Thursday, July 29, 2010


How to Read Novels Like A Professor, Thomas C Foster, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, 307 pp

 Thomas Foster is a professor of English at the University of Michigan, but he writes about literature in a lively conversational style. I learned much about literary terms, styles and trends. The information was explained clearly and truly has made me a smarter reader.

 He begins with his own version of the history of the novel. Then by using plenty of examples, he makes sense of the dense and mysterious terminology of literary writing; words like unreliable narrator, meta-fiction, post-nmodern, stream of consciousness became concepts which I then began to see being employed in the novels I was reading. It was eye-opening and mind-expanding.

 Anyone who is learning to write fiction or who attends reading group discussions will find short, helpful chapters that can inform the construction of stories or make you look impressively smart at book club. Most of all, I feel the time I spent with this book has enhanced my already vast enjoyment of reading as many novels as I can.

(How to Read Novels Like A Professor is available on the non-fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Compulsion, Meyer Levin, Simon and Schuster, 1956, 495 pp

 Compulsion, the #3 bestseller in 1957, is a fictionalized account of a crime and trial which actually happened in Chicago in the 1920s, known as the Leopold and Loeb case. Two teen aged boys from wealthy families kidnapped and killed a young boy and were eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. It was sensationalized in the media of the time as "the crime of the century" and "the trial of the century." 
  Meyer Levin was a cub reporter for a Chicago newspaper at that time and got to know the boys, the story and even the defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Thirty years later he wrote Compulsion, both as a novel and a play. It was also released as a film in 1959.

 The book is well written and though long, held my interest. I believe it is the first in the True Crime genre which was followed by books like In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and The Execution's Song by Norman Mailer. The tale is told from a psychological viewpoint. Psychology and psychiatry were new subjects in America in the 1920s and I have seen the penetration of these ideas into both American and European literature as I have been reading through the fiction of the 1940s and 1950s.

 Psychiatric evaluations of the two youth by alienists, as they were called then, are submitted in the trial by both the prosecution and the defense. Along with psychoanalytical thinking one always has sex, thanks to Freud, and Compulsion is full of it. The boys were homosexually involved as well as fixated on sexual encounters with women. They each had strained relations with both of their parents. The explicit language is a wonder, since Lady Chatterly's Lover and The Tropic of Cancer were still banned books until 1959.

 In fact, the top three bestsellers of 1957 are all about sex: By Love Possessed, James Gould Cozzens at #1 and Peyton Place, Grace Metalious at #2. The "sexual revolution" may not have become mainstream for another decade but its seeds were sprouting in that ostensibly bland 1950s decade, especially during the latter years.

(Compusion is another bestseller that has gone out of print. Check your local library or used book seller.)

Monday, July 26, 2010


Logicomix, An Epic Search For Truth, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H Papadimitriou, Bloomsbury USA, 2009, 344 pp

 I was attracted to this graphic biography of Bertrand Russell and his quest for the true foundations of mathematics for two reasons. As part of My Big Fat Reading Project, I have been keeping track of the Nobel Prize for Literature recipients and, unless they were poets, trying to read at least one novel by each winner. Bertrand Russell was honored in 1950, but he wrote books about math, logic and philosophy. His most famous book was Principia Mathematica, co-written with Alfred North Whitehead,  which looks way too difficult for me.

 The second reason I wanted to read Logicomix was because I have a secret fascination with math. I loved algebra and geometry in high school and have even been a math tutor. This book goes into the relationships between math, logic and philosophy, making it all fairly accessible. It combines the ideas with stories about the main 20th century players and has pictures! At the end is a thorough glossary of terms and facts about the people involved.

 So I read the graphic storybook in just a few hours. The glossary took almost as long to read as the whole book. In a most intriguing manner, I got the history and development of math and logic all the way from Pythagoras to Alan Turing. If it wasn't for the ubernerds who spend their lives working on this stuff, we would still be living in caves. An occupational hazard is that many of them eventually go insane. I should remember that and take a day off from reading and the computer once in a while.

 I suppose Logicomix is not for everyone, but I am here to tell you that it is not just for guys, though I think any math geek or computer nerd from 15 to 50 would enjoy it.

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

Thursday, July 22, 2010


MOVIE REVIEW: Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, DVD, 2009

 I watched this last night and it was so special. I was in high school when Joan's first two albums were released.  By the time I started junior year I had been to music camp where I met a real live teenage folksinger from Philadelphia who showed me how to play three guitar chords, after which I went home, got a guitar of my own and started learning Joan Baez songs. I still have The Joan Baez Songbook published in 1964 by Ryerson Music Publishers, which amazingly is still in print.

  The DVD is a documentary covering her life with guests like Bob Dylan, David Crosby, Jesse Jackson and David Harris (who I once met at an anti-draft rally in Ann Arbor; got to shake both Joan and David's hands.) It is beautifully done with Joan in her gorgeous 60s telling stories, looking back on her life and lots of incredibly good footage of her back in the day.

 Those were the days when women like us were being great women and bad mothers. I never got famous but I could never leave the music alone for long. Folksinger in high school and college; Top 40 band lead singer in the 70s; indie singer/songwriter in the 90s. My life is more together now and like Joan, I am good with my kids but all the music days were and will always be the best part.

 Joan is still so beautiful and still maintains her commitment to non-violence and ending war. But I have to say that my favorite song, which I used to perform for years, is her grand dis to Bob Dylan, "Diamonds and Rust." 

 I don't believe in any such thing as the "good old days," but it does seem like we were at least trying back then. Oh well, as the other Joan said, "It was just a dream some of us had."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


36 Arguments For the Existence of God, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Pantheon Books, 2010, 399 pp

Goldstein's latest novel will be on my list of top favorites for 2010. I reviewed it for BookBrowse and the link is now available for anyone to read. My review begins:

  "For a book whose title sounds like an affirmation of faith but whose story is about an atheist refuting the existence of God, reading it is a spiritual experience. What if mankind, with our huge brains and highly developed abilities to reason, could evolve a moral philosophy that makes life both comprehensible and livable without falling back on the outside influence of God?"

 Read the rest of the review here.

(36 Arguments For the Existence of God is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be out in February 2011.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


By Love Possessed, James Gould Cozzens, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1957, 570 pp

 The number one bestseller in 1957 is a somewhat awkward combination of philosophical rumination and sex in a small town. You could also call it Peyton Place from a male viewpoint.

  Arthur Winner is a second generation lawyer with a second wife and two living children. Raised by his father to be upstanding, well-reasoned and unfailingly helpful, he must confront signs of the crumbling morality and shifting social boundaries of the mid 1950s. A few skeletons in his own upscale closet, which threaten to be exposed, create whatever tension exists in the story.

 As in Cozzen's 1948 Pulitzer Prize winner Guard of Honor, the story covers just two days and one hour in the life of Arthur Winner and the town of Brocton, with plenty of backstory to help fill the 560 pages. In long, oddly constructed sentences, the reader is placed into Arthur's mind and heart.

 I found the novel barely readable. The sections where something was actually happening were not bad but the conversations between characters were endless, the lengthy description mostly egregious and by the end, the serious questions raised by the tale had been beaten to death. The only way I can figure out the book's bestseller status is the sex, which is graphically portrayed in some of the worst sex writing I have ever read.

(By Love Possessed is understandably out of print. But should you want to read it for the bad sex writing, check your local library or used booksellers.)

Monday, July 19, 2010


The Room and the Chair, Lorraine Adams, Alfred A Knopf, 2010, 315 pp

 Though she has an intriguing premise for her "literary thriller", I must unfortunately say that Lorraine Adams did not quite pull it off. "The Room" is the newsroom of a Washington DC major newspaper, where all the reporters and editors spend their frantic hours making deadlines. (Adams is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly of The Washington Post.) "The Chair" is the highly dodgy Will, chairman of a secret government security department.

 Our heroine is Mary, female fighter pilot with a passion for Vipers and the obligatory complicated past. Locations range from DC to Afghanistan to Iran. I do understand, from talks I have attended by Denise Hamilton, former LA Times reporter turned crime novelist, that journalists turn to fiction when they have stories that can't be reported as news. I also understand that someone as well-connected as Lorraine Adams would want to tend towards a literary style rather than straight genre fiction.

 She does tell an exciting story. She skewers the Washington Post scene with thinly disguised major players as characters. She digs at the modern ways of warfare and security. She can write literary sentences and passages as well as many contemporary authors. For some reason, it just does not all come together as a satisfying reading experience. Michael Gruber's The Good Son addresses similar themes but is a killer read as well. If you only have time for one, read The Good Son. If you want an interesting comparison, read both.

(The Room and the Chair is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, July 16, 2010


 I have now posted my reviews of all the books I read from 1956 for My Big Fat Reading Project.

 Some of you like to see the entire list in one place, so I am posting it here. If you would like to find my review of any particular book, just type the title into the "search" box up in the left hand corner and the good old blogger file clerk will find it for you.

1. Don't Go Near the Water, William Brinkley
2. The Last Hurrah, Edwin O'Connor
3. Peyton Place, Grace Metalious
4. Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis
5. Eloise, Kay Thompson
6. Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor
7. A Certain Smile, Francoise Sagan
8. The Tribe That Lost Its Head, Nicholas Monsarrat
9. The Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir
10. Boon Island, Kenneth Roberts

 1. PULITZER: Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor
 2. NBA: Ten North Frederick, John O'Hara
 3. NEWBERY: Carry On, Mr Bowditch, Jean Lee Latham
 4. CALDECOTT: Frog Went A-Courtin', John Langstaff
 5. EDGAR: Beast in View, Margaret Millar
 6. HUGO: Double Star, Robert A Heinlein
 7. A Retreat to Innocence, Doris Lessing
 8. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz
 9. The Rosemary Tree, Elizabeth Goudge
 10. The Flight From the Enchanter, Iris Murdoch
 11. A Single Pebble, John Hersey
 12. A Wreath for Udomo, Peter Abrahams
 13. Mama, I Love You, William Saroyan
 14. The Color Curtain, Richard Wright
 15. The Quiet American, Graham Greene
 16. Freedom or Death, Nikos Kanzantzakis
 17. Seize the Day, Saul Bellow
 18. The Fall, Albert Camus
 19. Pincher Martin, William Golding
 20. Til We Have Faces, C S Lewis
 21. Time For the Stars, Robert A Heinlein
 22. The City and the Stars, Arthur C Clarke
 23. The Last Battle, C S Lewis
 24. Fifteen, Beverly Cleary
 25. Flood Friday, Lois Lenski
 26. The Fountain Overflows, Rebecca West
 27. The Man Who Japed, Philip K Dick
 28. The World Jones Made, Philip K Dick

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Double Star, Robert Heinlein, Ballantine Books, 1956, 243 pp

 Lorenzo Smythe is a down-and-out actor with zero prospects when he gets recurited by a space pilot to impersonate an important politician. For real! Because the politician has been kidnapped by an intergalactic political group, an action which could lead to interplanetary war.

  Using this wacky plot, Heinlein gets to comment on all sorts of issues: the ways of actors, the ways of politics, the political awakening of a self-centered person, etc. He also addresses the problem of achieving harmony between different species such as human beings and Martians, which gets into galactic racism and how people become racists.

 I found the first few chapters supremely annoying because sometimes Heinlein was just a little too full of himself, but as always he won me over. In the end I decided that deep down, Robert A Heinlein had a good amount of respect for mankind (and Martians) and found potential for greatness in the most unlikely of people.

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

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Carry On, Mr Bowditch, Jean Lee Latham, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955, 251 pp

 Here we have the Newbery Award winner for 1956 and it is an example of the best of the Newbery Awards, according to me. Nathaniel Bowditch wrote the famous American Practical Navigator, published in 1799. In this biography of his life, which is certainly appropriate for ages 8-12 but kept me captivated on every page, we learn that Nat was puny for his age as a kid. Due to the financial difficulties of his parents, he had to leave school and go into indentured service as a bookkeeper at a ship chandlery when he was 12 years old. Since the contract was for nine years, he was 21 when he became a free man.

  But Nat was a math whiz and a friendly person. Many people helped him with loans of books and encouragement, so that instead of going to Harvard as he had dreamed, he educated himself, learning Latin and reading Newton's Principia Mathematica in his off hours. Eventually he went to sea despite his size, where he developed a better, safer way to navigate. Those chapters were the most exciting, though the story of his loves, marriage and family were also eye-opening as to the harshness of life in colonial America.

 What I like about reading books written for kids is that they usually explain all the difficult and technical words. I learned quite a bit about ships, sailing and navigation which will help me f I have to read any more bestsellers set on the high seas. Carry On, Mr Bowditch is a highly inspirational story about courage, the importance of knowledge and carrying on in spite of hardships and disappointments, but does not preach and is not at all sappy. It would be a great book for a reluctant reader, boy or girl.

(Carry On, Mr Bowditch is available in paperback on the Newbery shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, July 12, 2010


Julie & Julia, Julie Powell, Little Brown and Company, 2005, 307 pp

(This will be the second and final post in what I earlier said would be a three-part series, because I combined the book and the movie here. I realized that I just need to move on.)

 Julie Powell is one of those early examples of someone who got a book deal from a blog. As everyone in the world now knows, she spent a year cooking every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and blogged about it while working as a secretary at a government agency in NYC, the purpose of which was connected to rebuilding Ground Zero.

 Then she got the book deal and could quit her job. Next Nora Ephron combined Julie & Julia with My Life in France and made the movie, which I have now watched. More on the movie at the end of this post.

 Even though 2005 was five long years ago in our rapidly changing world, Julie & Julia has a very current feel. And it is hilarious. I laughed out loud and hard every few pages. Julie builds tension often, usually due to attempting some dish like eggs poached in red wine or making mayonnaise or cooking brains, and having it go wrong, whereupon she begins freaking out requiring her long-suffering husband to talk her off the ledge. Somehow, although after a while you realize that it always comes out OK, she still can make you worry that the whole enterprise will crash and burn. Everything is always OK when they sit down to eat. That is the power of butter, garlic and wine.

 I liked her scrappy, left-wing view of life and her compulsive use of the F-word, her obsessive approach to a project that was at first only vital in her own mind. She proves one of my most dearly cherished notions: that one's passion is one's destiny, whether or not it appears to be paying off on any given day.

 Since I had finished My Life in France just days before, I was already immersed in Julia Child's patterns of hyperactive cooking and in her epic stories, such as how to turn an omelette. As Julie tried to follow Julia's instructions, I was right there with her. The book is big fun and inspired my cooking even further.

 The movie: It was great, especially Meryl Streep as Julia Child. She does the voice, the thing where she is always bending over because she is so tall, and the whole feeling of My Life in France comes across perfectly. Same with Amy Adams as Julie. The only caveat I have is that if you see the movie without reading both books you miss so much of both stories, because it would not be possible to fit it all in a movie. Having read the book I could happily fill in the blanks. Still, the movie stands on its own. My husband watched it with me and was spellbound and impressed because he believes in food and he believes in love. 

 I have asked for Mastering the Art of French Cooking for my birthday. All I can say is that I better get up to walking five miles a day (I am at 3 now) because otherwise I don't stand a chance.

(All of the books mentioned in this review are available on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, July 09, 2010


My Life in France, Julia Child, Alfred A Knopf, 2006, 333 pp

(Today's post is the first in a three part series about Julia Child's memoir, Julie and Julia by Julie Powell and Julie and Julia the movie. Bon Appetit!)

 I did not have high expectations for this book but it turned out to be one of the better memoirs I have read. Of course, it did not hurt that much of it takes place in Paris, in restaurants and kitchens, and that it is about cooking; all passions of mine. Julia was quite a woman and I got inspired about food, which is good, considering the weather is now hot and my husband has been on a diet.

 Julia Child was the Georgia O'Keefe of cooking, in that she would make a dish up to fifty times to get it right and ensure her recipe could be followed. O'Keefe would paint the same picture many times over until she could produce what she saw in her mind's eye.

 I grew to admire Julia for several reasons. She and her husband lived in a number of countries because he was in Foreign Service for the United States government. She always learned the language and shopped in local markets to learn the food and culture. Like my mother, she could make friends with anyone. Best of all, she went from being what she called an "unformed" young woman to finding her passion. Her drive and enthusiasm, her willingness to experience just about anything, were a pleasure to read about.

 It was somehow reassuring to learn that she and her husband gained weight, had digestive difficulties and at intervals had to curtail their appetites for rich food and wine. They successfully balanced their immoderate ways and both lived into their 90s!

 Finally, I thought it was hilarious that she had a TV show before she even owned a TV. There is much more to enjoy in this story, not least of which is the picture of European and American life in the second half of the 20th century. It is not only a book about food. 

(My Life in France is currently available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore, though there will be copies on the shelf in a few days.)

Thursday, July 08, 2010


Beast in View, Margaret Millar, Random House, 1955, 249 pp

 The Edgar winner for 1956 is an intersection of the mystery genre and Freudian ideas. One of the characters has a split personality, called schizophrenia in the 1950s but now called multiple personality disorder. The mystery comes into play because the reader does not know until the end which character is afflicted. According to the author's bio, she made an extensive study of psychiatry as part of her education.

  The writing is mediocre and the story gets off to a slow start. But homosexuality also plays a part as well as wealth; a lot to bite off in 250 pages. This was only the third year that the Edgar was awarded and I suspect that Millar won on the strength of her topics rather than her writing, although the plot twist at the end was pretty effective.

(Beast in View is out of print, available in libraries and from used book sellers.)

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, Henry Holt and Company, 2009, 532 pp

Wolf Hall was one of the best books to come out in 2009. It made my top favorites list and won the Booker Prize as well as a raft of other honors. It is historical fiction but this is not your mom's historical fiction. It is smart and goes deeply into the psychology and motives of its famous historical figures. Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn and Thomas More have been written about ad nauseum, yet Mantel brings much that is new to the table. 

The paperback edition will be released in August. I am currently engaged in reading all the earlier nine novels by this incredible writer.  I reviewed Wolf Hall for BookBrowse Magazine last November. The link is now available for nonsubscribers. 

My review begins thus:

           Religion, power, politics, money and sex-key elements of human life-are all on full display in Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novel. With judicious helpings of period detail, she presents an appealing portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the man who managed to free King Henry VIII from the Catholic Church and his first queen, Katherine of Aragon, allowing Henry to enter into a second marriage with Anne Boleyn... (read the rest of the review here.)

(Wolf Hall is currently available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore and will be available on the shelf in paperback in August.)

Saturday, July 03, 2010


June was an excellent reading month for me. I finished 16 books, old and new, fiction, memoir and non-fiction. Here is the list:

 An Unfinished Score, Elise Blackwell. This wonderful novel was one of the best all month. It was sent to me by the publisher because, you know, I have this wildly popular blog. Now I have another author to love. And it is about music, among other things.

 Time of Wonder, Robert McCloskey. The Caldecott winner from 1958 is set in Maine and made me want to go there, now!

  Telex From Cuba, Rachel Kushner. A novel about what it was like for Americans living in Cuba during the Cuban revolution. Excellent writing.

  Becoming A Writer, Dorothea Brande. This is a classic, first published in 1934. I got some good ideas from it. For all the books I've read on writing, I should have written at least a dozen books by now.

 Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak. I started reading the 1958 books for My Big Fat Reading Project in June. This one was the #1 bestseller and Pasternak also won the Nobel prize for literature that year. I had seen the movie but never read the book. It is great!

  Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver. The #2 bestseller from 1958 is a legal/crime novel set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I learned lots about the temporary insanity plea.

 The Good Son, Michael Gruber. Another new release from the spring. Great literary thriller.

 Eloise at Christmastime, Kay Thompson. The third Eloise book to make the bestseller list, #6 in 1958. It was a dud in my humble opinion, especially compared to the first two which I loved.

 Rifles for Watie, Harold Keith. Very fine middle grade novel about the Civil War which won the Newbery Award in 1958.

 My Life in France, Julia Child. I read this for a reading group and was not expecting much. I got a lot! It is a well written memoir of an amazing person. Plus I got inspired to cook. In June!

 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey. Also read for a reading group but it is of course, on my 1962 list for the reading project. I think I read it in my younger days but I forgot what a heavy book it is. Next I will see the movie.

 The Room and the Chair, Lorraine Adams. Another recently published political thriller, but no where near as good as The Good Son.

 Logicomix, An Epic Search for Truth, Apostolos Doxiades and Christos H Papadimitriou. Only the second graphic novel I have ever finished. It is great. The story of Bertrand Russell and his search for truth in math, logic and philosophy. I know, sounds dull. But it is not, at all.

  Julie and Julia, Julie Powell. Wow. Another awesome memoir. Julie cooked every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, blogged about it, got a book deal and a movie out of it. But honestly, she is a good writer, hilariously funny and left wing and she swears a lot. Can't wait to see the movie now.

 How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C Foster. Another book that sounds boring but was not. I read it to help me as a book reviewer and learned so much. I would also recommend it for people in reading groups. Not only will you sound smart at the discussions, but you just might get more out of the books.

 An Experiment in Love, Hilary Mantel. One of my top favorite books in 2009 was Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. Now I am reading her earlier novels. This one is maybe too sad for some readers, but she is such a good writer. It was a great book on which to end the month.

 Please, please, please, I ask this every month. But no one ever comments. What did you read in June that was good or that you loved or even that you hated? I truly want to know.

Thursday, July 01, 2010


The Good Son, Michael Gruber, Henry Holt and Company, 2010, 383 pp

 About two years ago, in an effort to keep up with books on the paperback fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time, I read Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows. It almost made my Top 10 list that year (there was stiff competition from the likes of Michael Chabon, Suzanne Collins, Toni Morrison and more) but I went on to hand sell many copies and my husband became a fan as well.

  The Good Son is his latest and it is a great read. Some of the gratuitous flippancy from the earlier book is happily missing. Gruber boldly takes on Afghanistan from the viewpoint of WTF are we doing there and in my opinion does a credible and righteous job of laying out the true issues. His plotting skills are even more developed and the characters are drawn the way characters should be: by what they do.

 Theo is the eponymous "good son." His father is a Pakistani from a wealthy family who married his mother, a former child circus performer. Theo was raised by his Pakistani grandmother in Lahore and often abandoned by his mother, who is another complex character. In fact, it is complexity which gives this novel its tension and makes its many twists and turns so exciting. Somehow, Gruber makes complexity easy to read about.

 A reading moment: this is the second book I have read recently featuring a son who wants to save his mother. (The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff was the other.) Both sons had been abandoned by their mothers early in life and both found their task a thankless one. Could it be that mothers who abandon/neglect/reject their kids don't want to be saved? Comments welcome.

(The Book of Air and Shadows is usually on the paperback fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The Good Son is available in hardcover by order. The 19th Wife is available in paperback by order.)