Friday, December 31, 2010


Just KidsPatti Smith, HarperCollins Publishers, 2010, 279 pp

 I loved, loved, loved this book! Patti Smith recreates the lives of so many people who only lived to create. Her love for Robert Mapplethorpe just throbs on every page. She promised Robert, before he died, that she would write their story and she fulfilled that promise with so much taste and passion and exuberance that it made me want to live and die for art.

 I was never a Patti Smith fan. Anyone who reads my blog knows that among singer/songwriters Joni Mitchell is the one I revere. I did however once write a song in the style of "Because the Night." I've only ever played it for my husband and my most intimate songwriter friend, but there it is. As an artist and as a woman though, I have always had great respect for Patti Smith. When a friend whose reading tastes I admire pressed Just Kids on me (literally she put the book in my hands) I knew I would read it.

 I took my time. For me, this was an intense reading experience. Patti and I are almost the same age and both grew up in New Jersey. Like me, she had to wend her way through the sexual mores and expectations for women that prevailed in the 1950s and early 1960s. Unlike me, she was much braver. She makes it clear that meeting and loving Robert was the most momentous event of her life. Together they gave each other the support and unconditional care that every artist needs. They also gave each other unlimited freedom. It could be argued that that much freedom is dangerous and indeed it is. But the danger versus the opportunity to achieve artistic goals was balanced perfectly in their lives.

 A luxurious quantity of photos throughout the book bring the story to life better than any video ever could, though I did go to YouTube immediately on finishing the last page and watched almost every Patti Smith video I could find. Mapplethorpe's photography is stunning. Hard to believe that he took a huge proportion of them on Polaroid because he could not afford a better camera for many years. The Polaroid film was a larger budget item for him than food or rent.

 Stories about nearly everyone who was anyone during their days at the Chelsea Hotel, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and many more, feel like affection more than anything else. She completely captures those magical years in New York City. I never knew, but of course loved it, that Patti's biggest songwriting hero was Bob Dylan. Her inside look at her poetry writing process was another eye opener.

 The announcement that Patti Smith had won the National Book Award for Just Kids got me to finish the book. Truly I did not want it to end. I must give back the copy I read to my friend but I am going to buy one for myself. I want to read it again and again.

(Just Kids is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


The Mystic Masseur, V S Naipaul, Alfred A Knopf, 1957, 171 pp

 This is Naipaul's first novel, which I found at my local library in a volume of his first three novels. Apparently Naipaul has had two phases in his writing: an early comic vision of which The Mystic Masseur is an example and a later disturbing darker period. 

  V S Naipaul was born in Trinidad, an island in the Caribbean, to which his grandfather had come from India. The island is a polyglot of races, nationalities and languages and has been ruled by various European nations since the 15th century. After slavery was abolished, the plantation owners brought in indentured labor from India.

 Naipaul uses a combination of humor, magical realism and scenes from Indian/Hindu immigrant life to describe the coming of age of Ganesh Ramsumair, an orphan who makes it through some college education, fails as a school teacher and returns to his native village. In an effort to support his wife, he takes up healing as a masseur, though he is a complete quack. Mostly he studies the books he acquires, lining his walls and gaining knowledge until he gains fame as the "pundit."

 The Indians from India who reside in Trinindad comprise a tightly knit and enclosed culture with their own foods, customs and competitions. Ganesh finally rises in the world and enters politics only to find disillusionment in the end. Naipaul's writing is lively and robust but I can't fully agree that his vision is comic. He makes some fun of his own people but what comes through is a rueful account of life as second class citizens in a post colonial world.

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

Monday, December 20, 2010


Just announcing that I will be absent from Keep The Wisdom until after Christmas Day. Actually I have been absent since Wednesday because I was getting ready for a visit from my son, daughter-in-law and my three grandchildren. Yesterday they arrived from Florida, expecting a nice sunny California day but we are in the middle of some kind of monsoon condition. It has been raining steadily for two days and will continue for three more.

Hopefully the rain will stop by Thursday when I will take us all to Disneyland, fulfilling a dream I have had to take the grandkids there someday.

Unfortunately my husband is missing the whole thing, including Christmas, because he is sailing on the maiden voyage of Disney's newest cruise ship; as a sound technician, not a passenger.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Faery Tale: One Woman's Search for Enchantment in a Modern World, Signe Pike, Penguin Group USA, 2010, 295 pp

 This enchanting memoir is sort of Eat Pray Love for faery lovers. Signe Pike is a young woman who quit her job as a book editor for a New York publisher and went on a quest to find out if faeries are real. I was maddened, delighted and inspired many times over during my reading of this truly modern faery tale.

  Because that is what it is, a faery tale in the voice of a modern young woman who wanted to believe in magic, in things that cannot be seen and in happy endings. Signe Pike is young enough to be my daughter (or maybe it's that I am old enough to be her mother.) She is almost young enough to be my granddaughter (actually I have no idea how old she is, I'm just guessing.) Anyway, it was inevitable that she would make me mad sometimes.

 I started the book and by about page 30, I threw it down and thought I would not waste my time for another page. The voice of Signe Pike struck me as silly; an amalgam of the tone of Facebook comments, texting between teens and People magazine. I now realize that I was suffering from generation gap. 

 That evening I spent hours with my youngest friend, a 25-year-old aspiring writer. We drank wine, told each other stories, talked about life and read our latest efforts to each other. I love this woman because she reminds me of my younger self and hanging out with her is effortless. Somehow that evening led me to pick up Faery Tale again the next morning and I read it all day until I got to the end.

 I still got mad a few times but mostly I was delighted. I've done my own faery research over the years. I too believed in faeries as a child. I have encountered disembodied beings on an island in Lake Michigan, on Mt Tamalpias, in Ireland, in the Redwoods and in my own backyard. About ten years ago I spent a few months reading up on how to contact faeries and I have always read magical stories, from C S Lewis and E Nesbit as a child to Suzanne Clarke and John Crowley in recent years. As I kept reading Signe Pike, I saw that she was trying as hard as she could to remain objective and not get sucked in to a bunch of airy-fairy, New Age ridiculousness. She was on a quest to find some meaning for her life and to make sense of her relationship with her father who had passed away. She was also looking for hope in a world that seemed to be heading for disaster. I am so down with all of that.

 As she traveled to Glastonbury (where I have always wanted to go), to Ireland (where I have been), to the Isles of Man and Skye, to Scotland and Findhorn, I began to feel I was in pretty good hands. Her process of slowing down, learning to let things happen, listening more closely to her intuition and bonding with the various faery "experts" she interviewed, made me happy for her.

 And that is all I am going to say because I don't want to spoil anymore of the adventure of reading this book. It's cool and it's real and it's magical. Plus there is an awesome bibliography in the back and Signe has one the best author websites I've seen.

(Faery Tale is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


The Naked Sun, Isaac Asimov, Street & Smith Pualications, 1957, 196 pp

 This is the sequel to The Caves of Steel, again featuring Detective Lige Baley and his robot assistant R Daneel Olivaw. They go offworld to investigate a murder on Solaria, one of the 50 Outer Worlds inhabited by humans.

  Solaria's most eminent scientist has been found dead and it appears that he was done in by his wife. The planet has something like 200 robots for every human, similar to the slave/master populations of certain ancient civilizations. These robots are all under the Three Laws of Robotics as laid out in I, Robot, but there is an uneasy feeling on Earth about ominous rumors coming from Solaria, so Bayley is also serving as a spy.

 Despite his unreasoning fear of the naked sun after living his entire life in the steel caves of Earth, Bayley's professional skill soon has him flaunting all protocol on Solaria. He finds the murderer of course but also a much more deadly character. 

 I thought The Caves of Steel was better as far as storytelling and suspense, but Asimov has the detective genre nailed and his futuristic observations are as brilliant and icily witty as always.

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

Monday, December 13, 2010


Out, Natsuo Kirino, Vintage International, 2005, 416 pp

 A young mother in Tokyo, working the night shift in a boxed lunch factory, murders her abusive husband. Her three best friends at work band together to help her dispose of the body. These women are desperate housewives beyond anything we see in American entertainment, though there are undoubtedly women in our great society who live equally on the edge of disaster, hopelessness and criminality. So while Out is brutally bloody and violent, more hard-boiled than almost anything I have ever read, I think it is realistic.

  Natsuo Kirino shows deep insight regarding feminism, male and female psychology, and Japanese society in the late 20th century. She is one hell of a criminal writer and keeps up a relentless pace. Sometimes I could hardly take the sheer amount of gore but I was fascinated and reading as fast as I could. As the friendships between the four women deteriorate following the crime and as one of the women finds herself involved in the Tokyo criminal underworld, it was the psychological aspects of the story that I found the most intriguing. What does getting out actually involve for these women?

 This is dark stuff.  I was put in mind of Patricia Highsmith, Mary Gaitskill, Joyce Carol Oates, Shirley Jackson; female authors who can look the dark underside of female existence straight in the face. The novel is as far as you can get from a feel-good family story. It is probably not the thing for most women readers I know, but it sure is powerful and is as close to horror as I want to get.

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

Friday, December 10, 2010


Mrs Daffodil, Gladys Taber, J P Lippincott Company, 1957, 284 pp

 Back before I invented My Big Fat Reading Project, I was on a quest to read all the fiction in my local library. Crazy, I know. I started out working through all the books authored by anyone whose last name started with A, like Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, from whom I got the idea. But I am easily bored and I had gotten into some author I did not really like, so I moved on. I read the first book I found at the beginning of each letter. That is how I ended up reading Mrs Daffodil. Eventually, because it was recorded in my reading log from 2001, it ended up on the 1957 list of books read for the Big Fat Reading Project.

 Because of the cover, I thought it was going to be a dumb little book, but it was actually charming and humorous. Gladys Taber was a real life author of magazine articles in the 1950s and she turned this experience into a novel. A reviewer I read on Amazon speculated that she got to say things she could not write about in her articles. 

 Mrs Daffodil is a magazine and short story writer who lives with a friend named Kay. I imagined these two women as a sort of harmless American version of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. They live in a house in the country (probably outside of NYC) with a Siamese, a red setter and several other dogs. Mrs Daffodil is always under deadline and stressed out by that, but the two bumble along continuously dieting, hosting weekend visitors, trying to find domestic help and overall being very caring, loving women to each other and their friends.

 I ended up loving it and having lots of laughs. I am a happily married woman and definitely heterosexual but from time to time I think about how much fun it would be to live with a woman friend instead of a man. It would be a whole different set of circumstances. I wonder if there are any modern novels that would compare to Mrs Daffodil. Please let us know in the comments if you know of any.

(Mrs Daffodil is out of print and the lowest price I found on the web for a used copy was $50! It must be some kind of collector's item. I found it of course at the library.)

Thursday, December 09, 2010


I haven't had a guest blogger in a long time. Today I am happy to introduce Michael Barron, an up and coming writer who has been commenting on my posts here at Keep The Wisdom. I visited him at his blog and learned that he has written a fantasy novel for Young Adult readers entitled Wilderness. His website, Barron Wilderness, features the first three chapters. I read them and was quite impressed. 

 I invited Michael to write something for my blog and he has sent me a fascinating account of what it was like for him to write his first novel. Welcome Michael!

A few years ago I was driving home from Dover, DE where I bought a birthday present for one of my friends. As I let my mind wander, I glanced to my right at a clump of trees behind a cornfield. There wasn't anything unusual about the sight (there are millions of cornfields in that part of Maryland), but I was struck with the image of a seemingly normal young man slipping out of his girlfriend's house to meet with friends in the woods. These friends would be like family to him but a part of a double life no one else, not even the girlfriend, knew about. For the rest of the drive I thought about this strange young man and tried to figure out his story. As soon as I reached my college's parking lot, I ran inside (so fast that I left my friend's present in the car), grabbed a pen and started writing.

The wonderful thing about rough drafts is all you need to do is just “vomit” your ideas out onto the page without caring how good they are. Seriously, who cares if the characters don't make sense or if the plot is filled with more holes than the car Bonnie and Clyde were shot up in? No one else is EVER going to read it until you're ready for them to. What I learned from Wilderness is: just write and let the story take you where it needs to go. I guarantee that when you finish writing a first chapter a little voice will say “Wait! You need to go back! It isn't perfect yet!” My advice is to gag and hogtie that voice until you write the second draft. Otherwise, you will spend all your time polishing something you will eventually change anyway. The first draft of Wilderness is nothing like the version I am submitting to agents. It was about a thousand pages long, half the characters hadn't been created and the rules of the magical world were confusing. I spent too much time pushing around commas and rearranging sentences when I should have just been writing and discovering the characters. Fortunately, I got wise, plowed my way through and created a rough draft I could later rewrite.

Many writers turn their noses at outlines. There is the attitude that “real writers” just write. I agree with this to a certain extent. The danger of outlines is that a writer won't use them sparingly enough. He or she will spend months (or even years) outlining the story rather than writing it. At the end of the day they will have a very beautiful outline, but when people go into bookstores they want books, not outlines. Then again, jotting down notes can work for some authors. My ideas come to me so rapidly and from so many directions that I can never get them down fast enough. Outlines can be great if you're just jotting down ideas for scenes and character but time spent outlining does not count as time spent writing. Honestly, I didn't even use that many notes until Wilderness' later drafts. By then I had so much material it was impossible to keep it all straight in my head. Making an outline (especially on notecards) can help with revisions because you're rearranging the pieces of the puzzle in front of you as well as in your imagination. I would keep outlining a rough draft to a minimum and save the heavy stuff for the rewrites. Also, never forget the golden rule of outlining: YOU NEVER HAVE TO FOLLOW IT! Just because you've jotted it down doesn't mean you have to include it in the draft.

In a perfect world, I would just tie my manuscript to the talons of an eagle, the bird would fly into the heavens and copies of my novel would rain down all over the world. Unfortunately, getting Wilderness published is going to be much more difficult. I have only just begun submitting the book to agents, but I have spent the past few months preparing. First of all, I created a website where one can view the synopsis along with the first three chapters (see link above). Along with a website I created a “Fans of Wilderness” Facebook page (see link below). The purpose of the Facebook page is to gain as many “friends” as possible for the book. This way I can show it to agents and say “See! A ton of people already know about my novel!” (Feel free to join the group and help out an aspiring author.)

I also learned how to present my book by creating the following pitch:

“Lee is a normal nine-year-old boy...or so he thinks.

“On Fourth of July, a crazy neighbor shoots a coyote outside his house.  As Lee approaches the body, he notices war paint smeared across the animal’s face.  Before the coyote dies, he speaks with a human voice, whispering, "Sister Raven." Lee’s world is blown to pieces.

“Lee discovers that the forest behind his house is a gateway to Mid Country, a world of talking animals and ancient spirits.  There, the lonely boy befriends a warrior raccoon and a girl with a maze of tattoos that tell an ancient story.  He is also hunted by a tribe of demons known as Ashmen.  They were once honorable warriors but became feral beasts  with beautiful faces after selling their souls to the Goddess of Fear.  The Ashmen believe that they can free their mistress from banishment by devouring Lee’s flesh.  

“In our world, Lee’s father abandons the family.  With their money dwindling, the boy and his mother are on the verge of becoming homeless.  Determined to save their house, Lee searches for a treasure hidden in Mid Country’s forbidden territory and in doing so uncovers a conspiracy that goes back to the beginning of time.”

This pitch sums up both the story and spirit of the novel. It describes the main character (Lee), gives us his motives (saving his home), introduces the buddy characters (the raccoon and song) and tells us about his problems (finding the treasure / the Ashmen). Even more importantly it is short. When you are describing your novel to anyone (especially an agent) you don't want to go rambling off on every single subplot. There are several characters and story elements I left out here, but an agent doesn't need to know about them right now. All they need are the characters, the plot, the problem and a cliffhanger that makes them want more.

So that is a (very brief) summary of my adventures writing a novel. While I have just started the submission process (and we all know what kind of road that will be), I am optimistic. With luck, that weird little story that grabbed my imagination while driving home will someday be available for everyone to enjoy. I have started the rough draft of a second novel which is coming along much faster because of all the things I learned from writing the first.

Check out and join Michael's Facebook group: Fans of Wilderness.

I hope you enjoyed Michael's writing story. Of course you can comment here but it would make Michael very happy to hear from you at his website (where you can read his first three chapters) or at his Facebook page.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010


Snakewoman of Little Egypt, Robert Hellenga, Bloomsbury USA, 2010 340 pp

 One of the best things about being a paid reviewer of books is that I find myself reading  amazing books I might otherwise have missed. Reading Snakewoman of Little Egypt was such an experience. And I was so ready for something unique compared to what else I had been reading lately. Sometimes a book has all the elements that I feel make it magically good and Robert Hellenga got that combination: strong female character, snakes (!), varieties of spiritual experience, love of course, and information about things I had formerly known nothing about. 

 My review begins:

"I had not previously read a book by Robert Hellenga, although he has already published five novels, but I was intrigued by the title of his latest. After all, woman's mythical history with snakes stretches back to Genesis and beyond, and I remember reading with great pleasure Marion Zimmer Bradley's Firebrand, in which a snakewoman plays a key role during the Trojan War. But who knew that right now in America we still have fundamentalist Christian sects handling snakes as a method of avoiding hell and reaching heaven?

Sunny, formerly known as Willa Fern Cochrane, was born and raised in the Church of the Burning Bush With Signs Following in southeastern Illinois and married to its most powerful preacher until she got 'backed up on God' and took justice into her own hands..."

 You can read the rest of the review at BookBrowse magazine. Better yet, just read the book. It is really that good and my husband liked it as much as I did, so it has been guy-tested.

 (Snakewoman of Little Egypt is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1957, 245 pp

 Mary McCarthy's autobiographical collection of essays originally appeared in "The New Yorker" and "Harper's Bazaar" between 1946 and 1955. For the book she wrote comments on her essays and addressed the perennial question of the veracity of memory. All of this was highly interesting to me since I am writing a memoir myself.

  The McCarthy children, including Mary's three brothers, lost their parents in the flu epidemic of 1918 after an ill-advised move by train from Seattle to Minneapolis during the worst weeks of the epidemic. How would we ever have memoirs to read if young, free-spirited parents did not subject their children to foolish or desperate adventures?

 The author is an example of how a highly intelligent human being overcomes adversity and makes a life for herself, though not without emotional scars. Her family included devout Catholics, Protestants, Jews and the occasional atheist. She attended public schools, convent schools and boarding schools. 

 After a stint with stingy Minneapolis relatives, where the children were practically starved to death, Mary returned to Seattle and lived with her maternal grandparents in a state of over-protection and confused religious beliefs. She became a rebellious, promiscuous feminist until finally settling down to marriage and motherhood, though she never compromised her intellectual pursuits.

 After reading only two of her novels and this memoir, she has become one of my heroines, on a par with Joni Mitchell.

(Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, December 02, 2010


The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson, Bloomsburg USA, 2010, 307 pp

 My review of this year's Booker Prize winner is available for viewing for the next few days by non-subscribers at BookBrowse. I enjoyed it, as I do most of the Booker winners, but it is probably not for everyone. Well, what book is?

 The review begins:

  "There are three good reasons to read The Finkler Question:
  • To gain insight into the many views and disparate experiences of Jewish people in the 21st century.
  • To experience the almost perfect blend of humor and seriousness in the writing.
  • To enjoy a rich story about the human condition that includes friendship, love, religion, ambition, loss, aging and dying."
 To read the rest go here.

 I think that BookBrowse is one of the higher quality on-line book review sites (and not just because I am a reviewer there.) The reviews cover not so much the blockbuster bestsellers but a wide range of books, some of which are a bit more below the radar.  You can sign up for a free trial subscription by going to the home page, but the subscription rate is very reasonable and also makes a great holiday gift. 

(The Finkler Question is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


Loser Takes All, Graham Greene, The Viking Press, 1957, 126 pp

 Even Graham Greene takes a shot at the soulless despair of the late 1950s in this silly love story about a lowly middle-aged accountant in a London firm. Mr Bertram is about to be married, for the second time, to a young lighthearted girl he met in a restaurant. He gets summoned to the big boss' office and invited to honeymoon on the man's yacht in the Mediterranean. 

 Of course it all goes wrong and Bertram winds up in the casinos of Monte Carlo trying to use his mathematical powers to beat the house and losing his new bride in the process. The happy ending reads like a Doris Day romantic comedy of the day. (In fact there was a movie in 1956 with Greene writing the screenplay.)

 I know that Greene wrote what he called "entertainments" next to his literary novels to pay the bills and usually they are almost as good but this one was too light for me.

(Loser Takes All is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)