Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

Dear and Glorious Physician, Taylor Caldwell, Doubleday and Company, 1959, 562 pp

Can you be mad at someone who is dead? Well, I suppose so. I am mad at Taylor Caldwell because it took me so long to read this book. It was the #7 bestseller of 1959. I have read a fair share of what I call "Jesus books" in My Big Fat Reading Project so far. The tone in these books is usually a similar one of wonder and faith but after a while you see that it is all conjecture because no one writing these books was there. The Gospels in the Bible are I guess the closest thing to a true account.

Anyway, Jesus is just alright with me. I was raised to believe that he loved me; helpful to a child when she feels no one else does. Some of the teachings of Jesus still inform the way I treat others when I am acting in a manner that makes me respect myself: loving my friends, family, and enemies; practicing forgiveness; standing up in opposition to war; etc. But I am pretty much over the historical novels about him.

Dear and Glorious Physician is the story of how Lucanus, son of freed Greek slaves, became Saint Luke. Caldwell worked on the book for decades. Her descriptions of ancient Greece, Rome, Alexandria, and the Holy Land are nicely done, but much too frequent. While reading this novel, I learned to skim.

I also admired the passages showing Luke's healing powers. Though he is pictured as a man with an almost mystical ability to heal the sick, he could not heal his own broken heart and bitterness toward God after the death of the first woman he loved. It took the message of Jesus to do that.

Another interesting historical aspect was the way Caldwell traced the many predictions concerning Jesus the Messiah, showing that philosophers and mystics of all stripes were aware of these prophecies.

Overall it was a mixed reading experience. Some parts gripped me and sped by. Others were tedious and felt endless.

I came across a great interview with Taylor Caldwell when she was in her seventies and still writing bestsellers. (I have five more to go in the next decade of the reading plan.) She was wonderfully crotchety and inconsistent--I heard the voice I sometimes hear in her books. She took her work seriously and admitted that it was grueling hard work. She made a lot of money from it and was never financially dependent on a man though she was married many times. What a woman!

(Dear and Glorious Physician is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Monday, February 27, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

The Summer Without Men, Siri Hustvedt, Picador, 2011, 182 pp

I don't much pick up books because of their covers, but I am often seduced by a title, as with this short but smart novel by Siri Hustvedt. I had read an earlier novel of hers, What I Loved, which left me shaking with awe.

Hustvedt is able to bore right down to the emotional impact people have on each other. She is self-assured on many other topics as well: psychology, art, poetry, and as it turns out in The Summer Without Men, the inner life of teenage girls.

Mia Fredrickson is a poet, published but not particularly successful, married to a self-absorbed and successful neuroscientist. He goes all midlife crisis on her after 30 years of marriage and calls for a "pause" while he has an affair with a much younger woman.

First sentence: "Sometime after he said the word pause, I went mad and landed in the hospital." This is what I like about Hustvedt. When her characters get upset, they don't go halfway. She is diagnosed with Brief Psychotic Disorder, meaning she was only temporarily crazy, but after being released from the hospital, decides to spend the summer back in her small Minnesota hometown.

Somehow Hustvedt manages to combine a wry humor (something along the lines of Nora Ephron) with some deep psychological insight and a good dose of hard-line feminism. The mix creates a moving meditation on womanhood from the stages of budding sexuality through young motherhood to mature (sort of) woman and all the way to widows in assisted living.

Mia is no slouch and she is definitely not airy-fairy. As she sorts through emotion, the meaning of love, the pitfalls of marriage and the weaknesses of men, she made me happy to be female but even happier to be a reader.

(The Summer Without Men is available in paperback and ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

Henry and Ribsy, Beverly Cleary, William Morrow & Company, 1954, 192 pp


This was the best book about Henry Huggins so far. Ribsy, Henry's dog, has been getting in trouble lately. Henry wants to go fishing with his dad. The deal is if Henry can keep Ribsy out of trouble for several weeks, he can go fishing.

It is hard, Beezus helps Henry, but Ramona is worse than Ribsy. All the incidents are hilarious as the kids manage to keep Ribsy in line. The pace in this book is relentless.

Then comes the fishing trip with all the great descriptions of the Oregon coast along with the details about how much of a fishing trip consists of discomfort and boredom. Henry as usual is in competition with Scooter.

The climax of the fishing trip is so exciting. I was reading as fast as I could. Henry and Ribsy is the standout of the collection up to this point.

(There are currently four copies of Henry and Ribsy on hand in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

Free Fall, William Golding, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1959, 253 pp

I finished this book three weeks ago. I kept no notes as I read it and was enduring various major family and physical issues at the time. All I remember is that it moved me, it spoke to me. It was his most accessible book so far (I am reading Golding's books in the order that he wrote them.)

A man who was born in poverty to a mother supporting herself by prostitution, who found himself an orphan at five years old or so, who became a successful painter, looks back over his life. He wants to discover when he lost his freedom, his power of choice.

What was extremely interesting to me was that he survived all manner of horrific incidents but though in his adulthood he had managed to achieve the usual security one strives to accomplish, he had lost his personal freedom.

Well, if that isn't the story of life, I don't know what is. I have also discovered through my reading project that it was THE major concern of 1950s literature.

(Free Fall is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) To find it at your nearest indie store, click on the cover image above)

Friday, February 24, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon, Alfred A Knopf, 2010, 288 pp

This was just great. A novel about Aristotle during his years as tutor of a teenaged Alexander the Great. Annabel Lyon is yet another wonderful Canadian author.

Finishing The Life of Greece by Will Durant just two weeks prior was the best preparation for a good deep reading experience. After all, these two characters loomed large in Greek history and had far reaching effects throughout the ancient Greek world.

Durant gave his signature balanced account of political, philosophical and social life in The Life of Greece, but Annabel Lyon brought the lens in even closer by including close ups of the women. Aristotle's wife was a former concubine gifted to him by a Persian ruler. The first paragraph of Chapter One, the first sentence:
"The rain falls in black cords, lashing my animals, my men, and my wife, Pythias, who last night lay with her legs spread while I took notes on the mouth of her sex."

Yes, first person. Aristotle tells the story from his scientific, philosophical Grecian mind. He married Pythias, he thirty-seven, she fifteen, and ravished her night after night. "I tried to make it up to her with kindness. I treated her with courtliness, gave her money, addressed her softly, spoke to her of my work." Alas, she is frigid but takes care of her husband with an insightful hand. He is prone to depression, a bit bipolar.

Alexander had close ties with his mother, who would have babied him into obscurity had it not been for his hard-fighting, ruthless father, King Philip of Macedon. Aristotle perceives the conflict laid in by the parents and does his best to prepare Alexander for the life ahead of him; to instill some wisdom and reasoning power as a balance to the young conqueror's intense physical energy and will to rule the world.

On it goes. Despite his intelligence and insatiable curiosity, the philosopher never quite achieved his dreams, which included teaching at Plato's school in Athens. But oh what exhilarating times he lived in, what out-sized historical figures he influenced!

Interesting that Mary Renault wrote Fire From Heaven (1969), a novel about Aristotle from Alexander's perspective. Now fifty years later Annabel Lyon turns the perspective around. I just love smart women.

(The Golden Mean is available in paperback and ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher, Razorbill, 2007, 288 pp

I put off reading this story of teen suicide for five years. For over a year, it was one of the hottest YA sellers in the bookstore where I used to work. I just wasn't sure I could deal with the subject matter. I'm still not sure about that (I have some deeply ingrained feeling that suicide is taboo) but I am sure this is a masterful novel.

Hannah Baker, new girl in small town, gets bullied in subtle, almost psychological ways right from the first few weeks of high school. Actually it begins with teasing and I remember how emotionally painful it was to be teased by male classmates and then have certain girls join in.

Hannah is not weak, not even all that innocent. She is just dreaming about boys and friends and the usual things young teen girls dream about. The bottom line is that she has no one to talk to; no best friend, no boy friend, parents distracted by money troubles. When she goes to a counselor (male) at school for help after what amounted to rape, he lets her down in the worst possible way.

I was not crazy about the structure. The 13 reasons are recorded by Hannah on seven cassette tapes, one reason per side. By a clever ruse, she makes sure each person who either tormented her or failed her is compelled to listen to the tapes after her death.

Clay Jenson had a crush on Hannah but his insecurities prevented him from getting close to her. The book follows Clay through a day and night as he listens to the tapes and fills in his back story while Hannah tells hers.

The structure seemed a bit too forced, a miffed attempt by the author to be clever, but if I had been 15 or 16 when I read the book, I would have been enthralled. The overly melodramatic mood, the revengeful tone of Hannah's tapes (is suicide a form of revenge? I thought it was inspired by apathy) and Clay's extremely dense but grief-stricken attitude all made me cringe.

Yet I could not stop reading. In fact I stayed up all night with Clay, to find out all thirteen reasons and to see the bullies get what they deserved.

(Thirteen Reasons Why is available in paperback on the YA shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your nearest indie store, click on the cover image above.)

Monday, February 20, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

Last Night in Montreal, Emily St John Mandel, Unbridled Books, 2009, 247 pp

Those Canadian novelists are something, especially the women. This stunning novel is the first from Emily St John Mandel, born in British Columbia.

Lilia is a young woman compelled to travel. After a certain short amount of time in any given location, she must move on, not so much because she wants to leave but because she needs to go. Like any compulsion, the reason for it is lost to Lilia in a cloud of amnesia.

The novel opens on a day when she has just left a man who loved her, who accepted that she would not reveal her mysteries. Since this entire story is a mystery, we are drawn right in by the bereft puzzlement suffered by Eli, a frustrated grad student unable to complete his thesis on endangered languages.

Eventually Eli goes in search of Lilia and her story is revealed: abusive insane mother, rescuing father, a life on the road, a detective in pursuit. A horrific story of alienation and frustrated dreams emerges, centered on a woman who does not remember the defining incident of her life.

Mandel's writing is a crystal clear style of unpretentious storytelling. She could write a page-turning thriller, and in a sense she has, but it is the characters and their relationships that thrill. The feeling is almost gothic but the lives are embedded in our times. Daphne du Maurier reincarnated?

Near the end, when you know almost everything, all you want to know is will Lilia and Eli find each other again?

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

Otis Spofford, Beverly Cleary, William Morrow and Company, 1953, 191 pp


Otis Spofford is the "bad boy" in the neighborhood. His mother is a single parent, the ballet teacher of the town, and is not home much. He first appeared in Ellen Tebbits, where he was fond of tormenting Ellen.

In this volume he gets his own story and is introduced like this: "There was nothing Otis Spofford liked better than stirring up a little excitement." He proceeds to stir up trouble at school and in the neighborhood but always weasels his way out. He clearly is in need of attention.

Eventually he meets his match when one of Ellen's friends gets her to stand up to him. (Otis has been chasing Ellen on the way to school and indulging in other torments.) Ellen gets him good and he pays a mighty price, but in the end the balance of power shifts only a small amount.

The book left me feeling uneasy. In one way it was true to its times, because kids mainly had to work out their troubles with each other on their own in those days. These days with the huge amount of attention on bullying, Otis looks unrealistically innocent. But Cleary does present an example of how to fight back.

(Otis Spofford is on the children's shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.

Friday, February 17, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

The Confusion, Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, 2004, 815 pp

I remember like it was yesterday when I first read Neal Stephenson. I learned about him from a lit blog in 2004 when I had started reading blogs but had not yet started my own. I read Snow Crash (1992) and was blown away. He opened up a whole new world of reading for me called "cyber punk" and led me to William Gibson and on from there.

I have read Stephenson's books in the order he wrote them: The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver. The only glitch is that his books are so long and take me over a week to read. I never seem to catch up. Every time a new Stephenson comes out (Reamde came out last September) I read another one, but I am still behind by three.

Cryptonomicon (1999) was his first venture into the past, with part of the action taking place in the present, being the 1990s at that point, and the remainder during World War II. The infamous Bobby Shaftoe makes his first appearance.

Then in 2003 came Quicksilver (the first volume of a trilogy, The Baroque Cycle.) These books are set in the 1600s. We meet the original Bobby Shaftoe, aka King of the Vagabonds, aka Half-cocked Jack, due to an unfortunate incident involving his cock. We also meet the indomitable Eliza, Isaac Newton, Leibniz, Louis XIV, and a lesser known member of the Royal Society, Daniel Waterhouse, whose descendant is a major player in Crytonomicon.

I got to meet Neal Stephenson once, the year that Books Expo America was held in Los Angeles. I blurted out garbled gushing phrases about what a big fan I was and got an autographed copy of Anathem. I will read that one of these days. He is a tiny, slim guy with no hair on his head but a dark beard on his face. He exudes a calm intelligence and is possessed of a shy nature. Hard to believe that he can hold all that he knows in his head--proof to me that the mind is not the brain.

So The Confusion is volume two of The Baroque Cycle. In 815 pages the story moves along a mere four years. Eliza has her tale of woes and triumphs centered in the court of Louis XIV; alternating chapters follow Bobby Shaftoe and his pirate adventures from Spain to Mexico to the Middle East to India and back to England.

Though the volume is packed with action, adventure, sorrow, and history, it seemed just a tad slow compared to Stephenson's earlier books. However, it has been four years since I read Quicksilver. I do remember in each earlier book times when I felt held back by his torrents of words.

I think he is laying a strong and sturdy foundation that will support the conclusions he comes to in the final volume, The System of the World. While these books are hyper-active historical fiction, they are also a look at the foundations of the political, monetary, and scientific issues we now live and grapple with in our daily lives. Never have I had so much fun learning history.

(The Confusion as well as the other volumes in the trilogy, are available in paperback and ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find these books in your nearest indie bookstore click on the cover image above.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

The Story of Civilization II: The Life of Greece, Will Durant, Simon and Schuster, 1939, 671 pp

I took a long break from Will Durant after finishing Volume I: Our Oriental Heritage. When I cracked open The Life of Greece, it wasn't long before the Trojan War and Homer's legends showed up. About 40 pages actually. So I went to read The Iliad. That took me a long time on the 10 page a day plan. I intended to read The Odyssey, but kept putting it off.

Meanwhile I had begun to read novels by Nikos Kazantzakis beginning with Zorba the Greek, then The Greek Passion, followed by Freedom or Death. I must credit Kazantzakis for giving me a glimpse into the hearts and minds of the Greek people (and I suppose I should also give a nod to Eugenides and Middlesex.)

My personal reading odyssey finally led me back to The Life of Greece. I buckled down, reading a small section a day for months with frequent breaks and finally got to the end. It was worth all the work it took to read it. I feel I could not complete my quest to be truly well-read without reading at least some history.

Because of Durant's self-professed goal to approach history by covering the entire expanse of civilization (from government, religion and philosophy to the arts, daily life and commerce as well as the progressions of wars and leaders) these volumes have given me a broad overview that now informs my reading and my understanding of current events. He has unlocked for me the old conundrum: you don't know what you don't know.

At some point in my schooling I was forced to read The Golden Fleece. I did not get it at all. All I remember is some guys called argonauts and "rosy fingered dawn." Now that I have read about the ancient beginnings, the rise, the Golden Age, and the fall of Greece; now that I have learned when and how the great philosophers, the dramatists and even Alexander the Great fit into the history of Greece, I feel oriented in an entirely new way as a reader. Just as a small example, I learned that Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great during Alexander's teen years.

I understand why we were made to learn about Greece, Plato, Aristotle, etc in school. The template for modern civilization was formed in Greece, a true crossroads of East and West. Mankind is still playing on that stage. I have begun Volume III: Caesar and Christ and am determined to press on until I get through the series. Wish me luck!

(The Life of Greece is available as an ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Whitney Houston

Goodbye to one of my musical heroines. Her beauty, her voice, her spirit have always been an inspiration to me. But of course, her life had its pain and sorrow. Now she can lay her burden down. I wish her well wherever she is going.

"God respects me when I work, but he loves me when I sing." Tagore

The story from my hometown paper: The Los Angeles Times.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


The Story of Civilization I: Our Oriental Heritage, Will Durant, Simon and Schuster, 1935, 938 pp


I read this first volume of The Story of Civilization off and on for over a year. It was my first successful attempt at reading history and taught me how to do so. I have to thank Will Durant for that. Finishing it was a triumph for me as a student of literature, the world, and life.

We all probably remember doing a unit in Social Studies on the cradle of civilization, Babylonia and all that. Boring but some cool pictures. My theory on the study of history during childhood is that we have our whole lives ahead of us, we are interested in the future, not the past. So to that teacher who did her best with me, I can report that I finally learned what is so important about the cradle of civilization. Our Oriental Heritage even got me to read The Epic of Gilgamesh.

I felt enriched and full of learning. I had many ah ha moments and wish that I had taken notes. Most of all I learned (as if I did not already know) that the same insanities have been replayed over and over for thousands of years. It became true for me that though we have made great strides in learning to control and handle the material world, we lag in mental and emotional growth and have not brought about much more peace or security.

I grew to appreciate what a long and winding road mankind is traveling. If it is our destiny to evolve to any sort of higher state, it will not be happening anytime soon and attempts to predict such an evolution are laughable at best though entertaining to contemplate. And yet, knowing where we have come from and how it has gone has value. Our Oriental Heritage gave me hope. We are capable of much understanding, we can create and build amazing things, even while we are stupid, greedy and much too adept at destruction.

Durant takes the reader from the earliest evidences of civilization through ancient Sumeria, Egypt, and Babylonia and the countries of the Old Testament. He covers India, China, and Japan. As he says in the Preface, "I wish to tell as much as I can, in as little space as I can, of the contributions that genius and labor have made to the cultural heritage of mankind." He did do that in as readable a history as I have come across.

(The Story of Civilization volumes are out of print. They are best found in libraries and through used book sellers.)

Thursday, February 09, 2012


Will & Ariel Durant, A Dual Autobiography, Simon and Schuster, 1977, 406 pp


This is the first book by Will Durant that I ever completed. In April, 2001, I was in the midst of his first volume in The Story of Civilization series. (More about that in my next post.) I had attempted to study history in college, but being a lazy student in those days, I would get bored. From my college texts it seemed that history was just a list of rulers and wars. I could not see how it was helping me to understand the world. Later in life I actually learned how to study by looking up the words I did not know in a dictionary, using a globe and an atlas to find locations geographically, and taking the time to ponder how I could use what I was studying in life. When I heard that Will Durant wrote books about history and philosophy (another subject that baffled me in college) with the aim of making them accessible to lay readers, I got curious.

So while making my way through Our Oriental Heritage, I discovered this autobiography of Will and his wife Ariel. Will Durant began his education studying religion, because his mother wanted him to be a priest. Like many people, not being really sure what he wanted to do or be in life, he tried to please his mother and dutifully entered the seminary after college. But his real passion lay in history and philosophy. In his autobiography he relates how the study of history and philosophy led to the loss of his religious beliefs. (More about that in tomorrow's post.)

He became a teacher instead and in 1926 published a book called The Story of Philosophy. (I have read about three quarters of that one and it DID open up the mysteries of philosophy for me.) The book was a surprising bestseller and led Durant into a career as a traveling lecturer. He went all over the country, mostly by train, giving talks to many types of groups and continued to do this for most of the rest of his life. He was like a rock star of history. Between tours, he would travel the world, visiting the countries and historical sites about which he was writing; then he would go home and organize his data into books.

Back when he was still a teacher he met and married one of his students, Ariel, who was only 14 at the time! More rock star behavior. Wasn't it Jerry Lee Lewis who married a child bride? But also perhaps evidence of how deeply involved in history Durant was. Back in ancient times, plenty of women married when they were 14. Ariel became his devoted helper and by the seventh volume of The Story of Civilization, he gave her equal authorial billing.

Here is what I had to say in April 2001 when I finished A Dual Autobiography:

"I just spent almost a week of my life reading this book. It was utterly fascinating to me. Will Durant was a lover of philosophy and history. I can't even imagine how many books he must have read.

He devoted his life to writing about philosophy and history so that the common literate man could learn it, understand it, and hopefully learn from it, therefore becoming able to assist in building a lasting civilization.

I have found a new hero. I would like to read all his books, though it would take me so long. I wish I could have known him."

Yes, I was right. It is taking me years and years to get through his books. But every hour spent has turned out to be worth it.

(Will Durant's books are out of print; a crime in my opinion. They can be found in libraries and through used book sellers. I purchased the entire eleven volume Story of Civilization series for $40 at a Friend of the Library sale in my town.)

Wednesday, February 08, 2012


The House on the Lagoon, Rosario Ferre, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1995, 407 pp

I belong to four reading groups, all of which meet in real time. Because I read so much, I am always dying for people to discuss books with, but reading group picks are an unpredictable mix. What a treat it is then to read a great book I might otherwise have missed if it weren't for those reading groups.

The House on the Lagoon is historical fiction set in Puerto Rico; Rosario Ferre is a Puerto Rican writer, poet and essayist. She writes in both Spanish and English, self-translating her books. The English edition of this novel is apparently out of print, but can be found in libraries and through used book sellers.

Buenaventura Mendizabal, a Spanish immigrant, arrived penniless on the shores of Puerto Rico in 1917 with nothing to recommend him but a good family name. He rose to be a wealthy man in the highest levels of Puerto Rican society and begat a dynasty, passing on the ruthless and violent ways of Spanish conquest. Through the generations his descendants intermingled and even at times intermarried with other levels of society and heritage, as is the way of colonized lands.

When I was in grade school, we were taught that Puerto Rico was an island of friendly people who were proud to live in a United States territory and whose fondest dream was that their island would become a state. So typical of the "Social Studies" taught to us in the 1950s. Reading The House on the Lagoon gave me a much truer picture of Puerto Rican history in the 20th century.

So that is fine on an educational level, but this novel works on many levels, one of which is a clear-eyed look at the position of women in a culture that combines Spanish aristocracy, wealth and business with the indigenous population. In that regard it is a triumph of historical writing including politics, finance, the arts and real social studies, as well as a finely wrought piece of literature.

Isabel Monfort is writing her first novel. It is to be a history of the Mendizabal family, known to her because she is married to Quentin, the grandson of Buenaventura and current head of the family business. In alternating chapters we read Isabel's novel-in-progress and Quentin's reactions to her writing. Thus we are given both the male and female perspective as the history evolves and leads to a stunning conclusion.

Many thanks to the wonderful Mary Helen Ponce, a fine writer herself and member of one of my reading groups, for recommending the book. We eagerly await Mary Helen's next novel!

(The House on the Lagoon is available in English and Spanish, hardcover and paperback here.)

Monday, February 06, 2012


Corn Farm Boy, Lois Lenski, J B Lippincott Company, 1954, 180 pp

In the tenth volume of her American Regional Series, Lois Lenski goes to Iowa. Dick is the middle child of a corn farming family. He suffers from what was called rheumatism back in the 1950s and the condition sometimes keeps him in bed when he would rather be driving a tractor. He loves everything about farm work and also saves runts as pets and can heal all kinds of animals.

A corn farm is really a hog farm, but corn must be raised and harvested to feed the hogs. Dick's father rents his farm from his wife's brother who lives in town and takes most of the income of the farm. During the course of the story the reader gets a good overview of the cycle of raising corn and hogs on a farm.

This was the least impressive of the books I have read in the series so far. I had not read it as a child. Dick has to learn to live with his infirmity while his parents must live with their position in the family. I though Uncle Henry, the owner of the farm, was pretty much a creep. But as in all of the books, I got invested in the characters.

Now that I have read 10 of the 17 books in the series, it has dawned on me that each book is contemporary for the year in which it was published. Corn Farm Boy shows life as it was on an Iowan corn farm in 1954, with machinery becoming more important to successful farming. It makes quite a contrast to the agribusiness of today and in that way would be good history for kids.

The most interesting part was the section near the end when they take the hogs to market in Sioux City; the crowds of people, the pens and tunnels through which the hogs go to slaughter, etc all make a big impression.

(Corn Farm Boy is out of print so best found in libraries and through used book sellers.)

Thursday, February 02, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

The Inner Circle, T C Boyle, Viking, 2004, 418 pp

This is one sexy novel!! Be advised that you may feel aroused while reading it and chronically horny in between the hours spent reading. It is a fictional account of the years leading up to and immediately following the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Dr Alfred Kinsey in 1948.

I don't think many people heard the term "open marriage" until the 1970s. In fact, American views on sexuality remained conservative, Puritan and repressive until the "sexual revolution" and "free love" became buzz words as well as an open practice in the 1960s. Alfred Kinsey however, showed that sex before marriage, masturbation, and homosexuality were common practices in the 1930s and 1940s. Such things were never mentioned back then. Churches, mothers, and educators preserved a morality that was proven false by the publication of Kinsey's book, for which he gained wild popularity and of course major moral backlash. His book was a top ten non-fiction bestseller in 1948.

Boyle chose to tell the story through the first person viewpoint of John Milk, a fictional character who serves as Kinsey's first research assistant. Mike is a socially inept nerd, but the set up is brilliant. T C Boyle proves all of Kinsey's research to be truthful by showing us that a socially inept nerd is as horny and open to sexual adventure as any male.

He goes further though in making Milk a besotted, devoted follower of Kinsey, willing to do anything to help the research, even when it involves Kinsey's wife, Milk's wife, and his fellow researchers. Kinsey puts himself and those researchers through a grueling pace over many years as they travel around the United States taking the sexual histories of hundreds of men. The researchers are required never to exhibit being "sex shy". Kinsey himself is a tireless sexual enthusiast, at least as he is portrayed in The Inner Circle, his research lining up exactly with his natural proclivities.

Despite Kinsey's insistence on scientific objectivity and severe statistical methodology, I was left wondering if the "research" was not a tad slanted. But having been raised under the iron hand of the moralist mainstream Christian views on sex, then living the free love life in the 60s, and trying out the open marriage thing in the 70s to equivocal results, I am of the opinion that Alfred Kinsey did us all a favor. I think T C Boyle showed that it takes a slightly wacked guy to break through centuries of repression.

(The Inner Circle is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)