Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Waiting, by Ha Jin, Random House, Inc, 1999, 308pp

I've had this book on my shelf for a while. It won an NBA and a PEN/Faulkner award, so I had high expectations which unfortunately were not met.

The story is set in 1960s-1980s China, which is post-revolutionary Red China. Lin Kong is a doctor in an army hospital. He is married to a woman he does not love. The marriage was arranged by his parents and his wife remains in the small village where Lin Kong was raised along with their daughter. Every summer for 20 years, he goes to the village during his annual leave from the hospital, which is in a nearby city, and tries to get a divorce from his wife. Every year she says she will permit the divorce but when they get to the court she changes her mind.

There is another woman, a nurse at the hospital, whom he wishes to marry. She waits throughout the 20 years. Morality is very strict under the Communist regime and they have no physical relationship. This situation goes on for a good two thirds of the book, so the reader is waiting as well and yes, that is as uneventful as it sounds. Neither Lin Kong nor his lover are particularly likeable characters and their affair is rather pedestrian.

Finally the divorce is granted, the frustrated lovers marry and then their troubles really begin.
They have a child, the new wife becomes clingy and neurotic and Lin Kong, after all these years, doesn't really have the knack of being a husband. He had moved the ex-wife to the city after the divorce which leads to an ironic ending that is actually quite good but geez, I waited 300 pages for that?

Sunday, November 13, 2005


Mirror Mirror, by Gregory Maguire, HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2003, 276 pp

Maguire's most recent book, Son of a Witch, just came out, so he was being widely promoted. I somehow had not heard of him but was seduced by the promotion. He also writes children's books and it is all a unique twist on the fantasy genre.

In Mirror Mirror, he takes the tale of Snow White and sets it in Italy, 1502. Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia are pulling their shenanigans and are central to the story. There are dwarves as well. It is an odd mix of history, imagination, legend and something like metaphysics.

It is hard to describe, highly literary, and not an easy read. If it hadn't been for a few books I'd already read, such as Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason; Catalina, by Somerset Maugham; and especially Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger, all of which deal with that time period, I would have been quite lost. As it was, I could only marvel at his imagination and keep a dictionary close by.

I can't say that I loved the book, but it had a fascination. Though there was plenty of action at times, it seemed to move slowly. Perhaps I was under an enchantment as a reader. I'd like to hear about any of Maguire's books that anyone has read.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


The Song of Names, by Norman Lebrecht, Random House, Inc., 2002, 311 pp.

I picked this book out of a shelf of trade paperbacks at one of my favorite independent bookstores: Once Upon A Time, in Montrose, CA. I was solely attracted by the title. On the back cover the blurb says, "Martin Simmonds' father tells him, 'Never trust a musician when he speaks about love.' The advice comes too late." I was sold.

My husband actually read the book first and was completely charmed. (We are both musicians.) He would read to me from it in bed at night. Then it sat on my shelf of to-be-read contemporary fiction for months. Finally I got it selected as a pick for the reading group at the very store where I bought it and sat down to read it last weekend.

I was not disappointed. It has been a while since I enjoyed a book this much. Martin Simmonds is the son of a man who ran a music promotion company that catered to the middle-class as an audience. In 1940s England, that was unique and probably considered quite low-brow. But the man was a master of PR and with this skill would take young hopefuls in classical music and build them a career of minor fame.

Just before Hitler invaded Poland, David Rapoport, a nine year old violin prodigy is left by his father in the care of the Simmonds family. David is many things to the family. To the father, he is the great future star who will make the company well thought of. So David is groomed and coddled, brought to the best teachers, given an almost priceless violin. To nine year old Martin, David is a brother, a companion, an idol, but most of all someone to love in a fairly loveless family. They grow up together and David makes Martin come alive, gives him a personality and Martin feels loved.

The book begins 40 years after David disappeared on the night of his world debut. Martin is an old hypocondriac and a broken spirit. He now runs the family business which has devolved into a shoddy, outdated sheet music company. On a business trip to the English hinterlands, Martin hears a young violinist with a bit of David's signature technique in his playing. So begins the search for the lost David and the reader learns the back story.

It is a wonderful book, written in a smart modern tone but full of history. During the Battle of Britain, you feel you are there with two nine year old boys, doing the paper route and exploring the bomb sites. The world of a training musician, of the singleminded competitive attitude necessary, of the maneuvering by the manager/promoter is all created. And the inner life of a boy growing to manhood in a foreign country with no news of his Jewish family in war-torn Poland is portrayed with reality and sensitivity. But it is not a mawkish or heartwarming story. It is full of human folly and unlovely emotions. The moment when the meaning of the title is revealed was so heart-stopping for me that I had to put the book down for a while. But there is also humor, musical philosophy, religious ideas and a good dose of mystery.

The Song of Names won a Whitbread First Novel Award. Say what you will about awards, but if it hadn't won I may have never heard of or found the book.

Friday, November 11, 2005


Despite all my best intentions, I have not finished my writing on the reading I did for the decade of 1940-1949. I started a new job in September, teaching in a private school. I actually love the job, but it was supposed to be a 5 hours a day, 5 days a week gig but has turned out to be more like 7 hours a day while I learn my way around the school, the kids, the curriculum, etc.

So it is all I can do to keep up my reading. I try to read at least 100 pages a day but a good day is 200 pages. I have started reading books for 1950 and have finished one. Tonight I got about half way through a second. I am also in four reading groups which works out to approximately one book a week, but it is good, because it keeps me reading contemporary books and gives me people to talk to about books. As a wanna-be writer, I think it is healthy to listen to and observe how other readers besides myself react to books. I've been in these reading groups for about a year now and it has been quite revealing.

Although I read the entire LA Times and NY Times book reviews every week as well as Bookmark Magazine every month, although I read about 10 different literary blogs on a regular basis, there is really no comparison to listening to your everyday reader say how she felt about a book. I have met every kind of reader in these groups. There are people who only want to read a book that makes them feel good. There are other people who automatically dislike a book if it does not agree with their views on life, politics, religion, you name it. Some readers in these groups balk if they have to look up words in a dictionary while reading a book. Others freak out if a book is more than 300 pages long. But then there are readers who love learning about some thing, people, or place they didn't know about before. And readers who love history. And readers who just get rapturous over good writing.

Then there is the blog here. I don't know who reads it. Sometimes I get wonderful comments and other times I get emails from people who are too shy or afraid to post a comment. Other times I get those spam comments from people who are promoting their own blogs (and usually selling something). There is some kind of button you can push to keep those people from posting comments, but I am a strong believer in laissez-faire capitalism, so I just let it happen. For most of the time there are no comments at all. But if you are reading this and have ever entertained the idea of posting a comment, PLEASE DO SO. Even if you disagree violently with what I have said about a book, even it you read comic books or Nicholas Sparks, I am interested in what you have to say about reading, books, fiction and how these things affect your life.

This week, I went out and did some retail therapy, after months of being careful not to spend money. My biggest thrill was purchasing Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.
I've read about three chapters and I am the most enthralled with her awareness that any novel is only as good as a reader thinks it is. That is so democratic, so merit based and just so sensible. So getting back to all those book reviews I read, I am afraid I don't have much use for critics who think their job is to criticize any book they read. I read the reviews to find out what has been published. I rarely agree with the reviews. And I write this blog simply to communicate what happened when I read a book, how it affected me and to hopefully stimulate a dialogue on any given book.

What are you reading? What books have you loved? How does reading affect your life?

Thursday, November 03, 2005


This is a list of books I read that were published in 1941, as part of My Big Fat Reading Project.


*1. The Keys of the Kingdom, by AJ Cronin. A common man becomes a priest, goes to China in the 1920s, does a lot of good and never really gets recognized for it.
2. Random Harvest, by James Hilton. A World War I amnesia victim finally finds out who he is and finds his lost love.
3. This Above All, by Eric Knight. World War II love story and commentary on war.
4. The Sun Is My Undoing, by Marguerite Steen. Huge, historical novel about a larger than life character, slave trade and abolition in 1840s England.
*5. For Whom The Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. Holdover from the 1940 list. Spanish Civil War.
6. Oliver Wiswell, by Kenneth Roberts. Another holdover from 1940. Revolutionary War.
7. H M Pulham, Esquire, by John P Marquand. A Boston man, WWI veteran, has money. This is the story of the rest of his life, including having his son go off to WWII.
8. Mr and Mrs Cugat, by Isabel Scott Rorick. Also about well-to-do New England people and the quirks of their marriage.
9. Saratoga Trunk, by Edna Ferber. The lives of a Texas man and a Creole woman who become railroad barons.
*10. Windswept, by Mary Ellen Chase. Wonderful and beautiful story of a man, Maine and values.


1. Between Two Worlds, by Upton Sinclair. Second volume of the World's End series, following Lanny Budd up to the beginning of the Depression.
2. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, by Vladimir Nabokov. Story of a writer.
3. A Curtain of Green, by Eudora Welty. Her first short story collection.
*4. Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler. Great and heavy; Russian communist history as it is rarely told.
5. The Ill Made Knight, by T H White. Third book of the Once and Future King. Lancelot's story.
6. The Castle on the Hill, by Elizabeth Goudge. A plucky heroine survives WW II in England.
7. Wild is the River, Louis Bromfield. Post Civil War story set in New Orleans.
8. Without Signposts, Kathleen Wallace. What it was like for mothers with small children in England during WWII.
*9. The Scum of the Earth, by Arthur Koestler. A memoir about the prison camps to which liberal writers were sent during early WWII.
10. O Henry Prize Stories of 1941.
11. Caldecott Medal: Make Way For Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey. A family of ducklings in Boston.
12. Newbery Award: The Matchlock Gun, by Walter D Edmonds. A ten year old boy defends his mother and sister using an old gun, while his father is off fighting Indians in Colonial America.

* means a book I especially liked.


Guard of Honor, James Gould Cozzens, 1949, 631 pp.

With this book, I completed the novels for 1949. It won the Pulitzer Prize that year and took forever to read. I had never heard of it before and that may be because it is highly dated. It concerns only three days on a base of the American Army Air Force in Ocarana, Florida, during World War II. At that time, the Air Force was not yet a separate branch of the military and much of the might of air power was being developed as World War II was fought.

In the three days which the story covers, everything that could go wrong does. In addition, much of the trouble has racism at its root. There is a cast of at least 20 characters and about 10 main characters, so Cozzens uses the circumstances as a frame on which to do character studies of these numerous men and women. The women include WACS and officers' wives. He also throws in a sort of philosophy of war and army life.

So much goes wrong by the second day that I expected a big tragic ending. Instead, it all simmers down and gets approximately sorted out so that you understand that life will go on. Well, I suppose that could be a motto of war and army life.

Generally it was all "good" writing in a combination of English class and newspaper writing training. I found it much too wordy, somewhat pedantic and never fully gripping or exciting. The ending was unforgivable after 550 pages of build-up. I can surely see why we needed a Hemingway to come along.