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.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


The Deep Range, Arthur C Clarke, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1957, 175 pp

 This captivating story comes from Clarke's other life as a deep sea explorer. Though it is set in the future, when much of Earth's food supply comes from algae and farmed whales, it also falls in the category of extreme adventure.

  Don Burley is a whale shepherd, keeping the herds safe from predators. He gets unwillingly pulled off that job and asked to train the mysterious Walt Franklin, a former spacer with some undisclosed past incident that left him subject to panic attacks. The men eventually come to enjoy a friendship based on mutual respect and shared adventures in the deep ranges of the world's oceans.

 So you get plenty of suspense, some tragedy, love stories, and another glimpse of a possible future. The underwater scenes were breathtaking, even for me who likes to stay on dry land.

(The Deep Range appears to be out of print. Try the science fiction section in your local library or used book sellers.)


I haven't posted for over a week because I took a trip to Dunedin, Florida, a small town outside of Tampa, to visit my son and his family. I had not seen my grandchildren since a year ago July at my mother's memorial service in Michigan. I understand that I am prejudiced, but I truly have the best grandchildren in the world. 

 Jordan is twelve and growing into a lovely teenage girl who loves to sing, choreograph her own dance routines and play volleyball. Emma is nine and is as addicted to reading as I am, while also being a natural actress and comedienne. Ethan is five and a half, loves soccer, Legos, and is a bit spoiled because he is the baby. I got to visit each one in their class at school and do some work with them. We went to the beach on both Saturday and Sunday, watched the sun set and the moon rise.

 When I left, we all cried. Emma cried the most. Nine years old is a very emotional year. I remember. Yesterday I spent a sad day getting over the fact that I will not see them everyday. But they are coming to Los Angeles for Christmas and hopefully moving here next year. 

 We now return to book reviews.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, Gail Tsukiyama, St Martin's Press, 2007, 422 pp

 Gail Tsukiyama is a beloved author in Los Angeles, where she lives at least part of the year. This is the first novel of hers I have read, though she has written several. While she did not win me over as an author, the story was a good contrast with a recent book I read, The Piano Teacher, because while that book showed the effects of Japanese aggression on Hong Kong during WWII, this one gave me insight into the lives of Japanese civilians who went through their own hardships as their Emperor set out to conquer the world, losing in one the most stunning defeats of the 20th century.

  Hiroshi, who becomes an acclaimed Sumo wrestling champion and his brother Kenji, destined for fame as the carver of masks for actors in Japan's traditional Noh theater, are raised by their grandparents. The boys were orphaned at a young age when their parents drowned in an accident.

 The book is long and follows their lives along with other key characters from 1939 into the 1960s. The style is leisurely and as precise as a Japanese tea ceremony. Though these men both achieve their goals, so much suffering and loss accompanies their successes that I felt mostly sad when I wasn't slightly bored as I read.

 I was enlightened on the details of both professions. As usual, the women suffered the most. The author celebrated the hard working and resilient character of the Japanese people, who within two decades after the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were back in the game as a world power, at least economically.

 I used to practice macrobiotics, a form of vegetarianism based on Japanese foods and philosophy. One of its sayings was, "The bigger the back, the bigger the front." Gail Tsukiyama demonstrates in her story that behind the intricate beauty of Japanese culture lay an equal cruelty and violence. In the Tao and in macrobiotics, we sought balance which would promote health, because in extremes are found illness, death, loss and sorrow. Mankind apparently has a hard time with that lesson.

(The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 15, 2010


Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury, Doubleday & Company, 1957, 239 pp

 Every time I start a book by Ray Bradbury, I groan and fume, then get bored and irritable. His sentences are so bad. I want to get out my red pen and act like a high school teacher. The characters are drawn in such an odd way that as a reader I get self conscious. I don't care about these everyday people, but then they start voicing those slightly skewed Bradbury thoughts and I recognize those ideas as ones I've had myself.

  Eventually I arrive in the world he has created, whether it is Mars or the Midwest. I can see, hear, smell and taste it. In Dandelion Wine, it is the summer world of a small Midwestern town; the summer as seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding.

 As he gets his new summer sneakers and races around town, down into the ravine, across new-mown lawns, with his brother and his friends, he sees the young, the old, the eccentric, the sorrowful. He begins to get the whole picture of life because he is on the cusp between child and young adult. He is not entirely happy about it all.

 By the end I am left with recovered thoughts and pictures from my twelfth summer. I feel that tarnished innocence, that mixed feeling about adults, that urge to grow up stalled by the wish the remain a child. 

 Truly, I am not sure how he does it.

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

Thursday, October 14, 2010


The Piano Teacher, Janice J K Lee, The Viking Press, 2009, 326 pp

 Marketing has been with us for many years as the engine which drives commerce, but these days it is the slickest it's ever been. In the niche of book covers, I consider myself at least careful not to buy a book for its cover, but this one pulled me in like the proverbial sucker: the colors, the image of the woman and the title all worked their magic on me. Fortunately I was not too badly suckered, especially because I recommended The Piano Teacher to one of my reading groups.

 Claire Pendleton is an unformed, inexperienced provincial English young woman who married a man she barely knew, mainly to escape her boring life and overbearing mother. She finds herself in post WWII Hong Kong and before long she is in way over her head. Between the social life, the impenetrable lover who excites her far more than her husband and intrigues lingering from the war, she is forced to develop a personality. Both her innocence and an intrepid streak she never knew she had, bring her through.

 The story is historical and something of a thriller. The actual main characters are Claire's lover, Will Truesdale and his now deceased lover from the war, a Eurasian socialite named Trudy Liang. From Graham Greene to James Clavell, novels set in Hong Kong always deal in a certain dark, sensuous and slightly criminal set of circumstances and The Piano Teacher is no exception.

 Serious flaws such as an abrupt change in style shortly before the end and inconsistencies in Claire's character still did not ruin the fascination and power of the story. I look forward to more from a promising first novelist.

(The Piano Teacher is available in paperback on the adult fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Citizen of the Galaxy, Robert A Heinlein, Charles Scribners Sons, 1957, 302 pp

 Citizen of the Galaxy is another one of Heinlien's Young Adult novels, though I found it in the Science Fiction section of my local library. Thorby is a young boy who knows neither his parents nor his age and has been a slave for as long as he can remember.

  The story opens at a slave auction on the planet Jubbul, central to the Nine Worlds. Thorby is purchased by a beggar named Baslim, who raises the boy as his adopted son, frees him and turns out to be much more than a beggar.

 Thorby's tale then proceeds through several phases while he searches for his origins. Ultimately this is a book about slavery, which though it is no longer practiced on Earth in this futuristic time period, goes on clandestinely across the galaxy. And guess what? One of the biggest business conglomerates on Earth knows full well what is going on and profits from the slave trade while denying that it even exists! Sound familiar? 

 I was completely immersed in the story and impressed by Heinlein's seemingly omniscient ability to know the future. Once again he created a breathlessly exciting read with deep social implications and his recurring theme that intelligence and hard work are the keys to life.

 I would recommend this especially for male teens who are reluctant to read books but are required to read for school. In fact, I'd love to hear from one of these young men who tried Citizen of the Galaxy.

(Citizen of the Galaxy is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue, Harcourt Inc, 2000, 334 pp

 A slammerkin can mean either a loose dress or a loose woman. Emma Donoghue is a fine writer whose most recent novel, Room,  was short listed for the Booker Prize of 2010. Recently I reviewed Room for BookBrowse and since I had never read anything by Donoghue, much less heard of her, I did a little homework.

This novel is historical fiction in the sub genre of prostitute tales, of which I have read my share. Memoirs of a Geisha, The Crimson Petal and the White, Forever Amber, come to mind. I am sure there are more. Donoghue adds her own twist.

 Mary Saunders turned 14 in the slums of London, 1760. Her father was dead, her stepfather was not happy about having to feed her, her mother was a piecework seamstress whose eyes were going. Like many impoverished children, Mary had an eye for color, for glitter and shine. And though her father's wish that she be educated had been carried out at great hardship by Mary's mother, the young girl knew that her future was bleak.

 Within months of that 14th birthday, Mary ran away and soon slipped into prostitution as a means to stay alive. Despite the disgusting aspects of her life style, for the first time she was having fun, wearing colorful and glittering gowns, having a best friend. Two years later Mary died by hanging, convicted of theft.

 Slammerkin is a great read, due to fine historical details, atmosphere, characters and storytelling. Never dull, never overbearing in the details, yet always realistic, the novel captivated me. The twist is this: Mary had a loving mother, education, moral training and intelligence, but even with all that, she could not rise out of poverty, servitude or oppression. This novel makes you think about why that is and how it could possibly ever change for men or women.

 Doll, a seasoned London prostitute only four years older than Mary, who met with a gruesome end, taught her friend three rules: Never give up your liberty. Clothes make the woman. Clothes are the greatest lie ever told. All true; still not enough.

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

Thursday, October 07, 2010


The Comforters, Muriel Spark, J B Lippincott & Co, 1957, 228 pp

 This is Muriel Spark's first novel. I have only read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I found fascinating, but I really know nothing about Spark except that she is considered eccentric when it comes to writing novels. Indeed, this is an unusual story.

  The characters are great. Caroline is a writer, recently converted to Catholicism, who has unstable nerves and hears voices accompanied by the clacking of typewriter keys. Her on and off boyfriend Laurence is a television actor, not super high on intelligence but hyper-observant of details around him to the point of thinking of himself as an amateur sleuth. 

 Laurence's grandmother, who is half gypsy, appears to be part of a smuggling ring which adds a mystery to the tale but in this highly English group of characters, that is just silly. Laurence's mother, a very proper Catholic wife, is constantly trying to help a woman who is clearly the evil character in the story.

 It goes on, it is almost too much and not until half way through this short novel was I at all sure what was going on. To her credit, Spark ties up all loose ends in closing but it was touch and go for a good while. Then, by making sense of it all, she secured my trust.

 The most incredible aspect though was that in 1957 comes this novel which is a piece of metafiction, in the sense of writing that draws attention to the relationship between fiction and reality; in the sense of exposing the illusion of fiction. The voices Caroline hears convince her she is a character in a novel that the voices are writing. The term metafiction was not even coined until 1970, another confirmation of my growing sense that 1957 was a year of major change in literature, even though the changes were creeping in quietly.

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

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


Room, Emma Donoghue, Little Brown and Company, 2010, 321 pp

My review of Room is now available for non-subscribers at BookBrowse. I begin thus:
      "When I finished this brilliant novel, besides being as locked into its story and world as Jack and Ma were in Room, I had no idea how I would review it. I was convinced there was nothing I could say about it without the entire review being one big spoiler. For me, what made Room so great was that I never knew from page to page what would happen next..." Continue reading here.

 Room is a finalist for the Booker Prize which will be awarded on October 12. I predict a win for Room. 

(Room is available in hardcover at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


In The Woods, Tana French, Viking Press, 2007, 429 pp

 Wow! I really liked this book. Two murder mysteries connected because of one man, who is a police detective in Dublin. His incredible partner, Cassie. Excellent writing. Psychological and suspenseful with a true psychopath. What more could you ask for? Plus she has two more books published already: The Likeness and Faithful Place. Here is a female mystery writer who can stand up to Sara Paretsky.

  Apparently many readers hated the ending. I admit it was a bit disconcerting but I also understand that it is a set up for the next book. I had more trouble with Detective Rob Ryan, who is a great detective but a fairly shitty man. He makes Benjamin Black's Quirke, in Christine Falls, look like a together guy. Rob Ryan just kept making me furious as he let his past troubles get the best of him over and over. However, his relationship with his partner Cassie was a fascinating study in friendship and parnership, so fascinating that it almost trumped the mystery.

 In The Woods is one of the best books I read in August, which was a full month of excellent reading.

(In The Woods is available in paperback on the mystery shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, October 03, 2010


A Tree Is Nice, Janice May Udry, HarperCollinsPublishers, 1956, 28 pp

Last Sunday, I began to post my review of this surprisingly special book, but was foiled by Blogger when it came to uploading an image of the cover. The next day I came down with a deadly virus from which I have just recovered sufficiently a week later so I can sit at my computer with some brain cells available. Still I have the *#@** image upload problem. It has a lovely cover and if you click on the title and are lucky it may take you to an image of the cover, but I don't have high hopes. Blogger is great because it is free, but you know what they say about that. I am not wild about the HELP capabilities.

 Anyway I will no longer be denied. A Tree Is Nice is the perfect follow up to my Redwoods trip. (The flu was not.) I have always had a deep reverence for trees. I might never have made it through The Lord of the Rings trilogy if it hadn't been for the trees. I certainly would not have made it through life.

 Janice May Udry's picture book won the Caldecott Medal in 1957 for the illustrations by Marc Simont. That is a good thing because otherwise I might never have read it. Her title fairly well sums up the truth about trees.

 After providing dozens of reasons why a tree is nice, the book ends with how to plant a tree and some encouraging words about the fun of watching it grow "every day for years and YEARS...You say to people, 'I planted a tree.' They wish they had one so they go home and plant a tree too."

(A Tree Is Nice is available on the picture books shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)