Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Something of Value, Robert Ruark, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1955, 560 pp

This long novel was #6 on the bestseller list for 1955 and falls in my newly named category of "dick lit." But even though it took me almost a week to read, I liked it. The setting is Kenya in the 1940s and the viewpoint is mostly from the English white men who own farms and use native labor. Shortly after WWII, the natives in Kenya began a terrorist uprising called The Mau Mau rebellion, which several decades later led to Kenya achieving independence from Great Britain.

Ruark has his own views about all this and they come through transparently. He has sympathies with both white man and native but does not seem to think that colonialism is inherently wrong. He clearly loves Africa and in fact made many trips there, primarily to hunt wild game. But his knowledge of the natives, their customs and superstitions, is extensive and he has as much affinity for them as he does for the rich white farmers.

This the book is a fascinating historical study and appropriate as we move through Barak Obama's presidency. It is also without doubt, one of the bloodiest and most violent books I have ever read. There are scenes of slaughter, at least one hunting trip, incidents of life in the hiding places of the militant natives, etc. Ruark was an unabashed worshiper of Hemingway and aspired to be that writer, though he was at least ten times more wordy. I think that he was even more manly in his writing style.

Truly another adventure in reading the bestsellers of the second half of the 20th century.

(Something of Value is out of print, though available in libraries and from used book sellers. The link here is for alibris.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie, Random House, 2008, 349 pp

At last I have read a book by Salman Rushdie after intending to for years. I must admit, I was somewhat intimidated by just the idea of this author and worried that I might not understand him. I've not read any of his earlier books.

The Enchantress of Florence
is historical, set in India and Florence in the 1500s. I have read loads of historical fiction so I was fine with that. Also Rushdie studied history for years in college, so while the four and a half page bibliography at the back shows he did his research, he has a historian's background as well, making him enough at ease that the fictional liberties he takes feel smooth.

If you are the type of reader who begins to whine when the cast of characters goes above five, do not read this novel. If you must have everything nailed down to the real and provable, chose another book. In fact, there are many characters in Renaissance Florence, including Niccolo Machiavelli; myriad characters in Akbar the Great's Indian empire; some characters who move between locations; and imaginary persons as well. In addition, the dates of the historical personages do not quite match up, a fact that is freely admitted during the telling of this magical tale.

The Enchantress of Florence is a fairy tale for adults and had me as enthralled as I ever was when I loved Cinderella, Snow White, etc, in my much younger years. There are several mysteries throughout the tale, all of which are nicely resolved. With lighthearted aplomb, Rushdie delves into questions of love, power, religious belief, freedom and all the variations of those weighty ideas.

I finished feeling that I had been conducted through a magical mystery tour while being invited and allowed to contribute to the entire experience. As my sister would say, fabulous!

(The Enchantress of Florence
is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 23, 2009


After the Fall, a Still Small Voice, Evie Wald, Pantheon Books, 2009, 296 pp

My review of this excellent first novel is now up at BookBrowse.

Here is an excerpt: "Suffering from uncontrollable rage and an inability to handle relationships, Frank Collard escapes from Sydney to the small beach town of Mulaburry on the southeast Australian coast. There, amid the cane fields, rip tides and other lost souls, haunted by the Creeping Jesus in the dark, he fights with his demons and comes to terms with his history."

Read the entire review here.

(After the Fall is available on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor, The World Publishing Company, 1955, 760 pp

This endless tome was #3 on the bestseller list for 1955 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956. Because of the number of words per page, the book was probably equivalent to about 1400 pages. It took me thirteen days to read it. That was frustrating but it is not a bad book; though I can't imagine it being a bestseller today.

It is a recounting of the creation, maintaining and dissolution of Andersonville prison, which held up to 27,000 Yankee prisoners of war during the last two years of the Civil War. That's 27,000 at a time. The crowding was intense, the rations amounted to starvation and scurvy, there was no shelter nor were there any sanitation facilities. Hundreds of prisoners died every day. Just gruesome.

The author tells the story through various points of view including that of certain prisoners complete with each one's personal back story. We also hear from a local plantation owner who could be classified as a "good" slave owner, several confederate army officials, a doctor, etc.

The book definitely dragged at times and was almost too horrific to read. The only other POW camp book I had read previously was King Rat by James Clavell, a much shorter book leavened with some wry humor and quite a bit more excitement. I have since read Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard. All three books show a prison camp to be an extreme microcosm of life on earth, because the entire range of human qualities exists even there. All that is missing is women. Actually there are women in Empire of the Sun.

I will be thinking about this book for a long time.

(Andersonville and Empire of the Sun are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. King Rat is probably best found in your local library.)

Monday, October 19, 2009


Burn Marks, Sara Paretsky, Delacorte Press, 1990, 340 pp

In her sixth V I Warshawski mystery, an old friend from the detective's days as a public defender solicits her support in a political campaign. No sooner does V I contribute a check and appear at a party, than she is accused of prying into her friend's affairs and told to back off. At the same time, Aunt Elena, the derelict sister of V I's deceased father, appears after being left homeless because her fleabag hotel has burned to the ground.

Before long a combination of possible arson, unethical practices in granting contracts for Chicago's newest urban renewal project, and another burnt down hotel have V I neglecting her paying clients and fearing for her life, as usual. The police don't believe her and even her closest friend Dr Hershel tells her to leave the whole mess alone. But V I's sense of justice and a certain stubborn disregard for good sense, drives her to find the answers.

So finely tuned is Paretsky's writing that I was truly worried about the possibility that this was it for Warshawski, though I knew that she appeared in six more mysteries. Even the humor that usually provides moments of light is in short supply here. But two new factors enter into the picture. V I does not learn any lessons about taking better care of herself but she seems to have achieved some perspective. She can stand up for what is right on a case by case basis but she cannot put the whole city of Chicago right.

In the end, she also gets her point across to Bobby, her arch nemesis in the police department, as she gains a deeper understanding of the various ethnic tensions that make up her city. In this way and throughout all her books, Paretsky explains the uniqueness of Chicago and makes it more than just another American urban center. That is an impressive feat and keeps this author many levels above any other mystery series writer I have read.

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

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis, Vanguard Press, 1955, 280 pp

Madcap is not my favorite genre and madcap this is. In fact, I found it downright silly and formulaic. It was a huge bestseller and ended the year, 1955, at #2 on the bestseller list.

Ten year old Patrick is adopted by his wild and wacky aunt after his father's death. He grows up in a breathless rush of parties and adventures with his aunt among the wealthy, artistic and famous in New York City. Between times he has to go to a drab boarding school because the conservative executor of his estate tries to follow the deathbed wishes of Patrick's father.

I will read a sequel, Around the World With Auntie Mame, because it was a top bestseller in 1958. Auntie Mame was made into a hit Broadway play, then an award winning movie, followed by a Broadway musical and a bad movie from that. By the 1970s Patrick Dennis had blown all his money and his books were out of print. My point exactly.

(Auntie Mame was reissued in paperback in 2001 and is available by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 16, 2009


Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1962, 246 pp

Travel writing, like any other genre, depends on the quality of the writing. Steinbeck being one of the best writers ever in my opinion, also being a man who understands a quest, made Travels With Charley a piece of literature. At the age of 58, he set out to drive around the United States and rediscover first hand the country he had been writing about for 25 years.

He traveled in a three-quarter-ton pickup truck with a small cabin built in the bed. With his truck named Rocinante (the name of Don Quixote' horse) and his large bleu French poodle named Charley, if Steinbeck needed lodging it was right there and if he needed company there was Charley.

The hardcover original Viking Press edition I found at my local library has a map of the journey from Sag Harbor up to Maine, across the northern states, down the west coast and across the southwest through Texas to New Orleans and back up the eastern side of the country. It is a complete package of road trip with a purpose, map, dog and Steinbeck's inimitable style of personal quirks, wry wit and unique view of life.

Rather than recount Steinbeck's adventures, which anyone can read about on the cover flap, let me just say that it was a highly successful trip with enough excitement to counteract the boredom of all the miles driven. Like many trips, it came to an end before he reached home and like any good travel book, it made me long for the open road.

(You can buy this book off the shelf in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan, E P Dutton and Company, 1955, 128 pp

Why is it that little French novels become big hits in the United States? This book, which is barely a novella, was the #4 bestseller in 1955 and is the quintessential little French novel. The author was seventeen when she wrote it and had failed to pass her first year at the Sorbonne. No Simone de Beauvoir here.

The story is an inverted "Parent Trap." A privileged seventeen-year-old girl lives with her exciting father. They party, stay up late and are having a summer on the Riviera. Cecile has failed at school and would rather swim, go to casinos and hang out with her amusing father, his current mistress and flighty friends. See what I mean? So French.

Enter Anne, a fashionable friend of Cecile's dead mother. She is responsible, works hard in the couture world and has been like a fairy godmother to Cecile. But now she captivates the father and they become engaged, which means an end to Cecile and her Daddy's carefree life. Cecile begins to plot a scheme to get rid of Anne, which works only too well.

Amusing chick lit. I am so glad it was short. The writing, at least in translation, is not bad but the story is so predictable. It was made into a movie with Jean Seberg in 1958 but is not available on DVD as far as I can tell. The book, most recently reissued by Harper Perennial in 2001, is only available from used book sellers and of course in libraries.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Payback, Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Margaret Atwood, House of Anansi Press, 2008, 204 pp

Margaret Atwood's latest collection of essays is highly accessible and entertaining, though it rests on her usual level of scholarship. Here she tackles questions about the balance of give and take in living, the correlation throughout man's history between debt and sin, the way debts of all types are intrinsic to plot in literature. If you have ever been (or currently are) up to your ears in debt, this book will hold your interest and even to a degree, ease your mind.

Not to say that anyone gets off easy; not the individual credit card abuser, not the guy who fails to pay his child support, not the government, banks or big business. At first it was amazing to me that Atwood researched and wrote AND published this book before the crash of 2008. It is possible that Margaret Atwood is a witch or shamaness, but more likely that she has such a sensitivity to and grip on global conditions, that she intuitively found herself investigating world financial conditions before most of us knew we were headed for trouble.

Lest you worry that this is another polemic on economics, it is altogether something else. After addressing the above mentioned topics, she moves into a parallel of Charles Dickens' 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol, starring Ebenezer Scrooge. As the archetype for rapacious capitalists who build their wealth on the backs of oppressed workers, he is also the recipient of the ultimate payback. Furthermore, he repents in a 12 step program manner and actually undergoes a change of heart. Perfect.

By the end of the final and fifth essay, entitled "Payback," a delightful trick has been played on the reader. I will not reveal the bait and switch that Atwood works on us because it is too delicious to spoil. I'll just say, it is not so much that she does not assign blame for the state of our modern world: she does! But for those of us who would rather be part of the solution, she dispenses hope and tasks in true witch fashion.

I highly recommend Payback. You will never look at life in quite the same way again.

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

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway, Riverhead Books, 2008, 231 pp

Imagine an account of human history told by stringing together all the incidences of cities under siege. Ever since mankind began to congregate in densely populated urban settings (and I am too lazy at the moment to look up when that was), we have been subject to siege by enemies. In my imaginary collection of siege tales, The Cellist of Sarajevo would have a place.

I read this book during the week of wildfires that raged just north and east of my home this September. During the day, smoke-filled air filtered the sunlight to an eerie orange. At night we could see flames on the hillsides just a few miles away. I had friends ordered to evacuate their homes and others who lived hour to hour as they waited for such orders.

Yet I could sit at my computer and read the hourly updates on with never a worry about food, water or safety. Which was strikingly similar to the way America experienced the Bosnian War.

Steven Galloway's account of just a few weeks in Sarajevo, told through the eyes of three characters, told me of their sufferings much as my friends in Tujunga, La Crescenta, La Canada and Pasadena, told me the stories of the wildfires. For my friends, it was only for a couple of weeks and not one of them died or even lost a home. In Sarajevo it went on for almost four years.

The author is not a Bosnian, he is a Canadian. I generally disdain stories written by Western white people about other races and cultures, but he is a good enough writer and more importantly a good enough listener, to have taken the stories told to him by survivors of the siege and create a moving sense of those times. As he weaves between his three characters, a bakery worker who managed to go to work everyday, a father who had to walk miles through sniper fire just to get water for his family, and a young female sharpshooter, we discover that courage, humanity and love can triumph over fear, dehumanization and hatred. The cellist who played for 22 days in a row to memorialize the same number of fallen friends and neighbors is the symbol of all that.

It was almost too much for me. I found that I would never want to be in that much danger and doubted that I would stand up to it as well as these characters. Sometimes I could hardly bear to read another page, but from the security of my bed or sofa, I felt that reading about it was the least I could do.

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

Monday, October 05, 2009


Marjorie Morningstar, Herman Wouk, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1955, 584 pp

I remember one summer day when I was a young teen, a movie by this name came on afternoon TV. My mother, passing through the family room, hurriedly turned it off and forbade me to watch it. In her eyes, it was too advanced in concept (translation: sex) for a girl my age. She didn't know, of course, that I was reading Lady Chatterley's Lover or Tropic of Cancer at babysitting jobs. In the long view, none of these books did much to prepare me for womanhood, but at 13, I was just trying to learn about sex.

Marjorie Morningstar was the #1 bestseller in 1955. When I finally read it in 1992, after having read Wouk's Youngblood Hawke, I found out what I had missed over thirty years earlier. It starts out great. Marjorie is a Jewish girl with stars in her eyes. She is all set to flaunt everything her mother tried to teach her and become an actress. She falls for Noel Airman, director of plays, a rebel against Judaism and society and a comet burning out. He is in fact another version of Youngblood Hawke, a novelist who meets a tragic end.

After much emotional waffling, reminiscent of Bella in Twilight; after realizing that being a "bad girl" means you have to go to bed with the guy, Marjorie turns tail and settles for marriage, security and all the rest, just as Noel had predicted. (I never finished the Twilight Series and don't know what Bella decided.) I'm not sure what Wouk was up to here. Youngblood Hawke burned out from a relentless pursuit of art and fame, as is predicted for Noel. It's a depressing end, but in the 1950s and today, that is appropriate for a man. Are women not allowed to burn out? Can they not be comets?

Well, the double standard was the official line in the 1950s. Marjorie Morningstar was an enlightening read. Free love, feminism, and all the rest was just a decade away in 1955. And at least Wouk posed the questions.

(Marjorie Morningstar and Youngblood Hawke are both available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, October 04, 2009


The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Sloan Wilson, Simon & Schuster, 1955, 276 pp

My dad used to use the phrase "man in the gray flannel suit" to describe certain people. In fact both of my parents read the book back in the day when it was #5 on the bestseller list of 1955.

Thomas and Betsy Rath are living in a small house in a small Connecticut town with their three small children. They were very happy and in love when they married in 1943, but Thomas had to go to war, jump from planes and kill people. He came back a changed man; now life is dreary and routine, they drink martinis every night and the magic is gone.

Thomas works for a non-profit foundation making not quite enough money. When his grandmother dies and leaves her house to him, he and Betsy decide to move up in the world. But Tom's war induced cynicism and the secrets he carries make it hard for him to take it all seriously. Since he is basically a good person and Betsy is positive with lots of energy, they rather improbably work it all out by the end of the story.

The writing is not great but Sloan struck a chord with the middle class reading public and the book was an instant bestseller, was made into a successful movie and the title went down in history as the concept of conformity. After hearing about this gray flannel suited man for almost my whole life, it was great to read the book at last.

(This book is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon a Time Bookstore. It is also on the shelves of many public libraries.)