Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Scrambled Eggs at Midnight, Brad Barkley & Heather Hepler, Speak, 2006, 262 pp

This summer while in Michigan for the family reunion, I paid a visit to my second favorite indie bookstore in Ann Arbor: Nicola's Books. I had with me the mother and twin stepsisters of my daughter-in-law. Ah, the 21st century family. One of the twins recommended Scrambled Eggs at Midnight so I bought it.

The story is utterly charming, taking the 21st century family theme to the entire end of ridiculous and the two-author method to new heights. In alternating chapters, the male author writes from the teenage boy's point of view, the female author from the girl's.

The girl's mom is an aging hippie divorced artist/craft person who works at Renaissance Faires, so they are constantly on the move. The boy's dad, assisted by the mom, runs a Christian fat camp for teens. The boy and the girl are both lonely, don't "get" their parents and naturally hook up.

So it is a summer teen romance with plenty of teen angst and a happy ending. As I said, utterly charming. So why didn't I finish reading it until November? Well, sometimes when you are a middle-aged woman with a mother turning 90, a husband out of work, two grown sons and three growing grandchildren, a Presidential campaign in the background noise and a tanking economy, who is writing a memoir and is up to when she started first grade, a charming teen romance doesn't always resonate.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo, Alfred A Knopf, 2007, 642 pp

I read Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize winning Empire Falls about five years ago. I liked it well enough because the characters were good, because he kept me turning the pages and because at the time I was going through big, positive spiritual changes and there is nothing like a book about small-town America to link you back to the mundane.

I read Bridge of Sighs, rushing through it rather more quickly than I probably should have, because I had a reading group discussion coming up. The rushing made me resent the many slow passages which I might have enjoyed more at a more leisurely pace. I did like the characters and their development. I admired the ideas he was expounding: do people really ever change their basic character?; is it better to be sunny and hopeful or warily cynical?; what is the ultimate effect of carcinogenic toxins on a gene pool? And the ultimate mystery of life: what is love?

The bottom line though is that I did not really like the book. Certain things annoyed me just a little too much and spoiled the overall effect. They were the above mentioned slow passages, an odd arrangement of the plot, some dialogue that didn't fit the characters and a just slightly somehow insincere quality in some of the emotions.

Friday, December 26, 2008


Empire of the Sun, J G Ballard, Simon & Schuster, 1984, 279 pp

Perhaps I was just not ready for another POW camp story. After all, it was only two months ago that I suffered through Andersonville (MacKinlay Kantor, 1955). I did not enjoy one page of Empire of the Sun, although there were some good sentences. You may ask why I read it, a legitimate question. The answer is, it was for a reading group and it is part of my personal ethics always to attend the meetings and read the books for my reading groups if at all possible.

This book is an autobiographical novel about the years the author spent as a prisoner of the Japanese in Shanghai during WWII. He was only 11 years old when he was catapulted from his secure and privileged life in the International Settlement, separated from his parents and left to fend for himself as a prisoner of war. Yes, he was a wily survivor and lived to tell the tale. He is not even especially bitter about it; I suppose because as a child, one is better at taking life as it comes. I couldn't help thinking about what if that had happened to my sons at that age.

I have coined another name for a genre: prison camp lit. I remembered two others I have read: King Rat by James Clavel and Scum of the Earth by Arthur Koestler. I am sure I will come across others in my reading adventures. Maybe next time I will eat extra protein and green leafy vegetables while taking vitamin C.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan, The Penguin Press, 2006, 411 pp

Here's what I like about Michael Pollan. He has a clear moral stance from which he writes. Because of that he is not merely a spectator but digs right in and does what he writes about. I mean, who else would actually buy a young steer and follow his life all the way to slaughter, standing literally in the shit of an industrial feedlot with his steer?

Ever since my hippie days, I've been involved with food. I was eating a macrobiotic diet throughout my first pregnancy and the breastfeeding of my son, who also was reared on the same dietary principles. My first husband and I founded Eden Foods in Ann Arbor, MI. One of my sisters and her husband had an organic farm in Pennsylvania during the early 70s. My other sister's husband was an original partner in Eden Foods and works in the natural food business to this day. Though I am no longer a vegetarian and in fact am a complete omnivore, I learned in the macrobiotic years that I could mostly be my own doctor and keep myself and my family reasonably healthy by being conscious about food.

The Omnivore's Dilemma was therefore highly interesting, especially for the knowledge of how industrial concepts, big money interests and globalization have made being conscious about food a very tricky proposition. But the true high point of this book was Section II, entitled "Pastoral: Grass", where Pollan captures the essence of ecology; what it really means to the health of all species and to the future of life on this planet. He shows us some incredible individuals who have figured out how to apply ecology to an agricultural model and who are compelled to live virtually "off the grid" to protect what they do from big industrial agriculture which goes hand in hand with big money and big government: the triumvirate that surely spells doom for planet Earth.

This is a long, detailed book. Reading it requires a dictionary AND Google, a willingness to learn new things and in the end perseverance just to get through it. But one more thing about Michael Pollan is the leaven here. He is serious about his subject but he does not take himself too seriously. Wry is what he is.

Monday, December 22, 2008


The Eight, Katherine Neville, Ballantine Books, 1989, 598 pp

This was a fairly entertaining story but it seemed to go on too long. A chess set originally belonging to Charlemagne is the center of a big chase and mystery, spanning hundreds of years across many countries and involving key world figures. There is supposedly some kind of power involved with the chess set and naturally most people want to rule the world.

Neville moves back and forth in history, includes interesting tidbits about the game of chess and covers various love stories. The 20th century part of the story is set in the 1970s during the "energy crisis" and the beginnings of OPEC. In the midst of the War on Terror, that all seems so quaint.

The Eight got a big push this fall because Neville released a sequel called The Fire just a few weeks ago. I won't be reading it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O'Farrell, Harcourt Inc, 2006, 245 pp

This chilling novel falls in the category of crimes against and by women. Esme Lennox was a young girl and woman who simply did not fit in with what was expected by her culture. When she reached young womanhood and her family needed her to make a good marriage to save their financial and social standing, she dramatized her final rebellion. For that she was committed to a mental institution by her father with her mother's consent. From that point on, no one in the family spoke of her. She had been vanished.

Sixty-one years later in late 20th century Edinburgh, mental institutions are being closed down. Inmates with no family are simply dumped back into society. But Esme has a great-niece, a young independent single woman who has never known that she had a great aunt. When Iris is contacted by the institution, she is faced with devastating decisions and must unravel the mystery of her family.

The novel is exceedingly well done. Set in the present with the back story coming out bit by bit, the horror of the story, the extreme twistedness of the characters and the inhumane attitudes toward a woman such as Esme drilled into my heart. Though I have known about such abuses for a long time, I felt shattered by this story. Who needs Stephen King when we have writers like Maggie O'Farrell? Apparently the horrors that mankind can dream up and then inflict on each other transcend any invented ones.

The real secret of the novel though is in the writing and in the delicate, tasteful way that all is finally revealed. You can suppress and twist the human spirit but you cannot eliminate it.


The Senator's Wife, Sue Miller, Alfred A Knopf, 2008, 306 pp

Since reading Sue Miller's first novel twelve years ago, when it was already a decade old (The Good Mother, 1986), I've carried the idea that she was a good writer, yet for some reason I never read any more of her novels. She has written nine of them. Well, she is a good writer, especially about women: what it is like to be female in the 20th and 21st centuries from the viewpoints of different kinds of women.

In The Senator's Wife, she contrasts two women of different generations and widely different backgrounds. Delia is the senator's wife. She is in her seventies and has spent her adult life raising children and figuring out how to deal with the infidelities of a husband who is a successful politician and whom she deeply loves.

Meri came from lower class people, had a neglectful cold-hearted mother but bettered herself through education and married a young professor when she was in her 30s. She has a career and an independent outlook though she also is very much in love with her absent minded husband.

When Meri and her husband move in next door to Delia, the women form a relationship and all their stories come out. Meri needs a mother as she goes through her first pregnancy and her reactions to caring for an infant. Delia needs a daughter who does not judge her as she deals with her aging husband's illness. Ultimately neither gets what she needs.

What I liked was that Miller makes no judgements about either woman. She does make you love them both while exposing their faults and making clear the pressures under which each made her life decisions. In that way, each woman gets what she needs from the author. This is definitely a woman's book but a good one because it is truthful.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


The Master Butchers Singing Club, Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2003, 388 pp

Other than her Young Adult novel, Birchbark House, I have not read Erdrich before. She seemed to get mixed reviews on this novel, so I was happy to find that it is wonderful. Stellar storytelling, characters whom I now feel I have actually known, meticulous description that was never boring. This book shines in my memory, five days after finishing it, as another of the best reading experiences of the year.

The main characters are Fidelis, the butcher and Delphine, a young motherless woman. The story opens with Fidelis' return from WWI to his German village and I was at once fascinated by this man and the writer's voice.

In the second chapter, in a distinctly different voice, Erdrich introduces Delphine. She is quirky, strong, lonely as hell and nobody's fool except that she has an impossibly soft spot for her drunken father.

Fidelis emigrates to North Dakota, becomes his town's master butcher, starts the singing club and we are off. The town has immigrants, Native Americans and a grisly triple murder mystery. The people survive postwar life, the Depression and the second World War. The novel turns out to be Delphine's story and she is a completely admirable and lovable heroine. For all the grit, violence, blood and sorrow in the story, Erdrich managed to make me feel good about mankind.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


This is the final post for books read from 1954. It covers the award winning books from that year.

THE PULITZER PRIZE: There was no fiction award for the Pulitzer in 1954.

THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD: The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow, The Viking Press, 1953, 536 pp

I was so excited to start this book, which won the NBA and was Bellow's breakout book, earning him a towering literary reputation; one which he built on and sustained for a long lifetime of many novels. I had read and quite liked his first two novels: Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947.) None of this prepared me for the sense of having plowed into a brick wall at the beginning of Augie March.

The writing is dense though lush with detailed descriptions of places, people and situations. Augie is the son of an unassimilated Jewish immigrant mother, who was deserted by the father of Augie and his brothers when they were toddlers. It is unclear whether or not the parents were ever married. In a small and decrepit apartment with them lives Grandma Lausch, who is not really related to them but who dominates the household. The setting is the Jewish ghetto of Chicago in the early 20th century, so everyone seems to be related with large extended families, but I have never read about a ghetto described quite in this suffocating way where each character's personality, looks, views and shortcomings are picked over like a Jewish housewife shopping at market.

I soldiered on, getting a feel for the style, the sentences, the milieus, but just feeling so outside of the story, as though I were a tourist in a land where I didn't speak the language. It was similar to reading Dostoevsky or some poorly translated Eastern European novelist from the 1940s.

Finally I went to Google and got some background. I don't usually do that anymore until I have finished a book because I have experienced disastrous effects on my reading pleasure, but I wasn't having much pleasure here and it helped. I got the literary context in which Bellow was writing: a sort of Don Quixote thing. I learned a new word: picaresque (a genre of literature in which the life and adventures of a rogue are chronicled) and a better definition of rogue (thieves, vagabonds and tricksters.) Now oriented, I proceeded and grew to love both Augie and the book.

From Depression days in Chicago to a decadent Mexican town to the film scene in Paris to New York City, associating with countless rogues without truly becoming one himself, in and out of love affairs with all sorts of women, Augie grows to manhood. He is on a quest to find his own destiny. One of the ideas in this novel that struck me and stuck with me, is that a person's personality determines his destiny. I've started looking at people this way.

There are several levels going on in The Adventures of Augie March. I'm not sure I got them all. I finished the book with the conviction that there is an innocence in the most evil of persons and a bit of evil in the most innocent. I am for sure a fan of Saul Bellow.

THE HUGO AWARD: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, Ballantine Books, 1953, 165 pp

This is probably Bradbury's most famous book but I had never read it before. It is said that the book is about censorship but it is actually about the loss of literacy and the willingness of mankind in general to agree with being dumbed down and giving up their freedom to think for themselves.

Guy Montag is a fireman whose job it is to burn books and any houses that contain them. 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns. He meets a young girl who opens his eyes to the actual pleasure of life and the beauty of literature. He rebels against the powers that be and eventually goes underground and joins up with people who are trying to preserve the knowledge found in books.

I had a problem with the writing. I thought it was his worst so far. But the story is a unique take on a universal theme (Keep the wisdom!) I especially liked the image of the TV room in people's houses. All four walls of a room comprised the TV screen. How prescient.

THE EDGAR AWARD: (Here we have a new award, created by The Mystery Writers of America in 1954 in its first year of existence. The award is named after Edgar Allan Poe who is considered to be the father of the detective story.)
Beat Not the Bones, Charlotte Jay, Harper, 1953, 219 pp

This deeply creepy mystery, set in Papua, New Guinea (an island off the coast of Australia), won the first ever Edgar Award. It was Charlotte Jay's second novel. (She wrote seven books under the pseudonym Charlotte Jay, one as Geraldine Jay and seven more as Geraldine Hall.) Her writing is excellent as is her plotting. The characters are fully developed and the descriptions of tropic jungle make you see the foliage and feel the heat as well as the humidity.

Beat Not the Bones is the old story of colonials vs natives told in a unique manner. A young, innocent and inexperienced woman arrives in New Guinea, determined to find her new husband's murderer, not believing the report that he committed suicide. As she gets her bearings and begins to penetrate the layers of lies and secrets as well as the tragedies of lives ruined by the tropics, you watch Stella Warwick grow up, get wise and learn true compassion.

The revelation of the truth of what happened is so well done that the reader is as puzzled as Stella until the end. If all mysteries were this good, I would read more of them. What a find!

THE NEWBERY AWARD: And Now Miguel, Joseph Krumgold, Thomas Y Crowell Company, 1953, 245 pp

In this Newbery Award winner, as always, I was won over by a tale of a boy coming of age. (Note that in 14 years of reading these winners, only one so far had a female main character.)

Miguel is 11 years old, the third son of a Spanish/Mexican family of sheep ranchers in New Mexico. His greatest desire is to be allowed to go with the men and the sheep to the Sangro de Cristo Mountains for the summer season. The sheep are taken there to escape the heat and ensure pastures of grass. He plans, he works, he prays and makes wishes, but when he gets his heart's desire it comes along with other changes that include sorrow and loss. Big life lessons are learned but conveyed by the author with tact. No preaching here.

I learned a lot about sheep.

THE CALDECOTT MEDAL: Madeline's Rescue, Ludwig Bemelmans, The Viking Press, 1953, 56 pp

This is the second book in the Madeline series and Bemelmans is the author as well as the illustrator. Madeline and her eleven roommates are out for a walk with Miss Clavel, when Madeline manages to fall into the Seine. She is rescued by a dog who goes back with the girls and becomes the object of their affections as well as the center of their jealousies and the source of trouble for Miss Clavel.

I only remember the first Madeline book from my childhood but seeing the glorious illustrations again made me go to the picture book section in the store where I work and read them all.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


The Magicians, J B Priestly, Harper & Brothers, 1954, 246 pp

I had never heard of this author until I found The Magicians in a list of important novels from 1954. I learned that he wrote many novels, beginning in the 1920s and continuing into the 1970s. He was English, concerned with peace, the nature of time and memory and was of a spiritual, though not Christian, bent. Sounded good to me.

There are magicians in this book, three of them, but they are actually a sort of philosopher/god type. In fact, they reminded me of some characters in Neil Gaiman's American Gods. They meet every so often to see what they can do about helping mankind and the world. They have certain powers which they use to affect men's minds.

Charles Ravenstreet is an unhappy middle-aged man who married the boss's daughter and made a career in a big electrical company but has now become obsolete. His wife died, they had no children and he is alone and at loose ends. He has been approached by an unscrupulous businessman who wants to manufacture and sell a drug that will keep the masses happy with their lot.

OK, this could be good. But it didn't really work for me as a novel. Ravenstreet and the magicians meet, his past bad decisions get straightened out, the bad guys get what's coming and Charles ends up happy. There is some good stuff about how all time exists at once, though Priestly is a bit vague about the future, but the events are just too unlikely and Priestly is asking to be at best mocked and at worst ignored.

Luckily the book was short and happily there are other authors and books that take these ideas and write much better and more exciting stories. I think of The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham.

The Invisible Writing, Arthur Koestler, The Macmillan Company, 1954, 431 pp

This is the second volume of Koestler's autobiography which starts with Arrow in the Blue, 1952). I almost skipped it and I'm so glad I didn't. I loved it.

This volume begins in 1931 when he joined the Communist party. He travels to the Soviet Union and goes on missions into Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Then he leaves the CP, is imprisoned in France in 1940 (from which came the novel Scum of the Earth) for being an immigrant, and finally makes his home in England. He covers in depth his gradual disillusionment with Communism, a story I've now heard from Upton Sinclair and Richard Wright. Koestler's story however is the most fascinating because of his brutally honest analysis of his own motives and his admission of being a "true believer" type.

I got to learn about the writing of all his novels; ones I've already read. While in prison in Spain he had a huge realization, a spiritual experience, about what life is all about. Like all such experiences, it was hard to put into words but having had a couple such occurrences myself, I so got it.

I am sad that my Arthur Koestler reading has come to an end. (He wrote more books but no more novels.) I truly treasure having known this man through his writings. To me, he is the best kind of intellectual because of his deep involvement with the world.

Revolt in 2100, Robert A Heinlein, Shasta Publishers, 1954, 192 pp

In 2100 AD, the United States is ruled by The Prophet under a strict fundamentalist type of Christian religion. Religion, mass communications and psychology are used to maintain the status quo, not to mention The Prophet's army. There are one novella and two stories in this volume.

In the novella "If This Goes On--", an underground group which has infiltrated The Prophet's government stages a coup and takes over. This is called The Second Revolution, and they try to reinstate religious freedom. Heinlein portrays The Prophet as a complete hoax, with his "virgins" and staged miracles. I also liked the way his hero has to shake off the religious and military training of a lifetime in order to become a revolutionary.

In "Coventry", the new order still uses psychology to control the population, but social offenders of the country's moral code are given a choice: undergo psychological "correction" or go to Coventry, an area of the country set in the western states, which is a lawless anarchy made up of all the misfits.

"Misfit", the final story, is about sending the youth of America into space to build space stations, providing extreme training in a sort of Marines type of setting, though it is more scientific than military. The hero is a math wizard who doesn't know how smart he is, but saves the day.

All very entertaining. I thought that the theocracy story was far superior to Vidal's Messiah, though the two books together were timely, sobering and gave me lots to ponder concerning mankind's tendency to go into fanaticism.

Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday & Company, 1954, 224 pp

In the front of one of Robert Heinlein' books is a chart of future history which served him as a plan for his upcoming novels. Isaac Asimov must have had a similar chart, if only in his mind, because his books keep moving into the future.

In Caves of Steel, the population of Earth had grown to over 8 billion, necessitating a level of efficiency in living space that has put most humans into cities built inside of steel coverings: the caves of steel. Only a few live in the open air, running the production of food, most of which is artificially made from a yeast base. Also robots do most of the open air work because they are not affected by pollution.

There are 50 Outer World planets colonized by humans. The Outer World inhabitants (called Spacers) work with robots, but on Earth robots are hated by most men who see them as a very real threat to their jobs. An uneasy relationship between Spacers and Earthmen is unsettled when a Spacer is killed by an Earthman.

Lige Baley, a New York City policeman, is assigned a robot partner. The story is essentially a murder mystery set into this futuristic tale of the fate of Earth. As always, there is Asimov's excellent plotting, his vast conception of society, government and economics, not to mention his strong scientific base. Also his skill at creating characters, both human and robotic, has taken a leap forward.

Caves of Steel is the first in Asimov's Robot Trilogy. Great! I get to look forward to two more.

The Horse and His Boy, C S Lewis, HarperCollins Inc, 1954, 224 pp

The fifth book in the original order of the Chronicles of Narnia is one I never read when I was a kid. It takes place during the time when Peter and Susan were High King and Queen during their first long visit to Narnia. The horse is a talking horse from Narnia who was captured and made into a war horse in a land far to the south.

The boy is an orphan who was raised practically as a slave to a poor fisherman in the same foreign land. The horse and the boy meet, have many adventures and finally make it back to their respective native lands and true identities.

It was an entertaining story but clearly a minor tale in the series. I could see about halfway through how it was all going to end and even Aslan only had a small part.

Friday, November 28, 2008


The books reviewed in this post were all published in 1954 and were read as part of My Big Fat Reading Project.

The Dollmaker, Harriette Arnow, Macmillan, 1954, 549 pp

This is one of my favorite books of all time. I have read it at least twice over the years. It is the story of a rural country woman and her family. They leave the south during WW II so that the father can work in Detroit making war materials. Gertie, the woman, is strong and fiercely protective of her family but the poverty, grimness and industrial setting finally overwhelm her.

It is a story of incredible losses of all types but mostly of Gertie's loss of the ability to control her own life. There are many tales of the effects of industrialization and war on families and the human spirit. This one just happens to be written supremely well, so well that certain scenes come immediately to mind whenever I hear the name of the book. There is a movie but I could not bear to watch it for fear of it not measuring up to the book.

The Bird's Nest, Shirley Jackson, Farrar Straus and Young, 1954, 276 pp

Elizabeth Richmond is a 23 year old with multiple personalities who is in deep psychological conflict. Her parents are dead, she lives with her Aunt Morgan and at 25, will inherit a fortune. As the story opens her severe headaches and backaches and insomnia burst into full-blown insanity, so Aunt Morgan agrees with the family doctor that Elizabeth should be treated by old Dr Wright, a hypnotist.

The rest of the novel covers her treatment and recovery. Eventually four personalities are at various times in evidence and literally fighting it out for dominance. The events behind all this are slowly revealed, most of which center around Elizabeth's fairly psychotic mother whose death four years earlier precipitated Elizabeth's descent into madness.

Dr Wright is pretty rough as mental practitioners go and Aunt Morgan is a bit mad herself. It is a wonder that it comes out right in the end. Because the author is Shirley Jackson, there is a good amount of humor mixed with the horror.

I don't know if I liked this book or not. It is extremely weird and I did not like that Dr Wright. It may be that Elizabeth got well in spite of him but perhaps that is true of most forms of healing.

Sayonara, James A Michener, Random House Inc, 1954, 208 pp

This is a love story in a military setting. Air Force pilot Gruver is shooting down MiGs in Korea but gets sent to Japan for some R&R. There he falls in love with a Japanese dancer, even though his commanding officer and his father, also a general, have plans to marry him to the CO's daughter.

Having recently read Battle Cry by Leon Uris, I felt in familiar territory. The military is such a subculture. Michener really is a good writer and in Sayonara, includes lots of Japanese culture as well as the remaining racism and distrust toward the Japanese due to WWII. The book even gets downright sexy in parts.

So I liked it even though the tragic ending was not fully convincing.

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1954, 251 pp

Kingsley Amis' first novel is a hilarious account of a young man trying to make it in his first year of teaching at an English university.

Lucky Jim is supposed to be one of the first of a sub-genre called the "campus novel". For sure there have been plenty since. The bumbling absent-minded professor, the neurotic female fellow teacher and other characters as caricatures are all perfectly done. Hapless Jim, with his worries, his boredom over doing what is expected, his blunders, is a type who I think will be showing up often in the 50s and 60s. It is a middle finger up to authority and hidebound tradition and old boy networks. This is the new hero of the 20th century. After WWII, life is rather absurd because the "values" of the Western white man's world have been used too many times to promote lies.

Question is: Is the world getting better from a more realistic look or just drowning in cynicism?

Lord of the Flies, William Golding, Faber & Faber, 1954, 202 pp

I was made to read this book in school. All I remember is that it upset me a great deal and I felt that I was put through something against my will. This time, I did not find it as gruesome, being older and wiser I suppose. I was drawn in to the story and, since I had no recall of the ending, I was eager to find out what happened. I did not like the way it ended, but it was his first novel so I gave him a break.

What I somehow didn't know is that Golding got the Nobel Prize for literature in 1983 and also won a Booker in 1980. Now I must decide if I want to read his other novels. Oh yes, the theme? Brute force and meat eating win the day over intelligence and planning.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


This and the following three posts cover books published in 1954, though they were not necessarily bestsellers. I chose to read these books because they are by authors who interest me or who contributed to the culture in some significant way.

The Ponder Heart, Eudora Welty, Harcourt Brace & World Inc, 1954, 156 pp

Eudora Welty is the antidote to William Faulkner. Each delves into the mind and soul of the South but Welty usually comes up happy and while a Yankee like me might still feel out of place in one of her stories, I wouldn't feel afraid or even baffled.

Uncle Daniel Ponder is perhaps not quite right in the head, perhaps a tinge simple minded, but ultimately lovable. His family was wealthy and Daniel likes to spread that wealth. He is so fond of giving away things and money that he is protected by his loving niece, who claims to be the only one who really understands him. He is also kept in check by the family banker who keeps him on a small allowance.

In a light-hearted comedy of errors, Uncle Daniel outsmarts them all when he marries a 17 year old airhead, who has no trouble spending his money but somehow ends up dead. There is a hilarious trial scene with Uncle Daniel as the accused killer which results in his acquittal but life is never the same again. So in fact the happiness does not last, I suppose it never can in good fiction, but Welty lets you down easy.

A Proper Marriage, Doris Lessing, Simon and Schuster Inc, 1954, 344 pp

A Proper Marriage is the sequel to Martha Quest (1952.) In fact it is the second volume of a series of novels called The Children of Violence. At the end of Martha Quest, she had just married Douggie, a young man from the middle class of English people living in South Africa. As A Proper Marriage opens, Martha and Douggie have just returned from their honeymoon, settled in an apartment, and Martha is learning to be a wife at home while Douggie goes to work.

Soon enough she learns that she is pregnant and while she does not feel ready for a baby and even considers an abortion (it is around 1939!), she is too far along. So she goes thru pregnancy, birth, trying to breastfeed on a schedule with a baby who constantly cries, switches to bottles and watches her daughter grow. It was all so much like what I went through in my first pregnancy and my son's early years. Bored, stuck at home, battles of will, worry about schedules, feeding, naps. God. I thought I was the only one who felt those wild swings from loving my baby completely to feeling I would lose my mind if I had to spend another minute with him.

Then comes the war, Douggie goes off, Martha figures out a bit more about how to balance out her life. Mother, mother-in-law, even girlfriends are no help and Lessing shows that all these women are trying to appear happy and competent while they suffer inside about their identity, wondering what happened to their dreams.

After Douggie returns, things go more and more wrong as Martha decides not to have another baby and gets involved with left-wing activities. Of course, no one approves and when she decides to leave Doug, he descends into all manner of childish and jealous ploys to try to keep her, just like my ex-husband did!

Reading this novel was exhilarating and devastating. I relived my early married life and remembered how tough I had to become even in the late 70s to withstand the censure I got, to figure out how to survive and to suppress how lonely I felt. No other book I've read has so accurately given voice to what I experienced. Doris Lessing is a goddess to me, a beacon of truth and a trail blazer for Western women.

Under the Net, Iris Murdoch, The Viking Press, 1954, 279 pp

This is Iris Murdoch's first novel and the first I have read by her. I was highly anticipating getting started on Murdoch and I was not disappointed. I may be somewhat ignorant of any influences she had as a writer, so to me this novel had a uniqueness about it, though I would say that perhaps Muriel Spark, Zoe Heller and Kate Atkinson were influenced by Iris Murdoch.

Jake is a sort of writer/philosopher who makes his living doing translations. In first person, Jake details his life, which is unstable; his friends, who are all quirky characters; his finances, shaky but never somehow depleted; and his escapades, which are desperate and hilarious at the same time.

Jake is a somewhat worried guy who is fussy about his living arrangements. He relies on the kindness of women but is so self-centered that he can't really love any of them. Throughout the story, he is constantly on the move partly because he has lost his most recent dwelling place and mostly because he is a hyper sort despite his depressive's outlook on life. Wherever he goes, havoc mostly ensues. He attempts several crazy plans and almost always pulls them off which seems to be because he is oblivious of "normal" behavior.

I liked the book and it made me feel free somehow. I marveled at Murdoch's ability to get inside the heads of all the male characters. In fact, the females were rather flat and stereotypical. There is a brilliance in this short novel and I am looking forward to more.

Messiah, Gore Vidal, E P Dutton & Co Inc, 1954, 250 pp

Gore Vidal writes a completely different book every time. Messiah is a sort of literary sci fi. A nondescript guy from Washington State, while working as a mortician's assistant, had a revelation that death is not bad. When he tells people about this, his hypnotic eyes win them over and he gets followers.

He is not a leadership type though, so between an intellectual historian, a PR man, an odd woman who claims to be 2200 years old and knows millionaires plus another female devotee, a major world religion is built.

The intellectual historian tells the story from Luxor, Egypt, where he is in hiding at the end of his life. He had a falling out with the "church" after lots of bad stuff happened and had to get away fast. This is satire of a high order and pretty well done. 1954 saw the rise of Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham as well as television. Vidal just took all that to the limits of "what if" while exploring the tendency to religious fanaticism in our culture.

What is amazing is that Messiah was shocking and titillating in 1954 and now seems rather mild. The other night I saw Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center". As bad as 9/11 was, it was made so much worse by television. Could we lose our religious freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria? You bet.

Black Power, Richard Wright, Harper Brothers, 1954, 351 pp

In a non-fiction account of his visit to the Gold Coast, Africa (now Ghana), Wright covers the history of the slave trade and the current state (circa 1954) of this country. I suppose the book takes its place in the body of literature about Africa which began in the 1940s with Cry the Beloved Country. I am getting a picture from these books of the scene there in the years leading up to the liberation of African countries from their colonial masters.

Wright is quite the intellectual and has come full circle since his autobiographical Native Son, 1940 and his autobiography, Black Boy, 1943. He is a better writer, though Native Son was one powerful novel. In Black Power, he analyzes the effects of the breakup of native tribal culture and the difficulties of making the transition to 20th century Western industrial culture.

I was impressed and intrigued throughout. Wright's descriptions of the jungle, the weather, the tribal rites and the poverty were devastatingly rendered. I was left wondering if mankind was not better off in ancient times when though primitive and superstitious, people lived a more wholistic life somehow. Nature, spirituality, family, community were more aligned it seems, but that may be wishful thinking when looking back from these stressful and spiritually bleak times.

The Greek Passion, Nikos Kazantzakis, Simon & Schuster Inc, 1954, 432 pp

In a small Greek village in the early 1920s, a tradition among the inhabitants is to choose certain residents once every four years to re-enact the Passion of Christ at Easter. These persons are selected a year early so that they may get into character during a year of preparation. Kazantzakis uses this device to show how a corrupt priest, the resident Turkish lord, and other town notables deny the true teachings of Christ while the persons chosen find themselves dramatizing the Passion story in their very lives.

The book starts slowly and I thought it would be a complete slog but the story drew me in. It is much more a political polemic than a religious tale, though the author's Christian views are clearly an influence. The main characters are rich and complex though the writing (at least in translation) is a bit lumpish. The lightheartedness of Zorba the Greek is nowhere in evidence.

I would have to say that while Kazantzakis had a good idea for a story, he didn't quite pull it off.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Today's post covers the second half of the top 10 bestsellers from 1954.

No Time for Sergeants, Mac Hyman, Random House, 1954, 214 pp

This hilarious story was #6 on the list for 1954. It is the best spoof on the military that I have read so far, mostly because it is succinct and contains no bitterness. Will Stockdale is a backwoods Southern boy who gets drafted and tells his tale from his laconic and fairly clueless viewpoint.

He is forever trying to be helpful and to act like a good soldier, though he doesn't take shit from anyone and has a poor concept of rank. Of course, this throws an entire monkey wrench into any military operation in which he takes part. His superiors simply don't know what to make of him. He always speaks his mind and has no awe of officers or superiors, all of which should get him into a world of trouble, but this is the military, so he ends up a hero.

An excellent light-hearted read.

Sweet Thursday, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1954, 273 pp

Ah, Steinbeck. How I love this author. Sweet Thursday, at #7, is a sequel to Cannery Row and takes place in the same town with many of the same characters. It is post WWII now and Doc is in a bad frame of mind. In fact, he has three minds going at once: upper, middle and lower, and while he feels he should be making something of his life, his lower mind knows that he is lonely and it is getting him down.

So his friends over at the Palace Flophouse go to work hoping to help him out. There is a new girl in town trying to work at The Bear House, but she is not really cut out to be a whore. In this hilarious tale of matchmaking, Steinbeck puts all he has into play: his deep understanding of people, friendship, love and loyalty.

I did not want the book to end. As much as I love East of Eden, I love the Cannery Row books even more. I don't know of too many authors who can embed their philosophy of life so unobtrusively into a novel.

The View from Pompey's Head, Hamilton Basso, Doubleday & Company, 1954, 409 pp

The intriguing title of this 1954 bestseller (#8) was a big letdown when I found out its meaning, as was the book when I finally read it. I'd had this book on my shelves for many years. I picked it up in some since forgotten used bookstore, buying it only because I was attracted by the title. Then it turned up on the 1954 bestseller list, which explains what it was doing on the shelves of used books.

Pompey's Head turned out to be a small town on the Georgia coast. The story is about a man who grew up there, fled in his early 20s to become a lawyer in New York and finds himself back in Pompey's Head in his mid 30s on an assignment from his firm. So there is a present time story going on which sounds promising because it is about a reclusive author, but which takes forever to be told because the back story and memories of the lawyer turn out to be the real story.

Both stories have disappointing non-endings and I figured out the mystery surrounding the reclusive author character about halfway through the book. Hamilton Basso was one of those New York City editors of mags like "The New Yorker." He aspires to write like that crowd but doesn't measure up. If I want a story about the insane social practices of Southern towns, I would much rather read William Styron or Eudora Welty.

Oh well. I still like the title but it is another way not to judge a book.

Never Victorious, Never Defeated, Taylor Caldwell, McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc, 1954, 549 pp

I've read several books by Taylor Caldwell over the years and there is just something a little skewed about her. This one was the #9 bestseller of 1954. It is a saga about a fictional family near Philadelphia whose patriarch started a railroad in the days of the Robber Barons.

The main characters are Cornelia de Witt, the ruthless, practically immortal granddaughter of the patriarch and Allan Marshall, son of a poor Irish railroad worker who invents an automatic coupler, becomes wealthy and marries Cornelia. These two are surrounded by a vast cast of family members, businessmen, financiers and politicians. Allan Marshall, a lapsed Catholic, has a brother who becomes a priest, thus bringing in the religious angle which so often features in Caldwell's books.

Cornelia is another strong heroine, which seems to be a theme in 1954, but is practically soulless. Allan suffers great anguish of soul. Most of the other characters just want money. There is an extremely odd political view being put forth in this novel which centers around evil men who are in a conspiracy to destroy freedom in the world for their own greedy and power-hungry reasons. Though a common view in many books today, especially science fiction and thrillers, this is the first time I've come across it in bestselling fiction, unless I take into account the Lanny Budd series by Upton Sinclair. But while Sinclair was an avowed socialist, Caldwell has some kind of Libertarian, Jeffersonian, Constitutionalist thing going and lumps communism, socialism and fascism together as the enemy. She seems to have no problem with monopolies that create wealth out of the sweat of workers, as long as free enterprise is kept sacrosanct.

I must say that Caldwell's writing is better than usual here. She still goes overboard on descriptions of nature and the hysterical element in certain characters, but though long, the book was a good read.

Benton's Row, Frank Yerby, The Dial Press, 1954, 280 pp

Then I came to the end of Frank Yerby Top 10 bestsellers. Eight of his formulaic stories have now passed under my eyes, and he actually got better in the last two. Benton's Row is set in the south, covering four generations of two families beginning in 1842 and ending after WWI.

In this novel, Yerby has taken on a more literary voice. In fact, he sounds positively Faulknerian at times. His characters are deeper and more complex and the drama is less predictable. Historically there is not much I have not read in other novels of this period.

Though he went on publishing novels up to 1985, none of them are on the top 10 lists, so I am done with Frank Yerby at last.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


In this post are my reviews of the top 5 bestsellers of 1954

Not As A Stranger, Morton Thompson, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954, 696 pp

The #1 bestseller of 1954 is a huge, dense but rich story of the making of a doctor. Lucas Marsh was born in the early 1900s to a father who dealt in leather goods for horses and carriages and a mother who studied phrenology and other esoteric spiritual texts. The marriage was highly strained financially and sexually, causing Lucas much anguish and confusion, but from the age of seven he had found his calling: medicine. Between his hours at school and home, he secretly followed the small town's three doctors on their rounds, trying to learn what he could.

Despite his parents' protests and a dire lack of funds, Lucas made it through college and medical school. In a moment of desperation, as he is about to be expelled from med school for lack of money, he marries a nurse. He doesn't love her, she is an awkward, unpopular young woman of Swedish descent, but she is also the very competent head nurse of the hospital to which the medical school is attached. She is devoted to Lucas and pays for all the rest of his schooling.

Lucas is something of a genius and his single-minded intensity and sense of mission makes him a highly unsociable and inflexible character. As he move into his first practice as assistant to an aging doctor in a small town, he runs into "real life" for the first time and must come to terms with dishonesty, malpractice, politics, society and women.

I found this a fascinating book. There is no sense of any Roaring Twenties though those are the years of the story. The financial crash of 1929 plays a part but what was most interesting was the detailed account of the state of medicine in that decade. Quite an unexpected read for 1954.

Mary Anne, Daphne Du Maurier, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1954, 351 pp

Another bestseller by Du Maurier hit #2 in 1954. It is historical fiction based on the life of the author's great great grandmother, who lived in England from 1776 to 1852. Mary Anne was born poor, made a disastrous marriage, but used her beauty and intelligence to become the mistress of the Duke of York, the man responsible for England's army in the days of Napoleon. After she falls out of favor with the Duke, she achieves fame and notoriety by publishing books about the nefarious activities (in which she and the Duke participated) involved in getting military placements for certain men in exchange for money.

In plain terms, Mary Anne was a high-class prostitute. I've read about such a character in many novels and did not find much new to the genre here. As long as women are considered by men (and sometimes themselves) to be the second sex, there will be women who use their bodies and their intelligence to gain protection and wealth from men. Alas and sigh.

Du Maurier is a master craftswoman when it comes to fiction, so Mary Anne was a good read. Mary Anne herself underwent a share of suffering but her prime philosophy in life was that girls just want to have fun and mostly she did. To her credit, she fought like a mother lion for the rights and safety of her children.

Love is Eternal, Irving Stone

I have discovered that I missed this book, thinking I had already read it because I confused it with Immortal Wife, Stone's 1944 historical novel about John Fremont. So I will have to read it and report later. Love is Eternal is the story of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and was the #3 bestseller in 1954.

The Royal Box, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Julian Messner Inc, 1954, 303 pp

Another book by this author who has become the Danielle Steele of the 40s and 50s in my mind. This one was the #4 bestseller in 1954. Fortunately, I only have one more of her books to get through in this reading project.

The Royal Box is written as a mystery, in the format of an Agatha Christie. It is even set in London for the murder with the back story and finale in New York and Texas. The characters include an actress, an American businessman, an impoverished upper class English woman and her daughter, as well as an American journalist. The royal box is an actual theatre box in London, originally built for the Kings and Queens of England, should they choose to attend the theatre.

The whole thing is fairly predictable. The murderer is found, the women in the story all have happy endings and while I remember who was murdered, I already forget whodunit.

The Egyptian, Mika Waltari, G P Putnam's Sons, 1949, 503 pp

The Egyptian was the #1 bestseller in 1949, the first year it was translated from Finnish and released in the US. In another of the examples of the synergy between publishing and movie making which began in the 1940s, this book made the bestseller list again, coming in at #5 in 1954, due to the release of the movie in this year and its nomination for an Oscar. According to Wikipedia, The Egyptian was the most sold foreign novel from 1949 until the mid 1980s when The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco gained that distinction.

The Egyptian is excellent historical fiction set in the time of Egypt's history when the Pharaoh Akhnaton attempted to change the country's central god from Ammon to Aton, whom he believed to be the one true god. This almost brought about the downfall of Egypt. The time is 1300 BC.

The protagonist is Sinuhe, an adopted orphan and a doctor. He is telling his life story which was bound up in the Pharaoh's and led to his exile from Egypt. He is a healer, a pacifist and feels unable to cope with the violence and dishonesty of his world. Waltari wrote the novel to express his disillusionment with the world after WW II, which I saw in the novel as I was reading it. The book is long, it took a while to read but was good and entertaining throughout.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Below is an edited reprint of a post from July 2005. Its purpose is to explain the posts that will follow in the next several days and to describe my research method for the memoir I am writing.

My Big Fat Reading Project

I am a maker of lists. I like to organize the things I do into plans and
programs. So when I found myself reading more than ever a few years back, I
felt I needed a way to approach the vast body of fiction that I was
attempting to devour.

At first, I used what I call the Alphabet System. I stole this from Francie,
the main character in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. (One of my
all time favorite books, because it is the story of a girl in Brooklyn who
rises out of poverty through reading.) Her habit was to go to the public
library every day, take out a book and read it. She just started at the
letter A and went on. This was a pretty good method for me because I
discovered many authors I liked (such as Richard Adams, Edward Abbey and
Joan Aiken) as well as a few I didn't like (Kobo Abe and Alice Adams, to
name two.) I didn't know it at the time, but I was developing taste.

Then I started researching the whole American Literature scene and also
learning about current literary writers who had deeper things to say and
were thus not appearing on the bestseller lists. OK, I will admit, Oprah had
an effect on me. I also read a few biographies of writers and learned that
many of the best learned how to write by reading, not by going to college.

Finally, a few years ago, my sister sent me a book called Legacy, A
Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence, 1997, Ohio
University Press. She thought I should write my story and the story of our
family, at least to hand down to our children and grandchildren. I had
another book I was using to get up to speed on modern fiction writers, The
Reading List, Contemporary Fiction by David Rubel, 1998, Henry Holt and
Company, and was working my way through the complete books of Toni Morrison,
Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood and others.

One day I was surfing the web on all things about books and came across a
curriculum posted by a professor at some Southern college. It involved
reading the top ten bestsellers from each year, decade by decade and writing
papers on how books and literature were both a sort of report on culture and
an influence on its direction.

Suddenly it all came together. MY BIG FAT READING PROJECT. I would read the
top bestsellers of each year of my life and relate these books to what went
on in those years and how I was influenced by it all as I moved thru my
life. So I printed out the bestseller lists which this professor had so
kindly put together and off I went. I was born in 1947, but I decided to
start my reading in 1940 to get a feel for the world I was born into. I also
added about 10 other literary books to each year.

I began this project in July 2002. I am now just about finished with the books for 1955. That means it has taken me over six years to read sixteen years worth of books. It is a looooong project which could last me the rest of my life.

That is fine because I have discovered something about being a
middle-aged woman. My kids are grown, my music career flopped, my marriage
is 38 years old (it is good and he is my grand passion but I am really used
to him) and I need a project that gets me excited everyday and will go on
for years; that has new and unknown factors to look forward to each day;
that is creative.

I have learned so much from this reading: more than I ever knew I didn't
know about World War II; how earnest and wholesome people were in the 1940s;
that family was the true glue that held society together; that Christianity
made for bestsellers back then; that the war and the Industrial Revolution
and Communism/Socialism were all beginning to erode all those values and to
create chaos. It is a fascinating study made through fiction.

I read other things as well, which I also write about in this blog. Sometimes
I just can't stand to read another book from over 50 years ago and go off my
plan to read the hot books of today. But I wanted to explain why I will be
writing about all these old books I am reading.

Monday, November 10, 2008


The Shadow Catcher, Marianne Wiggins, Simon & Schuster Inc, 2007, 318 pp

This is one of the best books I have read this year. Though this woman is my age, she writes with the energy of a woman in her 30s, but with the skill and beauty of long experience. Oddest fact of all: she was married to Salman Rushdie from 1988-1993.

The shadow catcher in the story is Edward S Curtis, a controversial photographer born in 1868, who became well known for his photos of Native Americans. In the novel, Marianne Wiggins is a woman who lives in Los Angeles and wrote a book about Edward Curtis. The novel moves back and forth in time, with sections about Curtis, his wife Clara and his career. The other sections are about Marianne and the mysterious way that the legacy of Curtis enters into her life in the present day.

The whole thing was just astonishing to me. Wiggins is tough, humorous, wise and brilliant as a writer. I knew from the first few pages that I was in the best of hands as a reader. Like any good storyteller, she includes a mystery within the history, the love stories and the scenery. If you live in LA and have traveled in the Western United States, as I have, it makes it all the more realistic.

I am not going to say more because one of the best things about this book is the discoveries you make as you read.

Sunday, November 02, 2008



In 1953, my family moved to Princeton, NJ, the town where I would live until I went away to college. It was a good move for the whole family. My parents were able to put a fair amount of distance between them and my father’s parents and found intellectual stimulation in both the town and at their church. My sisters and I got to grow up in a college town, go to excellent public schools and live in a fairly hip town. Of course, none of us, except possibly my dad, knew about all this when we made the move.

This year was the beginning of the Eisenhower era, as our 34th President was inaugurated, after a landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson. The campaign at the end of 1952 was the first to utilize television as well as public relations and advertising firms, techniques with which we are now nauseatingly familiar. Though fighting in Korea had reached a lull, it took six months of negotiations to finally arrive at a truce with North Korea on July 27. The death of Stalin, the threats of Eisenhower to use atomic weapons against China and the weariness of war in both the US and China finally brought the war to an end. Aside from demonstrating a commitment by the US to fight the expansion of communism in the Asia, after years of fighting nothing much changed politically in Korea.

Meanwhile the Marshall Plan to revitalize and rearm Europe was making headway. England got a new queen crowned, Elizabeth II, but carried on with Churchill as Prime Minister. Both western and eastern European countries were still trying to recover from WWII and undergoing various political shifts, but it seems that in America people felt that war was behind them, prosperity ahead of them and life could now be orderly and secure. It may well be that the Eisenhower campaign did much to advance this viewpoint because in reality the Cold War was escalating with the USSR and the USA being the main opponents. As far as I can tell by studying a bit of the history of the time, it was extremely tense. In 1953 the USSR exploded their first hydrogen bomb, following ours of the year before and despite the rhetoric in the United Nations and elsewhere, any efforts to regulate the proliferation and use of atomic weapons came to nothing.

What I am trying to get at here is a certain mood of false happiness and security with an underlying theme of danger and fear that characterized the lives of children growing up in the 50s. Of course, at the age of five going on six, I couldn't say that I had any knowledge of all this. I do remember seeing pictures on the front page of the New York Times of soldiers coming home wounded from the Korean War and asking my father about it. Those pictures gave me a feeling of doom.

Pop culture as usual for the 50s kept it light. “The Greatest Show on Earth” won the Academy Award for Best Picture, featuring romance in the circus. Best Director went to John Ford for “The Quiet Man”, in which John Wayne plays a retired boxer gone back to his native Ireland to woo Maureen O’Hara. Gary Cooper won Best Actor for “High Noon”, a classic western. For a taste of the dark side, Shirley Booth took Best Actress in “Come Back Little Sheba”, a drama about a woman married to a recovering alcoholic.

“Doggie in the Window” was a big pop song and I knew all the words. The very romantic “Ebb Tide” was a hit for Vic Damone. In 1953 you could still have a hit song from a musical, so “Stranger in Paradise” from “Kismet” was recorded by Tony Bennet.

Literature in 1953 was a mixture of just about everything. Out of the top ten bestsellers, the top two were about Christianity, though The Robe, by Lloyd C Douglas was revived from 1942 by the release of a movie based on the book. The majority of bestsellers were historical fiction ranging from the 18th century to post Civil War. The High and the Mighty by Ernest K Gann was one of three with a contemporary setting: a commercial airplane flight from Hawaii to San Francisco which almost went down in the Pacific Ocean because there was no radar on commercial flights in those days. This was surely a first in fiction!

Among the other books were two about the Korean War: The Bridges at Toko-Ri, by James Michener and very patriotic contrasted by The Long March by William Styron, though in both a main issue was soldiers from World War II brought back into the military just as they were getting well settled in civilian life. Most of these books dealt with postwar life in America and had themes about the generation gap, small town versus city life, anti-communism and racism. I read several books on women, feminism and female roles in modern life, though two were by South African writers (Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer) and one (The Second Sex) by that feisty French woman, Simone de Beauvoir.

The overall theme of these books is gaps; between war and postwar, communism and democracy, men and women, patriotism and dissent, black and white, young and old, city and countryside. Once again, the issues that would become huge in the 60s were showing up as hairline cracks in the smooth fa├žade of the Eisenhower years.

My family was creating our own gaps. By the beginning of 1953, my dad was working at the New York headquarters of US Steel, but the rest of us were still living in the suburban Pittsburgh house. Daddy would commute to New York for the week and come home on weekends. He was also finding us a place to live. It turned out that he had an old friend from high school who lived in Princeton, NJ. Visiting the home of Princeton University with its lovely residential neighborhoods, colonial history and big leafy trees, he felt it was the town for us. Many men commuted daily on the train to the city for work, a trip that took about an hour including the subway from Pennsylvania Station down to the financial district. He found the Lutheran Church and called the pastor who hooked him up with a realtor.

The house in Pittsburgh had not sold, but my mother was eight months pregnant and had to get settled. So in March, the house in Princeton was rented, the movers (paid for by US Steel) took our stuff away and we got on an airplane headed for Philadelphia. I have no memory of my first airplane ride, but my mom remembers that Philadelphia was fogged in, so we had to circle and she got worried. When we finally got to our new house, rain had leaked in the windows and it was way below my mom’s standards of cleanliness. Luckily she was at the nesting instinct portion of her pregnancy and had us unpacked and organized in time for the new baby’s arrival. Grandma Engle, my mom’s mother, said the baby would be born with big hands because of all the cleaning Mom did.

Patricia Lo Succop was born, with normal size hands, on April 28, 1953. Grandma Engle came for a week followed by Grandma Succop for another week. I loved this new little sister from the first moment I saw her and I always have from that day on. I loved our split level house which seemed cool and cozy to me. Linda and I slept on the third floor, probably a converted attic with a slanted ceiling and small windows right above our beds. The house was close to the quiet street with the neighboring houses right there on either side. A side door off the kitchen led to a small yard and around to a fine backyard.

What I remember is playing all summer with kids from the other houses on our street, riding my tricycle, racing in to the kitchen for snacks, sleeping and sweating in our hot attic room and feeling even more free from my family than ever before. The boy next door, whom my mother could not stand, lived with his grandmother and was often in trouble. He could catch flies and pull their wings off, he ran fast, talked tough and I was at once scared of him and entranced. Since we moved in March, I never went back to kindergarten and after my ears popped in the airplane, I had no more earaches. The doctor in Princeton said I could keep my tonsils, which I still have.

In August, I turned six so when fall came and it was time for me to go back to school, I was a much tougher girl than I had been the year before. I started first grade at Valley Road School and I had to take a school bus. The first day, I remember standing in a long hallway-like room with what seemed like a thousand other kids. I felt alone and afraid but I was determined to be brave. Somehow we all got sorted out and into the right classrooms. Mine was in the basement with metal grilled windows looking our right onto a concrete surface. I had my own desk; the kind with an attached chair, an inkwell hole and a lid that lifted.

School was exciting to me but also had its hardships. Miss Large, our teacher, was small and nervous with her first class since graduating from college. I was a bit afraid of her but I think she was terrified of us. It seemed to me that she was very strict and serious and yelled too much. Recess was on a big blacktop playground with swings, merry-go-round, jungle gym, rubber balls and mean pushy girls. Either they knew each other from kindergarten or were friends from the same neighborhood, but there was a group of girls led by Margery who somehow sensed that I was new and would chase me around, grab me and not let go and laugh in my face. If I tried to get on a swing they would push me off. Even then I didn’t like to tattle plus I heard the teachers tell other kids to work out their conflicts on their own. The teachers seemed to like to huddle by the doorway and talk to each other.

Finally, I was rescued by Toni Marshall (one of the few black kids in the class) who gave those mean girls a mouthful and became my protector. I also got my first boyfriend that fall. I do not remember his name but he gave me a ring that turned my finger green. My mom refused to let me wear it when she saw that, but I would take it to school in a pocket and put it on there. One day when I was in the lavatory, it slipped off my finger and went down the toilet. I was heart broken and too embarrassed to tell the boy what happened, except that I had lost it.

Meanwhile, my parents had found a house for sale just up the street and bought it when the old Pittsburgh house finally sold. I am told that we moved in November though I remember that not at all. My first airplane journey, two new houses, and a new school must have been just a bit too much change. Overall it was a time of happiness for me. My parents seemed more relaxed, our family was complete and we had the house we would live in until all of us sisters grew up. Daddy went off to work everyday, Mommy was basically in charge, on weekends they took care of the yard and on Sundays we went to church. Except that we had no pets, it was just like that Golden Book that I loved the best: The Happy Family.


Directly following this post is the latest chapter of my memoir, Reading For My Life. If you are new to my blog and would like to read the earlier chapters, go to the end of the current chapter and click on the "reading for my life" label at the bottom. This will take you to all of the chapters in reverse chronological order. Scroll down to the end of all that and you will find the first chapter, then read forward.

To find the reviews of the books I read for the current chapter, which covers 1953, use the archives on the left to find posts from May 24, 2008 through June 10, 2008.

The overall method for the memoir so far is that I read the Top Ten Bestsellers and a selection of other books from the year I am writing about. Then I relate the literature, history, movies, music and other cultural topics to what was happening to me and my family in that year. This is a work in progress and because of all the reading I am doing, I predict that it will take me at least a decade to complete. At that point or perhaps sooner, I may change the way I am putting this altogether. In fact, that is surely what I will do. These chapters are a way for me to keep track of my research and memories as I move through the project. For now I am posting the chapters on the blog since I have family and friends who are interested readers.

Comments are always welcome.!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova, Little Brown and Company, 2005, 642 pp

I bought this book when it first came out but did not get around to reading it. Knowing that my husband liked Dracula stories, I gave it to him but he couldn't get into it, even though he read and liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell by Susanna Clarke. Finally it got picked by one of my reading groups and I read it. I loved it!

Admittedly I found it hard to get going. In fact, I started over three times, because there are three over lapping stories and frankly, at first that is confusing. I also looked up all the words I didn't know and seriously used the map in the front of the book as well as an atlas. By then I was hooked on knowledge and began looking up important buildings and monuments on Wikipedia, which has fabulous photos for many of them.

I have always liked history and yearned to know it all, but most nonfiction history texts are to me, boring and dry in the extreme. I like learning history from historical novels (and really, if you read enough of them, you don't have to worry about inaccuracies too much.) Kostova made me work so hard that I felt virtuous learning history from her novel but truly she made me be a historian. That she interwove three deeply moving love stories as well as travelogue blended with mystery and danger, made reading all those pages pure pleasure for me.

I found it amusing that most of today's vampire novels, including the Twilight series, are vampire-light compared to the horror and evil of Kostova's Vlad Dracula. This guy is no Disney character and she leaves you wondering if his minions are possibly still with us in the world.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin, Viking Penguin, 2006, 331 pp

I had to read this book for a reading group. I was not looking forward to it despite all the raves I had heard from customers and perhaps because of its bestseller status. Turns out it was great!

Greg Mortenson was a mountain climber who became a promoter of peace by deciding to build a school for a poor village in Pakistan. That decision, made after the villagers saved his life, turned into a lifelong commitment involving an unbelievable amount of work, energy, danger and frustration.

Because Mortenson is a man of action, the book is a combination of extreme adventure and social/historical commentary. Extreme adventure makes up the much bigger percentage and is the impetus for Mortenson and the reader.

I am glad I read it when I did because this summer of political conventions was not making me feel hopeful about my country or my world. Three Cups of Tea reminded me that politics and government have rarely brought about good for the world. It is the actions of people of goodwill that have created better conditions for their fellowman.

Monday, October 20, 2008


An Open Book, Michael Dirda, W W Norton & Company Inc, 2003, 322 pp

I read an inordinate amount of book reviews, partly because books are my passion and partly because I have come to be known as the "fiction expert" at the bookstore where I work and try to keep up on what's new and good. I have my likes and dislikes when it comes to reviews so I was pleased to discover a reviewer whom I could respect and even emulate.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize winning critic who writes for The Washington Post, one of the few remaining American newspapers that has a dedicated book review section. The Washington Post also employs another of my favorite authors and reviewers, Carolyn See. In an effort to improve my own reviewing skills and develop my own voice as a reviewer, I decided to study the experts.

An Open Book is Dirda's memoir of the reading life and the story of how he became a critic. I came away from this book with an image of a complete book nerd. I love book nerds. I am one. Dirda grew up in Lorain, Ohio (also the home of Toni Morrison), son of second generation immigrants: a Russian father and Slovakian mother. They were poor but literate and Michael was read to by his mother from a small collection of Golden Books, as was I.

He became the reader of the family, read indiscriminately from an early age, loved the little local library located in an old house and suffered from being accused of having his nose in a book all through his childhood. This is like a male version of me (he was born just a year after I was), except that his family was blue collar and mine was white collar middle class. I went to college all expenses paid by my parents and dropped out by junior year. Michael went on scholarship, worked hard and actually got an education.

Though there were some dull parts which dragged for me, though Mr Dirda has a careful, controlled style of writing, I was quite taken by his story. It has a bit of Elmer Gantry, a touch of Charles Dickens and a lot of the passion of someone who followed what he loved and figured out how to make it his life's work. He has also published two collections of his criticism, another volume about reading and of course, you can read his weekly reviews at washingtonpost.com.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Savage Garden, Mark Mills, G P Putnam's Sons, 2007, 335 pp

I will just say right up front that I did not enjoy this book. It got stellar reviews in all the right places and sounded great: "a darkly provocative mystery set in the Tuscany hills: the story of two murders four hundred years apart-and the ties that bind them together." (from the back cover of the paperback.) Unfortunately, though Mr Mills can put a sentence together, he is not a good writer.

The hero, Adam, is a young Cambridge scholar though really he is a slacker. He is assigned by his advisor to travel to Tuscany and write a scholarly article about a famous garden at Villa Docci. There he finds statues, grottoes, meandering streams, mythology, a fascinating older woman descended from an ancient Italian family and an even more fascinating young woman for whom he lusts. Sound good, no?

No. Boring actually. How could someone make such a thrilling collection of ingredients boring? It's a wonder.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


My oh my. It has been two weeks since I have posted. Bad blogger.

But I have been reading, of course. And I have been writing! I mean real writing, not just my journal and my micro reviews. Because of the book on writing which I mentioned last time, I finally got going again on my novel, reworking the first chapter. I also helped a friend from one of my reading groups get her writing group going again by hosting it at my house. We had our first meeting last night and it was super great. Four out of five people read things and they were all good. I polished up the first half of a short story I had started long ago and now I am inspired (by their kind and helpful comments) to finish it and maybe even submit it somewhere.

Meanwhile I scaled the mountain of huge books and actually finished Andersonville, by MacKinlay Kantor. It was a bestseller in 1955 about a POW camp in Georgia during the Civil War. Gruesome, long but quite good. Then I read The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, which I had been wanting to read since it was published. After Andersonville at 760 pages, it was almost 100 pages shorter at 642, but dense, full of history and situated in eastern Europe, where my geography is sketchy at best. I learned lots but also loved the story. It is about the legend of Dracula and these are not your Stephenie Meyer vampires. Oh no.

I also read two other books from 1955 by Robert Heinlein and Norman Mailer and I am almost through one by Robert Penn Warren. Veering back and forth in a span of 50 years does make my head spin at times. Then there is the fact that I have been alive through all those years and more.

I still have not finished The Second Sex. Hopefully this week. Another goal this week is to finish the long overdue next chapter of my memoir. Why oh why do I have to go to work, cook, do laundry, etc, etc, etc?

As always, I would love to hear what you are reading. Has anyone read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle yet? Even more exciting to me is the new Toni Morrison which comes out in a few weeks I believe.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Falling Man, Don DeLillo, Scribner, 2007, 246 pp

For a long time, I could not bring myself to read any novel concerning 9/11. Even though I realize that it's what writers do (write about what goes on in the world) I felt a squeamish repugnance to the idea of turning that event into fiction. I broke through this objection when I read Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a book I truly admired.

I've never read Don DeLillo before and to his credit, he waited a full six years before publishing his 9/11 novel. According to what I gather about his earlier novels, he is a writer who was destined to write such a book. But you know what? I thought I was basically over the whole disturbing gory thing and that I had "moved on" to bemoaning our government's inept response. Well, I wasn't over it.

Falling Man put me right back there, watching those images over and over on TV and feeling the shock and awe which the terrorists clearly wanted Americans to feel. A man walks out of the first tower, covered in ash, wounded and disoriented. He keeps walking until he reaches the apartment of his wife and son, from whom he had separated some time earlier.

For the rest of the story this man, who of course was not in good shape beforehand, tries to find his way in his life. So does his wife, his son, his mother-in-law and various friends of his. None of them really do. The reactions of these people rang true to me. I realized that because I was not there in New York and in fact knew no one personally who suffered or died, I was detached. Possibly a huge percentage of Americans were also detached. As horrific as the TV news and images were, we are so inured to violence, destruction and war as delivered to us by the media, that it all seemed a bit unreal.

DeLillo has made it very real through these individual characters and their extremely personal feeling and thoughts and actions. Ultimately for these characters, a huge disconnection with their fellow man resulted. Some try to connect again, some give up and simply become more weird than they already were.

When I finished I was glad to be out of the story. It doesn't actually have a climax; it just ends. But now the story was in me and I was so thankful that I had a reading group to go to, to discuss, to get it out of my system, to process some of my emotion, to connect.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Today's word is quiddity again read in the New York Times Book Review.

It has two definitions and the second definition fits the context in which I read it.

quiddity noun 1 the essential quality of a thing
2 a trifling distinction, quibble
from Middle Latin quidditas from Latin quid what, neuter of quis who

My sentence: Your quiddity about the sauce not being truly French cuisine didn't seem to hamper your enjoyment of it.

If you wish to contribute a sentence just click the comments button at the end of this post.


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson, Alfred A Knopf, 2008, 465 pp

This financial thriller, set in Sweden, has already been a bestseller in Europe. The author spent his life fighting racial and religious intolerance, exposing neofascism in Europe. He completed a trilogy of thrillers and then died in 2004. This is the first of the three novels and is written in a refreshing new style and voice while resting firmly in the Ludlum, Grisham, Baldacci thriller tradition.

The closest I've ever been to Sweden was a horrific 5 hour layover in Amsterdam airport on the way home from Paris last year, so I was initially challenged by unfamiliar names of streets, cities, persons, magazines, newspapers and other elements of modern Swedish life. But the story is exciting and smart and ultra modern, comprising a closed-room murder mystery, a dastardly financial villain, psychopathic descendants of Nazis and the girl in the title. She is in fact an extra mystery all in herself and as good as any heroine in a Neal Stephenson novel.

I could tell that it was a first novel, though that could be partly due to the translation, but except for a few clunky sections, Larsson dept me turning the pages. There is a decidedly European take on love and sex, again refreshing compared to the American psychosis of puritanism vs porn. I suspect a bit of hype in the title because I was let down by the ending as concerns the dragon tattooed girl, but presumably there will be more about her in the sequels.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


The God of Animals, Aryn Kyle, Scribner, 2007, 305 pp

This book was recommended to me by a co-worker at the bookstore, who is herself a budding writer. I loved it and will be putting it on my top favorites list for the year. It is a first novel and only strengthened my opinion that we are in a Golden Age of new novelists.

Alice Winston is 12 years old and lives a young life of quiet desperation on a run-down horse ranch in a small Colorado desert town. Her older sister, Alice's idol and and an excellent prize winning horse woman, has run off with a rodeo cowboy. The mother of the family has been bedridden with a case of postpartum depression, having rarely left her room since the day Alice was born.

As she tries to be the good daughter and right hand man to her overworked, demanding yet reticent father, Alice is looking, listening, actually lurking in life, trying to understand what the hell is going on. The author masterfully creates the environment of horse ranch and desert small town life juxtaposed with the new rich on the other irrigated side of town, who board their horses at the ranch and send their daughters for riding lessons.

I grew to love Alice and to feel her search for love and understanding like it was my own. Her tragedies, her moments of triumph and breakthroughs in figuring our what happened in her family are all revealed in a haunting prose, as spare as the desert, that is some of the most effortless reading I have done.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Today's word is eremite, read in the New York Times Book Review. It means a religious recluse; a hermit. It comes from Middle English from Old French ermite, hermite.

My sentence: After years of prayer and meditation in a remote monastery, the eremite returned to a world changed beyond recognition.

Sentence anyone?


Becoming Abigail, Chris Abani, Akashic Books, 2006, 121 pp

In this novella, Abani's follow-up to Graceland, a young African woman is brought to London by her uncle and put into the sex trade. It is a harrowing story of loss and abuse set amid the ancient sites of modern day London. Through the eyes of Abigail, you see both the clash of culture as well as the universal theme of men using women.

It is beautifully written but highly disturbing. Even when Abigail finds love, it cannot save her. I am not sure I really liked it. One of the darkest stories I have ever read.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Hope's Boy, Andrew Bridge, Hyperion, 2008, 303 pp

Andrew Bridge was taken from his mother by Social Services in Los Angeles when he was seven years old and raised in foster care until he was 18. This is his memoir. He went on to become a lawyer all on his own efforts without help from anyone and is now an advocate for children in foster care.

As usual I tore through this book in 12 hours with only a break for making and eating dinner. I still don't understand my fascination for the orphan/abandoned child story. I've had it since I was five years old.

The writing is not great but it does the job. Bridge indulges in virtually no self pity. He emphasizes how he never stopped loving or missing his mother, who ended up in a mental health facility. He seems to be in favor of families staying together unless it is utterly impossible to help the family. I am starting to agree with this position and perhaps that is the direction my novel should take.

Monday, September 08, 2008


I had a rough week in reading. I was doing OK on my 50 pages a day of The Second Sex but by Tuesday I just could not bring myself to read it. It is highly interesting though the writing style is a bit scholarly, but also highly disturbing. I found myself getting upset, angry, sad and just generally feeling sort of crazy, as I read about the history of woman in society, the patriarchal views and the myths of man toward woman. The worst part was noticing the ways I have fallen under the influence of it all. But then, that is part of my quest in writing the memoir; to discover my own journey to full self hood as a female.

Last Monday, I had an attack of book lust and went to a bookstore (not the one where I work). I bought a book about writing, a book on how to write biography and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman, who is married to Michael Chabon. I read a good deal of the book on writing and got inspired to work on my novel again, except then I did not write a word.

I also read a memoir about growing up and reading called An Open Book by Michael Dirda, one of my favorite book reviewers. Through the second half of the week I felt somewhat ill, due to either the heat or allergies or that ****ing sex book, who knows. Finally on Saturday, I cracked open The Second Sex and got going on it again. It is still disturbing but I can tell that I will get through it and be better for it.

I also read Three Cups of Tea in full this weekend and though I was prepared to be somewhat bored, I was fascinated. It is a great story, full of hope, and I learned much about Pakistan, Afghanistan, terrorists, Muslims, just the whole scene that we have been living in for seven years. How appropriate with September 11, 2008 coming up this week.

What have you been reading? I really want to know!


Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, Harcourt Inc, 1925, 190 pp

Mrs Dalloway is not a person I would care to know or hang out with, so despite my readiness to be impressed by Virginia Woolf's fiction, I found this book a long and sleepy go. The story covers one day in the life of Mrs Dalloway. She is giving a party in the evening in her home in London, a society affair, so we follow her through the day as she gets ready and through the party itself. A few other characters are also living through that day in London, though not all interact with Clarissa Dalloway.

One of these characters is Peter Walsh, a former flame whom Clarissa almost married 30 years earlier. You get back stories on all these characters which makes the one day a device for telling several stories at once and for taking up topics such as love, marriage, careers, society, politics and the Great War.

I was reminded most of Jane Austen in the style of writing and the subject matter, though the story is in the 20th century. According to the introduction to the edition I read (Harcourt Annotated, 2005), Woolf was part of a whole group of writers including T S Eliot, D H Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce, who were each attempting to modernize poetry and the novel. Due to Sigmund Freud also publishing at that time, psychology was a big subject, though Woolf, who had mental issues herself, did not care for or respect her male doctors' application of psychology to her. This aversion comes through in Mrs Dalloway.

In any case, I have now read the book; I will read the rest of her fiction one day. I consider it part of my literary education. Since My Big Fat Reading Project begins in 1940, I have missed almost half of the 20th century, so I will have to fill that in eventually. Next in this particular study is to read The Hours by Michael Cunningham and then see the movie.

Here is a quote from Woolf's essay "How Should One Read a Book?: "The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions."