Thursday, May 31, 2012


Divorce Islamic Style, Amara Lakhous, Europa Editions, 2012, 184 pp (Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

The challenge, as well as the potential delight, in reading novels originally written in another language than one's own, is becoming accustomed to the flow of that language and its relation to the customs of the country of origin. Especially, if like myself, the reader speaks and reads only English, a translation must bridge differences in culture, quirks of conversational habits, viewpoints about gender, work, money, and even romance. Amara Lakhous was born in Algeria, speaks fluent Arabic, but lives in Italy and writes in Italian. It took me a while to get used to his style. I have not read many books translated from Italian.

His novel has no particular literary pretensions but is a sparkling political satire set amidst a pseudo-thriller. In alternating chapters, two narrators relate the tale: Christian, having been whisked away from his job as an Italian/Arabic court translator by the Italian Secret Service, is posing as an immigrant from Tunisia. His mission is to discover the members of a suspected Muslim terrorist group.

Sofia, a young, married Egyptian immigrant, is teaching herself Italian and aspires to be a hairdresser, although her husband requires her to wear the veil. The two meet in a cafe situated in the Roman neighborhood Little Cairo, each coming to the cafe to use the call center. They are instantly attracted to each other.

As Christian, whose Tunisian name is Issa, tells of his day by day experiences finding lodging, getting a job making pizza at the restaurant where Sofia's husband works, and trying to find the alleged terrorists, he collides with the contradictions of multicultural Italian life and the absurdities of the War on Terror as it plays out in Rome. He is appalled by the conditions under which recent immigrants must live.

Meanwhile, Sofia's story centers on her awakening to the repressive training of an Islamic wife as she realizes all the opportunities she now has to become a modern European woman. She is hilarious. At times the author's voice leaks through the interior monologues of these two, making them sound too much alike, but Ann Goldstein's translation of the dialogue between the various characters captures the music and cadences of both Italian and Arabic speech. 

Satire is tricky. I usually find myself annoyed by too much absurdity while reading an entire novel in the genre. It happened to me here. Though I was in agreement with the thinly disguised criticisms of bumbling secret service officers, of governmental double standards for immigrants, and of the rampant racial profiling, some scenarios and plot twists went beyond plausibility. On the other hand, it was somehow refreshing to read about political dissent in another country besides my own.

(Divorce Islamic Style is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


The Mansion, William Faulkner, Random House Inc, 1959, 436 pp

The Mansion completes the Snopes trilogy (The Hamlet, 1940 and The Town, 1957.) This novel follows Faulkner's fictional town of Jefferson, MS, all the way up to early 1950s, but since a small Southern town was still quite behind the times in the 1950s and since Faulkner writes always within the hovering shadows of history, it barely feels like a modern story.

The resident psychopath in this volume is Mink Snopes. He is, as they say in the South, a piece of work, who could only have been created by this author: a man of almost zero consequence except for his ability to hold a grudge with the patience of Job.

Other characters whom I have, in a weird sense, grown fond of throughout the trilogy, live out their destinies. All of these destinies are intertwined to such a degree that one small action by a single individual can produce major ripples in the lives of the others. It is these outcomes which drive the plot through the dense thickets of Faulkner's prose.

As always when I read Faulkner, I passed through all the emotions known to man. I struggled with his confounding sentences as I marveled at the sheer storytelling rhythms of his characters' voices. I wanted to quit the book but was compelled to read on. Through the tiny prism of his imagined Yoknapatawpha county, he illuminates all of mankind and especially American mankind. Reading him feels like something that is supposed to be good for you. In the end, it is!

(The Mansion is available in paperback and Google eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, May 25, 2012


The Forgery of Venus, Michael Gruber, William Morrow, 2008, 318 pp

Sometimes you just want to read at a fast pace and not have to think too deeply. Especially if like me, you don't watch TV. Don't get me wrong. Michael Gruber can actually write. He falls into a category of thriller author who is a step or more above the David Baldaaci crowd, plus his subject matter tends toward the cultural: Shakespeare and rare books in The Book of Air and Shadows; painting in The Forgery of Venus.

Painter Chaz Wilmot is the tortured genius type. I always enjoy reading about a genius, either from real life or imagined. I was surprised to find an incident where the artist runs amok, slashing paintings in a museum. Elizabeth Kostova included such a scene in The Swan Thieves, though her book was published two years later. Apparently crimes against art are more prevalent than I realized.

In fact, the thriller aspect here involves several varieties of art crime and features a villain you almost like. In another twist concerning male genius, the artist is the victim instead of the wife. And I loved the fact that Chaz participates in program testing a new drug to enhance creativity, leading him to either channel a famous Spanish painter or go into past life regression. Delicious!

Great read. Michael Gruber is on my list any time he writes a new book. He might have a touch of genius himself.

(The Forgery of Venus is available in paperback and Google eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Looking For Alaska, John Green, Dutton Books, 2005, 221 pp


First of all the title: This earliest novel by John Green has nothing to do with the state of Alaska.

Second of all, though marketed as YA and then promptly banned by schools across the country, I guess for sexual content, I don't think it is solidly YA, but straddles the YA/Adult boundary. Then again, the sexual content is pretty much straight out of a 16-year-old boy's mind, so what? Are we going to ban 16-year-old boys from thinking? I guess that is what the book banners hope.

I liked this novel. It portrays teens quite exactly right. Not the teens we are shown by the media and advertising, but the real ones of the late 20th and early 21st century who like to think deep thoughts while pulling off silly pranks, eating junk food, getting high and/or drunk, and figuring out sex vs love.

It is a boarding school novel for sure which is a great setting for all of the above because there are no parents around. Also it puts kids from all kinds of backgrounds and families with varying values and rules under one system of regulations. Potent mix.

What I loved:

Miles (Pudge) with his fascination for "last words" of famous authors and his search for the "Great Perhaps."
Alaska, who is one of the truly great female characters created by a male author.
Constant references to The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

What I didn't love as much:

The second section when all the friends process the terrible thing that happened (no spoilers here.) Compared to the first free-wheeling, hilarious and realistic part, this section had a teen counsellor drift. Not that I think counselling is a bad thing, but I don't like it when an author is doing it surreptitiously via fiction. No! No! Not OK!

Having worked in a bookstore featuring a strong YA section, I'd heard plenty about John Green. Now I have finally read his first novel and see that he is an accomplished and talented writer. I am looking forward to An Abundance of Katherines.

(Looking For Alaska is available in paperback on the shelves and as an ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012


The Force of Circumstance, Simone de Beauvoir, G P Putnam's Sons, 1964, 658 pp (Librairie Gallimard, Paris, 1963; translated from the French by Richard Howard)

What a long but enriching read this was. The Force of Circumstance is the third volume of the autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir. The physical book itself, which I got in hardcover from the library, weighed so much that my wrists and hands would tire. I only managed to read about 30 pages per sitting. In addition, the subject matter was heavy in the extreme.

This volume covers the years (1945-1963) when Beauvoir and Sartre watched their dreams for a just society (called socialism and at times communism) crumble and fade in France at the hands of monied fascistic right wing politicians. It was compelling to read about this from the viewpoint of a French intellectual. While the United States poured dollars into Europe via the Marshall Plan, fought communism in Korea, and took over Vietnam from the French by stealth and "diplomacy," Beauvoir watched the resurgence of the bourgeoisie in her country. The manic changes in communism as Stalin gave way to Khrushchev, and the attempts to misinterpret, ridicule and discredit Sartre along with Existentialism led her to bouts of depression.

Meanwhile she kept falling in love, traveling, and writing books. She relates in the memoir her entire relationship with American novelist Nelson Algren; then explains how she fictionalized it in The Mandarins. The years she spent researching and writing The Second Sex, then experiencing the subsequent fallout in France (negative) and America (wildly positive), as well as the effects on her of fame and wealth, are portrayed as much from the heart as from the mind.

There is so much more: her changing relationship with Sartre as he turned increasingly to politics; her long love affair with Claude Lanzmann; the horrid, bloody, endless and completely shameful Algerian War for independence. She and Sartre went everywhere: the USSR multiple times, China, Cuba, Brazil, the Sahara Desert and more. They were looking for any evidence that socialism and human rights activism were being successful.

As I read on and on, I kept being struck by the parallels between her life and mine in terms of joys and sorrows at any given age, because she lived through these things 40 years before I did. I wondered if other women would find similar parallels. 

I admire this woman for many qualities but most of all for her seamless melding of heart and mind. The ability to bring strong emotion as well as keen intelligence to the business of living is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of women. This ability does not always lead to personal happiness (though when one or the other is suppressed you get a deranged woman), but it is ultimately good for humankind. 

Beauvoir writes an epilogue in the last pages of The Force of Circumstance, summing up the meaning of life to her at age 55. She compares the young dreamer she was at 20 to the disillusioned, aging woman she feels she has become. She looks at death and is terrified. She longs for those dreams, for her loves in their earliest bloom, for the energy and passion she once had. It is not despair; just a clear-eyed look at what it all amounts to. When I closed the book, my eyes were streaming with tears, but I felt strong and validated for who I am.

(The Force of Circumstance is out of print in hardcover, though can be found in libraries. Some used booksellers have paperback copies of it, split into at least two volumes. I think a hardcover reprint is long overdue.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

The Lola Quartet, Emily St John Mandel, Unbridled Books, 2012, 288 pp

I did not experience the unconditional love for this book that I felt after Emily St John Mandel's first two novels. This is not necessarily a bad thing because I could feel her growth as an author. The fine writing, the suspense, the great characters are all present but she has had a change of heart. Last Night in Montreal centered around a young woman whose bizarre childhood compelled her to wander ceaselessly. The protagonist in The Singer's Gun tried to outrun his criminal upbringing. Both of these characters were trapped by destiny but I got a sense of hope that each one would possibly escape.

The Lola Quartet, named after a four-piece band of high school kids, takes place ten years after (ha, another good band name) the four members have gone their separate ways. Like a chorus that comes around over and over, they are pulled back together in their crappy Florida town. Once again destiny has claimed them.

Mandel sticks with her usual themes: individuals in their twenties reaching towards a mirage of adulthood without any good examples, life lived on the fringes of normalcy, and questions of identity and connection. A mystery runs through it carrying brutal consequences stemming from money, drugs and paternity. This time there is a child involved; a ten-year-old girl who is blissfully unaware of the danger that surrounds her.

Set smack in the present moment with the fall-out from economic meltdown, suburbs composed of the same malls and fast food emporiums no matter the town, and criminals at every level of society, the novel reads almost like today's news. Many of us are in better shape than these characters but we are surrounded by them every day on the streets of our towns and cities. 

I guess everyone in the story gets what he or she deserves by the end. No one changes much. By tiny increments but just as much because of something like karma, the truly bad are punished, the ones who can help others get a chance and the guys who started out as hopeless remain hopeless. Pretty dark stuff. I wonder where Emily St John Mandel will go from here. I wonder where the world will go from here.

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

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Fifteen, Beverly Cleary, William Morrow and Company, 1956, 254 pp


This was Beverly Cleary's first novel for teens, preceding The Luckiest Girl by two years. I had not read it when I was growing up, but if I had I probably would have loved it. I wasn't a complete girly girl but I certainly was interested in boys!

Jane Purdy is 15 and a high school sophomore. She has never been on a date with a boy she likes; only some boring boy named George, a friend of the family. 

" 'Today I'm going to meet a boy,' Jane Purdy told herself, as she walked up Blossom Street toward her babysitting job." She does. She meets Stan and eventually they do go on dates, have misunderstandings, and it all ends happily.

Cleary gets it exactly right from a 1950s teen girl's viewpoint. The worries about her clothes, her hair, her parents. The inability to think of anything to say when she and Stan go on their first date. The extreme tension when she is waiting for a phone call. It is all there just as it was for me.

I don't think 15 year old girls will ever be that innocent again, but many will have similar insecurities. The girl in 13 Reasons Why is more of a modern day Jane Purdy than anything else though less able to deal with the stress. Jane has to deal with some bullying but has the resources to figure out how to handle it.

Those first experiences of going out with boys are a rite of passage even though the social conventions change through the decades. I wonder what a 15 year old girl would think of this book today. 

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

Saturday, May 12, 2012


Children of the Alley, Naguib Mahfouz, Doubleday, 1959, 448 pp (translated from Arabic by Peter Theroux)

I have read quite a few novels by Naguib Mahfouz and found this one weaker than what I have read before. The premise is a good one: to cover the spiritual history of mankind in terms of our efforts to improve our existence and society.

Using the framework of key historical moments, he offers tales concerning the inhabitants dwelling in an Egyptian alley. All these people have a common ancestor and indeed exist to greater or lesser degrees by the whim of their patriarch. In each period covered throughout the novel, some sort of exceptional, always male, person arises from the masses of people and attempts to resolve the conflicts and sufferings of his fellows.

One of these is similar to Adam from Genesis. Another pair of brothers are reminiscent of Cain and Abel, one is Christ-like. Each of them has a special connection with Gabalawi, the ancestor, who dwells in a big manor house and owns all the area around and including the alley. These potential heroes or saviors feel they are fulfilling the wishes of the old man, who seems to live forever. They often better conditions but eventually die, after which the population of the alley regresses to their old ways. Greed, oppression, envy, competitiveness, and other ills are never conquered.

The means applied by each of these reformers vary, from non-violence to the use of force, from enlightenment to magic. I was kept reading because Mafouz seemed to be following a progression of spiritual evolution and because each section has intriguing plots, counter plots, and relationships.

In the end however, progress has not been made. Man is incorrigible and carries on telling the old tales while hoping that magically all will come right if only one is patient. I was left confused. Is Mahfouz saying that hope is the key? Or is he mocking our irresponsible habit of waiting for some god or hero to solve our problems for us?

(Children of the Alley is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012


The Cat's TableMichael Ondaatje, Alfred A Knopf, 2011, 265 pp

This is my first Ondaatje. I am still learning how to spell and pronounce his name. I know, I know. I only saw The English Patient as a movie and though I remember it knocked me out, I never got around to the book. I read The Cat's Table because of one of my reading groups.

Here is another book about which reviewers complain that "nothing happens." (So did most of my reading group members.) Factually it is not true. An eleven-year-old boy has been sent from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by ship to London, where he is to be reunited with his mother whom he has not seen for a number of years.

During the twenty-one day voyage, the boy makes two friends; boys of a similar age. Not one of the three has any adult traveling with him, so they become rather feral and get up to all manner of adventures, many of which are life-threatening. So you see, all those incidents happen

The ship is carrying a prisoner in chains, a man dying of rabies, musicians, actors, and various mysterious personages as well as beautiful women. The three friends watch it all, absorbing what they can and imagining the rest. Therein lies the magic of this bittersweet novel. As narrator, the boy tells of this voyage from his adult remembrances, intermingling his further life with moments of perception about what he saw going down on that ship. 

I think everyone has a defining incident or time period in life; something that determines one's future. Thus it was for this boy. From his position at the "cat's table" (ship slang for the least privileged place), so much happens to these boys in twenty-one days that it takes him decades to figure it all out.

Michael Ondaatje is apparently a poet. One could say he is primarily a poet: 11 books of poetry against 5 novels. Truly he writes like one, so beautifully. I found that at least in this novel, he is also a philosopher. During moments when "nothing is happening" he pens some of the deeper understandings about life I have read in a novel.

I enjoyed this book.

(The Cat's Table is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, May 04, 2012


Among Others, Jo Walton, TOR Books, 2010, 302 pp

Don't you love it when you unabashedly love a book?  During a somewhat uninspiring reading spell, I picked up Among Others out of my TBR pile and read it in two sittings. This is probably mostly a book for females who like sci fi and fantasy. It has some usual tropes with added magic: boarding school, bad if not evil mother, first romance, twins, overcoming evil and fairies. The added magic for me were the first person voice of Mori (fourteen-year-old protagonist), a clear-eyed creation of the fairy characters, and an embedded reading list of science fiction and fantasy great books.

The setting is Wales. I must travel to Wales someday. Mori's twin has recently died in a horrific accident that left Mori crippled and unable to walk without a cane. She has run away from home but landed with the father she never knew, thanks to social services. Dad places her in a boarding school and everyone knows that is equivalent to hell for a young person who is already far from the norm.

The full story of Mori's mom, the reason for the accident, all the back story details are revealed slowly. In fact, the tantalizing slowness is the most delicious thing. Almost as delicious is everything else.

Mori resorts to reading since she is blessedly spared sports at school. She often reads two books a day. Her allies are the school librarian, the local librarians in town, the science fiction reading group she joins, and finally the ultra-cool Wim, local sixteen-year-old heartthrob with a sexual reputation.

I read a couple reviews (by male sci fi/fantasy bloggers) who claimed that "nothing really happens" in the novel. That has got to be a guy thing. Mor solves a huge family mystery, finds out her true powers and purpose in life, overpowers evil, and falls in love for the first time. 

If this sounds good, just read it!

(Among Others is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, May 01, 2012


Getaway, Lisa Brackmann, Soho Press Ince, 2012, 307 pp

Lisa Brackmann's first novel, Rock Paper Tiger, captivated me with its exotic location in modern China and its damaged but resourceful heroine, Ellie Cooper. Getaway, though a perfectly acceptable beach read (literally) just doesn't have the same amount of kick. It felt to me like the author was under the pressure inherent in writing a second book; as though she had an editor and a marketing director hovering behind each shoulder.

Michelle Mason, the heroine in Getaway, is her own problem as well as the weakest link in the story. She is using a vacation paid for by her recently deceased husband as a respite from her troubles. That's about all he left her except for a mountain of debt after his financial house of cards collapsed in the economic meltdown of recent years. 

Though Michelle numbers among females who live off a man's money without asking questions, she is unconvincingly clueless for a mid-thirties 21st century Los Angeles native. After she lands in a highly treacherous situation between sexy but mysterious Daniel and slimy Gary, she dithers for so long and makes so many bad decisions, I found myself hoping right along with her for the one who is good in bed to rescue her. How could she not know that a guy with deep pockets who brags about having secret government connections might be able to track her through her cell phone?

Now I've waited way too long to tell you that the story takes place in a Mexican resort town and involves that country's brutal drug cartels and their investment capital bedfellows. It's a tense thriller and Michelle's future appears to be doomed. To her credit, she is pretty good at gut-level instincts and she gets tougher and smarter. She went to Mexico to work out how to live a more authentic life but I'm afraid she just might be one of those women who has to rely on luck.

And why am I getting all moralistic and snarky with Lisa Brackmann? Because she proved she has got a lot more to offer in Rock Paper Tiger. I understand she is writing a sequel, so perhaps she just tossed off Getaway in order to stay in touch. That cool. It was fun to read. But I want Ellie Cooper back.

(Getaway is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)