Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Ask the Dust, John Fante, Stackpole Sons, 1939, 165 pp

(According to Dan Fante, John's son, Stackpole Sons folded shortly after publishing Ask the Dust, because they were sued by Adolf Hitler for publishing Mein Kampf. Ha.)

Last year the movie version of Ask the Dust came out with big hoopla, though the reviews were terrible. I got interested in John Fante then and finally read the book. It is not great, but it is good. I was trying to put my finger on the style and decided that it reminds me of early John Steinbeck, such as Grapes of Wrath, The Wayward Bus, Cannery Row.

It is a story about a young writer struggling in Los Angeles in the 1930s. He is impassioned, poor, conflicted. Fante evokes the mood swings and the young man's breathless ventures into women and love. Camilla, the woman he falls for, is of Mexican descent, loves another man and really is quite a messed up girl.

What I liked was the contrast as Arturo Bandini, the writer, begins to have success but lives in an agony of unrequited love and unreleased sexual tension, amidst a seedy Los Angeles setting. Wow, I could just feel it and see it due to the writing and also thanks to having read lots of Raymond Chandler.

Then I saw the movie and although the plot was altered somewhat, it was a great film and for once did not violate the pictures I already had in my head from the book.


Ida B, Katherine Hannigan, HarperCollins Publishers, 2004, 264 pp

My boss handed this book to me last January when I began work at the bookstore. It is quite good. Ida B (not to be confused with her mother, Ida) is a happy homeschooler who talks to trees and the brook in their apple orchard, who believes in fun and who always has a plan.

Then her mom gets cancer and everything goes wrong. Despite any plan she can make, things keep going more wrong and Ida B has to learn some hard lessons about herself, others and life. It is a fine story, sensitively told and Ida B is one heck of a strong female character.

Some of the vocabulary is of a fairly high level because Ida B is so intelligent. There is some great stuff about how to learn math. Good all around. (Recommended for 8-12 years old readers)

Monday, January 28, 2008


The Beautiful and the Damned, F Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922, 449 pp

This is an incredibly depressing book which I read at this point because it was a reading group pick. Anthony Patch lost his mother at five and his father at 11. He is heir to a fortune made by his grandfather, Adam Patch, in the robber baron days, but that old man has become a humorless reformer of vice.

Anthony is highly intelligent, graduated from Harvard at 19, but he is socially inept, with only two friends, one of whom is a writer. He lives in New York City alone in an apartment, cultivating irony and existing on his allowance.

Gloria is the only child of a dreamy mother, who calls herself a Bilphist (a quasi-religious philosophy made up by Fitzgerald) and a self-made, well-to-do father. They are from Missouri but live in New York. Gloria is the most beautiful girl in town and lives to party and be admired by men.

She and Anthony fall in love, marry and begin a life of travel (only in the US because WWI is raging in Europe), decadence and parties. They are waiting for Grandfather Patch to die so Anthony can come into his inheritance. It is all downhill from there because neither of these people have any semblance of a sense of self nor do they have any goals or purpose for life.

The writing is good; I have to admit that. I suppose one could say that the personality study is deep and thoughtful. Fitzgerald added to the literature of the lost generation. Today we have Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. But do we really care? I grew to hate Anthony and Gloria by the utterly degraded end of this sordid tale.


Dragon Bones, Lisa See, Random House Inc, 2003, 343 pp

Dragon Bones is the third of Lisa See's international thrillers. I have read the first, Flower Net, but not the second, The Interior. This volume again features Chinese Inspector Liu Hulan of the Ministry of Public Security and her American husband, attorney David Stark.

Apparently they had and lost a daughter in the second book, so now the marriage is falling apart because Liu cannot get over her grief nor can she forgive herself for letting another loved one die.

Nothing like a little mystery, danger and a trip out of town to turn their lives around. An American archaeologist has been murdered at the site of a huge dig where also China's largest project since the Great Wall will result in the Three Gorges Dam, providing electricity to millions but flooding ancestral ground and displacing millions.

Lots of issues here: ancient mythology, a current religious cult, art and artifacts with crooked dealings going on, international political tensions, not to mention love, greed and ecology. The author mostly pulls it off though I was confused at times since I know so little about China. Still a good story, intriguing mystery, though as usual See is low key on emotions. The book highly motivated me to learn more about China.

Sunday, January 27, 2008


Ines of My Soul, Isabel Allende, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, 313 pp

This is Allende's latest novel and I can still say that I have read all her novels written for adults. While I loved her earlier novels the best, I continue to like her stories, plus at least one of my favorite authors is still writing novels.

Ines was born poor and lower class in Spain in the 16th century. She was skilled as a seamstress and a cook, but she was also interested in men, sex and adventure; in other words, a typical Allende heroine. These skills and interests led her to the New World, specifically Peru and Chile. As mistress to Pedro de Valdivia, she became a co-founder of Chile as a Spanish conquest.

This is historical fiction in the classic mode with plenty of romance and daring. The ways of Spanish conquest are fully exposed with just enough sympathy for the conquered Incas and native Indians to make it clear that while the conquerors do what they must, it is done at the expense of other human beings, cultures and natural resources.

Allende tells the story and bears witness to the sources of societal and political madness that continue to this day, all without one boring paragraph. She is a master storyteller.


Another Place at the Table, Kathy Harrison, Jeremy P Tarcher, 2003, 224 pp

I read this as research for a story I am not working on but which I hope someday to finish. It is the memoir of an excellent foster mother from Massachusetts. At the time of writing, she had been providing foster care for over 13 years to almost 100 different children. She had also won awards and worked to train other foster parents. She and her husband had three kids of their own plus three adopted daughters. In her area, she had seen it all.

It is a highly emotional and heartrending story. Most kids who end up in foster care have suffered some kind of abuse: physical, sexual, neglect, nutritional, emotional as well as prenatal conditions affected by drugs and alcohol. The story goes like this: children of abusive parents grow up to be abusive parents. Add in poverty, alcohol, drugs and crime and it is almost a hopeless cycle that goes on and on.

I came away from the book in awe of this woman. She is very open about her own shortcomings and failures, but to me she is some kind of saint, not to mention her amazing husband. Through the years she got more savvy and tougher in dealing with the social services system, though she is eloquent in her analysis of the political issues, underfunding and the overloading of not enough case workers in that system. She makes it clear that it boils down to good people both in the system and among the foster parents.

My first introduction to the foster care system was White Oleander by Janet Fitch, who paints a very grim picture in her novel. Another Place at the Table is more balanced. Some of these kids are so damaged as to have become psychotic but many, at least in Kathy Harrison's home, got help and hope.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


The Dark River, John Twelve Hawks, Doubleday, 2007, 368 pp

The elusive John Twelve Hawks brings us Book Two of the Fourth Realm Trilogy, the sequel to The Traveler. The story opens with the destruction of New Harmony, an off-the-grid community in the desert where Gabriel Corrigan (the good brother) got his training as a traveler. The community was destroyed by The Brethren, the bad guys whose goal is to bring all society under their control.

Gabriel, Maya (his Harlequin protector) and friends are hiding out in NYC, but word comes that Matthew Corrigan, the father and last remaining Traveler, is alive in Ireland. So the chase is on. We meet Mother Blessing, Michael's Harlequin. In the end Gabriel follows his father into one of the other realms which is somewhat like hell and through which runs the Dark River.

This book ends with just about everything up in the air. It is not quite the totally exciting read that the first one was, but it has its moments. According to a blog I found on fantasy/sci fi, it is common for the second book of a trilogy to be a bit lower key than the first and then the big finale comes in the final volume. That is fine with me. There was a lot of stuff to explain and now that has been accomplished.

I again became aware, as I did in The Traveler, of how much is known about each of us because of the amount of surveillance that we are under. Twelve Hawks also points up the insidious but constant reminders that we must be afraid of "terrorists" so that we will go along with all the surveillance for our own protection. Whew! I am looking forward to the final book.


Run, Ann Patchett, HarperCollins Publishers, 2007, 295 pp

I do love this author. This is her latest novel and I read it in a day. Ann Patchett makes you believe that all you need is love and that no matter how flawed some people are, there is always a being there who is made of love.

In this story, a family in Boston consists of Bernadette, the mother; Doyle, the father; Sullivan, their natural son; and two black adopted brothers, Tip and Teddy. Doyle was once mayor of Boston and believes in politics. When they were unsuccessful at having more children, Bernadette, who only wanted to be a mother, convinced Doyle to adopt. But then she died and each of the remaining males had their own issues with this.

Enter Tennessee, a poor black woman and her daughter Kenya, who is 12 years old and a natural athlete who can run like the wind. Everything changes and I won't give it away. Some critics might say that there are a few too many improbable coincidences here. I say it is fiction, it might be a tall tale, but even real life is a series of unfortunate events punctuated by coincidence and unlikely connections between people.

I am glad there are authors who tell this tale.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


I read 124 books in 2007 which is down quite a bit from 2006, when I read 141.

It must have been a good reading year though because I had trouble narrowing down my favorite reads to only 20.

The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
Archangel, Sharon Shinn
Away, Amy Bloom
The Book of Salt, Monique Truong
The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier
Eat the Document, Dana Spiotta
The Higher Power of Lucky, Susan Paton
The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai
The Keep, Jennifer Egan
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Mercy of Thin Air, Ronlyn Domingue
Ruined by Reading, Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Run, Ann Patchett
The Spanish Bow, Andromeda Romano-Lax
A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz
Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier
The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett

If you had a list of favorites this past year, please share in the comments. I love reading book lists!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Shortly after my last post I went into Holiday Sale mode at the bookstore followed by long days of inventory. Somewhere in there was New Year's Eve and we were in 2008. Oh wow! This should be quite a year in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The Friday after New Year's Day, my husband and I got in the car and drove to Sedona, AZ, where we spent a week of bliss. I had never been there before and was expecting a lot but it was beyond that. We hiked, in rain and sun; we ate and drank wine; we slept and did the other thing you do in bed; we watched movies and read books.

It just smells good wherever you go in Sedona. The best place for breakfast (we went there three times) is the Coffeepot Restaurant, just below Coffeepot Rock, where they have 100 different omelets and the most amazing biscuits I have ever tasted. We learned to say, "What is the name of that rock?" and we were filled with the energy of the vortex.

I found the good bookstore in town, called The Well Red Coyote, which is owned and run by a former resident of Los Angeles. Just in time, the Images of America series had released a book on Sedona, which I bought and read to learn the history of the place. Sedona was a woman who came to the area with her husband in 1901. In front of the very fine Sedona Public Library is a bronze statue of Sedona Schnebly.

I read all 601 pages of Simone de Beauvoir's The Mandarins while we were there. Most of that book takes place in Paris, France, the location of my last big trip. It is an excellent story and gave me a look at the way many French people viewed America and the Marshall Plan in the postwar years. In these days of very American politics, it was refreshing to look at how it goes in another country and to see that everywhere there are people who want freedom and ideals just as much as we do.

I could go on and on but I will just say that all my New Year's plans and resolutions seemed entirely possible after such a fine journey and vacation. Here's to a year of great reading and keeping the wisdom.

Coming tomorrow is the popular Judy's Top Books read in the past year.