Friday, February 26, 2010



The Forever Machine, Mark Clifton and Mark Riley, Galaxy Publishing Corp, 1958, 159 pp

Just getting a copy of this book was an adventure. It won the second ever Hugo Award in 1955, was originally serialized in "Astounding Science Fiction" magazine in 1954 (where it was titled "They'd Rather Be Right") and is now out of print. Prices range from a few dollars to $80 and up on used book internet sites.

It is great though. An intriguing story about an electronic brain, named "Bossy," who has been programmed with all available known facts and so can only give correct answers to questions or the answer of "not enough data." But Bossy also can work as a therapist. As long as the patient can admit that he doesn't know everything and is also willing to admit that some of his ideas may be wrong, Bossy can release all past painful and oppressive experiences, replace false data with true, restore a person to youth and health, possibly bringing about immortality. 

Naturally everyone and his powerful brother wants Bossy, so the two scientists who built her plus their assistant, who happens to be a secret telepath, have to hide out. It is a fine tale, not badly written and full of provocative ideas about many aspects of human life.

Good find! 

Thursday, February 25, 2010



The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery, Europa Editions, 2006, 325 pp

If you are looking for plot, this is not the book for you. When you reach the end, you realize there was a plot, but it is deeply embedded in this novel of ideas, so you are not much aware of it as it is going by.

The main characters are somewhat artificially created and revealed through their first person musings on events which take place in an elegant Parisian apartment house (called hotel in French.) Both are pretending to be someone each is not while harboring much emotional distress. One is the concierge and one is the precocious daughter of a wealthy family in residence.

Yet somehow this novel has a certain je na sais quoi-very French-startling quality, which must explain why it has been a paperback bestseller for months and months. No less than three of the five reading groups I attend have chosen it this year.

I was reminded of the three Simone de Beauvoir novels I have read (She Came to Stay, The Blood of Others, All Men Are Mortal.) In American literature, a novel of ideas seldom becomes a bestseller, but in France such a style is more common, even when a stirring plot accompanies the philosophy.

If you enjoy ironic social critique, malapert young women, passionate passages about the value of art and literature, with a bit of tragedy and personal growth thrown in, I recommend you read Muriel Barbery's book. At the very least you will start noticing people around you whom you have simply passed by previously.

(The Elegance of the Hedgehog is available in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010



This week's Word of the Day is eructation. I came across this word on page 17 of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.

An eructation is a burp! It is the noun form of the verb eruct which means to belch.

eruct comes from the Latin eructare which also means to belch.

My sentence: In some cultures an eructation is considered a compliment to the cook or chef.

Please contribute a sentence in the comments. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2010



The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953, 256 pp

I liked this the best of all five Raymond Chandler books I have read. Some critics don't agree with me but it did win the Edgar Award in 1955. In The Long Goodbye, Philip Marlowe befriends a mysterious fellow and goes to great lengths to prove the man's innocence. Though there is money involved, Marlowe seems to be truly acting from a sense of honor.

That sense of honor contrasted with Marlowe's cynicism is the theme that runs through all of Chandler's work and while he stays firmly in the noir genre here, I thought he took it a few steps further into questions about what is the law, what is justice, and how does a person get at the truth?

I found the plot easier to follow than any of his other books. Chandler is not in such a mad rush as in the earlier books. He is a master of a genre he helped create and I am sad that there is only one more book for me to read. 

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

Monday, February 22, 2010



The Grift, Debra Ginsberg, Shaye Areheart Books, 2008, 335 pp

I really liked Debra Ginsberg's first novel, Blind Submission, which is set in the book publishing world. In The Grift, she enters the fortune telling trade. You know: palm readings, tarot cards, psychic counselors, etc. in contemporary times.

Marina Marks, raised by a single mom strung out on drugs, was pushed into the psychic business by that very mother at a young age. It was a way to keep money coming in. By the time she is an adult and her mother has died, giving readings is the only skill Marina has. Though she does not believe in psychic abilities and knows full well it is a scam, she is good at what she does due to excellent powers of observation and an active imagination.

Since she is basically running a highly lucrative grift and because her clients have serious life issues, there is bound to be trouble. Marina's past comes back to haunt her, her present goes up in flames (literally), and her future looks grim. Just to complicate matters, she suddenly truly does have psychic powers. And yes, there is a lover involved.

The whole imaginative set-up is highly entertaining. While Ginsberg's writing and plotting are a bit shaky, she made me read as fast as I could to find out what was going to happen. She has a gimlet eye for the odd characters that make up daily life, especially in California, where both books are set.

I used to read every Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins (who by the way has a new one called Poor Little Bitch Girl) as they came out. Like those exciting reads, Ginsberg's books are a little trashy, somewhat improbable but they have strong female leads who do not trod the beaten path.

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

Friday, February 19, 2010



The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, 562 pp

I put off reading this book, which came out in paperback in January, because I was suspicious of all the hype, then Oprah picked it and the one person I knew who read it did not like it one bit. All I can say now is that I missed a great read.

Edgar Sawtelle was born dumb, in the sense of unable to speak. He could hear just fine and was highly intelligent. His parents treasured him, as they had lost several babies due to miscarriage and still birth before he finally arrived. They bred dogs in rural Wisconsin, carrying on a dream of Edgar's grandfather to produce a special kind of dog: one that could take obedience and loyalty to a new level and become bonded to its owner in an almost spiritual way. By page 100, I knew this would be a rich and satisfying story.

Much has been made about the author's admission that the story is a rewriting of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." About the only good it did me to know that was to understand that I was reading a tragedy. I have failed to complete reading "Hamlet" or even get through a movie version. I understand that my credibility as a reader is severely compromised when I say that I do not enjoy Shakespeare, but there it is.

What I loved in this book was the writing, the exploration of the inner life of dogs, and especially the characters. I doubt that I will ever forget Edgar. The mysteriousness of this story held me fascinated for all those pages. The novel is an example of what I have always loved about long books. I used to go to the library and pick novels off the shelf based solely on how fat they were.

All of the fine topics of fiction are present: love, growing up, good versus evil, the loneliness of life and how to find and follow a purpose. Happiness is fleeting, as it is in life. Yet the storytelling is so stellar that I hardly noticed the pages going by and, as is usual in any really good long novel, I did not want it to end.

(The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is available in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Thursday, February 18, 2010


This time last year I was in Michigan, driving through blizzards, ice, snow and slush. My mom was in a rehab facility after her strokes. I would spend about 5 hours a day with her there, helping her get through her physical and occupational therapies (known as PT and OT) by counting her reps for her. It was a hard uphill climb from which she never recovered.

Going through these months this year has not been nearly as hard, but I find myself reliving those days and the memories are not much better than the experience itself. It does no good to think about cliches about mortality. It is true that getting on with life is the only real antidote for loss. It is untrue that time heals all wounds. Then again, I don't particularly want to forget my mother. For that, I am grateful.

This past Monday, my husband and I set out for Sequoia National Park. It is an easy 250 mile drive from Los Angeles and we marveled that we had never gone before. We had a cabin by a river for two nights. Realization: the only way to really have a cabin by a river is probably to own one. We could hear the river from our little patio but could not exactly see it. Then again, if the river in question carries much of the snow melt from the High Sierras in the spring, you wouldn't want your cabin too close.

We spent a few hours in the foothills on Monday afternoon. I forgot that I have some trouble adjusting to high altitudes and thought that I was having heart failure as I walked up a slightly inclining path to view the river. But wow, the size of the rocks was enough to take my breath away. Tuesday we drove up to the high elevations where the sequoia forests are. We saw the famous General Sherman tree which is the biggest in mass but not height. Our favorite thing was the clusters of three or four trees growing together.

So I know that the Earth and other planets of the Solar System are old, that mountains and rocks are old, but there was something about a living tree that is over 2000 years old that made a big impression on me. In the most recent book I read, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (an excellent novel which was published in January), there is a character who starts an Immortality Foundation, dedicated to research on how to live as long as 500 years. Actually, it just might be possible to get something done in a 500 year life. Human life is so brief. Just when you start to get a grip, your joints and organs begin their decline, no matter how healthful one has been.

So these trees, which have grown through all manner of weather, events, changing air quality, logging companies; they have seen so much. I got that Lord of the Rings feeling where the trees "talk" and decide things soooo slowly. It was cool. It was also cold with four to six feet of snow around the trees. So even though I did not like having to walk around feeling like an emphysema patient, I want to go back in a few months when all the snow is gone, the flowers are blooming in the meadows and I can just sit around with those trees for as long as I want.

Friday, February 12, 2010



A Fable, William Faulkner, Random House Inc, 1954, 437 pp

In my humble opinion, ever since William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1949, his writing went steeply downhill. This novel, published in 1954, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1955. I found it nearly incomprehensible.

After 100 pages, I went to Google in desperation. As I should have guessed from the title, it is an allegory which juxtaposes WWI and the Christ story. OK. Fine. There is a story with characters buried deeply inside Faulkner's longest sentences ever, but I found it hard to care. 

Some soldiers decide to mutiny one morning by refusing to fire their weapons and actually stop the war for a week or so. Among the characters are an instigator or two; a strange trio of women keep showing up; I was pretty sure I figured out who the Christ figure was; but it was hard going, even for me. Some books are just meant to be read in school.

Actually I could glean that Faulkner was grappling with some big ideas about war, its causes, what makes men become soldiers, what makes them fight, and the power of a few individuals to put a stop to it all by just refusing to play. I settled for that. 

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

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Well, I am a day late but I was busy making a dollar yesterday. And it is better than last week when I missed Word of the Day entirely.

I found so many words I did not know in Little, Big by John Crowley plus they are such great words. So please indulge me in a few more. I finished the book in January and have already posted my review. But now my husband is reading (and loving) it. There is really nothing better than when your significant other reads a book you loved and loves it too. We talk about it every night.


Today's word is minatory. It is from page 112 of Little, Big. I found this great image though the word could cover many images.

minatory is an adjective meaning menacing or threatening.

It comes from the Old French minatoire which comes from the Late Latin minatorius, a form of minari, which means to threaten.

My sentence: They took a look at the minatory clouds and knew that at least another foot of snow was coming.

Please contribute a sentence in the comments.

Monday, February 08, 2010


 The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean, William Morrow, 2006, 228 pp

I have had this book on my list to read ever since I first heard of it. Then the reading group at Once Upon A Time picked it for our January, 2010 read. It is beautifully written, very moving and because much of the story takes place during the World War II Siege of Leningrad, the starving people ate that "candy" made from book glue just like they did in City of Thieves.

Marina was taken in by her aunt and uncle at the age of 11, after both of her parents were arrested during a purge in Communist Russia. At school, she was befriended by Dimitri, whose father had also been arrested. By the time war with Germany started, the two were lovers and on the eve of Dimitri's departure as a soldier, they became engaged.

Throughout the years of war and the siege, Marina worked as a docent and tour guide at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, which housed one the world's largest collections of art. Once the Nazis put the city under siege, museum workers and their families actually lived in the basement there. Marina helped pack up all the paintings and small objects which were taken away to secret hiding places.

The book tells Marina's story from her memories of that time, which come back to her in flashes as she succumbs to Alzheimer's in her last years. She and Dimitri are living in Seattle and have two grown children, so clearly they survived the war, found each other and emigrated to America. In lovely spare portraits of those war times, Debra Dean reveals the tale.

In part, Marina retained her sanity during the fear, hunger, cold and desperation of the siege by recalling the portraits which had hung on the museum's walls and which she knew and loved so well. She would walk the rooms, repeating to herself the talks she used to give to visitors. We, the readers, are now the recipients of these talks, as the author make us see the paintings through the prose. It is an admirable feat.

Some of the story is perhaps improbable but it is so wonderfully rendered. The horrors are embellished with linguistic artifice, much the way that paintings with their light, shadows and colors, preserve the events and objects of life. I fell willingly into Debra Dean's creation. She made me believe that art, beauty and love are what we create and what get us through the worst times. These elements are also what remain in the failing memory of Marina.

(The Madonnas of Leningrad is available in paperback on the adult fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, February 07, 2010



A Season of Gifts, Richard Peck, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2009, 164 pp

This is the third and least successful of Peck's books about Grandma Dowdel and her small town antics. The narrartor this time is Bob, the son of a preacher's family who has moved into the house next door to Mrs Dowdel. Time has moved along to 1958.

Aside from Grandma Dowdel, Bob's younger sister Ruth Ann is the most endearing character as she becomes Grandma's closest companion. Together they careen about the town, raising a ruckus and helping those in need.

Grandma Dowdel's antics reach almost slapstick proportions in this volume so that while she still comes across as big-hearted in her gruff way, the whole book takes on the tone of a tall tale compared to the more intimate character of the two earlier books. (A Long Way From Chicago  and A Year Down Yonder.)

I read this for the reading group at Once Upon A Time, where we usually read a children's book in December. The main objection amongst the readers was that kids today would be unlikely to get many of the cultural references from 1950s small town America. It was so pre-WalMart.

(All three of Richard Peck's books are available on the shelf in the section for readers aged 8-12 at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Saturday, February 06, 2010


I've had a great week but sadly it has not included much blogging. I completely missed Word of the Day which was just bad of me since lately I have had so many great contributers of sentences. I will do my best to be back on that this coming Wednesday.

What I did do is a rewrite on the 1944 chapter of my memoir, Reading For My Life. For those of you who have read the early chapters here on the blog, you might wonder why you haven't seen a new chapter for over a year. The main reason is that I haven't written a new chapter for a while. I joined a writing group about a year ago and have been revising my earlier chapters month by month and reading them to the group for feedback, which I am happy to say has been quite positive. The group members tell me that it reads like a novel. Maybe I could still write a novel or two in the years left to me.

The second reason is that I got squeamish about putting the memoir on the blog for free. What if I could actually publish it someday? Other reasons like should I put such personal information about my life and family on the web and related thoughts to that are still swirling through my mind and finding nowhere to rest. Stay tuned is all I can promise.

The other accomplishment this week, besides reading, was a book review of The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova for BookBrowse, which will go up on the web on February 17 for members and about 2 to 4 weeks later for visitors. But don't wait for that. Just read it. It is quite good.

I have been on hiatus from working at Once Upon A Time since we finished doing inventory at the first of the year. Since I had some savings and business is slower this time of year, I was lucky enough to take some time off. This blog is still linked to the store and I encourage any of my readers who are fond of independent bookstores to shop there or at your local one. We might not have them for much longer but at least we can support them and all their hardworking owners and staff. It is possible that our children and grandchildren will move on to other ways of shopping for books but then again, you don't what you've lost until it's gone. I find it heartening that children's literature is having a boom these days and really, how can you pick out a picture book without paging through it?

Reading: I started the year with a (probably unrealistic) resolution to read a book a day. Factually it takes a good eight hours or more a day to do so and some days just don't go that way. I got started on my resolution in the second week of January, due to the above mentioned inventory, but still managed to read 18 books last month. That is pretty good.

So here is the rundown. Some of these are already reviewed here on Keep The Wisdom. The rest are in the queue. One of my goals is to read three books a week for My Big Fat Reading Project, as that is the research for the memoir. In 7 years of working away at my lists I have only completed 17 years worth, so I must step it up. Also, the lists get longer as the years go by and I discover more authors I want to explore.

OK. Enough. Here is what I read in January:

The Short Reign of Pippin IV, John Steinbeck. A little known novel of his from 1957 which is his only book of overt political satire and takes place in France. Great!

Loser Takes All, Graham Greene. Very short, mediocre, 1957 novel. One of his "entertainments."

Little, Big, John Crowley. Adult fairy tale. My favorite book of 2010 so far.

The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean. Outwardly a story about the siege of Leningrad but really a story about art, memory and immigration.

Food Rules, Michael Pollan. A brief, hilarious list of ways to avoid food that will ultimately make you sick and poison you.

The Scapegoat, Daphne Du Maurier. Well, she just never wrote a book that wasn't wonderful. This one, from the 1957 list, is about a doppelganger situation that takes place in France.

The Swan Thieves, Elizabeth Kostova. The much anticipated follow up to The Historian. Art, love, women, and mental states with history added. Very nice.

The Borrowers, Mary Norton. A favorite of mine from childhood. Missed it when I read the books from 1952. About small human-like creatures who live in our homes and "borrow" all our stuff that's gone missing.

Bayou Susette, Lois Lenski. The first of her regional series for children. Also missed from my 1943 list. Life on the New Orleans bayou in the early 1900s.

The Deep Range, Arthur C Clarke. Futuristic extreme adventure set in the oceans of Earth, where mankind grows much of his food: algae and whales, from the 1957 list. Engrossing.

The Edge of Darkness, Mary Ellen Chase. Not the movie. From the 1957 list. She is a loved author of mine but this one wasn't her best. People from a Maine backwater and their foibles.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski. Just amazing. Can't believe I waited this long to read it. And I don't even especially like dogs.

Miracles on Maple Hill, Virginia Sorensen. Newbery Award winner from 1957. One of the best Newberys I have read so far. A father damaged by the Korean War is healed by life in the maple sugar country of northern Pennsylvania.

Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. His 1957 coming-of-age tale set in a midwestern small town summer.

The Grift, Debra Ginsberg. Fun, trashy novel about a psychic by the author of Blind Submission.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery. Three of my five reading groups have selected this bestselling book of ideas. Set in Paris, not much of a plot, but lovely just the same.

Giants of Jazz, Studs Terkel. The first of his books about American life. Non-fiction, loving portraits of many of the jazz greats from the first half of the 20th century.

White Man, Listen, Richard Wright. From the 1957 list. He continues to tell the truth about Africa, colonialism and the future of the black race. Amazing really.

What have you been reading? Or writing?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010



Earthlight, Arthur C Clarke, Ballantine Books, 1955, 194 pp

When Arthur C Clarke died in 2008, I read enough articles about him to get interested and added him to my list of science fiction authors. Of course, he was best known for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on the movie version of his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. I never saw that movie back in the day, but when I watched it a few years ago, I have to admit that I did not get it. I thought it was the most boring movie I ever saw. Well, now I will read the book when I get to 1968 in my reading project and maybe I will change my mind.

Earthlight takes place on the moon sometime in the 21st century, with mankind firmly entrencehd mostly for the purpose of telescopic studies of space. In fact mankind is all over the universe living on many planets and there is a Federation. 

But all is not well. Earth is the superpower and is pitted against the Federation in a struggle over mineral rights. Negotiations are breaking down and some kind of military action is pending. A man named Sadler has been sent to the moon to find a mole, who is supposed to be giving intelligence to the Federation.

Through Sadler's eyes we learn much about life on the moon and watch the whole drama play out. Clarke is an excellent writer in terms of giving a sense of place and pretty good on characterization. He is no match for Asimov on plot but I presume that he improved since he wrote sci fi novels right up to his death and is well respected.

The main point he is making is that moving to other planets is the solution to over population on Earth but also that man will be man and still tends to resort to violence to resolve problems. He is clearly a big fan of scientists. I am glad I read it.

(Earthlight is out of print and even hard to find at libraries. I suggest used bookstores or on-line sellers of used books.)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010



A Year Down Yonder, Richard Peck, Penguin Putnam, 2000, 130 pp

Richard Peck won the Newbery Award in 2001 for this continuation of the tales of Grandma Dowdel and her small town Illinois life which began in A Long Way From Chicago. I had intended to post this review on Sunday (my day for children's books) but never got to it. So today I catch up.

In this volume, it is a new decade and the Great Depression is over but the country is still suffering from a recession and blaming it on Roosevelt. (I wonder what we will be blaming Obama for in the years ahead.) A Year Down Yonder is told through the eyes of Mary Alice, the younger sister of Joey. Their dad has lost his job, the family has lost their Chicago apartment and had to move to a one-room place. So Joey joined the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and went to plant trees out west while Mary Alice was sent to Grandma Dowdel.

At 15, Mary Alice is not happy about leaving her Chicago friends and going to live with a bunch of hicks. It turns out to be a formative year for her as she makes her way through classroom politics at school and picks up life lessons from Grandma Dowdel. The two of them bond for good and Mary Alice will forever cook like her grandma. 

I enjoyed these stories as much as I did those in the earlier book. Clearly high school is a time of life more than a location.

(A ¥ear Down Yonder is available on the Newbery shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)