Tuesday, October 31, 2006



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

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

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

Feel free to enter your sentences in the comments.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 30, 2006


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

Here are the top five bestsellers from 1949:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 27, 2006


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

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

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

What is your sentence?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


About The Believer Mag, Nick Hornby and envy.

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 23, 2006


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, October 20, 2006


Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alfred A Knopf, 2005, 288 pp

This is an unusual story told in a banal way. I don't want to say what it is about because the impact I think would be stronger if the reader did not know. (I knew and it made the first part, which moves quite slowly, boring to me. Probably by now many people know the subject matter of the book because it has been revealed in reviews and interviews with Ishiguro, but still I choose not to disclose it here.)

Let me just say that the main characters don't know what is going on either and one of the strengths of the writing is the way the characters and the reader find out at the same time. It is not a happy book at all. Mostly it is like a gloomy day with very occasional and short-lived bursts of sunshine. I felt nervous and disturbed the whole time I was reading it, yet when I had to put it down to do something else, all I could think of was when I could get back to it.

The ending is terribly sad. Loss, of innocence, of love, of life, of tokens and possessions, of hope and possibilities, is the theme here; loss even when there was not much to lose in the first place. That said, it was well worth reading because it is a story that needed to be told.


Gate of the Sun, Elias Khoury, Archipelago Books, 2006, 539 pp

(Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies, first published as Bab al-Shams, Beirut, 1998)

Elias Khoury was born in Beirut in 1948 so he grew up in the midst of the long Israeli conflict. In this extremely moving and challenging book, he gives the Palestinian side of the story. I am not aware of any other fiction written in or translated into English that has done so. As in other translated literature, I found reading it slow going. The storytelling was like an Indian raga, circling round and round a repeating theme, speeding up and slowing down.

Two men are holed up in a makeshift hospital which is fairly well deserted, inside a refugee camp outside Beirut. Yunes, a leader of the Palestinian resistance is in a coma from a stroke. He is being cared for by Khalil, a poorly trained doctor, who reveres Yunes and hopes to bring the man out of his coma by talking to him. Khalil was born in the camps and as he tells the story of Palestinians expelled from the villages in Galilee, he seeks to make sense of what has happened to their country.

This is the story of the 20th century on Earth. War, death, clash of cultures, displaced peoples and political confusion. In Gate of the Sun, that story is made intimate and personal, showing how men, women, children, families and villages are affected; showing the utter disruption of love, religion, daily life and tradition.

I felt at the end of the book that Khoury had lifted this horror above and out of any political polemics and given us a look at what we humans do to each other. He shows how useless, sorrowful and destructive it is and also how individuals continue anyway to create life and community. Quite an achievement.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


On Gold Mountain, Lisa See, St Martin's Press, 1995, 378 pp

Gold Mountain is the name that Chinese people have for the United States. Lisa See is the great-granddaughter of a Chinese man who came to the United States in 1866 to be the herbalist doctor for his countrymen who were building the railroads. By hard work, craftiness and good fortune this man, who came to be known as Fong See, rose above all the oppression and prejudice that America doled out to Chinese immigrants and created great wealth, a huge extended family and a legend.

On Gold Mountain is the story of this incredible family. Like most successful people, Fong See was no angel. He had strong ideas and a few prejudices of his own. He also married an American white woman as did several of his sons and grandsons. The family achieved much of the "American dream" while remaining far from the mainstream of American life.

At times I had trouble keeping track of all the family members, the locations both American and Chinese and the many businesses these people created. This was only due to my unfamiliarity with Chinese names, not to Lisa See's writing. She does an admirable job in making clear to the reader a tangled web of relationships and even secrets. I was particularly struck by the complete uphill climb it is for immigrants who come to America. Despite anything I have ever heard about our wonderful open arms, it is mostly true that those who got here first or have been here the longest (except of course the Native Americans) make it as difficult as possible for the ones who have just arrived.


Rule by Secrecy, Jim Marrs, HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2000, 410 pp

I heard about this book from my son. It is a wild and yet believable tale, based on a vast amount of research, about what is really going on here on Earth, about who is really running the world and about the origin of the human race. It is the ultimate conspiracy theory book and based on all I have learned in my life so far, I think it makes a lot of sense.

I can hardly expect that very many people in the world would take this book seriously. I think the information presented would be met with ridicule and scoffing; that readers would think he made it up. Marrs' data challenges so many cherished yet unexamined beliefs, both political and religious.

There is such a surfeit of information in these 410 pages that it was difficult to take it all in and sometimes the overwhelm of it all left me feeling bored. I know my world history better than I did ten years ago due to all the reading I've done, but this book showed me how much I don't know yet. So sometimes I found it difficult to track with the historical events that Marrs was putting into the context of conspiracy. However, he does show how every war in history was created by certain parties with the goal of making fortunes.

It left me with a new way of reading the news and interpreting world events. As many religions have taught, all is illusion. Truly in politics, wars, finance and even science, nothing is what it seems and every individual who thinks or hopes he or she is in charge of his or her destiny is probably kidding himself or herself.

What can be done if all this is true? Possibly nothing. As a prisoner faces his executioner, is it better that he truly knows what led him to that moment? Personally I believe that it is. Could he have changed the course of his life had he known all? Possibly not. Every human being has to pass through death at some point. But why not acquire as much knowledge as one can in a lifetime and keep alive in the world the hope that life is meaningful and that freedom is possible?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Brick Lane, Monica Ali, Scribner, 2003, 369 pp

Now this was a wonderful story and just the kind of read I truly enjoy. Nanzeen, the main character, was born in a Bangladeshi village, married off to a Bangladeshi man who lived in London, and so found herself at the age of 16, living in this strange Western city.

The opening scene about Nanzeen's birth was riveting: she appeared to be dead at birth. After a while she finally took a breath, made a cry, but she was weak and would not nurse. Her mother, a simple peasant, declined a doctor and proclaimed that she was leaving the baby to her fate. This fate was what hung over Nanzeen as the story of her birth was told and re-told in her childhood, making the story of the novel the way a woman learned to take charge of her own destiny.

Monica Ali was also born in Bangladesh and raised in London. She depicts the life and community of these immigrants with certainty, sympathy and a high political sense as well. All of the parents are in arranged marriages. All the kids are picking up Western ways. I have read about this scenario for years, but it was set in American cities with European and Asian immigrants and I liked reading the story with a different nationality and location. In Brick Lane, Nanzeen has a sister back in Bangladesh with whom she regularly corresponds, so you see twenty years of change simultaneously in both cultures.

The characters are well-drawn, especially Nanzeen's husband and daughters, the neighborhood money-lender and one of Nanzeen's friends. Nanzeen's dual nature as obedient wife and as a woman with her own hopes and desires is portrayed with skill and creates the same tension in the reader. The novel is a feat of understanding and raised my awareness of what it must be like for the Hispanic and Armenian populations of Los Angeles. This is an extremely fine novel.


The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Kim Edwards, Penguin Books, 2006, 401 pp

This book, with its lovely cover, with ecstatic blurbs from Sue Monk Kidd, Jodi Picoult and Ursula Hegi, with its inspiring success story as a book made famous through independent bookstores, was a large disappointment to me. The idea behind the story sounded promising: a doctor delivers his own twins, finds one to have Downs Syndrome, decides to secretly banish that baby and tells his wife that her daughter died. The secret ruins the lives of himself, his wife and the son he kept. Such a secret just begs for a novel.

I am sorry to be a wet blanket, but Edwards does not pull it off. Though a graduate of a well-known MFA program, her writing is not good: repetitive in a boring way, sentiments that are too sentimental, characters who just lie there on the page and refuse to come to life. How many times does the reader need to be told that a secret will drive a wedge into a marriage and alienate the child of that marriage?

After reading through 25 years of how each of these characters longs in his or her own way for the dead sister and a mere 40 pages from the end, you finally get to see what happens when the secret is revealed. It is time for the Oprah moments. This could have been the good part, the balance to all those times of failed understanding and intimacy, but no. It all fades into a sort of limited happiness for each person and I felt I had just watched a made-for-the-Lifetime- Channel movie.

I should probably say that any reading is better than no reading, but when I finished the book all I could think was that if American women are buying, reading and raving about a book this shallow and unfulfilling, we deserve everything we are going to get in this country.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


The Thin Place, Kathryn Davis, Little Brown and Company, 2006, 275 pp

Oh how I loved this book! It is like a prayer, like a fine wine, like a peony. It is unusual, definitely not a page-turner and yet I never wanted to stop reading it. There are scads of characters of all ages, human and animal. It is a story about death that is really an impassioned plea for and worship of life.

Mees is a sixth-grade girl with a gift. I won't say what that gift is because the reader discovers it gradually, which is part of the magic of the book. The thin place refers to a mystical belief that there are locations in the world where the material and spiritual easily pass back and forth. If you want to know more, you must read The Thin Place.

One more thing: Kathryn Davis has a master's skill at creating characters. In just a few words, mostly through dialogue and actions, she gives you a character and you feel you've known that person for years.


The Tender Bar, J R Moehringer, Hyperion, 2005, 368 pp
I saw this author last spring at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, speaking on a panel about memoirs, and he completely charmed me. He is tres good-looking, but also funny and a natural-born storyteller (he is Irish after all.)

JR grew up with a mother, aunts, a grandmother and plenty of female cousins. His father was absent, his grandfather was weird, his uncle was a gambler and a drinker, his one male cousin was his best friend. At the age of eight, he felt so responsible for his mother that he spent most of his time worrying about her. That really got me because I was divorced when my older son was six years old and by the time he was eight he had that same worried mind. His shoulders even began to sag, as if he had the weight of the world on them.

When JR was eleven, the uncle took an interest and started bringing him along whenever he went to hang out with his buddies; all hard-drinking, joke-cracking, eccentric guys from JR's hometown of Manhasset, Long Island. (This is the town across the bay in The Great Gatsby.) Uncle Charlie spent a good part of any given 24 hour period in a local bar. He eventually became a bartender there. So JR went to the bar daily and there he learned how to be a guy. He loved it and the men were good to him, but yes, he had a drinking problem by the time he went to college.

The memoir is all of that story plus how JR became a writer, got sober and grew up. It is one of the best stories I've read on how a boy developed self-esteem when he had little reason to have any. It is dark, sad, troubling and also hilarious, uplifting and emotionally satisfying. I'm so glad I read it.

Friday, October 06, 2006


I started 1948 as a four-and-a-half-month-old baby and ended the year as a sixteen-month-old toddler. While I was learning to walk and to eat solid food, the rest of the world was still in recovery, trying to find prosperity while once again realizing that war had solved very few of the world's problems.

In the motion picture world, "Gentleman's Agreement" won Best Picture and Best Director (Elia Kazan.) Based on the 1947 bestselling novel by the same title, it dealt with anti-Semitism in American society. "A Double Life" won Best Actor (Ronald Coleman) and was a psychological drama about an actor who lost his identity in the characters he played. "The Farmer's Daughter", a romantic comedy about a farm girl who ends up in politics, won Best Actress (Loretta Young.)

Popular songs included "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" (understandably a hit in our house), "Nature Boy" and "Buttons and Bows."

New antibiotics were developed, the long-playing record was invented, rocket missiles could go farther and faster and Idelwild Airport (now JFK) was opened on Long Island. Leo Fender produced the first electric guitar, the Bic pen came into existence and the first Polaroid Land camera went on the market.

The books I read from 1948 spanned the gamut from historical fiction to books about World War II, stories of contemporary life and a representation of writers from around the world (Japan and Africa.) The war books written by Americans were from the enlisted man's viewpoint rather than the officer's and were distinctly anti-war in tone (The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer and The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw.) All manner of social situations and problems were represented including poverty, racism, immigrant life and homosexuality. Three of the top ten bestsellers were heavily Christian, which showed a return to religion as some kind of refuge in uncertain times.

I found the war books exciting and eye-opening. Those authors presented a picture of what it was really like to be a soldier, as well as casting doubt on whether the purpose of World War II was actually worthwhile. My favorite book of the year was Raintree County by Ross Lockridge Jr. Besides being an incredible read, Lockridge took on the issue of the ideals of this country and showed that the seeds were sown at the end of the 19th century for the tarnishing and undermining of those ideals. Other favorites were The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene duBois, for presenting a unique utopia; Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston, because she is a wonderful writer; and The Plague by Albert Camus. All of these books are full of hope, belief in the human spirit and the idea that man can rise above the destructive and evil aspects of his nature.

Overall, I think it was a dull year for America, still trying to get back to "normal" life after the war. That effort made for a conservative time of shutting our eyes to the devastation and spread of communism in Europe. Our government was aware of all this but not the American people, who had had enough of worrying about the problems of other countries. Truman was elected for four more years in the White House and the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe with American money was passed, but labor was still striking, wages and salaries were still low and the cost of living was still rising.

Perhaps dullness was a good thing, compared to the rest of the world. India was unstable after achieving independence and Gandhi was assassinated. Chaing Kai-shek was re-elected as President of China but would fall to the communists within a year. The Jewish state was hammered into existence in Palestine by the United Nations but the area was already bathed in bloodshed as Jews fought Arabs.

As far as my life goes, I was reigning queen of my own little kingdom at my grandparent's house. Mom would put me in my playpen where I played happily, learned to sit up at about five months and then to pull myself up to a standing position. I got my first tooth at seven months, could stand by myself at nine months and was crawling by ten months. I turned one year old in August and by September I was walking. Also in September I attended Aunt Lois and Uncle Frank's wedding. In a picture from that day, I am eating some wedding cake brought to me by my dad. I look pretty blissed out eating that sweet morsel and have always had a sweet tooth, as did my dad. My first word was "mama."

I have some memories of that year. I remember my parents' bedroom, which was where I slept in my crib. I remember falling off my parents' bed and being amazed at what an effect I created as everyone came running. (My mom says she can't believe I would remember that, but she remembers that she and my dad were kissing in the bathroom at the time.) I remember sitting in my highchair at the dining room table and entertaining them with my antics. At least I remember having everyone's attention and feeling that they all thought I was pretty cool. My favorite times were being in the bathtub with my grandma and playing with her huge soapy breasts. I loved my grandma best of all and I'm sure she loved me back just as intensely. My parents sang in the church choir and from my infancy they would lay me on the pew in the choir stall while they sang. So I got those hymns in my consciousness from very early on and this comes out in my songwriting from time to time. Sitting in any church, listening to the music of a pipe organ never fails to fill me with feelings of peace and longing.

I've been told that whenever my grandpa was home, he would tote me around with my face outward so I could see what was going on, but I don't remember that. What I feel certain about is that all that love and attention was a wonderful thing and that all I had to do was cry or fuss and I could get pretty much anything I needed or wanted. But my mom says I was a "pistol" and that if I couldn't get what I wanted I would bang my head on the floor until I got the imprint of the carpet in my forehead. Spoiled drama queen? Well, those days were numbered.

My parents were doggedly saving money for a home of their own. On Sundays, they would look in the paper at homes for sale and my grandma would get upset, wail about why they would be so ungrateful as to move away from her house and then she would get a headache. At the end of 1948, moving out was still a year away.