Sunday, July 31, 2011


The Folk Keeper, Franny Billingsley, Simon & Schuster, 1999, 162 pp


Corin is the Folk Keeper. He keeps the Folk at bay, invisible angry creatures who sour the milk, make the hens stop laying, ruin the crops. Through the Folk Door, into the caverns, via the cellar, Corin brings the food offerings and spends hours in the dark, keeping the Folk Record.

But Corin is really Corinna, an orphan who has learned to protect herself from drudgery and humiliation. Now she is being fetched by a wealthy family from Cliffsend in the Northern Isles. Some mysterious past has come to claim her.

The tale continues as Corin learns the ways of the extra fierce and wild Folk of the Isles. He becomes a friend of Finian, a boy who prefers boats to running an estate. Danger from Sir Edward, the frustrated heir, forces Corin to learn who and what she really is.

I loved the folk tale atmosphere that Billingsley creates. This is the kind of story, like Island of the Blue Dolphins, that pits a strong young girl against hardship. As Corinna comes of age, her fierceness is tempered by her discoveries about her true nature. The author investigates that odd territory many girls must pass through when we might rather have been a boy and must come to terms with the restrictions of our gender. She does it well with the lightest sensitivity.

The Folk Keeper is also a love story told in the most tasteful yet realistic way, making it completely appropriate for middle school readers. I have not found a book quite like this in a long while.

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

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Turn of Mind, Alice LaPlante, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011, 305 pp

Though Turn of Mind revolves around a murder mystery, the real mystery being investigated is what goes on in the mind of someone suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Jennifer White was a successful orthopedic surgeon forced to retire in her fifties due to dementia. When the novel opens she is 64 years old and somewhere in the middle stages of the disease. Amanda, her neighbor three doors down and her best friend for decades, has been found dead. Four fingers were surgically removed from the right hand of the dead body but other than that, virtually no forensic evidence can be found, making Jennifer the prime person of interest in the case.

Certainly a unique premise for a murder investigation. How do police investigators get reliable information from a woman who does not recognize her own children some days? If Jennifer had committed the murder, would she even remember doing so? The novel is compulsively readable.

As the shared history of Jennifer and Amanda is revealed, it becomes clear that despite their professional accomplishments, these two women lived in a fraught state of moral ambiguity, playing out many years of crime and punishment. Jennifer was a better surgeon than she was a mother. Amanda was an unyielding and strict schoolteacher with no children of her own. Both were married to eccentric men and the couples knew more about each other than might be strictly healthy.

Anyone who has cared for or lost a loved one who was in the throes of Alzheimer's will recognize the day to day states Jennifer exhibits, the techniques used to halt the memory loss, the medications used and the effects of steady deterioration on friends, relatives and caregivers. In fact, the main appeal of Turn of Mind could be its purported inside view of Jennifer's mind, precisely because no one actually knows what an Alzheimer's patient is thinking, perceiving, or experiencing except by observing the person's actions and responses.

Improbably, the novel is written primarily in the first person voice of Jennifer, alternating between her journal entries and the thoughts in her mind as she thinks them. Alice LePlante, who herself cared for a parent afflicted with Alzheimer's, imagined her way into the mental workings of dementia.

One of the notable features of family members interacting with an Alzheimer's victim is the way they will discuss what they think might be going on with that person's mental and emotional state. What a relief then to read exactly what Jennifer is thinking, feeling, and perceiving as she disrobes in the middle of a grocery store or attempts to ascertain what her son and daughter are trying to tell her.

Some of the most poignant scenes are those where Jennifer recalls incidents from her early life: her mother's death, her daughter's birth, falling in love with her husband.

Whether any of it is true or believable, author LaPlante has the literary chops to carry if off. She makes the reader truly care about Jennifer. She gets you on her side. In the end, when the mystery is solved, you are relieved at the outcome, for Jennifer's sake.

Nearly all the pre-publication reviews from both critics and readers were deliriously positive. A few have mentioned that the murder mystery itself leaves something to be desired. But the mystery of the mind has surely been solved. No one mentions that Alzheimer's has no known cause or cure. I wonder what Jennifer would think about that.

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

Thursday, July 28, 2011


The Suffrage of Elvira, V S Naipaul, Alfred A Knopf, 1958, 179 pp

Naipaul's second novel again takes place in Trinidad. It is a spoof on democracy and elections in a developing country.

Mr Surujpat Harbans is running for General Assembly as representative for the village of Elvira. Of course he doesn't live there but lives in the city. He is financing his own campaign and visits Elvira to line up his supporters. The villagers, in just four years of democracy, have figured out how to make money for themselves by offering various services to the candidate.

This makes for a hilarious story as Harbans is fleeced for everything from posters to a loudspeaking van and a final cavalcade of taxis on election eve. Then there are the niceties of the Hindu vote, the Muslim vote, the Negro vote and the Spanish vote, not to mention various necessary bribes. One of the funniest lines comes from a less wealthy candidate who proclaims that there ought to be a law about how much a candidate can spend on his own election campaign. This story is set in 1950!

Apparently Naipaul's humor turns to a more bitter cynicism in his later novels, which I have not read. So far, in The Mystic Masseur and in this one, he provides great entertainment and an inside look at the various peoples who make up post colonial life in Trinidad.

(The Suffrage of Elvira is out of print. It can be found in libraries and from used book sellers.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Untold Story, Monica Ali, Scribner, 2011, 259 pp

What if Diana, Princess of Wales, had not died, but instead had staged her death and escaped into anonymity? This is the premise of Monica Ali's new novel. The manner in which she creates the tale demonstrates her versatility, being the author who also gave us an inside look at Bangladeshi immigrants in Brick Lane and at the life of a top London chef with In the Kitchen.

The Princess, aided by her private secretary, takes on a new identity in Kensington, a small American Midwestern town, posing as a divorcee in hiding from an abusive husband. Lydia, as she calls herself, comes across as sweet but a bit dull, beautiful but low on self-esteem. She has managed to surround herself with female friends who don't pry.

Her boyfriend, Carson, wants to know more than she can reveal, so though he helps to keep her company, he also causes her continuous mental and emotional turmoil. When John Grabowski, British photojournalist on sabbatical to write a book, washes up at the Kensington bed-and-breakfast, the tension mounts.

Despite plastic surgery and darkened hair, the paparazzo who had photographed Diana intensely during the crazy years before her "death" recognizes the former princess by her eyes. It would be the scoop of his life, but he (and the reader) find out what this woman is really made of. The final chapters read like a thriller, with the exception that thrillers often have predictable, formulaic endings. The denouement of Untold Story is satisfyingly unpredictable and perplexing.

When released in the United Kingdom on March 31 of this year, the novel was the most reviewed book throughout the following week, stirring up intense controversy amongst British critics. Did Monica Ali desert her multicultural vision and stoop to trashy commercialism just in time for the Royal Wedding? Or did she rescue Princess Diana from her tabloid identity and conjure up a reverse fairy tale that explores the cost of our celebrity culture and the price paid by non-conforming women?

I go with the latter opinion. Lydia, her female friends, the boyfriend and Grabowski are certainly familiar types found in our everyday world. In other hands, the fate of a beautiful and world famous woman leaving it all behind, including her sons, could have been no better than chick lit with a twist. But Untold Story goes deeper. Even the most avid Diana fanatic would have to ask herself if she would really want to be a princess in the 21st century.

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

Saturday, July 23, 2011


The Luckiest Girl, Beverly Cleary, HarperCollins, 1958, 297 pp

The Sunday Family Read

This was my top favorite novel when I was a teenager. I don't even remember how many times I read it; at least once a year and every year it meant something different to me as I went through boy friends and heart breaks. I can still recall my mental picture of the pink raincoat with the velvet collar. I don't think my library copy had the dust jacket as illustrated above.

I identified so completely with Shelley being bored with her boyfriend, feeling misunderstood by her mother, making plans to reinvent herself when the new school year began.

Most of all, I envied her for the chance to spend an entire school year away from home in California! I probably first read The Luckiest Girl when I was twelve or thirteen. By the time "California Dreamin" came out in 1965, I had already been dreaming about living in California for years. It took several more decades but now I do!

Reading the book again now, I was amazed by how truly Beverly Cleary captured what it was like to be a teenager at that time. It was the end of an era. The straight (meaning no drugs), good (meaning no sex) teen girl was already a thing of the past by the time my youngest sister entered high school.

I think many teen girls are boy crazy, even today, but man, it was an obsession in the early sixties, because it was the only outlet for mischief most suburban, well brought up girls had. I never even drank alcohol until I went to college. Of course, by then it was the mid-sixties, everything changed and we all just went wild.

Would teens today like The Luckiest Girl? It might seem as old fashioned as Pride and Prejudice. But I am going to see if one of my granddaughters will read it. I will tell them, "This is what it was like to be a teenage girl when I was growing up." They will most likely roll their eyes.

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

Friday, July 22, 2011


Robinson, Muriel Spark, J B Lippincott Company, 1958, 186 pp

What is it about the 1950s and novels about wrecks on deserted islands? In Muriel Spark's second novel, three survivors of a plane crash find themselves on a tiny island in the south Atlantic. Robinson is an eccentric hermit who owns the island, named after himself, and lives there with an adopted young boy. Once a year, a boat stops there and the crew harvests the pomegranates.

By adding the three characters from the plane crash, one of them a woman, Spark has just enough people to set up tension, an apparent murder and a look at various approaches to religion and life, as well as a bit of romance.

It is all done in such a way that little resembles any other novel I have read. Quirky, close to brilliant, this short book kept me riveted to the story and left me satisfied at the end.

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

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Anthill, E O Wilson, W W Norton & Company, 2010, 378 pp

The Buddha introduced a major change in religion by teaching a way of living called The Middle Path. In order to understand a problem, he taught, a person should start without bias, investigate from various angles, analyze the findings, understand the truth, find a reasonable conclusion, and then act. It sounds rather scientific as well as philosophical.

E O Wilson, naturalist, Harvard professor, author of Pulitzer Prize winning scientific books, has written a novel that celebrates the Middle Path.

His hero, Raff Cody, is one of those Harry Potter types, or if you will, an old fashioned hero, who has an upright soul, believes in honor and goodness, but is brave and has enough intelligence to solve big dangerous problems. In other words, he is not a victim, not given to extremes, but will give all he has got to whatever is his highest passion.

Raff Cody's highest passion is an area of fairly virgin land near his home in Alabama, where he spent hours as a boy, exploring and observing the natural world. He dedicates his life to keeping that tract free of harmful development that would endanger its ecological balance and its many species of plants, insects and animals.

Wilson attracted some fairly snarky reviews last year from "literary" critics who just had to complain about his novelist failings. But both Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver (two of my top favorite novelists) were enchanted and impressed. That was enough to make me curious. I was also a child who watched ants.

Anthill is a perfectly fine novel. On the matters of love for the natural world and the creation of a truly heroic main character, it excels. If you don't care about ants, you can skim or even skip a long section called "The Ant Chronicles," but let me tell you, ants live a more exciting life than a few people I know. At least the females do.

Have you read The Iliad? I have. It was mostly boring with a few highlights, in my estimation. Margaret Atwood called Anthill an "Iliad of the ants." It is mostly highlights with a few boring parts. And perhaps most significant, E O Wilson demonstrates an approach to the whole eco question that exemplifies the Middle Path. A gentle shower of sensible thought to cool the fires of extreme opposition.

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


A Ripple from the Storm, Doris Lessing, Simon & Schuster Inc, 1958, 272 pp

This is the third volume in Doris Lessing's "Children of Violence" series. I believe these novels are considered highly autobiographical and are meant to show a young woman trying to find herself as she moves out of her middle-class South African/English upbringing.

The first novel in the series, Martha Quest, shows her breaking away from the family to go live and work in the city. At the end of that one, Martha impulsively marries the first man who asks her. In the second, A Proper Marriage, Martha has a baby, struggles with expectations for her as a wife and mother, and by the end has left her husband and daughter to throw herself into left wing politics.

A Ripple from the Storm opens with a communist party meeting and in fact most of the book is taken up with meetings, squabbles, and party activities, all of which I found not very interesting. That may be because of all the other books I have read from the 1950s about people becoming disillusioned with communism.

My interest in A Ripple from the Storm was engaged whenever the story focused on Martha and other women in the story. Each one is moving through their individual ideas about self as they balance relationships with activism while continually running into male patriarchal attitudes. The question or problem of finding love with a man is an old one for women these days but many of Doris Lessing's observations on the subject remain pertinent and she has a unique viewpoint. She digs deeply into the lack of self that women must always deal with when trying to assert themselves as thinking, active members of the human race.

This volume ends with Martha in a quandary between two convictions: "One, it was inevitable that everything should have happened in exactly the way it had happened: no one could have behaved differently. Two, that everything that had happened was unreal, grotesque, and irrelevant." She feels overwhelmed with futility and falls asleep.

Clearly Doris Lessing did not give in to futility. She won the Nobel prize in 2007 and is still writing novels. So I look forward to what happens next.

(A Ripple from the Storm is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, July 18, 2011


The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Ballantine Books, 2011, 308 pp

I loved this first novel by a writer who is also a foster mom. (It will not be released until August 23, though it can be pre-ordered now. I read it as part of a reader panel on BookBrowse.) It is possible that I was seduced by the strong message of hope in the story, but cynic that I have become in my late middle age, I do still wish the best for people and this world we live in.

Victoria has lived all her life in the foster care system of San Francisco, CA. Abandoned at birth, she became filled with rage and distrust early on. She managed to sabotage every placement, including the one with a foster mother she had come to love. When she finally aged out of the system at 18, she was left completely alone to fend for herself.

I picked this book for its title and predicted a romantic summer read. Instead I got a disturbing portrait of what abandonment and state sponsored care can do to a child. The hook in the book is the flowers and the hope of recovery from a horrid life.

Well, I was a flower child in the 1960s and even lived in San Francisco for a time. We thought we could stop hate, bombs, oppression, any of society's ills with love. We thought we could turn bombs into flowers. My mom, against whom I rebelled for years and years, who was a somewhat abandoned child herself, was also a gardener who could make anything grow. Our yard, from my earliest memories, was always a fantasy of flowers. How ironic the way things just come around as one grows older and has more experience with life.

For me, this was a perfect read after all. I did also get the romance aspect I expected through the improbably lucky breaks that came Victoria's way and through the introduction to the long history of using flowers to communicate meaning and emotion. Victoria uses them for a broad spectrum of emotion as she continues to squander the opportunities that fate sends her, but she does find redemption and a chance to give and receive love in the end. All because of flowers and her skill with them.

I would call this book a romance of the fierce survivor.

(The Language of Flowers is available in hardcover by pre-order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Playback, Raymond Chandler, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1958, 166 pp

This was Raymond Chandler's last novel, so now I have read them all. Back in 2002 when I read The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely, it was a whole new genre for me. I was thrilled to be reading about Los Angeles in the 1940s, chilled by the cynicism of Marlowe, and titillated to learn about the seamier side of my adopted city where the degraded, the insane and the rich make their connections.

Now that I have also read Denise Hamilton, Sara Paretsky, not to mention James M Cain, I can see where Chandler fits. I also recognize that Paretsky's V I Warshawski is a female Philip Marlowe. It has all been most enjoyable and the hard-boiled Marlowe with his soft center, looking for justice and true love, is like a modern day Robin Hood, in it for the diversion, not the money, while retaining the right to view mankind as a hopeless case.

Playback opens with Marlowe off on a wild goose chase, knowing no more than the reader why he is following a lush redhead from Grand Central Station to the California coast, except that he could make a few hundred bucks. Soon he is falling for her, protecting her from unknown sources of danger and getting hit over the head.

This novel was not one of his best. My favorites were Lady in the Lake and The Long Goodbye. But in each book Marlowe changes or develops as a person in intricate ways, just like a real human being does. Aside from the setting, plots and dialogue for which he is known, I think what sets Chandler above many others is the character, Philip Marlowe, who brings that humanity to the genre and thus raised the bar for writers who have succeeded him.

The final twist in Marlowe's psyche, which does not occur until about the last three pages, was just right.

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

Friday, July 15, 2011


Doc, Mary Doria Russell, Random House, 2011, 389 pp

This book was so great. Even though I had to put it down in the middle and read something else for a review deadline, I picked it back up and was instantly back into the story. It was like when I see one of my favorite people and though we may not have spoken for a long time, it is as though we had just been together.

That is the wonder of authors like Russell. She tells her stories with so much life in the characters, so much emotional investment and such startling, real details that I am allowed into the worlds she creates as a welcome friend.

Doc is historical fiction about the American West. Doc Holliday, compatriot of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson (all of whom became legends after the shoot out at the OK Corral), is mostly known in the context of that legend. Mary Doria Russell wrote her book to get behind the legend and find the real man.

He was quite a guy. Born with a cleft palate but lucky enough to have an uncle who was one of the first surgeons able to correct that defect, he survived childhood and the Civil War thanks to his devoted mother and a male cousin who guarded John Henry Holliday from ridicule and taught him about the world.

Holliday was an accomplished classical pianist, had an eidetic memory for poetry, read Greek and Latin. But as a teen he contracted tuberculosis, the disease that killed his dear mother. The Civil War had destroyed the way of life he had been born into. At the age of 22, he left Georgia, already trained as a dentist, and landed in Dodge City, Kansas, with the volatile Hungarian whore Kate, and began to make his living in that wild town as a gambler.

Romantic, adventurous, tragic and full of heart and humor, Doc belongs in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, Wallace Stegner, even Louis L'Amour. It is one of my favorite reads of the summer so far.

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

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene, The Viking Press, 1958, 220 pp

Graham Greene is such a good writer. Even in this book, clearly one of his "entertainments," where he starts out so much in the tone of a spoof, he just does not waste words. Within a few pages while Mr Wormold is being recruited for an English spy, in Havana, (profession: unsuccessful vacuum cleaner salesman); in those few pages the reader has the physical description and make-up of three or four major characters, the setting in Havana and the unsettled feeling that Mr Wormold is heading for trouble.

Then, once he has us convinced that we are reading a silly, possibly improbable story, Greene opens up those very characters as living, breathing persons with concerns of the heart and unrealized professional goals.

And so it goes. Will Mr Wormold get caught out for his outrageous schemes? Is Dr Hasselbacher a friend or a foe? Is Wormold's daughter Milly as much of an airhead as she seems? Most of all, are the secret services of any given country truly as inept and gullible as they are portrayed?

Entertainment indeed, but so much more. When I finished, I could not think of any writer as good as Graham Greene.

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, Crown, 2010, 328 pp

If it were not for one of my reading groups, I doubt I would have ever gotten around to reading this wildly interesting book. Had I known how much scientific info was included, I still might have passed. I like knowledge but I have some kind of block on scientific study. Rebecca Skloot has been an award winning science writer but also has an MFA in creative nonfiction. She can make science plain, understandable, even exciting.

I had never heard of hela cells before. Now I know that they are human cells used in all kinds of medical and genetic research. These cells have grown or reproduced for over 60 years from a slice of the cervical tumor found in a young black woman, Henrietta Lacks, in 1951 at Johns Hopkins hospital.

OK, that is enough on the facts, because the book is a riveting story of a family descended from slaves and their unwitting and controversial intersection with modern medicine. Along with the telling of the story comes the adventure of getting the information. Rebecca Skloot is an unrelenting, sensitive and brave young woman.

The relationships she formed with Henrietta Lacks's offspring will surprise and enlighten you as well as break your heart.

Great reading. A pageturner of nonfiction. Best of all, a look at racial issues in modern day America as deep and meaningful as a Susan Straight novel.

(The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011



Today the stat counter on my blog tells me that there have been 8000 page views in the history of Keep The Wisdom. I realize that this is no where near viral, but it is still a good high number. I started the blog to share what I find in my reading. I haven't used any gimmicks or marketing tricks because deep down I don't really believe in that stuff. I am happy that enough people are interested in what I have to say to visit the blog.

The largest number of visitors are from the United States but I now have readers from all over the world. That is so exciting to me! In just the past month I have had people from the United Kingdom, Germany, Romania, Canada, Malaysia, Russia, Australia, Indonesia, India, Ukraine and Iran.

Thank you to all; the faithful readers, the occasional visitor, even the one time curious person, even the ones who come by mistake looking for something else. I feel strongly that sharing ideas and knowledge is the key to a more peaceful, vibrant and happy life for the inhabitants of Earth. I find much wisdom in fiction. It is a last bastion of freedom of speech because the author can always claim that his writing is just imagination. When anyone starts trying to police imagination we are in real trouble.

The only thing I wish is that more readers would leave comments. Without the comments, sharing my ideas feels one sided. So if you wouldn't mind taking the time, please say hello or give an opinion on one of my reviews. You certainly don't have to agree with me. If you have trouble with the comments function, you can go to the profile page and send me an email.

Thanks again. I will let you know when we reach 9000.


Sunday, July 10, 2011


Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, Kenzaburo Oe, Grove Press (English translation), 1985, (Kodansha Internation, 1958, Japanese publication), 189 pp

Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. This is his first novel, published when he was 23. It is based on his experiences as a child growing up on a remote Japanese island during World War II. When I read the book last November, I was going through a period of reading about WWII from the Japanese point of view, for which I was glad. It opened my eyes and mind, helping me to shake off some of my high school history teachings.

The kids in this story are from a reform school and have been transported to a small village set in a mountainous region. It is winter, they are cold, not well fed, and routinely roughed up. Because there have been a couple instances of plague in the village, the villagers evacuate and disappear, leaving the boys trapped there with no hope of escape. One boy is determined to find a way out.

Surprisingly, to a certain degree, the boys rise up out of their feral state and begin to come together as a community, though at first they are dismayed and directionless without orders from adults. Sadly, in the end they are doomed. The main character, the one who tried to find an escape, is the only one who just barely benefited from his brief brush with freedom.

It is a harrowing story on a level with Lord of the Flies and J G Ballard's Empire of the Sun. The writing is excellent and I liked the book.

(Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is sometimes available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time. If it is out of stock it can be ordered for you.)

Saturday, July 09, 2011


The Astral, Kate Christensen, Doubleday, 2011, 320 pp

In my review of Christensen's previous book, Trouble, I said that I hoped The Astral would be better. And it was!

Harry Quirk, mid-list poet, Brooklyn dweller, father of two grown children, and rejected husband of Luz, introduces himself: "I was hungry and in need of a bath and a drink. At my back thronged the dark ghosts of Greenpoint, feeding silently off the underwater lake of spilled oil that lay under it all, the polyfluorocarbons from the industrial warehouses. I had named this place the End of the World years ago, when it was even more polluted, hopeless wasteland, but it still fit."

After some thirty years of apartment life in the Astral, a huge redbrick fortress complete with brownstone arches, three-sided bay windows and corner towers, Harry and Luz have imploded as a married couple. Luz is the overbearing, pious, yet adoring mother Harry lost as a child. Harry stands in for the ne'er-do-well father who deserted Luz's family when she was eleven. They have raised a daughter who is a lesbian, freegan Dumpster diver and a son who emerged from his teen years of drug taking and social ineptitude to join a fundamentalist Christian cult.

It was not the plethora of modern issues that insinuated The Astral into my mind and heart. It was the characters and the familiar heartbreaking story of two people who have built a life out of propping each other up, a veritable fortress of a marriage, only to have its fatal structural faults bring it crashing into ruin.

Harry has a best friend, Marion, a photographer. They met as young artists newly arrived in New York City and enjoy a deep understanding, similar to what Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe had, but have never engaged in sexual intimacy. Luz, having always been jealous of their easy camaraderie, decided they were lovers after reading Harry's latest cycle of sonnets. She threw his laptop out the window and Harry out of her life. She will not be reasoned with despite Harry's attempts to explain the truth.

Kate Christensen's insights into the psyche of a middle-aged banished husband are astonishing. As in her earlier novels, she brings the world of artists alive and creates a sense of place with the ease of a master chef preparing a gourmet meal. In Harry Quirk however, she has surpassed herself as a writer, giving glimpses of love, sex and friendship from a mid-fifty year old male perspective that feel as true as anything written by Philip Roth or John Updike.

Perhaps in this age of longer lifespans, the coming of age novel needs to be balanced with the coming of maturity story. Christensen's affair of the human heart includes friendship, sexuality, parenthood and even religion. Harry, an atheist since his Catholic mother's death, investigates the true believer yearnings of his son and in this author's hands, even the cult phenomenon gets a sensitive treatment.

Over the period of less than a year, we watch Harry come to a tenuous understanding of himself, his wife, and his children as he just begins to look at the future. Along the way, my own life came into clearer view. That is what good fiction does.

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

Thursday, July 07, 2011


Nine Coaches Waiting, Mary Stewart, William Morrow & Company, 1958, 342 pp

This was so much better than her previous book, Thunder on the Right. I was happy about that because the previous book seemed very amateur to me.

Linda Martin, raised in an orphanage in England, gets hired as a governess to a young French boy. She goes to live at Chateau Valmy, near Lake Geneva on the French side. She finds familial intrigue, a villain and love.

So it is still a romance/mystery like the last book but the writing, the suspense, the characterization are all so much more well done. It is not quite Daphne du Maurier but the potential is there. Now I am looking forward to the next one.

(Nine Coaches Waiting is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, July 04, 2011


Trouble, Kate Christensen, Doubleday, 2009, 311 pp

I read this because Kate Christensen has been on my list to check out for quite some time and because I was going to review her newest book, The Astral.

I was underwhelmed at first, feeling like I was reading Anita Shreve, whom I liked when I read her early books but lost interest in after a while. The story in Trouble is about female friendship, a subject usually found in very light "women's" fiction. But the writing was smooth and pulled me along. Josie, a New York City psychotherapist, decides to leave her husband, so she goes to Mexico to hang out with her best friend from college.

The friend is an aged-out rock star, a recovering addict, a woman who once had it all in terms of fame but specializes in bad ideas. They spend their days sightseeing in Mexico City, eating and (starting during the afternoon) drinking way too much into the early morning hours. They spend time with local artists. Josie begins a hot flirtation with one of the painters, intending to catch up on all the sex she wasn't getting from her husband.

Christensen's writing (the characters, the scenes in Mexico, except please-she even does a bullfight), the way she sneaks in a sense of impending doom, are what save the novel. Then the doom arrives, after which Josie goes back to New York. The trouble is, she hasn't changed much. She had her adventure in Mexico, she got her own apartment, she has a better relationship with her teenage daughter, but she is still a self-centered psychotherapist in Manhattan.

I am hoping The Astral is better.

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

Friday, July 01, 2011


Mountolive, Lawrence Durrell, Dutton & Co, 1958, 318 pp

Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is like a kaleidoscope, always refracting his characters and story in each succeeding book. In Mountolive, the third volume, the sense of political intrigue that began in Balthazar takes on an even deeper character. Mountolive is a young British diplomat in training when he meets Leila, who takes him as a lover on the advice of her crippled husband.

As we know already from Justine, Leila is mother to Nessim, Justine's husband. Now we learn that both women take lovers for political reasons. By the mid 1950s, it becomes clear that oil, Jews and Israel are involved in the story. Suddenly it all makes sense, because the main story of Great Britain after WWII was the nation's struggle to hang on to an empire that was in fact over.

But what a brilliant twist Durrell has achieved; taking what appeared to be a love story steeped in the mysterious city of Alexandria and turning it into a post Commonwealth critique of the underlying intentions of nations, leaders, diplomats, fanatics and businessmen. He reveals all of it like a Pandora's Box.

I read this book in late winter, 2011 during the days of the uproar in Egypt. It felt like I was reading exactly the right book.

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