Sunday, August 20, 2006


This is the final post concerning books I read for 1947. It includes the award winners for that year.

In a Yellow Wood, Gore Vidal, E P Dutton & Company Inc, 1947, 216 pp
This is Vidal's second novel. It was not very good and luckily short. Robert Holton is just out of the service, after World War II, living in New York and working in a brokerage firm. He is alone, his life is dull, but he feels he is on the right track.

The whole book takes place in less than two days. I think the author means it to be the "slice of life" method of fiction. Robert gets a chance for another more free and exciting kind of life provided by a relationship with a woman but decides to stick with what he has. Ho hum.

Second Growth, Wallace Stegner, Houghton Mifflin, 1947, 240 pp
I found this book also rather boring. It takes place in a New Hampshire village shortly after World War II. There are village people who live there all year round and summer people. One of the village people is a Jewish man, one of the summer people is a Jewish woman who marries the man and stays. There is a bit of drama and then the book is over.

Stegner was trying to show a town that stagnated while the world moved on and to show what that did to the inhabitants. Just not one of his best, I suppose, because The Big Rock Candy Mountain which I read for 1943 was fantastic.

The Big Sky, A B Guthrie Jr, William Sloane Associates, 1947, 436 pp
This is an astonishing book! It is the best thing I have ever read about the American West. I was somewhat prepared for the subject matter by having read Undaunted Courage by Steven Ambrose and Sacajewea by Anna Lee Waldo, but this story is even more unique. Lewis and Clark were fairly civilized guys, sent out by the government. The hero of The Big Sky, is just a guy from Kentucky.

Boone Caudill is a rebellious boy when he leaves his family. The impetus for leaving is a cruel and drunken father but Boone is the kind of person who was born to leave home and born to be a loner. It is 1830, a generation after Lewis and Clark, and Boone has heard about the West. It is before the great exodus of the covered wagon folks. The West is still a complete wilderness of mountains, rivers, primeval forests, wild animals and Indians, with a very few trading posts here and there.

So after a very exciting getaway, where Boone falls into every innocent, greenhorn trap and misfortune, he finally gets a buddy and finds himself on a keelboat going up the Missouri River. He meets Dick Summers, who is already a mountain man and before a year is up, Boone is one as well.

The book is long but never boring for even a page. The writing lures you into that world with the descriptions, the dialogue and the action all evenly distributed. All the while, you know that there can only be a tragic ending for these characters, but none of them are looking for the ususal kinds of happiness. They want unlimited space and freedom--a state which cannot be achieved for any length of time in the material world.

I read this book because Guthrie's next one, The Way West, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. I am worried that despite the prize, it will not top The Big Sky.

Now for the prize winners of 1947.
The Pulitzer Prize:
All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren, Harcourt Inc, 1946, 609 pp
I can see why this won the Pulitzer. It is definitely in the "Great American Novel" category, which seems to be the kind of novel that wins. The edition I read is called the "restored edition." Noel Polk, a professor of American Literature at the University of Southern Mississippi, studied Warren's original manuscript and restored passages that had been edited out for the original publication. In fact, the main character was called Willie Stark in the original edition, but was initially named Willie Talos by Warren. That is the name used here.

The novel follows the rise and fall of Willie Talos, a fictional Southern demogogue who is similar to the infamous Huey Long of Louisiana. (I read a book from 1945, A Lion is in the Streets, by Adria Locke Langley, the #6 bestseller of that year, which was basically the same story but set in Mississippi. Huey Long also came up in The River Road by Frances Parkinson Keyes and in The Foxes of Harrow by Frank Yerby, both of which were bestsellers in 1946. Long is portrayed as a politician hated by the established sugar growers. I have no idea why there would be so much writing about that area of the country in 1946.)

In any case, All the King's Men is as much Jack Burden's story as it is the story of Talos. Their lives became intertwined when Jack was in his twenties. He was a disillusioned man in pretty much all areas of his life; his education, his love-life and his hopes for the future had all bottomed out. He was a cynical newspaperman when Willie hired him as a sort of fact finder. His job was to get the dirt on people Willie was having trouble with politically, which Willie used to engineer either cooperation or the opponent's downfall. As time goes on, Jack gets the whole story of both his own family and the family of his lost love.

The novel is a tragedy, a search for truth and the meaning of truth, and a study of "good" and "evil," definitions of. The writing style is the kind I like best: long, beautiful sentences which flow like a leisurely boat ride; insights into people which ring true to me; lots of commentary about life in general, which Southern writers do best. It was a hard book to put down and one of the best books I read for 1947.

Note: I also saw the movie, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1950. It did not begin to have the power of the book.

The Newbery Medal Winner:
Miss Hickory, Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, The Viking Press, 1946, 123 pp
I thought this would be dumb but it was charming. Miss Hickory is a homemade New Hampshire doll, made of a twig body and a hickory nut head. She lives in a corncob hut under a lilac bush until the young human girl who made her goes off to Boston for the winter to go to school. A chipmunk invades Miss Hickory's home and she begins to have adventures.

It is a similar theme to other children's books, where the animals have personality types that parallel humans. It is a kind of dorky and obvious idea, but Aldous Huxley did it with Brave New World, which is a classic. In the end, I was enchanted.

The Caldecott Medal Winner:
The Little Island, Golden MacDonald and Leonard Weisgard, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1946, 40 pp
This picture book has beautiful illustrations in both color and black and white which look like oil painting. The text goes through the seasons, explains what an island is and even defines what it means to take something on faith. It has aesthetics and gives true information. Good!

Monday, August 14, 2006


Continuing here with non-top 10-bestsellers from 1947:

Aurora Dawn, Herman Wouk, Simon and Schuster, 1947
I read this book back in 1995, I think because I liked the author and was going to read his books in the order he wrote them. This is his first book and was quite humorous. Andrew Reale is a young man in advertizing. He is so ambitious that he dumps the girl who loves him in pursuit of wealth, but in the end comes to his senses and they live happily ever after. But the enjoyment of the book came from Wouk's wry comments on advertizing and the social follies of man.

What I didn't know when I read this back in 1995, was that making fun of advertizing was a common topic in the late 40s and early 50s. For example, The Hucksters, by Frederic Wakeman in 1946 and In A Yellow Wood, by Gore Vidal in 1947. Compared to today, it all sounds so very innocent. These authors are actually chagrined that people have to make a living selling things like soap and washing machines. Ha. What would they think of the 21st century which pretty much runs on marketing?

Midaq Alley, Naguib Mahfouz, Doubleday, 1947 (trans. 1966), 286 pp
Mahfouz is an Egyptian writer credited with bringing fiction as a literary style to Egypt. He has won a Nobel Prize for Literature. Midaq Alley is one of his earliest novels and though it was not translated into English until 1966, it was first published in 1947, so I read it at this point in my project.

The novel is about the various characters living in an alley in the old part of Cairo, and they are truly great and eccentric characters, excellently portrayed. The theme of the novel is the erosion of religious faith and morality because of the influence of Western culture, particularly British culture. World War II is going on and the British still rule Egypt at this time, but also their military is very much a presence because of the war.

Yet it is also the timeless story of the way some people will fall to a low life, some will get destoyed by association and some will maintain integrity despite all.

Bend Sinister,
Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Holt & Company, 1947, 241 pp
Reading Nabokov is a hit and miss thing with me. Some of his books I like, some I don't. Reading this book was torture. I would force myself to read 50 pages and then go read something else for a while. I really hated it. Finally at the end, I realized the whole thing was a spoof, even the main character, Professor Krug.

In an imaginary Eastern European country, there has been a revolution and now there are oppression, arrests, shootings and control of the media. Interspersed are all kinds of jokes I didn't get about academic and intellectual matters. Even if I had been hip to the humor, he is just being too clever.

Presidential Mission, Upton Sinclair, The Viking Press, 1947, 641 pp
The eighth book in the Lanny Budd series finds Lanny going to North Africa for FDR to scope out the scene before the US invades. Laurel, his new wife, has their child while he is away. He crashes out of another plane (with a parachute this time) and finds himself in Germany once more. The US joins in the war and Hitler finally starts losing in Germany and in Russia.

It is still a case of the businessmen, the rich and the bankers hedging their bets to be sure they come out richer, whoever wins. Interesting data on DeGaulle and also the seeds of what will become the spread of communism and the Cold War. Once again, a great history lesson not found in school books.

Doppelgangers, H F Heard, The Vanguard Press, 1947, 253 pp
A sort of science fiction story about a utopia in 1997, created by scientists and psychologists, with a worldwide government run by one man who is revered almost as a god. A man from the "opposition" is altered physically until he looks and sounds exactly like the ruler, is then sent into the top level of government and eventually becomes the ruler. Then some higher being comes along, does away with the leader of the opposition, which is literally underground, and the new leader plans to lead mankind through an evolution to a higher state.

After reading the book, thinking about it for a few days and looking up info about the author, I started to figure out what he was doing with the story. Heard was a friend of both Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood and they were all into mysticism and archetypes. The writing is rather ponderous and wordy, which put me to sleep a few times at the beginning of the book. Also, I could never really tell if the utopia portrayed is meant to be a good thing or not, since the main character (the doppelganger) is originally a member of the underground.

But once he got the story going, I was pulled into it and seduced by the philosophy of it. It was actually a wonder to me that such a book was published in 1947. I stumbled on it at a used bookstore while looking for early sci fi novels. The adventure of books!

Sunday, August 13, 2006


This and the next two posts will be about the other books I read from 1947, the ones that were not top 10 bestsellers. Once again, it was an interesting and in some cases, excellent group of novels and short story collections.

The Victim, Saul Bellow, Vanguard Press, 1947, 240 pp
Saul Bellow is still a few years away from his big breakthrough and this novel put me to sleep twice in the first 50 pages, but I carried on and it was good. Asa Leventhal is a Jewish man in New York City, working at a publishing firm, married and not very stable as a man. Kirby Allbee, an old acquaintance, reappears in his life, demanding redress for a perceived wrong.

The whole story happens over a few hot weeks in August and September. Leventhal's wife is out of town, his young nephew dies, somehow he keeps up his job and finally gets rid of Allbee. But it is a dark story with a theme of what does one man really owe to another with quite a bit of philosophy thrown in. There is a hint of anti-semitism.

I found the most intriguing part was that through most of the story, it was ambiguous as to who was the victim. Allbee was a loser and yet his victimhood victimized Leventhal. The writing is very good, making you feel the heat, the city, the emotions and mental turmoil of the characters, the thick oppressive weight of Allbee's reasoning and demands. It was very worthwhile reading.

Hellbox, John O'Hara, Random House Inc, 1947, 210 pp
This is O'Hara's first book and is a collection or short stories, most of which first appeared in the "New Yorker." So they are smart, modern (for the times) and give you that feeling of being a spectator on people's lives, as so many "New Yorker" stories do. Some take place in Hollywood, some in New York City and the rest in New England.

At first I like them because I had recently read a book called An Empire of Their Own, about the early days of Hollywood, so I was familiar with the era. But by the end I was bored and irritated be the fact that nothing really ever happened in the stories.

Tales of the South Pacific, James Michener, The Macmillan Company, 1947
I actually read this book back in the 90s and find in my notes that I did not have a lot to say about it. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and the Broadway hit show "South Pacific" was loosely based on this book. It is a war book about WWII in the Pacific. There are some action scenes but it is more about what it was like to be a soldier there and interact with the native populations. There is a sort of wry humor about it all.

My realization at the time that I read it was to understand why people write war books. There is such an extreme amount of concentrated living that goes on during war, as well as drama, that people have to write about it. Possibly that is also one of the reasons we have wars: to keep the boys happy and occupied with lots of action. How about race car driving or something, guys?

The Pearl, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1947, 97 pp
Steinbeck originally wrote this as a screenplay and it was published as a novella when the movie was released. The story is based on a legend. An impoverished man in Mexico finds a huge pearl while fishing and dreams of all its sale can do for him, his wife and his son. But he immediately becomes the target of greed and after many misadventures, throws the pearl back into the ocean, poorer than when he started.

It is said that the legend was an allegory for Steinbeck's life. He had achieved fame and fortune with The Grapes of Wrath and lost his privacy, his peace of mind and his marriage. He was very disillusioned about capitalism and materialism, since it benefitted few and left most people poor.

As usual, the writing is great with that Steinbeck voice. I don't know how to describe it. It is a strange combination of the factual and a bit of sentimentalism with the patterns of the natural world woven in.

Dark Carnival, Ray Bradbury, Arkham House, 1947, 313 pp
Another first book that is a collection of short stories. I decided to read all of Bradbury for this project, as he is a major author of science fiction in my lifetime. All of these stories are in the supernatural genre, some short, some longer, and many were previously published in the pulps and other magazines.

I was fascinated. Skeletons, death, people aware of spirits, etc. The writing is a bit amaturish in places but mostly fresh and unselfconscious. I had never read any Bradbury before and was glad to have made his acquaintance.

Note: the spell-check function on blogger is currently experiencing technical difficulties. I am too lazy on a Sunday night to check the dictionary (I know, lazy spoiled American victim of technology.) I am pretty sure you can figure out what I mean in this post. Actually the only word I am not sure about is "amaturish." Please feel free to correct me in the comments if I got it wrong.

Friday, August 11, 2006


Here is the second half of the top 10 bestseller list for 1947:

The Wayward Bus, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1947, 312 pp
Another good Steinbeck novel. It was the #6 bestseller of 1947. A collection of people are making a trip across California from east to west between what is now the Interstate 5 and the 101 freeway, with Los Angeles as a final destination. The story includes the bus driver, his wife, his mechanic and the waitress at the cafe owned by the bus driver and his wife. A storm comes up and causes trouble with the road as well as various reactions among the passengers.

The people on the bus are a cross-section of Americans and a study of human beings with their hopes and dreams and petty concerns. He does it well. He has created a microcosm of America.

House Divided, Ben Ames Williams, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947, 1514 pp
This very long book was #7 on the list. It took the author 14 years to research and write it. It took me a week to read it. It is about the Civil War and a southern family who went through it. They are wealthy plantation people and own slaves.

The story of the family is good, but there is way too much about the army, the generals and the battles, for my taste. I did, however, learn much about the Civil War, its causes and why it went the way it did. A group of people who comprised the plantation and slave owners felt they had created an ideal way of life which they desired to maintain, the problem being that it could not be maintained without slaves to do the work. These plantation owners were only a very small percentage of the population of the south and it was the entire population who suffered from the war, provided the soldiers for the army, etc.

That is the way of wealth and wars. It is a bad game that gets dramatized over and over on this planet. I am quite weary of reading about it.

Kingsblood Royal, Sinclair Lewis, Random House Inc, 1947, 348 pp
At #8 on the list is another book about racism. Neil Kingsblood is a very mediocre sort of man in a northern Minnesota town. He works in a bank, is married with one small daughter and he plans to move up in the bank and in society as a good middle-class citizen. One day he finds out that he has Negro blood, only 1/32, on his mother's side and everything changes.

The story is about his decision to reveal this fact and the reactions to it all around him. The purpose is to expose racism in the North and show all the silly, crazy, false data white people operate on. I saw parallels to Gentleman's Agreement, especially showing the social struggle for people who don't want to be prejudiced. I wasn't wild about Lewis' style in this novel and the story was pretty contrived, but somehow it was still a good read.

East Side, West Side, Marcia Davenport, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1947, 376 pp
The #9 bestseller is a women's novel. Jessie Bourne is in an unhappy marriage. Her husband comes from "society" and he is chronically unfaithful to her. Jessie is half Jewish; her mother was a famous actress who got "accepted" by society, which is how Jessie made her match.

Jessie is a bit of a fool but as the story moves along she gets wiser. She meets a good man and gets up the nerve to leave her husband. Of course, she has her own money, inherited from her mother, which gives her more options than most women.

The time is just after WWII, the place is New York City. The ideas concern where the upper level of society comes from (i.e. they were mostly all poor immigrants at some time in the past); how men are stupid and heartless; how even though the war is over things are not settled in Europe. Lots of ideas in this book, but really it is a love story.

She is a good writer all around and I read the book in a day.

Prince of Foxes, Samuel Shellabarger, Little Brown and Company, 1947, 433 pp
Another great read by Shellabarger, The Prince of Foxes was #10 on the bestseller list for 1947. I enjoy reading big historical novels and am happy to see that they are coming back onto the bestseller lists in recent years. It is a great way to learn history.

Andrea Orsini, the hero of this story, was of common birth but goes under an assumed name and takes care of things for Cesare Borgia. He has a very smooth tongue, a high level of bravery and of course is very handsome. His sidekick (they all must have a sidekick) is Mario Belli, a former assasin and the ugliest man in the world. Camilla Verani is Orsini's love and the heroine. She is the wife of an elderly man who rules one of the city-states of Italy.

The story is about how Orsini, Belli and Camilla outwit Borgia. The theme is that good wins over evil by being not only good but also clever enough to match wits with evil. It was a page-turner, a thriller set in Renaissance Italy and a love story all in one. I was enchanted.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


This post contains the first five of the top 10 bestsellers from 1947.

The Miracle of the Bells, Russell Janney
This book was #4 in 1946 and is reviewed in the post Books Read From 1946, Part One.

The Moneyman, Thomas B Costain, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1947, 434 pp
This is historical fiction, set in France at the end of the Hundreds Year War with England. Jacques Coeur was the "moneyman" of Charles VII. He is also a highly successful merchant and has stores all over France. I would say he is the founder of what we know today as malls.

It was a treacherous time with all sorts of people trying to gain favor at court and trying to eliminate anyone who gets in their way. The Moneyman finances a war in which the English are finally defeated, at least in one area of France. Jacques' goal is to end war, wipe out chivalry (which has deteriorated into outmoded customs) and engage the world in commerce. He has influence with the King through the King's mistress, but she is dying.

Along comes Valerie, originally a peasant girl, who is the spitting image of Agnes, the King's mistress. Coeur cooks up a scheme to replace Agnes with Valerie and includes educating Valerie into the ways of a woman at court. But Coeur has major enemies at court and finally they defeat him. Valerie has meanwhile fallen in love with Coeur's best friend and after Coeur's defeat is free to marry him. Love in the time of commerce.

It is a good story, well-told and deals with greed, injustice, lack of honor, loyalty and love. It was #2 on the bestseller list.

Gentleman's Agreement, Laura Z Hobson, Simon and Schuster, 1947, 275 pp
At #3 is this book about anti-semitism, which was also made into an award winning movie. Phil Green is a magazine writer, just hired for a new position at a New York magazine with an assignment to write a series on anti-semitism. It is post World War II. He decides that the only way to get a handle on the assignment is to "become" a Jew for six weeks.

Phil is a widow and has a love affair going with Kathy, his boss's niece. As he goes through the various experiences of prejudice, it affects the relationship with Kathy, who is afraid to stand up to prejudice even though she considers herself free of it.

Very interesting story and good treatment of it. The writing style is a bit awkward with too much of what the main characters are thinking. I'm sure it made bestseller status because of its controversial topic. Until I read this book, I had no idea there was this much awareness of anti-semitism or that there was writing being done about it in the 1940s.

Lydia Bailey, Kenneth Roberts, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1947, 488 pp
At #4 is more historical fiction written by a master of the form. Albion was the nephew of American Federalists in the early 1800s. He was trained as both a lawyer and a farmer. In the story, he gets caught up with an avaricious young woman who is trying to get a large amount of money due to her family, who has claims on a merchant ship which was illegally captured by the French. She also has designs on Albion. He takes on her case as a lawyer.

Thus begins a series of adventures which take Albion to Tahiti, Africa and Tripoli. Along the way, he finds his true love, Lydia Bailey. He also acquires a life-long friend in Tahiti, King Dick, who is a legendary hero in that land and a bold, outrageous character. Albion and King Dick fight wars in both Tahiti and Tripoli.

The point of the story is that self-serving politicians and evil men spoil everything but while many people of honor lose because of this, Albion and Lydia win in the end. It is mostly a page-turner except for a slow section near the end. All of these wars were part of the war of 1812, which I knew very little about before reading this book. It was a complicated war which also involved the Barbary pirates on the Mediterranean and Napoleon Bonaparte. No less complicated than some of today's wars.

The Vixens, Frank Yerby, The Dial Press, 1947, 347 pp
I only read this because it was #5 on the bestseller list for 1947. It was not good at all. The idea was good: New Orleans just after the Civil War with Yankees, defeated southerners, the freed Negroes and the scalawags (southern people who had profited from the war.) There is even a southerner who had opposed slavery and fought for the North during the war.

But Yerby wrote an unlikely love story with flat characters. It is disjointed, full of cliches (all of the women whirl when they get emotional) and it was actually kind of embarrassing to read.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl, The Penguin Press, 2005, 328 pp

I read this for a reading group. Ruth Reichl is a food writer. This is her third book and tells about her stint as restaurant critic at the New York Times in the 1990s. I don't generally like books about food or travel. The ones I have read seem light-weight to me and not much different than reading magazine articles, which is just a babystep above watching TV.

But Garlic and Sapphires is not bad. In order to achieve anonymity, Reichl adopts various disguises. Her stories about building these personae are interesting: the wig shop, the thrift stores for clothes, the make-up. Then she seems to become these characters and is treated accordingly at the restaurants she visits, proving that it matters who you are and how you look in terms of seating and service, particularly in the top restaurants of New York City.

But I found that a whole book about food left me feeling, well, overfed. I also began to get disturbed over the importance being paid to meals costing over $100, when I know that 90% of the people living in NYC don't have that much to spend on food in a week, some in a month.

To her credit, Ruth begins to have similar thoughts and recalls her roots as a cook at natural foods restaurants. The writing was mixed: great on description, a bit disjointed on story telling and hopeless on dialogue. And after her soul-searching, the upshot is a new job as Editor-in-Chief of "Gourmet Magazine." Huh?


Literacy and Longing in LA, Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack, Random House Inc, 2006, 315 pp
Fun! Chick-lit with a literary flavor. Dora (named for Eudora Welty) is separated from her husband and having a rough time in West LA. She binges on reading to escape. Of course, there is lots of red wine involved but the main thing is shutting off all phones, not picking up email or answering the door. Just reading for days on end.

Dora had a bad childhood but she is not poor (in West LA?) She haunts a local bookstore called McKenzie's, which is a thinly disguised Duttons. Naturally she starts dating a bookseller. But there is some depth here as Dora deals with her demons: motherhood (yes or no?), jobs, friends, family and of course men.

Through it all are references to books, literary pilgrimages and even a grand finale of violence to books. Like I said, fun!

Friday, August 04, 2006


Graceland, Chris Abani, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2004, 321 pp

I first learned about this book on the lit blogs. Then I saw Abani on a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books and was impressed by his presence and words. He teaches at UCLA, I think, but was born in Nigeria, where he published a novel at 16 years of age and was imprisoned for it. He considers himself to be in exile.

Elvis, the main character, is a teenage boy living with his father in the slums of Lagos, Nigeria. His mother is dead but from her he got his love of American music (hence his name) and his dream to be a dancer. After his father lost in a political campaign, they moved from a relatively good life in the country to the city. The father is now a drunk and Elvis is pretty much on his own.

It is not a happy story. Kids who have lost a parent are always to a degree lost themselves. Elvis has seen a lot of bad stuff in his few years and has not got very good judgment, so he gets into plenty of trouble while trying to survive.

The book therefore is universal and yet particular to the Nigerian scene in the 1980s and 1990s. The military rule is harsh and totalitarian. The economic scene is dire. The dream is to go to America, which is hard to do. I liked it very much but it was a highly disturbing story and once again reminded me of how terrible it is in most of the world.


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, 326 pp

I loved this book!

Oskar Schell is nine years old, lives in NYC and has lost his father in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. He and his father had a very special relationship and Oskar is inconsolable. But he is extremely bright and incredibly independent, despite several phobias. He is hunting for clues about his father, a skill which his father had taught him by making up mysteries for him to solve.

The story is very imaginative. I think it could only have been written by someone who is still young. The way that Foer deals with love and loss, with the curiosity of a child and a child's view of the world, especially in this information age, is beautiful, fanciful and yet very real.

This is one of the best books I have read this year and gives me great expectations for the future of fiction.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


 The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls, Simon and Schuster, 2005, 288 pp

I read this memoir for a book club discussion. I was prepared to dislike it because of certain reviews I had read, but it was really quite good. (That will teach me to listen to critics.) It reminded me of The Color of Water, by James McBride.

Jeanette's parents were highly flawed people. Her mother was in a constant state of rebellion against rules, schedules and domesticity. She is a painter, though was never successful. The father was a dreamer, very intelligent, but also in rebellion against authority of any kind, so he could never hold a job. He was also a steadily worsening alcoholic.

So they lived in poverty, went without food, drove broken down cars and finally landed in the father's hometown; a depressed coal mining town in a West Virginia holler. As far as providing food, shelter and material things, they were complete failures as parents. But they raised their four children to be self-sufficient, fearless and to find fun in imagination and adventure.

The kids had to take care of each other, find food however they could, and protect themselves from other kids and bad adults. Since they were all taught to read and shown plenty of natural and scientific phenomena by their father, they were able to use their smarts to escape in their teens. Their parents actually did love them and believe in them which gave them an underlying self-esteem that carried them through.

At least, that is the way Walls presents it in her book. She is not bitter or recriminatory towards her parents. She clearly loves them both. I found myself routing for the kids. I don't think it is right to let children go hungry and leave them in harm's way, but these kids were not sickly, they recovered quickly from accidents and figured out ways to survive. They did not consider themselves to be victims. All but the youngest are successful in their professions.

I was left with lots of thoughts about over-protection vs neglect, about direct abuse vs abuse by neglect, about the various ways to live. The parental Walls ended up homeless in New York City and clearly preferred to live that way. The father's alcoholism did him in and is the thing Jeanette says she would have changed if she could have.

A very thought provoking read.


After many posts about 1946, it is time to write about some other reading I have been doing. Mainly these days I am reading the fiction of 1951, but from time to time I need to move out of that year and read some more current books.

This first one here is actually an older book, from 1929, but is so timeless in its message that it doesn't matter.

A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1929, 118 pp
The famous book, which I have now finally read, was nothing like what I expected. I had thought of Virginia Woolf as some kind of wild mad woman. Now that I think about it, I don't know where I got that idea. I suppose it was from all the recent stuff in the media after "The Hours" came out. Of course, she did end her own life, she did have breakdowns and suffer from depression. Mostly though I suspect that, just as she outlines in A Room of One's Own, because she was a woman who had ideas and published them in the first half of the 20th century, she had to be labeled as insane. Many male authors have breakdowns, suffer from depression and are sexually odd in some way, but they are not usually called insane.

In any case, in A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf comes across as very sane, intelligent and articulate. Her review of women's history versus the arts is balanced and does not particularly make victims of us. She urges and exhorts us to rise above the truly insane statements of various men and take charge of ourselves and our lives. The writing is exquisite, being descriptive of both the outer environment and the inner world. She displays a healthy sense of humor.

Probably any woman working in the arts ought to read A Room of One's Own at least once a year.