Tuesday, March 27, 2012


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Tete A Tete (The Tumultuous Lives & Loves of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean Paul Sartre), Hazel Rowley, HarperCollins Publishers, 2005, 353 pp

I have been abducted! The tale goes like this: Two years ago I read Beauvoir's incredible account of her investigations into womanhood: The Second Sex. I had already read her four novels: She Came to Stay, The Blood of Others, All Men Are Mortal, and The Mandarins. The novels were intriguing but The Second Sex tempered my feminism in ways that changed me forever.

Last month I acquired a copy of a memoir by Claude Lanzmann (The Patagonian Hare) with the agreement that I would review it for BookBrowse. How could I turn this book down after learning that Lanzmann was one of Beauvoir's lovers and in fact had lived with her from 1952 to 1959? Even though she was in an intimate relationship with Jean Paul Sartre from 1929 until his death in 1980, they never lived together.

My only problem was I knew nothing of Lanzmann. I had read Beauvoir's first volume of autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, but it ends in 1929 just as she first meets Sartre. I knew Beauvoir as a novelist, as a young girl up to her 20th year and as a feminist philosopher but not as a grown woman. It may seem odd to some but for me I could only approach the Lanzmann memoir from the world of Simone de Beauvoir.

I made myself a reading list. I already had Tete A Tete on my own book shelves so that went to the top of the list. Hazel Rowley was an accomplished biographer when she decided to tackle this dual biography. She published Christina Stead: A Biography in 1994, followed by Richard Wright: The Life and Times in 2001. Unlike Deirdre Bair, whose Beauvoir biography was published in 1990 and who had interviewed her subject many times between 1981 and 1986, Rowley worked from Beauvoir and Sartre's letters as well as interviews with their still living lovers and associates. (And isn't it amazing how many viewpoints it takes to encompass these larger than life figures?)

Tete A Tete is fascinating, addictive, and revealing. Rowley says, in the interview at the back of the Harper Perennial paperback edition, that she did not want to write another big fat doorstop of a book on this famous couple. "The answer, I realized, was selectivity. I had to trim my narrative with a sharp razor: sublime detail, but no superfluous detail."

She accomplished her goal beautifully. I tore through pages in which both of these passionate intellectuals came to life as persons with high ideals yet sometimes petty natures, who did their best to live by their ideals as they personified their natures. Beauvoir and Sartre, from the first hours of their relationship, vowed to tell each other everything and kept that vow for over 30 years.

All of Beauvoir's novels are fictionalized accounts of her own affairs: romantic, philosophical, and political. Her memoirs are partial revelations because she chose not to hurt anyone who was still alive when she wrote them. But in their letters, they told all, so that Hazel Rowely could tell us more, not excusing them but giving a picture of two hardworking, prolific public intellectuals who developed their views by living them.

By the end of the book, having been through all the relationships of both, the secrets, the lies, the passion and the heartbreaks, the highs and lows of career, the travel, disillusionment, aging, and death, I was weeping as uncontrollably as Beauvoir often did. But I was still hungry for more. I opened Beauvoir's second volume of memoirs, The Prime of Life and continued to read.

(Tete A Tete is available in hardcover, paperback or eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.
To find it at your nearest Indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Friday, March 23, 2012


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The Paris Wife, Paula McLain, Ballantine Books, 2011, 314 pp

I was so curious to read this novel about Ernest Hemingway's first wife. Not that I am a big Hemingway fan; I only like For Whom the Bell Tolls. The rest of his novels left me either unimpressed or filled with something between anger and disgust. Sacrilege I know, but that is the way of it.

Hadley Richardson, the wife, got what she deserved in my opinion. She comes across as far too innocent, too accommodating. She tried to turn her man into a faithful and dependable husband and as it became obvious that was not going to happen, she went on hoping. In the novel, when she finally left him, it came as a long overdue relief.

Reading about all the other authors and artists was pretty much a People Magazine-type experience. F Scott Fitzgerald did it much better in The Beautiful and the Damned. Somehow Nancy Horan's Loving Frank, though a similar tale, was exciting, tragic, even inspiring. I was expecting the same from The Paris Wife but did not get it. I am not sure if that was due to Hadley or Paula McLain; probably a bit of both.

Women beware when you decide to stand by your man if he is a self-absorbed, troubled genius. Know yourself, keep some life of your own, don't let him get away with being a jerk or cut him loose before it is too late. I mean, what do you suppose would happen if you behaved in the ways these men do? Only Simone de Beauvoir managed that and even she had her troubles.

(The Paris Wife is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Monday, March 19, 2012


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Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury USA, 2011, 258 pp

Because Jesmyn Ward's Katrina novel won the National Book Award and is a contender in the Tournament of Books, it has been widely reviewed, mostly favorably. So I won't go into plot or spend any of our valuable time rehashing what others have already said.

My reading experience of Salvage the Bones was mixed. I certainly got involved with the story and the characters. She put me into their world and made me care what would happen to them as she also personalized the Katrina experience. But something kept jarring my attention.

For days after finishing I found myself thinking about the book and knew that I had been emotionally affected. It was during these moments of reliving the story that I figured out what had bothered me.

Ms Ward chose to have the fifteen-year-old Esch tell us what happened during the twelve days of Katrina. When Esch speaks to her brothers, father, and friends in the book's dialogue, she sounds like an impoverished Black teen from a small Mississippi town. But when she is narrating to the reader she sounds like a well-educated writer and professor of creative writing; she sounds like Jesmyn Ward instead of Esch.

To get technical, I wonder why our author wrote her novel in the first person narrative mode instead of the third person limited. In fact, she mixed the two, while staying in first person and thus diluted my reading pleasure.

Otherwise, I think Salvage the Bones is a prizeworthy and important novel for giving us one of the stories that should accompany all those images we saw on the news feeds in 2005.

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

Sunday, March 18, 2012


San Francisco Boy, Lois Lenski, J B Lippincott Company, 1955, 176 pp


Felix is a Chinese boy of ten or eleven living in San Franciso's Chinatown with his sister Mei Gwen who is nine and his six-year-old twin brothers Frankie and Freddie. We don't know why the boys have American names and the girl has a combination name, though from other books I've read, it was common in the 1950s for Asian immigrants to give American names to their children.

Felix can do pretty much what he likes after school but Mei Gwen has to watch over the twins. Their mother works in a jeans factory (more like a sweat shop) and Mei Gwen goes there after school to babysit the little kids who are brought to work by their moms. The father of the family is head cook at a restaurant.

After some free time, Felix must go to Chinese school in the late afternoon and arrives at home very late. He is unhappy in the city and yearns for the tiny rural town of Alameda where the family lived when he was very young. Mei Gwen has grown up in the city and has friends of all nationalities for blocks around.

Though the story follows the usual Lois Lenski arc, it is the most exotic of her books due to the location and subject matter. Through the children we get a tour of the key San Francisco sights and the relation of Chinese to other nationalities there.

Lenski presents these people with her customary grace and tolerance of the differences in people. Her love of children and her fascination with the growing up process is palpable in San Francisco Boy. I was captivated on every page.

(San Francisco Boy is out of print and best found in libraries or from used book sellers.)

Friday, March 16, 2012


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The Magic Barrel, Bernard Malamud, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1959, 214 pp

I am not particularly a fan of short stories. I like novels because they go on long enough for me to sink into the story, the characters, the ideas. When I read a whole book of short stories, I feel I am getting interrupted too often and become annoyed. But Bernard Malamud, whose first two novels have been impressive and made me a fan, won the National Book Award for this collection in 1959, making it "required reading" on my list for that year. Sometimes My Big Fat Reading Project feels like a college syllabus; in fact it is a self-created one, making it a reading college with one student where the professors are all authors so I don't mind.

As it turned out, the stories in The Magic Barrel were amazing. I was fully engaged from the first page and finished the collection feeling satisfied by each story. Because they were not related except for their variations on the theme of Jewish life in America, instead of a buffet I felt I was having a series of complete meals created by a versatile chef.

I was raised in a Lutheran family though I gravitated to Jewish kids as I was growing up. While I can't say having those friends make me any kind of expert on what it means to be Jewish, I suppose I developed an affinity for Jews and escaped the peril of seeing a Jewish person as part of a generality or stereotype.

I say this because great writing about an aspect of life, such as religious or national or racial origins, also dispels stereotypes and enriches the understanding of a reader who is not a member of that religion, nation or race. I think what Malamud does that is so powerful is give the reader the experience of being Jewish through the individual consciousnesses of his characters and thereby overcomes the sense of otherness which prejudice and oppression drape over such individuals. He performs his own magic.

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


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Arcadia, Lauren Groff, Hyperion, 2012, 289 pp

This book is amazing! Because I had reservations about her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, I was wary but Lauren Groff has exceeded the promise I felt in one of her early short stories and has broken the spell of the sophomore novel curse.

Arcadia is a hippie commune in upstate New York. The founders spent some time as nomads, traveling around the country in a calvalcade of broken down trucks and vans, until one of the members inherited the New York property. How we did relive the caveman history back in the day.

The somewhat hapless but utterly endearing hero is Bit, born soon after the group arrived at Arcadia, when they still lived in their vehicles and in tents. He was always small and got his name, Little Bit, from the charismatic but cracked musician Handy, around whom the group revolved. Bit's mother is Hannah, who suffers from depression. His father Abe, one of the "leaders" in a leaderless community, is strong, tireless and the kind of guy who gave hippies a good name; the kind we all tried to be.

Yes, I was a hippie, from 1969 to 1973. Along with my first husband, we made our trip to California in an Econoline van, camping, smoking weed and hash, eating vegetarian food, and attempting to create a Free School in San Francisco. Later we had two sons, started the first Macrobiotic food store in Ann Arbor, MI and lived communally with friends.

So I know that what goes on in Arcadia is true, not exaggerated and certainly not watered down. Lauren Groff writes like the daughter of hippies, which she very well may be, but unlike many hippie progeny, she is not bitter or resentful or mocking. She has captured the spirit, the underlying philosophy and purpose of that segment of the generation who though we had invented a counter-culture.

When Bit is a young teen, Arcadia comes apart. He is thrust into the "outside" basically grieving for what had seemed to him a paradise and for Helle, the love of his life, who is the daughter of Handy and a very fucked up young lady. The rest of the novel is about how he survives, copes, raises a daughter, and tries to follow the dream as he saw it.

This is a sad, sad book. As sad as a Child ballad, as sad as the story of mankind, as sad as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The writing is so beautiful it hurts. Bit's life is a tragedy but not a hopeless one. Many from Arcadia were ruined but I guess not any more than the percentage of ruined people who come out of any generation, any social strata, any cult, any war.

There will always be survivors who hold to the fundamental truths and do their best to live by them, come what may. Bit is a bit like Jesus, a bit like Job, a bit like any true hero, and a bit like you and me.

I suppose there will be critics, gainsayers and readers who don't get it, but if Arcadia is not one of the most talked about novels of 2012, I will be surprised. Actually, I will be bummed. Please read it and talk among yourselves or leave your comments here.

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

Monday, March 12, 2012


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The Cave, Robert Penn Warren, Random House, 1959, 403 pp

Robert Penn Warren is of course best known for his 1946 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All The King's Men, probably his best and a hard one to top. He rather fell out of favor with critics after that, but I have enjoyed all his novels as I've read them. He has that essence that all great Southern novelists have, getting down deep and dirty into the souls of the hill people, and the effects of poverty, loneliness, and stature either lost or never gained.

The Cave takes place in a small Tennessee town during the 1950s, a place where modern life may come in slowly but come in it does. Dominating the town is a hard-living, uproarious man who hunted bear, chased women, played guitar and drank whiskey until he lost his heart to a fine young woman. Jack Harrick then gave up his wild ways, got baptized by his best childhood friend, a preacher, settled down to his business as a blacksmith, and did his best to raise two sons. His best was not good enough.

When the elder son, Jasper, gets lost in the caves, the search for him brings out the worst in everyone living in Johnson, TN. Greed, power, fame, and a desperate need to escape take over its people and Robert Penn Warren lays bare both the individual and collective emotions of his characters.

At first the story felt awkwardly told and I could not begin to guess where he was going with it. Eventually though, the characters, their stories, their entanglements emerged and converged and drew me into the spell of his writing. I resonated and stumbled around with these people in a fever-like state that is so much like real life and so little like much of the current writing that issues forth from MFA grads.

The Cave is like a good, old fashioned country song. It tells us how the various characteristics and quirks of American life combine in a part of the nation which still has its own flavor to this day. Most definitely a worthwhile read.

(The Cave 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.)

Saturday, March 10, 2012


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Gathering of Waters, Bernice McFadden, Akashic Books, 2012, 252 pp

"Both the Native man and the African believed in animism, which is the idea that souls inhabit all objects, living things, and even phenomena. When objects are destroyed and bodies perish, the souls flit off in search of a new home."

When I read this quote in the early pages of Gathering of Waters, I was prepared to love the book. That did not quite happen, though I mostly enjoyed reading it. The trouble for me was an unevenness of intensity in the story, because the subject matter is intense, violent, and provocative.

The narrator is a place: Money, Mississippi is a small town in the delta, first built by real estate developers in 1900 and always racially divided. Through the generations of its residents, a single soul returns over and over. She is wanton, without conscience, as well as destructive. In 1955 comes the real incident culminating in the hanging of Emmett Till. The final pages are set during Hurricane Katrina.

I felt there were too many times when the narrative slowed or flattened out into small day by day details. The writing suffered from a subdued emotional tone.

Other than that, the premise and construction are not quite like anything else I've read. Both races have admirable and despicable characters. I could feel the Toni Morrison influence and tribute throughout. Because of these qualities and because she has a moral vision I found intriguing, I will read more Bernice McFadden.

(Gathering of Waters is available in hardcover or paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

Thursday, March 08, 2012


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Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru, Alfred A Knopf, 2012, 384 pp

What could a UFO hippie cult, a British rock star, a Spanish Franciscan priest, the son of a Sikh and his autistic son have in common? The Mohave Desert, for one thing. A search for meaning that connects the earthbound physical plane with the spiritual, for another. In his fourth novel, Hari Kunzru confronts head on the quandries of modern life while walking a fine line between irony and emotion, between serious and lighthearted, without missing a step.

He opens with a piece of flash fiction involving Coyote, Trickster of the World, attempting to make crystal meth. With a little help from his friends Cottontail Rabbit, Gila Monster, and Southern Fox, Coyote succeeds. The author succeeds in purveying a recipe for meth right there in his novel. Dangerous!

Jumping frenetically around in time with incidents from 1947 to 2008 to 1778 to 1958 to 1969 to 1920 and so on, Kunzru reveals the power of a god-like force, emanating from a rock formation called The Pinnacles, to a variety of characters. These people share the quality of standing to one degree or another outside what would be thought of as normal or mainstream.

When any author goes after the big ideas he or she has to anchor the story somewhere. Kunzru anchors his by means of these characters. Jaz Matharu, a math whiz, successful beyond his wildest dreams in terms of income and marriage, carries with him the fatal flaw of personal uncertainty and the Achilles heel of his origins. An American born son of Sikh immigrants, Jaz married Lisa, a stunning beauty of white American liberal sentiments and together they produced the autistic Raj. By the age of four, the child has ruined the idyllic love and life of this New York City couple, driving a deep wedge between their cultural differences.

The cult members, the rock star, the priest and other characters frame the story. The desert itself serves as another anchor. Even readers who have never experienced the searing desolate miles of the Southwestern American desert will feel its eerie power and sense the unease found there.

While on vacation in the Mojave, Jaz and his wife intersect with the history and characters already introduced in the story. When little Raj disappears in the midst of his parents' marital meltdown, the power and disquiet of the location become the forces that will be either the destruction or the salvation of their family. I found it fitting that Kunzru left me wondering whether destruction or salvation was the result of these forces in the final chapter.

This is not a nice, good family saga about people working out their issues. Nor is it a neatly wrapped up story with a hopeful ending. It is as full of strange goings on as is daily life in the 21st century. Along with a large dose of entertainment, Kunzru made me look around and wonder through a different lens than I usually employ.

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

Tuesday, March 06, 2012


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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson, Grove Press, 2011, 230 pp


The title of this compulsively readable memoir is a direct quote from Jeanette Winterson's adoptive mother. Though I am sure my mother wanted me to be happy and certainly she was a good deal more sane than Mrs Winterson, the motherly quote felt like something that lurked behind my mom's parenting rationale.

I've not read Jeanette Winterson's fiction. Her novels are on a list I never seem to get to; a list that includes Octavia Butler and early novels by Jane Smiley and Hilary Mantel. Like many voracious readers, my unread lists haunt me.

But now, though apparently her first, award-winning novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, is a fictional account of Winterson's early life and covers some of the same life experiences as the memoir, my determination to read her is renewed. Her writing is exquisite. She handles painful emotion with a searing gaze mixed with wit. So English, I know. Playing down the horrific with a deadpan sardonic stoicism. But I also felt a huge heart beating.

Left out on a frigid front stoop overnight, being locked in the coal hole, having her secreted but discovered books burned, are incidents out of Dickens, but they made her a fierce fighter and a crusader on a quest for happiness.

It seems that adopted kids looking for the hidden birth mother are everywhere these days. Jeanette's experience is familiar territory including the likelihood of disappointment once Mum is found. In this case, Mrs Winterson being the over-the-top witch that she was, two mothers turned out to be possibly too much. The message seems to be that not many of us get the mothering we crave, no matter what.

I loved the portrait that emerged here: a survivor of abuse, poverty, and the sexual orientation wars, whose love of reading and refusal to give in did in fact bring to her about as much happiness as anyone gets in life. If you are female and/or adopted and/or gay, or just a "normal" female, you need to read this.

Saturday, March 03, 2012


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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu, Pantheon, 2010, 234 pp

Here is another novel I chose because of the title. I had fun reading this story. More than anything it reminded me of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. Charles Yu (yes, the main character shares the author's name) is a time machine repairman, sort of a Cable Guy of time machines. He is searching for his father who he thinks is lost in time, but Charles himself is caught in a time loop. He feels doomed to keep repeating a certain period of his life as he makes the same mistakes over and over.

So instead of a tessaract, he has his weird time loop. Instead of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which, he has TAMMY, an operating system with low self-esteem, and Ed, a virtual dog. They co-exist in a box the size of a refrigerator set sideways, called the TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device. This thing runs on "chronodiegetical technology," a made-up term for something that generates science fictional experiences. It is all very clever, like a creation Michael Chabon's kids would make by combining different Lego sets.

Despite all the intriguing whatchamacallits, the real story is about a boy who grew up trying to assist his dad, an amateur inventor of time travel devices who epically failed and then disappeared. Charles harbors a deep sense of guilt and regret about his dad, leading the author to pursue the cosmic question of how to escape the results of failure.

I personally know only one other person who has read the book and she purely hated it. (We are reading buddies who don't always like the same books but we can nerd out talking about books for hours. We have our own time machine.) She thought it had no plot and threw her copy against a wall. I can understand this reaction but mine was a strong desire to meet Charles Yu, the author that is.

The closest I could come to that was reading interviews with him (just google Charles Yu writer.) He is a lawyer by day, also a husband and father of two small children, and he lives in LA! Maybe I will meet him someday.

(How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe is available in paperback and ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)