Tuesday, May 31, 2011


The End of the Road, John Barth, Doubleday & Company, 1958, 188 pp

Barth wrote this second novel as a companion to his first, The Floating Opera. Again he investigates marriage and infidelity, but while in The Floating Opera almost all was felicitous, The End of the Road is dark and rests on catastrophe.

Jacob Horner, the main character and narrator, could be straight from a Patricia Highsmith story. Amoral, self-centered and borderline psychopathic, he is under treatment by an eccentric and experimental psychiatrist, probably unlicensed, who is mainly interested in testing his offbeat theories.

Under doctor's orders, Jacob, who is suffering from "immobility," takes a teaching position at a State Teachers College and soon enters into a relationship with a colleague's wife. Thereby ensues a downward spiral in which the wife and husband are inexorably sucked into Jacob's toxic troubles.

Entertaining, disturbing, humorous at times, and fascinating in a compulsive, can't-stop-looking way, the book made me feel I was in the clutches of a frightening intelligence. Next for this author is the somewhat infamous Sot-Weed Factor. Oh my.

(The End of the Road is available in paperback which also includes The Floating Opera by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, May 30, 2011


The Ten Year Nap, Meg Wolitzer, Riverhead Books, 2008, 351 pp

Note: For an unknown reason, I am still not able to upload any images to my blog. It doesn't look as cool without the book cover, but at least I can post my review. Bear with Blogger and stick with me. The last time this happened, it eventually got sorted out.

In The Ten Year Nap, Meg Wolitzer takes on the "mommy wars." The whole issue of stay-at-home moms versus working moms has reached new heights this year but in 2008 was a hot new debate. Is the stay-at-home mom a better mother than the one who manages to continue her career? What is better for the kids? Which mother type is more fulfilled? How does a woman who left the work force to raise children get back into working? 

 As has often been mentioned, these questions are actually the luxury of a privileged minority of middle-class women who do not need to work for economic reasons or women who, together with their husbands, have enough income to afford help with child rearing and housekeeping. The majority of women in the world either have to work just to keep their children fed and sheltered or live in societies where women are not permitted to work outside the home.

 This novel is peopled with women who are dealing with the various scenarios of the middle-class mom. Wolitzer covers the dominant issues and the usual ways in which such women interact in a 21st century urban setting. Just for balance, one of the characters is a working mom.

 The main trouble I had with the book is that it reads more like an enhanced thesis: lots of facts with case histories included. The characters come across more as types than as living, breathing individual women. The thin plot is concerned with how each woman copes with turning forty and gradually waking up from the "ten year nap" of raising children only to realize that she is bored. Wolitzer indulges in far too much telling rather than showing.

 I suppose if a reader had no other female friends with which to discuss such troubles, she could find some solace or even help by reading The Ten Year Nap. I felt the author took on a relevant and timely issue and somehow made it dull. If you are a working mom by necessity, you might not even have time to read novels, but if you do, this one will either make you laugh or tick you off.

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

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac, The Viking Press, 1958, 244 pp

(Sorry, no image today. Blogger won't cooperate.)

  I first read The Dharma Bums in about 1969. It was our instructional manual on "how to be a hippie." The long, late-night drug and alcohol fueled parties, the disdain for money and suburbia and middle class life, the simple foods and hanging out on the floor. Hiking in the woods, free love, earth mothers and footloose uncommitted men. 

As soon as my first husband and I reached San Francisco after driving and camping our way across America from Michigan, we climbed up to Mount Tamalpais and got high with all the hippies and their naked children in a mountain meadow. The only thing we didn't do is ride the rails, but we did sometimes hitchhike and we always picked up hitchhikers.

 All these scenarios and more fill the pages of The Dharma Bums in Jack Kerouac's breathless prose. He is searching through Buddihism, poetry, and friendship for a life that makes sense. Kerouac's life was brief. At that breakneck pace and that level of alcohol use, he was bound to burn out young.

 But along with a very few others, right smack in the middle of the 20th century, he created a sensibility which has infected spiritual seekers, writers, musicians and artists right up to the present. Not a man to marry, not a man to depend on in any way, Jack Kerouac had another mission on this earth and I thank him to this day for capturing both the incipient sadness and the rarely achieved joy of life.

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

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


The Position, Meg Wolitzer, Scribner, 2005, 307 pp

 Though this is her seventh novel, it is the first I have read by Meg Wolitzer. She is about ten years younger than me, so not the next generation but somewhere in between. The Position is marketed as humorous. I found it to be an attempt at irony but ultimately a sad story.

  Paul and Roz Mellow, very much in love, deeply passionate, and in the process of raising four children, conceive of an idea. The result is a book called Pleasuring: One Couple's Journey to Fulfillment, complete with artist renderings of the couple having sex in a cornucopia of Tantric positions. They also invented a position of their own, recommended to couples who have just had a fight.

 So imagine you are somewhere between six and fifteen, it is the seventies and your parents are in a bestselling book having sex; they are giving talks, appearing on TV, and have somewhat left you and your three siblings on your own. You all sit down together and look at the book.

 Right. So this novel is the story of how their book affected the kids and what it did to the Mellows' marriage.

 I am not quite sure I buy it but then I was one of those crazy sexual revolution type parents, as was my first husband. We were very open about sex, about our marriage and about all the other excesses of the decade. We got divorced when our sons were in grade school. Said sons are now happily married, heterosexual, have children and fulfilling jobs. They don't seem to have suffered more than I did growing up, just differently. But what do I know?

 The novel is entertaining. Meg Wolitzer doesn't glamorize her characters or come on as an alarmist. Her perceptiveness about women, men and children is her best quality, along with a certain humanist urge to find the best in people. We all spend our lives getting over our parents and The Position is one version of that tale.

 I plan to read another Wolitzer novel, The Ten Year Nap, and then her latest which I will be reviewing "professionally." If I sound tentative it is because I am undecided about the author. If I got to sit with Meg and a bottle of wine, I have a feeling we would find many viewpoints in common. It is just that I like women novelists who write about the female experience to be better writers. Margaret Atwood is my gold standard and I have a list of others. I am not ready to add Meg Wolitzer to that list.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote, Random House Inc, 1958, 111 pp

 One of the coolest aspects of My Big Fat Reading Project is finally reading so many books I've always heard about, maybe even planned to read "someday" but have not gotten to. If not for the project, I might have never read them at all. 

 Such is the way it was with Breakfast at Tiffanny's. Years ago I saw the movie and was an Audrey Hepburn fan ever after. Then there was the 1995 song by that title, performed by one-hit wonders Deep Blue Something. The horrendous wonder of the modern world is that pop cultural references can give the illusion that you know something when in reality you only know the most insignificant facts about it. 

 This novella could not have been written by anyone but Truman Capote. Who else could have created Holly Golightly and her tragicomic past? As I read through my list of books from 1958, I recognized her as truly a representative character from the time period. She is a composite of Auntie Mame, Styron's Sophie and a Carson McCullers heroine; damaged but unsinkable with a dream of happiness (eating breakfast at Tiffany's) without illusions about its transitory nature.

 I also watched the movie again, which has that sappy happy ending with the kitten. Even so, I will never be able to picture Holly Golightly without seeing Audrey Hepburn. I think Capote would be OK with that.

(Breakfast at Tiffany's is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, May 13, 2011


The Beloved Dead, Tony Hays, Forge Books, 2011, 400 pp

 I am always intrigued by any version of the King Arthur tale. The Beloved Dead is the third in the Arthurian Mysteries series by Tony Hays. Each volume entwines King Arthur's life and ascension to High King with a murder mystery. Of course a murder needs a detective and sure enough Arthur had his own private investigator, Malgwyn, who was also his most trusted adviser.

  Also true to murder mystery form, Malgwyn had personal troubles: deep grief over the slaughter of his beloved wife by Saxons and a weakness for alcohol. Because Arthur saved the man's life, though not his right arm, Malgwyn pulled himself out of a suicidal depression to assist this King for whom he had a deep love.

 I have not read the two earlier volumes in the series, The Killing Way and The Divine Sacrifice, but this volume has convinced me to do so. In The Beloved Dead, Malgwyn is up against a serial killer who violates and mutilates the bodies of maidens as part of the murders. Truly gruesome descriptions of the murderer's signature mutilation not to mention continuous scenes of mayhem bring to life the brutal level of violence that characterized daily life in fifth century Britain.

 I liked the way Hays made use of the political situation to anchor his story. Ever since the Romans had pulled out of Britain because of the barbarian invasions into Rome, Britannia lost their civilizing force, devolving into internal battles between various tribal lords. Arthur rose to power because of his ability to unite these tribes against their common enemy, the Saxons. It was however an uneasy alliance.

 As The Beloved Dead opens, Arthur has recently been crowned the Rigotamos, High King of all Britannia. Due to religious conflicts between traditional Druids and followers of "the Christ" in addition to rivalries always ready to erupt, Arthur has decided to deliver a blow to Druid superstition while at the same time entering into a politically strengthening marriage. Ever the idealist who cared deeply for the "people" and dreamed of peace for his land, Arthur is also portrayed as somewhat pig-headed and impetuous when it comes to political moves. The murders began immediately following Arthur's announcement of his marriage and his perceived desecration of a Druid burial ground.

 At first I was put off by Tony Hays' writing style which eschews elegance for a down-to-earth tone. He is compelled to repeat himself every fifty pages or so, hammering in his themes about male/female relations and the mentality of a serial killer. But in the end I was impressed by the strength of his story and the historical depth he brings to the Arthurian legends.

 After all, for those of us compelled to read any story we can get our hands on when it comes to Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin and the rest, comparing the myriad tellings of the tale is at least half the fun.

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

Thursday, May 12, 2011


The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe, Simon & Schuster, 1958, 437 pp

 Here is another novel from the 1950s telling us that lots more sex went on than we were led to believe and that what women really want is love and a husband. It is a mildly entertaining story. Set in the office of a publishing company and following the lives of four young women, it has been called the Sex and the City of the 50s. 

 Rona Jaffe wrote the novel, her first, when she was 24, a recent graduate of Radcliffe, working as an associate editor at Fawcett Publications. The writing is just fine. Her portrayal of young women working at a publishing company comes across as realistic and includes a lecherous, alcoholic chief editor; a female associate editor who resembles that terror in The Devil Wears Prada; and the typing pool of women where all the drama plays out.

 Sadly, not that much has changed for women in the past sixty years except that more is out in the open. Judging from the current fiction I read (I don't watch TV), American women still want love, marriage, a house to decorate and supervise, and children if they can get pregnant. Some women also want a career, a professional life, personal fulfillment outside the family.

 The facts are that most people need to work for a living and that men usually must have a job but often don't find personal fulfillment in their work, another subject often addressed in 1950s fiction. Still, we all love our dreams, our hopes, and we read the books that allow us to step outside the humdrum of "real life." Some of the books are especially for women, some are for men and some satisfy both. The Best of Everything is clearly a woman's book and if I had read it in my twenties I would have been fascinated.

 The above paragraph, while not profound, was my conclusion after finishing the book. Out of the four women, two achieve a semblance of the dream but all are damaged to a degree by their efforts to get there. The problem with this sort of fiction is that it all boils down to a common denominator, which I suppose has much to do with its popularity. Are we just inherently shallow? 

 There were no true heroes or heroines in Rona Jaffe's book. She went on to write romantic fiction for years, having several bestsellers. I hope she had fun. Oh yes, and there was also a movie. Has anyone seen it?

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

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


The Lace Reader, Brunonia Barry, William Morrow, 2008, 385 pp

 The Lace Reader took me completely by surprise. The covers of both the hardcover and the paperback gave me the impression of some romantic, atmospheric story. The title had me expecting a quirky little tale about either elderly or New Age-type women sitting around drinking tea and predicting the future.

 Aunt Eva is the only elderly lady and she is missing, so never actually appears as a character except in others' recollections. Towner Whitney is her troubled great-niece. By troubled I mean seriously mentally ill, on medication, seeing visions. As the story opens we learn that she suffers from a teenage trauma involving a twin. After twenty years of self-exile in southern California, Towner comes home to Salem, MA.

 Salem, MA? Witches? Yep, witches, ancient and modern. Also Towner has a difficult relationship with her mother, an agoraphobic who lives on an island and rescues abused women.

 All of this is revealed gradually by Towner herself. She is the unreliable narrator of all time but also funny in an ironic, Job-like way. After about 40 pages, I was drowning in quirkiness but had the feeling there was more going on if only the author would get to it.

 Well. Turns out there was plenty more and much of it is mighty disturbing: abuse of both children and women, addiction, mental illness and more. Some of the Whitney women can indeed read the future in lace patterns but like most people who have "the sight" the future is mostly not pretty.

 The Lace Reader can be hard to follow and the end is confounding, leaving the reader with as many questions as answers. However, it is a great read in the tradition of Daphne du Maurier. You are put into the upset mind of Towner and come close to feeling crazy yourself. I thought that was some canny writing and also realistic: she is not crazy all the time; it's intermittent. The brilliance of embedding a mystery in an unbalanced mind reminded me of Patricia Highsmith.

 Oh so tastefully, without preaching or moralizing, Barry gives us the murky world of abused women. No easy answers but this one: abused women are best helped by women. Some readers get upset when animals get hurt in novels. For me that is nothing compared to abuse of females. By the end of The Lace Reader, I had been shamed into realizing that I had still harbored some idea that abused women basically ask for it. I will NEVER feel that way again.

 This novel is powerful like the ocean on the cover and somehow also as gentle as the lace.

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

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


The Bell, Iris Murdoch, The Viking Press, 1958, 342 pp

 Iris Murdoch's fourth novel shows a strengthening of fictional power while continuing her philosophical inspection of human character. I love the opening lines: "Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason."

 Dora is one of the two main characters and represents the amoral personality. She is a fairly young woman, married to an older man. While living mainly on nerves and feelings, she has a horror of any sort of confinement and is allergic to boredom, but has virtually no concept of right and wrong. 

 The other is Michael Mead, a failed religious man who struggles with his homosexuality like a character from Graham Greene. Because sodomy is considered a sin in Christianity, Michael's deep desire to be a priest is constantly thwarted by his failure to keep his sexual desires in check.

 The setting is Worcestershire, England at Michael's family estate, where he has created a small lay community of Episcopalians who seek retreat from the world as they attempt to deepen and live out their Christian faith. Dora provides the comedy, which is always a flavor in Murdoch's books. Michael brings the anguish. The other characters are there to create the interactions, tensions and plot, but none are flat or feel secondary.

 I admired Murdoch's talent in examining such weighty ideas without judgement. If she found any of her characters unworthy, she only made it known with her tongue in her cheek. Also impressive was her range of personalities, both male and female. Besides the flighty Dora are a hardworking mother-hen type, a fairly psychotic young woman who intends to become a nun, and a deeply wise Mother Superior in the nearby convent.

 The eponymous bell stands for an ancient portentous legend and an object of desire, while it drives the plot. I was not wild about the long descriptive passages but did not mind the somewhat lengthy expositions on Michael's and Dora's inner lives. For some reason known only to Iris Murdoch, she used the word rebarbative about every thirty pages. A joke?

 Finally, it was historically fascinating to compare the mid 20th century views on male homosexuality to those of the early 21st century. Murdoch gives a clear picture of the previous mindset but was undoubtedly ahead of her time.

 The more Murdoch I read, the more impressed I am. I saw a comment by some reviewer the other day stating that Murdoch tells the same story over and over. I couldn't disagree more. She has that theme of human personality and interaction, but each novel I have read so far is unique.

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

Monday, May 02, 2011


Balthazar, Lawrence Durrell, E P Dutton & Co, 1958, 250 pp

 This is the second volume of Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet." He calls it not a sequel to Justine but a sibling. Balthazar was the mystic philosopher in Justine who brought many of the characters together in regular meetings for study of the Cabal and other writings. 

 In this version of the story, most of which is a letter from Balthazar to the writer of both novels, new light is shed on the relationships between the characters. I found it more readable and engaging than Justine. Durrell still waxes poetic on the beauties, mysteries and dark sides of Alexandria, but situations which were enigmatic in the first novel now become more clear. The tale takes on a flavor of intrigue, both political and personal. The reader begins to understand that there was quite a bit more going on than a simple love affair between the author and Justine.

 Durrell himself has a grand intellectual and artistic scheme at work in the quartet which, in these days of novels as commodities, seems almost too precious. Reading him now is a look into past literary pursuits and made me see how much things have changed; even made me a bit nostalgic. But, as Durrell asserts, time is relative and there is no going back. There is only the continuum.

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