Tuesday, November 30, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 29, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 27, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 21, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 15, 2010


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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 11, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 05, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 04, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 01, 2010



Sunday, November 7, 2 PM

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

Wednesday, November 10, 6:30 pm

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

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