Tuesday, December 30, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 28, 2008


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

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

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

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

Friday, December 26, 2008


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 22, 2008


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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 20, 2008


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 13, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 07, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I learned a lot about sheep.

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

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

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