Thursday, January 19, 2006


Last week was such a good week for blogging and I got a taste of what it would be like to blog consistently. I actually liked it. But this week I am having to put in lots of extra hours at work, so that I hardly have time to read, let along blog. Reading always, always, always comes first.

I am in the middle of three books:
1) A 1950 book by Robert Penn Warren called World Enough and Time. I loved All The King's Men and this one is also good but not quite as good, similar but different in setting and time. It is also long; 465 pp of small print. I am about halfway through. The time is early 1800s, the setting is Kentucky, it is a bit gothic, a bit like Dickens. The main character is having a hard time getting his life to work out and right now he is being tried for murder.

2) With Billie, by Julia Blackburn is a biography of Billie Holiday done in a sort of Studs Terkel style. The author collected transcripts of interviews done with people who had actually known or worked with Billie. This is no romantic whitewash of Billie's life as in Lady Sings The Blues. This is the raw stuff. If she hadn't been able to sing, she would never have survived and she barely survived as it was. But while it is not a happy smiley book, I like feeling as if I am getting to know this amazing artist.

3) Just started a few days ago: Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, by Maureen Corrigan, who is NPR's Fresh Air book critic. She makes her living from reading books, which has long been a dream of mine. So it is interesting to me from that standpoint and also because I am writing a book about reading myself. We are very different people but I like some of her ideas very well, especially about books that tell female-extreme-adventure stories. The book is very new. I got it off the New Book shelf at my local library.

What are you reading? Do you get as crazy as I do when life interrupts your reading time? Does anyone else read more than one book at a time? Post your comments dear readers. You will be read.

Sunday, January 15, 2006


World's End, Sinclair Lewis, The Literary Guild of America, 1940, 740 pp

I really liked this book! Despite its length, it tells a good story and puts forward a politcal view. The hero is Lanny Budd, born out of wedlock to Beauty (an American girl working as an artist's model in Paris) and Robbie Budd, son of a wealthy New England family of munitions makers. Lanny is raised by his mother on the French Riviera. Since Robbie could have never admitted an illegitimate child to his family, he comes up with some other story, marries an "acceptable" woman, but supports Beauty and Lanny. It is the early 1900s and Lanny grows up amid the wealthy leisure class but is also influenced by frequent visits from his father.

At heart, Lanny is an artist; a dancer and a musician. He is well read, highly intelligent and tries to obey his parents. In his teens he lives through WW I, spends time in New England with his father's family and works in Paris as a secretary to an American man involved in drafting the Treaty of Versailles and in forming the League of Nations.

Out of all this, Lanny becomes aware of the financial and political machinations that brought about the war. He begins to acquire a world view of his own and to have sympathies with socialism. All of these views are of course, Upton Sinclair's but the story is well told and gripping and made personal through Lanny. For me, it was a history lesson which was not taught to me in school. I could probably have learned it earlier but I was oblivious to politics in my younger years. World's End is the first of a series of 9 books and by the end of reading the entire 1940s decade I had read them all. What was interesting to me while reading this volume is that it is basically a book against war and was published just as the United States is deciding whether or not to become involved in WW II.

The Once and Future King, T H White, GP Putnam's Sons,

The Once and Future King is actually a composite of four shorter books written between 1939 and 1942. The first book is The Sword and the Stone, which we all know because of the Disney film. It was published in 1939 so I started there. It is the story of King Arthur's childhood which ends when he pulls the sword from the stone and is made King.

Arthur is portrayed here as a good lad who does what is right and has a sense of honor. Merlin is his tutor and sends him on adventures, sometimes even turning Arthur into different animals, as part of his education. White gets in various digs at the current culture. It is not an easy read, though it is only 209 pages long. I suspect that I did not get all the British innuendos and before I realized that it was somewhat satirical, I thought it was just silly. But I was glad to have finally read the book that spawned the Disney movie as well as the play Camelot.

The second book is called The Queen of Air and Darkness, published in 1940. Arthur fights his first battles, defeating Lot and the Orkneys, who are the Celts. Merlin then leaves forgetting to tell Arthur who his real mother is. Morgause, Lot's wife, brings her four sons to join Arthur's knights and sleeps with Arthur, using magic. From this fateful encounter issues Mordred, who will be the source of Arthur's downfall since Morgause was his half sister.

Arthur has now dreamed up his Knights of the Round Table and his plan to bring peace to England by transmuting warfare into chivalry in order to right wrongs. This section was not any easier to read but I had gotten used to the style. And what do you know? It is another book against war. The final two sections will be written up in 1941 and 1942. I've read many versions of the King Arthur legend and each one is from such a different point of view. By the time I finished The Once and Future King, I developed a theory about why that is so.

Finally, Native Son, by Richard Wright, Harper & Row, 1940, 392 pp. I actually read this about a year before I started the Big Fat Reading Project. It is one of the most intense books I have ever read. Bigger Thomas is a black youth in the slums of Chicago. Every attempt he makes to better his life (and he makes attempts because he rebels against his condition) ends up in violence committed by him.

The power of the novel comes from Wright's ability to convey the emotions and confusions in Bigger's mind so well that the reader comes to understand what it would be like to be black and living in poverty and under racism, even if like myself, one has never experienced those conditions oneself. I will come across more novels in the 1940s dealing with racism and prejudice and its effects on American life. If there were novels dealing with this area before 1940, I would be glad to be informed of them. I suspect this was a new development in American fiction.

Coming soon will be the second chapter of my book (with the working title, Reading For My Life). Hopefully within the next few days.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


The Morning Is Near, Susan Glaspell, Frederick A Stokes Company, 1940, 296 pp

I don't remember how I came across this author. This book was not a bestseller in 1940, but I found it just when I was starting the project. The Morning Is Near is a beautiful story about a woman who is sent away from her family as a young girl. She never understood why except that there was something shameful connected with it. She returns to her home as a young woman to find out the truth about her past and when she does she can make sense of her life. The writing is excellent and the characters well portrayed. Lydia, the heroine, is a woman I could totally love and even want to be.

The Power and The Glory, Graham Greene, Penguin Books, 1940, 222pp

My father was a fan of Graham Greene, probably because they both struggled with the idea of faith. As far as I am concerned this book is a great work of literature. The central character is the whiskey priest. He is left behind in a Mexican state after the revolution has banned the Catholic Church and all priests. He secretly manages to minister to people but he also secretly has lost his faith in that religion. Therefore the moral code he has lived by has ceased to be relevant. One of the products of revolutions is a disruption of moral codes, but one of the causes of revolutions is the failure of a religious group to truly live by its moral code.

All of this leaves the priest in confusion, so he drinks, he takes insane risks and it does not end well for him. Graham Greene can pack so much truth into a page of writing that it astonished me.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940.

I first read this book when I was very young, possibly in highschool. It is one of the saddest books I ever read. The human condition of being basically alone and trying to find someone to connect to is better portrayed in the teenage Mick than almost anything else I've read, possibly because McCullers was so young when she wrote it. I remembered Mick and Singer, the deaf-mute whom she befriends, but on re-reading it I was also hugely impressed with Dr Copeland, the negro doctor; Jake, the crazy commie; and Mr Brannon, who owns the all-night restaurant.

My Name Is Aram, William Saroyan, Dell Publishing, 1940, 151 pp

I had never read Saroyan before and this was his first book. It was short and worked as a collection of short stories about Aram, an Armenian boy growing up in an Armenian community in Bakersfield, CA. Aram is arrogant, irreverant and irrepressible. It is not a serious book, which was good for a change. It felt autobiographical and Saroyan was Armenian, grew up in central California and became a writer. In the last story, Aram leaves for New York,

I was so impressed with the writing that I read a biography of Saroyan. He was not a happy man, had a terrible temper, had trouble with women and money and was always fighting someone. But I think he put the dream of how he wished he could be in his books. He was pretty much crucified by the critics because of his brevity and his refusal to play any writer games except the one he wanted to play. I don't think the critics of the 40s got him at all.

Friday, January 13, 2006


Sapphira and The Slave Girl, Willa Cather, Alfred A Knopf, 1940, 295pp

I believe this is Willa Cather's last novel. Sapphira is a southern white woman who married below herself socially and moved to the country. It is just before the Civil War began, they have slaves and the book is about that transitional time. Sapphira and her husband are dealing with the question of freeing slaves and wondering how those slaves will fare.

Overall it is a story of life, human strengths and foibles, joys and losses. Sapphira is a complex character as is the slave girl she becomes close to. Cather does it all very well.

Farewell My Lovely, Raymond Chandler, Alfred A Knopf, 1940, 275 pp

This is Chandler's second novel, the first being The Big Sleep. The genre is mystery/crime and the style is very noir. Philip Marlowe, private investigator, is tough and cynical with a soft center and continually puts himself in danger in order to solve the mystery. He seems to never sleep, has a weakness for women and whiskey but never over indulges. Chandler along with a handful of other writers created this genre which continues to proliferate on the popular fiction lists. But with Marlowe it is hard to tell what actually motivates him.

In my reading log I did not say anything about the plot and I find it interesting that I remember very little about it. I did note that the physical descriptions of people and places and the dialogue were very well done. And I think that is the main appeal of Chandler: the mood, the cynicism, the exposure of decay lying just beneath the glittering surface of Los Angeles, the odd connection between the very rich and the underworld.

The Bird in the Tree, Elizabeth Goudge, Coward-McCann, Inc, 1940

Elizabeth Goudge is one of my favorite authors and I have read all of her books. She was English and began publishing novels in the early 1930s. She is what I would call a Christian philosopher and all of her stories are informed by this, though she weaves it into her writing so seamlessly that you hardly notice. I first read her most well known novel, Green Dolphin Street, when I was a very young woman. It made such an impression on me that I've re-read it twice and you will read about it when I write about the books I read for 1944.

In this volume, a wonderful and wise aging woman saves her grandson from a disastrous marriage and thereby preserves family harmony. She does it with tact and grace but basically she holds an ethical line. She makes her decisions based on what will do the greatest amount of good for the most people, even though she knows that her grandson will experience heartache.

Reading Goudge for me is like therapy. It makes me believe in the goodness in myself and others, it brings calm when life in the modern world is confusing and rocky. When she describes the flowers and countryside of an English landscape you are there and I swear you can see the colors and smell the flowers.

The Hamlet, William Faulkner, Random House, Inc, 1940, 366 pp

I am gradually making my way through Faulkner. Before I began this reading project I had read two of his earlier novels. God, he is so dark. I usually have bad dreams when I am reading Faulkner. I've also read a fair amount of early Joyce Carol Oates and think that she must have been influenced by this writer.

The main character here is Flem Snopes, a true piece of work. He is a con artist and completely heartless. He comes into a small southern town with the chip he carries on his shoulder. You eventually learn where that came from, but meanwhile he covertly just takes over the town. I couldn't decide which was more disturbing: Snopes' evil ways or the apathy of the townspeople who let him get away with it. Yet there is also humor in this book and a kind of refusal to get that worried about an evil dude. It is almost as if there were a deep seated belief that the bad guy will get what is coming to him in the end and usually by his own doing, so why get all worked up about it.

Faulkner finally had a bestseller in 1962, after he had been publishing novels for over 30 years, but he was mostly way ahead of his time in subject matter and treatment of it. He was a little too real, too dark and I imagine the general American reading public simply could not confront it. On the other hand, I am not sure it is a good thing that we are now practically numb to that much violence, poverty and degradation.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Part Three will include the final two books on the 1940 Bestseller list as well as the first two of my own list, so here I will explain how my list gets created. I look for more literary novels, for novels by writers I am interested in or just happen to like and I include any prize winners such as the Pulitzer Prize, the Newbery Award (a young adult category), the Caldecott (children's picture books), etc. Prizes like the National Book Award, the Booker and such did not get started until later. Sometimes but interestingly not always, the Pulitzer Prize book is not a bestseller. There is quite a bit of debate about whether these prizes mean anything but I figure the book had to at least be well written to win. Many NBA winners go on to have long writing careers, such as Saul Bellow. So here is today's list:

Night in Bombay, Louis Bromfield, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1940, 351pp

Here we have the #9 bestseller of 1940 and the author had been acclaimed and winning prizes since the 1920s. Night in Bombay is about Bill, a young rich playboy type who has decided to grow up and settle down. It takes place in Bombay, India, but most of the characters are European and decadent ones at that.

Actually it is a love story with a beautiful blonde about to hit the skids and a missionary type sick with malaria. It has a happy ending and Bill does grow up and becomes a useful person. I suppose every bestseller list needs at least one romance, but it is really not much of a book.

The Family, Nina Fedorova, Little, Brown & Company, 1940, 346pp

Finally at #10 is this story of a family of White Russians, a mother, her son, daughter, nephew and mother (granny), who are exiles in China after the Russian Revolution. Japan is invading and trying to take over China and times are hard. The family runs a boarding house full of odd characters with troubles of their own, who can't quite pay their room and board.

Money is always in short supply but kindness and tea are unfailingly provided. Good things finally happen for each of the children, Granny dies and the mother comes into Granny's wisdom. It is a sentimental book, a woman's book, and yet there is quite a bit of philosophy and politics woven into an unassuming writing style along with a big dose of religion. The message is that faith and kindness are what really count. I have to admit that she had me crying at the end.

The Pulitzer Prize in 1940 went to Grapes of Wrath, which was a bestseller.
The Newbery Medal was created in 1922. It always awards a book which was published in the previous year, so I just skipped ahead and read the 1941 winner because it was published in 1940. It went to Call It Courage, Armstrong Sperry, The Macmillan Company, 95 pp. It is about a Polynesian boy who overcomes his fear of the sea (bad thing to be afraid of in Polynesia) by going off by himself in a boat and having an adventure. Good story, good writing. I was struck by how American children today have very little chance for adventures.

The Caldecott Medal is an illustrator's award so the pictures are the thing. It was created in 1938 and in 1940 went to They Were Strong and Good, written and illustrated by Robert Lawson, The Viking Press, 64 pp. It is a genealogy of the author's family written for children. The moral is that these people were strong and good and helped build this country. The illustrations brought back childhood memories of being read to by my mom. The tone is so goody-goody that it would be laughed out of existence in today's world.

Monday, January 09, 2006


Continuing the micro-reviews of books I read that were published in 1940. This group is also from the top 10 bestsellers of 1940:

The Nazarene, Sholem Asch, GP Putnam's Sons, 1939, 698 pp

Oh my, it took me so long to read this book. (It was #5 on the list of bestsellers for 1940.) It is a story of Jesus with a twist. A strange, reclusive Jewish scholar in the present is researching the story of Jesus and trying to decide if he was indeed the Messiah. I did some research on Sholem Asch and learned that he was the darling of the Jews, writing in Yiddish, until this book, when he went into a phase of trying to reconcile Judaism and Christianity. Other factoids are that Sholem Asch was the father of Moses Asch who founded Folkways Records and that Bob Dylan was a reader of Sholem Asch. (I always feel especially cool when I find out I am doing something that Dylan did.)

Anyway, in The Nazarene, you really get a sense of the Jews at the time when Jesus was on earth; their various divisions (the rich who are priests and merchants and the poor who are the rabbis and the common people), their endless arguing and interpreting of the law (the Torah) and their undying hope for a redeemer. The drama is high as the lines get drawn as to whether Jesus of Nazareth is the true Messiah or not and this drama continues even after he is crucified and the apostles start Christianity.

As far as the writing goes, it is way overwritten even for the times, because being wordy is a style in the 1940s. Despite that, it does have emotional impact and for a girl who went to Sunday School every week of her life until she left home, I have to say that if they could have made the story of Jesus this dramatic, I might not have been so bored.

Stars on the Sea, F Van Wyck Mason, Grosset & Dunlap, 1940, 720 pp

At #6 on the bestseller list of 1940, this is a story of the beginnings of the United States Navy. It takes place in 1775 and 1776 as the Revolutionary War is being fought. Since it is well-written, fast-paced and filled with great characters, it was an enjoyable read despite its length. The characters' lives intertwine and a couple of my favorite characters don't live until the end of the book. There is some religion but mostly the main idea is that independence is worth fighting for. The successful businessmen are conservative and try to play both sides, which I have since learned is true in any war. The young people are rebellious and idealistic. But it is from the viewpoint of the patriots as opposed to the Loyalists.

Warning: I had to look up about a hundred words, mostly about ships. But who knew that our Navy started with two ships that could barely float?

Oliver Wiswell, Kenneth Roberts, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc, 1940, 836 pp

This equally long book came in at #7 for the bestsellers of 1940. Oliver Wiswell is a colonist during the Revolutionary War but he is what was called a Loyalist: one who was still loyal to England and wanted to resolve the conflicts without war and without throwing off English rule. So it was interesting to me, because this point of view was never taught in any American History course I ever took.

It is basically a man's book with lots of battle scenes, political analysis and intelligence issues. Think of a Tom Clancy bestseller written in the 40s. Oliver is an upstanding, courageous individual, has incredible luck and a sidekick named Buell. Buell possesses great humor, dubious morals and a high level of inventiveness, which means he does all of Oliver's dirtywork and allows the great man to keep his hands clean. The women are loyal, smart, feisty and resourceful though mostly secondary to the men. But again it was a good read.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1939, 619 pp

I know I read this at some earlier point in my life, but did not remember much about it except that it was about the Dust Bowl. So since it was #8 on the list for 1940, I decided to read it again. Naturally I got more out of it this time. Steinbeck is apparently not eveyone's cup of tea and I agree that there might be a tad more melodrama than is absolutely necessary in this book, but I am a Steinbeck fan, so I forgive him.

He is trying to get across a message here that man is a species and if he would live as one instead of as a collection of individuals in opposition, life would be better for all. For me, reading the book again reinforced my knowledge that without the intelligence to adapt to change, a person will fall to the bottom of the heap when change occurs.

I do NOT recommend the movie version of this novel even though it won an Oscar for Best Director in 1941 and that director was John Ford. The book is much better.

Friday, January 06, 2006


I have now caught up writing about the books I read in November and December, leaving out the ones published in 1950. I am reading 1950 books now for My Big Fat Reading Project, but I still read contemporary books and whatever else sounds good. For the next several days I will post my usual micro-reviews about the books I read that were published in 1940, beginning with the bestsellers.

How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn, The Macmillan Company, 1940, 494 pp.

This book was the #1 bestseller in 1940 and was also made into a movie which won an Academy Award in 1942 and which I rented and watched. It is the story of a man's life in Wales at the end of the 19th century. His family are coal miners and trying to deal with the early effects of industrial workers to get some rights, form unions, etc. The conflicts move right into the family as the older sons are in favor of unions but the father is not wanting to rock the boat. Because the family as a unit is very strong this whole scene creates a large amount of turmoil.

The book is filled with high emotions, strong love of family, religion and the main character's effort to understand life. He is the youngest in a large family and they all hope he will get to do something besides be a miner. There are lots of questions raised about honor, good workmanship and of course love. It is a time of transition from farming to industry.

Llewellyn's descriptive powers are large and his ability to know people, their worth and their demons is high. Women are the lesser sex for sure but also highly valued, protected and honored. I was emotionally moved and also reminded of Angela's Ashes.

Kitty Foyle,
Christopher Morley, JB Lippincott Company, 1939, 340 pp

Here we have the #2 bestseller of 1940. Kitty Foyle is a young woman in the 1920s. She is one the "new" women-single and working. But she is still looking for love, finds it once and loses it. The story takes place in Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. I was surprised by the amount of and openness about sex in a book from that era. Probably that is what made it a bestseller. It was also made into a movie and won an Oscar for best actress in 1941.

According to Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, Morley was a well respected writer in the early 20th century and this book was a potboiler for him. That may explain why the writing was so good and the insights into men and women so deep. I found it to be a good read.

Mrs Miniver, Jan Struther, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940, 298 pp.

At #3 on the bestseller list we have this English book. Mrs Miniver is an upper-middle-class English woman with three children and an architect for a husband. The story covers a series of days in the life of this family in the year or so just preceeding the beginning of WWII. They know that war is coming and Mrs Miniver is trying to predict and prevent any bad effects on the family. It would be a sappy book except for nuggets of truth in each chapter and that it shows war for once from a woman's point of view.

This one was also made into a movie and won for Best Picture in 1943. The movie was quite sappy and felt to me like an ad for war bonds.

For Whom The Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, Simon & Schuster, 1940, 471 pp.

This one took the #4 spot on the bestseller list. It is a great book. Of course that was already known by others but something had kept me from reading Hemingway. He is truly a great writer, at least in this book, and I see why it is said that he started modern fiction. After those other books, I felt like I was reading a current novel.

Robert Jordan, the hero, is an American working with the communists and guerillas in the Spanish Civil War. The story covers only three days but there are many side and back stories. Group situations, who to trust, chaos of war, love, friendship, death and fear. It is all there as well as idealism vs cynicism.

More to come...

Thursday, January 05, 2006


The Birchbark House, Louise Erdrich, Scholastic, Inc., 2000, 239pp

One of my reading groups was originally a mother/daughter group, so traditionally they read a Young Adult fiction selection in December. That was fine with me and fit in with my plan to read at least one YA book a month, since I am teaching readers of that age.

In the story, Omakaya is the second to the oldest child in an Ojibwa family, living on an island in Lake Superior near the Minnesota/Wisconsin border in 1847. The book covers one year of her life and is broken into the four seasons beginning in summer.

The summer is when the family moves away from the "town" and builds a house of birchbark near the shore, because it is convenient to all the fishing they do. Omakaya is eleven and has a bothersome younger brother and a spoiled older sister. She tries to be a dutiful daughter, which includes plenty of hard and tedious tasks, but she has longings that mostly go unfulfilled. As we follow Omakaya thru her days, we find out what her life is like, meet the rest of the family and get pulled into Ojibwa life.

The writing is excellent and even heartwrenching when a visitor brings the White Man's disease (small pox) the following winter. Omakaya must nurse the whole family and deal with loss. Out of that tragedy she learns of her powers as a healer and discovers her true past. I really liked it and look forward to reading Erdrich's adult novels.


The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brashares, Random House, Inc, 2001, 376 pp.

Now for some Young Adult entertainment. It was truly an entertaining book; not anything surprising, but I would have loved it when I was a teen. Four girls are best friends (I had a four girl group of friends all through highschool). Their mothers had met at an aerobics class in the 70s when each was pregnant and the girls had playdates every week until they went to preschool. Eventually the mothers drifted apart but the girls remained bonded.

The book is the story of their first summer apart and a pair of magic jeans which fit each girl perfectly despite their different body types. I found it very realistic that each girl had a different interest and outlook in life but could still be such good friends with each other. All summer they mail the pants to each other as each deals with love, extended family, growing up, boys, sex and how to get along out in the big wide world. Very cute, very real teenage girl emotions.

Some of the kids I teach are teenage girls and reading the book helped me remember the strong emotions and the sudden changes of mood of those years. I instantly had more empathy for these girls as I try to get them through math and history; things which have little or nothing to do with what they are actually interested in during these years. I haven't seen the movie and would like to hear from anyone who has and how or if you liked it.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


Resurrecting Mingus, Jenoyne Adams, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2001, 241 pp

Mingus is a young black woman. Actually she is mixed: black father and white mother. She is a lawyer, a workaholic and as the book opens she has just lost another lover. So this is African American first fiction chick-lit.

Actually it wasn't too bad. Reading about Mingus took me away to someone else's bad life on a day when mine was in the pits. It was just a little too predictable, the characters a little too cardboard-like. I have to admit, it did not have a happy ending.

But I picked the book off a library shelf because of the title and my favorite thing about it was that a black father, dealing with the stress of raising a mixed family, would name his daughter after a jazz musician.


Second Glance, Jodi Picoult, Atria Books, 2003, 420 pp

I read this for one of my reading groups and wasn't expecting much but was rather surprised. The setting is western Vermont, on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. It is a small town with descendants of Native Americans, various troubled people and ghosts.

At first I was annoyed by chapters which read like short shorts about a variety of people. It felt like Alice Hoffman with a bigger vocabulary. But then we get the story of a woman in the 1930s whose father and husband are scientists in the Eugenics movement. This woman discovers that her real father was a Native American and the reader discovers that many Indians of that tribe were sterilized in the Eugenics program. Wow!

Back to the future, we find the woman from the 30s haunting the town and all the other characters having threads of connection to her. The woman's granddaughter is now a doctor who helps couples get the baby they want through genetic engineering, which is the brave new world of eugenics.

So Picoult has tackled a host of issues while essentially writing a love story (or actually several love stories.) I liked the way she braided the characters' storylines across generations. I approved of her intention to show that there is more going on in life than what one can see and measure. We had one of the best discussions we've had in that reading group, because of the book, and I admire the author for tackling the ethics of all this new science.

But the problem is the writing. It is just a little too lightweight despite all the big words. I imagine Margaret Atwood or Jane Smiley taking on such subjects and know that they would have gone deeper and thus taken the reader much deeper. In their hands, it would not have all worked out so neatly in the end.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales From A Drummmer's Life, Jacob Slichter, Random House, Inc, 2004, 281 pp

This guy was the drummer for Semisonic, a one-hit wonder band in the late 90s. Their hit was "Closing Time", which was huge and almost anyone remembers it. The book is their story from the author's viewpoint.

So the book is very real and quite down to earth. Slichter is probably one of the most unlikely music nerds to ever achieve fame. He doesn't contradict anything one has read about the music business, but it is better than most of those books because it is not particularly bitter and because it is so real. What struck me is that the band pretty much did everything right and if it hadn't been for a couple of fortuitous breaks, they would have never made it as big as they did. Yet, if it hadn't been for other unavoidable music business insanities, they would still be around.

Therefore, yes, it takes talent and business smarts and drive and terrible persistence, but it is also luck, timing and the biggest gamble in the world. I suppose that is all part of the allure. I can't say that I don't wish I could have had even a 100th of their success.


Savage Garden, Denise Hamilton, Scribner, 2005, 323 pp

Denise Hamilton is an LA based crime fiction writer and came to one of the reading groups I belong to recently. We read Savage Garden, which is her latest of four books. She began her professional life as an Los Angeles Times reporter and saw her share of criminal activity during her years there.

Eve Diamond, the main character in Hamilton's books, is also an LA Times reporter. In Savage Garden she remains true to character: feisty, obsessive news hound, needy in her love relationships and a bit compulsive about putting herself in harms way. The only difference between Eve and Sara Paretsky's or Sue Grafton's PIs is that Eve is a reporter, but she operates like a PI.

This time Eve's current boyfriend is the childhood best friend of a Latino playwright who is making his big LA debut. But the lead actress, a damaged young woman who also came up in the bario, has turned up dead.

It is a good mystery and a pageturner. I read it in one evening. At the reading group meeting, we learned from Denise that all of her plot ideas come from real stories which she covered in her days as a reporter, but for various reasons was not able to publish in a news format. Savage Garden grew out of an incident in the 1990s when the wife of the lead singer in Los Lobos was murdered. (Los Lobos is a well-loved Los Angeles latino band.) Another tidbit was that the book features a song called "Savage Garden" to which Denise herself wrote the lyrics.

I liked Hamilton's first book better (The Jasmine Trade) but this one was fun to read and nothing beats reading a book set contemporaneously in the city where one lives.

Monday, January 02, 2006


The Pearl Diver, Jeff Talarigo, Random House, Inc, 2004, 237 pp

I did not like this book at all. It is about a 19 year old Japanese woman in 1948 who is a pearl diver. At that time, this meant someone who dove for shellfish everyday, then turned over her catch to be sold at the markets. The divers got to keep the pearls they found. It was a cold and grueling profession but she loved it.

One day she discovers that she has leprosy. At that time there was no cure and even less understanding of the disease. Since it turns bodies into hideousness, I can see how it inspired mostly fear. The only known way at that time, to control its spread was to quarantine anyone who had it.

So off she went to a leprosarium on an island, leaving behind her family and any identity in her former life. It was considered about the worst sort of black mark on a family to have a member contract leprosy, so the diseased person was forgotten and basically became a non-person. Conditions at the leprosarium were bad and it was not unlike being in prison. She remained there for the rest of her life, even though medication was developed, even though she could have left, as her case was mild. She actually tried leaving in her later years, by which time she had cancer, but went back to the island to die there.

I think the author was trying to show a woman rising above adversity but I was not uplifted. I just felt yucky the whole time I was reading it and thankfully it was short. The style was disjointed and somewhat pretensious. I read it for a reading group, but felt so negative about the book that I skipped the meeting.


Fire Sale, Sara Paretsky, GP Putnam's Sons, 2005, 402pp

Thanks to belonging to several reading groups, I have been reading mystery/crime fiction. In the past I have had a snobbish attitude toward this genre (after reading a bunch of thrillers in the 80s), probably similar to the attitude some readers have towards sci-fi. In fact, I have found some of these books a welcome relief from a reading diet heavy in literary fiction and 1940s novels. Some are better than others of course, and Sara Paretsky's latest book falls on the better side.

V I Warshawsky, daughter of a Polish father and an Italian mother, raised in southside Chicago, is the intrepid PI of Paretesky's books. She is around 40 in Fire Sale, is single and has a lover who is recovering from wounds received while covering the Afghanistan invasion by the United States. So we are right up in contemporary times. Everyone has cell phones and she even brings in blogs!

Back in V I's old neighborhood, a factory bursts into fire just as she is about to enter it at midnight. She is doing an investigation but ends up in the hospital. This is a repeating pattern throughout the story. There is a rich family with a partriatch who also grew up in these slums, but now heads an empire of stores similar to WalMart.

So people die, the "WalMart" family is suspicious and V I solves it all while substituting at her old highschool as basketball coach for the female students. Plenty of issues are covered: poverty, bad schools, religion, gangs, teens, foreign sweatshops and greedy rich people.Entertaining for sure and how odd to be right back in southside Chicago after the Barack Obama book.