dollars in it. The chase is on.

A local sheriff, an old man, gets involved because it happened in his jurisdiction. People die, innocent people are harmed and the sheriff, in confronting a new level of evil and lawlessness, is dismayed. Interspersed with the story are the sheriff's musings, which is where McCarthy gets to put in his philosophy.

So the outcome is tragic and it is pretty bleak, but I did not find it hopeless. It is definitely about evil getting the upper hand and is a message to people to be aware of that. I think that evil erupts at various times and places in the world. It is happening now and it takes a high confront of evil to fight back and overcome it. Not necessarily by starting wars with other countries, but by getting in ethics in your own country. The age of innocence which America has enjoyed for so long has ended. At the end of T H White's The Once and Future King, Arthur is old and broken, his kingdom and his dream for England are in tatters. But he grabs a young knight and tells him the dream and what needs to be done. He passes the torch to the young. I think that is the message of McCarthy's book. This is no country for old men.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester, HarperCollins Publishers, 1998, 242pp.

This is the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, with emphasis on two men in particular. Dr James Murray was the editor of the dictionary, who labored for decades at the Scriptorium (the dictionary's headquarters ) at Oxford. The idea was first proposed on November 5, 1857, but it was not until 1878 that James Murray, a public school teacher and longtime member of the Philological Society was accepted at Oxford as its editor. He organized the methods of collecting the definitions and had a whole army of volunteers to help him complete the project.

Dr W C Minor was an American medical doctor and Army captain, who suffered from mental illness and finally landed in the equivalent of a mental ward in an English prison for committing murder when overcome by his madness. While thus imprisoned, he contributed massive amounts of data to the dictionary for over 20 years. In the book, Winchester covers the unusual relationship between these two men; each is a type of genius and each is mad in his own way.

I learned that I am a philologist: one who loves learning and literature and who studies literature, grammar, literary criticism and the relation of literature to history. After 25 years of intense dictionary usage to understand what I study, I saw the other side of the coin, which was people studying books to find the definitions and historical development of our language. Now that I have read this account of how the dictionary was prepared and why it is laid out as it is, the entries make much more sense to me. Each definition in the OED is followed by a quotation which is an example of the earliest use of that meaning of the word that was found in books or literature. The OED is the most complete account of the history of the English language in existence.

The Professor and the Madman is fascinating. I felt that the author spent a bit too much time speculating on the causes and nature of Dr Minor's mental aberrations, but other than that it was an eye-opening account of a monumental labor that I had previously taken for granted.

Sunday, October 16, 2005


It has been a great weekend. All I did was read and mess around with books. Last week I finally finished the list of books for 1949. (See post entitled "My Big Fat Reading Project" in the July archives.) This is a milestone in the project because I have now completed a decade. Soon I will post my summary of 1949 and then a summary of the decade 1940-1949.

This morning I read the NYT Book Review and the Los Angeles Times Book Review, as I do every Sunday morning. In the LA Times is a review of Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel for which she read 100 novels. She was in the middle of writing Good Faith when 9/11 happened and she got blocked. She read the 100 novels to get herself going again on fiction. I have read Good Faith, which was really good and I saw her speak at the Los Angeles Festival of Books last spring. Smiley is a professor of literature somewhere and all I could wish was that I had had her as a professor when I was in college. She is so smart and articulate, with a great sense of humor. Then I met her later in the ladies' room and discovered that she is about 6'5". I love tall women.

Anyway, in the Calendar section of the LA Times, David Ulin (who is the brand new editor of the LA Times Book Review and doing a great job) had an article entitled "Literature, now more than ever", in which he talks about the vital importance of novels to the culture and about Jane Smiley's book and another book by Anne Fadiman (whose Confessions of a Common Reader I loved.) Her new volume is a collection of essays which she edited entitled Rereadings. The essays are by writers giving their experiences on rereading favorite novels.

It is all good: about how novels connect readers with the writer's interior world, share viewpoints, create empathy between people and how that is something the world needs right now. It occurs to me that in the 21st century, we are on the verge of true globalization-the family of man predicted by us hippies in the 60s. We are in the last gasp of those who profit by creating conflicts, using the differences between individuals, nationalities and religions to precipitate violence by keeping the fear of the different or unknown stirred up in a consciously created dangerous environment.

Tonight I am revitalized in my deep-seated belief that communication and understanding can overcome factors that alienate human beings from each other. The almost instantaneous speed of communication allowed by today's technology, of both words and images, while also used by the merchants of chaos for their own ends, cannot be completely subverted but can eventually bring about the increased global understanding that mankind needs.

But to assimilate and digest the information that leads to understanding, we need the kind of solitary moments of reflection that people experience while reading fiction. I would like to know what other readers experience in terms of understanding different peoples, cultures, faiths and outlooks on life through reading fiction.

Saturday, October 15, 2005


I can't quite say why, but I loved this book. The heroine is a motherless girl brought up by a terrible father (he is not cruel, just no parenting instincts, lost in his own world and a bit nuts.) She ends up in a household of German immigrants as a sort of mad professor's assistant. The professor is studying a very obscure religious sect and this research is his passion, but no one in American academia cares. His wife was a brilliant physicist in Germany but she is no one in America, so is majorly depressed. There are also four children.

Then there is the Bear Boy, heir to a fortune his father made by writing a series of children's books based on the boy. Bear Boy is now a man and also quite nuts. He is using his fortune to support this family, which is a welcome relief to their poverty but also a source of deep shame. Bear Boy is intrigued by the professor and has designs on the eldest daughter. There are all these odd elements. It reminded me of early John Irving. There is just no interest in anything normal.

Rose, the teller of the story and the heroine, is perhaps the most stable but she has no history of normality and is somewhat detached from it all. Because this is the only family she really has at this point and the only means of support, she tries to help them keep it together. Still, she is disinterested, where I would be trying to fix everything. The person who does fix everything is a complete surprise. You don't see it coming at all and when it comes, you are so immersed in the charms of abnormality that is seems a mixed blessing.

I've thought it over for weeks, but I still can't say what it is that made me love this book so.

Monday, October 10, 2005


I picked this up in mass market paperback at the airport on my way to Ohio last month. I believe it is the most recent book by John le Carre, though the copyright was 2003. My husband and I are both le Carre fans. We do not think he wrote "good" books and "bad" books, as some critics claim. We like them all. I have not read The Constant Gardener, but I remember seeing only non-glowing reviews when it came out, although it seems like every critic and their brother love the movie.

But Absolute Friends is something very special. What is it about this author? This book is the epitome of how I feel these days. The world is fucked and you do your best to make a difference, but does it or can it really make a difference? One of the friends is Edward Mundy, born in 1947, the son of an English army officer in Pakistan, whose mother died in childbirth, whose father lost his way when Pakistan overthrew British rule, and who ends up as a spy. Actually during the Cold War, he is a double agent spying for England on communists in East Germany.

The other friend is Sasha, son of a German Lutheran fascist minister and a double agent spying for East German communists. Are you confused yet? I had to really pay attention to keep everyone straight, but I like books that are a bit more strenuous than watching TV. The two met as young activists against Imperialism and the Vietnam War in the 60s. They were both part of a group in Berlin, of which Sasha was the leader and the one who had a philosophy and a vision.

The story begins in the present and moves through back story to the tragic denouement. The confusion is actually a brilliant complexity of two life stories that entwine and lead inexorably to where they both arrive at the end, brilliant because it is their very involvement in world events that determines their destiny. The thread of dread is always there: the masters of war, the fascistic military-industrial complex of greed, the children of wars and the confused parents who are the children of earlier wars and class conflicts. Communism fails, the Berlin Wall comes down, but within a decade it is all replaced by terrorism.

John le Carre is anti the whole mess: the governments of England and the USA, the war in Iraq, the criminal disregard for any form of true statesmanship in favor of greed and money. He is showing us that Nineteen Eighty-Four was all true even though it is our own "democratic" governments who are creating this brave new world.

Well, I believe all of it. I just do not see clearly these days how to effect a change in the course of mankind's destiny. (Don't worry, I am not depressed or apathetic. I still try in my various ways. Including writing this blog to get the word out that there is about 1000 percent more truth in fiction than in the news or on TV.) Ted Mundy and Sasha are martyrs to freedom but I am concerned that enough people will ever understand that.


I love Margaret Atwood. I love everything she writes. I have read all of her novels and short story collections. I have read a collection of her literary lectures called Negotiating With the Dead. This year she released Writing With Intent, Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose. It is exactly as the title says; a collection of her writing over many years including plenty of book reviews of books I've read or plan to read. The publisher is Carroll & Graf and I found the book on the New Book shelf of my public library.

Every selection is totally interesting because even in these non-fiction pieces her humor, her unique view of human nature, history and literature and especially her very incisive and sane views about women are there as clearly as in her fiction. At the risk of going on and on, I think she may be the most intelligent woman writing today.

If you are a Margaret Atwood fan, I highly recommend reading some or all of this volume. Also, I saw on another blog a speculation or rumor (not sure which it was) that Atwood could win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I think that would be justice.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Sometime a month or so ago, I posted a call to teens, asking for suggestions of good teen books. A friend of mine, a fellow songwriter, suggested Francesca Lia Block, whom I had heard of but never read. First I read Weetzie Bat, an early book of Block's from 1989, which I'd seen reviewed back when it came out.

It is stupendous. Weetzie Bat is a teenage girl in Los Angeles, from a broken home. She has a male friend with whom she makes the rounds of LA after school. He is like a soul mate but not a boyfriend because it turns out he is gay. Eventually he finds a boyfriend and Weetzie finds a boyfriend. After a series of fortuitous events involving a very cool old woman, they inherit her house and all live there together. They make films together, share adventures and heartbreaks and create a teen girl's perfect life. At least, for me, if I could have had a perfect life when I was 17 and 18, it would have been like theirs.

Weetzie is not a "normal" girl, she is not a "good girl", but she is good-hearted, artistic and a bit magical. She comes through all her exotic and dangerous adventures unscathed, amidst a collection of other misfit characters. Block creates a fairy tale life and mood with all the emotional intensity that goes with being a teen. I could hardly tell how she did it, but I was completely drawn in and charmed.

I am sure that no mother I know would want her daughter reading this book or having such a life, but I am sure there are girls who do both. I'm not sure that life in Los Angeles is a safe as the author makes it seem.

Then I read I Was A Teenage Fairy, written by Block in 1998. I didn't like it as well. Barbie is the daughter of a failed supermodel, who at 11 years old is being pushed by her mom into modeling. She is molested by a photographer but cannot bring herself to tell her mom. She acquires a secret friend, Mab the fairy. Mab is a fiesty, self-centered and quarrelsome character who argues with Barbie but also does her a lot of good by insisting that Barbie get some backbone.

At 16, Barbie finds a boyfriend who is a teen movie star. She finally stands up to her mom, achieves success as a photographer and publishes a book about fairies with photographs of Mab. The writing wasn't as strong as in Weetzie Bat and I was not drawn into the world of the book as much. It was a bit too transparent for me, as a book about dealing with teenage molestation, but then I am not a teenager anymore. Sometimes I wish I was though. My favorite age was 18. Block has lots more books including a brand new one, so I will read more.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Well, this was a fine book and much better than I expected. Aaron Gadd is the son of a dour deacon in the Congregational church who is also a farmer in a small New England town. The time is early 1840s. Gloom and doom, sin and hell-fire, coldness and cruelty make up the deacon's personality and outlook on life. But Aaron is an irrepressible lad, so he leaves home to become a successful carpenter in a nearby town. He has friends, he drinks and even has a lover, a lose Catholic girl. His upbringing haunts him though and at a Revival, he gets the ferver to go out West and be a missionary to the Indians.

The West for Aaron turns out to be Minnesota, which is Sinclair Lewis' birthplace. In fact, The God-Seeker is the last book Sinclair Lewis published at the end of a long career. The story becomes a history of the settling of that state, complete with trappers, traders, missionaries, Indians and heavy weather. All that is good but the real story is about a young man finding his own beliefs about God, people, love, work and society. Aaron's life purpose is to make all races get along and while he matures and faces the world as it really is, he keeps trying to do his part.

The characters are distinct and well drawn. The story telling is masterful and the message comes through without much preaching (an accomplishment for Sinclair Lewis.) Warning: the book starts slowly and I didn't think much of it for quite a while, but it was well worth plugging along because it gets gripping and moving all the way to the end.