Sunday, November 29, 2009


The Wheel on the School, Meindert DeJong, Harper, 1954, 298 pp

Per my new schedule and this being Sunday, I present a micro-review of the Newbery Award winner for 1955, written for 8-12 year old readers. The story is set in Holland in a fishing village on the North Sea. A group of school children decide to bring storks back to their village. In order to get the storks to nest on their school house roof, they must procure a wagon wheel.

It is a great adventure story filled with challenges and insights into life in such a place. The kids find old people who become their friends as they work together to bring back the storks. They brave all sorts of weather and find their strengths. I was entirely drawn into the story.

The illustrations are by Maurice Sendak, very early in his career. They bring the story of a foreign place alive. Altogether a book worthy of the award.

(The Wheel on the School is available on the Newbery Award shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Somehow November got away from me and I completely forgot to post the reading group report. Well it is all over now so we will move on.


Adult Discussion Group
Tuesday, Dec 8; 7:30 pm
A Season of Gifts, Richard Peck
Note: We always read either a holiday themed book or a children's book in December. This year it is both. Richard Peck's book is for ages 10 and up, takes place at Christmas time and is a sequel to his Newbery winners A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way to Chicago.

Mystery Reading Group w/ tea and scones
Wednesday, Dec 23, 8:30 am
Child 44, Tom Rob Smith

One Book at a Time, Sunland/Tujunga Group
Thursday, Dec 17, 7:30 pm
Meeting at Mi Casita Restaurant, Sunland, CA
(Contact Lisa for reservations.)
To Siberia, Per Petterson

Bookie Babes

We normally meet at the Burbank, CA location of Barnes&Noble, but in December we have a private party for current members only outside the store. And we always read a short light holiday book, because really we just want to eat and drink. For fun we exchange books from our personal bookshelves and vote for our favorite book read during the year. This year we are reading:
The Christmas Cookie Killer, Livia Washburn

Another private party. We don't even read a book, but we do a book exchange and play literary games.

So there you have it. What books are your reading groups reading in December?

Thursday, November 26, 2009



I have much to be thankful for this year, including you my readers. Here is a gift for you.

I wrote the lyrics to "I'd Thank You" several years ago as a Thanksgiving prayer for an ecumenical group's November meeting. Later I set it to music and had my friend Dale LaDuke arrange harmony parts for the chorus. When Greg Krueger and I recorded this version for my last CD, Inspiration, I recruited my songwriter friends to form a Folk Choir.

Enjoy the music, enjoy your day, enjoy your life!


If I could see life as a game
With a purpose and some freedom
Then I’d thank you for the barriers
That make a game a game
If I could look upon my family
With love and understanding
Then I’d thank you for the trying ones
And love them just the same.

If I had a destination
A place I’d really like to go
Then I’d thank you for the journey
And delight in passing here.
If I could know that deep inside
My lover is a shining being
Then I’d thank you for the quirks
That make him difficult yet dear

But I am in need of mercy
For ingratitude has been my way
Of dealing with life’s vagaries
And getting thru the day
I have lashed out with my anger
I have given in to fear
While you go on giving life
Year after year.

Copyright 2004 Bearded Iris Music/BMI

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I've had a request from a reader of this blog to resume the "Word of the Day" feature. Well at least I can do a word of the week.

Contrary to modern education methods, I was trained to look up any word I read that I didn't understand; learn each definition of that word; make up sentences for each definition to increase my understanding of and ability to use the word; then learn the derivation (the origin of the word.) It is a good method. It builds vocabulary, helps my writing skills and speeds my reading because the next time I come across that word, I already know it in any possible context.

This week's word comes from Guardian Angel, by Sara Paretsky, page 2.

thews (thyooz) noun plural, singular thew
1. muscular power; bodily strength
Sentence: She went to a personal trainer to increase her thews.

2. muscles or sinews
Sentence: After admiring each others thews, we went at it.

Derivation: Old English theaw, custom, habit

(Webster's New World Dictionary Student Edition)

Now for the fun: Contribute a sentence using the comments. Use your mental thews!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1955, 252 pp

This is Flannery O'Connor's famous collection of stories about various characters and situations in the South. The characters run from flawed to evil, the situations from hard times to tragedy. Each story is extremely dark and hopeless with lightning flashes of wry humor.

You could say that human weakness is the theme, with both the attacker and the victim drawn to each other by that very weakness. O'Connor's compatriot in terms of setting and time period is Eudora Welty, but the point of view of each author, though dealing with similar subject matter, is almost diametrically opposed. Welty makes the quirks and weaknesses charming and understandable, while O'Connor's view is shadowed by doom.

I do see why O'Connor is so acclaimed. There is never a dull or boring moment in any of these stories. Somehow she lets you know that doom is coming, so you read eagerly, cringingly, almost guiltily, to find out what form that doom will take. It seems to me though that it is our own weakness that fuels the curiosity.

Released this year is a new biography, Flannery, A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Gooch. It has been called "the definitive biography" by Booklist, but got a snarly review from Joyce Carol Oates, who is surely a literary descendant of O'Connor. It sits on my shelf waiting for me to get through all of her own writing before learning what was behind it. I still have her two novels to go.

(A Good Man is Hard to Find is available in hardcover or paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The biography is only available in hardcover, again by special order.)

Monday, November 23, 2009


The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, 311 pp

Another great story from Louise Erdrich, told through the eyes of three different characters. Thus does the author demonstrate the tangled threads of Native Americans, French explorers and other European immigrants who have woven their destinies together. In generations past, in North Dakota, the slaughter of a white farming family was blamed on Ojibwe Indians, but the truth of the incident lives on in fragments among both the white and Native American descendants.

One of these is Evelina Harp, daughter of a white father and an Ojibwe mother. Evelina, coming of age and prone to falling hopelessly in love, finds herself drawn to the old tales discussed between her Grandfather Mooshum and her Great Uncle Shamengwa, who also have a propensity for hopeless loves. As she matures and navigates life with her mixed blood, learning the truth about the murders is also the path to understanding herself.

The revelations come about in the pattern of a woven basket: over and under, back and forth, around and around. Truth, legend, tall tales and spiritual lore all contribute to the collective memory of a small town and its nearby reservation. The realities of modern life branch back through time, through love and through the inevitable conflicts of different cultures coming together.

I discussed The Plague of Doves with one of my reading groups and was among only three readers who liked it. The lack of linear structure in the story gave the remaining readers a hard time. But as any child grows and gradually pieces together her family history, the process is not linear. As peoples with varying traditions and world views learn how to live together, truth is a fluid thing.

Erdrich brings a large dose of wisdom to this book, teaching us lessons that I suspect she has struggled to learn. Despite the violence and heartbreak, there is a distinct lack of bitterness or recrimination in the telling and much insight in the resolution of its central mystery.

(The Plague of Doves is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Blueberry Girl, Neil Gaiman, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009

In a sort of early New Year's resolution, I will attempt a slight upgrade at least in terms of content here at Keep The Wisdom. Sunday posts will now be devoted to children and young adult literature. I start off here with my favorite picture book of 2009.

Neil Gaiman wrote the text, which is in the form of a prayer to female spirits for an as-yet-to-be-born daughter. The slightly psychedelic illustrations by Charles Vess are bursting with intense color, myriads of animals, and various incarnations of the Blueberry Girl to be.

I did not have a daughter but I have two granddaughters, as different from each other as any two females could be, but to me of course, equally precious and delightful. I wrote a poem for the elder and a song for the younger, so I am a bit in awe to find Neil Gaiman's lines so similar in intention to mine: "Keep her from spindles and sleeps at sixteen. Let her stay waking and wise. Nightmares at three or bad husbands at thirty, these will not trouble her eyes."

I am giving this book to every expectant mother I know, as well as a copy to my daughter-in-law.

(Blueberry Girl is available on the shelf in the picture book section of Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009


The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009, 507 pp

My review of Barbara Kingsolver's latest and wonderful novel is now on-line at BookBrowse. I am going to post an excerpt here, but I must make it clear that I completely loved the book and admired it and think that any criticisms you might read in other reviews are ridiculous. Feel free to let me know your opinion if you have also read it. If you haven't, read it!

"The title of this novel is also its continuous imagery. A lacuna is a blank gap, a missing part...a hole, a vacancy. Harrison Shepherd (the main character) is haunted by lacunae. He discovers them, he is tortured by them, and ultimately it appears he is saved by one."
Read the full review here.

(The Lacuna is available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Ten North Frederick, John O'Hara, Random House Inc, 1955, 408 pp

This novel was last on the Top 10 Bestsellers list for 1955. However, it also won the National Book Award in 1956. It was a fairly entertaining read about the top layer of society in a small Pennsylvania town. From what I have read so far of O'Hara's books, that seems to be his theme and location. In fact, there is not a great deal of difference between Ten North Frederick and his 1949 bestseller, Rage to Live, except that this novel included what happens to a fairly decent and cultured man who goes into politics. Nothing good of course.

Therefore to me, this was not an important book despite its bestseller material for the times (old money, family saga, sexual peccadilloes). It is another example of the cusp apparent in mid 1950s popular literature, sitting firmly on the end-of-an-era side. To see another viewpoint, check out the review on the National Book Award 60th Anniversary site.

(Ten North Frederick is out of print. I found a copy in my local library. Otherwise you will have to troll the used bookstores or on-line sellers.)

Monday, November 16, 2009


Election, Tom Perrotta, G P Putnam's Sons, 1998, 200 pp

Election is somewhat of a cult book due to the 1999 movie, starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. I came across mention of the movie a while back and decided to read the book first. It is Perrotta's second novel, his first being The Wishbones, a rock and roll novel on my TBR list. Besides, Perrotta was raised in New Jersey.

This novel is a spoof on high school: the students, the teachers, the sex and promiscuity, as well as the politics. My, my, things were comparatively tame in my high school years, though it is possible that I was just a tad naive. Now that I think of it, one of my best friends was having sex with her boyfriend, but we didn't talk about it.

The election process at Winwood High is supposed to educate the students in the ways of democracy. What makes the novel funny is that the students recreate all the worst aspects of American electoral politics, with teachers and parents giving plenty of help.

The writing is clever, tongue-in-cheek style, alternating between the first person voices of the three student candidates and the teacher who runs the election right into the ground, despite his high-minded intentions and because of his own low-minded issues. It is a light, fast read and owes a nod to the travails of good old Bill Clinton. I have a feeling the movie will be even better.

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

Friday, November 13, 2009


Bog Child, Siobhan Dowd, Random House Inc, 2008, 322 pp

This is the sort of YA literature I like these days: somewhat historical with a regular protagonist who must make sense of the world around him. In Ireland, during "the troubles", some members of the IRA and the Irish National Liberation army went on a hunger strike while imprisoned. Fergus is the younger brother of one these soldiers.

It is 1981 and Fergus is a high school senior trying to study for and pass his college entrance exams. All around him are the people affected by his brother's ordeal, including his parents who have conflicting views. Meanwhile, during a clandestine peat cutting mission with his uncle, Fergus finds the body of a dead child, strangely preserved in the peat bog.

Not long after that, he is approached by Michael, a freedom fighter and asked to carry packages over the border during his habitual morning run through the hills. That is a lot to deal with for a 16 year old and of course, during it all, he falls in love for the first time.

Siobhan Dowd's writing is almost perfect and her book is an example of literature that straddles the boundary between YA and adult. (Note to parents: not in content or language but in issues.) It probably helps if the reader knows something about those times in Ireland, but the story could also spur an uninformed reader to do a little research.

As I read, I recalled my visit to Ireland a few years ago. I could see the peat bog, the misty hills; I could smell the rashers and the sheep. The Cranberries' song "Zombie" played in my head and I thought about how there are always decisions to make for any human being trying to understand the conflicts in the world, knowing how and when to take a stand, searching for love and attaining some measure of control over one's destiny.

Recommended for readers age 14 and up.

(Bog Child is available in hardcover by special order at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in the spring, 2010.)

Monday, November 09, 2009


The Tontine, Volume 2, Thomas B Costain, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1955, 464 pp

I made my way through the second half of this tale and despite my curiosity about the winner of the Tontine, it was just too long. Perhaps the trouble was that this is the winding down portion. All those intrepid figures from Volume 1 grow old, suffer the slings and arrows, but the younger generation just doesn't measure up.

Even the outcome of the Tontine, which finally comes down to three contenders as well as some violence and trickery, feels anticlimactic and just as tired and old as the three themselves. The most enjoyable part was the manner in which the feud between the original families was resolved by the third generation.

I have enjoyed Costain's historical fiction, this being the fifth one I have read. The best were two of his earlier ones: The Black Rose, 1945 and The Moneyman, 1947. He only began writing fiction in his late 50s and by 1955 was getting on himself. The first big financial meltdown after the rise of industrialism occurred in the late 1800s and is covered in The Tontine, Volume 1. (Also see Stone's Fall by Iain Pears.) It is interesting and instructive in these odd financial times we are having, to see the effects of that earlier one.

(As mentioned in my last post, Volume 2 of The Tontine is most easily acquired from used booksellers. Stone's Fall is available on the shelf in hardcover at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 08, 2009


The Tontine, Volume 1, Thomas B Costain, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1955, 408 pp

Imagine my consternation as I reached the last page of the rather long #9 bestseller of 1955, only to notice that this was only Volume 1. Then I discovered that none of my libraries had Volume 2, so I had to order it from Alibris. When it arrived I found I had another 464 pages to go! Apparently books of over 800 pages were not published in one volume in 1955.

Fortunately, it is a good piece of historical fiction, set in England beginning on the day Napoleon was defeated at the battle of Waterloo. A tontine was a sort of gamble plus insurance scam people could buy into, which then became a lottery because the last living person holding a share won the final large amount of money.

Meanwhile the story moves along through the 19th century as industrialization and commerce grow into the main games and as two key families and their descendants feud through all the changes. Stock and bonds, slavery and colonialism, love and careers, are all part of the story. A large cast of characters ranging from kings and millionaires to sailors and portrait painters, from rich and powerful to poor and striving, includes all types of personalities both male and female.

As Volume 1 ends, George Carboy, who has become the richest man in England through his many ventures, is being challenged by his very own lawyer over conditions in his factories. I predict then that Volume 2 will deal with the rise of the very bottom of society, the workers, and after many more pages, I will learn who reaped the benefits of the tontine.

(I found Volume 1 of The Tontine in my local library. It is also available from used booksellers on line and probably in used bookstores.)

Saturday, November 07, 2009


Sunnyside, Glen David Gold, Alfred A Knopf, 2009, 553 pp

The production of illusion, the competitive spirit of creative people, the magnetic appeal of the truly adept; these are the themes of David Glen Gold and also his techniques as a writer. Carter Beats the Devil, his amazing first novel, was about a magician. Sunnyside takes us into the early world of motion pictures through Charlie Chaplin.

It is a long novel and in my opinion it is as long as it needs to be, though some critics disagreed. Gold takes a good 75 pages to get it all going. The three main characters are introduced, each with a compelling entrance, but I didn't know why the other two were there, because I had thought it was Charlie Chaplin's story. In fact, though their paths cross, you don't actually get the connection until almost the end of the book.

Meanwhile, there is plenty to enjoy. Chaplin's early years in Hollywood, his rivalry and later friendship with Mary Pickford, his crazy mother and first marriage. In fact, all of the three main characters have their difficulties with parents. Gold has the same wonderful story telling style as in his earlier novel, a combination of irony, sentiment and dazzling set pieces.

Several stunning scenes stand out including a Liberty Loan rally in San Francisco. Also a Hollywood party where Charlie meets his first wife and has a hilarious encounter with Mary Pickford's best friend. Then there is a miraculous dog rescue in the middle of war torn France. In fact, animals are everywhere in this story.

What I loved most was the insight into Chaplin's creative process, which made me want to see his pictures, something I have never done. I could say that the end of Sunnyside is hopeful but not happy. An underlying tone of sorrow permeates the story, partly because of the war and mostly because no one gets what he or she truly desires.

But I was increasingly drawn in by all the elements of this tale until when I finally came to the end, I wanted another 500 pages and more about an artist who for years was everywhere. At least I wanted another Glen David Gold book to read. I hope he doesn't make me wait so long for the next one, but if he must, I will just have to reread the first two.

(Sunnyside is available on the shelf at Once Upon A Time bookstore.)

Sunday, November 01, 2009


Burn This Book, Toni Morrison (Editor), Harperstudio, 2009, 113 pp

I like to read essays about writing by writers. This collection, edited by Toni Morrison, who also wrote a powerful introduction, and published in conjunction with the PEN American Center, is especially meaningful. It deals with censorship, the role of literature in keeping us self-aware, and the importance of keeping writers out of jail.

The ten writers sampled here of course include Salman Rushdie but I was most moved by Pico Iyer's story of his encounter in Burma (now Myanmar) with a trishaw driver. This desperately poor man teaching himself English and hoping to become a teacher of mathematics in a land of zero opportunity, now a land of less than zero opportunity, wrote regular letters to Iyer until he disappeared into the oppression.

Russell Banks' sentences on the role of the novelist also struck deeply. "No other species needs to be constantly reminded and taught what it is to be itself. And it is our storytellers, our poets, our novelists and dramatists, who have always performed this task. And surely, in this moment in the history of our species, when there is such a danger of forgetting and so much inducement to forget, we must not waste our limited time here doing anything else."

The next time someone tries to make me guilty for reading so much, Burn This Book can remind me why I do. I've also just about decided to take some of the hard earned cash of a bookseller and join PEN.

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