Sunday, May 31, 2009


Night Train to Lisbon, Pascal Mercier, Grove Press, 2008, 438 pp
(Originally published by Carl Hanser Verglag, Munich, 2004, translated from German by Barbara Harshav.)

I began reading this philosophical novel two days after my mother passed away. I had purchased it off a Buy One-Get One Free table at a Border's in Ann Arbor based on the title and a blurb from Isabel Allende: "A treat for the mind. One of the best books I have read in a long time." During the three months that my mother was recovering from and then dying from two strokes, the only thing that consoled me in the least was buying books.

This book was strangely perfect for the time. The author is a Swiss professor of philosophy and an accomplished writer, though for a book about beautiful sentences, his sentences are awkwardly constructed, at least in translation. But the dreamlike pace, the sense of delving into a person's past to attempt an understanding of that person, was suited to my fragile emotional state. When you watch someone whom you have known all your life unravel before your eyes, the mystery and the wonder of who a single human being really is plays out hour by hour.

Raimond Gregorious teaches classical languages at a Swiss school. He is outwardly the dullest man, buried in routine and almost as dead as the languages he has loved all his life. A chance encounter with a Portuguese woman leads him to a forgotten book in a Spanish bookstore. The introduction to this book of philosophical essays propels him out of his sorry life and into a journey to Lisbon, onto a quest for understanding and through all the great questions of identity, love, loyalty and meaning.

The book moves very slowly after its rather explosive beginning and along with my state of deep exhaustion, put me to sleep about every twenty pages. Then about halfway through it jelled into a sort of mystery/thriller about the life of the Portuguese author of the book that Raimond had bought. From that point on I read voraciously and finished it in a day.

Promises fulfilled and broken, dreams and goals left incomplete or unrealized, varieties of love and friendship, but most of all layers of identity in every person and the impossibility of really knowing anyone including oneself, are the ideas behind this story. Possibly Mercier bit off more than he could make digestible in one book, but it is a laudable effort. I would not go so far as to say that this book changed my life, but it had a huge effect and I will remember it.

(This book is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, May 29, 2009


A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini, Riverhead Books, 2007, 367 pp

Some readers I know thought that this follow up to The Kiterunner was better. I disagree. It is a good story because Hosseini clearly studied all the tips on how to tell a pageturning story, but A Thousand Splendid Suns lacks the strong theme of redemption which drives the earlier book. The theme here is the female bonding that happens amongst oppressed women. There is a good deal of drama but it did not move me as much.

The cruelty to women and children, the horror of war, the sorrows of loss are all in abundance in a tale that covers over 30 years of Afghanistan history from the Russian conquest through liberation and then suppression by the Taliban to the American invasion after 9/11. Another look into a culture that is so foreign from ours and is still so influenced by ancient tribal custom is always a good thing as far as understanding goes.

Hosseini is a competent writer of popular fiction and has a mission to make certain things clear. He may also be doing some atonement of his own for his native country's despicable human rights record when it comes to women. Good on him for all that and I hope he keeps writing at the same time that I hope he gets better.

NOTE: This book is currently in stock in paperback at Once Upon A Time bookstore or may be special ordered in hardcover.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Reading Group Schedule at Once Upon A Time

We have two different reading groups meeting regularly at the store:

Meets the second Tuesday of each month at the store at 7:30 PM. I almost always attend this group which is made up of librarians, moms, working women and avid readers. Everyone gets a turn to talk about the book without being interrupted but we get lively anyhow!

Upcoming dates and titles:

June 6: City of Thieves, by David Benioff
July 14: Beneath a Marble Sky, John Shors
August 11: Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, Winifred Watson
September 8: Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows

Meets the fourth Wednesday of each month at the store at 8:30 AM. Tea and scones are served! I hardly ever make this one because it is too early for me.

June 24: In the Woods, Tana French

Since they just met this morning and voted on the upcoming books, I will have more dates and titles for you soon.

All of the above books are in stock at ONCE UPON A TIME bookstore. Stop by soon!


Two For the Dough, Janet Evanovich, Simon & Schuster Inc, 1996, 312 pp

Another romp with Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter, along with Morelli, Ranger and the bunch. A cousin of Morelli's did not make his court date and it turns out he was involved in guns stolen from the military. Something is going on at the funeral home in the burg which includes the funeral director's son so Stephanie's Grandma Mazur, who loves to go to viewings, helps solve the mystery.

The sexual/romantic sparks still fly between Stephanie and Morelli though there is less action of that nature than in the first book. Somehow Evanovich makes it all the more steamy, especially since Stephanie's mom, the tireless cook, has warmed up to Morelli.

I am more hooked than ever because these books provide great distraction, particularly when you've got something going on in life that you just don't want to think about anymore until tomorrow.

(This book is available in hard cover or paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time.)

Monday, May 25, 2009


The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga, Simon & Schuster Inc, 2008, 276 pp

The winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize is a satire on modern India. Balram Halwai originated in a small village deep in what is called The Darkness, where poor and primitive Indians live without proper food or sanitation, virtually no education and no hope except for various superstitions and illegal schemes. He manages to learn to drive cars and escapes to the city as a driver for a rich man.

Eventually he murders his employer and makes off with a large sum of money, meant to be a bribery payment to some politician, then starts his own company: a fleet of cars with drivers. Balram tells his story in a series of late night letters to the Premier of China, a country that India wishes to emulate, if you believe Balram. The satire is mostly well done, though it annoyed me at times, possibly because I did not get all the jokes. With this device, Adiga keeps the story from being too heartrending. I would call this the present day Indian version of existentialism.

Pretty much a page turner but somehow not as good as that 800 page tome I read a year or so ago, also set in modern day India: Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra.

This book is currently in stock at Once Upon A Time bookstore.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


City of Thieves, David Beniott, Viking Pneguin, 2008, 258 pp

This was a much reviewed book last year and a favorite of Once Upon A Time owner, Maureen. During the Siege of Leningrad in 1944, two young men become unlikely friends when they are thrown into the same holding cell in a Russian jail.

Lev Beniov, son of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, tells the story. He is 17, his mother and sister have evacuated, while he stays behind in Leningrad in their apartment building, serving as a fire watcher. Everyone is cold and slowly starving to death.

Kolya is the daring loud-mouthed young soldier who has been arrested for desertion and leads Lev on a wild, bold chase that includes finding a dozen eggs for an NKVD colonel, meeting up with a partisan resistance group which includes a young female sharpshooter and knocking off a cruel German general while Lev beats the man at chess.

Amidst plenty of action and several breatless escapes, you get to know these two wildly different young men and experience the extreme horror of the seige and the German attempt to conquer Russia. It was an entertaining read and informative as well but it was obvious to me that Benioff is a screenwriter. Despite plenty of cultural references to Russian literature and music (Lev's father was a poet taken by the NKVD and Kolya is a budding writer) there was a lack of depth to the story and characters. City of Thieves would make a great movie and I do like reading about other cultures in other times, though Soviet Russia was barely a "culture."

Note: This book is in stock at Once Upon A Time and can be ordered by clicking on the cover image.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I am closing in on four years of blogging. Keep The Wisdom was launched on July 1, 2005. After 425 posts I am venturing into something slightly new here. Some years ago I decided to get my ducks in a row lifestyle wise and began working towards aligning my activities to what I most enjoy in life: reading.

It was one of the best decisions I have ever made and not surprisingly it is working out quite well. I work in an independent bookstore, I am a member of five reading groups, I publish my blog, I make time to practice writing almost everyday and will soon have some pieces ready to submit for publishing, I am well into writing a memoir about reading and best of all, except for extreme emergencies such as my mother's recent illness and passing away, I read at least three books a week. I love my life!

A few weeks ago I read a post on Vroman's Bookstore blog about the value of blogs to independent bookstores and how simple it was to link one's blog to a bookstore. So I have done just that. I don't know how long we will have independently owned neighborhood bookstores with friendly knowledgeable staff who can help people find just the right books. After all , this is the United States of America and one hopeless task in this country is to try bucking progress. I am not a purist and I will unashamedly buy books just about anywhere I can find them. But my all time favorite place to shop for books is in a small, cozy shop like the one where I work.

You may have noticed a few changes to the blog. I finally stopped putting it off and learned a few technical skills (a big shout out to Patrick at Vroman's) so now I can post images of the covers of books I review. I can also provide links to other blogs I enjoy reading. Best of all I, if you read about a book here and feel compelled to read it yourself, you can now click on that cover and send in an order for the book to the store where I work. OK, already, you ask, WHAT STORE IS IT?

ONCE UPON A TIME is located in Montrose, CA, in the foothills of Los Angeles. It is family owned and carries a wide selection of books for children of all ages, carefully chosen fiction for adults; a fabulous selection of great books, fiction and non-fiction, from years gone by; travel books, cookbooks, poetry, greeting cards and unique gifts. The store has been in existence for 40 years and has an aesthetic and charm all its own. If you click here: ONCE UPON A TIME, you can visit the store's website.

Over on the side of this blog are directions for how to order. If the book is in stock you will get a call within a day letting you know you can come in and pick up your book. If it needs to be ordered it will be there in from two days to a week. We don't do mail order at this time but I have a feeling that will be coming in the near future.

Here on the blog, along with the usual reviews I plan to add news about store events, reading groups, new titles as they come in and reviews of picks by other staff. I am hoping that you will use the comments feature at the bottom of each post to hold forth with your opinions and thoughts. Most of all, I hope to see you in the store and meet you in person.

Do let me know how you like the new changes and ask any questions or make any suggestions that you have. Most of all, keep reading!

Monday, May 18, 2009


Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman, Avon Books, 197, 370 pp

In another novel of astounding imagination, Gaiman takes you to the underground of London, way beyond the subway to abandoned stations and sewer tunnels, buried ancient streets and buildings and into a subculture of people who have fallen between the cracks. Here is a whole other world of creatures from ancient goddesses and criminals to fallen angels and rats.

Richard Mayhew goes from mild mannered dull office worker to superhero after he stops to help an injured girl on a London sidewalk. Simply by getting involved with Door, a sort of underground duchess who has the power to open any door, Richard becomes enmeshed in the dangers and intrigues of this under world. He finds that he is invisible to the "normal" upper world people of London proper and only after surviving all manner of dangers and fulfilling more than one quest, is he able to return to his former life.

It is a fantastic story with characters worthy of Tolkein, descriptions of gross and macabre elements as good as Bradbury and plot twists that outshine Grisham. All this plus lessons about life and its meaning. I've not read anything like it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


The Quiet Girl, Peter Hoeg, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006, 408 pp

Smila's Sense of Snow, Hoeg's first novel, was unforgettable but in The Quiet Girl, he has surpassed even that. Once again there is a special child, once again there is a strong, intelligent, capable heroine, there are dastardly villains and the sense of a thriller but there is also so much more. I suppose some critic could complain that there is a bit too much more but I like a story that works on various levels.

Kaspar Krone is a world famous clown, a professional violinist and a free spirit who spends the whole story in a world (literally) of trouble. He has a gift: an ability to hear beyond what most mortals can. He can discern what musical key any giving person is in; he can locate a phone caller's location by the sounds he hears through the phone. Every aspect of life has a sound that relays to Kaspar most of what is going on. Reading about this amazing world of sound made me realize how little I listen to life around me.

Kaspar has a personal deity he calls SheAlmighty. He is partial to nuns and loves women in general. KlaraMaria is a gifted child for whom Kaspar feels unaccountably responsible. She and several other children like her are being used by unsavory persons for financial gain. Then there is Stina, the great unrequited love of Kaspar's life.

Despite his religious proclivities and his many talents, Kaspar is pretty much a self-centered asshole. His personality defects make the characters around him seem almost holy, though none of them are without flaws and the reader is never really sure which are villains and which are trustworthy. Woven into this breakneck thriller are layers of philosophy and contemporary issues, orchestrated by all manner of music both popular and classical.

Will KlaraMaria be saved? Will Kaspar and Stina ever get back together? Who exactly is behind the terror of troubles in the characters' lives? Hoeg answers all questions, wraps up all loose ends, most everyone is allowed either redemption or justice.

I was entertained, intrigued and kept thinking of new ideas the whole way through this magical mosaic of a tale which touched on all five senses and every emotional level from despair to absurdity.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Darwin's Radio, Greg Bear, Ballantine Books, 1999, 524 pp

I finished this book about a month before I wrote this micro review. It won the Nebula Award in 2000 and it is totally great. Science, medicine, government, business, politics are all involved in a story about anomalies that begin to show up in pregnant women and babies and look to certain scientists like some kind of evolutionary step but to government like a kind of virus plague similar to AIDS.

The heroes are two scientists with excellent minds. Kaye is a geneticist and Mitch an archaeologist. They each have huge personal issues but finally team up, get married and successfully have one of the "new" babies. The story reads like a thriller and for me was like nothing I've read before, though Asimov and Heinlein are clearly influences on this author.

I wish I had written this up more immediately after finishing it because I have forgotten many details but I will for sure be reading more Greg Bear.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Love Is Eternal, Irving Stone, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1954, 462 pp

Back when I was reading the books of 1954 for My Big Fat Reading Project, I missed this one. (For more info on the project, click on the label at the end of this post and go to the earliest dated post with that label.) Love Is Eternal was the #3 bestseller in 1954 and is a fictional account of the marriage of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd. It was timely reading it this year with all the other Lincoln books that came out.

It was not a fast read but though it was mostly from Mary Todd's point of view, I learned more about Abraham Lincoln than I ever knew. He had a tendency toward depression, had zero social skills or aspirations, but was highly intelligent and self taught as a lawyer. It was Mary, with her patrician background in Virginia and her anti-slavery beliefs, who focused Lincoln towards political success.

They had a hard life. She lost two children, spent months alone while Abraham rode the circuit judge routes, faced all the heartbreak of being turned against by her Virginia relatives because of the secession and together with President Lincoln faced the terrible years of the Civil War. Mary had her own bouts of depression due to loss and loneliness. And what did she get for all her perseverance and faithfulness? A dead husband, widowhood and revilement.

Life was hard for me while I was reading this book but it was nothing compared to Mary Lincoln's life.

Monday, May 11, 2009


What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt, Henry Holt and Company, 2003, 367 pp

Siri Hustvedt is married to author Paul Auster and is an amazing writer. This novel combines art, artists, friends, crime and psychology, all set in New York City and though it is something of a thriller, the pace ebbs and flows between page turner and literary beauty.

In 1975, art historian Leo Hertzberg begins a friendship with painter Bill Wechsler. They both marry and each has a son. The families, including both of Bill's wives, remain friends for 25 years. Through joys and tragedies, triumph and degradation, impossible heartbreak and two deaths, these people connect, love, despair, work out their collective and individual destinies but never find lasting happiness. Ultimately the story is a tragedy but the characters are so vibrant and the moments of joy so intense, that I found the novel to be life affirming without one shred of sentimentality. Once again, my kind of novel.

The keynote to it all is friendship and everything that true friendship entails is examined in intricate detail. The story is told by Leo. Hustvedt is equally at ease with male and female characters. There are long, impressive passages describing Bill's art, where she takes on the voice of a reverent art critic/historian herself. Bill's son is a deeply troubled individual, so she does psychology like a pro as well. Very impressive, so moving and I never wanted the story to end.

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

Saturday, May 09, 2009


The Women, T C Boyle, The Viking Press, 2009, 451 pp

Last year I read Loving Frank by Nancy Horan and was captivated by another side of Frank Lloyd Wright, as a lover, husband and father. Seen through the fictional eyes of Mamah, whom I would call the great love of his life, the famous architect's many faults were rather lovingly drawn. The Women explores several other facets of Wright's personality and the architect in him rather ends up being his only redeeming quality.

I can't exactly isolate what I didn't like about The Women, but it was like going to a highly recommended restaurant and being disappointed with my meal. It was a matter of taste with me. I have read two of T C Boyle's early novels, Water Music (1982) and World's End (1987), and was thrilled by both, but in The Women I simply could not discern where Boyle was coming from about Frank Lloyd Wright.

In approximately reverse chronological order, he tells the tales of each one of Wright's wives/lovers and with each woman Frank was a slightly different person, which says to me that when it came to affairs of the heart, it was the woman who defined the man. Each of these women brought out something different though amazingly despite his many glaring deficiencies as a human being, each of these women was completely besotted by him.

As I write this, trying to get at the vague unease I felt all through reading the book, I find myself getting more and more confused. I doubt that was the author's intention, so I can only conclude that whatever his intention was, he did not pull it off.

For someone like myself, who is obsessed with artistic genius, The Women was well worth reading. For a reader looking for a satisfying, moving novel, The Women will not be it. It is OK. T C Boyle is a genius himself and I've lost no respect for him. This book is just not one of his best.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


Child 44, Tom Rob Smith, Grand Central Publishing, 2008, 436 pp'

Sometimes when I am going through a bad experience, it is helpful to read about people who are going through something worse, which was the case for me with Child 44.

The setting is Moscow, 1953. Leo Demidov is a senior officer of the MGB, the State Security Force under Stalin. He is ultra conscientious and believes in the ideals of the communist state. He is also skilled in negotiating the climate of fear and suspicion in which he operates including having secured a relatively high standard of living for himself, his wife and his parents.

In the line of his work, he stumbles across an apparent murder case. Since one of the fundamental pillars of Stalin's Soviet Union is that "There is no crime," Leo is faced with a conundrum which eventually erodes his belief system, ruins his life and reveals a deeply buried experience from his childhood.

All of this makes for exciting reading. Child 44 is a thriller in the best sense of the genre as well as a collection of tautly constructed psychological portraits of people in a totalitarian society. I wasn't sure about the highly improbable happy ending, but up until then, this debut author had me completely convinced.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


The Mission Song, John Le Carre, Little Brown and Company, 2006, 352 pp

I enjoyed this book all the way through. Bruno Salvador is an interpreter, fluent in French, Swahili and several minor African languages as well as English. Salvo, as he is known to his friends and co-workers, was born in the eastern Congo, the love-child of an Irish Catholic missionary and a Congolese village woman, and raised in an African convent as a "secret child." Due to the kindnesses of several pedophile priests, Salvo ended up in London, was educated and turned his gift for languages into a well paying career as an interpreter, while acquiring a white wife from the British upper classes who herself had a rising career in journalism.

Occasionally Salvo works for the British Secret Service and considers this work an important part of his patriotism as a British citizen. Bus as his marriage is crumbling, as Salvo begins a love affair with a Congolese nurse at a London hospital, he is assigned by his Secret Service handler to attend a conference in the Congo. The purported purpose of this conference is to bring peace to the war torn country, along with democracy and self rule. Naturally, that is not at all what is going on because the funding for all this is coming from multinational western financiers and we all know that such machinators are only interested in one thing.

Once back in the Congo, all of Salvo's childhood memories awaken (hence the title of the book) along with his awareness of what is being planned and we are away into Le Carre's territory of intrigue, thrills and spies. The story finally gets going at about 100 pages and those first 100 pages turn out to be crucial. Salvo's and his lover Hannah's characters have become familiar in all their complexity and their back stories revealed, so that as Salvo loses his innocence, as well as all his status in English society, the reader feels everything along with him.

The writing is excellent and carries a perfect balance of outrage and humor. I was glad I'd read such books as Robert Ruark's Something of Value and the novels of Doris Lessing which are set in South Africa, giving me background on the kind of shenanigans that go on in Africa.

Overall, The Mission Song was an entertaining novel with just enough depth and got me through a trying time in my personal life.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


"The City of Ember", 2008, DVD

If a movie is made from an available book, I almost always read the book first. I have virtually no qualifications as a film reviewer and don't post many movie reviews here but I have now watched so many movies that started out as books that I feel fairly sure of my opinions in the matter. My overall opinion of "The City of Ember" is positive. The film is a good rendition of the book.

I did not exactly picture Ember the way it is created in the film but it is pretty darn close, a testament to the descriptive skills of Jeanne Du Prau and the attention paid to those by the screenwriter. Bill Murray is perfect as the corrupt mayor. The casting of the kids (Harry Treadaway as Doon and Saoirse Ronan as Lina) is also as close to ideal as I could ask for. As to the back story of Ember, how it was formed and the plan for its evacuation; I thought that was actually clearer in the movie than in the book.

The tale was altered quite a bit in the sequences when the kids solve the mystery, especially because of the addition of some technological points, but I could see how these changes made the story more visual and the action more edgy. But the added monster? So ridiculous and totally inappropriate.

My only other reservation is that the ending did not have the emotional impact of the book. But I watched this movie with my grandchildren, ages ten, seven and four. They had not read the book but could follow the story and enjoyed it immensely. Need I say more?

Monday, May 04, 2009


The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau, Yearling, 2003, 270 pp

I read this so I could see the movie (that review is next.) I wasn't expecting much but it is great. It reads like a mystery and is a sort of sci fi for 9-12 year old readers. (Has this author read Isaac Asimov? Probably.)

The two main characters, Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, are well drawn 12 year olds who are graduating from school and being assigned jobs in their dark city. Ember never has daylight and is only lit by incandescent lights run by a failing generator.

In the way of children that age, each is aware of the decrepitude and decline in their city and has enough intelligence to know that something must be done. Together they brave a corrupt mayor, blackouts and losses while they piece together the story of Ember and try to find a way to escape.

Ember, a world where it is always night, is fully created without a lot of boring detail. The vocabulary is perfect for the target reader ages and the pace is non-stop. The story arc made even an old cynic like me shed a tear.