Sunday, December 30, 2012


Mr Ives's Christmas, Oscar Hijuelos, HarperCollins, 1995, 248 pp

Oscar Hijuelos' third novel began a bit slowly but in some way I have yet to figure out, took hold of me with a gradually tightening grip and left me gasping for relief at the end. The writing is deceptive. It seemed almost simple, almost pedestrian, until I found myself embedded in the hearts and minds of Mr Ives and his wife.

The couple, Mr Ives of Cuban descent and Mrs Ives of Irish, are bound together by passion, intellect, and faith. Content to remain living in a multicultural neighborhood in Upper Manhattan which has seen better days, they are raising two children and are deeply involved in their church and community when disaster strikes. Robert, their son, who is days from entering the seminary, is killed during an incident of senseless violence by a neighborhood punk. Every good thing in their lives, especially their love for each other and their faith in God, is tested.

The impact of a child's death on a marriage and family has been depicted many times in fiction. Hijuelos makes the story new again, mostly due to his two main characters. In an almost bland third person voice he brings the reader so close to Mr Ives and his lovely, vibrant wife Annie, he dives so intricately into the minute personal differences between them as they deal with grief, with religious belief, with life itself, that the novel tested my own faith in love, in mankind, in a Supreme Being, and in life itself.

I don't know if the amount of emotional turmoil in Mr Ives' Christmas is every reader's cup of tea. I didn't think I would be able to stomach the overtly Catholic views. But then again, I have been drawn in by Graham Greene, especially The Power and the Glory. As I watched the movie version of The Life of Pi on Christmas Eve, I remembered that part of my love for that book was Pi's seriously held and seriously tested faith in the three religions he practiced simultaneously.

Oscar Hijuelos did not turn me back to the Christian faith of my youth. He performed another kind of miracle and renewed my faith in living by one's values and in the divine nature of human love.

(Mr Ives's Christmas is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, December 28, 2012


Lovers and Tyrants, Francine du Plessix Gray, Simon and Schuster, 1967, 316 pp

I loved this novel unconditionally. I have always meant to read Francine du Plessix Gray because I had the impression of a smart, outspoken female, along the lines of Mary McCarthy, Simone de Beauvoir, etc. Her latest novel, The Queen's Lover, was released recently, reminding me that I still hadn't read anything she had written. As is my usual practice, I went for her first novel.

Her books seem to get tepid reviews, though she gets a lot of respect, making me think that possibly she is not easily accessible and has a unique take on whatever she writes about. I was right!

Lovers and Tyrants is probably autobiographical since the life of Stephanie, the main character, follows Gray's life: born of a French father and Russian emigre mother, raised in France and then America after escaping the dangers of World War II. The theme of tyranny by those who love us the most felt true to me.

If I had read this novel in the 70s when I was going through my own awakening to feminism and personal freedom (and I so wish I had), I would have loved it and learned from it and been given courage by it. Women in their 20s and 30s today might not find it as moving because life actually is better for women now. Not perfect, but better.

Reading it now, in my 60s, with my children grown and having worked out many of my issues with men, marriage, and motherhood, was an emotionally satisfying way of looking back over what it was like for me. In many ways, it acted as absolution and benediction for all the missteps I made.

If you are a woman who has grappled with the disconnect between the urge to nurture and the urge to flee, I recommend Lovers and Tyrants to you. Gray's writing is wild and impassioned, sometimes undisciplined, sometimes overblown. But it is from the depths of an intelligent, creative woman who will not be denied and who claims all the rights due to a human being.

(Lovers and Tyrants is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


The Queen of Cool, Cecil Castellucci, Candlewick Press, 2006, 166 pp


Continuing my completist reading of Cecil Castellucci's novels. The Queen of Cool is her second after Boy Proof.

I didn't love this one as much but it has highlights. Libby Brin is #1 popular girl at school. She is spoiled at home: even when she rarely gets grounded, she gets out of it. She has her own car, a huge wardrobe, and all the requisite toys. Her boyfriend's mind resides in a lower body organ than his brain or heart.

She lives in Los Angeles and (highlight) stumbles into an internship at the LA Zoo. I admit, I always enjoy books set in LA since I live here. At the zoo she has to work with Tiny, a "Little Person" and Sheldon, a science geek, two people at the extreme bottom of the coolness rating.

Naturally her eyes are opened to the shallowness of her existence. I have nothing against midgets or geeks but the message that they are people too was a bit off-putting in its preachiness.

I did enjoy watching a female teen realize that life includes more than clothes, parties, cars, and gossip. The biggest highlight was a novel for teens that admits to the amount of drinking, drug use, and sex going on in high school.

(The Queen of Cool is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, December 21, 2012


The Constant Image, Marcia Davenport, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960, 253 pp

The #6 bestseller of 1960 was purely awful. It falls in that category of fiction by the likes of Danielle Steele: endless descriptions of clothing, jewelry, and furnishings; passages of mildly bad sex writing; the vacillating obsessive maunderings of a young woman in love with the wrong man. Perfect bestseller material for a certain type of female reader who is not me.

Set in Milan, the story makes a big deal about the difference in moral values between Americans and Italians. Of course, they are all rich and in fact, infidelity is still infidelity when such an amount of lip service is paid to the sanctity of family. Included is the old conventional wisdom that the men are expected to fool around but the women are either victims or sluts. As my straight-laced grandma used to say, "It takes two to tango."

I guess that is enough ranting. After all, it was my freely taken decision to read the bestsellers from 1940 onward and even books like this fit the premise: the popular books reflect the culture of the time.

(The Constant Image is justifiably out of print but available in libraries and through used book sellers.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


The Hours Before Dawn, Celia Fremlin, Victor Gollancz, 1958, 190 pp

One of the pleasures of reading all those old books for My Big Fat Reading Project is discovering gems like this. The Hours Before Dawn won the Edgar Award in 1960.

Louise Henderson is the young mother of two children in 1950s London. Her infant does not sleep much, especially between the hours of 2 AM and dawn. He cries incessantly so that by the time he is just a few months old, Louise is so sleep deprived she moves through her daily housewifery duties in a daze.

Mr Henderson is a typical 50s husband who wants his dinner on time and thinks his wife should be able to quiet that baby so he can sleep at night. Neighbor women on either side of their home are busybodies: one is full of advice on child rearing and the other threatens to call the authorities about the screaming baby.

When the Hendersons let out a bedroom to a local school teacher, strange things begin to happen. It takes Louise several weeks to realize something weird is going on, being so sleepy that she is always on the verge of nodding off.

Once she realizes their boarder Vera may be the cause of the trouble, Louise turns amateur sleuth and saves her family in the nick of time.

The Hours Before Dawn equals the best of Shirley Jackson for its abundance of creeping creepiness as well as its wry take on motherhood and the plight of the housewife. Luckily for me, the book was reprinted in 1995 by Black Dagger Crime Series and I found it at my local library.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin, 1959, 298 pp

At last, I am no longer a Philip Roth virgin. He broke out with this collection of the novella, Goodbye, Columbus and five short stories, for which he won the National Book Award in 1960.

The theme of all the pieces is second and third-generation Jews moving from the ghetto into assimilation as Americans. I liked the novella for its characters and plot, though he stole shamelessly from Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar. I fell shamelessly into the love story between Neil Klugman, poor New York City Jew, and Brenda Patimkin, New Jersey suburban Jewish American Princess. After all, this is one of the major plots of American literature in the late 20th century and already Roth could write like nobody's business.

The short stories ranged from not quite good to deeply weird but they had all been published in mags like "The Paris Review" and "The New Yorker." That was the way young, white, male writers gained recognition in those days and clearly Roth got his due.

Conclusion: I will continue with Roth's novels and ignore the short stories.

(Goodbye, Columbus is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Clea, Lawrence Durrell, E P Dutton & Company, 1960, 287 pp

Sadly, I have come to the end of The Alexandria Quartet*. It has been a revelatory reading experience and I now see why this dated collection is still read, praised, even loved.

I found Clea the weakest of the four, perhaps because Durrell is winding down, as is the historic city of Alexandria. (These days it is considered an unsafe location for tourists.) During the time covered by Clea, the British Empire's heyday is coming to a close. In his inimitable way, Durrell infuses all of this into a sad farewell.

Clea, who had always been a shadowy presence in the earlier novels, now has her day. She is an artist, a painter. Of all the women in the Quartet, she comes across as the most well balanced; a sort of Earth Mother figure and the feminist of the bunch. The nararator (whom I assume is Durrell himself) finally has a love affair with her. He is older and wiser now, but Clea is wiser still.

The End.

*The Books of the Alexandria Quartet:

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012


The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown, G P Putnam's Sons, 2011, 318 pp

This novel did pretty much nothing for me. It is a type: I would call it "women's fiction with a quirk." The three Andreas sisters, raised by a nice but distant mother and a Shakespeare professor who named them after Shakespearean women, grew up in a small college town. The family was wont to approach life via quotes from Shakespeare plays and sonnets. They were all great readers, mostly because there was nothing else to do in their small town.

As the novel opens, they are all adults, two have moved away and one is living nearby. Because their mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer, they come together in their childhood home, ostensibly to care for her, but actually to escape their screwed up lives. Then they have conflicts and realizations and it all turns out happy.

Readers of my blog know that I have a fatal flaw which prevents me from being able to enjoy Shakespeare. When I realized how lame it was, I only finished The Weird Sisters because it was a reading group pick. I thought I might like it because three years ago my two sisters and I came together to care for our mother after she had a major stroke. That experience brought out the worst in our relationship. 

But this excuse for a novel borders on Shakespeare-light, worse than No Fear or Cliff Notes, just a bunch of quotes thrown in sometimes apropos of nothing. The characters are predictable and they get off much too easy for the mistakes they've made.

I used to have an acquaintance who was a writer and opened a bookstore on the California coast. She had a sign by the cash register offering a refund for any book you bought there that you didn't like. One day a man came in brandishing a book and yelling that she had robbed him of his time. She had recommended the book to him and he had hated it. He was demanding to be repaid for his reading time.

Of course that is one of those tales of horror told by booksellers and we had a good laugh about it. But honestly, I felt this way about The Weird Sisters.

(The Weird Sisters is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, December 08, 2012


With or Without You, Domenica Ruta, Spiegel & Grau, 2012, 207 pp

This memoir came into my hands in advance reader's edition form. It will be released in February, 2013. I devoured it in one gulp. It came with high praise from Amy Bloom and Gary Shteyngart. The marketing person compared it favorably to The Glass Castle. All good.

But for at least 50 pages I was underwhelmed. Where was the lyricism of The Glass Castle? Where was the "darkly hilarious" tone? I admit those 50 pages went by in a flash but couldn't say why.

So yes, bad mother on drugs, poverty, crazy unstable life, addiction, blah, blah, blah. The kid turns out to be a reader, the mom does a couple actual helpful things, and this girl, who by middle school was hooked on OxyContin, managed to graduate with good grades from high school and college, while getting into a prestigious MFA program. Did I mention that she also became an alcoholic?

Try as I might to analyze what happened, all I know is that I got hooked on Domenica Ruta's deadpan, affectless prose. Then when she finally figured out that to survive she needed to lose the mom, I had to find out how she did it. Because the truth that makes this memoir real is that we love our mothers no matter who they are or what they do. Even the best, most perfect moms can haunt you; the poisonous ones are an addiction in themselves.

Final analysis: With or Without You is powerful, possibly a classic in the memoir genre, and does not sugarcoat the damage done nor what it takes to live with said damage. Not exactly inspiring, definitely sobering (no pun intended.)

(With or Without You is available in hardcover or audio CD by advance order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, December 07, 2012


Welcome to Hard Times, E L Doctorow, Simon and Schuster, 1960, 209 pp

Doctorow's first novel is a literary western. That's right. It was shelved in Westerns at my library. In truth, it is a philosophical though action packed story set in Dakota Territory during the wild, lawless days when the West was being settled.

The writing is taut and just about perfect. You can see, hear, almost smell the town of Hard Times and the characters leap to life. The "Bad Man from Bodie" rides into town, rapes the whores, then burns down the entire town.

Blue is the default philosophizing mayor. In penance for failing to defend his town from the Bad Man because he was not willing to kill the guy, he attempts to rebuild the town and to create a family by taking in Molly, one of the raped whores, as well as the young son of his best friend who died in the fire. Molly reminded me of Kathy from Steinbeck's East of Eden.

But evil has visited the town once and Doctorow creates some serious foreboding and foreshadowing. You know it's coming back. Quite a page-turner for such a philosophical book because the symbolism is embedded in the drama.

(Welcome to Hard Times is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, December 02, 2012


Meet the Austins, Madeleine L'Engle, Vanguard Press, 1960, 191 pp


When Meet the Austins was published in 1960, Madeleine L'Engle was two years away from publishing her break out book A Wrinkle in Time. Somewhere I read that she was quite discouraged as an author at this time, even though she had been writing stories since childhood. She got published but prior to Wrinkle in Time her books had not sold well. In the long run, Meet the Austins grew into her second most well-known series.

I loved this book. It has all the charm of my favorite childhood book, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, but is set in contemporary times. L'Engle had a rather sad and lonely childhood, spent mostly in boarding schools. She must have channeled all her longing for a close family life into this book.

The Austins live in comfortable but not overly prosperous conditions in a rambling house somewhere outside of New York City. Mr Austin is a medical doctor, Mrs Austin a stay-at-home mom. Four kids, two dogs, several cats. Classical music, books (their mother reads to all four every night before bed even though the littlest is four and the oldest in high school.) An uncle who lives in the city is an artist and Mrs Austin's BFF, Elena, is a touring pianist.

Into this idyllic scene comes seven-year-old Maggy, who has just been orphaned and has no where to go. Maggy was the daughter of one of Elena's friends but since Elena is often touring, the Austins take her in. The little orphan is a spoiled brat who behaves badly so the Austins tame her with love and their special brand of discipline, but not before she manages to bring turmoil and even danger to the family.

The story is predictable, narrated in the first person of Vicky, an observant 12-year-old who sounds much like L'Engle, but the tone is an indescribable mix of common sense and warmth. I can't imagine any reader not falling for this family and wanting to be part of it.

Interesting biographical fact: L'Engle and her husband adopted a seven-year-old girl in 1957. The child's parent who left her an orphan had been a close friend of Madeleine's, who by 1957 had a 10-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son.

Meet the Austins is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 30, 2012


A Partial History of Lost Causes, Jennifer duBois, The Dial Press, 2012, 369 pp

After a series of less than wonderful reads, I wanted to read a book that just called out to me from my shelves. I chose this book for its title. Also because it is set partly in Russia and I am a sucker for books set in any time period of that country. I was so rewarded!

It is not a perfect novel, whatever that means. Ms duBois is young, named one the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" for 2012. This is her first novel though according to her bio she has studied hard and practiced much. All of that speaks well for her but I think her biggest asset is her imagination.

The story opens as Aleksandr arrives in 1979 Leningrad, a young chess prodigy having traveled for six days from the extreme eastern end of Russia. He is unsophisticated and clueless, but has escaped a hopeless, dreary life and dares to hope for his future. His arrival coincides with Stalin's centenary and within a year he will have survived the indignities of substandard communist housing, the cold, and the chess academy, while befriending a wanted trio of dissidents and falling in love.

In the second chapter Irina begins her story. It is 2006 in Cambridge, MA. Irina learned to play chess from her father, a college level music teacher, fierce student of Cold War politics, and eccentric, who died of Huntington's disease. Irina observed at close hand his ten years of decline and death. Knowing that Huntington's is hereditary, she got herself tested and learned at age 22 that she had a 50% chance of hitting the onset of symptoms at age 32.

Meanwhile, Alexandr became the chess champion of the Soviet Union; Irina's father had sent him a letter and received a reply but not an answer to an impassioned question. So began the connection which powers the plot.

When I was in college, one of my best friends got cancer and was given a year to live. She had been blind since the age of three but was an extremely adventurous, empowered person. She rode bikes, knitted, played guitar and was doing extremely well at the University of Michigan. She spent the last year of her life touring the world.

In 2004, my father died in an Alzheimers home after his own decade of decline. I have a slight worry about going that way myself. I often wonder if I should just throw caution to the wind and live as wildly and dangerously as I can before I fall into any sort of reduced condition. That may be why I loved this book so much.

When Irina turns 30, she goes to Russia looking for Alexandr. Her father's question in his letter was, "How does one proceed in a lost cause?" By this time, Alexandr has faced a few lost causes of his own. Irina needs an answer. She has become equal parts depressed and driven.

I did not love every page. Ms duBois weaves a convoluted tale. Irina is hard to know, maddening at times; Alexandr a most unlikely hero; St Petersburg and Moscow dangerous, mysterious cities protecting secrets both ancient and modern. I often felt lost and confused, but never was I tempted to give up reading. Ultimately what is a mash-up of tragedy, philosophy, humor, and adventure came together in marvelous ways and a finale of hope for the world.

(A Partial History of Lost Causes is now out in paperback. It is available as an eBook as well by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 26, 2012


The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1968, 432 pp

After finishing Back to Blood, I felt curious about Tom Wolfe's beginnings. My beginning with Tom Wolfe was reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1969. I married my first husband in April of that year and we set out on our "honeymoon" which was really a glorified road trip across the country from Ann Arbor to San Francisco, inspired by Kerouac's On the Road. We camped the whole way, intending to end up as teachers in a "free school" in San Fran. 

Reading Acid Test was our preparation, our Rick Steves. We were among the hippest drug-taking heads in Ann Arbor but wanted to be sure we were cool enough for Haight Ashbury. As it turned out, I was most assuredly not.

Reading the book again some forty years later was actually a fabulous experience (fabulous meaning "resembling a fable; of an incredible, astonishing or exaggerated nature" (Webster's dictionary.) It recaptured for me the entire mindset we had at the time: the mistrust and disgust we had for middle class values and morality; the disregard for authority and cops and the war in Vietnam; the pure hatred for the military industrial complex; the willingness to ingest any drug; the utter trust and camaraderie we had with all hippies.

Wolfe was already an engaging writer. Acid Test is nonfiction but reads like a novel. I recognized in Ken Kesey the birth of the quintessential Wolfe hero: a guy who drops out of his respected role in society and becomes a desperate, sometimes failing, often wanted man, spurred on by a vision and a quest for meaning. I wonder if Tom Wolfe had ingested Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces, another seminal text for literate hippies, which was curiously reissued in 1968.

Weird side note: In Back to Blood, the main protagonist Nestor Comacho, pulls himself up a rope, hand over hand, without using his feet, in his first manic feat of the novel. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (on page 385 in the original hardcover Book Club edition I got from the library) Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters plan a similar manic feat. By this time Kesey is wanted, jail-bait in fact, for numerous drug busts, so they are planning the Acid Test of all time at Winterland in San Francisco. All the cops will be there checking out all the stoned people and looking for Kesey. At midnight on Halloween, "Kesey, masked and disguised in a Superhero costume...will come up on stage and deliver his vision of the future, of the way 'beyond acid.' Who is this apocalyptic--Then he will will rip off his mask--Why-it's Ken Kee-zee!-and as the law rushes for him, he will leap up on a rope hanging down from the roof at center stage and climb, hand over hand, without even using his legs, his cape flying, straight up, up, up, up through a trap door in the roof, to where Babbs will be waiting with a helicopter,...and they will ascend into the California ozone looking down one last time..."

That was the current fantasy for the day. Either you were on the bus or off the bus. Did it happen? No spoilers here. I'm just saying that Wolfe felt the need to use the prank again 44 years later.


(The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is available in paperback or eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe, Little Brown and Company, 2012, 704 pp

How does Tom Wolfe annoy his readers? Let me count the ways:

He inserts a cartoon-like soundtrack into his prose: 

     "SMACK the Safe Boat bounces airborne comes down again SMACK on another swell in the bay bounces up again comes down SMACK on another swell and SMACK bounces airborne with emergency horns police Crazy Lights exploding SMACK in a demented sequence SMACK..."

This goes on intermittently for 10 pages in the first chapter.

He illustrates with words in explicit detail the inner visions and outward activities of the pornographically inclined male. 

His female characters are weak, vacillating creatures who chase after men, using their sex appeal to acquire money, status, or material goods except when they are pushy, demanding witches harrying men they have already captured for the same desires.

He freely admits to writing "realism" and does it so well that some 21st century readers, perhaps accustomed to a more glossed over, air-brushed approach, just get annoyed, taking him much too seriously and missing the fact that he is mostly making fun of us.

Back to Blood is about immigration and sex and Miami and sex and art crime and sex and city politics and sex and manhood. Tom Wolfe's Miami is a city where African Americans, Cubans, and various other Latinos outnumber white people. The Blacks and Latinos live in a continuous state of mocking the whites while wanting what they have.

Specifically, 25-year-old Nestor Camacho, second generation Cuban, buff and ripped in his cop shades and extra tight uniform, is clawing his way up in the Miami police force. After an utterly manic and heroic feat, during which he saves a Cuban refugee only to have the poor fellow sent back to Cuba, Nestor loses respect among his own people while his girlfriend leaves him, all in one day.

Magdelena did not dump Nestor for betraying their people. She wasn't even watching the news. She is living with her boss, Dr Norman Lewis, a media whore, a psychiatrist who treats porn addicts, including one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in Miami. Magdelena is lusting after the luxury of sleek automobiles and fancy parties, and the attention her voluptuous Latina beauty elicits.

Miami has a Cuban mayor and an African American chief of police who co-exist in an uneasy alliance. The Miami Herald, owned by the newspaper conglomerate from Chicago which owns most of America's major newspapers these days, is edited by a spineless, white guy who was shipped in from the Midwest and hopes to make his mark. He is unknowingly harboring the ambitions John Smith, a young white reporter who recently graduated from Yale with his journalist idealism intact.

Like a pyramid with serious structural flaws, Miami's immigrant base supports an apex of wealthy whites who most recently have erected an art museum, funded by contributions and filled with what are rumored to be copies of famous, priceless paintings. Nestor, the cop and John Smith, the young journalist, form an alliance of their own, as they sleuth their way through Russian oligarchs and gangsters to the truth about this art scandal. Will their rash and youthful bravado bring down their corrupt superiors? Or will money, privilege, white skin and crime prevail?

I have been reading Tom Wolfe for decades, from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, through A Man in Full. The manic rhythms and hip verbosity of his prose are instantly recognizable while he repeats various tropes, including a propensity for naming and counting the musculature of male characters as well as the delights of female bodies. Though I have acquired a taste for his methods, many were the times I threw down Back to Blood and vowed to read no further, weary of the same old stuff and wondering if he hadn't passed his prime. Had he really gone too far this time?

But I was drawn back by the plot, by my curiosity as to where he was going with his story and what would happen to the characters, especially Nestor the cop, Magdelena the slut, and John Smith, the reporter. They represent the new blood of our times. We see Miami through their eyes, though they often sound more like the author than themselves. 

Critics abound who complain that Wolfe does not begin to measure up to the finest literary authors. To me, that is like complaining that Tom Clancy doesn't write good romance. Wolfe tells a good, rollicking story and if rumors about the size of his advance for Back to Blood are remotely true, he doesn't write for the critics. He writes for his own amusement and to give his readers a good time.

(Back to Blood is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 19, 2012


The Year We Left Home, Jean Thompson, Simon & Schuster, 2011, 325 pp

In this moving novel, Jean Thompson follows a small-town Iowan family through thirty years of changes beginning in 1973. Those are the years when the insulated, land-bound Midwest was invaded by every social and economic upheaval and became once and for all, for better or for worse, integrated into American life.

The Erickson family came from a long line of hardworking stoic Norwegian farmers, but the most recent generation is having nothing to do with all that. The blows to patriotism brought about by Vietnam, the economic devastation of the farm crisis, drugs, feminism, and marketing have driven wedges into the family unit.

I have not been a fan of novels composed of connected short stories but Jean Thompson mastered the form. Each chapter ends abruptly, leaving the reader hanging from the proverbial literary cliff, the next chapter begins at an unspecified later time, yet she made it all meld into satisfying character development and exciting plot twists. Finally in a sadder but wiser tone, she ties up all loose ends.

A large part of my extended family are Midwestern people, descended from immigrant farmers. They are of sturdy stock, strong on religion, family, morality, and thrift. The women could usually stand up to anything, unless they broke down early. Most problems were solved by food, I suppose because for farmers food was forever available even when money was scarce. The men worked until they dropped unless they were sickly. God was always on their side though He worked in mysterious ways.

I have first hand experience of the bewilderment such people suffered in the face of kids who would rather get high, young women who would rather get a job than stay at home, all of us who followed rock bands, food fads, Eastern religions, and free love. The Year We Left Home captures these changes with just the right tone.

The Ericksons' story is sad, even tragic at times, but not hopeless. It is filled with sharp-eyed humor but is not ironic. I read it in one day. I loved it.

(The Year We Left Home is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Truman, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, 1992, 992 pp

I am 65 years old. I have spent my whole life thinking that politics was stupid and not worth knowing anything about; that even in a democracy, politics and therefore government offered no solution to the troubles of mankind. Now I have to eat at least some of my words and admit that as an American it is important for me to have a glimmering of how politics works. That is what reading this endless biography about Truman did for me.

I read it, in part, as research for my memoir. Harry S Truman was President the year I was born. I was inspired to read it because of a blog I discovered some months ago: At Times Dull. "In which Janet reads a biography of each American President in chronological order, learning things about America, its presidents, and the fact that the phrase 'at times dull' finds its way into every review of every presidential biography ever written." 

Janet has apparently had to turn her attention to making a living (she is a staff writer for The Millions.) She got as far as Abraham Lincoln and has not posted on her blog for several months. But her proposed reading list includes McCullough's biography of Truman. It was at many times dull.

Ever since I was a hippie and took a firm position as anti-war, I figured I had to hate Harry S Truman because it was his decision which unleashed two atomic bombs upon the world. Now my eyes have been pried open as to what factors lay behind that decision. Two realizations followed:

1) Truman inherited WWII in much the same way that Obama inherited a decimated economy and the War on Terror. When things get that screwed up, the options shrink in terms of making decisions.

2) Truman, at least as presented by McCullough, was one of the more qualified presidents we have had due to a large amount of sheer nerve and having an unshakable moral compass.

So I'm glad I read it, glad I persisted all the way to the end. I know there is always more to learn but it makes me happy when I actually do learn new things.

I still hold most of the views I've held but without a deeper understanding of how the world actually works, those views are just pipe dreams. I would not ever want to work in politics or be the President of the United States, but I am now more interested in being involved in determining the presidents we get. (Yes, I voted!)

(Truman is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 12, 2012


The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton, D Appleton and Company, 1920, 362 pp

I had the idea that I didn't like Edith Wharton but in fact I had only read one other of her novels, The House of Mirth. I read it in 2000 and I wrote in my reading journal that I found Wharton to be an excellent writer and had enjoyed the book very much.

I also enjoyed The Age of Innocence; in fact I liked it more than the movie which I remembered as being excellent. Even though she is blond, Michelle Pfeiffer played the Countess to perfection; Winona Ryder captured May; and Daniel Day-Lewis was splendid as Newland Archer. I know that Scorcese's favorite color is red but he may have gone overboard with it in that movie.

While Newland Archer was as spineless in the movie as he was in the novel, there was a distinct difference when it came to the women. It was the women who actually ran things in Wharton's portrait of upper class Old New York. Behind the scenes they spoke to each other in a special language, almost a code, as found in Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Propriety and maintaining the status quo were the touchstones among those females, constraining even the Countess and meaning that passion did not stand a chance. Newland Archer had no clue that he had been manipulated. He only knew that somehow the Countess got away from him.

I am not in favor of such feminine scheming. It only serves as a backlash to male patriarchal oppression and prevents the human male from attaining enough enlightenment to allow a parity between the sexes. I do however have to admire Wharton's stunning literary feat in portraying it so well.

1921 was the fourth year the Pulitzer Prize was awarded. Edith Wharton was the first woman to take the prize for a novel. She made me pity Newland and the Countess, she made me never want a female adversary such as May. Most of all she added immeasurably to my awareness of how women and men make each other miserable.

(The Age of Innocence is available on the Classics shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 09, 2012


The Detour, Andromeda Romano-Lax, Soho Press, 2012, 320 pp

Andromeda Romano-Lax is worthy of being much more widely known. In other words, she would be loved, feted, and sought after if she were promoted more. But she is not published by one of the big houses and she doesn't write about vampires or sado-masochistic love affairs. Soho Press is fairly small in today's publishing scheme of things. For what it is worth, I am here to tell you that she is truly a great writer.

The Detour is her second novel, following the wonderful Spanish Bow. Again it is historical and lies on the fault line between art and politics. If it were not so beautifully written, it would be labeled a historical thriller. The unwitting Ernst Vogler, thinking he is really getting somewhere in the Third Reich, has been sent to Rome to pick up a famous ancient marble statue, The Discus Thrower. 

All he has to do is get it to the Italian/German border and turn it over to the Gestapo. The Fuhrer has added art thief to his roster of dastardly deeds, but it turns out he has gotten in over his head. There are more dastardly art thieves who are counting on Hitler's sudden interest in art to raise the stakes.

Ernst Vogler has a sorrowful past including an alcoholic and abusive working class father and a secret physical deformity. In the 1938 world of Germany's fascination with youthful physical perfection, Ernst has nothing going for him except his recently acquired position with Hitler's Sonderprojekte (translates as Special Project.) On all levels, personal, political, and passionate (the young man is an art geek bordering on obsessive), he needs to make good.

Of course nothing goes right and Vogler spends the entire story getting a grip, finding his strengths and losing his innocence both politically and in matters of the heart. Once the novel gets going, it is a hair-raising bloody tale filled with desperate characters both Italian and German.

This was the first book I downloaded onto the iPad I got for my birthday in August, so I had to overcome two barriers. I got 22 pages in and felt so adrift that I quit reading it for two months, blaming my troubles on being an eReader virgin. But truthfully, the novel has a slow, confusing opening that does not draw the reader into the story. Risky!

Once I got back to reading it, I saw that the author was putting me directly and immediately into Ernst Vogler's viewpoint: his lack of self confidence, his bumbling ways, and his confusion about what was happening with the statue he revered. The protagonist's traits became mine as a reader. Risky indeed!

Ernst finally completes the transaction with the Italian art dealer and gets the statue loaded onto a truck. He has hired two drivers, Italian twins, but doesn't speak Italian. He can barely decipher the map they are following. Eventually it dawns on him that they are far off from the planned route to the border and have taken a detour for reasons known only to the drivers.

Underlying what becomes a thrilling tale is the theme of the ways that evil infects those who become involved with it. The reader perceives all this through the eyes and mind of Ernst. The lulls in the plot serve to depict this young man's dawning self-knowledge. He moves away from the fear that was driving him into the most intense human involvement he has known thus far in his short life.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012


The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Muriel Spark, J B Lippincott Company, 1960, 160 pp

As usual, Muriel Spark was enough over my head that I finished this highly comic novel and was not quite sure what I had just read.

Peckham Rye is a small town outside London and the setting for all kinds of poking fun at members of the English lower middle class. These characters dwell amongst their stodgy British habits but carry on in quite a modern style for the times. Lots of illicit sex going on, gossip and rumor of course.

When Dougal Douglas comes to town and insinuates himself into two rival companies as a "human research" man, ostensibly to improve productivity and thereby profits, he upsets many fixed conditions. He is quite the con man, hardly ever shows up at work, has the business owners completely fooled and messes with various relationships in the town.

If I were to give the novel my own title, it might be "Sympathy for the Devil." It is clever, dastardly, and no one escapes this man's antics including the reader. Though each character is an archetype, or at least a type, they have at the same time a unique humanness. 

Muriel Spark has taken the mannered, upper class English novel and turned it on its head. Dougal Douglas does his human research, looking for the fatal flaw in each subject. Thus does the author release the fatal flaw concept from its association with heros and grants the condition to everyman.

(The Ballad of Peckham Rye is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 04, 2012


Nine Days To Christmas, Marie Hall Ets & Aurora Labastida, Viking Press, 1959, 44 pp


The Caldecott Award winner in 1960 was a co-production between an author of Mexican heritage and an American illustrator. Unfortunately it is out of print and I could not even find a good image of the cover which would do justice to the illustration.

Ceci is a kindergartner who is finally old enough to stay up for a Mexican Christmas celebration called "Posadas," celebrated for nine days at the homes of different families with the final party on Christmas Eve.

This lucky little girl gets to have her own pinata! The story covers her anticipation and excitement, a day of shopping for the pinata, and the event itself.

The illustrations are pen and ink with splashes of pink, orange and yellow. I think they show how kids see the world. The pen and ink parts are just the background that children take for granted. The splashes of color are the things they actually see.

Ceci's family is clearly well-to-do, so I got the feeling of a middle class Mexican family living somewhere in an American city with a Mexican shopping area. But the book could also have been set in a Mexican city.

Typically, five-year-old Ceci is enchanted with her pinata and cries when it gets broken to release the treats inside. While the rest of the kids scramble for oranges and candies, she stands behind a tree. Her imaginative take on the experience is lovely.

Most interesting to me is that Nine Days to Christmas is the first Caldecott winner to address a multicultural topic, a sign of the new decade.


Saturday, November 03, 2012


White Teeth, Zadie Smith, Random House Inc, 2000, 448 pp

If literary fiction could always, or at least more often, be as good as this...well, I guess I would be an even more voracious reader than I am. I decided to read White Teeth before I jumped into NW because I read somewhere that both books are set in the same neighborhood of Northwest London. I have not felt as satisfied as I did while reading White Teeth in quite a while--well except for two weeks earlier when I read Telegraph Avenue.

In fact the two books have some parallels. Both throw together families of varying backgrounds who are joined together by a friendship between two men. Both are grounded in a neighborhood and poke around into what makes people the way they are.

I have only been to London once when I was a teen, but I could see, even smell, the setting of this book. I think watching movies helps, but the descriptions put me there, in the streets, in the apartments, restaurants, bars, and schools.

Working class Archie Jones and Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal have been friends since fighting together in World War II, when one saved the other's life. Samad lost the use of one hand and Archie has a piece of metal forever in his thigh. Archie's second wife Clara is the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant who is a devout Jehovah's Witness. Samad's wife came to him via an arranged marriage in the Deshi community. Each man in his own way is bewildered by his offspring as well as by his wife, not to mention the pace of life in the last decade of the century and the millennium. 

Smith uses multiple viewpoints and various bits of history which she calls "root canals" to build the intertwining strands of three families. The children of Archie and Samad get tangled up with a middle class English family, the Chalfens: progressive, liberal, educated idiots with their beliefs in science, psychology and enlightened parenting. 

They all have white teeth. The each want love, a better life, a belief in something beyond themselves. That sounds serious but they ricochet off each other in the most comic ways. White Teeth is a comedy show and a reality show resting on a keen awareness and observance of the multicultural lives we now lead.

Though Zadie Smith takes her time developing the stories of these characters, she begins right off with a sense of tension, maintaining it at a disturbing steadily intensifying rate until the final explosion. Really, I had no idea where she was taking me but went willingly only to have it brought home to me that these root canals are reproduced in every generation.

"But first the endgames. Because it seems no matter what you think of them, they must be played, even if, like the independence of India or Jamaica, like the signing of peace treaties or the docking of passenger boats, the end is simply the beginning of an even longer story."

(White Teeth is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Boy Proof, Cecil Castellucci, Candlewick Press, 2005, 203 pp

Last month I attended a reading by Jonathan Evison (The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving) at Skylight Books in Hollywood. Introducing Jonathan was Cecil Castellucci. "I know that name," I thought. Sure enough she is one of the more truly hip YA authors writing these days. I had seen her books all the time when I worked at Once Upon A Time Bookstore, but somehow never read any.

In my usual fashion I started with her first novel. Cecil Castellucci, in my opinion, is a direct literary descendant of Francesca Lia Block. For contemporary teens she take the place of Beverly Cleary.

Egg is the all time, essential high school geek heroine. She is brilliantly intelligent, has the highest grades in her school, knows all about science fiction books and movies. Her mom, with whom Egg lives in a teen vs mother detente, strives daily to recover her life as an actress. Egg's dad, divorced from the mom naturally, is a successful special effects dude who travels most of the time.

So yeah, broken home, deeply sad and alienated, dressing and acting as weird as possible, Egg is "boy proof." But to have a novel, that has to change. Enter Max Carter. He shows up first in AP English. He is as smart as Egg, possibly smarter, but he is a chick magnet. You know the rest.

Of course, I loved it. Just the right tone all the way through, especially for teens living in Los Angeles or wishing they did. The happy ending is not what you think it is going to be. It is so much cooler than that.

(Boy Proof is available in paperback on the YA shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available as an eBook by order.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Motor City Shakedown, D E Johnson, Minotaur Books, 2011, 340 pp

I have been visiting Detroit, MI, since I was a toddler. My mom's family are all Michigan people and we went there every summer, driving from Princeton, NJ, across the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Ohio Turnpike and stopping first in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit. My mom's older brother worked for Ford Motor Company and I had three cousins there.

I transferred to the University of Michigan in my junior year and remained living in Ann Arbor for the next 24 years. Detroit has played a large part in my life. When I learned about D E Johnson's historical mystery series set in 1911 and featuring the son of a car company owner, I had to check it out. Detroit Electric was a producer of early electric cars and Ford Motor was a big competitor.

Unwittingly, I read the second in the series which picks up shortly after the first left off. But Johnson handles the back story adroitly so it all makes sense and actually made me want to read the first one: Detroit Electric Scheme.

The writing is not stunning but serves the purpose for a mystery just fine. Though Will Anderson is a well-to-do young man, he manages to get himself mixed up with gangsters, a crime boss, union organizers and crooked cops. In fact, besides covering the transition from electric to internal combustion engines, the story also delves into the early days of the Teamsters Union. And Edsel Ford is a character.

Pretty good stuff. The heroine is a socialite but is no girly girl. She has guts and in the end practically saves her boyfriend, Will Anderson. I will be back to read The Detroit Electric Scheme and his latest release, Detroit Breakdown.

(Motor City Shakedown is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, October 22, 2012




Today is Doris Lessing's birthday. She is 93. She was born in the same year as my mother, 1919. She is one of my heroines. I like that she wears blue in many of her later photos and how she is often resting her face on a hand. Most of all I love how fearless, creative, on the bleeding edge she has always been. 

She is one of only 12 women to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She does not yield to praise, criticism, mockery, or worship. She is herself. What more can any human being hope to be, but especially women?

I am just a short way into reading her novels. I began with The Summer Before the Dark, 1973, a novel about a woman waking up to herself after playing the mother and wife role for many years. I loved her realism, her courage and her truth. From there I went to the beginning of her list and am coming forward.

The Grass Is Singing, 1950. I was blown away by the quality of the writing and again the realism about family, girlhood, and race.
This Was the Old Chiefs Country, 1951. Her first collection of short stories mostly derived from her early years in Zimbabwe, where she was raised.
Martha Quest, 1952, is the first in her Children of Violence series. Her is where her feminism really begins to show, though she does not like being lumped in with feminists.
Five, 1953 is a compilation of five short novels. I do not generally read short stories or novellas but Doris Lessing loses no power because of brevity.
A Proper Marriage, 1954. This is how we end up married, pregnant, mothering, going crazy, leaving it all behind. Or at least it is how it happened back in the day.
Retreat to Innocence, 1956. The first novel set in England. She later wished it had not been published but I see it as a logical progression of thought.
Ripple From the Storm, 1958. The third in the Children of Violence series, follows Martha after A Proper Marriage. This is the stage where we try to find out who we are by joining questionable political groups and getting disillusioned.

The next book for me is The Golden Notebook, 1962, her most well known novel. I am about a third of the way through my 1960 list, so it will be a little while.

I doubt that she will come across this post, but I do hope that more readers will discover her books because of it. And I send out my admiration and best wishes to a woman who put me into words. That is a large part of why I read.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon, HarperCollins Publishers, 2012, 465 pp

Michael Chabon makes me a happy reader. When I finish one of his novels, I know I have been worked over, played with, and challenged. With Telegraph Avenue he has done it to me again.

How did he work me over? With a convoluted plot for one thing. As usual I was fairly lost and confused for the first 60 pages. He is busy introducing characters, setting scenes, jumping into the past, and I'm just trying to keep up. It is like hiking with an experienced, fit, onward! type in an unfamiliar location.

Though a protagonist does emerge and is in fact introduced on page one (Archy Stallings, part owner of the failing Brokeland Records, a black veteran of Desert Storm who has yet to mature), I spent the entire book thinking there were six main characters whose lives are intertwined just as in real life. You may be the protagonist of your own life but without at least five other key people, your life would be inexplicable.

How was I played with? He made me wade through the minutia of universes with which I am partially or wholly unfamiliar, but he made me like it. (He always does this: comic books and superheros in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; an alternate history of Jews, gangsters and natives in Alaska in The Yiddish Policeman's Union.) This time it is 1970s jazz and soul plus Blaxploitation martial arts cinema and modern midwifery mixed with the history of the borderline between Oakland and Berkeley.

Pulsing along beneath the surface like a rhythm section are Chabon's usual themes: Love-hetero, homo, parental, and between same sex friends. Multicultural clash and blending with a strong Jewish flavor. Fatherhood-what does it mean, how is it ever done right, what does it have to do with manhood? Last but not least, the mystery of females-their ferocity, their needs, their hormones, their destinies.

Words, words, words. I happen to love smart Jewish males showing off. Details, lovingly and lengthily described, tossed out into cul de sacs which do not further the plot. Chabon can turn the world into a combination shopping mall/museum. But the plot keeps moving inexorably to a finale.

Telegraph Avenue takes place over just a few weeks. Archy's wife is about to give birth, Brokeland Records about to go under, deep old social, racial, and personal wounds coming back to haunt these two families who are pretty much the salt of the earth when it comes to their neighborhood. They are challenged, they each come close to complete failure. I was challenged to live outside of my life, wondering all the while how on earth life just keeps on.

(Telegraph Avenue is available right now in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in other formats by order.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


The River of Doubt, Candice Millard, Doubleday, 2005, 353 pp

My adult children tell me I am opinionated. Well, first of all, at my age I feel entitled to a few opinions. Here are a couple definitions: "unduly adhering to one's own opinion or to preconceived notion" (Merriam Webster); "someone who isn't afraid to give their personal opinion" (Urban Dictionary). 

I think it boils down to two things. In this age of post-political-correctness, saying what one thinks is fraught, unless you are a political talk radio person or blogger. Opinions become opinionated views if one is not open to reinspecting them or even changing them from time to time.

For years and years I have preferred fiction (novels actually) to nonfiction. My only exceptions to this opinion were biographies and memoirs about writers and artists. In recent months my reading groups have been choosing more nonfiction. I have moaned and groaned, but I always read the chosen book. I have also been reading some history as research for my own memoir. The upshot of all this is that I have changed my opinion or at least altered it. I can learn from nonfiction, but more to the point I can enjoy it.

The River of Doubt did not change my opinion of Teddy Roosevelt, who has always seemed to me to have lived by an annoying ubermacho, war mongering creed. I got some insight into why that is in Candance Millard's book but I still feel that way. However, I also realized that I have a heretofore unadmitted weakness for extreme adventure tales, of which this book is a good example.

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt lost a presidential election and got depressed. He couldn't lead his country, he had no war to fight in, so he turned to his other love: exploration. Apparently, he had always used extreme physical challenges as an antidote for depression. A never before explored river in the heart of the Amazon jungle was just the ticket.

While the story has its share of malaria, disgusting creatures, infected injuries and low food rations, it is still a fascinating journey through the jungle. Roosevelt met his match in Brazilian explorer Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, one of the toughest, most principled dudes I have ever met in any book. As these two alpha males duked it out, overcoming every possible barrier to making it down the river and back to civilization, the reader is there with them, their crew, the indigenous peoples, the piranhas, the monkeys and the bugs.

Despite a couple of lulls in the narrative, the story rages on, as though the author were channeling Roosevelt. In fact, she herself spent time on what is now called Rio Roosevelt. I read the whole book in two days. Nonfiction rocks!

(The River of Doubt is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 12, 2012


Two Weeks in Another Town, Irwin Shaw, Random House, 1960, 372 pp

Another novel about Americans in Rome, as was The Imperfectionists, but much better. The era is postwar mid 1950s. Jack Andrus was a hot Hollywood star in the 1940s until World War II completely disrupted his life. He served in the army, came home wounded and scarred, lost both his place in the movie industry and his wife, then emigrated to Paris.

As the novel opens he is married to a French woman of the conservative French wife and mother type. They have two children, have spent whatever passion they once had, and Jack has a boring administrative post in NATO. A call from his old director changes everything.

Off he goes to Rome for two weeks to help his one-time friend in an attempted comeback as a player in the world of cinema. All of Jack's past comes back to haunt him and he spends the two weeks working it out. It is a satisfying, dramatic story because Irwin Shaw struck that magic balance between literary chops and storytelling.

Because I have done so much reading about Europe in the 1950s recently, including the Simone de Beauvoir memoirs, I felt familiar with the Paris and Rome portrayed. Shaw was a screenwriter early in his career and some of his novels, including this one, were made into movies. He knew the movie world from financing to studios to stars. He also had his fingers on the pulse of society and since he lived in Europe from 1951 onwards, had a wider view than some of the America-centered novelists I have read from those years.

I was entertained throughout. Perhaps he went a shade too far on the melodrama but I admired the skill with which he put the reader into the minds and hearts of his characters while imbuing the story with a sense of menace. Life in the late 1950s was not as dull and "normal" as it looked on the surface, especially in Europe. Two Weeks in Another Town offers a glimpse into those times.

(Two Weeks in Another Town is out of print, so best found in libraries or through used booksellers.)