Friday, December 29, 2006


This and the next two posts will cover other books I read that were published in 1950 or won awards in that year. I make up these "other" lists myself, choosing authors I admire or have always wanted to read.

The Grass is Singing, Doris Lessing, Thomas Y Crowell Company, 1950, 245 pp
This is Doris Lessing's first novel; hard to believe because the writing is so good. It takes place in South Africa and is a dark, disturbing story having to do with race. The climax of the story, told in the first few pages, is the outcome of the twisted lives and emotions of both races, which is what gives the novel its power.

Mary, the main character, came from a poor white family where her father was a hapless drunk and her mother a bitter man hater. After escaping poverty for a while through education and a job in the city, Mary enters into marriage with an incompetent farmer and moves to the bush. As she had never grown up emotionally, she descends into a sort of female madness. Her biggest problem is dealing with servants, who are all black men and with whom she is forever dissatisfied, until finally she meets her match. Moses, a somewhat educated native, has enough intelligence along with wiliness, to make Mary his emotional slave. In the end he kills her.

It is a strange and terrible revenge for what the white man has done to his race. This is not a pretty story but the telling is superb and held me with a gruesome fascination. There is just no end to what kinds of ways mankind can find to torture one another.

Another Pamela (or Virtue Still Rewarded), Upton Sinclair, The Viking Press, 1950, 314 pp
Sinclair takes a break from Lanny Budd but not from social commentary. Pamela is a poor, religious girl who gets hired as a modern day parlormaid for a rich family in 1930s California. She is pursued by the nephew of the woman of the house. He is a young, dissipated and spoiled run-around who lives off his aunt's money.

Pamela sticks to her religion and values until the man gives up liquor, gambling and fast women. Only then will she agree to marry him. Meanwhile, as the story is told by Pamela through letters to her mother and sister, you get all of Sinclair's views. Madam is a bleeding heart for all the socialist causes of the times.

The conceit of the book is its parallel with the novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, written by Samuel Richardson in 1742. In fact, the Pamela of this novel is reading the Richardson novel and quotes from it in her letters. I found it a somewhat amusing read which held my interest because Sinclair is a good writer, but it was really a bit too cute.

Dark Green, Bright Red, Gore Vidal, E P Dutton & Co Inc, 1950, 307 pp
Vidal published two novels in 1950. In this one he writes a story of politics and revolution in post WWII Central America. General Alvarez is a deposed dictator, a man in his 50s, who has decided to reclaim his position. While the General had been in exile in New Orleans, his son had joined the US Army and befriended Peter Nelson as they fought together in WWII. Peter has now been brought to Central America by Alvarez to train his army of Central American natives.

The cast of characters also includes the General's daughter Elena, a priest and de Cluny, a washed up French writer who is acting as the General's secretary. The General has, he thinks, secured the backing of "The Company", a fruit growing and exporting concern run by an American businessman.

The story is brilliantly told, as Vidal brings all these elements of Central American politics and human aspiration together. Somehow I had not realized before reading this novel, that American governmental and financial intervention into the unstable politics of Central America was going on as far back as the late 1940s. Certainly Vidal must have been one of the earliest writers to make it the subject of a novel.

A Search For the King, Gore Vidal, E P Dutton & Company Inc, 1950, 255 pp
In this novel, Vidal goes far back into history to tell a tale of Richard, the Lion Hearted, though it is actually the story of Blondel, Richard's troubadour. As Richard traveled home from the Crusades he was captured by King Leopold of Austria who hoped to use Richard as a pawn in the game of Kings, Emperors and Popes for power. The only problem is that Richard never could be a pawn for anyone. In fact, though I don't know that much about him, Richard the Lion Hearted has always been one of my heroes.

Richard is a hard guy to get close to, as most heroes are, but Blondel is a true friend and is acknowledged by Richard as such. Blondel also knows how to be a friend to a powerful person. He wanders all over Eastern Europe in the dead of winter, keeping track of Richard's whereabouts. Finally he makes it back to France and England, where along with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard's wife, he helps to arrange Richard's release. In the end, he gets to go into battle with his hero again.

During his travels, Blondel has encounters with all manner of legendary characters: dragons, werewolves and a vampire in an enchanted forest. He also experiences revelations and mystical phenomena, as befit a true artist. Through it all, he keeps writing songs and using his talents to get into and out of sticky situations. This is a finely wrought tale.

The Preacher and the Slave, Wallace Stegner, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950, 403 pp
Wow! What a book! The slave in the title is Joe Hill, hero of the IWW (the Wobblies) in the very early days of labor organizing in the United States. The IWW was a big deal from 1905 to the early 1920s. The goal was to have One Big Union for all types of workers, but the movement finally fell apart due to schisms, communist influences and very bad PR due to a rather enthusiastic use of violence.

Joe Hill did not function as an organizer but wrote songs for the workers and the Wobblies were big singers. Every meeting involved singing, they had their own songbook and most of those songs were written by Joe Hill. He set his words to popular melodies; a tradition carried on by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

Joe himself was quite a conflicted character: a Swedish immigrant, a bastard (literally), a loner with violent tendencies but a tender heart. At least that is the way Stegner portrays him, admitting in his forward that he created this fictional account around a scanty amount of actual available fact about either Joe Hill or the IWW.

Joe is clearly a doomed man from the beginning of the book and his life is a tragedy. His songs gave him just enough notoriety that government and business interests who wanted to squash the labor movement could use him as a scapegoat. He spends the last years of his life in prison while various lawyers try to prove him innocent of a murder charge which was probably trumped up. The whole case is a rallying point for the IWW and created the mythical stature of Joe Hill. I was captivated and educated by this earlier beginning to the many Guthrie/Dylan tales I have read.

Thursday, December 28, 2006


Continuing with the bestsellers I read from 1950.

The Parasites, Daphne Du Maurier, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1950, 305 pp
The #6 bestseller in 1950 is the most contemporary of Du Maurier's books that I've read. The back story beings in WWI times when three children, Maria, Niall and Celia, are being raised in the theatres of Europe. Their parents are performers; the mother a dancer, the father a singer. They were successful and popular, so had a nurse/nanny to care for the kids.

Now those kids are adults but each one is a bit off in some way due to their unusual upbringing. Their lives aren't really working. Maria married a landed gentleman but after having three children returned to the stage, as she had been a famous actress herself. Now the marriage has broken down and Maria's husband calls the three of them parasites.

It wasn't a deep book and the writing is not her best, but I was intrigued by the odd life of these people. They loved their life as children because it was rich in adventure, fantasy and variation. They were never bored, but they got virtually no parenting and learned few social skills for handling adult life in England. When life becomes difficult for any one of them in terms of personal relationships, all they can do is turn to each other as they did in childhood and tragedy ensues. Since Du Maurier's grandfather was an artist and a writer and her father was an actor, I would guess that the book is somewhat autobiographical.

Floodtide, Frank Yerby, The Dial Press, 1950, 342 pp
The yearly bestseller by Yerby came in at #7. It is 1850 and Ross Pary arrives back in Natchez, MS, having spent some years abroad studying architecture and learning how to be a gentleman. He was born Under-the Hill amongst the brawling illiterate poor but now has plans to become a rich planter On-the-Hill.

His plans work out just fine. Ross Pary's trouble is women: Morgan, the beautiful but evil wife of the man who helps Ross the most in his social climb; Conchita, the fiery daughter of a Cuban revolutionary; Cathy, the homely yet fascinating daughter of another planter, who can run a plantation like a man herself.

We also have political and social change, as the Southern slaveholders fight against abolitionists and scheme to maintain slave holding as a way of life. Yerby's writing is getting better and so is his character development, which is a good thing since he has bestsellers every year until the mid 1950s.

The Jubilee Trail, Gwen Bristow, Thomas Y Crowell Company, 1950, 564 pp.
This is a quite good historical novel and was #8 on the bestseller list for 1950. Garnet Cameron is 18 years old, has just finished school and the only thing she has to look forward to is getting married to some young man from her rather wealthy class of people in New York City. It is 1844 and Garnet is a girl who craves adventure.

She meets Oliver Hale, a young prairie trader from the mysterious land of California. Since Oliver was raised in Boston, he knows how to play the gentleman. The next thing you know, he has won over the parents, he and Garnet are married and headed for the Jubilee Trail. From Independence, MO (the edge of civilization in those days) to Santa Fe, NM runs the Santa Fe Trail. From there to the village of Los Angeles, it is the Jubilee Trail. Huge trains of covered wagons, filled with goods to be traded, go back and forth across these trails every year. This year Garnet will go too.

Of course, another woman comes into the picture before Garnet and Oliver have even left New Orleans, where they have spent their honeymoon. Florinda Grove is a woman on the run. She has been a dance hall girl in New York and got mixed up in some bad trouble. In the way of historical romance novels, she ends up on the Jubilee Trail as well, where she and Garnet become great friends.

The whole book is adventure all the way. You totally get what it was like to ride those covered wagons and cross the desert. Reading about life in the early years of California was fascinating and when Garnet and Florinda are thrown together by tragedy, Bristow creates a realistic picture of what it was like for women in those uncivilized and wild times. The romances are pretty silly but the history is great. Here is another book I would never have read if I hadn't done this project.

The Adventurer, Mika Waltari, G P Putnam's Sons, 1050, 377 pp
One more rousing historical novel on the list for 1950 is The Adventurer, by the author of The Egyptian (#1 in 1949.) In Finland, early 1500s, Michael is about five years old, son of an unmarried woman, when his entire family is killed in a raid by the Jutes. He was raised a Catholic but the King of Finland is a conquering Dane and a Lutheran.

Michael grows up with a desire to be a priest and a scholar, nevertheless he spends most of his years in adventures all over Europe as a soldier and spy for various factions in all the many wars of the time. The book is a diatribe against religion, war and the hopeless nature of mankind though presented in a humorous light. It is all about men and their ways; the only females are the healer/witch who raised Michael and a courtesan/camp follower. Martin Luther comes off no better than the Pope. Good read and good history.

The Disenchanted, Budd Schulberg, Random House Inc, 1950, 388 pp.
The #10 bestseller starts out in Hollywood with a young writer, just hired by a movie studio. He is made the assistant/collaborator to Manley Halliday, a formerly famous novelist from the 1920s. Halliday needs money, has a nasty drinking problem which has devolved into diabetes and has taken this screenwriting job. The young hopeful writer is at first overawed by Halliday but as the story moves along and the older author's washed up condition outweighs his brilliance, things get extremely rocky.

The two writers are to work together on a vapid romantic comedy. The stereotypical studio head, Victor Migrim, drags them through a journey to the East coast college which is the setting for the movie. On and on it goes with Halliday steadily drinking and falling apart while telling his own back story as they go. The young writer is forced into the role of caretaker. After a while, the story begins to sound awfully familiar, so I Googled Schulberg and sure enough, Halliday is a fictional F Scott Fitzgerald, while Schulberg turns out to be the son a of movie studio head and had done a stint of collaboration with Fitzgerald back in the day.

I had no trouble reading the book which pulls you along relentlessly. The tragic downfall of a talented novelist was intermingled with incidents that ranged from comedic to slapstick, a combination which made me queasy. But The Disenchanted is a forerunner of many Hollywood novels, so stands as a historic volume of that genre.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Christmas is finally over and I can get back to something like normal life. I had hoped to write two more chapters of Reading For My Life by the end of the year. Alas, it will not be. But at least I can get 1950 done. Here then are the first of the bestsellers I read for 1950.

The Cardinal, Henry Morton Robinson, Simon and Schuster, 1950, 565 pp
At #1 is the story of a priest working his way up to Cardinal in the Catholic Church. Stephen Fermoyle, son of an Irish family in Boston, is a young priest returning from seminary in Rome to take up his first parish assignment at the opening of the story. Father Stephen is a Lanny Budd sort of character who comes through each challenge with his integrity intact. He has a deep call to the ministry, a quick intelligence, a love of people and a way with diplomacy. You are meant to admire him, though his struggles are a bit hard to believe because he is so flawless.

Since the story ranges from pre-WWI to WWII, the issues of the times are brought in and the views of the Catholic Church are promulgated: industrially created poverty, immigrants, the Depression, birth control, fascism, Communism are all addressed. While I don't hold with the patriarchal nature of the Catholic Church or with their views on women, I could see how a strong religious belief and practice are a stabilizing factor in a rapidly changing and unstable world.

It was interesting to learn how a pope is elected, how bishops run their areas and how the Catholic Church interfaces with secular concerns. I am quite sure the novel presents an extremely whitewashed version. Stephen, the Pope and the worldwide Church all come across as basically infallible.

The writing was typical for the bestsellers of the time and the storytelling kept me interested, but the style was what I became used to in the 1940s bestsellers. In any case, I was launched into a new decade of fiction.

Joy Street, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Julian Messner Inc, 1950, 461 pp
This was #2 on the 1950 bestseller list. Keyes's earlier books were all set in New Orleans, but Joy Street takes place in Boston during a similar time period to The Cardinal. Emily is from a rich, high society family and marries Roger, who has a good social standing but no money. He is just starting out at a law firm which is stodgy but has also recently hired a Jew, an Irishman and an Italian. It is Emily's and Roger's dream to be catalysts for all these conflicting elements and social levels.

Naturally it doesn't work out as planned. Emily's grandmother is the matriarch of the family and tries to control everyone, though she actually likes and helps Emily. Though there is no real sex in the book, there is plenty of sexual tension, affairs that almost happen and finally a happy and passionate ending for Emily.

Keyes has written a fairly good story though is a bit too wordy. The 1940s writing style again, but she is trying to be up-to-date in the details concerning the old ways giving over to the new post-war world.

Across the River and into the Trees, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950, 308 pp
Making #3 on the list is a writer who never did write in the style of his day, though I did not find this novel to be one of his best. Richard, also called the Colonel, who had been a General and got demoted, who had fought in WWII and become disillusioned, is taking a leave to spend some time in Venice. He is there to see his lover, to go on a duck hunt and, you begin to realize, to die.

Richard is 50 years old, he is a cynical old bastard and he has a bad heart. His lover is an eighteen year old Venetian princess from some ancient family. The ducks are mostly mallards. Granted that Hemingway paints a good portrait of the Colonel and conjures both Venice and love as well as a bunch of unique characters, but it was way too much a man's book for me and very repetitive. I found nothing near the power of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The Wall,
John Hersey, Alfred A Knopf, 1950, 632 pp
The Wall was the #4 bestseller in 1950 and I had heard so much about this book that I was excited to read it. I never really knew what it was about (the Berlin Wall maybe? the Wall of China?), but it would be mentioned in reverent tones so I assumed it was important. It is.

"The Wall" was built by Jews under Nazi orders in Warsaw, Poland beginning in 1939. In other words, after Hitler conquered Poland he got the Jews to enclose themselves in a ghetto. Eventually all the Jews in Warsaw and surrounding areas were forcibly ordered inside the wall, the entrances were guarded by German SS and finally the Nazis began to "relocate" these people, mostly to Treblinka, where the majority of them perished.

Though The Wall is fiction, it is written as the journal entries of a Jewish man named Noach Levinson, who recorded everything he could until 1943, when it finally became clear that the ghetto would be destroyed and he escaped along with a few others of the resistance.

The book is long, not very entertaining and it took me over three weeks to read it. I read other books in between, rarely reading as much as 100 pages at a time of The Wall. I started it when I had a stomach flu and finished it while I had bronchitis, so you see it was tough going. I had thoughts about life on planet earth being like living in a ghetto. I had other thoughts about how very difficult it is for human beings to get along, even in the same religion and about how it is the suppression certain humans perpetrate over others that makes that difficulty. I think it is important that Hersey wrote this story and was glad that I read it but it was very hard even for me who can read almost anything.

Star Money, Kathleen Winsor, Appleton-Century-Crofts Inc, 1950, 442 pp
One thing about the top 10 bestsellers in 1950 is the variety. Star Money was nothing like any of the four other books on the list so far. Winsor's second novel is half the length of Forever Amber, her 1944 bestseller, a blessing because the writing is quite bad. I suspected the story of being auto-biographical and learned that indeed it was. Forever Amber sold 3 million copies by 1949. It was banned in Boston for a while and is now considered the first bodice-ripper and a precedent for Peyton Place, not to mention other "racy" bestsellers about strong, immoral female heroines. Winsor divorced and remarried several times and was even married to Artie Shaw for a time.

In Star Money, Shireen Delaney is a bestselling author during WWII. While her husband is overseas fighting the war, she moves to NYC, sells her first novel, makes a pile of money, buys and decorates her own apartment and has several lovers. Shireen is ambitious, ruthless, self-centered, emotionally childlike and uses up men like disposable tissues. It is the emotional ridiculousness of the character that is so annoying as Winsor details Shireen's every vacillating thought. Now, I've read that sort of thing in Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, so it isn't the vacillating so much as the lame prose of Kathleen Winsor.

On the other hand, the talent, hard work and strength of Shireen are similar to Amber's. Women, including me, will always love reading about plucky heroines and the more ethically ambiguous the better. While reading Star Money, I was disgusted and fascinated at the same time.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Alice Zogg is a local author in Los Angeles. She is also a friend of mine. Alice writes mysteries in the style of Agatha Christie and PD James. She is a retired woman (though a very active sportswoman) who started writing after retirement and who writes for her own amusement, so she opted to use Print On Demand publishing rather than spend time dealing with the whole agent/publisher/promote yourself anyway scenario that confronts new authors these days.

Last month she released her fourth book, The Lonesome Autocrat. It features Private Investigator R A Huber, as have her earlier books. Alice has set this mystery in her native Switzerland, where Huber is visiting a childhood friend. When a murder is committed, Huber must switch gears and go to work finding the murderer since the victim is her friend's 84 year old father.

Otto Sonderegger was a hotel magnate whose sorrow in life was that none of his offspring chose to carry on the hotel business. He had been an overbearing and critical man, married twice and had affairs on the side. Any one of his heirs or lovers were thus suspect.

Ms Zogg depicts life in a Swiss mansion and nearby Davos, a resort town, with the skill of a travel writer. The discovery of the murderer involves a serious threat to R A Huber's life and a startling surprise to the reader. Though she writes in a traditional style, Zogg's characters are clearly of the modern world. Her strongest point is her plotting and I can never even guess who done it until it is revealed.

Reaching Checkmate: 2003
Turn the Joker Around: 2004
Tracking Backward: 2005
The Lonesome Autocrat: 2006

All of Alice Zogg's books are available at either Barnes and or

I had a chance to pose some questions to Alice about her latest book and her writing life and thought you might enjoy reading her answers:

KTW: Your earlier books all take place in California. What made you decide to set The Lonesome Autocrat in Switzerland?

AZ: I was born and raised in Switzerland and then moved to the United States as a young adult. Even though I made my home first in New York City and for the last three and a half decades in Southern California, I visit my native country frequently. When choosing the locale for The Lonesome Autocrat in the Davos resort area, I fulfilled nostalgia. I have skied in Davos numerous times.

KTW: R A Huber seems to have quite a bit of sympathy for Otto Sonderegger, yet I did not find him a likable character. Is he based on someone you have known?

AZ: I completely invented him, as I do with all my characters. R A Huber had a certain respect for the old tyrant, that is correct.

KTW: I like the way you let the reader into you private eye's thought processes as she goes about reasoning out the crime. When her husband Peter brings up the three basic types of motives for murder, it seems to help her sort out her evidence. Is that theory about the motives documented somewhere?

AZ: The three basic types of motives for murder; greed, passion and self-preservation; came "out of my head," I have to admit. There is no such theory documented.

KTW: Are there mystery writers whom you admire or feel have influenced you as a writer? If so, what do you like about them?

AZ: I have always been an Agatha Christie fan. Her plots are ingenious. P D James is another mystery writer whose intriguing and chilling tales I admire. Then there is Dick Francis who educates the reader about horse racing, while at the same time weaves a darned good murder story. Is it a coincidence that all three are British?

KTW: How did you become a writer?

AZ: A few years ago I went to the bookstore in search of new reading material. Having read all the mystery novels ever written by my favorite authors, I was planning to purchase works of more contemporary writers. I was out of luck and could not find any that appealed to me. I must have browsed the wrong shelves that day because I certainly have discovered many great books written by present day authors since then. (Elizabeth George, Parnell Hall, Christopher Reich-just to name a few.)

Anyhow, when I returned from the store empty-handed hours later, my husband asked, "Where are the books you bought?" After I explained my dilemma, he burst out mockingly, "Why don't you write your own stories since you're that picky?" I did not pay any attention to his banter at the time, but about a month later I thought, well why not? So I gave it a try with my first book and have not stopped writing since.

KTW: Could you talk about your decision to self-publish?

AZ: While I was plotting the first book, I bought several how-to manuals on publishing the traditional way. The more I learned about what was involved, the more I felt that it was not worth the headache and decided to self-publish. When I was writing my third mystery, an author I know got me all fired up about trying to get published in the standard manner. Then I did some soul-searching and came to the conclusion that there was no reason why I should put myself under the stress this would involve. I found this creative outlet called writing late in life and it gives me joy and fulfillment, but I am a retired grandma and want to avoid that kind of pressure.

KTW: What are you working on now?

AZ: In the manuscript I am currently working on R A Huber is back in California and will solve her next murder near Big Bear Lake. She will also have a side-kick in the form of a young, dynamic assistant. My previous stories are written in the first person from Huber's point of view. This tale I am writing in the third person, getting into each character's head.

KTW: Thanks, Alice. I look forward to the next book!

Sunday, December 10, 2006


Novel, George Singleton, Harcourt Inc, 2005, 335 pp

I read this for one of my reading groups, who picked it from a list of my suggestions. It was not a hit with the group but I liked it just fine. Admittedly, it is odd; Southern but comical, a complete spoof on many levels, one of which is writers, writing, writers' retreats, etc.

Novel Akers, raised with his two adopted sibilings by eccentric ex-concert pianists, is now married into a completely inbred South Carolina family. He finds himself living in Gruel, his wife's hometown, writing his memoirs. After his mother-in-law's death, caused by a spark from her son's cigarette while she was breathing through an oxygen tank, the couple inherited the family home and a defunct motel. Novel's wife Bekah turned the motel into a weight loss spa called Sneeze 'n' Tone (excessive sneezing caused by various air-borne particles pumped into the air led to rapid loss of pounds), but she got bored with that and with Novel and left town. Novel next turned the place into a writers' retreat.

But many things in the town of Gruel do not add up, so the book becomes somewhat of a mystery, though even the mystery is a spoof. There is heavy irony being attempted here and I felt that for the most part, Singleton pulled it off. I mostly chuckled inwardly and sometimes laughed out loud. There is a boring part about midway through but overall the book was a relief from overly serious literary fiction.

I think many people, especially middle-aged women who like a good dose of heartwarming sentiment, could hate this book. Most of my reading group did.


epicene-from Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner, p 55.

Looked up in Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition

epicene is an adjective meaning (in this context) belonging to one sex but having characteristics of the other, or of neither; specifically, effeminate; unmanly. (From the Greek word epikoinos, common.)

My sentence: The dancer's epicene build captured the attention of all the males in the room as well as the women's.

What is your sentence?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


The Places in Between, Rory Stewart, Harcourt Inc, 2004, 297 pp

The Places in Between is the truest thing I have read about the Middle East since 9/11. It is travel writing, memoir, political opinion, current events and extreme adventure all in one fairly slim volume. The writing is excellent: Stewart describes clearly and reports in a more emotional style than many non-fiction tales but doesn't overdo the emotion either.

On the other hand, this is not an easy read; not as hard as The Gate in the Sun, but not easy. Stewart walked across Afghanistan in January, 2002, shortly after the United States invasion drove out the Taliban but failed to find Osama Bin Laden. If you are not familiar with Afghanistan geography (who is?), read this book with your globe and your world atlas by your side. It is worth whatever you need to do to read this book if you truly want to understand the world we live in today.

After finishing, I was amazed that Rory Stewart lived to tell his story. Many times he almost did not. His knowledge of languages and dialects and his cojones pulled him through, not to mention the incredible dog he acquired on his journey. Just read it and let me know what you think.


fane-from The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley.

Looked up in Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition

fane is an Archaic noun meaning a temple or church, derived from Latin, fanum, which meant sanctuary, temple.

My sentence: The rebel took sanctuary in the fane, waiting for his pursuers to look elsewhere.

What is your sentence?

Monday, December 04, 2006


The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Lewis Buzbee, Graywolf Press, 2006, 216 pp

Another wonderful book about books and bookstores, this little volume went down like a pint of Ben and Jerry's. Buzbee evokes the true nature of book lust like no other writer I've read. I always like finding out that I am not alone nor hopelessly geeky in my love for books.

Lewis Buzbee has worked in bookstores and bookselling for most of his adult life, though he now teaches writing because he has a family to support. He freely acknowledges that bookselling is not a well compensated career path. Between the sections that are a memoir of his career, he tells the history of books, bookmaking, publishing and bookselling from the earliest days of the famous library in Alexandria. It all fits together seamlessly.

His message is clear: books and writing are the unsung heroes of freedom; as in the truth will keep us free. I felt reaffirmed in my belief that though the major publishers have been swallowed up by conglomerates, there will always be small, rebellious upstarts who will write, publish and run bookstores here and there in the nooks and crannies of the world. Of course, there will always be readers.


monomachy-from Prince Caspian by C S Lewis

Looked up in Webster's New World Dictionary Third College Edition

This was an interesting word search. The full word does not appear as an entry word, so I had to split it into mono- and -machy.

-machy is a combining form meaning struggle or contest of, derived from the Greek word for battle.
mono- (in this context) is a prefix meaning one, single, alone.

In the story, two characters are going to fight, each one representing his army. I was amazed to find such a big word in a book meant for children but I guess that is OK if children are taught to use a dictionary. Still, even I had to know enough to break it down. I am sure when I read this book as a child, I just cruised right past monomachy with no idea what it meant.

My sentence: My husband and I went through a whole day without monomachy.

What is your sentence?

Monday, November 27, 2006


Ursula, Under, Ingrid Hill, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004, 476 pp

This is one of the more amazing books I have ever read. Ursula Hill, who is also a mother of 12 children and has a PhD in literature, is a very hip woman. She is one of those writers, like Margaret Atwood, who shows rather than tells what feminism truly means. It is not lost on me that both of these women are highly educated.

The main story involves two-year-old Ursula and her young parents: Annie, of Finnish descent, and Justin Wong, a Chinese-American. They live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and while on a trip to see an defunct mine where Annie's great-grandfather perished in a mining accident, Ursula accidentally falls down an old mine shaft herself, setting off a huge rescue effort.

While this would make a great story in itself, it takes up only about one fifth of the novel. The remainder is a breathtaking journey back into history which traces the ancestry of Annie and Justin from first century Finland and from 4000 BC in China. Such a massive undertaking makes fascinating reading. I wish I had drawn a family tree as I read. Ingrid Hill brings these ancestors alive as she tells their life stories while she presents a philosophy of history and humanity that I found wonderful and unique.

That is not all. In telling the story of Ursula, Annie and Justin, she draws a picture of contemporary American life that is at once caustic and humorous. It is also sociological in scope, political and cultural in flavor. There are pitch-perfect references to popular phenomena such as music, books, film, clothing, housing, the job market and the list goes on.

Finally comes the climax of the plot which had me in tears for pages yet left me feeling hopeful for the sheer strength of the human spirit and appreciative of my own ancestors. We are all the angels of each other.


I know this is old news from the first of November, but I had to write about it as soon as I got the chance. What made this news so eerie for me was that he died on the very day that I finished reading his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness.

I will never forget the first time I read his most famous novel, Sophie's Choice. I was living in Dearborn, MI and singing for a living in my own Top 40 cover band. I had recently lost my sons (for the second time) to my ex-husband and I was drinking way too much Jack Daniels every night at the gig. My local library was a 20 minute walk from my house and I would walk there as part of the exercise program I was doing at the time (called Thin Thighs in 30 Days, one of those little booklets you can pick up in the check-out lane at the grocery store and it really worked!) I had been reading all sorts of historical and romantic trash, the Barbara Taylor Bradford type of stuff. So it must have been the early 1980s when I stumbled across Sophie's Choice.

Sophie is a non-Jewish Holocaust survivor living in New York City with a totally crazed boyfriend and in the same apartment house as Stingo, an aspiring young author who falls hopelessly in love with Sophie. The book is so emotional, strange and dark. I had never read anything like it before that in my life, except for Thomas Hardy in college. It matched my mood because I was in despair about my children and there is a whole section in the book about what Sophie had to live through concerning her children. In any case, I was cured of reading trashy novels from that time on (except for during airplane trips) and re-introduced to literature for the first time since college.

Styron seems to have always caught hell from critics, which you can read all about by looking him up on Google. He also suffered from depression for much of his adult life (he lost his mother at 13, which fits my theory that people who lose their mothers early in life have something broken in them from then on), so was often ill, in and out of mental hospitals and a victim of psychiatrists. But he lived a fairly long life, had a loyal wife and raised children. Most importantly, he wrote amazing novels, the critics be damned. I say amazing because I think his fiction is real, not pretentious and though it is dark, he shows how people strive to find light in the darkness of their souls.



from Steamboat Gothic by Frances Parkinson Keyes, p 6.

definition from Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition:
a summerhouse on a height, or an open, roofed gallery in an upper story, built for giving a view of the scenery. From Italian, beautiful view.

Sentence: My neighbor built a belvedere onto his house, blocking his neighbor's view and creating enemies in the neighborhood.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


I know, I've been missing for quite a few days. Last week I took a trip to the heartland (Michigan and Ohio) to visit family. It was a brilliant move, suggested by my son, to go the week before Thanksgiving. No crowds, less expensive airfares, no traffic on the interstates. I went with my son who lives in LA and saw my mom, sisters, a niece, my other son and his wife and my three amazing grandchildren. I still ate too much but none of it was turkey. While in Ohio with my older son's family we saw 6 movies in three days, including "Casino Royale" which was fabulous. The new James Bond is the best one yet.

In Michigan I visited my favorite Ann Arbor bookstore, Shaman's Drum, and picked up an anthology of Ann Arbor writers. I didn't do much reading. We flew out on the red-eye and I tried to read an Ian Rankin mystery thriller, but I retained nothing and had to start over. Sleeping was not something we did much of since we had a lot of people and places to see in just a few days. It turns out that being underslept does not lend itself to reading.

So I returned and spent a few days catching up on sleep, laundry and all that other stuff. I finally got back to my usual reading pace and have now got lots of books to write about. My husband and I were invited by friends for Thanksgiving and still we did not eat turkey. I could get used to Thanksgiving without the bird; didn't miss it a bit.

As mentioned in my last post, blogger has some new features. I faced my fears tonight and got switched over to the new system, which is why the blog looks a bit different. There will soon be the easier archives and a list of other blogs that I recommend. It's all good. I may be able to finish out my life without having to learn html (computer language). That would be fine because I have an awful lot of books to read.

I hope your holidays were fine, that you didn't miss me too much and that you can do all your Christmas/other faiths shopping on-line.

Friday, November 10, 2006


This is the latest chapter in a series of posts that relate fiction and my life. Not exactly a memoir of reading but a memoir compared to the fiction of the years I have lived. As soon as I switch over to the "new, improved" blogger, and as soon as I learn how to use the "new, improved" features, I will endeavor to make it easier for readers to find the earlier chapters in the archives. For now, you can search in past months. I usually post a new chapter about once a month.


In 1949, I turned two and experienced the first major change of my life. After four years of living with my father's parents, my mom and dad finally got their own home and we moved to it in November. Until then I had been the only child in a house with five adults. Actually my Aunt Lois, who had been around since I was born, married in 1948 and moved to Chicago with her new husband, now my Uncle Frank. But two parents and two grandparents were a good number of big people for me to interact with and be loved by and from whom to get lots of attention. By the end of 1949, I spent each day alone with my mom in our new house until my dad came home from work.

Independence and change were also keynotes in the world at large. Ireland achieved independence from Great Britain and China became a communist country under Mao Tse-tung. India, having gained independence in the previous year, adopted their first constitution and were ruled by their own Prime Minister, Nehru. East and West Germany were established as separate republics with one of those insane arrangements that come out of world wars: Berlin, the country's capital city falls in East Germany and so was also split into two, leaving some West Germans stranded within the communist side of the country. Vietnam officially became a country, but in Korea, civil war and communism were stirring up trouble which would lead to the next war for the United States. Apartheid was established in South Africa, officially splitting that country between the ruling whites and the oppressed blacks. All kinds of splitting into halves and breaking up of old patterns. How odd that the same sort of thing was going on in our family.

In the realms of science and technology, cortisone was discovered and neomycin developed. I would be part of the first generation to have infections treated with antibiotics. Militarily, the United States Airforce flew a jet across the country in three house and forty-six minutes while the USSR tested its first atomic bomb. The US also launched a guided missile 250 miles into the air, the highest altitude ever reached by man at that time.

In film, "Hamlet" won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actor (Lawrence Olivier.) I tried watching this movie on DVD and found that Shakespeare works better for me as live theatre. "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," a tale of gold fever and distrust in Mexico, won Best Director (John Huston) and "Johnny Belinda," about a deaf and dumb girl who is molested by ignorant country people, got Jane Wyman an Oscar for Best Actress.

It was a big year for pop music with songs that have become standards: Bali Ha'I, Some Enchanted Evening, I Love Those Dear Hearts and Gentle People, Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend, and (my favorite) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The musical, "South Pacific" was a big hit in New York theatre.

When I finished reading the books for 1949, I had completed reading through an entire decade and had read over 200 novels and short-story collections. That felt like quite a milestone until I realized I still had six decades to go. In any case, historical fiction dominated the year in both the bestseller list and other more literary fiction. World War II was adddressed in only three of the novels, but one of those, Guard of Honor, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Two of the historical bestsellers were stories about the life of Jesus Christ and the beginnings of the Christian church.

My favorite novels of the year included Nineteen Eighty Four, by George Orwell, which introduced the "Big Brother" who is still watching us; The Egyptian, by Mika Waltari, for being exciting and telling the story of Egypt's first attempt to worship only one God; Cutlass Empire, by F Van Wyck Mason, an early Pirates of the Carribean; and The Fires of Spring, which made me a Michener fan for good. The novels portraying contemporary life were generally somewhat weak but showed a society becoming obsessed with money and getting ahead in business. Those being traditional American pursuits, indicate a country getting back to regular life after the war.

Certainly getting ahead with a regular life was the aim of my parents. When the year opened they were still living with my dad's parents in Pittsburgh, PA, still saving money and still watching the papers for a home to buy. But in July, my mother realized she was pregnant when she asked for an onion sandwich as a bedtime snack. As she tells it, she then "put her foot down" and declared to my dad that she would not have another baby in that house. They found a two bedroom Cape Cod in an outlying area called Perrysville, which is a suburb now but was out in the country then. The house was near a bus line so my dad could get to work on public transportation and they bought a car for my mom to get around. The house was also close to a shopping area with a good butcher store, always important to women of German descent.

I have vivid memories of that last year at my grandparents'. A front porch stretched across the entire house, surrounded by a low wall with pillars to hold up the roof above it. I spent hours out there swinging by myself on the cushioned metal glider and watching the cars go by. On either side of the cement steps leading down to the street were spirea bushes which had lacy white flowers in the spring and small black berries in the fall. I made up lots of games and stories for myself with those flowers and berries and learned that birds could eat the berries but I couldn't.

My best time out on that porch was the late afternoon, while dinner was being prepared, when I would watch for my dad to come walking up the sidewalk from the streetcar stop at the corner. But one day, standing on one of those concrete steps, I lost my balance and fell to the first concrete landing. Oh my, this was a bigger tragedy than the time I fell off the bed. It hurt a lot. I got a big bump on the head which developed into what was called a goose egg in my family and plenty of bloody scrapes on my knees. After that I became extremely cautious about stairs, although it is possible that my grandmother, who was scared of everything, had made me overly careful about stairs and steps already and this contributed to my fall. I was a timid kid when it came to physical activity and there are few times in my life when I have felt comfortable or competent in any sport, I don't like climbing hills or mountains and I hate going out in boats.

I also remember sitting on my grandpa's lap and having him tell me over and over that I was his honey. At some family celebration, perhaps my birthday, I was allowed a sip of wine. The taste was so odd and the smell so pungent that I mistakenly took a bite out of the fragile glass, causing everyone at the table to laugh and to tell the story many times over. What I learned from this was that drinking and parties and drawing attention to myself were fun. I have always loved parties and at times in my life I have liked drinking way too much.

The basement at my grandparents' was another special location for me. Grandma would take me down there with her when she did the laundry. She had a washing machine but in those days there was no spin cycle. She used a device called a mangle, through which she would feed the wet, dripping clothes from the washer. It would squeeze out the water and drop the clothes into a basket. Then it was up the stairs that led out to the backyard where the clothes were hung on the line. I was entranced by the mangle and never tired of watching her do that backbreaking job. Outside, it was my job to hand her the clothespins.

Also in the basement was the huge coal furnace and a room where the coal was stored. I remember the big truck that would deliver the coal, dumping it into a shute on the side of the house that mysteriously led to the coal room in the basement. I was not afraid of those basement stairs or any of the rooms down there, but I was never afraid of anything when I was with my grandma. It must be that she held all the fear and made me feel safe.

For me, life at my grandparents' was paradise and leaving there was wrenching. But it was not paradise for my parents and they were ecstatic to finally have a place of their own. I remember nothing about the move. All I know is that one day we were living in a strange new house. I had my own room, after sleeping in my parents' room all my life up to then, and I would wake in the night feeling alone and afraid. My parents thought I was having nightmares but I sensed a large and threatening presence in my room that scared me to death. I would cry and Daddy would come to carry me to the kitchen where there was a light on the stove. There he would walk with me in his arms until I fell asleep again.

We moved in November and the first disaster was the furnace blowing up, which I also do not remember. This was a huge emergency because there was no extra money left and Daddy had to borrow from his sister to get a new furnace. During the day in our new home, it was just me and Mom. She was usually busy cleaning and I am sure having fun setting up her own home, but I was lonely and I missed my grandmother terribly. I would settle into a corner of the living room with a pile of my mom's magazines and "read" them aloud to myself. In my memories of the first months there, it was always dark and gloomy which is probably because it was the middle of winter and there were trees surrounding the house. I longed to be back in what seemed like the warmth and love of our former home. Little did I know that things were about to get even worse when my sister Linda would be born the following spring.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles, New Directions Books, 1949, 318 pp
Paul Bowles spent more of his life as a composer than as a writer. The Sheltering Sky is his first and best-known novel, based on his own travels in North Africa and his version of existentialism.

Port Moresby and his wife Kit leave New York City after WWII and travel through North Africa and the Sahara. They are very young and their marriage is in trouble. They are in Africa for different reasons. Actually Port doesn't quite know why he is there, but Kit is following him for the sake of love.

I did not like the book for the first half because they are both such weak and confused people so that there seemed to be no point to the story besides pointlessness. That is not my understanding of existentialism and Port has no reason, or at least none is given, for his despair. I did like the author's explanation of the difference between a tourist and a traveler on page 14:
"Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, a traveler, belonging no more to one place than the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another."

In Book Two, it becomes Kit's story and then it gets better and even exciting. The underlying sense of dread, present from the first page, becomes life experience. Kit is a more developed character, though still a bit flat. The ending is ambiguous. Tragic perhaps, but possibly a breakthrough for Kit. The issue here is the clash and difficulties of co-existence between Westerners and non-Western peoples. Clearly still a world issue in today's times.

The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen, Alfred A Knopf, 1949, 372 pp
I don't know about this book. The story was good. A woman in England during WWII, has a lover and a son. She learns that her lover may be a spy for the enemy. You don't find out until near the end whether or not he is.

The writing is very exquisite. I had to read slowly because the parsing of sentences was so English, but when she was good, I loved the way she put things. The characters were well defined and each had a voice. The setting of London during bombings, black-outs and food shortages is made very real.

I think the trouble is that you want to admire Stella, the main character, but she is not really admirable. She is a woman trying to survive in that time and place, wanting love, but she is not all that strong.

The Golden Apples, Eudora Welty, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949, 244 pp
This is a collection of short stories which are all about the same Southern town and people in it, covering a couple generations. Except for the first story, "Shower of Gold", I did not find this book as enjoyable as her earlier ones.

As usual, there reside here a cast of unique individuals, which is one thing I like about Welty. Her characters are one of a kind, not archetypes, the way people are in real life. Another thing I like, even though it means wading through so much description, is her creation of the place. By the end of the book, I felt that I knew my way around the town of Morgana and what sort of weather they had, how it smelled, etc. I wonder if some of that ability to describe place is getting lost in today's writing because we have so much film and video around us.

My only problem was the stories themselves, in which very little actually happened. They were more like character studies. But I did realize that preserved here is an era of the American South that is gone and that was worth writing about and worth reading.

Here are the award winning books for 1949:

The Pulitzer Prize:
Guard of Honor, James Gould Cozzens, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1949, 631 pp
I had never heard of this book 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 but part of the Army and much of the might of air power was being developed as WWII was fought.

In those three days everything that could go wrong at such a base, 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. I suppose that could be a motto of war and army life.

Generally it was all "good" writing, as it would be taught in English class and newspaper writer training. I found it much too wordy, somewhat pedantic and never really gripping or exciting. The ending was unforgiveable after 550 pages of build-up. I can see why literature needed a Hemingway to come along.

Newbery Award ( for children's/ young adult fiction):
King of the Wind, Marguerite Henry, Rand McNally and Company, 1948, 173 pp
An Arabian horse, his faithful horseboy and a cat named Grimalkin, travel from Morocco to France to England. They face and survive many troubles but Sham, the horse, becomes the first to breed a new line of racehorses for Britian and the world.

The story is well told, fast-paced and Agba, the boy, is loyal and steadfast. An old Arabian story goes that when Allah created the horse, he said to the wind, "I will that a creature come from thee. Condense thyself." And the wind condensed itself and the result was the horse!

Caldecott Medal Award (for children's picture book):
The Big Snow, Berta and Elmer Hader, The Macmillan Company, 1948, 43 pp
Nice illustrations, typical for the times. All the animals get ready for winter, snow comes, local people put out seeds to feed them, winter passes. There is even a groundhog who comes out on February second.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


Little Sister, Raymond Chandler, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949, 214 pp
This was good because Chandler can't be bad, but it had some new stylistic oddities about Marlowe's state of mind. The PI was more dreary than usual and the mystery itself was hard to follow.

This time it is Hollywood people mixed up with criminals and the little sister is a sanctimonious mid-western young woman who of course turns out to be not so pure after all.

O Shepard Speak, Upton Sinclair, The Viking Press, 1949, 579 pp
This is the final and tenth book in the World's End Series. The series has been an adventure in learning and understanding the history of the two world wars, Europe, economics and politics. In this volume, the second world war ends and Lanny starts a "peace program" with money left to him by an old friend of his mother's.

Sinclair ties up all the loose ends about the various people who have been with Lanny all along. Roosevelt dies, Truman takes over, the bomb is dropped, the UN founded and the Cold War begins with the Soviet Union.

I still have plenty to learn about what happened next and I wonder who will take Sinclair's place. I read this book in three days. It was intense.

Knight's Gambit, William Faulkner, Random House Inc, 1949, 246 pp
I read this off and on over several months. It was not gripping. It is a set of short stories and one novella, all about the lawyer Gavin Stevens, who was a main character in Intruder in the Dust, which I read for 1948. Steven's wisdom and tolerance for the ways of his local people are the theme or thread 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. It is never what it seems and his ability to follow a data trail is prodigious, but he has a certain sympathy or empathy for the criminal. At times though, even the reader can't see how he figured it out.

The Season of Comfort, Gore Vidal, EP Dutton & Co Inc, 1949, 253 pp
This is a family story, which culminates in Bill breaking free of an overbearing and slightly crazy mother, only to go off to fight in World War II. The head of this family is a Virginia politician who was once a Vice President when Wilson was President, although it is fiction. Yes, a little confusing. You learn all this in the back story, but this man is now out of office. The daughter is Bill's mother.

The story goes back and forth in time until Bill is old enough to be the main character. I was not thrilled or enlightened in any way but the story pulled me along and was interesting as a story. I think Williwaw, his first novel, was the most powerful so far.

The Plum Tree, Mary Ellen Chase, The Macmillan Company, 1949, 98 pp
This short little book would more acurately be called a novella. It takes place in a Home for Aged Women. Three of the residents have suddenly gone bonkers and will have to be moved to different facilities for the mentally ill.

Miss Emma Davis, nurse and co-owner of the home, uses all her wit, caring and energy to ensure a smooth transition for these women and the remaining residents. It is a wonderfully told story and meant a lot to me because of my dad's experiences in a modern "home" for aged people. If only all such facilities handled people with that much sensitivity and in such a personal manner.

Friday, November 03, 2006


Here begin reviews of the other books I read from 1949; books that I chose because of the author or because they are still good literature.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949, 314 pp
This is the classic, chilling, effective portrait of life in a totalitarian society. It is all very controlled, no strong emotions are allowed, all is duty to the society. There are continuous wars occuring (how much like today), history has been officially "reinterpreted" and of course not a hint of dissent is permitted.

The main character works as a sort of civil servant. He has memories of the past and in fact is involved in his job as a cog in the wheel of the alteration of history. He has a love affair with a woman who is more subversive that he in her thoughts. (This is the book from which we got such expressions as Big Brother Is Watching You, thought police, double-think, etc.) They are found out, he is busted, tortured and brought back into line.

When I was young, we used to sort of joke about this book. Then 1984 came and went, duly noted but still not taken seriously. I am taking it seriously now. The invasion of privacy, the attempt to control thinking and demand a slavish attitude ("whoever is not with us is against us"), the continuous wars and the sense that there is some overall authority who is running all this without the consent of the people. Especially the carefully edited "news" of what is going on in the world. In Nineteen Eighty Four, the "proles" (meaning the lower class, uneducated, everyday people, whom I think of as the WalMart people) are left alone. This was also true in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. I found myself wondering if somewhere amongst these common people is the spirit that will save us.

The Fires of Spring, James A Michener, Random House Inc, 1949, 436 pp
I read this book back in 1998. It made a big impression on me. I have since gotten the idea that it is not thought of highly by some literary people. I don't care. From the first page, I never wanted to stop reading it. It is the story of the first 26 years of David Harper, a boy raised in a poorhouse near Philadelphia, PA, who grows up to be a writer. He comes across as a true hero.

The book is bursting with life, the characters and David himself are so appealing. It is a coming of age story, a tale of overcoming humble beginnings and I now know that it is fairly autobiographical and now realize that it was highly influenced by Charles Dickens. In fact, it hit me the way David Copperfield hit me. I am still reading Michener with pleasure.

Wise Blood, Flannery O'Conner, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1949, 232 pp
Here is the female Faulkner. I hope she wouldn't mind me calling her that. This is dark stuff, not for the unstable of mind, not for the easily depressed. It is a novel without hope.

The two main characters become what they abhor, especially Haze, a man who meets a terrible end. All the characters are highly disturbed and out of touch with other people. She shows how madness carries on from parents to children because the madness creates very bad parents. Also how overbearing, oppressive, fanatic Christian teaching can create madness, how loneliness can create madness.

I was highly impressed. When the dark side of humanity is portrayed with such powerful writing, we do not need horror novels or movies. It would be good though to have a workable plan to deal with this dark side. It would be fatal to ignore it or pretend it does not exist or let ourselves be lulled into thinking it can be electric shocked, lobotomized or drugged out of us.

Hunter's Horn, Harriette Arnow, Macmillan, 1949, 568 pp
I have read Arnow's most well known book, The Dollmaker, at least twice and will probably read it again when I get to 1954, when it was published. It is one of my favorite books of all time. I hadn't realized that she wrote anything else until I came across this novel in a used bookstore. What a powerful book! What a great writer.

Nunn Balew, a poor white Kentucky farmer, is obsessed with hunting a fox. He cannot win or get ahead as a farmer and has realized this and run out of hope. But he feels that if he can get that fox his life will change and he will somehow be able to build up his farm. He sacrifices the comfort and happiness of his wife and five children to do it. And he actually gets the fox and is able to establish his farm, yet loses the love of his family by not fully communicating to them.

The end of this novel is devastating. I doubt that I will ever forget it.

The Beginning and the End, Naguib Mafouz, Doubleday, 1949, 412 pp
Naguib Mafouz passed away just recently. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 and was one of the first authors to write novels in Arabic. He has written a long string of books which only began to be translated into English in the 1980s.

In this book, an Egyptian family in Cairo falls into poverty after the father dies and they lose his income. They were only barely middle-class when he was alive. The mother stoically keeps the family going and the daughter must go out and earn money as a seamstress, which is a source of dishonor for a woman in 1930s Egypt. Two of the sons finish school and assume positions; one in the ministry of education and the youngest in the military. 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 and yet finally finds a wife, while all the others lives end in tragedy. The story is a study in the degrading effects of poverty on otherwise fairly normal people. Each one has a character trait that becomes emphasized all out of proportion by circumstances. In that respect, the novel becomes universal rather than only Egyptian.

The Godseeker, Sinclair Lewis, Random House Inc, 1949, 415 pp
This was a fine book and much better than I expected. Aaron Gadd is the son of the dour deacon of a Congregational church in a small New England town in the 1840s. The family also farms. Aaron is raised in an atmosphere of gloom and doom, sin and hell fire, coldness and cruelty. But he is an irrepressible lad, so he leaves home and becomes a successful carpenter in a nearby town. He has friends, he drinks and even has a lover. His upbringing haunts him though and at a Revival he gets the fervor to go out West and become a missionary to the Indians.

The West for Aaron becomes Minnesota and the story becomes a history of the settling of that state, complete with trappers, traders, missionaries, Indians and heavy weather. All of that is good, but the real story is about a young man finding his own beliefs about God, people, love, work and society. Aaron finds in himself a purpose to bring about understanding amongst all races. While he matures and faces the world as it really is, he keeps trying to do his part.

The characters are distinct, the story telling is masterful and the message comes through without much preaching. I don't know why these later novels of his are considered inferior to his early ones because I think they are excellent.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006



context: Lie Down in Darkness, by William Styron, p 194
looked up in Webster's New World Dictionary Third College Edition

mis pri sion (mis prizh' en) n. 1 a mistake, now especially one due to misreading, either deliberate or unintended, or to misunderstanding
2 scorn; contempt

My sentences: 1 Due to misprision by Blogger, I am no longer entering the derivations of words in the Word of the Day.
2 (as used in the context) His misprision for his students caused them to fail miserably.

Feel free to enter your sentences in the comments.


Dinner at Antione's, Frances Parkinson Keyes
In 1949, this book was the #6 bestseller. It was #3 in 1948 and was reviewed in my post of September 11, 2006.

High Towers, Thomas B Costain, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1949, 371 pp
Another novel of historical fiction, High Towers was the #7 bestseller. The Le Moyne family at the turn of the 17th century had already built Montreal and driven the English out of Hudson Bay. The ten sons of the founder of Montreal carried on the dream of building an empire for France in the New World.

Jean-Baptiste, one of the younger sons, founded New Orleans. The story concerns the family and their dream, various love stories and the difficulties of dealing with the French king and the intrigues of his court. Felicite, who was abandoned by her mother in Montreal, is eventually adopted by Charles, the eldest brother and grows up to be a great heroine in New Orleans.

This novel was not as good as The Moneyman or The Black Rose, two of Costain's earlier books, but I didn't mind learning about the very beginnings of New Orleans, a city that figures often in American fiction.

Cutlass Empire, F Van Wyck Mason, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1949, 396 pp
Now we are back in the Caribbean, mid 17th century. Henry Morgan was an English Royalist, trying to help get rid of Cromwell and put Charles II on the throne. But things got too hot for him in England and he ended up a freebooter in the area of Jamaica. After many adventures against the Spanish, he finally prevails, but he is a hot-headed dare-devil and disregards all authority. His daring almost does him in time after time.

Good story, never boring, although long and I learned more about that period of history from yet another perspective. The book was the #8 bestseller of 1949.

Pride's Castle, Frank Yerby, The Dial Press, 1949, 312 pp
Another historical romance by good old Frank Yerby comes at #9 in 1949. This one is set in 1870-1890, the time of the Robber Barons. Pride Dawson wants to be one of them and very nearly succeeds. He was born a poor white Southern boy, he is big and strong and ruthless. His soft spot naturally is women. But he marries the wrong one (for her money, he hopes) and then spends his whole life chasing the one he really loves. She tries to be virtuous but succumbs to her passion for Pride. It ends in tragedy.

What is good about such books is the history I learn and the storytelling. What is bad is the stupid romantic stuff, though truthfully I suppose that stuff goes on in real life right up to today.

Father of the Bride, Edward Streeter, Simon and Schuster, 1949, 244 pp
This little piece of fluff was #10 on the bestseller list for 1949. It spawned two movies by the same title: one in 1950 starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor and a remake in 1991 with Steve Martin. It is a humorous look at the trials and tribulations of the father as the mother and daughter plan a huge wedding.

Streeter himself was a banker in New York City by profession, but also wrote humorous novels and articles for periodicals. So it goes in the world of letters.

Monday, October 30, 2006


This post is part of my on-going project, called My Big Fat Reading Project (see post of July 6, 2005). It is also part of the prologue to the next installment of my memoir, called Reading For My Life. To find and read earlier installments, see post of September 2, 2006, entitled Hello to New Readers.

Here are the top five bestsellers from 1949:

The Egyptian, Mika Waltari, G P Putnam's Sons, 1949, 503 pp
This is the first book I read from 1949 and the #1 bestseller of that year. It is excellent historical fiction about the time in Egypt's history when the Pharaoh Akhnaton attempted to change the country's religion from a worship of Ammon to Aton, whom he considered the one true god. This change almost brought about the downfall of Egypt. The time is 1300 BC.

The protagonist is Sinuhe, an adopted orphan who became a doctor. Sinuhe tells his life story, which was bound up with the Pharoah's and which led to his exile from Egypt. He is a healer, a pacifist and he feels unable to cope with the violence and dishonesty of his world. According to data I found on the web, Mika Waltari was Finnish and used the historical novel to express his disillusionment with the world after WW II. The Egyptian makes it quite clear how much damage can be done by a ruler who is not quite sane and is out of touch with his own people. It made very good reading in today's world.

The Big Fisherman, Lloyd C Douglas
This book was #2 in 1949 but #1 in 1948. See my post of September 11, 2006 for the review.

Mary, Sholem Asch, G P Putnam's Sons, 1949, 436 pp
At #3 on the bestseller list for 1949, Mary is the conclusion of a trilogy by Asch (which includes The Nazarene and The Apostle.) It was the least interesting of the three. It is the story of Jesus from his mother Mary's point of view, but does not cover much new ground. The book also contains a good bit of the history of the times but is presented in a manner that was too dry for me.

What I did learn, via Google, is that Sholem Asch wrote in Yiddish, fell out of favor with Jews because he explored the possibility that Jesus actually was the Messiah, and wrote about Judaism vs Christianity. I also learned that he was read by Bob Dylan and that his son Moses Asch was the founder of Folkways Records.

A Rage to Live, John O'Hara, Random House Inc, 1949, 590 pp
This was #4 on the bestseller list. The story takes place in Fort Penn, a fictional name for Harrisburg, PA and is set in the 20th century. Grace Caldwell is the daughter of the most socially prominent family in the city; very rich, very beautiful and very foolish. She has hot pants, so even though she marries the best possible man, also very rich, she has an affair with a low class scumbag and ruins the husband, her marriage and eventually her standing in the city.

I can see why it was a bestseller, as it is quite racy for its time. O'Hara certainly has much insight into society, money and local politics. But it was a long and wordy book with a little too much explanation of the happenings and had a weak and terrible epilogue.

Point of No Return, John P Marquand, Grosset & Dunlap, 1949, 559 pp
The fifth top bestseller for 1949 is a postwar story about Charles and Nancy and their two children trying to get ahead in the suburbs of New York City, a common theme in novels of the late 1940s. Charles works in an old established bank and is anxiously awaiting a promotion to vice-president. He needs the promotion to create the life he wants for his family and he is pretty sure he has a rival at the bank.

Actually, most of the novel is Charles' back story about the small town and family he came from. His history explains why he now is working so hard to "get ahead." Like all of Marquand's heroes, he is an honorable man trying to do the right thing in a dishonorable world. I like this author, who has had several bestsellers in the decade. He tells good stories in an engaging way.


context: The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty, in a story entitled "The Wanderers", p 241.
looked up in Webster's New World Dictionary Third College Edition

callosity (ke las' e te) n. [ME & OFr calosite < L callositas] the quality or state of being callous, hardened, or unfeeling

My sentence: I suffer from callosity on the soles of my feet because I go barefoot as much as possible.


The Daughters of Simon Lamoreaux, David Long, Scribner, 2000, 270 pp

This is David Long's second novel. As in The Falling Boy, it involves sisters but in a completely different configuration. The story works like a mystery and yet it is about love and loss. How does one replace a first love when it is violently interrupted?

Miles Fanning runs an independent record label in Seattle (jazz and instrumental music, not grunge or rock.) His marriage is in a highly uncertain condition and in fact, he is living in his office space as the books opens, while he and his wife undergo a trial separation.

Enter Julia, chain-smoking, alienated sister of Carly, the highschool love of Miles, who vanished 24 years earlier and was never found. Both Miles and Julia had submerged this loss, in the way that young people do, though for different reasons, but now together they excavate the terrible, definitive incident of each of their lives.

To add to the spookiness, the father of Julia and Carly was Simon Lamoreaux, a minister of an obscure religious group called The Messiah Church. Simon was not cruel or fanatical, but was clearly a descendant of the Puritan influence in New England. He was also a man whose faith failed him when he lost his daughter.

What Long has accomplished in this novel is impressive. He has taken the universal idea of the loss of a loved one and woven it into the real lives of a few individuals. When I lose even a small item, such as a piece of clothing, I feel at first violated somehow, then I "get over it" and "move on", but there is a small hole in my universe ever after, like a missing tooth. For Miles and Julia and Simon Lamoreaux, the hole caused by Carly's disappearance was enough to swallow any attempt to create a further life.

The story is amazingly powerful and in the second half a page-turner. I felt what each character felt and I had to know where the story was going to go. It is the kind of book that is wonderful to find and becomes part of you as you read it.

Friday, October 27, 2006


In an anti-dumbing down effort, I humbly submit and admit words that I had to look up while I was reading. Probably won't be a daily post, but you get the spirit of it. Feel free to add your own words in the comments.

context: Believer Mag, September 06, "Interactive Propaganda", page 25
looked up in Webster's New World Third College Edition
pu is sant (pyoo' i sent, pwis' ent, pyoo is' ent) adj. [OFr, powerful] (Now Chiefly Literary) powerful, strong

My sentence: I don't go out with guys who wear puissant after-shave.

What is your sentence?


Jump at the Sun, Kim McLarin, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, 306 pp

Kim McLarin has been called "one of the bravest novelists in recent times" by someone at the Philadelphia Tribune. The translation of that is, she writes about subjects that are real but that people don't talk about because it is embarrassing. In Jump at the Sun, she is brave because Grace, the main character, is having serious issues about being a stay-at-home mom with her two daughters, a pre-schooler and a toddler.

Sure enough, it was embarrassing to read, because I had the same sort of issues when my sons were little and I still have them with my grandchildren. Spending long hours with small children as the only adult leaves me irritable and longing to get away. I dealt with it when my sons were little by having a car and a large circle of friends who were in the same boat, but the winters in Michigan were long nonetheless.

Grace lives in Boston (worse winters there) and in the kind of modern suburb where you don't know your neighbors. She is highly educated and extremely intelligent; has been a professor for several years before having children. But as all mothers of young children know, intelligence and education are of virtually no use when penned up in the nursery.

Grace also has, as all women do, a mother and a grandmother, who have passed on the legacy of being conflicted about child-raising and mothering. As you read, you learn in the chapters of back-story, that Grace's grandmother was from a Southern sharecropping family and chronically abandoned her children. Grace's mother did the opposite and gave up her own life and happiness to take care of the kids, but never let those kids forget it.

At some point in my life, I realized how certain behaviors in my family had been passed down through the generations. I resolved that I would not do that to my kids, but it was more easily resolved than carried out. It is the same for Grace. The sense of conflict Grace experiences is so well portrayed that it got inside of me and stirred up all those feelings again.

I can't say that this novel made me feel good--too close to home. But I admire McClarin for creating the story and I understood that intelligence and education are very possibly keys to resolving this very fundamental conflict for women in today's society. Because most women also do truly love their children and want to raise them to be happy and responsible adults.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


The King's English, Betsy Burton, Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2005, 302 pp

The subtitle is Adventures of an Independent Bookseller and that is what this excellent book is about. Betsy Burton opened her store, The King's English, in 1977 and despite all the woes heaped on indie bookstores since that time, never looked back. She is forthcoming about her own mistakes and how she navigated the many learning curves of a new business owner. She never comes across as a victim, but as a passionate supporter of independent stores and an unabashed enemy of the chains, the big box stores and the deep discounters.

She has wonderful stories about the hundreds of authors who have visited their store. I liked the one about Isabel Allende best, but she has had any and every author she admires including John Irving, Sherman Alexie, Kent Haruf, Margaret Atwood, E L Doctorow, Sara Paretsky and many, many more. Each chapter also has extensive reading lists.

Betsy and her booksellers actually read the books they carry. How many times have I gone to the "customer service" desk at Barnes and Noble to ask about a book and gotten a blank look while the "bookseller's" fingers fly to the computer? Those B&N people know more about coffee drinks than they do about books.

In The King's English I learned the truth about the chain stores, including what they are doing to the book publishing industry, to our local communities and what they are not doing to protect our First Amendment rights. This is knowledge that anyone who cares about books, literature, writing and free speech needs to know. I now know that it is not just a nice thing to have a friendly neighborhood bookstore with knowledgeable staff. It is an essential part of preserving our freedoms and having an aware and educated populace.


Bloody Jack, L A Meyer, Harcourt Inc, 2002, 278 pp

Once a while back on this blog I asked for readers of Young Adult fiction to give me some recommendations. This book and author were recommended by a friend in Cincinnati, OH, who runs a private school and reads this blog. Thank you Vicki!

Bloody Jack is so good! Bloody Jack is a girl: Mary "Jacky" Faber. She was born in 18th century London, where her whole family perished in the plague, so she was cast onto the streets an orphan. After 4 or 5 years scrambling to exist as part of a gang of begging street urchins, she sets off on her own and by pretending to be a boy, gets signed on as a ship's boy on the Dolphin, a warship of the British Navy. The reason she gets hired is because she can read.

Naturally it is non-stop adventure, complicated by "the deception" about her sex and by her falling in love with Jaimy, another ship's boy. How Mary gets the nickname Bloody Jack, how she deals with getting her period and being thought of as "queer" because of her affection for Jaimy, how she preserves her virginity and deals with passion are all humorously and perfectly handled for a teen reader by the author.

The ending leaves you dying to read the next in the series to find out what happens next to Bloody Jack. I haven't had this much fun reading a book since Cryptonomicon.


About The Believer Mag, Nick Hornby and envy.

I just got my new Believer Mag and as always I turned immediately to Nick Hornby's column, "Stuff I've Been Reading." I am not sure how old Nick Hornby is, but possibly I am old enough to be his mother. I know that I was busy raising children, trying to make it as an indie singer/songwriter and other important pursuits, but it is just not fair how good he is at writing about books. (Of course, last month he made me really mad because he spent the whole month watching the World Cup playoffs instead of reading, but he is a guy, so I forgive him. I learned this about guys by trying to talk to my son on the phone while he was watching Sports Center.)

I was not raised Catholic, so I am not sure, but I think envy is one of the seven deadly sins. Well, I don't believe in hell either, except for being pretty sure that we are all already there. This is not my first experience with envy. In highschool I could never get my hair to look as cute as the popular girls' hair. Later on in life, I spent countless hours trying to write even one song as good as any Joni Mitchell song. Now I am trying to review books as best I can and along comes Nick Hornby.

My Believer subscription was a gift last Christmas. I just got the first notice about renewing (which shows admirable restraint on the part of the magazine. Most mags I subscribe to start bugging me about renewing about three months in.) It is an expensive mag and I have to admit that I don't always get through all the articles in each issue. But I like it. It makes me feel hip and up-to-date about how people who are young enough to be my grandchildren are viewing the world. Just you wait: it is very hard to stay up-to-date with people two generations away when you reach my age. It is important though because those people are going to be running the world very soon which has a big effect on how life will be for my actual grandchildren.

OK, I am getting away from my subject here. I guess what I am trying to say is that I wish Nick Hornby was running the New York Times Book Review, which has gotten really bad. And maybe if I kept practicing he would give me a job reviewing books. And maybe someone at The Believer is Googling their own mag and finds my blog post and decides to give me a free year's subscription. And maybe the United States will get out of Iraq. And maybe something can still be done about global warming. See, it is not about envy, it is all about hope.

Monday, October 23, 2006


The Falling Boy, David Long, Scribner, 1997, 287 pp

I discovered this writer on a blog:, where he was interviewed by the blog's founder, Ron Hogan. Though he had published three volumes of short stories earlier, this is his first novel. I liked it. It was written in that odd decade, the 90s, end of a century, end of a millennium, when people still wrote novels about people, their daily lives, their hearts. Perhaps because of the times, novels in the 90s often looked at how lives hadn't quite turned out the way we planned.

Mark Singer, the falling boy here, had a history of diminished dreams. At first, as he marries a beautiful, passionate woman, life is turning out to be much better than he could have hoped. He was practically an orphan: mother took off, father an alcoholic who died in dubious circumstances, so that Mark was raised by his dependable but emotionally frozen grandmother.

But life goes on, the marriage suffers the deterioration which all marriages do and Mark really starts to blow it. It would have been the usual 20th century marital tragedy except for a few factors. Small town Montana, where the story is set, is fairly conservative as American towns go. Olivia, Mark's wife, though she has serious character flaws for a late 20th century woman, comes from a tightknit Greek family and has three sisters.

I know about sisters. Three girls, no boys in my family. Each of these women in Olivia's family has her own issues. I couldn't say that any one of them is "normal" or even "well-adjusted". One is downright destructive. But when bad trouble looms, they band together and in their own way muddle through to save the day.

This is not a novel to fire your blood or even raise your heartbeat. But I loved the way the weather was a character, the way these human beings had an underlying loyalty to each other as fellow sojourners in the very odd and unpredictable enterprise which we call life.


There Will Never Be Another You, Carolyn See, Random House Inc, 2006, 242 pp

I loved this book. It is extremely readable. It is spot-on about the modern world. It has wonderful characters who are complex, the way real people are. One of these characters makes a huge leap into freedom and is successful at it.

The main character is Edith, in her mid-60s and bereft over the loss of a husband she truly loved. Edith is not particularly well-adjusted or even wise. She is the first to admit that she was lacking as a mother. She is quite unmoved as a grandmother. I guess I liked her so much because she is a seventies woman all grown up and like myself, pretty dismayed at the world we got.

As for why else I loved it, I can only say that I was deeply touched in a way I don't totally understand. Here I am reading two to three novels a week and I like it these days when I can't quite figure out how the author managed to wow me.