Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Here is the first half of the top 10 bestsellers of 1945:

Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor
At #1, a carry-over from the 1944 list when it was #4. See review in post of April 14, 06.

The Robe, Lloyd C Douglas
#2 is another carry-over from 1944 when it was #2 and from 1943 when it was #1 and from 1942 when it was #7. Four years on the top 10 bestsellers list. I believe that beats The Da Vinci Code. See review in post of March 1, 06.

The Black Rose, Thomas B Costain, Doran & Co Inc, 1945, 403 pp
This was the #3 bestseller of 1945. It takes place in the late 1200s. Walter of Gurnie is a bastard, a result of a love affair before his father went on a Crusade and came home with a wife. He is a strong, determined lad and sets off on a journey to Cathay. He has many adventures and falls in love with a Grecian girl whose father was also a Crusader.

Finally after a long separation, during which they are each having further adventures, they are reunited. Walter gets knighted by King Edward I and even talks the king into trying to get Roger Bacon released from prison. Good story in the way of historical fiction from the 1940s.

The White Tower, James Ramsey Ullman, JB Lippincott Company, 1945, 479 pp
When I first opened this book and saw it was about mountain climbing, I braced myself for a long boring read. (I am not a fan of mountain climbing stories.) But it was the #4 bestseller of 1945 and it turned out to be an amazing book. It is about mountain climbing but also about war, mankind, dreams, enemies, love and why we carry on in the face of so many disappointed hopes and dreams.

Martin Ordway is an American Air Force fighter pilot in WWII whose plane is hit and who lands in Switzerland near the mountain resort where he had spent summers in his youth. There is his old friend Carla, now a woman, and a cast of characters who all want to climb the White Tower, the highest peak around.

They do climb it and the rest of the story is pure adventure with a love story besides and then the ending which I could have never guessed. A great find of a book.

Cass Timberlane, Sinclair Lewis, Random House, 1945, 390 pp
The #5 bestseller of 1945 is the most modern book on the list so far. It is about the present. Cass Timberlane is a judge in a small Minnesota town. He has been married once and is divorced. He falls in love with Jinny Marshland, who is in her mid-twenties. They finally marry and he adores her completely but she is young, restless and reckless.

The marriage survives but you never know until the last few pages whether or not it will. Lewis intersperses portraits of the marriages of other couples in the story which are wry and include class differences, the effects of WWII and a loosening of moral values.

His writing is very fine and although I felt the story was a bit unreal, it was highly entertaining.

Monday, June 26, 2006


This was another reading group pick. It won a Man Booker prize and was much discussed on the blogs. The setting is London in the 80s, during the Margaret Thatcher days. Nick, the son of a middle-class antiques dealer, has gone to Oxford and become friends with the wealthy son of a Member of Parliament. The family invites Nick to stay at their London home for the summer after graduation. He stays for four years and gets caught up in all the family drama.

Nick is also a gay man coming into bloom. He has his first love affair that summer. He is completely boy crazy and eventually ends up as the lover of Wani, son of a super rich Lebanese family, whose money was made in a chain of grocery stores.

So there is lots of explicit gay sex, lots of coke, the woes and quirks of the English moneyed class, politics and corruption, AIDS of course, and endless descriptions of it all. Hollinghurst is a lover (in the literary sense) of Henry James, who is an author I have not ever really liked. Hollinghurst is possibly trying to be the Henry James of this century. Actually, I enjoyed this book more than any Henry James I've read, but it is not a book I could love. I purely hate people like the Feddens, the MP's family. I have no sympathy for the rich. Gay sex is not my cup of tea, as it were. Hollinghurst can write and his satire is biting. I am not sure he can really feel.


Teacher Man, Frank McCourt, Scribner, 2005, 258 pp

Frank McCourt was an English teacher in the NYC Public School system for 30 years before he broke out as a writer with Angela's Ashes. This is his memoir of those years and I thought it was great.

He taught highschool and had students from many backgrounds. Starting out in vocational schools, his students were lower-middle-class and often the children of immigrants. They were hormonally charged, they distrusted adults and had no use for literature or composition skills. Somehow McCourt must hang on through five classes a day, five days a week, trying to get some control of his class, trying to reach the students and fend off the administration. But years later, when he teaches at the most prestigious highschool in New York, he faces similar problems, just because it is school and his students are teens.

In his by now signature style of storytelling, he brings alive the classroom scene as well as his reactions to it. Since I've spent the last year teaching middle-school students in a classroom situation and since all of those students were in my remedial class because they had already been ruined by school and/or parents, reading Teacher Man was like therapy for me, or more accurately, like confession. I felt forgiven for my many grievous sins as a teacher. I also received the blessing of recovering my sense of humor about it all.

Now, like Frank, I am about to retire from teaching. If I could have just a portion of his good fortune as a writer, I would be ecstatic.

Friday, June 23, 2006


A Place Called the Bla-Bla Cafe, Sandy Ross, SLR Productions, 2006, 237 pp

Sandy Ross is an acquaintance of mine from my singer/songwriter days. She is also a long-time singer/songwriter whom I met while I was part of the LA scene in the 1990s. During the 1970s she was the main talent booker at the Bla-Bla Cafe as well as a regular performer there. This book is her memoir of the place.

She begins with a history of the club, which began on Ventura Blvd in an area of Los Angeles called Studio City. She tells of her memories and experiences while working and performing there. It was one of those places with a very special owner who loved musicians and artists. Not much went on there during the day, but every evening was booked with songwriters, comedians and jazz musicians. After hours, it was filled with people who worked at the neighboring clubs, many of which were gay establishments. Lots of good food, beer and wine, acceptance of all kinds of people and good times without violence or trouble. Your basic 70s magic.

The middle section of the book is a series of pieces by other former performers, including All Jarreau, who got his start there. The last section is a chart showing everyone who ever performed there, including the musical credits of each. That in itself is a valuable piece of research and record keeping that belongs in anyone's library who loves or writes about pop music history.

The Bla-Bla Cafe was a unique blend of 70s elements which came together to create a place that was very artist-centered and free-spirited. The owners, who were transplanted New Yorkers, created a "family" there, out of all kinds of disparate characters; a phenomenon that occurred all over America in those days.

Sandy's book is intended mainly to preserve the memories of the Bla-Bla Cafe for those who were a part of the scene. But she has gone beyond that by describing the perfect atmosphere for developing musical performers. It could have been a lucky confluence of people and cultural phenomena that brought about the Bla-Bla, but there is no reason it couldn't happen again for a new generation.

A Place Called the Bla-Bla Cafe can be ordered through your local bookstore or online at http://www.bla-bla-cafe.com


The Witch of Cologne, Tobsha Learner, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, 462 pp

I read this for one of the reading groups I am in. It is historical fiction with lots of sex. The setting is Cologne, Germany in the late 1600s. There is a power struggle going on between Lutherans and Catholics, but also between various princedoms of Germania. In addition, Charles X of Sweden, Louis XIV of France and Mahomet IV, Sultan of Turkey, are all vying for power and territory. It was an unsettled time and seems to attract historical novelists, as it has come up again and again in my reading of novels from the 1940s until the present.

The twist in this story is that Ruth, the main character, is a feisty Jewish woman who is trained in the cabalistic mysteries and in mid-wifery. She lost her mother, a Sephardic Jew, when she was very young. Inevitably she gets romantically involved with a Catholic canon. Into the mix are brought the Dutch philosopher Spinoza and a Spanish Dominican inquisitor, who was obsessed with Ruth's mother and intends to do away with Ruth.

So it goes on and on. The Catholic priests all have sexual issues. The Catholic women need a midwife who knows her business. Ruth wants intellectual freedom. Every time something terrible is about to happen to any main character, there is a miraculous rescue and the book has a sort of happy ending. The author has fulfilled all the criteria for a good historical romance and it was not boring but quite predictable.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House Inc, 2005, 403 pp

It was a bestseller, it was praised, it was bashed. I, for one, am glad that Curtis Sittenfeld had a success with her book. It is a good book.

Lee Fiora, from South Bend, Indiana, a lower middle-class teenage girl, gets the idea that it would be cool to go to an east-coast prep school. Unbelievably she gets accepted, she gets financial aid, she convinces her parents, she arrives. Reality sets in.

She is not like these students from moneyed backgrounds. Everything about her says so: her clothes, her belongings and just the way she is. No one is more aware of these things than a 14 year old girl. So she freaks, she lays low, she creeps around trying to figure out what to do.

It is painful to go through four years of this with Lee, but the author has so truly captured what it is like at that age. Lee is desperately unhappy but she can't tell her parents that she made a mistake. She doesn't quite have the self-assurance to just be different, so she has no other choice but to suffer.

This book is not about a rebellious girl or a plucky heroine. It is about what it is really like for any teenage girl who is not popular or accepted. Sittenfeld doesn't sound a false note. I know. I went through it myself in a preppy, Ivy League college town public highschool. It was awful.

I am glad I read this. It helped me realize a lot about how my highschool years marked me for life in a certain way, but also to see how I did finally outgrow it, find myself, and find out what is really important.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


The Birth of Venus, Sarah Dunant, Random House, Inc, 2003, 391 pp

This is the story of a rebellious girl in Renaissance Florence, who wanted to be a painter. Instead, she is married off to an older man, because the fundamentalist monk, Savonarola, is on the rise and making life difficult for women, artists, free thinkers and wealthy families. Alessandra fits all these categories.

I've read several books set in this time and place and of all the cities I've ever visited, Florence is my favorite. Since the book is well-written and tells a good story, I liked it very much.

My favorite part was later in the story. Alessandra has entered a nunnery which is special and unique. She can have her son with her and all the women are free to pursue art, study or whatever interest they have. It is a sort of Shangri-La for women. I don't know if such a place really existed but I thank Sarah Dunant for creating the idea.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


The Photograph, Penelope Lively, Viking, 2003, 231 pp

I read this one for a reading group discussion. I liked it much better than Making It Up.

Kath, former wife of Glyn, is dead, but the whole story is about her and her effect on the people she lived amongst. A photograph, found by Glyn, shows a side of Kath which none of these people suspected and now they must come to terms with a Kath they had never really known during her life.

This is a small, almost miniature scope for a novel, but Lively uses it to develop some very distinct characters who are yet universal as types so that they resonate with the reader. Glyn, the self-centered, distracted researcher, writer and professor; Elaine (Kath's sister), the super-organized and successful business owner; Nick (Elaine's husband), the dreamer who never does anything successful; Polly (Nick and Elaine's daughter), a rising, driven young woman. Each loved Kath in a unique way but none of them knew what was going on in Kath's heart and soul.

Thus, while there are humor and pithy insight and a bit of mystery here, the overall resonance of the novel is sadness. I was left feeling very sad for Kath and for all of us who are either insensitive or who suffer from the insensitivity of others.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Flower Net, Lisa See, HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1997, 333 pp

After reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and also seeing Lisa See in person at a book signing, I got interested in reading more of her books. This is her first novel. It is called a thriller on the cover and is written in a Ken Follett style, though clearly the author is a woman who knows China. The setting is modern Beijing, China and Los Angeles. Assistant US Attorney David Stark and Chinese police detective Ms Liu Hulan are the main characters.

After the son of the US Ambassador to China is found dead by Chinese police, a son of one of China's politically elite families is found dead on a ship from China which is trying to enter Los Angeles illegally. Despite much distrust and animosity, the United States and China join forces to solve these connected and cross cultural crimes.

Stark is sent to Beijing and meets Liu Hulan. What do you know? They have already met years ago in the United States and had a love affair. Now there are three mysteries going: the murders, the unknown reason that Hulan left Stark and the pre-revolutionary past of Hulan's family.

All is revealed and solved very satisfactorily. It is a good story with plenty of danger and suspense plus insights into late 20th century China which were new to me. Worth reading, because Lisa See is the real deal when it comes to things Chinese.


Small Island, Andrea Levy, Picador, 2004, 438 pp

Here is another book that I loved. The author is from England and of Jamaican descent. The story has four main characters: Queenie, an English pig farmer's daughter; her very English husband, Bernard, a banker; Hortense and Gilbert Joseph, who have come from Jamaica to live in London after World War II. The characters alternate in telling the story. Except for the prologue, which takes place in Queenie's childhood, the story happens in the present, but each character tells his or her own back story.

The author does each of the voices very well, which gives a full picture of the English view of Jamaicans and the Jamaicans' view of England and the English. With both humor and tragedy, a story of love, heartbreak, miscommunication, prejudice and the human spirit evolves. The arrogance of empire and the hopes of immigrants are both eloquently expressed. You really get the horrible difficulties that arise in day to day living when different cultures live side by side.

Reading this book was a pleasure on every page. It won the Whitbread Award for 2004.

Monday, June 05, 2006


Seducing the Demon, Erica Jong, Penguin Group, 2006, 279 pp

This is a memoir by the author of Fear of Flying. I loved it. She grew up when I did. She embraced feminism, free-love, and got famous very fast and way too young. When your first novel is a runaway bestseller, you are basically doomed. No other book you write will ever be that big. If you don't commit suicide, then you must do what Erica did.

She survived. She made all the usual mistakes but she kept writing what she wanted to write and she is still writing. And happily married. And her daughter is OK as well as being a writer. This book was like a prayer and a blessing to me. It is not all new-agy like Goldie Hawn's memoir. It is loud, brassy, irreverent and yet full of the sort of wisdom a woman ought to have after about 60 years of life.

Then I saw Erica Jong speak at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. She is, in real life, just as she is in her book. She looked great, of course. In fact, she looked better than her author photo on the dust jacket. She just made me feel good about being a 21st century woman who gives a shit about what goes on.


The Giver, Lois Lowry, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993, 179 pp

Lois Lowry is an award winning author but I had never read her before. She won a Newbury Award for this book and while it is considered to be Young Adult fiction, The Giver is fine for full adults as well. It is a great story,

Jonas is about to turn twelve, on which day he will learn what his life's work will be. This will be assigned to him, because Jonas lives in a Community where everything is planned, where there is no war, no hunger or poverty, just peace and security and predictability.

But Jonas has been assigned to become the next Giver. The Giver is a person who holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. In the Community, which you learn along with Jonas, there is only "sameness". There is not even color. There is medication for the slightest pain. Certain women have the babies, which are assigned to families, but only two per family.

So Jonas begins his training with the current Giver and learns the truth about life. In the end, he makes a choice, using what he has learned. He has never had a choice before because no in the community does. His choice will change everything.

The way that Lowry reveals the Community and its set-up is brilliant. Jonas is a fine hero. What a book!

Sunday, June 04, 2006


The Way the Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, 713pp

What a totally intense novel! It started out very slowly and that was worrisome for such a long book. By the time I finished it in a frenzy of turned pages, I realized that the author did the slow start intentionally.

It is summer, 1962, and a Canadian family is driving across eastern Canada. They are a Royal Canadian Air Force family and on their way to the next posting near London, Ontario. The parents, Jack and Mimi McCarthy are in love. The kids, Mike and Madeleine feel happy and safe. It is the postwar dream family.

But once they are settled on the base, the dream begins to erode, slowly at first. Madeleine's teacher at school is a dirty old man who molests some of his fourth grade female pupils after school. The tension begins to build as Madeleine tries to cope with this on her own. She is pretty resourceful as nine year olds go and has a great sense of humor, as well as the security of a loving family, but just because they love her so much, she cannot tell them about the abuse.

Jack, the father, gets a call from a former senior officer of his and is pulled into some slight espionage work. He is not to tell his wife and must begin to lie to her for the first time. Then a female classmate of Madeleine's is found raped and murdered and the lovely, bright world goes dark.

The building of pace and events and stresses is excruciating. I was very disturbed, more that a little depressed and my chest felt tight the whole time I was reading this. It is primarily Madeleine's story and later in the book she goes into therapy and deals with the trauma of her ninth year. As she unburies and sorts out her memories, the mystery of the murder and of her father's activities is revealed. The therapy approach could have been hokey but was handled well.

MacDonald masterfully evokes the world of the early 60s: the music, the clothing styles, the ways of suburban housewives, the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs, the space race. She also is properly bitter about the way American intelligence so cavalierly ruined lives in the name of democracy and anti-communism. For me, having grown up in those years, it stirred up the underlying fear and uncertainty created by the atom bomb and threat of WW III which our parents tried to cover over with all the accoutrements of a safe middle-class Christian life. As Mimi McCarthy would always say to Madeleine, "Think nice thoughts."


On Beauty, Zadie Smith, The Penguin Press, 2005, 443 pp

This was a hot book last year; my mom even read it. I had a good time reading it but had mixed feelings when I was finished.

The setting is academia, which is a whole little world of it own. The theme seems to be midlife crisis with a cross-cultural flavor. Howard Belsey is an art professor at Wellington, a New England college. He is originally from a lower-class English family , but has been an intellectual for so long that he has almost buried his roots. His wife, Kiki, is an African-American woman from a lower-class Florida family, but she inherited a small mansion in Wellington and has been married to Howard for 3o years, which has almost buried her roots. They have three children of highschool and college age who are representative of 21st century young people from mixed parents.

The antagonist is Monty Kipps, another academician of Trinidadian descent who lives in England, is very right wing and opposes every view that Howard has. Monty's wife appears to be the devoted and spiritual wife.

Of course, nothing is what it seems. One of the Belsey kids falls in love with the Kipps' daughter. Then the Kipps family arrives in Wellington, where Monty will be a visiting professor. Kiki and Mrs Kipps become friends. Now everyone's true colors begin to show and through a series of interconnected events plenty of tragedy and comedy ensue. Sex, campus politics, social class conflict, etc. Love is what they all seek but also what they lose. So what else is new?

Perhaps a few too many issues are being explored. Perhaps the comedy and tragedy don't mix well. But I think there is simply a missing depth of feeling, of understanding for the real human failings beneath it all. My favorite character is Kiki, who has many layers. The others are caricatures beside her. The author's point of view is very young, similar to one of the teens in the story. She has a good eye for detail and a razor sharp wit and has achieved enough fame that she can keep writing and find the depth and compassion that comes with growing up. That she could create Kiki gives me hope.


This is my 100th post on Keep The Wisdom. Not that big a deal, but a milestone, nonetheless. July 1, 2006 will be my one year anniversary as a blogger and while I had plans to be more prolific, I can say that I have kept reading, I have started my book and I have gained a small but loyal readership. It is all good.

Thanks for being along on the journey. Thanks for the comments. As always, I am as interested in what others are reading as I am in what I am reading.


1. The day when another blogger spammed my comments section 6 times with the same message to check out his secret shopper blog.

2. Getting an email from AJ Jacobs, who found my blog about his book, The Know It All and thanked me for my review.

3. Having three people in one week ask me when the next chapter of Reading For My Life would be posted.