Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Band of Angels, Robert Penn Warren, Random House Inc, 1955, 313 pp

Of the three novels I have read by this author, this was the weakest. Robert Penn Warren likes to take a big theme or idea and expound on it through a story. All The King's Men was about truth; World Enough and Time about justice; and Band of Angels explores freedom, which because the author is a southerner, centers on slavery.

The trouble for me with this novel was twofold. The story itself covers time before, during and after the Civil War. I have read so many tellings of this tale and in this one found nothing new in either details or insights. The other more distressing problem is the main character.

Amantha Starr learns at the age of 16 that she is the offspring of her beloved father and a slave. Her mother died in childbirth so Amantha was raised by a mammy and her doting father. Once this father dies and the shocking truth is revealed, she is sold off as a slave. Eventually she gets her freedom and marries a white man.

But Amantha is not a convincingly drawn character. She dithers like some Frank Yerby heroine, yet has deep pondering ideas. The first person voice is not consistent because Amantha often sounds more like Robert Penn Warren than a mixed race southern woman.

So, not a success, not a good or fun or edifying read, but an interesting study in the exigencies of first person writing.

(Band of Angels and World Enough and Time are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. All the King's Men is available in the store in the classics section.)

Monday, December 21, 2009


Welcome to another new feature on Keep the Wisdom. I find it interesting to watch movies made from books I have read. Usually they disappoint me but I have decided that in this visual age, it is probably good for authors that their stories get made as movies. It might, just might, promote reading. Not since the 1940s have so many books, even literary novels, been made into movies.

I do hate it when the mental pictures I already have for a story are trashed by the movie, but lately I think even that has been less a problem for me. The trick for the screenwriter and the director is staying true to the ideas that underlie the story, which is my main criterion for whether or not the movie is a success.

Here are the ones I watched this month:

SNOW ANGELS is from the 1994 first novel by Stewart O'Nan. While it was extremely sad and dark, I liked the book and always intended to read more by that author, though I haven't yet. I liked the movie because it brought the story back for me with all of the considerable emotion I felt while reading the book. A teenage boy is getting through the first months of his parents' separation. Looking perhaps for a mother figure, he gets involved with the babysitter he had as a young child, but tragedy strikes her life. The characters are dysfunctional, small-town people, similar to those in Richard Russo's books, though without the hope. The movie came out in 2006, from an indie studio (Warner Independent.) Kate Beckinsale, who plays the baby sitter, gives a stunning performance. Not recommended if you are prone to depression.

MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY was saved by Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew. If this book had not been made into a movie, I would not have had to read the book for a reading group. I was not as charmed by it as most readers seem to have been. Amy Adams drove me completely crazy and the story was changed (unnecessarily, I thought) to the point where it lost what charm it may have had. But Frances: there is nothing she can't do as an actress. And the clothes were fabulous.

ELECTION: The book was OK. The movie was entertaining but poor Reese Witherspoon, whom I love, had to play that horrible Tracy Flick. I realize that it is something of a cult flick, it is a great spoof on high school life, but it just did not do it for me.

What movies made from books have you seen lately and how did they match up to your reading experience?

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky, Delacorte Press, 1992, 370 pp

In Paretsky's seventh V I Warshawski novel, the private investigator is pulled into neighborhood problems when her dog Peppy gets knocked up by a neighbor's black lab. The poor, eccentric old woman, who loves dogs more than her distant son, is being preyed upon by gentrification fanatics and before long ends up in hospital.

V I shares Peppy with her downstairs neighbor Mr Contreras, who has appointed himself the detective's guardian. Their contentious relationship has been going on for several books now, but in this one it finally develops into a somewhat cooperative friendship.

Soon enough, one of Contreras' old union buddies disappears, so while she is trying to fight for her elderly neighbor's rights, V I also falls into some very suspicious industrial activity at a derelict steel plant. The scandals she uncovers involve her ex-husband the lawyer, an old Chicago industrial family, union fraud and junk bonds. In fact, V I has so much going on that there is hardly any time for romance, though she does spend a night or two with an African American cop. The woman just has to get mixed up in anything that draws the ire of others.

The action and danger are at the usual pitch, it is easier to keep track of the characters than in some of the earlier books, but I wasn't as involved in the story. She does a good job with the financial and feminist issues of the early 90s and deals with the worst challenge to her friendship with Dr Lottie so far. By the time I finish this series, I will know my way around Chicago, should I ever go there again in the future.

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


It is Wednesday, which means it is time to play Word of the Day.

Today's word is one that it seems I always have to look up whenever I come across it. The word is not even in my Webster's College Edition, so I have to look it up on-line. Pictures are always good to help lock in a word, especially if it is something you will not be likely to see anywhere around you in the world.

The word is manticore and comes from page 86 of Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

According to Wikipedia, it is a legendary creature having the body of a red lion, a human head with three rows of sharp teeth, a trumpet-like voice, and the tail of either a dragon or scorpion. Being mythical in nature, its characteristics can change depending on which tale is being told.

The original manticore myth was Persian where the name meant man-eater. The English word manticore was borrowed from Latin, mantichora, that being borrowed from Greek, mantikhoras, an erroneous pronunciation of the Persian word.

My sentence: While strolling through the enchanted forest with my girlfriends, I was given a shock when a manticore leaped from the shadows, threatened in a loud voice to eat me and bared its many teeth. My best friend saved us by pointing out that we were women.

Your sentence? And please let us know if you have ever read a tale with an manticore in it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Mudbound, Hilary Jordan, Algonquin Books, 2008, 324 pp

Mudbound was the 2008 winner of Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize, which is awarded to an as yet unpublished manuscript. The purpose of the prize is to support a literature of social change. The winning books are all novels, described as "serious literary fiction" on the Bellwether Prize website.

I am not in disagreement with the purpose of the prize. In fact, I feel that fiction dealing with issues that need social change ought to be of high quality. My problem with Mudbound is that the writing is far below what I would describe as high quality and in fact is pedestrian, dull and lacking in any magic.

It is a story of racism, family troubles and feminist issues; a story with much potential for greatness. Told through alternating chapters in the points of view of its main characters, the various beliefs about whites, blacks, men and women show up loud and clear. There is no preaching but neither is there any clear sense of where the author stands. Jordan seems to be presenting all the sides and views and leaving the social change up to chance.

Laura, destined to live as a spinster, is courted by Henry, a self-absorbed Southern man who yearns to farm his own land. They marry, he buys a farm without consulting Laura, and when his attempt to set up a house in town for his wife and two daughters falls through, he expects her to suck it up and live amongst the mud, floods, insects and isolation, keeping house with no electricity or plumbing in the 1940s!

Then there are Henry's ultra racist and patriarchal father as well as Henry's flighty, war-damaged, alcoholic but charming brother, both of whom join the household. Along with a family of negro sharecroppers and a Jim Crow local doctor, everything that could go wrong does. It is all heartbreaking but some characters emerge with hope in their hearts. Laura learns to love her blockhead of a husband after slaving for him after all those years.

I am sure there are readers for this novel, just as there are readers for Water For Elephants, The Memory Keeper's Daughter and Little Bee, etc. If those readers are wading into issues of injustice, abuse and racism for the first time then these novels have served a purpose. They are not, however, literary fiction. I just want to make that clear.

(All of the novels mentioned here are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, December 14, 2009


The Deer Park, Norman Mailer, G P Putnam's Sons, 1955, 375 pp

I did not find much to admire in Mailer's third novel. After spending some time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, he turned his experience into this novel portraying the insanity, the deals, the sex and the drinking of Hollywood players.

Most of the story takes place at an imaginary resort out in the desert east of Hollywood. Mailer switches back and forth between first person (for a young man who comes to the resort with money he won in a poker game as he was being discharged from the air force) and the third person (for other characters who include an actress, a failed writer, a producer and several other unsavory characters.) This device is not wholly successful and gave me an uncomfortable jolt each time he switched.

There is lots of sex, which is not badly written, and places Mailer in his usual position of being ahead of his time, because sex hits the bestsellers big time beginning in 1956 with Peyton Place, among others. This book is one of the few I've read so far in this project which shows the sick underbelly of Hollywood, another story which will become a genre in itself.

(The Deer Park is currently out of print, as far as I can tell. I found it at my local library and it is also available on-line at various used bookseller sites.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009


The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood, Nan A Talese, 2009, 431 pp

The long-awaited companion novel to Oryx and Crake is also brilliant but in a different way. The story in Atwood's new novel occurs simultaneously with the Oryx and Crake tale, taking place out in the "Plebelands", where the destruction wrought by Helth-Wyzer and the other industrial/scientific compounds impacts the regular people of the world.

No matter what many reviewers have said, it is almost imperative to have read Oryx and Crake first. In the earlier book, a dangerous virus, embedded in the BlyssPluss "harmless" sex pill has caused a worldwide plague, known in the new book as the Waterless Flood. As in the Bible, most of mankind has been wiped out. The remains are a few humans who miraculously escaped infection; the bio-engineered animals (rakunk, liobam, wolvogs, and those frightful pigs implanted with human brain tissue); and Crake's ultimate creation, the immortal and naked Children of Crake.

The Year of the Flood story is anchored by the God's Gardeners sect, a religious group dedicated to living green and preserving life. Atwood has created an entire religion complete with hymns and sermons delivered by Adam One, the group's leader. Ren, a high-end sex worker, and Toby, a former God's Gardener, are the main characters, both with former connections to Jimmy and Crake.

So you get the whole story again from a new perspective which fills in many curious omissions in the first book. As I said, brilliant, because now you see in detail the horrendous consequences of Crake's madness. Also brilliant in a way unique to Atwood, because while Oryx and Crake has a distinct masculine tone, The Year of the Flood is feminine and feminist. The women save the day. Through strength, bravery, intelligence and heart, these women extract whatever hope can be found for a possible future.

Atwood claims that these books are just stories. That's a bit ingenious. Speculative fiction often begins with the premise: what if we keep going the way we are? Our future may not include a waterless flood, but it is bound to be unpleasant in some way. It may very well depend on some of us paying attention, preserving useful knowledge and having some sense of spiritual or moral vision.

(The Year of the Flood is available on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood, Nan A Talese, 2003, 383 pp

Though I read this dystopian novel back in 2003 when it was first released, I gave it another read before tackling her new novel, The Year of the Flood. I had forgotten a good bit of it and rereading made the new novel more clear, as both cover a similar time period, each being told through the eyes of a different set of characters and from opposite sides of the story.

Here is what I had to say after the first reading in 2003:

She did it again! It is the future and bio-engineering has screwed up everything. Snowman, who used to be Jimmy, is out in what is left of the world, hanging out with some bio-engineered "people", trying to survive.

Most of the book is back story explaining how they got where they are. Atwood creates a whole futuristic world with "compounds" for the science/business guys who run things and the "plebelands" for the rest of the world.

It is scary, hilarious and a logical progression from where we are now with global warming, screwed up weather, fake food and science gone out of control. My only complaint is that the book was over so soon.

Now I have this to say:

The most striking and ominous result of re-reading Oryx and Crake in 2009 was how much more realistic it now seems. It was a gripping futuristic tale six years ago but now feels like a world that could be just around the corner.

Having read over 300 books since I first read Oryx and Crake made for another interesting comparison. I am that much more experienced as a reader which makes me able to get more out of reading. This time I really got the connection between Jimmy and Crake who are the two main characters. It was Crake who unleashed his madness on the world with Jimmy as his unwitting accomplice. In many ways, the book is a coming-of-age story, showing how these two boys reacted so differently to their dysfunctional and soulless upbringings.

Atwood's fiction has always been complex, working on many levels simultaneously. Now I wonder how much I missed in her earlier novels and am determined to reread all of her novels as they come up on the lists of My Big Fat Reading Project.

If you have read any of Atwood's novels, I would like to hear from you on which you liked and why. It would be great to form a Margaret Atwood reading group someday.

(Oryx and Crake is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The Year of the Flood is available on the shelf in hardcover.)


Solace of the Road, Siobhan Dowd, Random House Inc, 2009, 261 pp

This is a fantastic Young Adult novel by Irish author Dowd. Solace is a 14 year old foster kid who sets off to find her birth mother and ultimately to find herself. I reviewed it for BookBrowse and you can read the review here.

(Solace of the Road is available in hardcover by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


Today's word comes from page 18 of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. It is one of the oldest words I have come across lately and is in fact obsolete (meaning no longer in general use) and archaic (meaning very old.)

wight, a noun

1. [Obsolete] a living being; creature.

Sentence: That wight doth seem to haunt my garden.

2. [Archaic] a human being; person: now sometimes used in a patronizing or commiserating sense.

Sentence: As I strolled the halls of the nursing home, a wight called out to me for a glass of water.

(The origin of this word traces back through Middle English, wiht; to Old English; is related to German wicht when it meant creature and the Gothic word waihts which meant thing.)

From Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition.

Please contribute a sentence in the comments.


Here is the post I meant to put up last Saturday as part of the new improved Keep The Wisdom blog schedule. It is a quick summary of books I read in the month just ended, in this case November. People who know that I read incessantly are always asking me what I have read lately. Well, here it is.

I read 11 books in November. I was intending to read more. Ever since I spent the early months of 2009 caring for my poor Mom and getting hardly any reading done, I have been trying to catch up. Because My Big Fat Reading Project is so huge, I push myself to get a certain number of those books read each year as research for my memoir. As of today, I still hope to read 15 more books by the end of the year, but man, Christmas, work, family stuff, you name it.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize winner for 2009, was one of the best of the month for me. Excellent, smart and entertaining historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell, the man who helped Henry VIII get his divorce from his first wife so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood was another stand out. It is a follow up and companion to her 2003 Oryx and Crake, which I reread before reading this current one. If you like futuristic dystopian fiction, it is great. Margaret Atwood is one of my top three favorite authors. I have read all of her novels.

I read Four to Score, by Janet Evanovich and Guardian Angel, by Sara Paretsky as part of a reading plan I have going to get through all the novels of each. Janet Evanovich I use to cleanse my reading palette with something light and fast paced. She never fails me. Sara Paretsky, aside from Margaret Atwood, is one of the best feminist writers around, disguised as a mystery author.

Blueberry Girl, by Neil Gaiman turned out to be my favorite picture book of the year. I am giving lots of copies to friends who are moms for Christmas.

I only had to read one book for a reading group this month, because I had already read all the other picks. Mudbound, by Hilary Jordan came highly acclaimed, because it won the Bellwether Prize, which is sponsored by Barbara Kingsolver (another one of my top three favorite authors.) The book was a dud in my humble opinion. A story of racism and misogynism that has been told many times in much better books.

For My Big Fat Reading Project, I managed to read four of the books on my list for 1957. Finally the books of the 1950s are getting a little more life in them. And a lot more sex! By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens, the #1 bestseller, takes on life, law, family and community in a small Maryland town during the 50s. It was long and lugubrious but had plenty of hanky panky. Compulsion by Meyer Levin, at #3, is a fictionalized account of a true crime from Chicago in the 1920s. It includes law, crime, sex of many kinds and psychology. Juicy and entertaining. Rally Round the Flag Boys by Max Shulman is a humorous account of 1950s suburban life complete with sex and a Nike missile base. It took the #4 bestseller spot. I turned 10 years old in 1957 and I recall being obsessed with boys and trying to find out what sex was all about. Hm.

Another 1957 book I read was The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov. It had sex in it too! Well, Asimov, early sci fi style sex, which is fairly tame. But it is also a mystery, has more robots than humans, takes place on another planet and was a great read.

Pretty good list, if I do say so myself. But there is always room for more on my reading lists. What have you read? What was great? Not so good? A waste of time?

Monday, December 07, 2009


Satan in Goray, Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Noonday Press, 1955, 239 pp

Welcome to a strange and foreign world. At least it was to me. I have seen this world before in books; in The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova; in the opening scenes of Away by Amy Bloom; in Amos Oz's autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness. But here we are much further back in history.

Into a remote village in Poland in the mid 17th century, an area where change happened so slowly it was almost imperceptible, where Jewish tradition was virtually solidified in place, comes a wild and charismatic man proclaiming the "End of Days" and the coming of the Messiah. The villagers throw law, morals and hard work to the winds and chaos ensues.

This is an ancient tale, originally written in Yiddish, where traditional Judaism meets mystical thought. The superstition that lies just beneath most religious philosophy breaks through, revealing all manner of strange characters and forces.

The translator's note in the front of the edition I read interprets Singer's message to be that a lack of solid faith opens the door to Satan and evil, that the story is a warning against heresy. That may have been the author's intention, but what he made manifest here is how thin the veneer of civilization truly is. A haunting read.

(Satan in Goray is available in paperback by special order at Once Upon A Time Bookstore, as are the other three books mentioned.)


Last week I made a resolution to be a good little blogger and post everyday. Well, that lasted for a few days, then life got busy and I was reading a good book. So there you go. I am hopeless when it comes to routine.

But I am going to try again. I'll post extra for a few days and get caught up. Stay with me.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


Four to Score, Janet Evanovich, St Martin's Press, 1998, 294 pp

After reading bunches of historical fiction, I was ready for something contemporary and light. And was I ever thrilled to find out that a couple in one of my reading groups also secretly reads Evanovich for fun!

In the fourth Stephanie Plum adventure, though it was published over a decade ago, we find a transvestite and a gay musician mixed up with car theft, jealous lovers and counterfeit money. Enough to give a reader indigestion. (Was I maybe just a tad naive in the 90s? Yes.)

Actually the mystery in this one is slightly lame and Stephanie moves more slowly than in the previous books. The crimes seem tame, though she does barely escape death by explosion and fire. What is most exciting are the developments between Stephanie and Morelli, the horny cop. They actually "do it", many times, in Four to Score. Get it?

So I wasn't disappointed. I laughed long and out loud many times. I thrilled to see something more than lust between Plum and Morelli and my reading palate was cleansed for more serious fare.

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

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Wednesday is Word of the Day Day!

Today's word comes from page 6 of The Mystic Masseur, by V S Naipaul.

pundit noun

1. in India, a Brahman learned in Sanskrit, Hindu philosophy, etc.

Sentence: After years spent in study of the Bhagavad Gita and other works, he proclaimed himself a pundit.

2. a person who has great learning.

Sentence: Do you have to go to college to be a pundit?

pundit comes from Hindi which comes from the Sanskrit word pandita

Please contribute a sentence!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


The Autobiography of Henry VIII, Margaret George, St Martin's Press, 1986, 932 pp

On the day the Booker Prize was announced, I asked my editor at BookBrowse for an assignment to review the winning novel, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. My request was granted so while I waited for the book to arrive, I thought I ought to learn more than I knew about Henry VIII. All I could recall is that he had six wives and that Anne Boleyn was one of them.

Sure enough, I found this excellent novel by Margaret George on my bookshelves where it had rested for over ten years. Back in the 1990s, I had read Mary, Queen of Scots and The Memoirs of Cleopatra. Margaret George has a wonderful smooth style and though her books are long, they are page turners for sure.

I raced through this one in just a few days, learning about the Tudors, finding Henry the man inside Henry the King, and discovering that it was the unshakable belief at the time that a king must have a male heir which drove him to all his crazy acts. In fact, Henry had two daughters with his first two wives and each of them eventually reigned as Queen of England: Mary I for five years and the indomitable daughter of Ann Boleyn, Elizabeth I for 45 years!

Henry finally did have a son with Jane Seymour, his third wife. That son was crowned Edward VI when Henry died, but the boy was only ten years old and never really ruled England during the six short years that he was King. Meanwhile, Henry formed an entire new church, beheaded two of his wives and became very fat.

He had certain feelings of inferiority, he was the son of a distant, cold mother, he was impulsive and actually quite stupid about women. His reign coincided with the Renaissance, the Reformation and the opening of the New World. There were plagues, brilliant new discoveries in science and bibles in English for the first time.

Probably many people already know all this, but it was it was new for me to put all these historical happenings in their proper alignment. In a recent NPR interview with Barbara Kingsolver, she said, "There's always a part of the story you haven't heard that would influence your judgement if you knew it all." I saw the movie, "The Other Boleyn Girl" and learned one story, now I've read The Autobiography of Henry VIII and gotten more aspects of it. Next I will read Wolf Hall and see it from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, Henry's lawyer. Big fun for a reading nerd like me.

(The Autobiography of Henry VIII is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. Wolf Hall can be purchased in hardcover at the store.)