Wednesday, May 28, 2008


This post is the first of four which will cover other books I read for 1953. This is a list I make up myself featuring authors I am interested in or who have written important novels and non-fiction.

The Lying Days, Nadine Gordimer, Simon and Schuster Inc, 1953, 340 pp

This is Nadine Gordimer's first novel and is set in South Africa in post WWII times. Helen Shaw grows up at "The Mine", with English parents living the proper colonial life in the sheltered white community. In her teens she becomes aware of the isolation and utter boredom of that life and begins to see the racism and the plight of the natives. She breaks away by going to university in Johannesburg, taking up with radical friends, living with a man who works to "help" the natives.

It is the coming of age story of women in the generation just before mine. I liked it but it seemed to take forever to read. She is true in her observations but a bit wordy and reserved in her style. She never really lets go in her writing but keeps it under some kind of strict control. Since it was her first novel and better than the book of stories I read (The Soft Voice of the Serpent, 1952), I have hope for her. Plus she has remained a respected and well-known writer for her whole life.

Five, Doris Lessing, Michael Joseph Ltd, 1953, 382 pp

This volume collects five short novels and was hard to find. None of my libraries or book stores had it and as far as I can tell, it was never published in the United States. I finally found some copies at Alibris. Yet these five novels are easily worth more than any five of the 10 bestsellers I read for 1953.

First of all, Doris Lessing is such a stunningly good writer and it can only be because she is a woman and an opinionated one at that, that she did not receive a Nobel Prize until this year. Four of the stories take place in South Africa. As in The Grass Is Singing, her ability to put the reader in that place, where I have never been, is astounding, as is her skill at making the inner lives of both whites and native so real. While she tells these South African tales she also delves into universal themes about men and women, a search for meaning and happiness, issues of personal freedom and deep matters of the heart.

I think that is the greatest thing an author can do, because while racism, political idiocracies, clashes of social classes, are fairly unique depending on place, an understanding of the hopes and failings of all mankind is the key to unlocking the struggles. Because Lessing's plotting and characterization and storytelling are so good, she does this great thing, compromising nothing and entertaining fully.

I hope that because of the Nobel Prize, more people will read her books.

The Heart of the Family, Elizabeth Goudge, Servant Publications Edition, 1953.

I read this back in 1998 when I was reading through all of Goudge's books. She is quite Christian in her philosophy with her most sterling quality being her tolerance of human foibles. My life in the 90s was full of stress and she brought me a much needed dose of peace. The Heart of the Family is the third and last of the Eliot family series, which began with The Bird in the Tree in 1940, followed by Pilgrim's Inn in 1948.

At first and for about half of the book, I was annoyed by it. There was too much spiritual stuff and almost a preaching tone, which is unusual for Goudge. She was clearly getting down her own philosophy and thoughts rather than letting the story tell them. But by the end, she won me over and it became that usual Goudge magical thing that she does. She makes me be a better person somehow.

Life Among the Savages, Shirley Jackson, Farrar Straus and Young, 1953, 241 pp

This is a wonderfully funny account of Ms Jackson's life as a mother of young children in a huge old house in Connecticut. It is hard to believe that this is the same author who penned the creepy Hangsaman.

She begins when her first child is a toddler with a hilarious account of their search for a place to live after she and her husband were evicted from their NYC apartment because they forgot to renew their lease. Each chapter is another phase in their lives: a child's first days at school, a new baby, Shirley learning to drive, etc. She and her husband are clearly writers but she does not go into how or when she writes, only mentioning that she reads a lot of mysteries. Her insight into children is deep and while she is a conscientious and loving mother, she is also somewhat unconventional. The kids are smart, precocious really, but not brats.

I was highly entertained throughout and found myself wishing I could have grown up in that family. Somehow she made being a mother and housewife in the 50s sound fun, not boring, though I suspect some irony because of how much she goes on about all the chocolate pudding she made.

The Siege, Illes Kaczer, Dial Press, 1953

This is another book I read a while back, 1994 to be exact. That was before I had conceived of My Big Fat Reading Project, when I was trying to read all the fiction in the library alphabetically by author. When I got tired of the A's, which I never got through, I would go through the other letters. It was also before I knew that it was cool to read translated literature from other countries. I was just reading books as I came to them.

Well, that is how I found out for myself that it is cool to read translated literature because it would take me into worlds which were utterly new to me. The Siege is a story about Jews in Hungary in the 1800s, written by a Hungarian Jew. There is just no comparison as far as getting the real feel between this and some historical fiction written by an American author. I really got what it is like to be an oppressed people.

The Return of Lanny Budd, Upton Sinclair, The Viking Press, 1953, 555 pp

Yes, Lanny is back one more time and does his bit at the beginning of the cold war. This volume is heavily anti-communist, anti-Stalin and very pro-American. But the pages went by quickly and I learned a good deal about the days when Berlin was split into East and West.

Sinclair makes a good point about the lack of funding for positive propaganda concerning America as opposed to funding for arms. I also saw the birth of the fight against communism in this country. He makes a convincing case for the need to fight that political system, though he was once fairly enamored of it. I couldn't quite buy everything he had to say but it was timely.

Monday, May 26, 2008


This post contains the second half of the bestseller list for 1953.

The High and the Mighty, Ernest K Gann, William Morrow & Company Inc, 1953, 342 pp

This novel was the #6 bestseller for 1953 and takes place on an airplane during a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, a trip which took 12 hours in those days. It is an early version of books like Night Over Water, by Ken Follett. The plane develops trouble and the main suspense concerns whether or not they will have to "ditch" which means "land" on the ocean.

Gann was a pilot himself and wrote many novels about flight. This one was also made into a movie starring John Wayne, for which Gann wrote the screenplay. He was considered a good writer in his time, but I found the book formulaic: introduce the characters, both the flyboys and the passengers; finally the plane takes off; several odd bumps and noises foreshadow the trouble to come; personal issues of the characters come to light during the crisis; then the last minute save.

What was interesting to me were the facts about air travel in the early 50s: propellers not jets, slower speeds and lower altitudes (no pressurized cabins), rudimentary radio contact and radar. The end of the book was highly dramatic and made it a good read finally. I also saw the movie which was not bad.

Beyond This Place, A J Cronin, Little Brown and Company, 1953, 247pp

This was #7 on the 1953 bestseller list and is the fourth bestseller I've read by this author. His first book, The Keys of the Kingdom, still rates with me as his best. All of his books concern young men with unusual childhoods and hardships they must overcome.

In Beyond This Place, Paul was raised by his pious Christian mother in Belfast, Ireland. He remembers a father from his very young years and has always been told that the father died in an accident. At the age of 20 he learns that all this time his father has been in prison, serving a life sentence for murder.

Paul sets out for a small town in England, where the murder occurred, determined to find his father. He faces innumerable obstacles but is finally reunited with his dad. The entire story is overwrought with emotion which I found to be a bit much. Luckily it is a fairly good tale, involving an examination of how politics corrupts justice.

Time and Time Again, James Hilton, Little Brown and Company, 1953, 286 pp

At #8 on the list, James Hilton suffers from the opposite problem that plagued Beyond This Place. Here we have Hilton's accomplished and readable prose but not much in the way of a story.

Charles Anderson is a minor English diplomat and is reflecting back over his life, including two World Wars, two women and one son. For anyone who has read as much fiction from the 1940s as I have, there is really nothing new here. Hilton's point seems to be that life moves on and youth will take over. Not an original idea but so nicely put.

Lord Vanity, Samuel Shellabarger, Little Brown and Company, 1953, 397 pp

This is the last of Shellabarger's historical novels to reach Top 10 Bestseller status. It was #9 in 1953 and takes place in 18th century Italy, France and England.

Richard Morandi is the bastard son of an English lord and at the opening of the story works as an actor and musician entertaining Venetian nobility. He falls in love with a young equally impoverished ballerina. Throughout the story, his fortunes fall and then rise to great heights when he is reunited with his father. Finally he must choose between fortune and his true character as well as between two women.

The author, as in his earlier books, does well on historical detail and evoking the sense of the time, but Richard's tale is just not as exciting as that of the heroes and heroines of his earlier novels.

The Unconquered, Ben Ames Williams, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953, 698 pp

This was the hardest longest slog of the 1953 bestsellers. It was #10 on the list and oh how I wish it could have been #11. Williams continues with the families from A House Divided, to tell a story of reconstruction. Most of the story takes place in New Orleans, where the clash between carpetbaggers and old Southern gentlemen; between freed slaves and poor whites; and between Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans was the most brutal.

The point of the story seems to be the refusal of the South to admit defeat after the Civil War and the deeply ingrained racism that was born in the practice of slavery. A point well taken but the story telling is pedantic in the extreme and the political details way too detailed. It took me three separate segments of reading over many months to make my way through this tome and may I never have to read Ben Ames Williams again.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


Here begins the lists of books I read for 1953 as part of my Big Fat Reading Project. Briefly, that is an ongoing project in which I am reading the Top 10 Bestsellers and other selected books from every year beginning in 1940. I am doing this as research for my autobiography which has the working title of Reading For My Life.

To see the lists from earlier years, simply click on the label at the bottom of this post and you will get all posts for the Big Fat Reading Project, in reverse chronological order. Then scroll to find the year you want or go all the way to the end and read the posts from then to now. You will get quite an overview of literature from the second half of the 20th century.

1953 was unique in the number of bestsellers that had already appeared on the list in earlier years: three to be exact. Especially these days, it is very unusual for any novel to be a top 10 bestseller two years in a row. In 1953, the #1 book had been a bestseller in 1942, eleven years earlier! I don't know why that happened and if anyone does, please share the info with us in the comments.

Here we go:


The Robe, Lloyd C Douglas

This was the #1 bestseller in 1953. It was published in 1942 and was the #7 bestseller of that year. It is a story of the years immediately after the life of Jesus Christ. I reviewed it on March 1, 2006 in a post entitled "Books Read From 1942, Part Two."

The Silver Chalice, Thomas B Costain

At #2 on the list is a book which was #1 in 1952. It is a fictional account of the creation of the Holy Grail. Apparently Christianity was a big seller in 1953. In fact, The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version was #1 on the non-fiction list in both 1953 and 1954.

My review of The Silver Chalice appears in "Books Read From 1952, Part One" posted on February 10, 2008.

Desiree, Annemarie Selinko, William Morrow & Company, 1953, 594 pp

I was not looking forward to this book because of its length and in fact it took me three tries to get started reading it. It was #3 on the 1953 bestseller list and is actually a great story about the rise, reign and fall of Napoleon told through the eyes of a woman who once loved him.

Desiree was the daughter of a silk merchant in Marseilles. The story opens in 1794, shortly after the French Revolution and sometime during the Reign of Terror. Desiree meets and falls in love with the young Buonoparte (as he called himself in those days). She was only 16 and he had recently arrived with his mother and siblings from Sicily. He is an officer in the Republican army and gets engaged to Desiree, whom he seems to love but he is also in need of her dowry.

As Napoleon begins his rise to power, he throws her over for Josephine who can help him politically. Desiree, who was raised to know Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man" by heart, believes in the Republic. She is a bold and daring young woman with a good mind. Comparisons to Forever Amber which I came across in various reviews, are only true in that both women were connected to men of power. Amber was merely an opportunist while Desiree had the good of France at heart.

Once I got going, which involved a bit of study on the history of France in this time period, I was not bored for even a page of this long novel. It filled in for me a part of history about which I knew little. The translation from German was lively and read like a contemporary historical novel. The theme is a cry for political freedom.

Battle Cry, Leon Uris, G P Putnam's Sons, 1953, 505 pp

This paean to the US Marines caused me to name a new genre: dick lit. It was the #4 bestseller in 1953 and takes place during World War II. I did not enjoy its 505 pages and felt it was a poor imitation of From Here to Eternity.

The boys, boot camp, the lovers, wives and whores, the drinking, the dirt, the battles, the esprit de corps; it's all there ad nauseum. The writing is mediocre. The theme is that war is just one of those things that have to get done and real men give their all against hopeless odds.

Leon Uris followed this first book with many other bestsellers, including Exodus and Armageddon, so we will see how his writing develops.

From Here to Eternity, James Jones

At #5 is the third book to have appeared on an earlier bestseller list. This book was #1 in 1951 and the movie came out in 1953, going on to win Best Picture in 1954. Both the book and the movie are excellent. My review of this novel was posted on October 5, 2007 in "Books Read From 1951, Part One."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, 2003, 916 pp

I learned recently that Stephenson's next book will be out this summer, so it was time to read The Baroque Cycle trilogy. It took me almost two weeks to read this tome but was worth every minute.

Naturally it is great. Same clever wordiness and headlong adventure sequences as his earlier books, but set in the 1600s with Isaac Newton, King Charles II, King Louis XIV and all the various Natural Philosophers/Alchemists of the Royal Society in England as well as in other countries. Also featured are the entangled Houses of Stuart, Orange-Nassau, Bourbon and others who intermarried and produced the Kings and Queens of England and Europe; the traders, bankers and stock exchanges, especially in the Netherlands; the religious wars of Catholics vs Protestants; and even some scenes in Boston at the beginnings of MIT and Harvard. Lots of history.

In addition are early ancestors of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families (main characters in Cryptonomicon) and even the author of the original Cryptonomicon, John Wilkins, who was an early Natural Philosopher (what we now call scientists) at Cambridge where Newton spent his early adult years. Thanks to a list of characters, maps and family trees, I could keep track of it all. Oh yes, Enoch Root is there already an old man.

Very impressive that an exciting cyberpunk sci fi writer can also do historical fiction so well. As soon as I finished it, I wanted to go on to the next volume. I saw that the 1600s were a turning point in history, a step away from superstition to science, from monarchy to democracy, etc. Then there is Eliza, super smart and savvy and probably the female ancestor of someone in Crytonomicon, because she has a son at the end. Fantastic book!

(Quicksilver is available in paperback and ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Digging to America, Anne Tyler, Alfred A Knopf, 2006, ? pp

According to the author bio, this is Tyler's 17th novel. I read it for one of my reading groups and did not think it was one of her best. Yet, what do I know? According to my reading log, I've only read two others of her books: The Accidental Tourist and Back When We Were Grownups, both of which I liked a great deal.

Two families meet at the Baltimore airport as each receives an adopted orphan from Korea in 1997. The Donaldsons are American, the Yazdans are second generation Iranian/Americans. Due to Bitsy, the "American" new mother, they remain connected and get involved in each others' lives. As the babies grow the families hold an Arrival Party each year to celebrate the adopted children's entrance into their lives.

While there is plenty going on in these families, the story turns out to be about Maryam, the paternal grandmother of the Iranian family's adopted daughter. And while her issues appear to be about an Iranian woman adapting to America, they are actually about her personal issues of love, connection, privacy, independence and aging.

All told it is a good story, well-written and so readable that I finished the book in a few hours. Tyler also addresses cancer, dying, widowhood, child-raising and in-laws, both American and Iranian. September 11 plays a part in security issues about Arabs, the ways Americans view and treat people from other cultures and the ways that immigrants deal with that.

Lots of stuff but nothing new really in contemporary fiction and nothing disturbing to any degree. I was hoping for more about the adopted kids but they were only six years old by the end. Somehow I felt she tried to do too much and ended up not doing enough with this story.

Monday, May 19, 2008


In the spring of 2004, my husband and I spent two weeks in Ireland. As always, I read books by Irish writers before I went. Nuala O'Faolain was an author on my list who was new to me. I read three of her books before I went, all of which gave me such a strong sense of place and Irish life and especially Irish women.

Nuala O'Faolain passed away about a week and a half ago. She died of lung cancer and according to one article I read she was extremely bummed that she was not going to live longer. Well I don't blame her and I will miss any books she did not get to write.

I did not have this blog in 2004, so now I will post what I wrote about her books back then.

Are You Somebody?, Nuala O'Faolain, Henry Holt and Company, 1996, 215 pp

Her first book is a memoir. Nuala had been a writer for the Irish Times (and other papers) when she began writing this book. The title comes from what people would say when they met her, not being sure but feeling that she looked familiar. The original writing was intended to be an introduction to a collection of her articles and grew into her life story.

She was my age when she wrote it and I suppose it is a cliche to want to write up your life after you pass 50. I have that urge myself. A life story is a fascinating thing. I love reading them and having new friends tell me theirs. She is a fine writer with a wry voice and had a rocky but generally triumphant life. Because she broke out of the traditional role for an Irish woman, she has been lonely. Well, lots of traditional women are lonely too. She also had a lot of fun and many adventures. Still she was looking for love, above all else.

Almost There, Nuala O'Faolain, Penguin Putnam Inc, 2003, 275 pp

This is her follow-up memoir, which I went right into after finishing the first. They both read very quickly. Meanwhile, she wrote a novel, which I read next. This volume is basically more of the same, her continuing self-discovery, her continuing search for love, which she found and then had new issues to deal with.

She had received so many letters after the first memoir, that she wanted to let her readers know that she finally found and settled down with a good man. She moved to New York and built a great life there full of writing, writers and friends. In fact, I learned a lot about writing from this book as well.

My Dream of You, Nuala O'Faolain, Penguin Putnam Inc, 2001, 500 pp

This is her novel. It read very much the same as the memoirs and is taken mostly from her life, but has the device of another story from the days of the potato famine worked in. That adds a bit of historical fiction.

Her characters are great and so are her descriptions of places. She also writes good sex. The story is about her search for love and passion. Funny, because she was unloved as a child and she read so many books. I think, like most women who read a lot, she formed her ideas of romantic love from fiction. That is a bum deal because life is not like that, so it is a constructed ideal that few people ever find. Yet it has been THE STORY since earliest times.

Nuala O'Faolain wrote one other book that I know of. The Story of Chicago May is a biography of a turn-of -the-century feminist also known as queen of the crooks, another daughter of Ireland, an outlaw and an unrepentant, independent woman. I haven't read this book yet, but I saw Nuala give a reading and answer questions at the Duttons Books in Brentwood, CA, early in its brief existence. She was astoundingly wonderful in her feistiness and straightforwardness. She had that gift of extemporaneous storytelling that is a characteristic of the Irish people. Now I must go read that book.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


The Zookeeper's Wife, Diane Ackerman, W W Norton & Company, 2007, 323 pp

I had heard much about this book and was on a waiting list at the library for weeks before I got it. I was a bit disappointed but it had its high points.

It is the true story of Anonina Zabrinski and her husband Jan, Christian zookeepers in Warsaw, Poland, who formed part of the underground Resistance to the Nazis and used their zoo to help over 300 Jews escape the Ghetto. The story of German aggression and the devastation of the zoo and all of Warsaw is gruesome. I knew about conditions in the Ghetto from reading John Hersey's The Wall. Now I know even more about Hitler's insane hatred of Poland, not to mention the various attempts to rid the world of all Polish people, not just the Jews there. In that respect, it is a disturbing read.

I was annoyed by the lack of smooth continuity as the author skipped around on dates. In one paragraph it would be spring, in the next it would be winter of an undetermined year. I finally gave up trying to know what was when. The best was her portrayal of Antonina's astonishing way with animals and people. This woman had the ability to become any animal and establish a line of trust and understanding with any creature. The Nazis and the war interrupted that aspect of her life and eventually the Zabinskis lost the zoo when the Communists took over Poland after the war. But she used her gifts to help all those Jews and to safeguard them and her children by defusing many crazed soldiers and German officials. I loved reading about that.

Who knew that Hitler and his boys were also trying to bring back extinct species of animals as part of their master plan? Also that Hitler's pathological fear of illness led him on a crusade against lice which devolved into equating Jews with lice.

So The Zookeeper's Wife is another look at one of the worst decades in recent history, from which there is apparently still no escape in literature.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Nothing to Declare, Mary Morris, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988, 250 pp

Sometime in the early 80s, author Mary Morris took off to Mexico to travel alone. She had had her heart and spirit broken by a man and as she says on page 4, "With a terrible feeling of isolation and a growing belief that America had become a foreign land, I headed south." But the reader learns later on in this astonishing travel memoir, that Mary Morris has had an urge for going since a bald eagle landed in her Chicago suburban backyard when she was a girl.

Morris is given to dreams, beliefs in totems and angels, depression and deep conflicts about men. She is a wonderful writer, honest about how broken she feels but not maudlin. As she describes long bus trips, food, accommodations, poverty and other Americans, you are there. As she take ridiculous risks to her safety, you want to slap her upside the head. And as she heads home with nothing really resolved, you wish her well. This is Eat Pray Love on a much more jagged edge and a much more honest level.


The Iliad, Homer, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1938 translation by W D Rose, 297 pp

About all I can say is that I finally got through this classic. I read a chapter a day with a long break in the middle. The translation is in prose and some of the dialogue is a laugh, but it was more readable for me than poetry. Did Homer invent the simile? He sure is big on those.

Who knew (not me) that the Trojan Horse part of the story is not in the Iliad? Will Durant, in The Life of Greece, The Story of Civilization: Part II, just says that the Trojan Horse was covered by other writers. As stunningly boring as this story was to me, I must remark that I understood better than ever the interplay of the gods and men which is inherent in the world view of the ancients.

Achilles is no hero to me, despite his feats. Just a spoiled mama's boy with a goddess for a mother. I am going to now re-read Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which is her version of the Trojan War from the female side. Then it will be on to The Odyssey and The Penelopliad by Margaret Atwood.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Today's word comes from page 102 of The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow.

knar is a noun meaning a knot in wood; esp. a bark covered bulge on a tree trunk or root. It comes from Middle English, knarre which is from Low German knarre, Dutch knar, a stump, knob, knot.

My sentence: I bruised my knuckle when I hit a knar while digging a hole to plant the new bush I won in a drawing on Earth Day.

Anyone else have any experience with knars?


The Book Borrower, Alice Mattison, William Morrow and Company Inc, 1999, 278 pp

I read this for a book group I was part of that has since gone defunct. Everyone else hated it; no one else finished it; no one even came to the meeting except the leader and myself. I loved it.

Toby Ruben is a young mother in the 1970s when she meets Deborah Laidlaw, another mother, in the city playground. Deborah lends Ruben a book about a female anarchist who was involved in a trolley workers strike in Boston in the 1920s.

The Book Borrower covers three decades of this rocky friendship between Ruben and Deborah, interspersed with Ruben's sporadic reading of Trolley Girl, which you read along with her. The women raise their kids and also teach side by side, first training workers at a daycare center, later at a local college. I think Ruben is the more intelligent of the two and this causes some problems in their professional relationship. Their friendship is ostensibly because of being mothers but on a deeper level it is an intellectual friendship between two women.

The book is rather dreamy as it is mostly about Ruben's inner life. There are no quotation marks or he said, she saids, in the text, so the reader has to stay alert and participate. Apparently that is just too hard for some readers (I know that sounds so snobby, but if you are going to join a reading group, come on), but I like contributing to a story with my own ideas. I also like these women because they are real people, as far as I recall the women I knew when I was raising my kids.

Maybe it is just me, but I find friendships with women a difficult area of life. Men, especially husbands, children and jobs get in the way and complicate what was natural in childhood. Mattison beautifully yet unflinchingly portrays the fragility, the tension, the strength and the need for women's friendships. Underlying this though is the truth that all human connections are tenuous at best; marriage, parenthood, professional relationships are all covered. By weaving in the story of the anarchist, who becomes an artist, Mattison runs the gamut. She says to me that despite all our efforts to be orderly, faithful and kind, anarchy rules. I agree!

Sunday, May 11, 2008


People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks, Viking, 2008, 368 pp

The first book I read which was published this year was a fantastic read. Geraldine Brooks has become a good fiction writer, each book being better than the last. In this novel I had none of my former beefs with her; in fact I can barely remember what they were.

Hanna Heath, a young book expert with a troubled emotional past, gets called to Sarajevo to analyze and conserve an ancient Hebrew manuscript. From that beginning follows an explication of the manuscript's history as well as Hannah's, told in alternating chapters.

The manuscript actually exists and some of its history, dating back to 1400s Spain, is known. But all the story here is Brooks' fictional imaginings. Hanna is also a fictional character and a fairly standard modern heroine whom I happened to like and admire. She is equal parts well-trained professional and independent female with heart. In other words, my kind of woman. There are several other strong women in the ancient stories as well as admirable men and dastardly villains.

The storytelling is powerful and the theme is one of my favorites: that truth and beauty get preserved by the efforts of a few desperate humans because these things are worth preserving for the benefit of mankind. Whether mankind is worth it is a question outside the realm of fiction. In my present mood, that may be an unanswerable question or one with as many answers as there are individuals.

Meanwhile it is often storytelling that pulls us through and People of the Book is one righteous story.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Today's word is also from Sex Wars by Marge Piercy; found on page 309. Not surprisingly it has a similar meaning to the last word of the day: termagant.

Virago is a noun meaning a quarrelsome, shrewish woman; scold. It also has an archaic definition: a strong, manlike woman; amazon. It comes from Latin, where it meant a manlike female.

My sentence: "God save us from viragoes," said the male chauvinist pig.


The Fairy-Tale Detectives: The Sisters Grimm Book One, Michael Buckley, Amulet Books, 2005, 284 pp

What Jaspar Fforde has done for adult literary mystery, Michael Buckley has done for young readers, except that he has fused mystery and fairy tales. The Grimm sisters are descended from the brothers Grimm. In this first book of the Sisters Grimm series, Sabrina and Daphne have lost their parents, who just vanished one day. After a horrific series of foster homes, they land in a small town with a woman claiming to be their grandmother. While she is nice, especially compared to the other foster parents, she is quite odd and according to the girls' parents she was supposed to be dead.

Eventually the story gets straightened out and Sabrina and Daphne become full-fledged fairy-tale detectives. Grandmother Grimm gets captured by a giant, who came down a beanstalk naturally. The girls must figure out which are friends and which are foes as they meet Jack, Prince Charming and other fairy-tale characters and rescue their grandmother.

This is a highly imagined madcap adventure set in the modern world. I like the way Buckley has made fairy-tales relevant and created a couple of great female heroines. There are five books in the series with a sixth coming soon. (Ages 8-12)

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer, Doubleday, 2003, 365 pp

The trouble with books about religion, or I should say, writing books about religion, is the available sources of information. In an effort to get at the truth about Mormons and their religion, Jon Krakauer has used as his main sources the testimony of either fundamentalist or disaffected Mormons. In 1984, two brothers murdered a woman and her infant daughter, believing that God told them to kill these people.

The brothers were fundamentalists, sons of a practicing polygamist, and also in my opinion, nut cases. This book is overly sensationalist and puts the mainstream Mormon Church in an unfavorable light. A writer could take any religion, old or new, and accomplish the same result. It makes me wonder what percent of mankind actually practices the philosophy of any religion. I have studied the beliefs and principles underlying all of the world's major religions and they are universally in favor of love, understanding, kindness, respect for one's fellow man and promote a search for truth and one's spiritual nature. Judging by the state of the world in any given historical period or today, I would say that the percentage of true practice of any religion is low.

I did learn about Mormons, Joseph Smith, the history of this religious group. For that, I am somewhat glad I read the book. But it is a degraded look at the whole idea of religion and seems to say that religious belief results in fanaticism and unnatural acts. I don't think that is true though many shameful actions have been done by men in the name of God. Our current President is no exception.

Overall, the book is depressing and disgusting. I was in a bad mood the whole time I was reading it. I ought to read Wallace Stegner's Mormon Country to balance the picture. Someday I will.

Monday, May 05, 2008


This post is for new readers. If you have been reading my blog for a while and know how to get around, you could probably skip it.

I have been working on a memoir called "Reading For My Life," and posting the chapters here as I get them written. So far, each chapter covers a year and I try to post one every few months. If you want to read the earlier chapters, just click on the label at the bottom of the current chapter and you will get a page that includes all the chapters. Scroll all the way to the end of this page and read the posts from earliest to latest.

For each year of the memoir I read 20 to 30 books published in that year. This I call "My Big Fat Reading Project." I post small reviews of all of these books under that label. Once again, you can see all those posts by finding one of them and then clicking the label at the end. The last one was posted on April 21, 2008.

Any other questions? Leave a comment and I will answer in the comments section. Thank you for reading my blog. I am happy to receive any comments except spam.


My World Gets Wider

In 1952, I turned five. The leap from four to five was a big one as I ventured out, both willingly and unwillingly into the neighborhood and to school. It was exciting, terrifying and fraught with opportunities for new ways of being.

In the world at large the Cold War was actually hot in the Far East and in various skirmishes in Africa. Attempts to achieve an end to the Korean War dragged on in 1952 due to the Western powers’ use of that battleground to try foiling the USSR’s timetable of world conquest. A communist inspired revolution against British supported King Farouk in Egypt would eventually put Nasser in charge and Egypt in alliance with the USSR. In Kenya, the Mau Mau uprising resulted in response to British interests that had ruined native farming there. Meanwhile 16,000 people escaped from East Berlin into West Berlin and the Western powers continued their efforts to rearm Europe and raise the standard of living in western European countries.

King George VI of England died putting Elizabeth in line for the throne, though it was really Churchill as Prime Minister who ran the country and what was left of the Empire. Eisenhower was elected President of the United States while our military boys achieved the first test of the hydrogen bomb, a weapon so destructive that war by nuclear force actually became an unthinkable future for planet Earth.

Odd developments at the time were the rise of Christian Dior in Paris and the production of the first birth control pill in the United States. If I look at history at this time from a viewpoint such as that in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I can see the rising up of all kinds of oppressed minorities: blacks, women, natives in Africa and Asia, etc. It is as if the world is growing up and seeking a more balanced civilization with ideas of freedom and liberty which began in the 18th century finding their way around the world, but the powers that be, the money and armaments guys, are certainly not ready to give an inch. While I would not want a world run on communism, I can see that it played a part in raising the consciousness of peoples everywhere and was perhaps a necessary stage in history which was what Karl Marx might have been trying to say.

The Academy Award winning films this year range from a silly musical to romantic and marital disorder causing plenty of censorship ills. “An American in Paris” is the musical and took Best Picture. George Stevens won Best Director for “ A Place in the Sun”, an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. “The African Queen” won for Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart) in a romance with Katherine Hepburn set in WW I. Vivien Lee took Best Actress in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Mostly fairly racy stuff and a harbinger of a change in standards in the motion picture industry.

The popular songs of the year included “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” which would have mystified me if I’d heard it. It was condemned by the Catholic Church for mixing sex with Christmas and has since been recorded by The Jackson Five and Jessica Simpson among others. “It Takes Two to Tango” is what my very staid maternal grandmother said years later when my cousin Rich, whom I idolized, had to get married and give up his dreams of being a doctor. “Wheel of Fortune” performed by Kay Starr actually later became the theme song of the TV show.

Among the books I read for this year, four of the bestsellers were historical novels and only one was about WWII. But the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award both went to war books: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk and From Here to Eternity by James Jones, respectively. The bestseller list included four literary novels and a good slice of Americana. Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano came out in 1952, a futuristic look at the soul-killing aspects of big business. I was most impressed by East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which I think is his greatest novel; My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier for its compelling main character; The Natural by Bernard Malamud for a deep look at the American psyche; and Martha Quest by Doris Lessing because she began her probing of women’s issues. This was also the year Charlotte’s Web was released and I read that many times as a child. Once again, though I had thought books from the 1950s would be bland and boring, I was engaged and enlightened as a reader, even by the bestsellers.

As for my life in 1952, in one year I went from the close family circle into a social existence. At home, my consumption of sweets was closely controlled and I never felt I could get enough but my sweet tooth got me into trouble this year. I remember a party at our house when among other things my mom served homemade brownies. I don’t know how many I ate when no one was watching but I threw up all night and could not eat brownies again until I was an adult. Another time, I was at a birthday party in the neighborhood and was offered some of those orange spongy candies that look like peanuts in the shell. Though I wanted one desperately I told the mother of the birthday girl that I wasn’t allowed to have candy. (My mother was there.) Sadly regretting being such a good girl, I later snuck around until I found the plate of candies and gobbled several while my mother was not watching. I also discovered where my mom hid her gum at home and would sneak a piece now and then, going off by myself for a good chew. But I was busted by Daddy one time when he asked me what I was chewing. I shamelessly lied and said it was celery strings, which he believed. This may have been my first lie to my adored father.

Then there were boys. Two little brothers from a couple doors down used to come into my yard and we would go off exploring the big field next to our lot. Exploring included crawling under a clump of bushes and taking off our clothes so we could see how our bodies were different. Somehow I sensed that this was secret and not to be discussed with my parents. Across the field was our closest neighbor, the Steigerwalts. To get to their house, you had to cross a hanging bridge over a gully that lay between the road and the house. I was terrified by this bridge because you could see through the slats and I was afraid of falling through, but Mrs Steigerwalt always served cookies and she had two sons older than I was. I would take my sister Linda by the hand and with Mom watching from the back porch we would navigate the field, creep across the bridge, trudge up the front walk giving a wide berth to the garter snake that would be sunning himself there and finally make it to the back door. I always thought Mrs Steigerwalt was a bit scary herself the way she would stand at her ironing board looking stern and slamming that iron about. The boys would start roughhousing with me until I screamed for mercy but she would just laugh. So I learned that pleasures in life often came with pain and danger.

Across the road lived Mr Muchow who seemed to me a very old man with his white hair sticking out beneath the cap he always wore. He had an invalided wife whom I don’t remember ever seeing, but he would come over and get me for walks through the woods behind his house. To me he was a combination of Santa Claus and Jesus as we walked along hand in hand and he listened to all I had to say as if I were the most important person in the world. I dreamed about this man whenever I was going through something stressful and lonely all the way into my 20s. After my grandma and my dad, he was the third great person in my life up to that time.

But then came my first major challenge: school. In the fall, I began kindergarten. For someone who grew up to love travel, change, new people and adventures, I started out as a complete wimp. I wailed when my mother left me there until, after a week or so of that, she got angry and told me to stop being a baby. Then I held it inside, but I was afraid of the stairs up to the door, of the kids dashing around me, of being knocked down. Inside the classroom was a slide that became an object of obsession for me. It seemed very high, I remember it as having no sides and I was completely conflicted between wanting to go up there and slide down but being convinced I would fall off and die. My only happy memory of kindergarten was the day I finally got to paint at the easel. You had to get on a list and it seemed I was on that list for weeks but at last it was my turn. I painted a huge red apple that took up almost the whole page. Apparently I took too long because the teacher came over and said I did not have to cover every bit of the paper with paint. Of course I did! After that I rarely met a teacher who did not specialize in saying ridiculous things. My kindergarten teacher was first in a long line of authority figures whom I perceived as enemies.

By this time I was five years old, the year was drawing to a close, I suffered from consecutive earaches (probably brought on by the stress of school) and big changes were afoot. Mom got pregnant about August and near the end of the year, United States Steel decided to transfer my dad to the New York City office. I don’t have memories of these things, although I do recall the earaches and visits to the doctor. According to my mom, it took two people to hold me down while a third put in the eardrops. Well, who wants people dropping cold liquid in your ear when it hurts? In any case, it would be our last winter in Pittsburgh and by the following Christmas, I would have moved twice.

Saturday, May 03, 2008


termagant was found on page 127 of Marge Piercy's excellent Sex Wars.

In the context (according to Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition), it means a boisterous, quarrelsome, scolding woman; shrew.

When capitalized it means an imaginary deity supposed by medieval Christians to be worshiped by Muslims and represented in morality plays as a boisterous, overbearing figure. In fact that is the derivation of the word which was spelled Tervagant in Middle English and came from Old French, probably introduced by the Crusaders.

Very interesting! Of course, we all know that women should never be boisterous or quarrelsome or scolding. Yet medieval Christians thought that Muslims considered this sort of person to be a deity.

My sentence: Beware of any man calling you a termagant.


Loving Frank, Nancy Horan, Random House Inc, 2007, 359 pp

From 1907 to 1914, Frank Lloyd Wright carried on a love affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney. They were both married to others when the affair began and both had children. It caused a great scandal in Chicago as well as around the country, which resulted in added suffering for all involved. Loving Frank is a fictional account of this affair.

Having always been an admirer of Wright as an architect, I now know plenty about him as a person, due to this book and the biography I read. He sounds like a hard man to be in love with. But for Mamah Cheney, a highly educated and extremely intelligent woman, he brought excitement, passion and a full life. She had married at 29 years of age to a man she did not love and had a son and daughter. The husband was not a bad guy, but motherhood and middle-class life proved to be stifling for Mamah, who suffered a year of postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter.

Horan did a fine job of telling this story. I was annoyed, as I always am, by dialogue that sounded modern: I am pretty sure that people did not talk that way in the early 1900s. But I was drawn into the story. In today's world, not many would be shocked by such an affair. Mamah would not have had the added battle of fighting the mores of the time, which rebounded on her children.

While in Europe with Frank, Mamah met Ellen Key, a famous Swedish feminist of the times, and became her translator. Again this turned out to be a blessing and a curse. Very hard time to be a woman, but despite all the grief and tragedy, it must have been thrilling as well.

Last year a book came out entitled Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich; a book which is on my TBR list. Mamah Borthwick Cheney was a very badly behaved woman in her day but contributed to changing history for women. I am glad her story has been told.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


Frank Lloyd Wright, Ada Louise Huxtable, Penguin Group Inc, 2004, 251 pp

This biography of the great architect is part of the Penguin Lives Series. I read it just before reading Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, which is a fictional account of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Wright's lover from 1907 to 1914. Huxtable, a Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, studied all the major biographies of Wright as well as other sources. She is clearly a fan and does her best to place this very complicated man in a favorable light.

I liked the book because, as biographies go, it is brief, always interesting and written in an engaging style, never bogging down in dry facts. I'm convinced that Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius. He had huge personal flaws but I've known people with similar flaws who accomplished hardly anything in life.

I finished the book feeling that it takes an outsize personality to create art in a big enough way that he leaves that artistic area forever changed. This man was way ahead of his time, to the degree that the building technology in his day could not always erect what he had conceived His concepts are still affecting architecture today. Having always admired his buildings, it is great to know something about his life.