Friday, December 31, 2010


Just KidsPatti Smith, HarperCollins Publishers, 2010, 279 pp

 I loved, loved, loved this book! Patti Smith recreates the lives of so many people who only lived to create. Her love for Robert Mapplethorpe just throbs on every page. She promised Robert, before he died, that she would write their story and she fulfilled that promise with so much taste and passion and exuberance that it made me want to live and die for art.

 I was never a Patti Smith fan. Anyone who reads my blog knows that among singer/songwriters Joni Mitchell is the one I revere. I did however once write a song in the style of "Because the Night." I've only ever played it for my husband and my most intimate songwriter friend, but there it is. As an artist and as a woman though, I have always had great respect for Patti Smith. When a friend whose reading tastes I admire pressed Just Kids on me (literally she put the book in my hands) I knew I would read it.

 I took my time. For me, this was an intense reading experience. Patti and I are almost the same age and both grew up in New Jersey. Like me, she had to wend her way through the sexual mores and expectations for women that prevailed in the 1950s and early 1960s. Unlike me, she was much braver. She makes it clear that meeting and loving Robert was the most momentous event of her life. Together they gave each other the support and unconditional care that every artist needs. They also gave each other unlimited freedom. It could be argued that that much freedom is dangerous and indeed it is. But the danger versus the opportunity to achieve artistic goals was balanced perfectly in their lives.

 A luxurious quantity of photos throughout the book bring the story to life better than any video ever could, though I did go to YouTube immediately on finishing the last page and watched almost every Patti Smith video I could find. Mapplethorpe's photography is stunning. Hard to believe that he took a huge proportion of them on Polaroid because he could not afford a better camera for many years. The Polaroid film was a larger budget item for him than food or rent.

 Stories about nearly everyone who was anyone during their days at the Chelsea Hotel, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and many more, feel like affection more than anything else. She completely captures those magical years in New York City. I never knew, but of course loved it, that Patti's biggest songwriting hero was Bob Dylan. Her inside look at her poetry writing process was another eye opener.

 The announcement that Patti Smith had won the National Book Award for Just Kids got me to finish the book. Truly I did not want it to end. I must give back the copy I read to my friend but I am going to buy one for myself. I want to read it again and again.

(Just Kids is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


The Mystic Masseur, V S Naipaul, Alfred A Knopf, 1957, 171 pp

 This is Naipaul's first novel, which I found at my local library in a volume of his first three novels. Apparently Naipaul has had two phases in his writing: an early comic vision of which The Mystic Masseur is an example and a later disturbing darker period. 

  V S Naipaul was born in Trinidad, an island in the Caribbean, to which his grandfather had come from India. The island is a polyglot of races, nationalities and languages and has been ruled by various European nations since the 15th century. After slavery was abolished, the plantation owners brought in indentured labor from India.

 Naipaul uses a combination of humor, magical realism and scenes from Indian/Hindu immigrant life to describe the coming of age of Ganesh Ramsumair, an orphan who makes it through some college education, fails as a school teacher and returns to his native village. In an effort to support his wife, he takes up healing as a masseur, though he is a complete quack. Mostly he studies the books he acquires, lining his walls and gaining knowledge until he gains fame as the "pundit."

 The Indians from India who reside in Trinindad comprise a tightly knit and enclosed culture with their own foods, customs and competitions. Ganesh finally rises in the world and enters politics only to find disillusionment in the end. Naipaul's writing is lively and robust but I can't fully agree that his vision is comic. He makes some fun of his own people but what comes through is a rueful account of life as second class citizens in a post colonial world.

(The Mystic Masseur is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, December 20, 2010


Just announcing that I will be absent from Keep The Wisdom until after Christmas Day. Actually I have been absent since Wednesday because I was getting ready for a visit from my son, daughter-in-law and my three grandchildren. Yesterday they arrived from Florida, expecting a nice sunny California day but we are in the middle of some kind of monsoon condition. It has been raining steadily for two days and will continue for three more.

Hopefully the rain will stop by Thursday when I will take us all to Disneyland, fulfilling a dream I have had to take the grandkids there someday.

Unfortunately my husband is missing the whole thing, including Christmas, because he is sailing on the maiden voyage of Disney's newest cruise ship; as a sound technician, not a passenger.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Faery Tale: One Woman's Search for Enchantment in a Modern World, Signe Pike, Penguin Group USA, 2010, 295 pp

 This enchanting memoir is sort of Eat Pray Love for faery lovers. Signe Pike is a young woman who quit her job as a book editor for a New York publisher and went on a quest to find out if faeries are real. I was maddened, delighted and inspired many times over during my reading of this truly modern faery tale.

  Because that is what it is, a faery tale in the voice of a modern young woman who wanted to believe in magic, in things that cannot be seen and in happy endings. Signe Pike is young enough to be my daughter (or maybe it's that I am old enough to be her mother.) She is almost young enough to be my granddaughter (actually I have no idea how old she is, I'm just guessing.) Anyway, it was inevitable that she would make me mad sometimes.

 I started the book and by about page 30, I threw it down and thought I would not waste my time for another page. The voice of Signe Pike struck me as silly; an amalgam of the tone of Facebook comments, texting between teens and People magazine. I now realize that I was suffering from generation gap. 

 That evening I spent hours with my youngest friend, a 25-year-old aspiring writer. We drank wine, told each other stories, talked about life and read our latest efforts to each other. I love this woman because she reminds me of my younger self and hanging out with her is effortless. Somehow that evening led me to pick up Faery Tale again the next morning and I read it all day until I got to the end.

 I still got mad a few times but mostly I was delighted. I've done my own faery research over the years. I too believed in faeries as a child. I have encountered disembodied beings on an island in Lake Michigan, on Mt Tamalpias, in Ireland, in the Redwoods and in my own backyard. About ten years ago I spent a few months reading up on how to contact faeries and I have always read magical stories, from C S Lewis and E Nesbit as a child to Suzanne Clarke and John Crowley in recent years. As I kept reading Signe Pike, I saw that she was trying as hard as she could to remain objective and not get sucked in to a bunch of airy-fairy, New Age ridiculousness. She was on a quest to find some meaning for her life and to make sense of her relationship with her father who had passed away. She was also looking for hope in a world that seemed to be heading for disaster. I am so down with all of that.

 As she traveled to Glastonbury (where I have always wanted to go), to Ireland (where I have been), to the Isles of Man and Skye, to Scotland and Findhorn, I began to feel I was in pretty good hands. Her process of slowing down, learning to let things happen, listening more closely to her intuition and bonding with the various faery "experts" she interviewed, made me happy for her.

 And that is all I am going to say because I don't want to spoil anymore of the adventure of reading this book. It's cool and it's real and it's magical. Plus there is an awesome bibliography in the back and Signe has one the best author websites I've seen.

(Faery Tale is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


The Naked Sun, Isaac Asimov, Street & Smith Pualications, 1957, 196 pp

 This is the sequel to The Caves of Steel, again featuring Detective Lige Baley and his robot assistant R Daneel Olivaw. They go offworld to investigate a murder on Solaria, one of the 50 Outer Worlds inhabited by humans.

  Solaria's most eminent scientist has been found dead and it appears that he was done in by his wife. The planet has something like 200 robots for every human, similar to the slave/master populations of certain ancient civilizations. These robots are all under the Three Laws of Robotics as laid out in I, Robot, but there is an uneasy feeling on Earth about ominous rumors coming from Solaria, so Bayley is also serving as a spy.

 Despite his unreasoning fear of the naked sun after living his entire life in the steel caves of Earth, Bayley's professional skill soon has him flaunting all protocol on Solaria. He finds the murderer of course but also a much more deadly character. 

 I thought The Caves of Steel was better as far as storytelling and suspense, but Asimov has the detective genre nailed and his futuristic observations are as brilliant and icily witty as always.

(The Naked Sun is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, December 13, 2010


Out, Natsuo Kirino, Vintage International, 2005, 416 pp

 A young mother in Tokyo, working the night shift in a boxed lunch factory, murders her abusive husband. Her three best friends at work band together to help her dispose of the body. These women are desperate housewives beyond anything we see in American entertainment, though there are undoubtedly women in our great society who live equally on the edge of disaster, hopelessness and criminality. So while Out is brutally bloody and violent, more hard-boiled than almost anything I have ever read, I think it is realistic.

  Natsuo Kirino shows deep insight regarding feminism, male and female psychology, and Japanese society in the late 20th century. She is one hell of a criminal writer and keeps up a relentless pace. Sometimes I could hardly take the sheer amount of gore but I was fascinated and reading as fast as I could. As the friendships between the four women deteriorate following the crime and as one of the women finds herself involved in the Tokyo criminal underworld, it was the psychological aspects of the story that I found the most intriguing. What does getting out actually involve for these women?

 This is dark stuff.  I was put in mind of Patricia Highsmith, Mary Gaitskill, Joyce Carol Oates, Shirley Jackson; female authors who can look the dark underside of female existence straight in the face. The novel is as far as you can get from a feel-good family story. It is probably not the thing for most women readers I know, but it sure is powerful and is as close to horror as I want to get.

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

Friday, December 10, 2010


Mrs Daffodil, Gladys Taber, J P Lippincott Company, 1957, 284 pp

 Back before I invented My Big Fat Reading Project, I was on a quest to read all the fiction in my local library. Crazy, I know. I started out working through all the books authored by anyone whose last name started with A, like Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, from whom I got the idea. But I am easily bored and I had gotten into some author I did not really like, so I moved on. I read the first book I found at the beginning of each letter. That is how I ended up reading Mrs Daffodil. Eventually, because it was recorded in my reading log from 2001, it ended up on the 1957 list of books read for the Big Fat Reading Project.

 Because of the cover, I thought it was going to be a dumb little book, but it was actually charming and humorous. Gladys Taber was a real life author of magazine articles in the 1950s and she turned this experience into a novel. A reviewer I read on Amazon speculated that she got to say things she could not write about in her articles. 

 Mrs Daffodil is a magazine and short story writer who lives with a friend named Kay. I imagined these two women as a sort of harmless American version of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. They live in a house in the country (probably outside of NYC) with a Siamese, a red setter and several other dogs. Mrs Daffodil is always under deadline and stressed out by that, but the two bumble along continuously dieting, hosting weekend visitors, trying to find domestic help and overall being very caring, loving women to each other and their friends.

 I ended up loving it and having lots of laughs. I am a happily married woman and definitely heterosexual but from time to time I think about how much fun it would be to live with a woman friend instead of a man. It would be a whole different set of circumstances. I wonder if there are any modern novels that would compare to Mrs Daffodil. Please let us know in the comments if you know of any.

(Mrs Daffodil is out of print and the lowest price I found on the web for a used copy was $50! It must be some kind of collector's item. I found it of course at the library.)

Thursday, December 09, 2010


I haven't had a guest blogger in a long time. Today I am happy to introduce Michael Barron, an up and coming writer who has been commenting on my posts here at Keep The Wisdom. I visited him at his blog and learned that he has written a fantasy novel for Young Adult readers entitled Wilderness. His website, Barron Wilderness, features the first three chapters. I read them and was quite impressed. 

 I invited Michael to write something for my blog and he has sent me a fascinating account of what it was like for him to write his first novel. Welcome Michael!

A few years ago I was driving home from Dover, DE where I bought a birthday present for one of my friends. As I let my mind wander, I glanced to my right at a clump of trees behind a cornfield. There wasn't anything unusual about the sight (there are millions of cornfields in that part of Maryland), but I was struck with the image of a seemingly normal young man slipping out of his girlfriend's house to meet with friends in the woods. These friends would be like family to him but a part of a double life no one else, not even the girlfriend, knew about. For the rest of the drive I thought about this strange young man and tried to figure out his story. As soon as I reached my college's parking lot, I ran inside (so fast that I left my friend's present in the car), grabbed a pen and started writing.

The wonderful thing about rough drafts is all you need to do is just “vomit” your ideas out onto the page without caring how good they are. Seriously, who cares if the characters don't make sense or if the plot is filled with more holes than the car Bonnie and Clyde were shot up in? No one else is EVER going to read it until you're ready for them to. What I learned from Wilderness is: just write and let the story take you where it needs to go. I guarantee that when you finish writing a first chapter a little voice will say “Wait! You need to go back! It isn't perfect yet!” My advice is to gag and hogtie that voice until you write the second draft. Otherwise, you will spend all your time polishing something you will eventually change anyway. The first draft of Wilderness is nothing like the version I am submitting to agents. It was about a thousand pages long, half the characters hadn't been created and the rules of the magical world were confusing. I spent too much time pushing around commas and rearranging sentences when I should have just been writing and discovering the characters. Fortunately, I got wise, plowed my way through and created a rough draft I could later rewrite.

Many writers turn their noses at outlines. There is the attitude that “real writers” just write. I agree with this to a certain extent. The danger of outlines is that a writer won't use them sparingly enough. He or she will spend months (or even years) outlining the story rather than writing it. At the end of the day they will have a very beautiful outline, but when people go into bookstores they want books, not outlines. Then again, jotting down notes can work for some authors. My ideas come to me so rapidly and from so many directions that I can never get them down fast enough. Outlines can be great if you're just jotting down ideas for scenes and character but time spent outlining does not count as time spent writing. Honestly, I didn't even use that many notes until Wilderness' later drafts. By then I had so much material it was impossible to keep it all straight in my head. Making an outline (especially on notecards) can help with revisions because you're rearranging the pieces of the puzzle in front of you as well as in your imagination. I would keep outlining a rough draft to a minimum and save the heavy stuff for the rewrites. Also, never forget the golden rule of outlining: YOU NEVER HAVE TO FOLLOW IT! Just because you've jotted it down doesn't mean you have to include it in the draft.

In a perfect world, I would just tie my manuscript to the talons of an eagle, the bird would fly into the heavens and copies of my novel would rain down all over the world. Unfortunately, getting Wilderness published is going to be much more difficult. I have only just begun submitting the book to agents, but I have spent the past few months preparing. First of all, I created a website where one can view the synopsis along with the first three chapters (see link above). Along with a website I created a “Fans of Wilderness” Facebook page (see link below). The purpose of the Facebook page is to gain as many “friends” as possible for the book. This way I can show it to agents and say “See! A ton of people already know about my novel!” (Feel free to join the group and help out an aspiring author.)

I also learned how to present my book by creating the following pitch:

“Lee is a normal nine-year-old boy...or so he thinks.

“On Fourth of July, a crazy neighbor shoots a coyote outside his house.  As Lee approaches the body, he notices war paint smeared across the animal’s face.  Before the coyote dies, he speaks with a human voice, whispering, "Sister Raven." Lee’s world is blown to pieces.

“Lee discovers that the forest behind his house is a gateway to Mid Country, a world of talking animals and ancient spirits.  There, the lonely boy befriends a warrior raccoon and a girl with a maze of tattoos that tell an ancient story.  He is also hunted by a tribe of demons known as Ashmen.  They were once honorable warriors but became feral beasts  with beautiful faces after selling their souls to the Goddess of Fear.  The Ashmen believe that they can free their mistress from banishment by devouring Lee’s flesh.  

“In our world, Lee’s father abandons the family.  With their money dwindling, the boy and his mother are on the verge of becoming homeless.  Determined to save their house, Lee searches for a treasure hidden in Mid Country’s forbidden territory and in doing so uncovers a conspiracy that goes back to the beginning of time.”

This pitch sums up both the story and spirit of the novel. It describes the main character (Lee), gives us his motives (saving his home), introduces the buddy characters (the raccoon and song) and tells us about his problems (finding the treasure / the Ashmen). Even more importantly it is short. When you are describing your novel to anyone (especially an agent) you don't want to go rambling off on every single subplot. There are several characters and story elements I left out here, but an agent doesn't need to know about them right now. All they need are the characters, the plot, the problem and a cliffhanger that makes them want more.

So that is a (very brief) summary of my adventures writing a novel. While I have just started the submission process (and we all know what kind of road that will be), I am optimistic. With luck, that weird little story that grabbed my imagination while driving home will someday be available for everyone to enjoy. I have started the rough draft of a second novel which is coming along much faster because of all the things I learned from writing the first.

Check out and join Michael's Facebook group: Fans of Wilderness.

I hope you enjoyed Michael's writing story. Of course you can comment here but it would make Michael very happy to hear from you at his website (where you can read his first three chapters) or at his Facebook page.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010


Snakewoman of Little Egypt, Robert Hellenga, Bloomsbury USA, 2010 340 pp

 One of the best things about being a paid reviewer of books is that I find myself reading  amazing books I might otherwise have missed. Reading Snakewoman of Little Egypt was such an experience. And I was so ready for something unique compared to what else I had been reading lately. Sometimes a book has all the elements that I feel make it magically good and Robert Hellenga got that combination: strong female character, snakes (!), varieties of spiritual experience, love of course, and information about things I had formerly known nothing about. 

 My review begins:

"I had not previously read a book by Robert Hellenga, although he has already published five novels, but I was intrigued by the title of his latest. After all, woman's mythical history with snakes stretches back to Genesis and beyond, and I remember reading with great pleasure Marion Zimmer Bradley's Firebrand, in which a snakewoman plays a key role during the Trojan War. But who knew that right now in America we still have fundamentalist Christian sects handling snakes as a method of avoiding hell and reaching heaven?

Sunny, formerly known as Willa Fern Cochrane, was born and raised in the Church of the Burning Bush With Signs Following in southeastern Illinois and married to its most powerful preacher until she got 'backed up on God' and took justice into her own hands..."

 You can read the rest of the review at BookBrowse magazine. Better yet, just read the book. It is really that good and my husband liked it as much as I did, so it has been guy-tested.

 (Snakewoman of Little Egypt is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1957, 245 pp

 Mary McCarthy's autobiographical collection of essays originally appeared in "The New Yorker" and "Harper's Bazaar" between 1946 and 1955. For the book she wrote comments on her essays and addressed the perennial question of the veracity of memory. All of this was highly interesting to me since I am writing a memoir myself.

  The McCarthy children, including Mary's three brothers, lost their parents in the flu epidemic of 1918 after an ill-advised move by train from Seattle to Minneapolis during the worst weeks of the epidemic. How would we ever have memoirs to read if young, free-spirited parents did not subject their children to foolish or desperate adventures?

 The author is an example of how a highly intelligent human being overcomes adversity and makes a life for herself, though not without emotional scars. Her family included devout Catholics, Protestants, Jews and the occasional atheist. She attended public schools, convent schools and boarding schools. 

 After a stint with stingy Minneapolis relatives, where the children were practically starved to death, Mary returned to Seattle and lived with her maternal grandparents in a state of over-protection and confused religious beliefs. She became a rebellious, promiscuous feminist until finally settling down to marriage and motherhood, though she never compromised her intellectual pursuits.

 After reading only two of her novels and this memoir, she has become one of my heroines, on a par with Joni Mitchell.

(Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, December 02, 2010


The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson, Bloomsburg USA, 2010, 307 pp

 My review of this year's Booker Prize winner is available for viewing for the next few days by non-subscribers at BookBrowse. I enjoyed it, as I do most of the Booker winners, but it is probably not for everyone. Well, what book is?

 The review begins:

  "There are three good reasons to read The Finkler Question:
  • To gain insight into the many views and disparate experiences of Jewish people in the 21st century.
  • To experience the almost perfect blend of humor and seriousness in the writing.
  • To enjoy a rich story about the human condition that includes friendship, love, religion, ambition, loss, aging and dying."
 To read the rest go here.

 I think that BookBrowse is one of the higher quality on-line book review sites (and not just because I am a reviewer there.) The reviews cover not so much the blockbuster bestsellers but a wide range of books, some of which are a bit more below the radar.  You can sign up for a free trial subscription by going to the home page, but the subscription rate is very reasonable and also makes a great holiday gift. 

(The Finkler Question is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


Loser Takes All, Graham Greene, The Viking Press, 1957, 126 pp

 Even Graham Greene takes a shot at the soulless despair of the late 1950s in this silly love story about a lowly middle-aged accountant in a London firm. Mr Bertram is about to be married, for the second time, to a young lighthearted girl he met in a restaurant. He gets summoned to the big boss' office and invited to honeymoon on the man's yacht in the Mediterranean. 

 Of course it all goes wrong and Bertram winds up in the casinos of Monte Carlo trying to use his mathematical powers to beat the house and losing his new bride in the process. The happy ending reads like a Doris Day romantic comedy of the day. (In fact there was a movie in 1956 with Greene writing the screenplay.)

 I know that Greene wrote what he called "entertainments" next to his literary novels to pay the bills and usually they are almost as good but this one was too light for me.

(Loser Takes All is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Justine, Lawrence Durrell, E P Dutton & Co, 1957, 253 pp

 I first read Justine when I was in high school. I read it for the sex. I don't think I got much else from it except that it was a tragic love story set in the fascinating city of Alexandria, Egypt. Rereading it was a revelation. Durrell's writing is exquisite though in another way so desultory that I could only read about thirty pages before falling into a deep sleep, no matter the time of day. But the characters!

  Justine herself is a deeply troubled woman who refuses to respond to psychoanalysis. For some reason I respected that. Clea is the sexless or possibly lesbian guardian angel. Balthazar is the mystic and Melissa the phthisic sacrificial lamb. In their "possessive coupling(s)", as Joni Mitchell would say, they are passionate, somewhat frantic and working out their personal histories and destinies. You could say that the story is melodramatic but then so is life when we are not being ironic. Perhaps it was also the melodrama that appealed to me as a teen, the way Twilight appeals to teens today.

 Durrell is on a level with Camus as a writer and deals in the ways of the heart as deeply as Camus dealt with the mind. They are almost polar opposites and so make a very fine pair. I love them both.

 As in much good fiction, the city of Alexandria acts as a character and is in fact accused for a good deal of what happens. Durrell makes its alleyway, shores, dwellings and weather so vivid, I wanted to go there. In fact, Justine is the first volume of what became "The Alexandria Quartet." That means three more visits with these characters and that amazing city.

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

Monday, November 29, 2010


Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese, Alfred A Knopf, 2009, 534 pp

 I looked forward to this book for quite a long time. I do love long books but have become wary of them lately because I have such a lot to get through for my memoir research that I get a little nuts when it takes more than a day or two to read one. Thanks to one of my reading groups for selecting Cutting for Stone because now I have read it.

  I must confess that it was not as great as I had been led to believe. All the medical terms and procedures sent me to the dictionary over and over. That's alright. I don't mind learning new things, but it slowed me down just when I wanted to forge ahead in the story.

 Then there was a stylistic problem for me. The tone of the writing was a bit too formal and emotionally restrained, especially since the story contains bottomless wells of emotion existing in almost every character.

 What I did like, very much, was the history of the twin brothers, the setting in Ethiopia, and the mystery of what ever happened to Dr Stone. I was also fascinated by the female characters for their strength and courage, though I thought that Genet was more a victim of her times than the irresponsible and untrustworthy woman portrayed by Verghese. 

 Perhaps I am somewhat old-fashioned (LOL, considering how long I have been reading novels) but I like a big novel to fill my heart as much as my mind. It could be related to the author's birthplace (Ethiopia) and subsequent life, a cultural disconnect, but Cutting for Stone did not have the emotional impact I expected.

(Cutting for Stone is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Giants of Jazz, Studs Terkel, Thomas Y Crowell Company, 1957, 189 pp

 Jazz was one of the main musical genres of the 1950s: swing, big band, bop and cool. Studs Terkel started out in radio and got his own show in 1944, playing all styles of music. In 1952, he landed on television with a show called Stud's Place. From there on he developed an interviewing style which he put into a long series of books about various periods of 20th century America. Giants of Jazz was his first book.

  He covers thirteen jazz artists from Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday to Charlie Parker. Each artist has a chapter combining a life story with quotes from Terkel's interviews. He concentrates on their innovations and achievements; how they overcame race, poverty and changing styles. A musician's hardships are touched on but personal troubles and substance abuse are downplayed.

 The book is a celebration of music and the development of jazz into a unique American music. Studs Terkel revels in the joy and creativity these artists brought to audiences everywhere they went. It is both an educational and uplifting read.

(Giants of Jazz is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Our Kind of Traitor, John le Carre, The Viking Press, 2010, 306 pp

 The latest novel by John le Carre is getting positive reviews all over the place with sentiments exclaiming that the old le Carre is back and that he has dropped the preaching tone of his last few efforts. Personally, I like it when he preaches to us about the ills of our modern world.

  In Our Kind of Traitor, I felt the master of spy literature was holding back just a tad and I purely hated the way this novel ended. I just felt lost through much of the story, but that could be bcause I do not understand global finance. Not one bit. 

 My take is that this is a gangster-trying-to-go-straight story. Percolating beneath that is the picture of British government being so in the grip of vested interests and greedy politicians that the true traitor lies there. Is that the meaning of the title?

 A Russian gangster, an idealistic young teacher from Oxford, his much more realistic girlfriend, the usual failed spy and the usual rogue spy; all the elements are there but it didn't come together well for me. John le Carre has stumped me before. I remember feeling like I was really missing something in The Little Drummer Girl. My husband liked Our Kind of Traitor just fine and explained some of it to me. 

 If you have read it, liked it and are now laughing up your sleeve about me, please...comment!

(Our Kind of Traitor  is available in hardcover on the New Books Barn at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It would make a great gift for the male reader(s) in your life.)

Monday, November 22, 2010


The Floating Opera, John Barth, Doubleday & Company, 1967, 252 pp

 The first novel by one of America's most influential post-modern novelists. I was excited and wary about beginning to read this author. No problem; it wasn't a difficult read. I liked it. Of course, his meta-fictional stuff comes later, but even in The Floating Opera there are elements of that style, such as the first person narrator making frequent references to his writing process.

  (A note on the copyright date: Barth first published the book in 1957, making changes suggested by the publisher, especially toward the end of the book. The edition I read, published in 1967, was revised by Barth to restore his original ending. Knowing that, I felt I could include the 1967 version on my 1957 reading list.)

 The narrator, Todd Andrews, is a lawyer with mostly antisocial behaviors. He lives alone in a hotel, has never married though he has a mistress, and cares little for money or public opinion. I can hardly explain why I liked him but I did. I would not like to be his friend, I would certainly never go out with him, but from the distance of a reader I found him a fascinating fellow.

 Throughout the book, he tells his life story including how his best friend's wife came to be his mistress with that friend's knowledge and blessing. He lives in a small Maryland town on the Chesapeake Bay where he was born and raised. Though only in his 30s, he has a rare heart condition from which he could drop dead at any moment. When his is not lawyering, which is most of the time, he engages in his "Inquiries," writing up his questions about life, the answers he discovers and attempting to solve his overall quandary: should he go on living or commit suicide? 

 It is this question which provides suspense; his life story is the plot. Despite all manner of digressions and inward pondering, the writing has a warm intimate style and I was rarely bored or frustrated by this odd tale. I don't know what he did to the end of the story for the first publication but this one was satisfying.

(The Floating Opera is another 1957 book which is out of print and not even available in my local libraries. I got my copy from a used book seller.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010


The Underneath, Kathi Appelt, Atheneum, 2008, 311 pp

 An old and abused hound dog sings the blues underneath the porch of a sagging cabin in east Texas. His howls attract an abandoned cat about to deliver kittens. Despite his mean drunk of a master, Ranger welcomes the cat and does his best to protect her and her kittens. His best is not good enough.

 Set near the Little Sorrowful Creek, in the bayous of the Sabine River, the animals work out their destinies. The trees, the waters, the weather, a huge alligator and an ancient snake make up the characters of this animal tale. Kathi Appelt also weaves in ancient history and shape shifters, a bit confusing at times but always full of wonder and tension.

 The writing is poetic and atmospheric. The only full human is Gar Face, Ranger's abusive master. He is a perfectly horrid villain. The vocabulary is rather steep for 8 or 9 year olds I think, but the author uses the bigger words many times so once a child looked up or learned the meanings, there are ample chances to get used to the words. But I would rate the book as good for experienced willing readers, probably 10 or above. 

 My nine-year-old granddaughter is currently reading it and is absolutely absorbed in the animals' lives. She has been instructed in how to use a dictionary and how to use the Internet to find pictures of unfamiliar things and places. She does this happily and willingly which may be somewhat unique.

 I can see this being a wonderful read-aloud book in class or at home. It is a story that would get into any child's heart, boy or girl.

(The Underneath is available in paperback on the children's shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 19, 2010


The God of War, Marissa Silver, Simon & Schuster, 2008, 271 pp

 Marisa Silver's second novel made a huge emotional impact on me. I was alternately enthralled and annoyed but by the end I could not recall what had annoyed me. Laurel is a single mom raising two sons in a cramped trailer on the Salton Sea in the late 1970s. The story is told by her older son, twleve-year-old Ares, who chooses to play the god of war in the family.

 Ares is tortured by the conviction that because he dropped his younger brother on his head when Malcolm was a baby, he is responsible for Malcolm's developmental difficulties. As in a Greek tragedy, Ares' guilt drives the story, the incidents and the arc of his life.

 I could relate to Laurel in her extreme determination to live on her own terms. She works as a massage therapist and barely supports her children. She refuses to face Malcolm's troubles, which are either retardation or some form of autism, preferring to see him as merely a child who develops at his own pace, and she flatly rejects any intervention by authorities, social or medical. Ares and Malcolm have different fathers who are long gone.

 Because of their life style, Ares assumes most of the care of his brother, thereby expiating some of his guilt. We are not surprised when things go very wrong, not least because a gun appears early in the tale. I loved the development of each character though not a single one is entirely admirable, just as none of us are. The melding of place, time and character in this novel is an extraordinary feat similar to an expertly cooked meal.

 The Salton Sea, one of those iconic California locations, which fascinates those of us who live here, is as much of a character as Ares or Laurel. I have never visited there but someday I will and I will go with trepidation. It is the perfect setting for a woman like Laurel, whom I simultaneously admired and deplored, because I could have been her.

 In the 70s, many of us went off the grid of middle class life, turning our backs on everything our parents held dear, losing our religion, rejecting Western medicine and mental treatment, tripping down the paths of mysticism, certain that by benign neglect we would raise our children to be free spirits who would inherit the better world we were creating. Reading The God of War was as much an exploration of my own guilt as it was that of Ares' guilt.

 Laurel, Ares and even the unfortunate damaged Malcolm made decisions based on the urge to be free. As in any life such decisions can be life saving and devastating at the same time. Hopefully I have made it somewhat clear how I could be both enthralled and annoyed by this novel. Hopefully I have made you want to read The God of War.

(The God of War is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Falcons of Narabedla, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ace Books Inc, 1957, 150 pp

 I became a fan of Marion Zimmer Bradley when I read The Mists of Avalon in the 1980s. a book I have read twice and given as a gift to many women. MZB, as she is known to her fans, also wrote the Darkover Series (of which there are 36 volumes), as well as at least 40 other novels.

  Falcons of Narabedla is her first published novel. For a writer who is known as being female-centered, feminist and sometimes lesbian, this story is a surprisingly hardcore masculine fantasy. But hey, everyone starts somewhere. Mike Kenscott is an electrical engineer in real life on earth, but a series of inexplicable electrical occurrences cause him to lose his job and end up in a different body on another world, complete with Rainbow Cities, twin suns, man-eating flowers, human-like falcons and naturally some dark deeds done regularly.

 Our hero's main trouble is the memory loss connected with the body switch. After dealing with being in Narabedla against his will, he recognizes his responsibility to help the good guys, assumes the role of Adric, Lord of the Crimson Tower and gets down to sorting out the place.

 The story is quite hard to follow, the battles are standard fantasy fare, but as usual with MZB, it is the characters who got hold of me and kept me reeling through the tale feeling about as amnesiac as Mike/Adric.

 I am actually thrilled to think that for almost every year of the rest of My Big Fat Reading Project, there will be a Marion Zimmer Bradley book on the list.

(The Falcons of Narabedla is out of print. I had to order my copy from a used book seller. Oddly enough, it is available on Kindle.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Total Recall, Sara Paretsky, Delacorte Press, 2001, 414 pp

 Once again Paretsky tackles an entirely different issue in one of her most intense novels so far. Lotty Herschel, V I Warshawski's beloved friend and mother substitute, has always been a prickly, complex character in the series. Now in Total Recall, we finally learn why.
 As usual, financial crimes are mixed into the story, as well as racial tension and political misbehavior. Though there is a certain amount of violence, the danger to V I this time is more emotional than physical. When a young man named Paul Radbuka appears and claims to be a Holocaust survivor, having discovered his true identity through recovered-memory therapy, it throws Lotty into an emotional tailspin. In order to help her friend, V I must get to the bottom of it all with no help from Lotty.

  It is a harrowing story, brilliantly played out. Warshawski's current lover is on his way to Afghanistan to cover war news, a five-year-old girl becomes the target of the strange Paul Radbuka in his desperate attempt to insert himself as a relative of Lotty, and the recovered-memory therapist is a complete piece of New Age sensibility who almost brings disaster to all.

 What will Sara Paretsky do next? The emotional insight she displays here is quite impressive as a study in the deep connection between loss, crime and mental states.

(Total Recall is available in mass market paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 15, 2010


Today is the annual observation of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, created by International PEN, to recognize and support writers who resist suppression of the basic human right to freedom of expression. It was started in 1981 by International PEN's Writers in Prison Committee.

Also this week PEN Center USA, located in Los Angeles, holds its annual Lit Awards, at which Ethiopian journalist Sisay Agena will be awarded this year's Freedom to Write Award. He will not be able to attend because he is in prison in Ethiopia. You can find out more about Agena's situation at the PEN Center USA website, at the link above.

Recently I have read How to Read the Air, by Dinaw Mengestu, son of Ethiopian immigrants to America, as well as Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese, a novel set in Ethiopia. In October, on my plane trip to Florida, I sat next to an Ethiopian woman who was visiting the United States for the first time and wanted more than anything to move here with her two daughters. I learned that life for women in Ethiopia is not good at all. The thought of standing up to or defying her husband in any way brought a look of intense fear to her face.

Here I am, safe in my home, reading and writing whatever I please. I am married to a man who respects me and whom I respect. I can meet other readers and discuss books anytime I want. Reading about the number of journalists and writers who are imprisoned around the world, even as close by as Mexico, makes me realize that we better not take our freedoms for granted.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Edna St Vincent Millay, America's Best-Loved Poet, Toby Shafter, Julian Messner Inc, 1957

 Like many young girls, my life was changed in eighth grade by Millay's poem, "Renascence." I did not become a poetry reader or writer, though my eighth grade English teacher did his best to turn us into lovers of poetry, but I did learn that it is possible to express strong emotion in writing. I've been writing ever since but the closest I have come to poetry is in my song lyrics. Edna St Vincent Millay lived on in my fantasies as someone I would have loved to have as a friend.

 Julian Messner Publishers produced an entire series of biographies for young adults in the mid twentieth century, this biography of Millay being one of them. I originally stumbled upon it in the library over ten years ago and read it with avid interest. Because it is for young people, the writing is somewhat simplistic and glosses over the more lurid aspects of the poet's life. You see, Edna was actually quite a bad girl in her day, living in Greenwich Village, reveling in promiscuity, drinking way too much and pouring out her heart in her writing.

 If you want the whole delicious tale, read Nancy Milford's 2001 biography, Savage Beauty. This one by Toby Shafter is quite a feat though. She manages to avoid what people these days call "content" when they are looking for appropriate reading material for teens, but still gets across the key element of Millay's life: her driving ambition. Best of all, I finally learned the story behind "Renascence."

 The image above is not the book cover, because I could not find one, but is a beautiful picture of Edna in her younger days.

(The book is out of print, which I consider a travesty, but is still available in libraries and from used book sellers.)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


How To Read The Air, Dinaw Mengestu, Riverhead Books, 2010, 308 pp

My review of Mengestu's just released new novel is now available at BookBrowse, even if you are not a subscriber.

It begins: "How To Read The Air is not a great novel but it is a good one...Jonas, the American born son of Ethiopian immigrants, is as lost in America as his parents were. He is seeking his identity and a center for his life..." Read the rest of the review here.

Please let me know if you have any trouble with the link.

(How To Read The Air is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 05, 2010


The Edge of Darkness, Mary Ellen Chase, W W Norton & Company Inc, 1957, 235 pp

 Up to this point, my reading in 1957 has been quite divided between a new style and an old one. The old style is one which has been the predominate style since 1940, where I began My Big Fat Reading Project. Good solid literary writing, nothing flashy and addressing aspects of human nature. Sex and passion are alluded to but only in "tasteful" terms. 

 The Edge of Darkness,  one in that older style, is set in Maine, as are most of Chase's novels. In a very small coastal town, the oldest woman has died. She was a relic of the times when the area was based on shipping and sea voyages around the world by sailing ship. Her husband was a ship's captain and she sailed the world with him several times.

 Now those days are far in the past and the villagers are an odd collection of fishermen, shopkeepers and impoverished flotsam. In her neat yet beautiful sentences, the author describes these people with their foibles and problems. We learn about the old woman who died through their eyes.

 With no actual plot and not much excitement, it is a contemplative read. The caricature of a town faded from its former glory is a prominent theme in American literature with the old wealthy citizens versus the current struggling ones. Richard Russo is one of the modern masters of this theme. Recently when I read Olive Kitteridge I found it again. The Edge of Darkness is more portrait than story.

(The Edge of Darkness is another book from the 1950s that is out of print. Try the library or a used book seller.)

Thursday, November 04, 2010


The Door Into Summer, Robert A Heinlein, Signet, 1957, 165 pp

 Heinlein does time travel! The novel was first serialized in the "Fantasy and Science Fiction" magazine, then published in 1957 as a mass market paperback. It is one of his more lighthearted love stories, though of course it contains plenty of science and his signature future predictions.

  Dan Davis, a successful inventor of automated robots, such as "Hired Girl," a cleaning lady bot, is happily inventing new stuff in 1970. His start-up company includes his best friend Miles Gentry as business manager and his fiancee Belle Darkin as secretary. The best characters are Petronius, the cat, and eleven-year-old Fredrica.

 So it is a few years after a Six Weeks Nuclear War and Dan has learned hard lessons about nuclear fall-out but has survived. Now he is going to learn hard lessons about how best friends and beautiful women can betray an absent-minded scientist when he is busy inventing. He ends up in cold sleep, waking up in the year 2000.

 The rest of the story is how Dan gets revenge, saves the cat and Fredrica, and goes on to create his best invention ever. In order to accomplish all this, he has to time travel back to 1970 and then return to 2000.

 As a Los Angeles resident, it is great fun reading about Heinlein's futuristic vision of our fair city from over 50 years ago. One thing he got right was the ATMs. On a grimmer note, his optimism about the human mind being able to make the world steadily better sounds hopelessly innocent. George Orwell, it turns out, got it more right.

 Still it was an entertaining read and Dan Davis is a great hero.

(The Door Into Summer is available in mass market paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


My Hollywood, Mona Simpson, Alfred A Knopf, 2010, 369 pp

 This amazing novel devoured me as I devoured it. I was confined to bed, recovering from a virus but finally able to read; the perfect excuse to do what I spend most of my time doing anyway, but in this case purely for my own enjoyment.

  There was so much to enjoy. Claire, new mother, wife of an aspiring TV writer, herself a composer, is quite simply adrift and overwhelmed by motherhood. Surrounded by the kinds of mothers you find in books such as The Nanny Diaries, Claire is a unique character who doesn't fit in.

 Lola, who becomes Claire's nanny, is a Filipina with five children of her own back home. Her views on motherhood are in a certain way more like the other mothers in Claire's neighborhood. She works in America with the sole purpose of sending money back to the Philippines so her children can be educated and become successful adults. Despite herself, she becomes emotionally involved with her American charges, fulfilling all the nurturing impulses she had never been able to give to her own children.

 This is an excruciatingly emotional book and that is what makes it so compelling. But it is also savvy with its snarky look at West Los Angeles society and its sensitive look at nanny culture. Yes, there is such a thing, comparable to the upstairs/downstairs conventions in British fiction. Mona Simpson's creation of the underbelly of immigrant life legal and illegal in modern Los Angeles, with its customs, it views on American life, its dangers and solidarities, is a feat in itself, alternately horrific and hilarious.

 For several years in the first decade of the 21st century, I was a tutor in LA. Week after week, I entered homes just like the ones in My Hollywood and tried to help kids with their math and language arts. I observed mothers who had plenty of money but barely a moment to actually nurture their children. In back hallways and kitchens, I passed by the housekeepers and nannies who kept these women's homes in some kind of order. I worked with children whose attention was so fixated on the parents they rarely saw that math facts and "critical thinking" (the postmodern conception of reading comprehension) had absolutely no relevance to their lives. Because of these experiences, I know that Mona Simpson is telling the truth in her novel.

 I am saying this because some reviews I have read express doubts about the veracity of the tale. Readers, you can trust Mona Simpson here. This is the real deal.

Monday, November 01, 2010



Sunday, November 7, 2 PM

Aimee Bender reads from and signs copies of her latest novel.

Wednesday, November 10, 6:30 pm

Bestselling children's author Cornelia Funke reads from her new middle-grade fantasy.

For more information please visit the website: Once Upon A Time Bookstore

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Deep Water, Patricia Highsmith, WW Norton & Company Inc, 1957, 271 pp

 Highsmith does it again in this disturbing story of a suburban marriage gone awry. The setting and circumstances are so in tune with the late 50s but she adds a chill all her own.

  Little Wesley is a small town north of New York City. Vic Van Allen lives off a trust fund left by his father and publishes small runs of exclusive books. He has his own press and practically handcrafts the books. In fact, he is an extremely ordered and industrious individual with several odd hobbies, such as raising snails. He reminded me a bit of Dr Hata in Chang-rae Lee's A Gesture Life.

 But Vic has a large problem. His wife Melinda, after the birth of their daughter, turned against him, would no longer have sex and began having affairs. Vic put up with this behavior because he still loved Melinda and wanted to keep the marriage together. He is a good father and well respected in his small community. He also has his own room out over their garage where he can get away from the troubling scene in his home.

  With painstaking pacing the plot shows the gradual breakdown of Vic's tolerance for Melinda's behavior. She comes across as deeply psychopathic but Vic is increasingly troubled by jealousy and his friends' reactions to Melinda.

 By the end, Vic has a complete personality meltdown; not unexpected but his descent into madness just gave me the creeps. I was in a state of high anxiety on every page. I don't think there is anything uplifting about a Patricia Highsmith novel but she induces in me a grim fascination and I can't stop reading.

(Deep Water is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, Thomas McNamee, Penguin Press, 2007, 351 pp

 Chez Panisse is the famous restaurant in Berkeley, CA, which opened on August 28, 1971, with the credo, "fresh, local, seasonal and where possible organic ingredients," and is still going strong. I know that for a fact because my husband and I had dinner there on September 22, 2010 in celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary.

  I have been intending to read McNamee's biography of Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, ever since the night about three years ago when I cooked a meal with local, seasonal and where possible organic ingredients for my brother-in-law, a preeminent natural foods guy. He had been under the weather that day and almost did not appear for this gathering at my mom's house in Michigan. When he finished eating, his color improved from pale to glowing, his spirits revived, he told me it was a meal worthy of being served at Chez Panisse. It was a high point in my cooking life.

 So when husband and I set off for our roadtrip to the Redwoods and the Bay Area, I brought the book along. Roadtrips are not conducive to reading for me. After driving, sightseeing, hiking and all, I can read about ten pages before falling into delicious sleep. By the time we returned home, I was only about 35 pages in. But I read the rest over the next two days, which was perfect because I had been there, I had visited the kitchen (as all guests are invited to do) and I had experienced one of the best meals of my life.

 Like most successful undertakings, Chez Panisse began as an impractical dream, under financed and built with love and enthusiasm by a group of dedicated people. The book captures those beginnings in all their crazy glory. In fact, the restaurant never showed a profit for almost ten years, but it also stayed in the same location and never closed.

 The most entertaining aspect was the wealth of stories about Alice Waters, the chefs, the staff and the incredible adventures they had. The most enlightening was my realization that before Michael Pollan and his Omnivore's Dilemma, before Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, before the whole entire movement towards responsible farming and eating habits, came Alice Waters.

 Having been intimately involved with the beginnings of the organic food movement in Ann Arbor in 1970, I felt completed when I had finished Alice Waters' story and learned what it was like to live through those days in Berkeley while I lived through them in Ann Arbor.

 Finally but not least at all, there is Alice herself. In a tiny body, barely over five feet tall, with a huge heart and mercurial temperament, she has bravely, rashly, incorrigibly followed every dream she ever had. She has created a huge impact in the world with her slow food movement (as opposed to fast food). She has scores of admirers and enemies and is the embodiment of one of my favorite realities: well-behaved women seldom make history.

 If you believe in the power of food, dreams and/or women, you will love this book.

(Alice Waters and Chez Panisse is available on the non-fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)