Monday, February 28, 2011


Around the World With Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1958, 336 pp

 The most interesting thing about the #4 bestseller of 1958 is its publishing history. The original manuscript included a chapter, "Auntie Mame and Mother Russia." which was not in the 1958 edition. Due to the recent Senator McCarthy and his communist witch hunt, Harcourt Brace deemed the chapter too controversial. The missing episode was found years later by the author's widow and finally included in a 1990 reprint.

  That leads to the second interesting feature of this book. It is much funnier, more satirical, and a superior read to Auntie Mame, the 1955 bestseller, which I disliked as a formulaic and silly piece of fluff.

 In Around the World With Auntie Mame, the fabulously rich, sexy and irrepressible woman travels to Paris, Venice, Germany, Iraq and Russia. Patrick Dennis uses the wacky encounters of Mame to satirize everything and everyone, but especially Americans and British who live in other countries. He makes intelligent fun of the pre-WWII politics and conditions in these countries, where Mame gets embroiled in everything from matchmaking between a Christian girl and a Jewish boy to funding a communal enterprise in Russia.

 I gained more respect for the author and now thank him for an educational romp. How prescient of him to put Mame in Iraq and have her barely escaping arms dealers in the China Sea.

(Around the World With Auntie Mame is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, February 27, 2011


The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan, Disney-Hyperion, 2005, 375 pp

 When I found out that my twelve-year-old granddaughter was reading and liking this book, I decided to read it also so we could discuss. I liked it too. But it kept reminding me of Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

 Percy Jackson, (the book is the first in a series called Percy Jackson and the Olympians) is the son of Poseidon and a mortal woman. He has problems (ADHD, a temper, a missing dad, a disgusting step-father) and he has been expelled from numerous private schools. Forget about public school.

  The summer he goes to Camp Half-Blood, he learns for the first time who he really is and gets sent on a quest to recover the lightning bolt of Zeus. Non-stop action, lots of funny bits, kids having to figure out things for themselves; all make it an entertaining story and I can see why it has sold gazillions, also why reluctant readers and especially boys like it.

 Riodan has cleverly combined all the elements. Camp Half-Blood is Percy's Hogwarts. He has his half-blood friends, each of whom has a Greek god or goddess for one parent. The quest. A boy wanting to please and get recognition from his absent father. Hell is entered through Los Angeles, Mt Olympus via a skyscraper in Manhattan. A Las Vegas amusement park/hotel is a locale where kids never want to leave and lose all track of time. 

 Despite all the "borrowing" this is a great way to introduce kids to mythology and is much more fun to read than The Golden Fleece.

(The Lightning Thief is available on the kid's sci-fi/fantasy shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, February 25, 2011


Mr Toppit, Charles Elton, Other Press, 2010, 388 pp

 While Mr Toppit turned out to be a pretty good read, the novel suffers from an identity crisis, as do its various characters. Charles Eton has combined fantasy, coming-of-age, the publishing business, celebrity, and dysfunctional family in an uneasy stew that occasionally induces queasiness in the reader.

 His main theme is the psychic damage caused to a child who was used as a main character in his father's series of fantasy books. Collateral damage is inflicted on the boy's sister, who was NOT in the books. The result is that Luke spends his life hiding from relationships and trying to avoid the limelight, while his sister Rachel spends her life trying to be noticed.

 After the death of the father, through a series of random events, fame and fortune come to this unfortunate family. The fallout is at once hilarious and tragic. A whole collection of quirky characters, both real and imagined, representing the elements of our celebrity culture, keep the story moving.

 There are flashes of all the elements of good fiction--plot, character, social commentary, angst, etc. It just does not mesh until the last twenty pages or so. By the end I felt fairly satisfied but also relieved that it was over.

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

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov, Alfred A Knopf, 1958, 327 pp

 In 2004, I was slogging through the opening pages of Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, feeling hopelessly adrift and factually, bored. I wasn't all that sophisticated a reader seven years ago but I was trying like mad to become one. As a way to get through Nafisi's book, vaguely suspecting that I could learn a few things, I devised the plan to read all four books discussed and then return to the memoir.  It was a wise decision which led me to read books I might otherwise still not have read: The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, Daisy Miller and of course Lolita. Oddly enough, none of these books turned out to be favorites of mine, but I got an education in literature that I somehow did not get in my Princeton, NJ college prep high school track, nor in two years of college literature classes.

 For my readers here who have not read Reading Lolita in Tehran, it is a somewhat dry but none the less fascinating  account of a group of Iranian women who met secretly to read forbidden literature in the repressive days under the Ayatollah. They approached these books with the aim of understanding the oppression they were under and to breathe the fresh air of freedom from Western literature.

 For my readers who have not read Lolita (and I don't necessarily recommend that you do, but more about that later), Humboldt is a perverted middle-aged European man living in America. He has a thing for pre-pubescent girls. Lolita is twelve when the story opens. H H has married Lolita's mother with the main purpose of getting to Lolita. When the mother dies, Humboldt seduces Lolita. He then keeps her secretly captive as his sex slave, using fear and bribery.

 They travel around the United States for a year, giving Nabokov an opportunity to make mockery of cheap motels, tourist attractions, and middle class Americans. It is deadly satire at its best. Lolita finally escapes H H, but unlike other books about preyed upon teenage girls, the reader does not get Lolita's inner world except as perceived by Humboldt.  

 So I could see how the theme of the book is about suppressor and suppressed, how that extrapolates to totalitarian regimes and authoritarian systems, one of Nabokov's concerns. I could appreciate the excellent writing, the satire, even the excruciatingly drawn out seduction of Lolita for how well it was excruciatingly drawn out. But bottom line, I found it a creepy, eerie book. If you are female and were ever subject to inappropriate advances (or worse) from an older man, just be warned that you will experience uncomfortable hours while reading Lolita. If you are male and have ever contemplated or indulged in such behavior, you should be forced to read it. If you are male or female and have teenage daughters, just go on reading the news but don't read Lolita until they make it safely to adulthood.

 You can read all about the rocky early years of Nabokov's book on the internet but when the first American edition was published by Knopf in 1958 it became an instant bestseller and ended the year as the #3 top selling novel. If you think I am weirdly prudish or have entirely missed the point of Lolita, you can let me have it in the comments. For now, that's my story and I am sticking to it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Child of My Heart, Alice McDermott, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2002, 242 pp

 I have been aware of Alice McDermott for several years but this is the first of her novels I've read. It is her fifth novel out of seven and I was entranced by it.

  Theresa is an only child with older parents, who have moved from Queens to the smallest house in an upscale vacation town on the eastern end of Long Island. The parents decided to raise their daughter among the rich in the hopes that she will make a good marriage and improve her lot in the world. That, to me, is such an Irish feudal concept, somehow tragically innocent in modern times.

 The entire story in Child of My Heart is tragically innocent. Theresa is a beautiful, whimsical, well-read fifteen year old, the most sought after babysitter in the town. She also cares for people's cats and dogs, while keeping her eye on the hapless children next door. Both parents work long hours so Theresa has a cultivated self sufficiency. Her ability and propensity to care for creatures younger and smaller than herself is almost scary.

 Enter eight year old cousin Daisy, come to spend the summer, second to last child in a blue-collar family of eight children, strangely fragile and pale with mysterious bruises on her body. Along with four dogs, three cats, the five neighborhood dead end kids and Flora, toddler of a local artist, Theresa takes Daisy under her wing intending to give her a special, magical summer.

 I fell into complete sympathy with Theresa. With several glaring differences, I was like her when I was a pre-teen. I had two younger sisters, I was the oldest kid in my neighborhood, and I felt like the fairy godmother of all these kids. I fancied that I had a secret insight into their souls because I was more close to them than their mothers.

 As Theresa makes her daily rounds of pet care and baby sitting, with Daisy in tow, we see the various more or less dysfunctional rich summer people through Theresa's penetrating mind. Despite her ability to make children and animals happy, Theresa is self-absorbed and ignorant as only a young teen can be.

 I felt as protective of Theresa as she felt for Daisy. Helplessly impotent as the reader, I watched her move inexorably into emotional and physical danger, wanting to shout, "No! Don't go there!" But of course she does and tragedy strikes. Then, as is also so true of those tender years, she emerges fairly unscathed, protected by the very self-absorption that drives adults crazy.

 Child of My Heart was to me a thing of wonder written with the verve and grace of an Irish ballad by a woman who did not forget what it was like to be fifteen in the relatively safer world of about thirty years ago.

(Child of My Heart is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, February 21, 2011


Cotton in My Sack, Lois Lenski, J B Lippincott Company, 1949, 191 pp

 This is the sixth book in Lois Lenski's American Regional Series. I missed it when reading the list of books from 1949, so I am adding it now. I also missed posting The Family Read yesterday, but since today is a school holiday, I am getting away with it!

 Joanda's family are white share croppers in the cotton fields of Louisiana. The cotton grows almost right up to the walls of their tiny shack. To keep their lives going, the whole family picks cotton or helps in some way appropriate to their size and age. In this story whites, blacks, adults and children labor side by side and mostly in harmony. 

 The family subsists on money borrowed from the boss man, which they call "furnish." When the crop comes in they get paid, minus the money they have already borrowed. Usually by the time winter is over, they have run out of food and coal so must live on biscuits and beans, but it is the time when the children can go to school. During the growing season, when they do have money, the best day of the week is Saturday which they spend in town shopping.

 As is usual in Lois Lenski's books, the Hutley family is the one that breaks out of this cycle of poverty and makes a better life due to hard work and a good bit of luck. The life of this family comes alive on the pages and in the illustrations. Joanda, though plucky and smart, has her share of worries and unfortunate events which she has to deal with by herself. Her father is always busy and her mother is overworked and in ill health, so Joanda also keeps watch over her baby sister, whom she loves to death.

 My favorite book in the American Regional Series is Strawberry Girl, which won the Newbery Award. I don't remember reading Cotton in My Sack as a child but reading it now, I liked it just as well as Strawberry Girl. These days any kid can find out about the lives of other kids around the country and the world on television and the internet, so I like to think of Lois Lenski as a writer who had the vision to get this information out to children all on her own through books alone. It was an amazing feat on her part.

(Cotton in My Sack is out of print but can be found in the children's section of local libraries and from used booksellers.)

Friday, February 18, 2011


Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver, St Martin's Press, 1958, 437 pp

 At #2 on the 1958 bestseller list is this story of a murder and trial, set in a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The legal thriller has become a staple in current fiction but was a fairly new genre in the 1950s. Compulsion, a 1957 bestseller by Meyer Levin was the beginning, but Levin had a journalism background while Robert Traver had been a practicing lawyer and judge.

  The writing is clunky and wordy but Traver goes quite extensively into all aspects of preparing a case, selecting a jury, and the differences between the approach of a prosecuting attorney versus a defense attorney. He also manages to make what I consider a dry subject interesting.

 The murderer confessed to his crime and turned himself in on the night of the murder, so our hero, former DA Paul Beigler, plans his defense around a variation of the insanity plea. The reader gets instructed along with the judge and jury, on the workings of such a plea.

 Because of some intriguing side stories about the murderer, his wife and the victim; because a rape preceded the murder; because the setting is integral to the plot, it was all in all a satisfying read. I could see the "surprise" ending coming but the tension of the trial was good and taut. 

 An Otto Preminger movie from 1959 with James Stewart and Lee Remick features Duke Ellington as the piano player in the bar and includes some of his tunes. 

 Another piece of the puzzle regarding fiction in America falls into place for me.

(Anatomy of a Murder is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


West of Here, Jonathan Evison, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011, 484 pp

 I was blown away by Jonathan Evison's first novel, All About Lulu and have been eagerly awaiting this new one. While it is a long stretch from a coming of age story to historical fiction, the aspects of Evison's writing that so impressed me are still present in West of Here, expanded and honed even further.

  West of Here is a mashup of historical novel and contemporary angst set in the Olympic Peninsula just southwest of Seattle, WA. In November, 1889, James Mather sets out to conquer the last frontier of the Washington Territory. He is a 34-year-old Arctic explorer and Indian fighter with an addiction to danger and a compulsion to be the first explorer in any virgin land he enters. It will be the worst winter in the recorded history of Washington.

 Other characters from the 1890s include Miss Eva Lambert, a feisty feminist from Chicago, who lives in a utopian community on the peninsula, determined to make her way as a journalist. Ethan Thornburgh, the father of Eva's unborn child, has followed Eva from Chicago, desperate to marry her and to prove to his wealthy father that he is not a loser. He will become famous for building a dam on the main river and bringing electricity to the frontier town of Port Bonita.

 Meanwhile, the Klallam Indian tribe suffers the depredations of the white man, losing their lands and falling under the influence of alcohol. The local tavern proprietor provides the alcohol, his chief whore Gertie befriends Eva and a lowly census taker attempts to bring justice to the natives.

 A wealth of characters, incident, and intrigue make for a somewhat confusing read at first. To complicate matters further, Evison begins to interweave events from 2006 with characters who turn out to be descendants of the folks from 1890. The reader is required to be something of an explorer as well, with little help from the author, making her own discoveries as she reads. I was thoroughly lost at times, having to check back, comparing dates and names and locations, and trying to decipher the map provided. I even got out my road atlas and studied the Olympic Peninsula, of which I had been previously unaware.

 This lost in the wilderness feeling will probably upset some readers and is a big authorial risk, but Evison pulls it off. His writing is robust but terse. He gets right to the kernels of basic personality in each character but adds layers of complexity that bring each person alive. Suddenly I became sympathetic to them all and lived their lives with them. The frontier life, the challenges of weather and wilderness, the tackiness of a modern dying town, all stand out in broad strokes of description with just enough detail.

 What I like best about Evison's writing is a dry humor that reminds me of T C Boyle and Michael Chabon. This is historical fiction written in a completely fresh and contemporary style; an approach that ties the present realities of our great but truthfully young country to attributes of our pioneer days. It speaks of consequences without moralizing. 

 I happened to visit Seattle a week after finishing West of Here. I kept glimpsing the deeper layer of the past through the forests, the industrial parks, and the gentrified neighborhoods. Jonathan Evison did that to me.

(West of Here is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, February 14, 2011


Doctor ZhivagoBoris Pasternak, Pantheon Books, 1958, 519 pp

 I couldn't say how many times I have seen the movie, which came out in 1965. I was a senior in high school and it made me a Julie Christie fan for life. At the time, I knew very little about Russian history. We were taught to hate and fear the USSR when I was in high school because it was a Communist country, got into space ahead of us and might annihilate us with atom bombs. I also had no awareness that Boris Pasternak was also a poet and had won the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature. This is the first time I have read the book. It was the #1 bestseller in 1958.

 I have an unexplained deep attraction for Russia and have loved any books by Russian authors or about Russia. I have devoured Russka by Edward Rutherford. Child 44 by Tom Robb Smith was one of the best books I read in 2009. Someday, like every other serious reader, I will read War and Peace. Russia strikes me as a truly unique country and culture, not quite Western, not quite Asian. The only difficulty I have had reading these books is that every character seems to have at least three names.

 What I realized in reading Doctor Zhivago is that it is a recounting of the Russian revolution from the viewpoint of an educated member of the upper classes who was sympathetic to Marxist aims but appalled by the chaos, brutality and stupidity of the post revolution government. Yuri, the main character, is also a poet, a dreamer, and a romantic. 

 All I took away from the movie back in 1965, was the tragic love affair between Yuri and Lara along with the cold, the snow, and those gloves without fingers that Yuri always wore when he was writing. As a matter of fact, the book tells the story much better and it is even more heartbreaking though Yuri is not quite the romantic hero he is in the movie. Then I watched the movie again, understood it much better and despite the Hollywood influence, still loved it.

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

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, The Viking Press, 1950, 116 pp

 When I was in sixth grade, I achieved the distinction of being placed in the "independent" reading group. This meant I no longer had to sit in a circle and read aloud or listen to my classmates read aloud. Best of all, it meant I could choose my own books. Pippi Longstocking was my first pick and I was astonished that I got to read such a cool book in school.

  Pippi was an inspiration to me because she got to live in a house without parents, cook her own meals and clean up when she felt like it. She had had wonderful adventures at sea with her father, was super-strong and had figured out how to talk back to grownups without getting in trouble. Junie B Jones must be a descendant of Pippi, but even Junie always has to learn a lesson. Pippi make sure she teaches the lesson!

 A few months ago I read my way through the Stieg Larsson trilogy about the dragon tattooed girl. Larsson has said that his heroine's personality is loosely based on Pippi. No wonder I liked her so much.

 Reading Pippi Longstocking again fifty years later was just as much fun. I had not realized how much of an influence Pippi has had in my life.

(Pippi Longstocking is available in paperback on the shelves for readers 8-12 at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, February 11, 2011


I have now posted reviews of almost all the books I read from 1957 for My Big Fat Reading Project. In general, the books in this year show a continuation of the change from a long tradition of historical novels, dense and formal writing, a certain stodginess (in my opinion) to lighter, currently relevant stories told in livelier prose with examples of innovation. New authors appearing on the list include Ayn Rand, Muriel Spark, Marion Zimmer Bradley, V S Naipaul and John Barth.

If you know of anyone important that I missed, I would be glad to hear about it.


1.By Love Possessed, James Gould Cozzens
2. Peyton Place, Grace Metalious
3. Compulsion, Meyer Levin
4 .Rally Round the Flag, Boys!, Max Shulman
5. Blue Camellia, Frances Parkinson Keyes
6.  Eloise in Paris, Kay Thompson
7. The Scapegoat, Daphne du Maurier
8. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
9. Below the Salt, Thomas B Costain
10 Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand


1.    PULITZER: none
2.    NBA: The Field of Vision, Wright Morris
3.    NEWBERY: Miracles on Maple Hill, Virginia Sorensen
4.    CALDECOTT: A Tree is Nice, Janice Udry
5.    EDGAR: A Dram of Poison, Charlotte Armstrong
6.    HUGO: None
7.    April Lady, Georgette Heyer
8.    The Assistant, Bernard Malamud
9.    The Bridge at Andau, James A Michener
10.                  Citizen of the Galaxy, Robert Heinlein
11.                  The Comforters, Muriel Spark
12.                  Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury
13.                  A Death in the Family, James Agee
14.                  The Deep Range, Arthur C Clarke
15.                  Deep Water, Patricia Highsmith
16.                  The Door Into Summer, Robert Heinlein
17.                  The Edge of Darkness, Mary Ellen Chase
18.                  Edna St Vincent Millay, Tobey Shafter (biog)
19.                  Falcons of Narabedla, Marion Zimmer Bradley
20.                  The Floating Opera, John Barth
21.                  Giants of Jazz, Studs Terkel
22.                  Houseboat Girl, Lois Lenski
23.                  Justine, Lawrence Durrell
24.                  Loser Takes All, Graham Greene
25.                  Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy
26.                  Mrs Daffodil, Gladys Tabor
27.                  The Mystic Masseur, V S Naipaul
28.                  The Naked Sun, Isaac Asimov
29.                  On the Road, Jack Kerouac
30.                  The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh
31.                  Palace of Desire, Naguib Mafouz
32.                  Papa, You’re Crazy, William Saroyan
33.                  Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov
34.                  Raising Demons, Shirley Jackson
35.                  The Sandcastle, Iris Murdoch
36.                  The Short Reign of Pippin IV, John Steinbeck
37.                  Sugar Street, Naguib Mafouz
38.                  Thunder on the Right, Mary Stewart
39.                  The Town, William Faulkner
40.                  White Man Listen, Richard Wright
41.                  The White Negro, Norman Mailer
42.                  A Winter’s Love, Madeleine L’Engle

Nobel: Albert Camus (French)

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Green Mansions, W H Hudson, Alfred A Knopf, 1916, 275 pp

 Considered W H Hudson's masterpiece and promoted as an exotic romance, Green Mansions lived up to its reputation. An old man, Mr Abel, tells his tale to a close friend. Mr Abel, a Venezuelan, had become embroiled in a political plot to overthrow his government back when he was an unwise young man of twenty-three. The plot was discovered, forcing him to flee for his life. Consequently he spent some years wandering the jungle and living with savages.

  Mr Abel met a mysterious young woman who besides her great beauty, also spoke an unknown language and had a mystical relationship with the flora and fauna of the jungle. Between the bird-girl Rina and Mr Abel, a passionate love grew and though he did everything within his power to bring her happiness, tragedy was the result of their relationship.

 The most amazing aspect of the novel is the telling of the story with not one word of dialogue. It is all description: of the jungle, the natives, the bird-girl and her strange "grandfather," and of the states of mind along with the adventures of Mr Abel. Never have I read a novel in this form that was so compelling. It is full of action, emotion, danger, passion, extreme adventure and continuous suspense, as though the reader were also in the jungle and in the mind of Mr Abel.

 I became aware of Green Mansions years ago and have had a yellowed used paperback on my shelves for almost two decades. Thanks to one of my reading groups, I have read it at last and understand why it appears on so many reading lists. An investment of $2.50 and two evenings of reading time brought me more entertainment than I ever expected.

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

Wednesday, February 09, 2011


A Winter's Love, Madeleine L'Engle, Random House Inc, 1957, 260 pp

In her fourth novel, the one just preceding her breakout, A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle takes a common plot and creates a moving story. Emily is a wife and mother of two daughters. Her husband, Courtney, a Classics professor, has lost his teaching position at an Eastern American college, causing the family to follow him into a "sabbatical" in a French Alpine resort town. Courtney is suffering from depression, loss of confidence and midlife crisis. He has retreated emotionally and left Emily adrift.

She tries to be an understanding and dutiful wife but an old friend shows up in town, a man who has always seemed to understand her better than anyone. Passion flares up between them and for the two weeks before Christmas, Emily is torn between her family and this man.

As I said, it is an old and overworked tale. But though this is not Anna Karenina nor Madame Bovary, the novel has special qualities, its own share of tragedy, as well as joy. The setting is part of it: winter, snow, the Alps, are all brought to life with spare but lovely description. The characters are also alive and real, especially the daughter and their friends. Most of all, Emily's story contains much truth about how it is for a woman and that is what I liked best.

(A Winter's Love is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. You can find it at your nearest indie bookstore by clicking on the cover image above.)

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


The Illumination, Kevin Brockmeier, Pantheon Books, 2011, 262 pp

 Readers of Keep the Wisdom may have noticed that I am attracted to the whimsical, the magical, the fantastic, in novels. Kevin Brockmeier surprised and startled me with his first novel, A Brief History of the Dead. I wondered how he would do that again in his second.

  The Illumination is another work of sheer imagination laid over the gritty reality of modern life. Brockmeier uses the device of an object which passes through the hands of six characters, in this case a book of love quotes. It is a journal kept by a young married woman whose husband left her a love note everyday. "I love the way you kiss. I love the way you shake your head when you yawn. I love the way you alphabetize the CDs, but arrange the books by height." She copied his notes into her journal each day. But then she dies and the journal is taken by another woman who had shared the hospital room where she died.

 Meanwhile, during the hospital stay, a phenomenon occurs all over the world. Each person's bodily pain shows up as light, causing wounds and illnesses to glow and glitter. One might wonder if such an aesthetic limning of pain would bring about a more compassionate world. As the love journal passes through the hands of five more characters in the following months, the answer proves to be: not necessarily.

 A story featuring so much pain and adversity does not induce cheerfulness. I found myself feeling sorrowful and even horrified at the loneliness, the unfulfilled dreams, the hopeless nature of so many people's lives. All the imagery of injury, disease, pain; all the illumination of flesh, organs, muscles, cells and nerves were almost too much. Some characters deal with pain by numbing it, some attempt to rise above it, some even inflict pain on themselves or others to block out existing suffering.

 The blurb on the back cover of The Illumination says, "What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us?" I emphatically do not agree that Kevin Brockmeier believes any such thing. He leaves each of his six characters with their stories unresolved, just as he leaves the questions he raises about pain without clear answers. What he did for me was open new ways of thinking about the Buddhist precept that life is suffering. Most of all, due to his beautiful writing and his ability to infuse the tedious world with magic, he took me away for a while and left me with a renewed sense of wonder. What if there is more to life than pain?

(The Illumination is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, February 07, 2011


White Man Listen!, Richard Wright, Doubleday & Company, 1957, 137pp

 Here we have a collection of controversial lectures that Richard Wright delivered at various universities in Europe from 1950 to 1956. These lectures represent an overview of his thoughts and analyses regarding colored, oppressed and colonized peoples all over the world; the overview developed through his broad study and actual discussions with such peoples.

 "The Psychological Reactions of Oppressed Peoples" is an effort to give Western Whites a view into the minds and hearts of such individuals. It includes a bold portrayal of the differences in spiritual outlook between the various cultures.

 "Tradition and Industrialization" deals with the conflicted position of what he calls the "tragic elite" in Asia and Africa: people who have been educated in Britain, Europe and Asia, only to return to their native lands wanting to bring their countries into 20th century life but not able to be wholly native nor completely Western.

 "The Literature of the Negro" is perhaps the first attempt by a Black literary man to provide an overview of writing by Black Americans. He covers novelists, poets, and memoirists.

 The final section, "The Miracle of Nationalism in the African Gold Coast," continued to help me understand the extremely difficult social and political necessities of building nations in Africa after centuries of colonialism, economic rape, and Christian influence in these lands.

 If we White people had been able to listen to Richard Wright in the 1950s, we might have a different world today. It is admirable that this man was able to express such ideas so cogently and I found them still very worthwhile in the 21st century. Sadly, like the idea of peace, getting the White man to listen may be just a dream some of us had.

(White Man Listen! is out of print, but can be found in hardcover and paperback in libraries and from used booksellers.)

Friday, February 04, 2011


The Town, William Faulkner, Random House Inc, 1957, 371 pp

 The Town is the second book in Faulkner's Snopes trilogy. The Hamlet, 1940, was the first and according to my notes when I read it eight years ago, was very dark and gave me nightmares. The Town is much lighter in comparison, even humorous in parts. I have now read enough Faulkner to feel less of a stranger in his imaginary town of Jefferson and in Yoknapatawpha County.

 The Snopes are a family of white trash degenerates who came into the county trading horses. One of them by the name of Flem was a sharp trader in all regards. He managed to marry into one of the established families and become vice president of one of the two banks in Jefferson. He is rich and getting richer in The Town, but these Shopeses are regarded by Jefferson's residents as a plague of locusts or a nest of vipers.

 The novel is at heart a love story between lawyer Gavin Stevens, who symbolizes virtue and probity, and the wife of Flem Snopes, who symbolizes something like "woman" as an archetype. In the time period, which is 1940s and 1950s, the Baptists and Methodists of the town represent the Southern version of hypocritical Puritan morality. I found this book as compelling in its plot as some of Faulkner's earlier novels, such as Absalom, Absalom.

 No doubt everyone noticed this before I did, but while reading The Town I realized that much of Faulkner's fiction is an allegory about the decline of America from its original lofty and idealistic ideals. Persons who are freaked out by the current criminal shenanigans of bankers could read The Town and learn that this is not a new phenomenon.

 I almost struck this book from my 1957 list, feeling that I just could not take another nightmare. Had I done so, I would have missed an excellent novel.

(The Town is available in paperback, also in hardback as part of a collection, William Faulkner Novels: 1957-1962, by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, February 03, 2011


Thunder on the Right, Mary Stewart, William Morrow & Company, 1957, 284 pp

 After realizing that Mary Stewart wrote a King Arthur trilogy (bestsellers in the 1970s and one of the few King Arthur series I have not read) I added her to the author list for My Big Fat Reading Project. Thunder on the Right, a murder mystery set in the south of France, is her third novel. Judging by the quality, I am content to start with it instead of going back to her first books as I usually do.

  Jennifer Silver, raised in a comfortable but sheltered home in England, has come to the wild upper regions of the French Pyrenees on the border of Spain, hoping to deter her cousin Gillian from becoming a nun. Within one day of her arrival she has encountered an old flame and a murder. Her cousin has reportedly died in an auto accident and the convent of Our Lady of the Storms is embroiled in strange goings on. 

 With Stephen, the man who has secretly loved her for years, Jennifer plunges into scenes of inexplicable anomalies at the convent, meets a cruel and desperate smuggler hidden in the mountains, and carries on her investigations amid the wild weather of the region.

 This is a fast read though a fairly improbable jumble of history, romance and mystery. It is so 1950s, with Jennifer running around on muddy mountain trails in a dress and Stephen showing up to save the day whenever she gets herself into impossibly dangerous situations.

  Mary Stewart was clearly influenced by Daphne Du Maurier. She began to have bestsellers in 1967, so presumably by then she had honed her craft to a higher level, by publishing almost a book a year.

(Thunder on the Right is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Sugar Street, Naguib Mahfouz, Doubleday, 1957 (trans 1992), 308 pp

 The final volume of the Cairo Trilogy was the least interesting for me as a reading experience. It covers the 1930s into the 1950s, following the family from the earlier two volumes. The patriarch and his wife grow old, the sons and daughters move on in their careers as the grandchildren grow up. 

 The issues during this time in Egypt are political as the country attempts to form its own democratic republic while still being ruled by a king who plays around with the English. These factors are complicated by economic issues due to the Great Depression and later World War II. Egypt as a whole is ambivalent towards the Allies during the war due to widespread hatred and distrust of the English. What I found most interesting was the rise of Communism, Socialism and Islamic Fundamentalism amongst the younger generations. But lengthy political discussions between the male characters, Mafouz's way of telling the tale, were too dry for my taste as a reader.

 Mahfouz also has his characters pondering the value of marriage and family versus political and philosophical pursuits. These I think represent the growing pains of a more modern middle class in a country trying so desperately to exist in the 20th century world. The entire trilogy is a masterpiece as it depicts the growth and progression of what was essentially a colonized Islamic nation suffering through upheaval in it social, political, and religious sectors on the way to becoming a modern nation. 

 All three books increased my understanding of the monstrous difficulties being faced by both the United States and Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The entire thing is a process but not a smooth one. The later books of Richard Wright (Black Power, The Color Curtain, White Man Listen) also contributed much to my increasing knowledge. I suppose I could have learned these things through a more careful study of history but, as ususal, it is historical fiction which brings it all alive for me.

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