Friday, September 24, 2010



My husband and I just spent the past five days in Northern California, celebrating our 30th anniversary amongst the redwoods. 

Redwood trees are big; I am small.

 With the aid of my trekking poles and lots of training before we left, I am proud to say that I managed a 6 mile hike with 500 feet elevation through the Gold Bluff Canyons at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

 Perfect final anniversary dinner at Chez Panisse in Berkeley

 Before we left I started reading Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee, the wild and revealing story of how Alice Waters created her unique restaurant. I did not get very far in the book because it seems I don't read much on road trips. Now that we have been and experienced a meal, the book means more.

 We had a fabulous time and Somehow are more in love than ever. I'll be back on the blog tomorrow with the regularly scheduled program.

Friday, September 17, 2010


Island Beneath the Sea, Isabel Allende, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2010, 457 pp

 I am an unabashed fan of Isabel Allende and have read all of her novels. Recently she has toned down the magical realism that was such a strong flavor in her early books and I don't guess she has ever topped The House of the Spirits, but as a storyteller she always excels. Truthfully the magic is still there because the people whose stories she tells believe in it as part of life.

 Island Beneath the Sea, set in late 1700s Saint-Domingue (which became Haiti) is the story of Zarite, a sugar plantation house slave. It covers a time period and subject matter similar to Andrea Levy's The Long Song. Levy's book was set in Jamaica so it was interesting to see the parallel history of slavery on both islands.

 Later in Allende's book, after the slave rebellion, Zarite and her master relocate to New Orleans, giving the author the scope to explore sugar plantation and Creole society there at the turn of the 19th century through the eyes of both a white master and a slave. In My Big Fat Reading Project, I have visited New Orleans many times, so I felt right at home.

 What I love most about Allende's sensibility is her basic premise that women, for better or for worse, actually run the world because of their love of men, their sort of underground network and behind the scenes machinations, all of which are driven by a purpose to create children and families; to provide healing and wisdom; to deliver men from their foolishness. She makes me ponder questions about male/female balance and master/slave dynamics in a more spiritual, organic way than authors like Toni Morrison or Margaret Atwood, adding another facet to the equation.

(Island Beneath the Sea is available in hardcover while the supply lasts on the new book shelves (also called The Barn) at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010


The Assistant, Bernard Malamud, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1957, 246 pp

  I quite liked Malamud's first novel, The Natural. This is his second novel and I liked it less. 

  A poverty-stricken Jewish man runs a failing grocery store in Brooklyn. He is presented as a failure of a man. All he knows is dogged persistence and hard work. He considers himself unlucky, but actually he lacks the killer instinct needed for business success. He is an immigrant from Russian pogroms, his wife is a nag, he lost a son when that boy was young and has a grown daughter who would have liked to go to college but works as a lowly secretary to help support the family.

 The "assistant" is a non-Jewish orphan who has never succeeded at anything and has become a petty criminal. Due to various occurrences these two men enter into a relationship which is more like a deathlock, when the store owner hires the other as his assistant.

 The one thing I admired about this dark tale was the way the author would tease the reader into hoping that life would improve for these characters and then would dash those hopes as the fatal flaws of each sent them back to paths of hopelessness and destruction. Somehow, Malamud does this over and over, managing to raise the hope each time.

 When it all ended, I felt I'd been had. I concluded that the author's theme was that there were other sides to life than the happy, hopeful ideals of the 1950s.

(The Assistant is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, 208 pp

I have not yet ever read Gone With the Wind, though I have seen the movie countless times. I have read Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley's supposed sequel and vaguely remember it. It's been seventeen years since I read it. The Wind Done Gone is a brilliant novel of imagination and truth concerning Cynara, daughter of Mammy and Mr O'Hara (the owner of Tara). Cynara was born in the same year as Scarlett. Through her diary we learn about her life, her relationship to Scarlett and Mammy and others from Gone With the Wind.

Alice Randall is a woman of color who most recently published Rebel Yell. She is also an award winning songwriter, a screenwriter and journalist. Man, can she write! She first read Gone With the Wind at age twelve and began to wonder where were the mulatto children of Tara? This is her imagined answer.

I love the title. I loved Cynara, her emotional journey, her strength and her wit. If you don't know the story of Gone With the Wind, you might not get how great is The Wind Done Gone. It would be worth reading both books or at least seeing the movie and then reading this lovely, intelligent, caustic novel.

I did like The Help, but I would like a book about that period of history from a black woman's side of the story. Actually, Alice Randall did write part of it in Rebel Yell. Now I've got to go read her second novel, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, while I hope she keeps writing novels for years to come.

(The Wind Done Gone is available in hardcover, paperback and audio by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Monday, September 13, 2010


Miracles on Maple Hill, Virginia Sorensen, Harcourt Inc, 1956, 232 pp

 I know I have some readers who like to read my reviews of children's books and I am sorry I have been remiss on posting them lately. For a while I was trying to post about a good family read every Sunday but suddenly my Sundays got full of family events, etc. So here we go with a family read on Monday!

Miracles on Maple Hill won the Newbery Award in 1957. It is a lovely story with a fast pace, believable characters and conveys much truth. I found it unique among the Newbery winners I have read so far because the loveliness is not cloying and the truths are nicely incorporated into the story, never coming across as "lessons." Virginia Sorenson is an extremely fine writer. Best of all, I was not bored once while reading it.

 Marly is an exuberant and perceptive young girl with an annoying older brother who truly does "know it all" and likes to be first. As Marly puts it, "Boys were queer. They seemed afraid they'd stop being boys altogether if they couldn't be first at everything." Still, she loves Joe and does her best to keep up with him.

 The big problem in their family is their father. He came back from the Korean War in bad shape: nervous, irritable and depressed. The solution is to go to their mother's childhood home in upstate Pennsylvania where maple syrup is made, where life is simpler and Daddy can recover in what Grandma calls "all outdoors."

 Of course it all works out but along the way the children meet unusual but wonderful people both young and old while they have the kinds of adventures that can only be had in rural areas. I think kids today, who are barely allowed to play outside and have most of their activities planned for them and supervised by adults, might just enjoy a story about kids who get to roam the "all outdoors," face a little danger and have adventures. The book did not feel old fashioned, it just felt rural.

 This is not a story about being a good child. Instead, Marly comes to understand herself, life and people by interacting with the unique qualities, both positive and negative, of individuals. Plus, the reader learns how maple syrup is collected and made.

 (Miracles on Maple Hill is available in paperback on the Newbery shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, September 10, 2010


A Dram of Poison, Charlotte Armstrong, White Lion Publishers, 1956, 221 pp

 This mystery won the Edgar Award in 1957. It is unusual in that it is also a love story and a psychological portrait of a man finding his true nature. 

 Kenneth Gibson is a fifty-five year old bachelor leading a dull but comfortable and well-ordered life as a teacher. He is prone to helping people, especially fairly helpless characters. He takes on Rosemary, newly widowed and drowning in the fear of being alone. His attitude toward her is in a Henry Higgins mode but eventually they fall in love, despite a 23 year difference in age.

 Bad things begin to happen, Kenneth becomes distraught and reckless, while the suspense builds inexorably until the final pages when all is resolved. Kenneth's psychopathic sister and deadly poison are involved.

 Many intriguing and well-developed characters fill this very short book. In fact, the economy of the writing shows a master at work. Armstrong seamlessly incorporates philosophy and psychology into a unique take on a mystery.

(I could not find A Dram of Poison in any of my libraries. It is available from used book sellers.)

Thursday, September 09, 2010


Mockingbird, A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J Shields, Henry Holt and Company, 2006, 288pp

 Considering that he had no access to Harper Lee and that no one else had published a book length biography about her before Mr Shields, I have to admire what he put together in Mockingbird. My only complaint is that his writing style is so clunky that reading the book was rather a drowsy chore.

 I enjoyed reading about how Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, found an agent and publisher, went through the editing process and then the whole fame and publicity thing. I also liked the sections on her assistance to Truman Capote as he researched In Cold Blood. Because I had seen "Capote," the movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman, I had some background on that period of their lives.

 I was also pleased that Shields presented the information he discovered about Ms Lee's failure to publish any more novels without advancing an analysis of his own about why. He demonstrated a level of respect for the privacy she obviously desires.

 Somehow, I have never read To Kill A Mockingbird nor seen the movie. As this year is the 50th anniversary of the book's publication, it is a good time to add it to my reading list. Mockingbird is worth reading, both as a biography and as a look at that period in history. Just be prepared for some dry patches.

(Mockingbird is available in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


The Field of Vision, Wright Morris, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1956, 251 pp

The National Book Award winner for 1957 was a challenging read. The entire story, such as it is, takes place during a bullfight in Mexico. I have yet to read a bullfight story I liked. Most of the book consists of flashbacks concerning the people involved in the life of a man names McKee. For the entire first half of it, I was not completely sure who anyone was.

 Each character is a variation on eccentricity and most of them live in Omaha, Nebraska, though off the beaten path of mainstream American life. Some of them have sparks of being gifted, whether as an artist or a frontiersman, except for McKee himself who is a dud trying to make sense of all these oddballs.

 The bullfight and arena (the field of vision) are meant to be symbolic. The theme seemed to me to be something about the banality of America. Wright Morris claims that he wrote the book to show that "the range and nature of the plains imagination...contains elements that are peculiarly American...There, mirrored in the bullring, a group of touring plainsmen see, for the first time, the drama of their tangled lives."

 I am grateful he explained that on the jacket flap because otherwise I would have missed it. I did not enjoy reading this book.

(If, after my underwhelming review, you would like to read The Field of Vision, it is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, September 03, 2010


Barn Blind, Jane Smiley, Random House Inc, 1980, 218 pp

 Reading Jane Smiley's first novel was a pleasure and a revelation. I've only previously read one of her books: Good Faith. I liked it a lot but didn't love it. I've read most of her book about writing, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, which is a bit dry in parts but from which I learned more about literature and derived inspiration as a writer. One summer I heard Jane Smiley speak at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books where she impressed me with her intelligence. Later I met her in the ladies' room where she impressed me with her height; she is at least as tall as Julia Child was.

  So I've always had the idea that I would read more of her books, finally deciding to read them in the order in which she published them, which is my way of getting to know an author. Barn Blind is astoundingly good for a first novel. The characters are rich and deep. It is their interrelationships which drive the story: brothers and sister, kids to parents, mother to children and husband/father to wife and kids. With admirable economy she gets all these relationships into a little over 200 pages.

 The mother is much more invested in her career as a horse woman (breeder, riding instructor and horse show presenter) than she is in her children. She uses her children to advance her career dreams and they are overpowered by her, causing varying degrees of trouble. From the opening chapter, you know that tragedy looms and the impending doom stuck me like glue to the book.

 There is something about people and the connection with animals that makes for compelling stories. Charlotte's Web, Black Beauty, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Three Junes, The God of Animals, all came to mind as I read Barn Blind. I am excited to read more Jane Smiley. From interviews I can see that she lives by her own internal compass. That is my kind of woman and in the two books I have read so far, I have found a kindred spirit.

(Another out of print book. Wow, it is getting scary how many books are vanishing from stores. Anyway, it is available in paperback from libraries and used book sellers.)

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Below the Salt, Thomas B Costain, Doubleday & Company, 1957, 480 pp

 About ten years ago, I decided I would like to learn the history of England. I got a straight ahead history text, started to read and soon gave up, defeated by the dry recitation of kings and battles. Such decisions have a way of infecting a life however. Because of the preponderance of historical fiction on the bestseller lists of the 1940s and 1950s, I have begun to get familiar with English history after all. Thomas Costain has been a key writer over these decades.

  Costain is a wonderful historical novelist, a Canadian who switched from journalism to fiction at the age of 57. His style is not quite so turgid as some of the other writers of that time and most of his characters are fully developed with the many virtues and faults all of us have. Below the Salt was the #9 bestseller in 1957 and takes place in 12th and 13th century England. After reading so much about Henry VIII and the Plantagenets in The Autobiography of Henry VIII and Wolf Hall, I was happy to find that this novel takes up the beginnings of that family as rulers in England, shortly after the famous Norman conquest in 1066.

 The main event is the writing and signing into law of the Magna Carta, which was the seed in England for an eventual democratic age and laid the foundations for the rights of the common man, rights which had no existence in the dark ages of feudal society and rule by monarchs. It is an exciting story.

 The only extremely odd aspect of Below the Salt is that the history is couched in a current story where an aging American politician has past life memories of his involvement in those earlier times. Not that I have a problem with past lives or recovered memories of them, but in this case it is awkwardly done. The approach does fit in with the influence of psychology and studies about the mind which feature in much of the fiction of the 1950s. Costain went on to write two more historical novels though none of them made top ten bestseller status, so I now bid him adieu.

(Below the Salt is another out of print 1957 bestseller. Look for it in libraries and at used book sellers.)