Friday, July 27, 2012


The Magus, John Fowles, Little Brown and Company, 1965, 582 pp

At last I have read this iconic book, actually thanks to a man my age who recently joined one of my reading groups. He has a basement full of books from the 1960s and 1970s and seems to want to revisit those years of his reading life. He talked the group into reading The Magus, which he considers to be great literature.

I was expecting something magical and mysterious. I should have known, from The French Lieutenant's Woman, but the title threw me off. It is in fact a psychological coming of age romance. Because it is set mainly in Greece, I felt I was in familiar territory, having read much fiction set there as well as Will Durant's The Life of Greece.

Fowles' writing impressed me and if he dragged out his story for quite a bit too long, the writing kept me going. His many twists and turns left me continuously wondering where he was going with his plot which did make the book mysterious.

Ultimately though, a young man who is full of himself, a wanker as the British say, has to grow up, stop treating women as mere sexual objects, and learn to be accountable for his actions. Along the way, he acts like a Philip K Dick character, refusing to be denied but freaked out by the machinations of the Magus. The Magus himself came across to me in the end as someone like the Wizard of Oz crossed with that guy in Iris Murdoch's Flight From the Enchanter.

So I was left underwhelmed but like Nicholas (the wanker), I certainly knew I had lived through Something. Then there is the famous indeterminate ending with that piece of fourth century Latin poetry (now easily found translated on the internet.) Even John Fowles changed the ending in his 1977 revision (though in my opinion, not for the better.) But all that is just the sort of thing reading geeks love, myself included.

I would have loved this book had I read it in 1965 when I was 18. If you are in your late teens or early twenties, read it now! It is much better than Twilight but the two books have similarities.

(The Magus, the revised version, is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. For the original version check your local library or used book stores.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


The Stranger's Child, Alan Hollinghurst, Alfred A Knopf, 2011, 435 pp

Here is another book I might have put off reading had it not been for The Tournament of Books, in which it went up against Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife. I struggled with both books and I suppose the struggles were good for me as a reader. Bottom line: I did not really like The Stranger's Child.

It is carefully and exhaustively written, so just reading the prose was somewhat enjoyable. Hollinghurst covers more than four generations of British history including two world wars, telling the much worked over tale of the decline of the gentry. 

Cecil Valance, the character around whom this long, somewhat disjointed novel is built, was a poet. I have my own issues with poetry, basically feeling that like classical music, its day is long over. The heyday of poetry was probably during the Golden Age of Greece and, in my opinion, a love of writing, reading, and reciting poetry coincides with the absence of recording technology and radio. Possibly the best contemporary poetry is that created by rappers.

But I digress.

Cecil Valance was also bisexual and his two favorite lovers were George and his sister Daphne. All manner of confusing and mysterious sexual affairs litter this novel, demonstrating that such things cross class lines (no new news there), while acting as a quasi-historical account of homosexuality, mostly male, over the last hundred years.

Another theme or thread, the one I enjoyed most, concerns the art of biography. In face, Hollinghurst in his coy but mannered way, delves so deeply into the methods, combativeness, and trials of biographers that I predict he will write one himself.

I recalled this author's 2005 Booker Prize winner, The Line of Beauty, as a good, gripping read. But when I looked back at my short recap, it sounds pretty tepid.

If I had been the judge in that round of TOB, I would have given it to The Tiger's Wife simply because Obreht's wild and messy novel is wild and messy. Hollinghurst's characters are wild and messy but his writing in The Stranger's Child almost strangled me.

(The Stranger's Child is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, July 23, 2012


The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, McKay Publishing, 1957, 240 pp

For anyone born in the mid-twentieth century, The Hidden Persuaders is an intriguing look at the beginnings of advertising and marketing as it influenced our wants and needs, our purchasing decisions, our political views and even (possibly a stretch) led to our current economic situation. I read it as research for my memoir. I was 10 years old when it came out and I remember my dad talking about the book.

Some people call Vance Packard the first Malcolm Gladwell. I have not read Gladwell because I had the idea that he was a sociology-light sort of guy, but perhaps now I will check out one of his books. Packard's book opened my eyes to a sinister trend in which we all participate.

I already knew that after World War II, when American industry was at peak production due to the demands of war, manufacturers needed new markets for products. The answer was to get the American public to consume like never before. The obstacles were our Puritan background and the effects of the Great Depression, both of which created habits of making do on less, making things last and living simply.

So retail sales people and advertising agencies teamed up with psychiatry to use our deepest wants, fears, and insecurities as motivations that would get us to buy stuff. "Planned obsolescence" (you know: you feel you must have the latest smart phone, tablet, car, appliances, not to mention fashion) has led us to a practically obsolete planet.

Though the reprint I read had ridiculous amounts of typos and though Packard's style is pretty dry, it was quite a sobering read.

(The Hidden Persuaders is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, July 20, 2012


Poor No More, Robert Ruark, Holt Rinehart & Winston Inc, 1959, 832 pp

Robert Ruark's earlier top 10 bestseller was Something of Value, 1955. It told the story of the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya from the viewpoint of white British farmers in that country and I enjoyed it as both a novel and a historical perspective.

Poor No More, the # 10 bestseller of 1959, is more than 50% longer, set in the world of United States business, finance and investing, and the main character is basically a scoundrel. Sam Price grew up dirt poor in the South, determined to break out of poverty. So he did, at the expense of every positive human trait he had.

Ruark lets a good 100 pages go by before the plot takes hold. He then fills another 732 pages showing how Sam lost his innocence as he gave up on being a decent person and took to using any break than came along to his own advantage. He grew addicted to the excitement, the stress, and the material rewards of business, becoming an extremely wealthy man. But he never learned a single lesson as to why he was so alone in the world, since he preferred being free to do as he pleased to finding any happiness with other people. 

Because this is not an original tale, though one that Americans seem to like reading over and over, and because Ruark gives it a few different twists but takes much too long to bring it to an underwhelming conclusion, I enjoyed it more than 50% less than Something of Value. Ruark was evidently trying to be Hemingway in the earlier novel. In this one, he took after Theodore Dreiser and John O'Hara. Too bad he did not figure out how to be Robert Ruark.

(Poor No More is out of print and I could not even find it in any of my local libraries. It is available from used book sellers.)

Sunday, July 15, 2012


The World Jones Made, Philip K Dick, Ace Books, 1956, 199 pp

Jones, first name Floyd, is able to see the future. He is a tormented misfit in a strictly controlled postnuclear world. The military controls society and it is forbidden to even dream of a better world. The ruling philosophy, Relativism, has made right and wrong irrelevant; basically anything goes except for dreaming about the good old days or even about any different kind of days.

Cussick works in security for the FedGov and comes into conflict with Jones, because the man has somewhat unintentionally become a messiah of forbidden dreaming and must be stopped. When Cussick's new wife joins the cult of Jones, life becomes seriously difficult.

That is the plot as far as I could tell. The World Jones Made is Dick's second novel and shares some clunky attributes such as wooden characters and dialogue but lacks the excitement of Solar Lottery. I found no character I could really place my hopes on. His theme of moral ambiguity becomes the state of the world in this story; even Jones is caught up in it.

Despite mutants being developed for life on another planet and weird protoplasmic, cloud-like entities, despite a possibly happy ending for some and disaster for others, I was a bit bored while reading. That is not to say Dick was unable to see the future himself. The world he creates has alarming parallels to our current one, including the probability that those in charge don't really know what they are doing.

Possibly The World Jones Made is too similar to the one we have allowed to come into being.

(The World Jones Made is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, July 07, 2012


Shop Indie Bookstores

Blame, Michelle Huneven, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2009, 291 pp

Because I live in the Los Angeles area, Michelle Huneven, who lives in the suburb of Altadena, is a local author, beloved by the LA Times and friendly to our local bookstores. I've been meaning to read Blame ever since it was published. One of my reading groups picked this title from among my suggestions and thanks to them, I have finally gotten to it.

Often I read as an armchair traveler, visiting locations I will never go to physically. But there is a special pleasure derived from a book set in my own city. No matter how proficiently an author creates a sense of place, I never feel as much "there" as when I have actually been there myself, driven or walked the streets, experienced the weather and the sunsets.

Patsy MacLemoore, history professor and functioning alcoholic, is a character I might have met in Altadena or Pasadena. Her friends, lovers, associate professors, and her eventual husband are all familiar to me. Patsy's downfall and gradual rebirth as a sober, mature and self-confident woman resonated with me and made her a more sympathetic character.

Truthfully, Patsy is not a wholly admirable person. She specializes in bad decisions, she survives at the expense of others, and she does not like people that much, including herself. Thanks to the tragedy which took her down and thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous, she does straighten out her life and acquire some likable traits.

Blame has a twist. It is a good one, along the lines of the view that life is neither predestined nor driven by one's choices but is essentially random. Unfortunately I had read some reviews with spoilers, so I knew what was coming. Knowing this and waiting for it did spoil some of my reading experience.

Michelle Huneven has written a novel that covers the human condition, that addresses crime and punishment, and most of all she delves into the female psyche as well as any of my favorite female authors. Without sentimentality or heart-warming conclusions, Patsy's story is not what I would call hopeful but it is true to life and uplifting. She is a survivor because she is intelligent. Intelligence can be a burden and in the end Patsy willingly shoulders it.

(Blame is available in paperback and audio-book by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, July 05, 2012


Ada's Rules, Alice Randall, Bloomsbury USA, 2012, 334 pp

Any woman who has ever been on a diet would enjoy this book. Ada Howard is a large 220 lb black woman, wife of a preacher at a Nashville church. She carries more weight than her own pounds, running a daycare center, caring for her aging parents, keeping track of her grown daughters, and serving on numerous church committees.

When the sexual side of her marriage to the reverend has dwindled to zero, an invitation to her college reunion brings back memories of Ada's first love, who will be there. She resolves to lose 100 pounds, go to the reunion, and if possible cheat on her husband! It's a big deal because Ada takes her Christianity and its commandments seriously.

I am a rabid fan of Alice Randall's two earlier novels, The Wind Done Gone and Rebel Yell. They were written in a more literary style and in my opinion she is at her best being literary. Ada's Rules is more along the lines of How Stella Got Her Groove Back; a sort of lightweight and light-hearted shout out to women of color and their strengths.

But still, this is Alice Randall who never writes without an issue or two up her sleeve. Here it is the health problems that accompany obesity, especially diabetes, and the eating habits as well as the "food deserts" that plague black populations in America.

I am a white woman who tends to pudge, hence a serial dieter since I turned 30. Alice Randall has also struggled with her weight. The introductory chapter in Ada's Rules is entitled How To Us My, Ada Howard's, Novel As A Diet Book. As far as I know, that's not been done before, and it works: a diet manual that is also a novel.

I couldn't put it down and I felt for Ada as she drank her water, walked her 30 minutes, and watched her portions, but also as she not only transformed  her body but found her true self underneath all that fat. I have never come across a more realistic and sensible book about dieting (which is just another name for eating properly.) 

If you are naturally slim with a high metabolism you are forbidden to read it!

(Ada's Rules is available in hardcover and Google eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt, New Directions Books, 2011, 273 pp

I was prepared to be grossed out by this book. I only read it because it was on the Tournament of Books list, pitted against Salvage the Bones, of all things. After all, reading about a loser who turns his sexual fantasies into a profitable business is not something a self-respecting feminist does.

Who knew that Helen DeWitt has actually created a feminist attack on not only sexual exploitation but also sales as a profession, corporate life, men in general, and much more. She did this without preaching or moralizing, without stridency and with hilarity and great insight.

She probably didn't plan it that way, but she has contributed to my inadvertent 2012 study of satire. If you enjoy a good satire, this is one of a select few.

Joe is a failed salesman who is sitting around doing what bored male losers often do when he gets a lightning bolt to his deadened mind. The result is Lightning Rods, a business which provides anonymous sexual relief throughout the working day to alpha-male employees, thereby saving employers from those dreaded sexual harassment suits.

DeWitt creates this voice, which she gives to Joe and almost everyone else; a sort of deadpan, cliched speak which always begins with "the way I see it is..." Somehow she manages to keep it up throughout the novel without it being annoying. In fact, it becomes part of the hilarity.

Whenever Joe gets stumped he calls in Lucille, one of his lightning rods, who always comes up with a good solution. By the end of the story several women have saved Joe's career, income, and business many times over.

The way I see it is, this book is not for everyone. Judging from some of the reviews, including those of the TOB judge and commentators (all male), I don't think a lot of readers actually get it. If you are squeamish about sex as a commodity, or about sex in general, or if you like your sex combined with romance, Lightning Rods is probably not the book for you.

If however you enjoy seeing male chauvinist pigs taking it in the you-know-where, along with Big Business, the FBI, Homeland Security, and the Christian Right, give it a try. I'm glad I did and I doubt I will ever forget it.

(Lightning Rods is available in hardcover, paperback and audio CD by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, July 01, 2012


Henry and the Paper Route, Beverly Cleary, Harper Collins, 1957, 192 pp


Good old Henry Huggins wants a paper route but isn't quite old enough. Instead he ends up with a new kitten, names her Nosy, and thereby upsets good old Ribsy.

After another adventure with paper, known as a paper drive, in which Henry's clever advertising method succeeds way beyond his wildest dreams, bad girl Ramona's bad ideas help Henry finally get his route.

I will never forget the summer my sons had a paper route. I worked long hours that summer, including weekends. So the boys often spent weekends in the country with their cousins. Meaning I had to get up at dawn and do their route, often accompanied by thunderstorms. Wish I'd known about Henry back then. Me and the boys would have had some good laughs reading it.

(Henry and the Paper Route is available in paperback on the 8-12 shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)