Monday, June 30, 2008


A Person of Interest, Susan Choi, Viking Penguin, 2008, 356 pp

A "person of interest" is an FBI term meaning someone deemed important to an investigation. Professor Lee, a Japanese immigrant and American citizen for over 30 years, a mathematician in his 60s who has tenure at an insignificant mid-western college, is possibly one of the least interesting persons around. Yet after a bomb explodes in the office next to his, killing a colleague, Professor Lee becomes of interest to the FBI and finds himself a suspect in the eyes of his department, his students and his neighborhood.

He enters a state of extreme fear and anxiety. Susan Choi so expertly details Lee's turmoil that as a reader, I was in that state along with him for the several days I was reading this literary thriller. And literary it is. Long sentences, somewhat deep ideas about math, competition, love, insecurity, the immigrant experience, made for a slow start but I could not stop reading and the pages turned fairly rapidly.

The novel could be called When Bad Things Happen to Ordinary People. No one comes out as a particularly likable person. Lee and his main FBI contact become enmeshed in a curiously symbiotic relationship and completely unexpectedly become heroes, each in his own way. The last 100 pages left me breathless, panting really, and deeply satisfied. As they say in the blurbs, a triumph.


I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron, Alfred A Knopf Inc, 2007, 170 pp

Nora Ephron is famous for her screenplays of "When Harry Met Sally", "Sleepless in Seattle", "Michael" and "Bewitched." She is very good at making people laugh as I did, out loud, through much of this collection of essays on getting to be a woman of a certain age.

Though I have no plans to go under the knife, the title essay is all too true about what happens to aging female bodies. "I Hate My Purse", her futile search for a purse that works, pretty much paralleled my own experiences. I loved "Parenting in Three Stages" and my personal favorite "On Rapture" captures the joy of reading.

Funny thing though: like her movies, once I was done I could hardly remember a thing about the book. Just a few bright scenes remain. Perhaps when a writer so closely identifies certain human feelings common to many, it is so similar to what is already in our minds and hearts that there is a canceling out of emotion. More like therapy than art. We discussed this book at one of my reading groups and had hardly anything to say. Well thanks, Nora. That was the cheapest therapy session I ever had.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Reservation Nation, David Fuller Cook, Boaz Publishing Company, 2007, 199 pp

This is a priceless little treasure of a book. The narrator is Warren, a young Native American man, who was raised on a reservation in the 50s and 60s. His grandparents brought him up after he lost his parents in a car crash and imparted to him, through stories and example, the truths of what it means to be Indian.

As Warren relates the incidents of his childhood, you meet many of the key characters on the reservation. Some maintain the traditional ways and others struggle with assimilation into the white man's world. It is Warren's grandfather who trains him to recognize his power and his role. Despite tribal politics, continuous betrayals and rip-offs by white government and business, even murder, Grandfather's wisdom brings clarity to Warren's quest for understanding life.

In the final chapter Warren has become The Seed, his Indian name and role. He states the Indian view of the universe and of life. It was deeply moving to me as he said, "The ways of the white man will pass, their influence will fade like the waning moon, because they are founded upon lies." Truth in fiction.


The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff, Nyperion, 2008, 361 pp

I wish I could say that I loved this book, but I didn't. I was looking forward to it with high expectations because I had read a story by the author in the 2007 Best American Short Stories which just took my breath away.

I think this is an ambitious novel with plenty of elements that I usually like: a young woman who is quirky and intelligent, history, a family tree which figures in the story and a bit of the supernatural. But I found it hard to follow, which is saying a lot because I can follow even the most convoluted novels. I just could not completely believe Willie Upton, the twenty-something heroine, and I could not get a grasp on her mother Vi in such a way as to feel involved with either one.

Willie has gotten herself in a jam and come home from an archeology dig that would have figured in her graduate thesis. She feels she has totally blown it and that her life is ruined. For such an independent and intelligent young woman, she spends the whole book being nasty to the mother she came home to for shelter and being about as silly emotionally as any chick lit heroine. It didn't seem to fit together right.

Getting through the novel was an effort, took way too long for a mere 361 pages and while the reader is supposed to feel that Willie changed and grew, I did not feel that she did. However, due to the short story that introduced me to Lauren Groff and to the large amount of potential I see in the novel, I will certainly read the next one she writes.

(The Monsters of Templeton is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Lost City Radio, Daniel Alarcon, HarperCollins Publishers, 2007, 257 pp

I was attracted to this book by the reviews and by the idea that a radio show called "Lost City Radio" brought separated people and families back together after a decade of civil war in an unnamed South American country. As it turned out, while the story is centered on the radio announcer Norma and her missing husband, it is not really about the show or its results.

The story is about war, displacement of peoples, oppressive government versus rebels and most deeply, about the effects of all this on a marriage and the great love between Norma and Rey. Since this is a novel about South America, the story goes in a South American trajectory, which is so different from the North American story telling tradition. I like this sort of story and after reading much of other such writers, I am beginning to see the influences of it in contemporary North American fiction.

Some readers I know get annoyed by a story that goes back and forth in time, circling round and round itself until all is told. It doesn't bother me. I could say that not a lot happens in Lost City Radio in terms of events, yet much occurs in the lives of the characters. The degree of uncertainty and upheaval portrayed here would most likely do me in and books like this make me realize how stable life is in the United States, how predictable, at least for the middle class. Alarcon writes about all these factors in wonderful prose. I felt the city and the jungle, the terrible fear and instability in these people's lives, the complete unreliability of the government and the news.

Somehow he has written a powerful story in a quiet way. I won't forget it soon.


Tender is the Night, F Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933, 315 pp

I read this for one of my reading groups and I was the only one who finished it. In fact, this group is now defunct. I am done with Fitzgerald. Not that I have read all of his novels but I've read three and with the possible exception of The Great Gatsby, he has let me down every time.

In The Beautiful and the Damned he at least wrote well. In Tender is the Night, I had no idea who was who or what was going on in the first 50 pages. I pressed on and found out that Dick Diver was the main character and a psychologist who married his schizophrenic patient. I mean, how dumb was that? Because: she was ridiculously rich, he lost his self-respect and his purpose in life and then due to his efforts, she eventually got well only to leave him.

I'm sorry but I really could not feel any pity for any of the characters and their collective tragedy seemed inevitable, due to many stupidities which could have been avoided. Someday I will read Zelda Fitzgerald's autobiography and biography to get the other side of the story. Fitzgerald's low opinions of mankind in general are only topped by his misogynist views of women in particular.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


The Gathering, Anne Enright, Grove/Atlantic Inc, 2007, 261 pp

This dark novel won the Booker Prize in 2007. I liked it pretty well because the writing is great. The story however is not too original: a woman's brother commits suicide, she gathers with her family, re-lives her childhood and uncovers hidden incidents to make sense of her brother's death. In fact, it was the same story told in Mary Morris's The Waiting Room, though much better written.

Really it is a story of abuse and how that poisons a family. Veronica, the sister, is a woman who rose out of the pit of her family only to become somewhat unhinged when her brother dies. But she comes through all sorts of grief, denial and fear of life, so there is hope in the end. Clearly a message is being sent here that what families sweep under the carpet will come back to haunt them. Also she does an excellent job of showing how children cannot make sense of many things in childhood but can unravel those confusions as adults.

We discussed the book at one of the reading groups I attend and not many liked it at all. For those women it was way too heavy and upsetting. I think they had their own issues of denial going on.


 The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell, Villard Books, 1996, 405 pp

Wow! Amazing! So good. One of those books you stumble upon that takes you by surprise. I first saw it on the backlist shelf at the bookstore where I work. (Once Upon A Time in Montrose, CA) Then I saw it mentioned on several lists of top sci fi books. While on a trip to Ann Arbor, MI, I bought it at my favorite Ann Arbor bookstore: Shaman Drum.
Set in 2059, the story combines space travel, Jesuits, aliens and a group of flawed but wonderful human characters. All you know at the beginning is that Emilio Sandoz has returned from a journey into space, sick, broken and without the rest of his party. He is a Jesuit priest and is taken in by his order for healing, but there are some huge shameful aspects to the mission. The rest of the book, shifting back and forth in time, reveals the whole story.
In an interview, the author says she wanted to write a story about the pitfalls of first contact between two alien cultures and at this point in time, had to go offworld to do so. She has tackled here also issues of faith, belief and duty in religion; of family and love and recovery from horrific childhoods; of time and science, linguistics and society.
Hard to believe that it is a first novel. She weaves through all that heavy stuff with the lightest of touch. On top of all that, she never over-explains, so I felt I was discovering the alien culture right along with the mission and that I was recovering from devastating memories right along with Emilio. A masterpiece! Even if you think you don't like science fiction, give it a try.


The Waiting Room, Mary Morris, Doubleday, 1989, 273 pp

After reading Mary Morris's travel memoir Nothing to Declare, I wanted to read more of her work. This is her second novel, published the year after the memoir and the lyrical but reportorial style I liked in that book did not enchant me in her novel.

Zoe Coleman returns to her Wisconsin hometown because her younger brother Badger has come back from Canada, where he had gone to escape the draft, and is now a drug casualty in a facility for various types of rehab patients. I think it would have been a pretty good and relevant book in the 80s. The quirky characters in Zoe's back story and the troubles with her mother make this a sort of Lisa Alther meets early Anne Tyler novel.

Morris does too much telling without showing and the deadpan delivery is at odds with the emotionally charged story. It did not make me want to read it but I made it through.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Ghostwalk, Rebecca Stott, Spiegel & Grau, 2007, 284 pp

This was a good companion to Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson, because it is about Isaac Newton, though the main characters are contemporary. Stott combines historical fiction, obsessive love and a sort of supernatural blend of past and present where incidents from the past show up in various present locations in Cambridge, both the town and the university.

Lydia Brooke is a writer who returns to Cambridge for the funeral of historian Elizabeth Vogelsang, who died while working on a history of Newton and his involvement with alchemy. Lydia had left Cambridge to escape a hopeless affair with Vogelsang's married son Cameron, a medical researcher who is developing a psychiatric drug. On her return, she again gets involved with Cameron, who asks her to finish his mother's book.

Lydia moves into Elizabeth Vogelsang's house and immediately things get strange with mysterious lights in the house among other things, including a psychic, animal rights activists and further deaths. She finally solves it all and the story is therefore also a mystery.

I liked it. The writing is rather dreamy, time is fluid and while events are confusing, I felt I was in the hands of a good writer who moved the story along at a brisk pace. It was helpful to already know quite a bit about Newton and his life in the 1760s. Also I found it interesting to get a look at Newton from a different slant than Stephenson's. I was reminded of Hawksmoor, by Peter Ackroyd, which I read years ago, where murders committed in the 20th century had parallels in the 18th century.

Monday, June 16, 2008


While I write the chapter for 1953, I'll keep blogging about books I have read recently.

Children of Men, P D James, Alfred A Knopf, 1993, 241 pp

What if the human race became sterile and no more children were born? That is the premise here and all the ways this would affect society and daily life are played out.

Along comes a small sort of revolutionary group protesting some of the government's policies. An Oxford professor gets involved with them which is complicated by the fact that he is a cousin of the head of government. Then one of the women in the revolutionary group gets pregnant!

From that point on the suspense and pace are relentless to the end, at which point the question is raised: what now? It is a good story, with excellent characters and a much better pace than the two of her mysteries I've read. Though it is set in 2021, I didn't find much technological evidence of a society almost 30 years in the future, which surprised me, but the state of the world politically was definitely in a worse way.

I will probably be alive in 2021. I will be turning 73 in that year. I wonder if I will remember this book then. The other night I saw the movie made from this book. It is so much changed that it is a different story but I have to say that it was good. Actually it was almost better than the book.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


This post contains the prize winning books from 1953. This year there was a new award: The Hugo Award, named in honor of Hugo Gernsback, "The Father of Magazine Science Fiction," as he was described in a special award given to him in 1960. The Hugo Award, also known as the Science Fiction Achievement Award, is given annually by the World Science Fiction Society. Like most awards it has many categories but I am reading the best novel winner.

PULITZER PRIZE: The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway. This book was the #7 bestseller in 1952 and I reviewed it in the post BOOKS READ FROM 1952, PART TWO, posted on Feb. 11, 2008.

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD: Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, Random House Inc, 1952, 581 pp

This book has been called the greatest American novel in the second half of the twentieth century. Hm. I was ready to be wowed.

The main character, whose name we never learn, is a young black man at a prestigious college for Negroes in the South. He is trying to rise in the world as a Negro but is woefully oblivious of the real dynamics going on between the races, economically and politically.

He gets expelled for trying to do what he thinks is the right thing, ends up in New York City and has many disastrous experiences, including becoming a spokesperson for the Communist Party in Harlem. But all along, he is used by white men and women, until he decides that he, as a person, is invisible.

Sounds exciting, yes? Well, the story did get me through but the storytelling would bog down often and leave me napping. It took me 5 days to read this book; days when I had plenty of time to read. At least I can say that I have now read, along with Richard Wright's books, the seminal novels of the Black male experience.

HUGO AWARD: The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester, Nelson Doubleday Inc, 1953, 183 pp

This science fiction novel won the first ever Hugo Award. It is about a manic business mogul who will stop at nothing to succeed. In this future civilization, many people are able to read minds and communicate telepathically with each other. They are called "peepers" and they permeate society.

The drama is whether or not the businessman will be caught for a murder he committed. If he is convicted he faces demolishment. The writing is mediocre and in that slangy style of certain sci fi and mystery novels. The emotional impact comes at the end when you learn what it means to demolish a man. Ultimately it is a hopeful book with the theme of the betterment of mankind. Interesting!

NEWBERY AWARD: Secret of the Andes, Ann Nolan Clark, The Viking Press, 1952, 130 pp

This is a most beautifully written story of a young Inca boy raised by an old man in a secret valley high in the Andes. He comes of age, gradually getting his urgent questions answered about who he is and what is his destiny.

Having recently read Ines of My Soul, by Isabel Allende, which is set in the same locale and time period, I was overjoyed to read a story from the Inca viewpoint. One of the first things the Spanish conquerors did was to defeat the ancient Inca civilization.

Cusi, and thus the reader, learns that it is possible to keep beliefs and wisdom alive in one's heart and mind. So great.

CALDECOTT AWARD: The Biggest Bear, Lyn Ward, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1952, 85 pp

The Caldecott winner for 1953 features Johnny Orchard, a farm boy who is humiliated because theirs is the only barn without a bear skin on the side. In the illustrations, also by Ward, Johnny looks about 8 or 9 years old. He roams the entire countryside with his own rifle, hunting for a bear.

Finally he brings home a baby bear who grows up and becomes a nuisance, so Johnny tries to return the bear to the forest. Naturally the bear keeps coming back and finally winds up in the zoo.

Great illustrations but a highly improbable story and what is so great about the zoo? Would a kid buy this story?

Sunday, June 08, 2008


The Long March, William Styron, Random House, 1953, 120 pp

This is the only other piece of fiction (The Bridges at Toko-Ri by James Michener being one) I have read, chronologically speaking, that has the Korean War in it. The setting is a Marine training camp in the Carolinas and features two former marines who fought in WWII, then became reserves and have now been called back as the armed forces mobilize for Korea.

One of these men, Culver, tells the story as he watches his friend Mannix fall apart during a 30-mile forced march, dreamed up as a training exercise by their colonel. The book is a study of military psychology, human strengths and weaknesses, as well as the effect of an exercise in futility on different types of men.


Second Foundation, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1953, 191 pp

In the final volume of the Foundation trilogy, the Mule rises again with an altered method for conquest of the universe. But the real surprise is the emergence of the "Second Foundation," mentioned in Hari Seldon's plan but never before taken into account.

This is the most exciting of the three books and I can't say more without giving it away. What was most interesting to me was the idea that the two foundations, having the same goal, would come into conflict. Also the idea of science versus spirit is part of the story. Is there anything this writer did not cover?

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, Ballantine/Del Rey 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, which leads him to rebel against the powers that be. He 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 Golden Apples of the Sun, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1953, 209 pp

Another collection of Bradbury's stories from 1947 to 1953. He covers a wide range of subjects from all his usual concerns. Some of the stories are only a few pages and not many of them really thrilled me. I read two stories a day for 11 days and was bored most of the time. Part of it is his writing which just makes me cringe. Another part is that he may have been one of the first to put forth some of these thoughts and ideas but over 60 years later, they are no longer new ideas.

The best story is "Powerhouse" in which a woman finds faith and understanding about life while sleeping in a power station and having her first out of body experience. In it, his idea overcomes his writing.

The Silver Chair, C S Lewis, HarperCollins Inc, 1953, 243 pp

In the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia (by the old numbering system), cousin Eustace and his school chum Jill enter Narnia to help Aslan release the son of Prince Caspian from an enchantment. I don't recall ever having read this volume and found it to be a good story that kept me enthralled.

Lucy and Edmund can no longer go to Narnia, being too old now. Eustace has no traces of the disgusting side of his personality, having been cured in The Voyage of the Dawntreader. Jill is a sensible girl who readily adapts to Narnia. They journey through moors, mountains and even the underground, encountering yet another wicked witch as well as giants.

None of the later stories quite measure up to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but this is one of the better ones with not so much moralizing or religious symbolism and some good tips on breaking enchantments.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrar, Penguin Putnam Inc, 1953, 329 pp

My husband gave me this book for Christmas many years ago and it just sat on the shelf. Then I saw the movie which came out in 1997 and starred Brad Pitt, where I found out what it was all about. Much as I liked the movie and was glad for the images it gave me, the book is, of course, way better.

In 1939, the author, who is German, was interred in a POW camp in India. England had declared war on Germany, so while these prisoners were not mistreated, they could not be free. Harrar and some of his friends were mountain climbers and refused to be stuck in a prison camp, so after several attempts finally escaped in order to continue with their plans of crossing the Himilayas and entering Tibet. Harrar's goal was Lhasa, home of the Dalai Lama and center of Tibetan Buddhism.

He and one other man made it mostly by walking, occasionally by yak. It took them two years and because they had no papers, they were under constant danger of being kicked out of the country. Their journey makes Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods look like a walk in the park. I found similarities to The Places in Between, Rory Stewart's record of his walk across Afghanistan.

Finally in Lhasa, Harrar becomes part of the city and eventually tutor to the 14 year old Dalai Lama. He loved it there so much and makes the reader love it as well. He would probably still be there but in 1950, Communist China invaded and he had to flee, as did the Dalai Lama. Tibetan Buddhism, its thousands of monasteries and tens of thousands of monks, was almost obliterated by the communists and Tibet, land of mystery and spiritual practice, will never be the same.

I felt extremely sad about that as I finished the book and suffered from a mild depression for several days afterwards. Though Harrar was a scientist and atheist, he did a fine thing for the spiritual history of mankind by writing this book. Though steeped in superstition, Tibet was basically at peace for a thousand years because of Buddhism.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri, James A Michener, Random House Inc, 1953, 147 pp

This is the only other book about the Korean War that I have read so far in this project. Unlike William Styron's The Long March, it actually takes place in Korea and features a jet pilot named Harry Brubaker, a WWII vet who was recalled from his civilian life as a lawyer and married man with two daughters, to fight another war to save democracy. He is conflicted between doing his duty and wanting his contented civilian life.

Michener manages to pour it on pretty thick about how important the war is and how much the regular American citizen doesn't realize that or even care. Personally I am ready for this author to move on, which he does in 1959 with Hawaii.

The Marmot Drive, John Hersey, Alfred A Knopf, 1953, 237 pp

Oh my, this was a boring book. It is one of those stories about city people versus small town people. Hester, born and raised in New York City, goes home for the weekend with her boyfriend Eben to a small Connecticut village. Turns out that Eben's father, the Selectman of the village, has organized a plan to drive out the marmots (groundhogs) who have overrun the place.

The whole story then is hung on this marmot drive and used to show up a bunch of rugged individualists and to give Hester a chance to make her decision about whether or not to marry Eben. Quite a small canvas after the vast tale of the Warsaw ghetto in The Wall. I suppose a small town is a sort of ghetto but marmots are not Nazis.

The Outsider, Richard Wright, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1953, 405 pp

It was clear from the first page that Cross, a young Black man in Chicago, is doomed. Then you read 400 pages to find out how he engineered his doom. He deserts everyone to whom he has committed himself; he murders several men; he relocates to New York City and acquires a new identity; he becomes involved with the Communist Party. But he never changes. He is so disassociated from humanity that, while he is very intelligent and well-read and has built up an entire personal philosophy, he cannot grow or learn from his experiences.

I do not know what Wright is trying to say here. Something about morality or the lack of it in human beings. Yes, there is the subject of race but he seems to feel that men of any race are deluded and depraved.

I read it to the end and was not left with any feeling of satisfaction. Are we all doomed? Are we all outsiders?

Nine Stories, J D Salinger, Little Brown and Company, 1953, 198 pp

I read a story a day, which is the successful way for me to get through a story collection. I had read a few of them before.

"For Esme-with Love and Squalor" is one I remembered and I still loved it. Salinger does kids so well and in the final story, "Teddy" he wowed me again. A couple others were clearly New Yorker types about odd and messed up adults. I didn't like those as well.

Cress Delahanty, Jessamyn West, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1953, 311 pp

Jessamyn West's books fall into a category I call comfort fiction. She takes up the quirks of everyday people but it all comes out right in the end. Not too exciting but I keep reading her because she plumbs the human spirit with a unique voice.

Cress Delahanty is 12 years old at the beginning of this series of vignettes. By the end she is 16. She lives on a citrus ranch, an only child with two decent and understanding parents. Her volatile personality, influenced by reading and nature, makes her a bit more than the usual teen, but all the hyper-emotional world of the teen years is portrayed quite well by West, as well as the learning experiences about boys, men and family.

Still this was not the best of her books so far.