Wednesday, November 30, 2011


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The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli, St Martin's Press, 2010, 386 pp

I have tirelessly suggested The Lotus Eaters for consideration to all of my reading groups. (Currently I am a member of four.) Finally it was chosen and read for the November meeting of the One Book at a Time group. We meet at a Mexican restaurant in Sunland, CA. We drink margaritas, iced tea and diet coke. We all talk at once. We are writers, lawyers and ex-school teachers. Not everyone finishes their books but the ones who did finish The Lotus Eaters were as enthralled as I was.

The novel opens as the city of Saigon falls in 1975. Americans are fleeing like rats on a sinking ship and Tatjana Soli deftly paints the picture of our country's utter abandonment of the Vietnamese people. Photojournalist Helen Adams is about to be airlifted from the roof of the American Embassy, along with her mortally wounded Vietnamese husband, when she suddenly bolts from the helicopter and heads back into Saigon. She is unable to leave before she has seen the final end of the war including the takeover by the Vietcong. It is one of the most powerful opening scenes I have ever read.

The remainder of the novel covers the twelve years this American young woman spent photographing the war. She arrived, a college drop out, looking for adventure and hoping to somehow process the loss of her brother, who died in Korea. A complete amateur, she can barely load her camera. Although she is a fictional character, loosely inspired by Dickey Chapelle who was one of only three female photojournalists in Vietnam, she is a complex mix of insecurities, losses, fears, determination, and a growing political awareness.

Her drive to succeed in a profession dominated by men leads her into extreme adventure, love, and fame. One of those men is a hardened, long time war journalist. He becomes her mentor, her lover and a source of endless frustration. The other main character is Lin, Vietnamese photographer's assistant as well as spy, who has lost his wife, family, village and profession because of the war. Eventually Helen marries him. But Helen's inability to walk away from the war is more than the addiction to violence as in The Hurt Locker. Her love affairs go far beyond romance becoming a way to find human connection in the face of the violence, devastation and daily threat of death that make up a photojournalist's life.

The Lotus Eaters is not like anything else you have ever read about Vietnam. It is without doubt the best book I have read this year. How Tatjana Soli was able to seamlessly combine the elements of possibly the stupidest war in which America has ever been involved, into such a deeply moving story is a testament to her abilities as a writer. It is her first novel, it took her ten years to write and get published, and she had never been to Vietnam until after it became a New York Times bestseller in April, 2010.

Her website is fascinating and includes an illuminating bio. This interview with Michael Silverblatt of BookWorm gave me more insight into why and how she accomplished the writing.

The best aspect of an amazing novel is a certain magic. The Lotus Eaters has that magic woven throughout and tells the Vietnam story in a way that heals as it relates the horrors. Perhaps mankind will always fight stupid wars. Perhaps if enough writers like this get read by enough readers, we can move on to something just as exciting but not so destructive.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


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Blackberry Wine, Joanne Harris, William Morris, 2000, 357 pp

This was a reading group pick and I voted for it because I liked the movie "Chocolat" so wanted to read some books by this author. Blackberry Wine is pretty good; a romance made better because she addressed creativity, community, financial greed and a few other issues.

Jay Mackintosh is a blocked novelist, living in London with one of those business-like, smart, pushy young women who seem to run the world these days. He wrote one good novel but now can only write trash. Luckily the trash brings him good money, so when he spies a real estate brochure for a farmhouse in a remote French village, he can just buy it and move there.

Despite the girlfriend, a few troublesome villagers and a mysterious neighbor, Jay's wishes all come true in a year's time. He even finds love.

Because this is Joanne Harris, a magical element runs through the story. I do love magic in stories, though I wasn't entirely thrilled by the ways this author employed it. Most surprising was how most of my fellow reading group members did not have a problem with it because they are absolutely NOT fantasy readers.

My favorite character was Jay's childhood friend, a gypsy girl named Gilly who helped him man up when he was a wimpy kid. I also liked the French villagers who preferred their tight-knit community and small vineyards to becoming a tourist town in Provence.

Joanne Harris has her heart in the right place and I like her whimsical outlook as well as her humor. I found her almost too lightweight but she will be one of those authors I turn to after a stint of the dark, heavy, literary reading I love the best.

(Blackberry Wine is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. Click on the image above to locate the book in your closest independent store.)

Monday, November 28, 2011


Anne McCaffrey was a prolific science fiction and fantasy writer. She passed away at her home in Ireland this past Monday, November 21. She was 85, born on April 1, 1926.

I first discovered her books when I bought a used book containing the first three books in her Dragonriders of Pern Series. I read Dragonflight, the first in the series, in 1992. I liked the characters and the concept but was only mildly impressed.

Back then I had started my reading log but was not very good at writing about the books I read. Here is what I had to say about Dragonflight:

takes place on Pern, a planet colonized by Earth. About every 200 years another planet swings into Pern's orbit and drops "threads" which are very destructive to vegetation on Pern. This is the story of how the traditions which keep Pern safe from thread, including dragons and their riders (an elite race called Dragonkind), have fallen into disrepute over the past 200 years and must be revived. Threads are about to fall again.

The heroine, Lessa, is a feisty, courageous, and impatient young woman who usually turns out to be right and saves the day. I liked it a lot. The dragonkind get bonded with their dragons when the baby dragon hatches and can communicate by telepathy. The dragons are more level-headed than the humans."

I went on to read many more in the Dragonriders series, growing more and more impressed by Lessa and caught up in the whole dragonrider thing. Dragonflight was first published in 1968 and I always thought that the thread concept was based on the napalm dropped during the Vietnam War.

My next discovery was the Crystal Singer Trilogy. Those three books are my favorite Anne McCaffrey novels because of Killashandra Ree, the heroine, who is a failed singer, a tough chick along the lines of the Dragon Tattoo girl, and has a fabulous lover named Lars.

Crystal Singer, Anne McCaffrey, Ballantine Books, 1982

I read this one in 1993 and said:

"Great science fiction. Killashandra Ree doesn't make it as a singer after years of training but makes it big on another planet 'singing crystal.' (Crystal is a valuable commodity which must be mined out of rock by means of hitting it with a clear note sung in perfect pitch.) The price she pays is being forever captive to the planet Ballybran and forever addicted to the pleasures inherent in handling crystal.

Not much freedom but high adventure for Killashandra."

Killashandra, Anne McCaffrey, Ballantine Books, 1985

This is the sequel to Crystal Singer. I had this to say:

Killashandra goes offworld on an assignment, falls in love and helps bust a mind control operation. She loses her lover and suffers a complete memory loss. But the lover ends up on Ballybran as a crystal singer. Again good adventure as well as romance."

Crystal Line, Anne McCaffrey, Ballantine Books, 1992

The final book in the trilogy was Crystal Line. My extremely short comment contains spoilers:

"Killashandra goes through numerous changes and finally gets her memory back. She and Lars (her lover) take over the Guild and attain eternal love."

The series made a huge impression on me, got me back into music after a rather long absence and made me feel that all my attempts to save the world in my early adult years were worth the adventures I had. I even named my indie record label "OffWorld Records."

Finally, in 2004 or so, my husband and I took a trip to Ireland. Thanks to Anne McCaffrey's website at the time (apparently no longer on the internet) I figured out how to email her and how to find her house in the Wicklow Mountains. On the site at the time was a google earth type map by which you could sort of fly in as though you were a dragon. She also had an open invitation to come to tea.

I didn't get an answer to my email before we left but we decided to try to find her house anyway. Well, actually my husband was shocked that I would be so bold and afraid we were being rudely intrusive, but I insisted. We got completely lost but then came upon a coffee house out in the middle of nowhere, which is so Irish. I had a feeling we were close and figured that if anyone would know the whereabouts of a famous local author, it would be the coffeehouse staff.

Sure enough. We got directions along the lines of: Go down that road. When you get to the fork with the big tree, take the left fork. Curve around a few times and you will see the house.

Well we did and we found it! The house, her stables and all, looking out over the mountains. The front door was ajar and I heard voices, so I called out, walked in and found Anne in her kitchen with a young woman and her father who were visiting from Australia! Anne offered us tea or coffee. Since we were American she totally understood that we might prefer coffee. She was so relaxed and gracious, as though these visitors were an everyday occurrence.

She gave us a tour of her house, her office, her library. Her walls were covered with works of art by fans; drawings of dragons, suggestions for book covers, etc. Her library was a hallway that ran the entire width of her house with shelves on each side. Then she took us out to the stables. She told us she could not ride anymore due to arthritis but still kept a couple horses and boarded others. A totally energetic, wiry, semi-friendly woman took care of it all.

After posing for pictures with us, she walked us back to our rental car. The last time I saw Anne McCaffrey was in Hollywood at the Writers of the Future Awards, about four years ago. She looked not a bit older and was smiling, cracking jokes and signing books. She was known for being extremely open and interactive with her fans, encouraging new writers, accepting all that proposed book cover art. I felt all of that when I saw her that day. She just did not seem one bit bothered by any amount of people.

For me she was an example of a woman who did what she wanted, had a great time doing it, and would never consider she should not do something just because she was a woman. A huge shining creative spirit.

Monday, November 21, 2011


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Solar Lottery, Philip K Dick, Ace Books, 1955, 200 pp

I have always steered clear of this author. Somehow I had gotten the impression that he was insane in some way or at least egregiously weird. But I read a review or two of the recently released The Exegesis of Philip K Dick, noting that Jonathan Lethem was one of the editors, and decided to give him a try. He wrote 44 novels! Solar Lottery is his first.

I did not get any impression of insanity or weirdness at all. He seemed to be fitting right in with the way science fiction was in the 1950s. In fact, I thought I got a glimpse of a theme that I found while reading The Hunger Games.

The ruler of the Universe in 2203 is chosen by random. Everything runs on games of chance which are wildly popular among the general populace. Workers have to sign up via fealty oaths to the various companies available. A huge proportion of people are just, as Margaret Atwood called them in Oryx and Crake, plebes: semi-homeless, unemployed folks who are cared for by social welfare programs. Honestly, I felt right at home.

The big surprise for me in the novel was the overall theme; that self determined individuals who can think for themselves have the power to bring things back to rights. Now that is a rather 1950s concept but it is also one of the major themes of literature all through the ages.

Hm. Maybe he got weird later? Who said he was weird anyway? I like this author. I added all 44 novels to My Big Fat Reading Project list. That will slow me down some but I look forward to a nice counterbalance to the increasing deterioration in the quality of the bestsellers in the coming decades of the project.

(Solar Lottery is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. Or click on the book cover image above to find it at the local bookstore closest to you.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011


The Borrowers Afloat, Mary Norton, Harcourt Brace & World, 1959, 191 pp


In the third book of The Borrowers series, the family takes to the water. At the end of The Borrowers Afield, Pod, Homily, and their daughter Arrietty finally arrived at the cottage where Uncle Hendreary and his family lived. Their dwelling was between the walls behind the fireplace in the cottage of the gamekeeper for the Big House.

Initially they were all relieved to have found shelter and safety, but in this story it soon became apparent that being dependent on relatives and in very cramped quarters was far from ideal. Arrietty had become used to the wide outdoors and began to pine away for more space.

When the cottage humans moved out, leaving no food or other necessities for "borrowing" a crisis was reached. Arrietty and her family decided to move on.

This time they head for a miniature village called Little Fordham, all Borrower-size, where human visitors pay admission to wander through. The plan is to float two days down the river in an old teakettle.

The escape, the river journey and another run in with the Gypsies make for dramatic adventure. Homily gains even more strength, daring and insight. While Arrietty and her father have always been brave and resourceful, Homily is the true heroine in this book.

The Borrowers Afloat was the most exciting story in the series so far, though reading the books in order makes each story mean more.

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

Friday, November 18, 2011


Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2010, 562 pp

Like many other readers, I loved The Corrections. I bought the hardcover of Freedom soon after it came out in August, 2010 and I don't buy a lot of hardcover books. Somehow I did not get around to reading it until now; another reason I don't buy hardcovers. I think I was worried that he could not write another book as good as The Corrections, even if it did take him nine years. Well, he did.

I love a long book, unless of course it is one of those endless bestseller tomes from the 1950s that I have been reading lately. Franzen writes so smoothly that while he may go over the top a few too many times and he may preach a little bit, he is never boring.

Freedom is about our times, our American issues, about family and families, about love, ideals and dreams. These are the timeless themes of literature from Homer to the present day, but I consider it a feat to write a good old-fashioned narrative and make it crackle with modernity.

I won't go into any more detail as to what takes place in the story. You can go to any major review outlet from The New York Times to The Guardian and read about that in exhausting detail. Perhaps because it is a long book, the reviewers felt they must write long reviews. I find it interesting that the critics gave the book high praises but readers were quite equally divided across the spectrum of one star to five.

I will say that while Franzen digs deeply into our failings as human beings and as a society, even to the point of irritating the wound his digging causes, he did not write a depressing tale or even a cautionary one. The final chapters of Freedom are romantic in the way an old couple who have preserved their love through all the trials of a long life together are romantic.

He seems to be telling us that our insistence on freedom is both our curse and our salvation; that anyone has the potential to finally grow up and make something good out of life. How old-fashioned is that?

(Freedom is available in hardcover and paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in several other formats, including e-book, by order.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Finding Nouf, Zoe Ferraris, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008, 305 pp

This book was a reading group read. Fortunately I had wanted to read it anyway because it is a mystery set in Saudi Arabia.

Nouf, sixteen year old daughter of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family, is found dead in the desert after she had been missing for ten days. Nayir, family friend, desert guide, pious but single Muslim, is asked by Nouf's family to find her murderer, even though the family had also paid off the authorities to avoid any police investigation.

When Nayir determines that the family does not really want to know what happened to Nouf, he begins to investigate on his own. This requires him to interact with Katya, a female from the coroner's office. Katya is single and relatively free for a woman. Though she must wear the veil when out of her house and have an escort wherever she goes, she causes Nayir many uncomfortable moments with her forward ways.

So the book puts a different spin on the mystery genre because of the setting. Looking at it from another viewpoint, the author's decision to write her book as a mystery is a brilliant ploy because it gets a broad readership to learn about modern Saudi Arabian culture and the ways of Muslims.

The mystery is well done, if a bit slow to get started. A bit of romance, Muslim style, between Nayir and Katya brings the interaction between the sexes to life. The scenes in Nouf's home clearly depict the stifling protection under which every female there lives. Ferraris spent some years in Saudi Arabia and her nuanced picture of the conditions for women and the slow changes in their status comes across as very true to life.

I was also fascinated by the way American culture and ideas get past the walls, the burkas, the protective parents, and infect female teens with the longing for freedom. Equally gripping was the progress for Nayir from an obsessively pious Muslim to a man enlightened about women.

(Finding Nouf is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in hardcover and ebook by order.)

Monday, November 14, 2011


And Both Were Young, Madeleine L'Engle, Lothrop Lee & Shepard Co, 1949, 241 pp

Madeleine L'Engle's career did not take off until the publication in 1962 of A Wrinkle in Time, which went on to win the Newbery Medal and remains her most well known book to this day. But she began writing adult novels in 1945, novels that were published but did not sell very well and quickly fell out of print. She almost gave up writing in 1958.

Had these early novels been around when I was in my teens, I would have read and loved them I am sure. Reading them now, I like them better than A Wrinkle in Time.

And Both Were Young was her first novel for young adults, published in 1949. It was revised and reprinted in 1983 and that is the version I read. In the Foreword to the revised edition, Ms L'Engle says, "When And Both Were Young was first published, there were a great many very simple things that could not be put in a book that was to be read by children and young adults." She goes on to mention attitudes about death and sex in those days. She says, "So the portions that are now in the book that were not in the original are truer to the original typescript than what was actually printed." Good! I did not miss anything by reading the later edition.

No matter her understandable discouragement, L'Engle's early novels are well written with more believable characters than much of the fiction I have read from the 1940s and 1950s. Her female characters especially say and do things just the way actual people would.

In this novel, Flip (nickname for Philippa), has been sent to boarding school in Switzerland, just one year after her mother died. Her father, whom she adores, is an illustrator of children's books. He has a new woman in his life who "lusts after him" as Flip says, and whom Flip cannot stand. His current assignment will take him to China, a place he considers unsafe for Flip. The solution is boarding school and daily letters back and forth.

Flip is homesick, still missing her mother, angry at being abandoned, and hating the new woman; all appropriate feelings for a 14 year old girl. She does not fit in and cannot make any friends. But she is a Madeleine L'Engle creation, so figures out how to sneak away from the confining regulations at school and walk by herself in the woods. She meets Paul, who is also troubled and angry for his own reasons. Slowly and beautifully they become friends and then fall in love.

One could complain that a few too many unlikely coincidences bring Flip and Paul through their troubles to a happy ending. One could also make the same complaints about the Twilight series, but Madeleine L'Engle does it without vampires or werewolves, in 241 pages, and with just as much sexual tension.

And Both Were Young was reissued in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2010; then in paperback by Square Fish in 2011. It is for ages 12 and up. I think the book would make a lovely Christmas gift for any female teen on your list who loves to read.

(And Both Were Young is available in hardcover, paperback, audio and e-book versions by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 11, 2011


The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy, Harcourt Brace & World, 1952, 255 pp

Another campus novel of the several I read this fall. (You Deserve Nothing; The Secret History) I wonder if Donna Tartt read Mary McCarthy. One difference from Tartt's book is that in The Groves of Academe the professors and President of Jocelyn College are the focus of the novel rather than the students. A similarity is that in both books the colleges are small and progressive though the stories are 30 years apart in time.

Henry Mulcahy, middle-aged, unsuccessful, overburdened, renegade literature instructor, gets a letter from President Maynard Hoar informing him that his appointment will not be confirmed in the next academic year. Henry has a wife and four children living with him in substandard conditions. They are permanently in debt and his wife has had health issues since the birth of their last child.

In desperation, he cooks up a plot based on exaggerations of his wife's condition and an untruthful account of his political past. He intimates these "facts" to one of his students and to a young, beautiful, Russian colleague in his department. The student is responsible for a viral rumor line and Domna Rejnev becomes his accomplice, tirelessly gathering faculty support for Mulcahy. The gist is that by means of pity and political pressure, President Hoar will be forced to keep Mulcahy. Hoar is a published opponent of the current loyalty oath and Mulcahy claims to have been a communist in his youth.

It is all quite complex to read about in 2011. As much as I have come across about the anti-communist witch hunts in the fiction of the early 1950s, I felt that I would have caught on faster if I had been reading the newspapers in those years. More than that, the political implications aside, the entire novel is a continuous spoof on colleges, progressive education, the claustrophobic infighting and personality conflicts on a small campus, topped off by a hilarious send up on poets.

Mary McCarthy is a perceptive, intellectually rigorous writer and assumes that her readers are on a similar level. She is also a savage satirist given to mocking pretensions and dearly held ideas. Once I got my head around the various views and vested interests of the characters, I was amused, intrigued and a victim of the suspense inherent in her story. Most hilarious of all, after all the drama is over, nothing really has changed. Life goes on at Jocelyn College.

This is McCarthy's third novel. She achieved bestseller status with her fifth, The Group, in 1962 and made her name through political journalism. I think her novels were almost too brilliant and intellectual for the male dominated publishing world of the 1940s and 1950s. I love fiction written by dazzlingly intelligent women. If only they could run the world.

The Groves of Academe is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011


A Case of Conscience, James Blish, Ballantine Books, 1958, 188 pp

I am not well read in the science fiction genre, but in comparing A Case of Conscience to science fiction novels I have read, it stands as one of the oddest. It won the Hugo Award in 1959.

A four man exploratory team is investigating Lithia, the first planet found so far with sentient life. The aliens are reptilian, have no experience of faith or religious belief, and their complete reliance on reason has produced a society devoid of evil or sin.

Father Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit and a biologist, is one member of this team, who are charged with recommending to their superiors what should be done with Lithia. The physicist on the team proposes making it into an atomic research planet, but the Jesuit decides it is a product of the Devil and wants it sealed off to protect mankind from temptation.

My only knowledge of Jesuit scientific philosophy come from Mary Doria Russell's excellent novel, The Sparrow. James Blish did nothing but confuse me as I attempted to follow the reasoning of Father Ruiz-Sanchez. (Hilarious plot element: the Jesuit is studying Ulysses by James Joyce to learn more about the Devil.)

In the second half of A Case of Conscience, the team returns to Earth with one of the alien creatures. This little Lithian grows up to become a psychopathic menace to society; a character who could have been created by Truman Capote. Is this supposed to prove the Jesuit's theory?

The book was actually a good exciting read. I just could not figure out what the author meant by his obviously deeply pondered theme of science vs religion. Does anyone want to help me out here?

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

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


My Brother Michael, Mary Stewart, William Morrow & Company, 1959, 255 pp

The Greek theme continues with Stewart's fifth mystery novel. Camilla Haven is traveling in Greece and feeling free after having left a long, stifling relationship but trying to regain her self-confidence. After a hair-raising drive from Athens to Delphi in a rented car, she finds herself mixed up with a mysterious Englishman named Simon.

Simon's idolized older brother Michael had met his death outside Delphi during World War II. His last letter to the family hinted at a find of great importance which Simon is determined to track down. Out of the recent past come Grecian revolutionaries who put Simon and Mary into danger.

Stewart's usual ingredients of a young English woman meeting up with romance and danger in a foreign country are embellished by excellent description of 1950s Greece combined with classical Greek history. Her characters are much more deeply developed than in the previous books and the romance is more mature.

Best of all is a whiff of the mythological invoking The Kindly Ones (also known as The Furies), whose ancient role was to wreak vengeance on mortals who wrongly committed murder. Simon and Camilla discover a cave containing a very old statue of Apollo, hidden away by devout worshipers, bringing the spiritual world of over 2000 years ago into the story.

I got a spine tingling sense that Ms Stewart was a good Greek scholar herself and had deftly woven that knowledge into her tale. She was telling us that the past is ever with us; the gods and goddesses never far away.

(My Brother Michael is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 07, 2011


The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2011, 416 pp

A new novel by Jeffrey Eugenides is a big event. It has been nine years since Middlesex. Though this is a much different sort of story I enjoyed it just as much.

The Marriage Plot begins in the middle of the story on the day of Madeleine Hannah's graduation from Brown University; the day after her breakup with Leonard and the morning after the kind of night you can never tell your parents about. Weaving between past and present, he brings the reader up to date on Madeleine's love triangle featuring Leonard , the brilliant but bipolar science geek and Mitchell, Religious Studies major of Greek descent whose dearest wish is to marry Madeleine. But Madeleine loves Leonard. But Leonard is crazy.

I mentioned the other day about the threads of college and Greece in my recent reading. Here they are again. Later in the story Mitchell goes on a quest for religious experience which begins in Greece.

Madeleine is an English major and on the first page alone, eleven authors are mentioned. She met Leonard in a semiotics seminar and her senior thesis is called "The Marriage Plot." A reading geek like me just loves books about books and writers and stories and plots.

For the remainder of the novel Eugenides moves around the triangle until we know all three characters about as well as you can know anyone. I became intimately involved with both the manic and the depressive Leonard. I followed Mitchell as he searched for the meaning of his life. And while Madeleine can be maddening with her middle class ideas about cleanliness, relationships and duty, she is also admirable for wanting the independence and selfhood promised to young women in the 1980s. I wanted all three characters to get what they wanted even though it was impossible.

Eugenides has a way of meandering with his own plots, but he still burrowed into my heart. With plenty of humor he satirizes the early 80s and especially the Semiotics era of literary instruction. "Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights."

He is wordy, his prose is never flashy. Like a good friend telling an overlong story, he goes on and on, but the result is an immersion into a time, a place, and a big idea. Hermaphroditism is a big idea. Romantic love is a bigger idea. But Madeleine and her boyfriends are not ideas. They are unique individuals newly graduated from college who are each discovering how to turn their passions into a life that can be lived.

Ultimately The Marriage Plot is very much a moral tale while at the same time being a literary romp through 80s style sex, love and marriage. I think both women who don't hate themselves and men who like women will find it absorbing.

(The Marriage Plot is available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available by order in eBook and audio editions.)

Sunday, November 06, 2011


Advise and Consent, Allen Drury, Doubleday and Company, 1959, 760 pp

One of the burdens of My Big Fat Reading Project is slogging my way through long tomes like Advise and Consent. It was the #4 bestseller in 1959 and went on to be the #1 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner in 1960. The New York Times Book Review stated, "Advise and Consent will stand as one of the finest and most gripping political novels of our era..." The book stayed on that paper's bestseller list for over 100 weeks!

It is the story of a fictional American President's attempt to put a new Secretary of State into his cabinet, an action which requires confirmation by the Senate. Robert Leffingwell, the nominee, is seen as an appeaser of Communist Russia by the more conservative senators but is a darling of the liberals. The fight to get Leffingwell confirmed is down and dirty, ruining lives and causing great upheaval in the Senate.

Interestingly, though I was being taught the forms of United States government in high school during the same time the book was popular, not much of it stayed with me. I had to do a quick review of Congressional terminology and positions, but once I got a grip on ranks such as Majority Leader, President of the Senate, Senior Senator, etc, the characters and their battles came alive. Reading the book then became an education in how the Senate works; its relationship to the Presidency, the media, and the voters back home; as well as the daily life of a Senator. (You could not pay me enough to be a Senator and I was confirmed in my belief that democracy in practice differs widely from it high flown ideals.)

Advise and Consent is not the pageturner its fans claim it to be, but it is a dramatic story still read today and is considered to have started a genre: political novels set in Washington, DC. Allen Drury, who started his professional life as a US Senate correspondent for United Press International, became a ponderous fiction author. His attention to detail drove me to distraction, his characterizations are complex but artless, and he repeats himself. Compared to a civics textbook however, the book is wildly exciting and humanized the Congressional men and women we hear about in the news.

I am glad I read it. The novel did more to explain the 1950s and 1960s American views on communism that almost anything else I have read so far.

(Advise and Consent is out of print and only available in libraries and from used booksellers.)

Saturday, November 05, 2011


Prospero Regained, L Jagi Lamplighter, Tom Doherty Associates, 2011, 476 pp

Prospero Regained is the final book in the Prospero's Daughter trilogy. The entire series is an impressive feat of fantasy writing that stands up to the accomplishments of such bestsellers as China Mieville, Philip Pullman and JRR Tolkein. This final volume was the best of all. The mysteries, the supernatural enemies and the purposes of the Prospero family introduced in the first two volumes are all fully explained and revealed. Each of Miranda's siblings and Miranda herself find the strength to rise above his or her flaws and overcome the demons who plague them. I give nothing away when I say this because Miranda's deepest desires and the future of Prospero Inc, not to mention the future of humanity are all at stake and the suspense is palpable.

To fully enjoy Prospero Regained you really must read the whole series in order. (See my reviews of Prospero Lost and Prospero in Hell.) This final volume takes place for the most part in Hell. Many of the earlier mythical creatures, friends and foes, make appearances and we finally meet Prospero himself. Miranda's love for the elf Astreus goes through surprising developments and we learn who her mother really was. After losing her connection to the Goddess Eurynome in the last book, Miranda gets another chance for redemption.

Underlying the suspense, adventure and mystery is a strong sense of hope for mankind and the world. Lamplighter draws from a deep well of mythological and centuries old religious wisdom meshing it together ingeniously. I finished these books with much of my faith in mankind and in the power of personal integrity restored; something I sorely needed at this time in my life.

(Prospero Regained is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, November 03, 2011


The Secret History, Donna Tartt, Alfred A Knopf, 1992, 524 pp

My October reading was a month of books set in schools and books with references to the Greeks. The Secret History fell into both categories. I read the book for a reading group meeting that never happened. It was chosen by the group's leader because it is one of her all time favorite books. It took me a full week to read and it did not become one of my all time favorite books, yet it left a strong impression. It is a book I will never forget.

The school theme actually began for me in September, appropriately enough, with Alexander Masik's You Deserve Nothing, featuring the charismatic teacher Will Silver. The Secret History (set in Vermont at Hamden College, a fictional somewhat progressive institution and featuring five students and their eccentric Greek professor Julian Morrow) follows these students through one year during which they commit two murders and try to live with the hell they have created for themselves.

Steeped in literary references, the chill of a Vermont winter, the peculiar madnesses that afflict each character, the novel is atmospheric, dreamlike, and haunting. All of the above are elements in many unforgettable books I have loved: The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfeld; The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruis Zafon; Atonement, by Ian McEwan; The Likeness, by Tana French and many more. Curious that I can't think of any written by Americans.

Donna Tartt is clearly well read and brilliant. It makes sense that she was raised in Mississippi and educated in New England. The students in the novel are the sort of oddball tortured misfits I always sought out in college. But I had one heck of a time reading the novel.

The plot takes forever to get going. Huge chunks of text go by with the five friends just hanging out and each one of these chunks felt like a repeat of the ones that came before. Richard Papen, who tells the tale and is something of an outsider in the group because of his widely different roots and upbringing, spends pages maundering about what happened. He is a pawn in the strange games that these kids are acting out and gets used and fooled by everyone else. He is also not quite believable as a male though he acts more like a guy that the other three male friends while he falls in love with Camilla, the only female. Camilla herself is practically androgynous.

Even in the second half of the book, where an actual plot becomes apparent, I felt I could not grab hold of anything to anchor me as a reader. Possibly that is a problem most of us had in college. What with the drinking, the drugs, the casual sex, the bad food and the lack of sleep, it all becomes an amorphous daze until we either dropped out or graduated.

Which goes a long way to explaining why the novel has hung around and haunted me for the past two weeks since I finished it. College is a strange rite of passage during which people aged 18 to 21 are not really responsible for anything yet have left home. Somehow one's college years don't count for much in the real world, whether you studied your head off, partied continuously or committed murder. Yet whatever one did in those years follows you for the rest of your life just as deeply as if you had spent those years fighting in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. At least that seems to be Richard's conclusion ten years later.

I might need to read The Secret History again someday. By the way, after I finished the book I found a website called Book Drum with a deconstruction of this novel. All the phrases in other languages are translated, the cultural references explained, and the literary figures introduced. Working my way through all that explication, I had to admit that Donna Tartt is way more intelligent and much better educated than I. Part of my problem with her novel may have been that I was in over my head.

(The Secret History is available in hardcover, paperback and audio cassette by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)