Wednesday, June 27, 2012


West With the Night, Beryl Markham, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942, 294 pp

A friend lent me this memoir with the recommendation "this book has been loved, very." Well, I loved it as well. Beryl Markham was a woman who lived large and refused any attempt to mold her.

She was born in England in 1902 but was taken to Kenya by her father when she was four. These were the years when the British East Africa Company had colonized both Kenya and Uganda (according to wikipedia), bringing along British settlers who mainly farmed. Beryl was raised by her father, learning to run wild and hunt with her native childhood friends. She barely ever attended school but was a big reader.

Eventually, after a stint in her late teens and early twenties as a race horse trainer, she became a pilot. She flew all over Africa delivering supplies, performing rescues in the bush, and escorting safari hunters after scouting from the air for big game. 

In the book she relates all of the above in marvelous prose. She clearly loved Africa and horses and flying. She wasn't exactly fearless but she was entirely brave and addicted to adventure.

As for the controversy over who actually wrote the book (some say it was her third husband Errol Trzebinski, a professional ghost writer), who knows. The writing is really quite exceptional; perhaps they collaborated. The slightly ironic tone towards colonialism, the love of Africa, the resigned sorrow over what became of Kenya in her later years, and the flippant attitude towards propriety sounded genuine to me.

Markham had mostly male friends and according to her biographers they were also lovers. She married three times. It all fits. In 1936, she was the first woman to attempt a solo flight west from England to New York. She lived to be 83 and died in Kenya.

I say: what a woman! Reading her memoir got me excited to be alive, renewed my own spirit of adventure and my pride in being a non-conformist.

(West With the Night is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker, Random House Inc, 2012, 278 pp

Lotsa hype on this one, which was released today. It will probably do well because the writing is accessible, not too challenging, and the pages whiz by. Also while it is being marketed to adults, I found it equally suitable for readers 14 and up.

Julia is looking back at her life. She was 11 years old when the rotation of the earth began to slow down, the days and nights gradually getting longer, the environment deteriorating and life getting weirder month by month. As adults and the governments of Earth freak out and try to deal with these changes, Julia and her friends proceed through the usual coming of age experiences: soccer, bras, periods, boys.

In her Southern California suburb live regular middle-class families including Mormons, green living types, and the remnants of broken marriages: the standard 21st century American neighborhood in affluent cul de sacs. As things get increasingly strange, conflicts break out and Julia's parents begin to fracture as a couple. So she has plenty to deal with.

I liked the book just fine while I was reading it but by the end I had qualms. Because though all the elements of good fiction are there (characters developing throughout an imaginative plot), it just seemed a little too calm and dreamlike when actually the world was going to hell.

Nothing really bad happens to Julia, except that she and everyone around her lose all of life as they knew it. It's as though the author is breaking it to us gently that the world is going to end. Will we really be that well adjusted if global warming and environmental meltdown is our future?

My conclusion: good read while I was reading it but unbelievable after I finished. A few days later I went to my granddaughter's middle school graduation. As one of the honors students gave her talk, I thought I heard her say that her goal was "to grow up and help fix the mess you have made of our planet." Ha! Now that is my idea of a contemporary eleven-year-old female.

(The Age of Miracles is available in hardcover and Google eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, June 22, 2012


Great House, Nicole Krauss, W W Norton & Company, 2010, 289 pp

Nicole Krauss is one author I wish wrote more novels because I enjoy reading her so much. Yet for some reason I have not ever read her first novel, Man Walks Into a Room (2002), which I must remedy right away. And I did not get around to Great House until it was picked by one of my reading groups. Her second novel, The History of Love (2005), was one of my best loved novels ever. I feel a bit abashed for allowing novels of much less quality to crowd out Ms Krauss. It is almost as bad a watching TV instead of reading.

Much has been made of the desk in Great House and it is pivotal to the structure of the novel. In fact, the structure confounded me and several other members of the reading group. Like blind people trying to describe an elephant, we talked among ourselves until we got it mostly figured out.

I wasn't bothered by a persistent feeling of confusion while I read because I like a novel that requires the reader to so some of the work. I wasn't too concerned about how and when the desk went here and there, because the sheer power of the narrative kept me reading closely and as rapidly as I could, wanting to savor the prose but wanting even more to know and understand the characters.

Another odd facet was that not one of the ten or so characters was exactly admirable, though somehow they were all sympathetic. Because of that, the story's somewhat fantastic elements were outweighed by what felt like reality. People suffer and thus lose hold of what makes them admirable. They survive doing whatever holds them together and once in a while achieve understanding and even happiness. 

I think that is pretty true to the way life is. My personal discovery while reading Great House was that I expect people to be admirable, including myself, but the best of us have flaws and the worst of us have good reasons.

Great House is a great book.

(Great House is available in paperback on the shelf and in hardcover as well as eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow, The Viking Press, 1959, 341 pp

This is the fifth Saul Bellow novel I have read. I started with his first, The Dangling Man (1944) and moved along. I don't know that he is currently read much (and I don't know why), but I just love his novels. I would think that an author who won three National Book Awards, a Pulitzer, and the Nobel Prize should be an American treasure.

Henderson is a character who could only have been created by Bellow. Larger than life, literally and figuratively, socially embarrassing, personally challenged as a husband and a father, and richer than Croesus, he moves through life leaving a wake of disaster.

Due to various events including having become bored of being a pig farmer, Henderson decides to go to Africa, looking for adventure and personal redemption. He finds both, his well-intentioned but calamitous antics among the natives affording him access to tribal royalty.

As I read on, enjoying every page, I began to see that simmering below the picaresque and the improbable was satire of the highest order. Is this the year I learn to understand and appreciate satire? It keeps popping up in the most unexpected novels and I have learned that it must be tastefully done or it drives me mad.

So in 1959, Bellow published a novel that spoofs the mid-life crisis, the search for personal fulfillment, the African safari, and the American can-do attitude. At the same time, Henderson actually resolves his mid-life crisis, finds personal fulfillment, has the best ever safari (yes, there are lion hunts), and refines his American bull-headed ways.

How did he do that?

(Henderson the Rain King is available in paperback and on CD by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, June 18, 2012


As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the link I have used in my reviews of this series is no longer openly available. All of the original hardcover editions of the books are out of print, but can be found in libraries or purchased from used book sellers. This year an indie publisher, Open Road, has begun to release the series in eBook and paperback. So far seven titles have been released. This is good news because the books preserve a way of American life that is virtually gone: different regions of the country with varying ways of life and traditions. Ms Lenski's series is an important historical legacy for children in my opinion.


Bayou Suzette 1943
Strawberry Girl 1945 (Newbery Award 1946)
Blue Ridge Billy 1946
Judy's Journey 1947
Boom Town Boy 1948
Cotton in My Sack 1949
Texas Tomboy 1950
Prairie School 1951
Mama Hattie's Girl 1953
Corn Farm Boy 1954
San Francisco Boy 1955
Flood Friday 1956
Houseboat Girl 1957
Coal Camp Girl 1959
Shoo Fly Girl 1963
To Be a Logger 1967

Most of the titles are reviewed on my blog or soon will be. Just enter the title in the search window and you will find the review. I would be interested to know of anyone who has read these books as a child or is reading them to children now, at home or in schools or libraries. Feel free to leave comments and especially to tell of the reactions of modern kids when they hear or read the books.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Flood Friday, Lois Lenski, J B Lippincott Company, 1956, 94 pp


I am almost caught up on reading all the books from Lois Lenski's American Regional Series. Flood Friday is #12 out of 16. (Unfortunately the excellent link to a full Lois Lenski bibliography, which I have included in many of my earlier reviews, has gone to limited access. But I found another link here.) In my next post I will present a complete list of titles in the series.

Flood Friday is another one that stands out in my memory as a favorite; one that I read over and over. When I reread childhood favorites, I always try to figure out why I loved them so.

On Friday, August 19, 1955, after days of relentless rain, the three major rivers in Connecticut flooded, driving many people from their homes. Flood Friday is a fictional account of what this was like for several children in the area. There are dangerous rescues by boat and helicoptor, some houses are completely destroyed, and families are sheltered in school buildings.

Sally and her family are lucky. They still have a home when the water that almost reached their second floor finally recedes. But it is a house soaked and mud covered. While it is being cleaned up and repaired, they stay with neighbors who live on higher ground.

I think what I liked as a child was the sense of danger.  This is one of Lenski's most dramatic stories. Also, the idea of staying at a neighbor's house where one of your best friends lives, camping out on floors and sofas, and eating whatever food can be found, would have been my idea of a great adventure. I bet it was a complete pain in the neck for the adults.

(Flood Friday is out of print in hardcover, but may be found at libraries or from used book sellers. It has recently been released in paperback and eBook by Open Road Media.)

Friday, June 15, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

Blue Nights, Joan Didion, Alfred A Knopf, 2011, 188 pp

I went into this book prepared to have trouble with it. It took me close to three years to get over my Mom's death. I have not ever lost a child, despite two close calls. I just did not feel ready to read a book about mourning. I read it for a reading group.

Instead, I fell in love with Joan Didion. Here is a woman who has lived a long life, mostly in her mind. She has achieved respect, a good income, some say notoriety, by the use of her intellect. She had a long and happy marriage with a soul mate. Now she has lost the husband, followed by her adopted daughter who suffered a long illness.

No matter what opinions people may hold about Joan Didion, she has done a lot of living: the highs, the lows, the hard work, the celebrations, and the day-to-day. She is still going in her mid-seventies, still writing her way through her life.

The writing in Blue Nights is perfect for the subjects addressed. It is filled with finely wrought images. She meanders the way memory does with no loss of her signature control. What might be somewhat new is the degree of emotion displayed, never maudlin or self-pitying, but the product of a search deep into her self. Doubts about her suitability for motherhood, failings as a mother, and anxiety over her future run through the pages like a dirge. Yet her pride in that daughter flares like a beacon through the gloom.

I will turn 65 this summer. I don't care what they say about 65 is the new 45 or any such blather. The fact is that I am fortunate to be healthy and fairly fit but my "elderly" years are just around the corner. I have no desire to live past the time when I am still healthy and fit; to be in the hands of doctors; to linger in less than a condition of having my full faculties. I see in the women ten years or more ahead of me that either it comes on gradually or there is a sudden decline.

As I read about Ms Didion's experiences with all this, I felt a sisterhood with her. Fears of walking the streets of New York alone, of falling, of living by herself, are possibly worse outcomes for such a woman than losing the two most important people in her life. Oh my, oh my.

(Blue Nights is available in hardcover, paperback, and Google eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Home, Toni Morrison, Alfred A Knopf, 2012, 147 pp

A new novel by Toni Morrison is always cause for celebration in my world. In her tenth novel, she follows the life of Frank Money who escaped from his small Georgia town by joining the army, as so many disenfranchised young men have done. He fought in the Korean War and returned to America traumatized and troubled, only to find the same old racism under which he had always lived. 

Adrift, half crazy, he gets a message that his only sibling is at death's door. So he leaves the only person who has brought him peace to go to her rescue. He is an African American Odysseus.

Home is an exercise in restrained understatement, an exposition of Toni Morrison's recurring themes that morphs from the tale of a black man who fought for freedom to the story of a black woman who learns the true price of freedom.

It seems to me that ever since Toni Morrison became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, literary critics have mostly criticized the novels she has written. Paradise-heavy-handed foreshadowing and contrived plot devices; Love-haphazard; A Mercy-fared better but some complained it was too slight. Home has been called too short, too plain, too simple, lacking emotion.

I admire this writer. I am enthralled by anything she writes. Judging by reader review in such places as Amazon and Goodreads, so do most readers. Thankfully she does not write for the critics. She obviously writes for readers.

Home reads like a blues song, like an epic poem. It has a symmetry and balance which sang to me as a former songwriter. It is in fact short, it is not on the surface "luminous" or "lyrical," but like any classic epic or song, it moves along, circles back, and tells of lives being lived and lessons being learned.

Monday, June 11, 2012


The War Lover, John Hersey, Alfred A Knopf, 1959, 404 pp

The trouble with John Hersey is that he always has an agenda in his novels. Plenty of authors who write fiction have an agenda, in fact many of my favorite ones do, but the trick is to embed it so the reader figures it out herself, not to bludgeon us over the head with it.

So The War Lover is clearly anti-war and also carries a large dose of Freudian thinking. Buzz Marrow is an ace pilot, an American flying out of a base in England during WWII. He is a jerk in his personal life who brags about his female conquests every chance he gets. Except when he is flying a bombing mission, he is chronically in a bad mood, drinks heavily, and generally belittles both his superiors and his crew.

Bowman, his co-pilot, tells the story of his initial hero worship for Buzz and its gradual disillusionment as his flying team approaches their final mission. The missions in those months prior to D-Day were so dangerous and nerve wracking that once 25 missions had been accomplished, the pilots and crew were reassigned to something less intense.

Finally there is Boman's English girlfriend Daphne, a combination of English wartime resignation and perfect, understanding, sexy goddess. When Boman isn't stressing out about the next mission, he is driving himself batty over whether or not Daphne is also sleeping with Buzz.

The story has tension by the bucket load. Hersey is actually quite a good writer. But due to the chapters that alternate between a countdown of the final mission and the back story, I was never really sure what time it was. By the end, I didn't care.

The point of all this? Men like Buzz, who love war get off on annihilation more than they do on sex, are in fact impotent, and have a death wish. I guess if the human race were rid of such types, we wouldn't have war? Sorry, Mr Hersey, I don't think it is quite that simple.

(The War Lover is out of print. I found a copy in my local library. It is also available from used book sellers.)

Friday, June 08, 2012


Bitter in the Mouth, Monique Truong, Random House Inc, 2010, 282 pp

I was completely enchanted by Monique Truong's first novel, The Book of Salt. Of course, it was set in Paris, with a fictional Vietnamese immigrant who served as cook to Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. So tasty.

Bitter in the Mouth is set in the American south, but as I know from William Faulkner, the south can be another country to a northerner like me. In that area of the United States they have their own customs, including a finely honed talent for not noticing the most obvious matters when they don't fit the customs. Women who marry but don't have children, anyone who drinks too much, homosexuality, any other race than white, women who break the mold, are just a few of those matters of which one may not speak, except by way of gossip, alluding, or backstabbing remarks.

Linda grows up knowing she was adopted, knowing that her adopted mother does not love her, depending on her father and uncle for love, closeness and any happiness there is to be found. She is a character for a reader to admire: highly intelligent, a reader herself, in a love/hate relationship with words. She and her best friend Kelly have written letters to each other since grade school, even when they lived just a few houses apart. But Linda has auditory-gustatory synethesia, a "secret sense" that causes her to taste words, sometimes a blessing, often a curse.

Much happens in such a medium length novel. The writing made me feel respected and intelligent as a reader. I love that approbation from a novelist. The coming-of-age, the long slow process of learning about herself, the stratagems Linda adopts in order to survive, are all presented from Linda's viewpoint and revealed to the reader only as she gains understanding about her life and the people in it.

Monique Truong says she used To Kill A Mockingbird and Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms as inspiration as she wrote Bitter in the Mouth. I'm glad I didn't know this before I read the book, but knowing it afterwards explains why I felt so much familiarity with her characters.

The end of the book, where Linda makes her peace with life, was a bit too melodramatic for me. a little too spelled out in terms of what she, and therefore the reader, realized. I would have preferred a few more rough edges remaining. But getting to that point surely made a satisfying and moving story.

(Bitter in the Mouth is available in hardcover, paperback and Google eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, June 05, 2012


The Last Brother, Nathacha Appanah, Graywolf Press, 2011, 164 pp (Editions d"Olivier, France, 2007, translated from French by Geoffrey Strachan)

I loved this book. It was a contender in the third round of the Tournament of Books. The writing is stellar; because it was translated from French to English, I am also praising the translation. 

The elderly Raj is looking back on his childhood on the island of Mauritius, set in the Indian Ocean. Due to poverty and an alcoholic, abusive father, childhood was hard enough but when the boy's two brothers died on the same day, life for this nine-year-old child became almost insupportable.

Because of another brutal incident Raj meets David, a child his own age, who becomes both burden and savior for one of the saddest boys I have ever met in a novel.

In less than 200 pages, the author wove a story of loss and longing, survival and guilt, love and friendship, family and social life, disaster and the effects of war. All of that would be enough to weigh down a 600 page tome. Instead she wrote a fairytale set in the intersections between humans and the natural world.

Raj and David are mostly ignorant of the tragedies that brought them together, as was I before I read the book. If you read other reviews, you get too much information in my opinion, which lessens the impact. Raj as an old man finally learns about the historical events of his childhood and thus is delivered from all that he has carried for over 60 years.

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

Saturday, June 02, 2012


Miguel Street, V S Naipaul, Alfred A Knopf, 1959, 142 pp

Miguel Street was the third novel published by V S Naipaul, except that it is not really a novel. He wrote this collection of vignettes before he had published any novels, so it makes sense that it is actually composed of short stories about different characters who live on this street in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Through the eyes of a young boy, we experience the life of the street.

I like Naipaul's writing style so I didn't mind reading the book, though there is no plot. I assume he was warming up for his first two actual novels: The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira. Because I had already read and enjoyed those I felt at home in Port of Spain.

Now I am looking forward to his breakout novel A House for Mr Biswas, published in 1961. 

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