Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Composed: A Memoir, Roseanne Cash, Viking, 2010, 241 pp

Roseanne Cash has a voice all her own. I have been a fan of her songs beginning with her 1993 album, The Wheel. I never listened to her early commercially successful stuff which was mostly Nashville influenced country music. In her memoir I learned that it took her until 1990 to find her true writing voice as a songwriter. Sure enough, that is when her commercial appeal faded away, but also when she began garnering huge critical recognition.

I think she is a better songwriter than prose writer. I enjoyed learning about her life but the way she tells it is subdued emotionally and a little too disjointed, even for a memoir. But having been a songwriter myself that makes sense to me. In a song, you must distill a story and its emotion into very few words: a few verses and a chorus. Even a short story has thousands more words than a song, so it is the opposite creative flow. You expand a story and its emotion into lots of words. It is hard to make the switch and not many songwriters have done so successfully.

Along with other readers, I wanted to know more about her marriage and break up with Rodney Crowell. She is quite reticent about all that. I felt enlightened by her accounts of the relationship between her and her father Johnny Cash. She might have shared too much about her physical woes.

The last chapters are mostly about sickness and death, so the mood was somber. Despite her successes, her struggles, her ultimate happiness with John Leventhal, I couldn't help thinking that she has had an almost life. But then, maybe most of us have almost lives that don't measure up to the dreams we once had.

Bummer. But I still listen to all her later albums.

(Composed will be released in paperback on July 26, 2011. It is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Methuselah's Children, Robert A Heinlein, Gnome Press, 1958, 276 pp

Heinlein returns to writing for adults here with the expansion of a story originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941.

The Howard Families are descended from a man who got rich during the California Gold Rush and left his money to be used for research into the prolongation of life. This goal was realized by his trustees providing financial encouragement to the grandchildren of long-lived persons to marry and have children. By the 22nd century, descendants have a life expectancy of 150 years, but their existence is a secret from the rest of society.

Great plot set up, because of course when they decide to reveal their secret all hell breaks loose and the Families must escape Earth in search of other galaxies and a new planet. The remainder of the story concerns their adventures in space and the events surrounding their attempts to live on two different planets. Heinlein covers contact with alien races, mad scientists, beleaguered administrators, telepathic mutants and questions of time in deep space.

I liked the men who wore kilts (yes, really) and the many hairs breath escape scenes. I thought of Greg Bear's Darwin's Children and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Now we also have Embassytown by Mieville. All of these later books riff on some of the key elements in Methuselah's Children. Also detectable were ideas that will show up in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), which answers the question I had in my review of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. Best of all was renegade hero Lazarus Long.

(Methuselah's Children is out of print. I found my copy at The Bestseller Bookstore, a used bookstore in Burbank CA with a huge sci fi section.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Kraken, China Mieville, Del Rey, 2010, 509 pp

I finished Kraken over two weeks ago and had to return it to the library before I had a chance to write about it. Now I have to dig my thoughts out from beneath the several books I have read since then.

Although I have become a raving fan of China Mieville and will read the rest of his earlier books as well as anything he writes in the future, Kraken did not move me as much as either The City & the City or Embassytown. It was too something: too long, too drawn out and disjointed. It was also an insane story about the capture of a preserved giant squid that was the god of a religion.

As usual in Mieville, there is a reluctant hero and plenty of good ideas. My favorite character was the female cop, whose name I now do not remember. I also like the little god who could only exist in statues, including gargoyles and Star Wars plastic dolls.

I think you'd have to be a dedicated Mieville reader to get through Kraken. At least that is how I got to the end. The end is quite good and I was worried about that.

Go ahead. Hit me with your comments, disagreements or whatever.

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

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone de Beauvoir, The World Publishing Company, 1959 translation, Librairie Gallimard, Paris, 1958, 360 pp

I looked forward to this first volume of Simone de Beauvoir's autobiography with much anticipation, but had no idea how wonderful it would be. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter covers the first twenty-three years of her life beginning with her earliest childhood memories. I loved the way she explained the early tantrums that came over her whenever adults attempted to block her efforts to act in an independent, self-realized fashion. Apparently she was born with the sense that she was an individual who mattered and had the right to follow her own ideas.

Her upbringing was bourgeois Catholic, though her family was by no means wealthy. She went to Catholic schools, was trained and guarded as a young girl by a devout, socially conservative mother, yet stimulated by her father's love of the theater. Although she was kept close to home and inculcated with fears about bodily functions, passion, men and sex, Simone had always a brilliant inquiring intellect. She read and studied incessantly all throughout grade school, high school and college, entering the Sorbonne as one of the few female philosophy candidates. Every drive she had was sublimated into mental activity. She was almost twenty before she went out on her own to bars, plays, movies, at which point she went a bit wild but never experienced more than a kiss from a male.

As she relates her female friendships, her infatuation with her cousin Jacques, her quest to understand life through philosophy, I was enthralled by the combined emotional, spiritual and intellectual fervor which imbued every minute of her coming of age. The loss of her Catholic faith and her attempts to understand her own mind, passions and aspirations were as exciting to me as her tortured relationship with her best friend Zaza.

I doubt that I will ever reach the intellectual heights of this amazing woman, but I have always dreamed of doing so. As I mentioned in my review of The Second Sex, it blows my mind that Simone de Beauvoir was of my own mother's generation yet our mothers were so much alike. It is almost true that she went through my life a generation earlier in another country, in Paris of all places. I am lucky that she always kept a journal and could write so movingly about her life.

(Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


The Tiger's Wife, Tea Obreht, Random House, 2011, 338 pp

After much pondering, I have decided I need to read this book again someday. There was so much hype about the novel, the author, her youth, her background, on and on. I may have gone into it expecting something I did not find.

What I did find was beautiful writing. Let's do the page 99 test and take the first couple sentences: "You lose sunlight, and suddenly you are driving through a low cloud bank that is unfurling across the road in front of you. It is anchored to the pines and the rocks above you, to the sprawling pastures that open up below, dotted with ramshackle houses, with doorless inns, distant nameless streams." Nice.

I also found a main character who speaks usually in first person but sometimes in second. She is a medical doctor who believes in modern science but whose surroundings in postwar Yugoslavia are steeped in superstition and wild tales. The tales include a semi-feral tiger, once a zoo animal, who takes a human wife. But this woman is oddly unemotional while telling an emotional story so bottomless that you wonder how people survive life at all.

I liked the writing and the stories. I had trouble with the form which I found unwieldy and hard to follow. If you have read many of my reviews, you know that for me to say a book is hard to follow is really saying something.

The Tiger's Wife needs to be read slowly, in a savoring mood, with the full understanding that, despite having lived in the United States since she was twelve years old and despite having studied creative writing in American universities, Tea Obreht is an Eastern European writer. In a series of reviews and interviews I read at the blog 3 Guys 1 Book, I was enlightened by the comparison of The Tiger's Wife to novels by Orhan Pamuk, Naguib Mahfouz, and Nikos Kazantzakis. So there you have it. I tried to read The Tiger's Wife as a hot first novel by a young American woman. It is not that. When I read it again, I will know what I am getting into.

I can tell you this. About two years ago I read The Cellist of Sarajevo by Canadian author Steven Galloway. It was the only novel I had read about the Bosnian War and it was not bad. In fact, it was horrifying and moving. Still, it was a story told through the lens of a North American writer. The Tiger's Wife comes from a young woman who was born in the midst of that war, whose life and family were disrupted in ways I can hardly imagine, and who is bringing us news of her homeland along with the folk tales of its people.

To me that is worth more than a million newspaper articles, or nightly newscasts, or NPR commentaries. Even if The Tiger's Wife had been a bad novel, which it certainly is not, it was a necessary read for me.

(The Tiger's Wife is available on the new fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


The Lost Traveler, Sanora Babb, Reynal & Company, 1958

Before I began my Big Fat Reading Project, I was doing my Tree Grows in Brooklyn Project: trying to read all the fiction books in the library by working through the authors alphabetically. Which is how I happened to read The Lost Traveler. That was in 1994 and here is what I wrote in my reading log about the book:

Les Tannehil is a professional gambler with a wife and two kids. This is not a good combination and it finally explodes in family violence with Les on the run from the law. The writing is good, not as dreary as Joyce Carol Oates but almost. One daughter, Robin, comes to understandings about life, love and people. The rest are lost in the shuffle.

Since the book was published in 1958, it later made its way onto my reading lists. Today I looked up the author Sanora Babb and wow! She was raised in the Dust Bowl area and her first novel got bumped just before publication because John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath suddenly achieved best seller levels. Her publisher did not think the reading public would buy two books on the same subject!

Here is a great link to the story of Babb's life, which was more varied, exciting and difficult than any novel. Also I read somewhere else that Robin, the female character in The Lost Traveler, was noted as having more strength and free will than was usual in 1958 fiction. Cool.

(The Lost Traveler is out of print but available through used book sellers and sometimes found in libraries.)

Monday, June 20, 2011


Zazen, Vanessa Veselka, Red Lemonade, 2011, 260 pp

This first novel by Portland author Vanessa Veselka was crazy good. It stands out from almost everything I have read this spring. I reviewed it for New York Journal of Books. Here is my review:

If Bob Dylan had been a female novelist born in 1969, he might have written Zazen. And it is so great when a woman does something better than the man could have done, no matter how cool he is. Vanessa Veselka’s gritty frenetic writing serves up an exciting new flavor among today’s literary menu of MFA influenced prose; not a conventional, well-crafted tale but a streaking flash of barbed satire and 21st century malaise.

Della, raised by hippies, waitressing in a vegan café, lugging a backpack filled with her PhD in paleontology, her shattered psyche and her maps of destruction, begins calling in pseudo bomb threats from prepaid cell phones. She also contemplates leaving the country and in fact books two flights. Her alienation from the society around her calls for a group and a cause she can believe in, but despite an array of similarly distraught friends, she cannot find what she is looking for.

The Buddhist posture “zazen” involves sitting immovable so as to achieve a holistic body-mind framework. Della is obsessed with incidents of self-immolation. She collects newspaper photos and posts them on the walls of her attic room. She learns from her yoga instructor that being able to sit still is the key to burning successfully. The trouble is, nothing in Della’s consciousness stays still for much more than a second. Her internalized state of the world’s insanity-capitalism run amok, continuous war, school bombings and WalMart-manifests as non-stop attention disorder.

Zazen is a powerful novel because it points out the sheer amount of uncertainty and distraction surrounding any person in the modern world. Most of us find ways to shut it out but Della is open to and affected by every bit of it.

The burning question in Zazen is whether revolution could be the answer. Echoing Paul Bowles’ anguish and Tom Robbins’ comedy, Veselka’s answer is unconvincing, but the irony is unmistakable: how did the country that was founded on revolution end up watching 999 cable channels and shopping at WalMart?

(Zazen is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. You can also read it online.)

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Have Space Suit-Will Travel, Robert A Heinlein, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958, 276 pp

The Sunday Family Read

This is another of Heinlein's "juveniles", written for a Young Adult audience. Clifford is a young man who wants to go to the moon. In a tradition that spans Ray Bradbury to Stephen Spielberg, Clifford fools around in his mid-western basement, upgrading a space suit he bought by mail order. For some reason I love that. Imagine FedEx showing up in front of your house to deliver your new space suit!

One day he is trying it out in his backyard and winds up in space. With a ten-year-old girl named PeeWee, her rag doll and an indescribable alien creature known as the "MotherThing." Sometimes Heinlein, for all his technical and moral paragraphs that go on and on, just kills me with his imagination.

Plenty of adventure, humor, suspense and science follow and it is a great Heinlein yarn. I know that Stranger in a Strange Land was published in 1961, just three years later than this one. I found myself wondering how he got from a story like this to a story like that in just three years. I think the "MotherThing" is a clue.

(Have Space Suit-Will Travel is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Embassytown, China Mieville, Del Rey, 2011, 345 pp

I spent a week immersed in China Mieville's worlds, starting with Un Lun Dun followed by The City & The City and ending with his latest release, Embassytown. Like the heroine of Embassytown, the self-deprecating but brave and competent Avice, who made her mark as an immerser in deep space, I seem to have at least a couple of the talents required for immersing: an ability to stay conscious, not get queasy, make decisions and carry out tasks while completely adrift in the unknown.

Embassytown is unabashed science fiction from an author who has produced award-winning fantasy and urban thrillers. China Mieville is at the top of his game as a writer, having created in his latest novel an almost perfect balance of world building, story telling, characterization and dialogue.

A suburb of the main city on the planet Arieka, Embassasytown is home for the earth people who live there on the outer edge of explored space, administering diplomacy and trade for their colonizing masters. Indigenous Ariekei, known as Hosts, provide the basic necessities of life for the humans. In order to communicate with the Hosts, specially created doppel humans, known as Ambassadors, are required. Two identical twin humans are raised from birth to speak, act and think as one and carry names like EdGar, MayBel and CalVin. They learn to speak Language, the only and always truthful words of the Hosts.

Reading the first third of Embassytown is not unlike visiting a foreign country where one does not know the language or social customs. Once you are oriented on Arieka the remainder of the story flies by. As adrift as you might feel, the orientation is well worth a close reading. There are layers of meaning at work that include much more than a rip-roaring space yarn. Contact and development of understanding with an alien culture, a philosophy of language, the politics of colonization, the building of empires and the impetus, the planning that become history are just some of these layers.

Avice Benner Cho tells her story in first person. She is a great heroine. Mieville took a woman, deleted all elements of conventional womanhood, such as childbearing, childrearing, homemaking, servitude and even any clear-cut sexuality, then created a startlingly accurate picture of what goes on in a female mind. Avice is intelligent, scrappy, and curious; not hung up on herself but not self-assured either. She just lives, enjoys a good time and doesn’t like to work too hard. Incidentally she marries three or four times and her best friend is a robot.

When a new Ambassador arrives in the city and unleashes complete meltdown, Avice finds depths of responsibility and compassion she had no idea were part of her makeup. Amidst plenty of sci fi tropes like bioengineering, odd systems of measuring time and truly intriguing alien creatures, Mieville has concocted a deep tale about what it means to be a sentient creature in a potentially endless universe.

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

Friday, June 17, 2011


The Long Dream, Richard Wright, Doubleday & Company, 1958, 384 pp

Richard Wright returns to fiction after his string of non-fiction books about the Black experience in Africa. He also returns to America.

Fishbelly's story opens when he is five years old with the incident that gave him his nickname. The chapter is written from the viewpoint of a boy that age and at first I thought Wright had lost his fiction chops and gone simple minded. As I read on, I saw the power of his writing. Fishbelly grows chapter by chapter to young manhood, but the reader always sees his world through Fishbelly's perspective at any given age. He figures out his parents, his black neighborhood and black school, his black friends in a small southern town.

Tyree, his father, is the undertaker for their community. But his elevated financial standing implies other sources of income. Scenes of Fishbelly at school and with his friends depict the boy's growing awareness of what Tyree does, including the man's easy infidelities. The child's first arrest for trespassing with his friends on a white man's property awakens him to the racial situation as well as to his father's mysterious standing in the white community.

The novel entitled The Long Dream could have been called "The Long Awakening." Fishbelly awakens from the dream of a young boy protected by his mother to the realities of race, sex, money, oppression and the inherent dishonesty involved when a black man decides to survive above the level of downtrodden apathy.

Wright's last novel is a powerful tale of powerlessness. In fact, power is the theme running through all of his books. I am humbled by the man's intellect and strength of vision. From him I have learned that true power comes from the mind, not from force.

Richard Wright died in 1960.

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

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


The City & The City, China Mieville, Del Rey, 2009, 312 pp

As much as I enjoyed Un Lun Dun, I liked this one even more. Somewhere in an interview Mieville stated his goal to write a novel in every genre. The City & The City is in the style of a police procedural/crime thriller. The writing is terse, the dialogue is snappy and an unsettling underlying sense of menace pervades the tale. This is only the second Mieville novel I've read, so I am no expert, but I've heard that he started out writing fantasy. Combined with the above elements there is a distinct fantasy flavor in The City & The City.

Because the city of Beszal, somewhere at the edge of Europe, happens to exist in the same space as the city of Ul Qoma. Because these two cities are rivals but at the same time do not acknowledge each other. In fact the citizens of each metropolis are trained from childhood to "unsee" any physical objects or people from the other. Which I found wonderful and cool in a fantasy sort of way.

So there is a murder victim found in Beszal. Inspector Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad, after a bit of inspecting, concludes that the murder must have take place in Ul Qoma, which is "impossible." Next thing you know he is embroiled with The Breach, a highly secretive entity whose task is to prevent and deal with any interaction between the two cities.

If you haven't read the book, you can thank me for spelling out for you what took me almost half the book to figure out. If you don't like feeling dazed and confused as you read, you might as well just skip Mieville altogether.

I loved The City & The City by the end, though I was still guessing on a few points. Really, I wanted to go right back to the beginning and read it again. But my professional reviewer deadline demanded that I move on to Embassytown. That was great also and you will see my review here in a day or so.

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

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Boom Town Boy, Lois Lenski, J B Lippincott Company, 1948, 175 pp

The Sunday Family Read

Boom Town Boy takes place in Oklahoma during the oil boom, which began in the early 1920s but continued to bring change and prosperity for many years. It is the fifth book in Lois Lenski's American Regional Series.

The Robinson family are farmers in northern Oklahoma, an area called the Cherokee Strip which was first settled by pioneers in 1893. It is a region of high winds, poor soil, and little water. Farming is lots of hard work with little reward, so almost every family dreams of finding oil on their land. Grandfather Robinson is the biggest dreamer in the family, hoping to leave his children and grandchildren a better standard of living.

Oil does come to the Robinsons along with excitement, danger and plenty of change for all. Orvie, the eleven-year-old son, is thrilled with all of it but his mother is dismayed as her house and yard are gradually covered in greasy oil while she begins to run a boarding house for workers. A small community moves onto their land, building flimsy cabins and a tent city.

Once the oil money starts coming in they are suddenly rich. A large part of the story depicts how the family adjusts to their sudden fortune. Lots of detail on the development of an oil well and a few disasters keep up the interest and pace of the story, especially for Orvie.

Boom Town Boy is one of the most adventurous in the series so far, though Ms Lenski went a bit overboard on teaching the lesson about values versus riches. It would be a great read for a boy who likes historical subjects.

(Boom Town Boy is out of print, as are most of Lenski's American Regional Series volumes. If you have a good local library, that is the most likely place to find them. You can order used copies here.)

Saturday, June 11, 2011


The Ginger Man, J P Donleavy, Grove Press, 1958, 368 pp

The long and tortured history of J P Donleavy's first novel parallels the trials and tribulations of Sebastian Dangerfield, anti-hero and bad boy, aka the Ginger Man. Because of sexual content, Donleavy had a heck of a time getting published and until 1965, all versions were expurgated (obscene or objectionable passages deleted.) It is considered a classic as well as Donleavy's best work.

As the story opens, Dangerfield is unhappily married to a woman whom he had hoped would bring him money but instead has brought him a daughter and a nagging disposition. You can't really blame her for nagging. Sebastian is a fellow who will pawn items from their furnished apartment and spend it on drink. He is supposed to be attending law school in Dublin but instead he drinks, parties with his buddies and chases women.

There is nothing admirable about Sebastian Dangerfield. He is incapable of work and lives only in hopes of inheriting money from his aging, wealthy father. All his friends are the same kinds of guys and they prop each other up while they egg each other on. Yet many women I know, including myself, have fallen for this type of man at least once.

The story has humor, pathos and a smidgen of hope that Dangerfield will get it together, but all along the reader knows he won't. I don't understand the appeal but I couldn't stop reading it.

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

Friday, June 10, 2011


Un Lun Dun, China Mieville, Ballantine Books, 2007, 429 pp

I gave myself a crash course in China Mieville over the past few weeks in preparation for his current release, Embassytown. This was the first of his books I have ever read, though not the first one he has written. So far, it is his only book for children. He got the writing for kids just right, I thought.

In the usual tradition of fantasy, Zanna and her friend Deeba enter a strange city through a portal. They are twelve-year-old "estate" girls in London. (In British English, an estate means a housing project.) The strange city turns out to be another version of London, consisting of rejects, both people and objects, from an earlier era. UnLondon is also a dumping ground for the pollution of London, threatening the existence of everyone there.

Because most things in Un Lun Dun are altered if not downright opposite, Deeba becomes the one who decides to help save the uncity. Though Zanna was the prophesied chosen one, it took an unheroine to conquer the evil.

An array of unusual characters, including Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is a pincushion, and Brokkenbroll, who runs a troop of broken umbrellas, are Deeba's true friends and dastardly enemies. Often she is hard pressed to know which are which. The buildings and byways of the uncity are crazily cobbled together out of London's trash. Even some of the trash takes on a role in the story.

With endless inventiveness, Mieville keeps up the interest in what is an unusually long tale for kids, though fans of Eragon, the Harry Potter books, and other fantasy tomes should have no problem with a mere 429 pages.

Un Lun Dun was eerily reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere but apparently the two authors are friendly. In the acknowledgments, Mieville thanks Gaiman "for generous encouragement and for his indispensable contributions to London phantasmagoria." In fact, friendship is a strong theme in the story. Even after Deeba emerges victorious, she has a hard time with vengeance. Once she is safely back with her family, she takes steps to insure justice is done but not harm.

Highly recommended for fantasy readers of all ages.

(Un Lun Dun is available on the fantasy/sci fi shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, June 09, 2011


A Game For the Living, Patricia Highsmith, Harper and Brothers, 1958, 282 pp

Two friends love the same woman. Ramon is a local Mexican, rather poor, devout Catholic. He mends furniture for a living. Theodore is a wealthy German painter, also lives in Mexico and is of no religious belief. They both love Lelia, also a painter, and became friends because of her. In fact they have amiably shared her as a lover for several years. When she is found murdered and mutilated, the friendship sours due to each man's suspicion of the other.

While the mystery of Lelia's death is being solved, Highsmith takes the opportunity to explore friendship, religious belief, and art in a unique story. Some of the interaction between Ramon and Theodore feels strained and often causes the plot to drag but the resolution of who committed the murder and of the friendship makes for some great final scenes.

There is no one quite like Highsmith. She seems to have an unlimited store of tales.

(A Game For the Living is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


Say Her Name, Francisco Goldman, Grove Press, 2011, 288 pp

I was just completely bowled over by Goldman's latest book. It is a novel based on his true life experience of losing his wife. I reviewed it for BookBrowse and this week it is a featured review there, meaning you can read the review without being a subscriber, though I highly recommend that you do subscribe.

The review begins thus:

As Francisco Goldman says midway through his book, all over the world, everyday, people lose loved ones, yet each person's loss is unique. Each of us has a story to tell, a love to honor, and an excruciating path of grief to bear while learning to live without the one who died.

After Aura's death, Goldman read everything he could get his hands on about grieving, and not one of the books could explain how he should deal with having lost the love of his life; so he wrote his own book. It is brilliant, brutal, truthful, and I found great reassurance in his words, as there is no easy or dignified way to bear the insanity that death and loss bring.

Continue reading the review here:

(Say Her Name is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, June 06, 2011


The Ordinary Seaman, Francisco Goldman, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, 381 pp

I loved this book! Goldman writes in his own unique way. I can't think of anyone to compare to him. The story of a young man from Nicaragua, who signs up to be an ordinary seaman in New York, captured my imagination and my heart. Esteban had fought in the revolution during which he fell in love with a female soldier, later killed in battle. A big part of the wonder of the novel is Esteban's reminiscences of the war and his lost lover. You get an inside look at what it was like in Nicaragua then which feels very true. Goldman was a reporter there at that time.

When Esteban gets to New York, he slowly discovers that things are beyond screwed up on the ship he is supposed to be working on. Eventually he escapes into the city where he is dangerously without papers, but he meets a manicurist who is from his homeland and looks out for him. They fall in love and, you assume, live happily ever after. A bit improbable maybe but it all makes for a wonderful, gritty love story.

It is the characters, the seamen, the ship owners, the girl and her friends, along with their back stories, that make the novel so rich and entertaining. I had no idea Francisco Goldman, who is acclaimed but not prolific, was such a readable author.

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

Saturday, June 04, 2011


Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, Jorge Amado, Alfred A Knopf, 1962 (translation), Livraria Martins Editora, 1958

This novel was Brazilian author Jorge Amado's breakout novel in his native country. It is a light-hearted love story as well as a political commentary, set in Amado's hometown of Ilheus. In the mid 1920s, the town is booming due to a rapidly expanding cacao business and bumper crops. The community is achieving a more settled respectability compared to the wild days of land grabbing and establishing of the cacao plantations, related in Amado's earlier novels, The Violent Land and The Golden Harvest. Upheaval in this book is mainly political as newcomers attempt to win positions in the town.

Meanwhile, Nacib, Arab owner of the most popular cafe in town, finds himself a new cook down in the slave market. Gabriela is magical with herbs and spices as well as beautiful and voluptuous. She becomes the symbol in the story of the changing mores of a town and a time period.

Due to an extremely long list of characters and a lengthy set up, I had quite a time getting going. Finally about halfway in (approximately 200 pages) I felt familiar enough with the almost 20 main characters to get involved with them and care about their exploits. Then I was hooked. What I came out the story with was that the amazing amount of change at that time in South America was comparable to the changes in North America and Europe.

South American fiction did not enter the United States in English translation until the mid 1960s and early 1970s. It was not taught in my high school or college days. The image I had of South America when I was growing up consisted of jungles, poverty, drugs and local revolutions. It is revelatory to read authors such as Amado, Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Lhosa, and discover a lively but much differently flavored literature concerning the peoples of these countries moving into 20th century life.

I have found it worth wading through all the characters and a different style of writing, not to mention that most of these books are translated from Portuguese and Spanish. Amado was sent to boarding school where he discovered Dickens, Balzac and Sir Walter Scott, which explains much about the way he wrote his early novels.

Part of the reasoning behind My Big Fat Reading Project is to give myself an education in literature, so I get excited to see these developments in writers and books that are now better known around the world. I can observe the cross currents of literature with their accompanying effects on history and change by reading tales of what it was like for people in those countries and gain a much better understanding of the world I live in. By the end of Gabriela, I felt a connection with them that would only be improved by visiting there myself. If Gabriela were still cooking in Ilheus, I would go!

(Gabriela, Cinnamon and Cloves is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2011


The Uncoupling, Meg Wolitzer, Riverhead Books, 2011, 271 pp

I am so over Meg Wolitzer. My three novel study, read in under two weeks, rendered me in turn unable to stay awake during the day, unable to sleep at night, unable to digest my food, and generally irritable all over. She is simply a bad writer and I cannot fathom how she gets even one good review, though she gets many.

What she does do well is capture and relate the thoughts women have privately as well as the commonplace emotions of women. It is true that we only share those thoughts and feelings privately, even with other women. Possibly despite feminism, consciousness raising and even the age of confessional memoir, we are most of us somewhat ashamed to think or feel as we do. So to read our thoughts and feelings in a novel is startling and comforting at the same time.

In The Uncoupling, a new drama teacher arrives at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Stellar Plains, New Jersey. Fran Heller is unconventional in dress, attitude and lifestyle. Supposedly she has a husband living in Michigan with whom she is still very much in love. They talk everyday and visit each other several times a year. Their teenage son lives with Fran during the school year and with his father in the summer.

Fran chooses for the school play a Greek comedy by Aristophanes. In "Lysistrata" the women agree to stop having sex with men until the endless Peloponnesian War is over. On the day that auditions open, an enchantment, accompanied by cold winds, comes over several women, rendering them suddenly undesireous of sex. As the weeks of rehearsal pass more and more females, including sexually active teens, give up sex. The denied men become variously confused, heart broken, frustrated, or openly angry.

It takes her about 100 pages to set all this in place and despite the ineptly contrived back stories, some improbable characters and tone deaf dialogue, I was intrigued. The next 100 pages were a punishing description of how all the women and men interacted, felt, and made unsuccessful attempts to communicate about what was happening.

I will concede that the teen characters were accurately, even humorously, almost sympathetically portrayed. I can appreciate that Meg Wolitzer has a keen eye for people of all ages and both sexes as well as an accurate finger on the pulse of modern society. She just can't write well about most of it.

Reading Wolitzer is like taking a ride with a bad driver. Her prose is uneven. She will write a stunning metaphor and then fall into the oddest, nausea producing imagery. After pages of plodding paragraphs, she will finally get a bit of drama going, only to let it fall flat. I am always aware that any given character is an example of a type, until I utterly fail to care about what happens to any of them.

After tantalizing references to the war in Afghanistan, to teenage sexual awareness and dependence on social networking plus texting, or to the loss of sexual interest amongst married middle-aged couples, she winds up her story of dubious enchantment with platitudes. Give me a break!

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