Tuesday, September 29, 2009


(For background on this post, see My Big Fat Reading Project.)

In a couple days, I will have finished reading my book list for 1955. Due to several factors, but mostly due to the extremely low level of excitement I have felt for the books of the 50s, it has taken me ten months to work through this list.

Last spring I joined a writing group in hopes of having some company for the lonely act of writing and in expectation of having a monthly deadline for producing work. It has worked out fabulously in both respects. I am basically a lazy person who can drift for days and weeks without accomplishing a darn thing unless I have deadlines, which I define as the line beyond which you are dead. My writing group members are wonderful, kind and sharp people; just what I need because I also suffer from low self-esteem as a writer. There, that is enough sharing.

So I have been re-writing the earlier chapters I wrote for the memoir of reading I hope to finish before I die; then reading them to the group. It is all working out fine, except that I have not written a new chapter since last November. You can read the first drafts of my chapters on this blog here.

I had a pattern of posting the list of books for each year with their reviews just before I would post a new chapter. That pattern is now in shambles and behind the times. I finished the books for 1955 late last year but have not ever posted the list of the reviews for them, because I have been not writing the chapter for 1954. So what, you say.

So I am going to try a new pattern. First I will post the reviews, individually of those books I read for 1955, interspersed with the stuff I am currently reading. Reading all those books from 60 years ago has paid off richly for me in terms of background to current fiction, seeing the trends and changes over the years and learning lots of history. I would like to share what I have found. Later, when I am ready to post a new chapter, I will precede it with a summary of the list.

Once again, thanks to my readers here at Keep The Wisdom. I have a feeling there are many more readers than I know about and I welcome you once again to leave comments, especially if you have read a book I have reviewed. I truly love to know what other readers think about the books I have read.

Monday, September 28, 2009


The Fountain Overflows, Rebecca West, The Viking Press, 1956, 313 pp

This is one of the most wonderful books I have ever read. Let's see if I can explain why. Rebecca West wrote 14 complete novels, three of which were published after her death in 1983. She was also a journalist, reported on the Nuremberg trials and wrote the famous Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1943), a travelogue, history and impassioned appreciation of the former Yugoslavia; a book I have started a couple times and will finish someday. She has great heart along with intelligence and writing skill. Those qualities come together in perfect balance in The Fountain Overflows.

Rose, the youngest of three daughters, tells the story of her family in early 20th century England; a family who lives on the brink of poverty at all times due to their papa's unsuccessful attempts to bring truth to politics through his writing. Mama gave up a promising career as a concert pianist to marry her genius and now struggles to make ends meet while maintaining music as a constant in her children's lives. The book is like Little Women in England, except that it is leavened by wit and raised to great literature by its subtlety.

Every member of this family has a gift for understanding people. An underlying theme that there is more to life than appears on the surface lends a spiritual tone to the story. Mama has the strength of a matriarch and the compassion of an angel. I grew to love each character for his or her unique qualities because the author clearly loved them as well and brought me into their hearts and minds.

The intricacies of music training and music performance, the troubling ethical questions of British life in Edwardian times, alongside the universal problem of keeping one's head up in a society that measures worth by wealth and possessions, made this an ideal story. I want every woman I know to read it and I will surely read it again.

(The Fountain Overflows and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. Little Women is always in stock on the shelves.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, The Dial Press, 2008, 274 pp

Here's the thing. This book has many of the elements I love in fiction: it is about books, readers and writers; it has an interesting and little known historical context; the main character is an outside-the-box, feminist, brave young woman; the remaining characters, including a very cool kid, are well-drawn and unique; finally tolerance, goodwill and reading save the day. I read it easily, at times with delight, but it just did not in the end turn out to be great.

I am in the minority here because people (mostly women) all over the country love this book to the point of raving. I think that is because, bottom line, it is a love story in the tradition of Pride and Prejudice. I read it for one of my reading groups and interestingly, it was the love story that got the most discussion, while the tribulation of living on an island occupied by Nazis for most of WWII was barely brought up (except by Lisa, who comments regularly here.)

One of the characters in the story is absent throughout, but she is in truth the lynch pin of the entire tale. That is an unusual twist. Again, only Lisa mentioned her.

In these times of publishing and book selling hardship, I feel like a spoil sport, complaining about a book that has sold extremely well. (We will not talk about Dan Brown here.) Then again, I feel like an outcast or a voice crying in the wilderness at some of the reading group discussions I attend. How can it be that I was practically tarred and feathered for making some women read The Gathering by Anne Enright? A book which left me gasping.

Where are the readers who like what I like? Perhaps they do not join reading groups. Hm.

(The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Pride and Prejudice are available on the shelf in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The Gathering is available in paperback by special order.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


How I Became A Famous Novelist, Steve Hely, Black Cat, 2009, 322 pp

This one is truly funny. A spoof on the publishing industry that skewers everyone from the authors who write books intentionally following trends to create a blockbuster to the agents, publishers, reviewers and readers who encourage it all. Hely's main character, Pete Tarslaw, is your usual modern day slacker/anti-hero, with a twist. When he learns that the college girlfriend who dumped him in senior year is getting married, a desire for revenge gets him off the couch.

He "studies up" on bestsellers, Amazon reviews and the incomes of bestselling, blockbuster writing authors; boils it all down statistically; gets some drugs from his roommate that bring on an extreme hyper-activity; and writes a "bestseller." Due to certain connections and the high state of perplexity in the publishing industry, this works for him. He becomes a famous novelist.

But revenge is tricky business. Also Pete Tarslaw is far from adept when it comes to human relationships. He has to eat crow in the end and even learns the lesson he needed to learn.

If only all comedy could be this good. If only there were more books to ease my worried mind once in a while with a good laugh. If only dysfunctional creepy assholes actually learned their lessons. Sigh. OK. Back to literary fiction.

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

Monday, September 21, 2009


The Last Embrace, Denise Hamilton, Scribner, 2008, 378 pp

After five mystery novels set in contemporary Los Angeles, known as the Eve Diamond series, Denise Hamilton has written a noir crime novel set in 1940s Hollywood. Lily Kessler, former OSS spy, returns to her hometown to investigate the disappearance of her late fiance's sister Kitty, who had been a budding movie star.

Not surprisingly, Kitty turns up murdered under the Hollywood sign. In a milieu of competitive starlets, gangsters, special effects people and LA's homicide division, Lily relentlessly pursues all possible leads and finally gets her man. She also gets a new lover who, in true Denise Hamilton style, may be a good guy or may be an enemy.

This is a good long satisfying read, though I hate it when the killer turns out to be someone you've hardly heard of throughout the book. But the pleasure for me in reading a mystery is not so much finding out who done it as it is participating in the investigation.

The best aspects of The Last Embrace are the sights and scenes of Los Angeles from 60 years ago. Having now read hundreds of books from the 1940s in My Big Fat Reading Project, this one fit right in. I did not live in LA then, but it is my city now and I love reading about its past.

(The Last Embrace is available on the shelf in paperback signed copies at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, September 18, 2009


Reading groups are not for everyone. They can be fraught with issues such as members don't read the book, members chat about their lives instead of discussing the book, one or more members seek to dominate the discussion, etc. Some people just like to keep reading as a private activity.

I joined my first reading group in April, 2004, because I was just dying to talk to people about books. I have wonderful friends but oddly enough, none of them read like I do. Then it all snowballed and I now am a member of five groups. That is working for me though I don't always like the books that are chosen. Even that problem isn't bad, since I work in a bookstore and need to be able to suggest books for all types of readers.

As far as the issues go, I won't stay in a group if the members don't read the book or can't stay focused on discussing the book. Those dominating types: well there seems to be one in every group but if there is a competent moderator or an agreed upon mode of discussion, the loud mouth can be kept down to a dull roar.

Finding reading groups is easy. Ask at your favorite bookstores, your local library and amongst your reading friends. They are everywhere, member turnover is usually high and groups often need new members. In my experience, less than 8 attending members is just too small to keep a good discussion going.

As a regular feature here on my blog, I am going to post news about some of the groups I attend. Not all of them are open to new members but the ones I post are. Of course, if you don't live in the Los Angeles area, you won't be attending, but you might be interested in the books we read.

Here are upcoming meetings for the rest of September and into October. For info on locations or to order the book, click on the name of the store or the book's image.

Wednesday, September 23; 8:30 am
Mystery Reading Group with tea and scones
Once Upon A Time Bookstore
Montrose, CA
At Risk, Stella Rimington

Wednesday, September 23; 7:30 pm
Bookie Babes
Barnes & Noble
Burbank, CA
Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck

Monday, October 12; 7:00 pm
The Women's Bookclub
Portrait of a Bookstore
Studio City, CA
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer

Tuesday, October 13; 7:30 pm
Adult Fiction Reading Group
Once Upon A Time Bookstore
Montrose, CA
The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich

Thursday, October 15; 7:30 pm
One Book At A Time Reading Group
Usually meets at Mi Casita Restaurant in Sunland, CA
Contact Lisa, the leader for reservations
American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson, Graywolf Press, 2005, 258 pp

This is the sort of book I love the most. I like to read widely and enjoy many types of stories: mystery, thrillers, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction. But there is a special satisfaction that certain novels bring when I am drawn into what almost feels like a dream state, full of wonder and emotion and an explication of the state called human being.

Trond Sander came of age just following World War II. His country of Norway was occupied by Germans during the war bringing hardships, but he was only a child then. The hardship for his family was that the father was often gone and his activities had a mysterious air.

In 1948, the war was over, Trond was 15 and spending the summer with his father in the country, living in a cabin by a river. He makes a friend from a neighboring farm, as one does when one is away from home and living mostly outdoors. It is an idyllic time for Trond, especially because he is so happy to be alone with his father.

Tragedy strikes. Trond gradually realizes that there is more going on in the small village and surrounding farms, between his father and the people there, than he had been aware of at the beginning of the summer. The mystery of his father is revealed.

The structure of the novel has Trond as a 67 year old man looking back to what became the most fateful season of his life. When I read about this structure on the cover flap, I felt instantly bored. This novel is not boring for one single sentence.

Petterson creates the world of an old lonely man in equal power to the world of an adolescent boy. Norwegians are characterized in part by their love of the natural world, which is evident in writing that put me there in the woods and fields, on the riverbank, in summer and winter, as though I could feel, smell and taste.

Petterson's calm, quiet prose, exquisitely translated, pulled me through heart wrenching emotions of love, desire, abandonment and fear. In spite of a great deal of emotional and physical violence, I came to the end feeling at peace and grateful for the moments of grace in Trond's life as well as my own. The story said to me that we are defined more by the grace than the violence and sorrow.

I am so glad I read this book. I feel enriched by it.

(Out Stealing Horses is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Laura Rider's Masterpiece, Jane Hamilton, Grand Central Publishing, 2009, 214 pp

I have always liked Jane Hamilton's writing. Her characters are like actual people but also unique. She has a slightly skewed outlook on humanity and at the same time views most people as somewhat off the beaten path of life. She gets beneath the social persona and lets us in on what really goes on.

Laura Rider is a forty-something successful business woman who, with her husband Charlie, has created Prairie Wind Farm, a beautiful gardening and landscaping center. The local people of small town Hartley, WI, come there for plants and advice on their yards and flowers.

Laura is also a secret novel reader, has a dream of becoming a writer and is an avid fan of Jenna Faroli who hosts her own show about books and authors on Milwaukee Public Radio. Jenna has recently moved to Hartley with her husband, who is a judge.

Laura stopped having sex with Charlie because he was so good that he wore her out after twelve years of marriage. Due to a difficult first pregnancy and birth resulting in a hysterectomy, Jenna and her husband have not had sex for over a decade. So when Laura finally meets Jenna at a garden club gathering, and then Charlie meets Jenna by chance on the road later that day, Laura goes into the mode that has always brought her success. She starts managing people and situations.

She literally creates an affair between Charlie and Jenna, so that while studying her how-to books on writing a romance novel, she can also watch a romance in progress. In a nod to modern times, much of the affair is conducted by email between Charlie and Jenna, except that Laura reads all the email exchanges and even helps Charlie compose his.

Most of the reviews and blurbs make much about how funny this book is. Amusing, I guess; sexy for sure; comical in the way that certain romance movies from the 50s were, but not funny. Jane Hamilton has written a spoof on wannabe writers who have never spent a day being literary. Weirdly, I had recently finished How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely (watch for the review, coming soon), which was truly funny. I think we are supposed to not like Laura Rider, but perversely, I did.

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

Friday, September 11, 2009


Bitter Medicine, Sara Paretsky, William Morrow and Company Inc, 1987, 222 pp

Now the pace picks up. Sara Paretsky has always had consummate plotting skills. In her fourth book, she moves over into thriller mode. Bitter Medicine starts right out with action and never lets up.

At a for-profit hospital in suburban Chicago, a 16 year old girl dies of complications during childbirth, as does the infant. The next thing you know, one of the attending doctors is beaten to death and a group of anit-abortion fanatics stages a demonstration at the woman's clinic of Lottie Herschel, V I Warshawski's closest friend.

There is more, including injury to V I and a fling with another doctor. In between all the mayhem and romance, Paretsky also employs a biting wit, throwing in pithy comments about chauvinist males, slimy PR guys and government officials, not to mention remarks about what V I is wearing and why.

I was excited to learn that Paretsky has a new volume of this series coming out this month entitled Hard Ball, which has got to be about Chicago baseball. Can't wait.

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

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


The Magicians, Lev Grossman, Viking, 2009, 402 pp

My review of The Magicians is now up on BookBrowse.

"I loved every page of The Magicians. For anyone who grew up reading fantasy, who started with E Nesbit and The Chronicles of Narnia or awaited each Harry Potter release, who openly or secretly continued to read fantasy wondering if it was appropriate to be drawn to tales of magic as an adult, this is a perfect read..."

Read the entire review here.

(The Magicians is available in hardcover by special order at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, September 06, 2009


I don't usually post links to other stuff on my blog, as many lit bloggers do. I like to keep my blog purely about books and authors. But I couldn't resist on this cool article from The New York Times about people reading on the subway. It is such a cross-section of people, who they are, what and why they read. There is also a related slide-show.


Friday, September 04, 2009


Paradise, Elena Castedo, Grove Press, 1990, 328 pp

This excellent novel was suggested to one of my reading groups by Mary Helen Ponce, who wrote The Wedding. Elena Castedo was born in Barcelona, raised in Chile and now lives in Massachusetts, when she is not traveling.

Paradise tells the story of a family of refugees from Franco's Spain, now living in a city in South America. We see it all through the eyes of Solita, who is not quite ten years old. Solita worships her Papi but he is rarely home as he roams the town looking for work and getting caught up in labor disputes.

One day Solita's mother tells her they are going to Paradise where everything will be wonderful. Pilar dresses her daughter and four-year-old son in their best clothes and they leave their poverty-stricken pensione life among the refugees to become house guests at El Topaz, the hacienda of a wealthy eccentric.

In this glittery world filled with artists, politicians and "all the best people", Solita is expected to exhibit good manners and be an entertainment for the three daughters who live there. She does provide amusement for these spoiled girls who torment Solita in ways only children can.

As the days go by, Solita tries to navigate this treacherous territory while wondering what her mother is up to and when her Papi will arrive. Castedo has written a fabulous satire of the rich and their crazy customs. Gradually the reader begins to discern Pilar's purpose and strategy by picking up the clues from what Solita observes. As we read, we see what Solita sees and yet we bring our grownup perspective to the story. Brilliant.

In one other writing feat, Elena Castedo develops a certain sympathy for Papi and Pilar as well as for Solita. Each one is strong, brave and persistent; not one of them is completely admirable. They do the best they can to work out a possible life in this new land that has saved them from Franco and the Nazis but has no place for them in its culture.

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

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, Winifred Watson, Persephone Books Ltd, 2000, 234 pp

First published in 1938, the third of six very different novels by Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew is having a second life due to the film of the same title which was released in 2008. The book is lighthearted and clever, which as you my readers know, is not exactly my cup of tea. But read it I did, because part of being in a reading group is reading the book, at least by my personal creed.

I have to admit that I spent a few minutes wishing I could solve my friends' problems as easily or that on the few occasions when I have succeeded, I would have reaped such glorious rewards. It was entertaining in a Seinfeld episode sort of way to watch Miss Pettigrew having her wicked fun while rescuing the flighty and indecisive Miss LaFosse from disastrous men.

Having said that, I will now say that Winifred Watson could be the grandmother of chick lit. Once in a while even this grandmother can be entertained reading about a woman who is having a harder time than I ever did and coming out of it better than I ever have.

(This book is available on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)