Wednesday, January 26, 2011


The Short Reign of Pippin IV, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1957, 188 pp

 In this short work of political satire, Steinbeck proved he could write just about anything. I have also been reading a biography of Steinbeck by Jackson J Benson, as I make my way through Steinbeck's novels. There I learned that the author never succeeded in writing a play, so perhaps that format eluded him. He also did not enjoy writing for magazines, but he could do humor. A long visit to France with a contract for a series of magazine articles resulted in this highly entertaining novel.

  The Short Reign of Pippin IV demonstrates both Steinbeck's intimate familiarity with Paris of the mid 1950s as well as his thorough understanding of French political history. But the story carries all this information so lightly that the humor and characters are allowed to make an amusing tale.

 Unable to get their politics back in order after World War II, French political parties decide the only solution that will be acceptable to all is to bring back the monarchy. An obscure descendant of the House of Charlemagne is chosen. Pippin Heristal, middle-aged amateur astronomer, living off the profits of an inherited vineyard, must take the throne.

 Pippin's wife, the consummate French housewife, becomes Queen while Clotilde, a spoof on Francoise Sagan, is the jitterbug age Princess. All very hilarious, except for the few times Steinbeck cannot resist putting his own political philosophy in King Pippin's mouth.

 What surprised me the most, though I might have guessed from his earlier novels, is the level of political sophistication combined with the amount of humor that John Steinbeck carried around in his mind.

(A Penguin Classic paperback edition of The Short Reign of Pippin IV is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, January 24, 2011


Bound to Last, Sean Manning, editor, DaCapo Press, 2010, 215 pp

 This is the book that led to my first reading project of 2011. I first heard of Bound to Last because of a post on The Millions, where Susan Straight had an essay about the influence of Toni Morrison's Sula. Her words inspired me to read all the Susan Straight novels I'd missed. I sent a comment to Ms Straight and received a nice reply from her publicist pointing me to Bound to Last. It turned out that the post about Sula was excerpted straight from it.

  The subtitle of this collection of essays is 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book. The writers include Chris Abani on Another Country by James Baldwin; Sigrid Nunez on Mythology by Edith Hamilton; Karen Joy Fowler on The Once and Future King by T H White; and many more. I was introduced to Victoria Patterson, whose first novel, This Vacant Paradise comes out in February, 2011. Karen Green, widow of David Foster Wallace, stunned me with her account of living through the first weeks after her husband's death by reading The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel.

 Each essay is a memoir, a book talk, a story about the impact of a book on the writer's life. Cherished books range from The Bible through Les Miserables, The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Merck Manual to The Carpetbaggers and Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon. Almost every one of the thirty is impressive, entertaining or downright moving.

 I got to thinking about what book I would call my most cherished. I decided that I have at least one for every decade of my life. It would make a good writing exercise for any voracious reader who also writes. Beyond being a celebration of the act of reading and of the physical book, as opposed to an ebook, Bound to Last summons readers to remember the books that influenced or even changed the trajectory of their lives.

 What is your most cherished book?

(Bound to Last is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Take One Candle Light A Room, Susan Straight, Pantheon Books, 2010, 320 pp

Day Five: Susan Straight Week

 Now I have come to the end of reading Susan Straight, at least for now. This is her most recent novel, just released in October, 2010, but I am pretty sure she has not come to the end of her stories yet.

  Take One Candle Light A Room is almost a sequel to A Million Nightingales. The main character  is known as FX when she is out in the world publishing her pieces in travel magazines. At home in Rio Seco, she is Fantine, named after an ancestor who lived with Moinette in Louisiana. The Antoine family, living amidst the orange groves of southern California, knows their history all the way back to Moinette's mother, especially because many of that slave woman's descendants are of mixed race, due to the history of rape perpetrated on black women by white men.

 FX is light-skinned enough herself to pass as Italian or Hawaiian. She is the one, as there often is in Susan Straight's novels, who is different from the rest of her family. She is the one who left and whom her mother and sisters will never forgive for doing so.

 When this complicated woman returns home to participate in the fifth anniversary remembrance of the murder of Glorette, the best friend of her childhood, she finds that Glorette's son Victor has disappeared. FX has no children of her own. She doesn't even have a boyfriend but Victor is her godson and means more to her than anyone else in the world. He'd been riding with two gangsta friends that weekend and involved in a shooting which left one person dead and one wounded.

 So begins a desperate hunt for Victor, taking Fantine and her father across the country on Interstate 10 all the way to New Orleans. As Fantine wrestles with her professional aspirations set against her love for Victor, the long history of more than eight generations of this family comes to light. 

 Over three hundred pages of road trip, tension and suspense was excruciating. The wonder is that the author could sustain it through about nine hours of reading. That level of anxiety and stress is usually only found in two hours of an action/thriller film. A further wonder is her explication of why race, violence and drugs plague so many young Americans.

 Susan Straight never preaches, her tone is never strident and she refrains from cheap emotional tricks. Once again she put me into the lives of the characters, their homes and cars and neighborhoods, as well as into their hearts and minds. She just tells the story but reading it is as close as one can come to living someone else's life. And yet, every book is different from the last. What a great reading adventure I have had. I recommend it!

(Take One Candle Light A Room is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011


A Million Nightingales, Susan Straight, Pantheon Books, 2006, 333 pp

Part Four: Susan Straight Week

 In A Million Nightingales, her fifth novel, Susan Straight achieves parity with the writing that made Toni Morrison one of my top three most admired novelists: a perfect amalgam of intelligence, empathy and artistry.

 This novel is a slave story, and like the Civil War, World War II, the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, it takes hundreds, maybe thousands of stories to encompass these huge, life altering events. Fiction, biography, memoir, as well as history books are all required to bring the tales of individual human beings, locations and the legacies of the past forward to people who live now.

 Through Moinette, daughter of a Louisiana slave and a white sugarcane planter, we get an entire society and socio-economic world set in a discreet location. Susan Straight has said that she combined the stories of slave ancestors told by her in-laws with extensive research. By sheer artistic genius she transmuted it all into the life of Moinette and created a woman whose experiences made her a strong survivor.

 It is a horrific tale but left me with huge love and admiration for Moinette, who was a "cadeau-fille" or "gift girl", because her mother, Marie-Therese was gifted to a visiting white planter for an evening's entertainment. Various characters present gifts to Moinette, in the form of education, protection and funds which enable her to survive. Cephaline, the rebellious daughter of Moinette's first master, who lived only to study, read and write, passed on the skill of reading to Moinette. Between Marie-Therese and Cephaline, though their words and teaching differed, Moinette worked out the basics of survival for a mixed-blood slave woman.

 As in all of Ms Straight's novels, motherhood is a strong factor, as is a love of language and an implacable urge for freedom. She makes it clear that personal freedom is attained and maintained through strength, intelligence, extreme wariness and plenty of luck. Even with all of those elements in place in any individual, there are absolutely no guarantees because human beings are also capable of depths of weakness, stupidity and unawareness. Furthermore, life is random including weather and dangerous environments. These are the lessons and realities of Moinette's life.

 One of the great benefits of reading an author's novels from earliest to most recent is seeing the development of the author herself. I see A Million Nightingales as Susan Straight's finest, most powerful novel. In answer to the question of what she wanted readers to take away she says, "I'd like them to take away a few hours of having lived like someone else." I have taken that from all of her novels so far, but more than ever in this one.

(A Million Nightingales, along with the other Susan Straight novels reviewed this week, will soon be available at Once Upon A Time Bookstore in paperback. You can also order them by email.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Highwire Moon, Susan Straight, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, 305 pp

Part 3: Susan Straight Week

I read Highwire Moon back in 2008, so it was not part of my recent Straight marathon. It is her fourth novel and different in that the characters are mostly Mexican and white, though it takes place in Rio Seco. Now that I have read all of her novels in order, I notice that Ms Straight began writing in a somewhat new and modified style in Highwire Moon; less words, more imagery and, in my opinion, more Toni Morrison-like.

Here is my posted review of Highwire Moon from July, 2008.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


The Gettin Place, Susan Straight, Hyperion, 1996, 488 pp

Part Two: Susan Straight Week

 The theme of Susan Straight's third novel is racial violence. In Treetown on the northern edge of Straight's fictional Rio Seco, the Thompson family lives in clannish isolation, running their car towing and repair business from within chain link fencing. As the LA riots break out after the acquittal of Rodney King's attackers, violence also breaks out in Rio Seco. The Thompsons are subjected to a string of incidents beginning on the night two white women burn to death in a car abandoned on their property. 

  Hosea Thompson, the patriarch, was himself chased out of Tulsa, OK, after his father was killed in a violent attack on the ghetto where Hosea had grown up decades ago. He is a proud, hardened man with no trust in white people, law enforcement or government. He is also a wily one, well versed in the treacherous ways of the white race, who keeps his own counsel and depends on his sons for backup and moral support. 

 Marcus Thompson, the youngest son, nicknamed Sissyfly as he grew up, is literate and more open to all peoples. He is a school teacher, lives in downtown Rio Seco and possesses a sense of ease with whites, Mexicans and Asians which his father and brothers find incomprehensible, if not downright foolish. Marcus finally becomes of use to his family as his ability to negotiate with the white world helps them hang on to their land and livelihood. 

 The Rodney King riots, as they are called in Los Angeles, were about the first thing that happened when I moved here and started a new job in Pasadena in January, 1992. Black youths streamed down Colorado Blvd from their neighborhoods in Altadena, breaking the plate glass windows in the front of the building where I worked. Though I had lived in Ann Arbor, MI, around the time of the Detroit riots, I had never been that close to mass violence. I found out that I had no concept of how frightening it actually is. Which means I had no concept of how close to violence, attack and potential annihilation most Black people live. Black fathers raise their sons to be as tough as possible and the mothers protect their daughters ferociously while they fear for their sons. The complications in their lives are myriad and the losses of children, spouses, property and finance are beyond what most Americans have to face. 

 The "gettin place" is slang for where your people, your loving, your security and just about anything else you might need as a Black person can be found. This story of a family clan's implacable will had me so mesmerised that the last few days of 2010 were obliterated for me. The novel is dense and thick, with the mystery of who wants the Thompson's land running through it. The histories of Hosea Thompson, his brother Oscar, his half-Mexican wife, their missing daughter, and the fates of their sons are wound together like the vines that cover the chain link fence around their property.

 I came away with a new respect for the use of force and a renewed appreciation of the need for reason in human relationships. A combination of the two wins the day in The Gettin Place.

(Susan Straight's novels will be available in paperback in the next few days at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. You can also place a special order by email.)

Monday, January 17, 2011


Blacker Than A Thousand Midnights, Susan Straight, Hyperion, 1994, 388 pp

 Part One: Susan Straight Week

 [After Christmas, I resolved to reward myself for a good year of reading which included research, books read for professional reviewing and reading groups, as well as plenty of pleasure reading. I was going to take a week and read the four Susan Straight novels I had not yet read. In actuality it took me two and a half weeks but it was so fine to immerse myself in an author's work and bring myself from early to present. I have now read all of her novels. This week I will post about one of them each day.]

 There are certain novelists, mostly women but some men as well, whose theme is the power and strength of family. Susan Straight embraces this with the underlying theme of the effect of racism on the American family. In 1995 I read her first novel, I've Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, published in 1993. Being a musician, I picked the book for its title, which sounded like a blues song, but I knew nothing about the author. I was struck by the intense truths she wove into a story of a single African American mother who raised her two sons with care, giving them the skills and moral character needed to survive the violence and fractured nature of black urban life.

 I could not figure out how a white woman from Southern California could write with such insight and authority about Black people. Later of course, I learned that she had married a Black man from her hometown of Riverside, CA. She lived surrounded by Black culture while they had three daughters. Susan and that man later divorced but remained friends. Their daughters have been raised amidst the extended families of both parents.

 This author likes numbers (Blacker Than A Thousand Midnights, A Million Nightingales.) She creates the surroundings of her stories by taking the reader through the same streets, over and over; by following the dawns, mornings, afternoons, sundowns and nights of consecutive days. She has an uncanny ability to put you inside the skin and minds of characters whether they are Black, White, Mexican or Asian, until you finally stop seeing these characters through your own racial, economic and experiential framework but somehow enter each one's consciousness. Her pace is leisurely even when events of great moment are taking place.

 Blacker Than A Thousand Midnights begins with Darnell Tucker on the cusp of adulthood. When he returns from a season of fighting fires in the mountains surrounding Rio Seco, he finds his girlfriend pregnant and wants to do right by her, but lacking any prospects he feels deeply insecure about beginning the straight and narrow life of a family man. (Rio Seco is Straight's imaginary town based on Riverside. All of her fiction is anchored there, much like William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.) It doesn't help Darnell that his future wife is pathologically afraid of the fires he loves to fight or that his friends jeer at his pussywhipped status.

 Rio Seco is booming with the gated housing communities mushrooming in the hills surrounding widened freeways and filling up with escapees from Los Angeles. In the Black and Mexican neighborhoods drugs, rap music and shiftless youth live side by side with the gardeners, domestic workers, auto repairmen and shopkeepers. Tensions run high in sprawling webs of interactions between so many racial and economic differences.

 Darnell struggles with and weaves through all of it as he develops his sense of self and builds a business caring for the lawns of the new upscale citizens. His parents, relatives and life-long friends are sources of strength but also of annoyance and temptation while the lure of the fires with their beauty and violence threaten to tear him away.

 I was impressed by the way Straight traces Darnell's development as a father and husband. While he is no exemplary model of parenthood, he has plenty of heart and a sense of humor. The story deepens the themes and issues of I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen, being the next stage of life for boys raised in the hood of Rio Seco. By the end, Susan Straight had once again put her spell on me.

(Once Upon A Time Bookstore will soon have all of Susan Straight's novels on the "Books You Have Always Wanted to Read" shelves. You can also order them in paperback.)

Sunday, January 16, 2011


The Dreamer, Pam Munoz Ryan, Scholastic Press, 2010, 370 pp
 (Ages 10-14)

 I have a confession to make. I do not read poetry. I know that sounds odd for someone who has written song lyrics for many years, but there you have it. Somewhere along the way, I got addicted to STORY and I get that from novels more than from poems. If the Adult Reading Group at Once Upon A Time had not chosen The Dreamer for its December read, I would probably not have read it. A fictional retelling of events in the life of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was not really my cup of tea. (Actually I don't drink tea either. I am a coffee drinker.)

  Pam Munos Ryan is a wonderful writer and a poet herself. Many of her picture books feature her poetry as the text. Esperanza Rising, given to me by an eleven year old student I was tutoring in math, was one of the best books I read in 2003. Ms Ryan has so much empathy for her characters and writes with so much heart that she made me love a poet, if not the reading of poetry.

 She tells the story of Neruda's life in a dreamy poetic tone, bringing the images of his surroundings into my mind with her words alone. Accompanying illustrations by Peter Sis compliment her words so perfectly that she must have communicated those images to him as well. 

 As a child, Neruda, whose real name was Neftali Reyes, was frail but filled with fascination about the natural world and possessed of a vivid imagination. He suffered his father's displeasure because he was not a tough energetic boy and had no aspirations to go into business or medicine as his father hoped. Here is another story about a naturally born artistic soul finding himself in a harsh materialistic world. 

 Around the age of 12, Neftali began to assist his uncle who owned and published a small local newspaper. Uncle Orlando also believed in supporting the rights of Chile's native Napuche population, giving Neftali a life-long passion for human rights.

 Before I review books for children, I like to find out what young readers think about them. One of my most trusted sources is a a fifth grader named Laura who has read all of the Newbery winners and much more. She blogs about her reading at Laura's Life. She is a poetry lover and reader and gave The Dreamer a rave review. 

 My opinion is that the book would work for children who already like poetry. It is also a great story about a child who triumphed despite cruelty and misunderstanding from his father. I can imagine it as a book to be read aloud by parents or teachers or even as a good reference for introducing kids to poetry. Thanks to Ms Ryan's writing, I am considering having another go at poetry. 

(The Dreamer is available in hardcover on the shelves for readers 8-12 at Once Upon a Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, January 15, 2011


The Sandcastle, Iris Murdoch, The Viking Press, 1957, 342 pp

 Interesting story for Murdoch. Mor is a teacher and housemaster at St Bride's school. His wife Nan is a carping, controlling woman who has beaten her husband down with a superior attitude. They have a teenage son who attends St Bride's and a pubescent daughter at another private school. Because I have read Harry Potter, I am familiar with this English school scene.

  A young female painter arrives at St Bride's where she has been commissioned to paint the portrait  of the former headmaster. Mor falls in love with her, wants to throw away his marriage, and Nan must find a way to hold on to him. Because this is Iris Murdoch, there are plenty of hilarious, silly, and nail-biting scenes. 

 I hadn't quite noticed this before in her novels, but I see it now. Murdoch is no feminist. She is as hard on her female characters as she is on the men. She finds the absurdity in any human endeavor and tromps hard. But she also makes it clear how dearly we all hold to our purposes and our ways of life.

 I am just blundering along in my reading of mid twentieth century English literature by women and so just beginning to glimpse what is going on. The major similarity I see between them (Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Doris Lessing, etc.) is a dedicated attempt to use intellect and philosophy as a means of going more deeply into human relations. To my thinking, that is a worthy aim.

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

Friday, January 14, 2011


Raising Demons, Shirley Jackson, Farrar Straus and Cudahy, 1957, 310 pp

 Shirley Jackson's follow-up to Life Among the Savages covers the middle years of her children's lives. I loved every page. She is a consummate writer. The family moves to a larger home, acquires more cats and dogs, while Shirley learns the mixed emotions that come with being a faculty wife.

 Once again I was amazed  at the amount of humor and true affection for children that she brought to this further account of her family life. It is such a contrast to her spooky novels and the troubled characters she created for them.

 Though I only had two children our house was always full of neighborhood kids. I also ran a daycare for a while. So I was right at home with the barely controlled chaos she describes. Her four children are as precocious as ever and she brings their characters to full life, especially in the way she has recorded their speech.

 A huge amount of sheer energy propels this book. I got the sense of a woman driving a run-away buggy, just barely hanging on, who can only laugh at the crazy life she is having. Singlehandedly, she created a whole genre carried on by Jean Kerr and Erma Brombeck, not to mention Ayelet Waldman.

 The final chapter is an account of their family Christmas: the hiding of gifts, the last minute special mail order, the decorating of the tree and the joy of the kids. It was so moving that I wanted to start a family all over again. Parenthood is possibly one of the hardest jobs in life and while Ms Jackson had as hard a time as any mother, I salute her for capturing the frustrations, rewards and humor of it all.

(Sadly, Raising Demons is out of print. I found it at my local library. It is also available at Powells.)

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov, Doubleday, 1957, 191 pp

 Professor Timofey Pnin is a Russian immigrant who came to America via Europe, particularly Paris, and in this account is teaching Russian at small Waindell College in New England. This short novel is more a collection of stories about Pnin. Nabakov puts the reader into the mind and heart of a man who has lost much but continues on in his sometimes endearing, sometimes ridiculous way. 

  I found the book easy to read, unlike some of Nabokov's other novels, and I wanted always to know more about Pnin, what happened to his sad and crazy wife, how he would get along with the artistic genius who is his son. By the end when Pnin suffers yet another blow in his tortured life, I felt I had been living with these characters at Waindell College. I could have gone to the party Pnin hosted at one of his many dwellings and got on just fine.

 The wonder of Nabokov is how he can capture so much in so few words. It is like taking dried foods and adding water to reconstitute all the richness and flavor. Just add a reader and out of the book comes so much experience, location, character and emotion.

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

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Papa, You're Crazy, William Saroyan, Little Brown and Company, 1957, 165 pp

 A man who is a writer and his son Aram, who is ten years old, hang out together at the father's beach shack. The father gives his son tips about life and about how to become a writer. This man is divorced from Aram's mother and the son, who had been living with his mother and sister, asked to go live with his father for a week.

  In another of his short autobiographical novels, Saroyan charmed me, as he always does. I liked the talks they had, the foods they prepared and ate together, such as "writer's rice" made from rice mixed with whatever else is in the cupboard or refrigerator. I liked the road trip they made to San Francisco. Saroyan's succinct lessons on how to become a writer were the best parts of all.

(Papa You're Crazy is out of print. I found it at my local library. It may also be in some of the many collections of Saroyan's writings.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind Little Women, Harriet Reisen, Henry Holt and Company, 2009, 302 pp

 After a slow start, this biography of Louisa May Alcott became great. Her early life was comparable to the childhoods of hippie kids from the 1960s and 1970s. The family moved constantly, were always broke and in debt to friends and extended family. Mr Alcott was a dreamer, impractical and chronically unable to make a living. He started several schools but they all failed as the Puritan families of the day found his methods much too progressive. Alcott's educational ideas reminded me of Summerhill by A S Neill and the ideas I had about schools back in my twenties.

  Harriet Reisen clearly loved her subject. Her excellent research and wonderful writing brought Louisa May to life for me. She was an intrepid woman and determined to take on the role of providing for her family through her writing. She wrote in many genres before Little Women, lurid sensational tales for magazines, as she trained herself to write for money. But it was Little Women that made her famous and rich.

 The second half of the book flew by like a pageturner. Louisa's conflicts between caring for her parents and sisters while craving personal freedom touched me deeply. Though she never married, she had all the responsibilities of a mother, wife, sister and breadwinner without the passion or love of a man. Reisen describes her relationships with Emerson, Thoreau and many of the Transcendentalists, but the relationship with her mother was the most interesting to me.

 This is truly a woman's book for strong, independent, artistic women. It will hold up as a definitive biography of the woman who gave me one of my favorite childhood books.

(Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind Little Women is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, January 07, 2011


Revamp Camp, Alice Zogg, Aventine Press, 2010, 220 pp

 I have been remiss in not posting a review of Alice Zogg's latest mystery, released in Fall, 2010. Alice is a good friend of mine and I have read and reviewed all but the first of her six previous books. There lies the problem because what does a reviewer and blogger do when she is less than thrilled by her friend's latest book?

  I have long admired Alice for her decision to bypass the whole publishing world in favor of enjoying the writing process without the stress of the traditional publishing world. She took up writing late in life and has a great deal of fun with it. Her strongest suit is plotting and she keeps that up in Revamp Camp. In subject matter she has broadened her scope considerably by taking on the world of a rehab facility for troubled teens including methods of therapy and questions of drug therapy to treat drug abuse. Her earlier books have been strong on vivid descriptions of the surroundings where the stories take place and in Revamp Camp she has taken this to a positively cinematic quality.

 However I feel she may have stepped too far out of her zone or that she failed to do enough homework. The teen characters in the story and their dialogue show that the author has not spent much time with teens or listened to the ways they actually talk, both to each other and to adults. These characters are simply not believable and fail to come alive on the page. I was also unconvinced by the descriptions of Revamp Camp itself as a youth facility and the activities that went on there. After all, it is set in Solvang, CA and must have had to follow certain mental health standards. Perhaps her point is that some private rehab centers get away with gross improprieties but then that should have been included in the plot.

 I met with Alice for lunch the other day, expressed my concerns, and got her blessing to write my review though it would not be wholly positive. I am happy to report that we are still friends! Whew. That was tough.

(Because she is a local author and the store never fails to support our local talent, Revamp Camp is available in paperback on the Mystery shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, January 06, 2011


Palace of Desire, Naguib Mahfouz, Doubleday, 1957, (US translation 1991), 422 pp

 In the second volume of his Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk is the first), Naguib Mahfouz continues the story of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family. All but one of his four children are now grown, married and living outside the home. There are in-laws and grandchildren, but they are all still very close and visit each other often. Egypt has not yet achieved independence from Great Britain but is moving through changes of political leaders and their perfidies.

  I found this volume easier to read because this time I knew all the characters. Also the rate of change in each of their lives seemed to increase giving more impetus to the narrative. Al-Sayyid is still, at least in his own mind, the rigid, feared patriarch of the family, but in his other life of debauchery and women, he suffers setbacks due to his increasing age and decreasing health. He continues to take his long suffering wife for granted, to excuse his eldest son's despicable behavior and to torment his youngest son Kamal, whose idealism and innocence are incomprehensible to almost everyone.

 I came to see more clearly the literary feat that Mahfouz pulled off in the trilogy. Imagine a trilogy of American novels that followed a family from 1900 to the middle of the 20th century, with all of the social and political changes. I am sure there are several examples of such, usually centered around a great American city. In the Cairo Trilogy, Mahfouz is creating an awareness of his country as it moved into the modern world.

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

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh, Little Brown and Company, 1957, 232 pp

 This book falls into my personal category of odd stories. Gilbert Pinfold is an English novelist, a sort of country gentleman whose wife does the farming. He is more than a bit of a stodgy fellow. His middle-aged body is giving him trouble, causing insomnia with twinges of rheumatism. He adds some large drab pills prescribed by his doctor, as well as sleeping powders provided by his druggist to his usual generous consumption of alcohol. We thought self-medicating was a recent phenomenon?

  Soon enough Pinfold is majorly hallucinating, hearing voices and suffering from deep paranoia. As a cure he decides on a sea voyage, during which he plans to complete his latest novel. But his troubles only magnify at sea. There follow a series of  ridiculous incidents which have a slight Kafka flavor mixed with images from an LSD trip gone very wrong.

 My father would have called this a shaggy dog story. It is one of my least favorite types of story to read. But Evelyn Waugh can't help being humorous and the book is short. I made it through and so did Gilbert Pinfold. (Odd coincidence: Also in 1957 Muriel Spark published The Comforters, in which a novelist heard voices.)

(The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, January 01, 2011


2010 was a great reading year for me. I started out with a resolution to read more books in a year than I ever had before and I did it! I read 160 books. Last year I found a blog by a woman who read a book a day for an entire year. I wish! Maybe someday. 

 I completed the reading lists for 1957 and 1958 as part of My Big Fat Reading Project. I am excited that in 2011 I will move into the 1960s.

 I wrote 10 paid reviews for

 I made lots of new reading friends in real life and on the internet and Keep The Wisdom had more hits than any earlier year.

 So without any more bragging or boring statistics, here is my list of the best books I read this year:

  •  Little Big,  John Crowley
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski
  • The Small Rain, Madeleine L'Engle
  • Darwin's Children, Greg Bear
  • 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, Rebecca Goldstein
  • Paradise of the Blind, Duong Thu Huong
  • Rebel Yell, Alice Randall
  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon
  • Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat
  • The Surrendered, Chang-rae Lee
  • The Long Song, Andrea Levy
  • Rat, Fernanda Eberstadt
  • Telex From Cuba, Rachel Kushner
  • The Furies, Fernanda Eberstadt
  • The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Rock Paper Tiger, Lisa Brackman
  • The Winthrop Woman, Anya Seton
  • Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon
  • The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall
  • In the Woods, Tana French
  • Room, Emma Donoghue
  • The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouc
  • My Hollywood, Mona Simpson
  • The Snakewoman of Little Egypt, Robert Hellenga
  • Just Kids, Patti Smith 

I hope your reading for the year was as enjoyable as mine and wish you a fantastic year of reading in 2011. Thanks so much to all who visit and read the blog and an extra special thanks to those who leave comments.