Friday, September 28, 2012


The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O'Connor, Farrar Straus & Cudahy, 1960, 243 pp

I just didn't like this very much. I have liked Flannery O'Connor's earlier novel Wise Blood and her story collection A Good Man Is Hard To Find, because of the way she digs deep into evil.

I don't mind dark tales. In fact, I seek them out. But the main character, Tarwater, orphan raised in the backcountry by a truly insane fundamentalist great-uncle, is so unrelievedly screwed up, so utterly devoid of humanity. The surrounding characters do not fare much better.

Some readers and reviewers found humor and satire here. I was waiting for it, looking for it; I didn't find any. A battle between Tarwater and his uncle Rayber concerns the baptism of Rayber's idiot son. Tarwater wins through a hideous scene of violence.

"The violent bear it away" is a quote from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 11, verse 12, according to the frontispiece. In all the versions of the Bible on my shelves it is written, "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force." Well, if she  was writing a parable of Tarwater trying to take the kingdom of heaven by force, she succeeded.

It could be that because I was not raised Catholic nor in the South, I am missing something. It could be because I see heaven and hell side by side in the world, not somewhere or sometime else. I wish I could talk to Flannery O'Connor. I guess I will have to read her collected letters and her biography.

Comments welcome.

Monday, September 24, 2012


The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1960, 756 pp

So there I was, excitedly embarking on my reading list for 1960, expecting all things more modern. I checked The Sot-Weed Factor out of the library and hit a few barriers.

First off was the title. Sometimes I go around for years with a tantalizing title in my mind but without any conception of what the book is about. For example, The View From Pompey's Head, a 1954 bestseller by Hamilton Basso. I'd picked it up at a going-out-of-business sale at a local used bookstore, thinking it must be about ancient Rome and Pompey's ideas. Ha! It was about a New York lawyer who returned to his sleepy South Carolina hometown and got embroiled in racism.

I don't remember now what I thought The Sot-Weed Factor was about except that with John Barth as the author, who knew anyway. Turns out sot-weed was the name for tobacco in colonial American days and a factor was a colonial agent who took care of business in the colonies for the owner, who was usually back in England.

It took me almost two weeks to read this tome of satirical historical fiction. Frustrating? Yes, I normally read three books a week. Boring? Never. I did read the revised edition from 1967 which is purported to be 50 pages shorter than the original. Another 50 pages might have done me in. (I tried downloading an iBook of the original but it had so many typos I went back to the book, which weighed 4 pounds. I was already suffering from a pinched nerve, so I read under the influence of large doses of ibuprofin.)

Anyway, Maryland, 1600s, starring Ebenezer Cooke, poet and virgin. Catholics vs Protestants, white man vs Negro slave vs Native American (called "salvages," Geraldine Brooks in Caleb's Crossing was not the first to resurrect that term.) Wild, lawless pioneers, more whores than tobacco plants, more plot twists than whores. All written in a sort of Old English patois.

Clearly not a book for everyone, but hey, I have read two thirds of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy and I do enjoy history, especially historical fiction laced with irony and pathos. Someday I hope to read Don Quixote but if I never get to it, I have read The Sot-Weed Factor

Now I know that our fine country has ever been made up of criminals and dreamers and whores.

(The Sot-Weed Factor is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, September 21, 2012


The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey, Little Brown and Company, 2012, 388 pp

I complained the other day about The Newlyweds being too lightweight as a novel and some readers felt that way about The Snow Child. These quibbles fall under a category of artistic criticism I call "a sense of the fitness of things."

The Snow Child is written in the style of an updated fairytale and quite successfully so. In 1920, a middle-aged couple left their home and family in New England and moved to Alaska. The husband came from a farming background so he figured he would do well as a homesteader in Alaska.

They had been disappointed when their first child was stillborn and never conceived again. It was a sorrow the wife could not get over and left her feeling inadequate as a woman. For Jack, Alaska was a chance for independence; for Mabel it was an escape from constant reminders of her failure to have children.

During their first hard winter, in a rare moment of happiness, this increasingly estranged couple built a child out of snow and that is where the fairytale began. The snow child melted away but a real child appeared, a feral blond-haired girl wearing the red scarf Mabel had wrapped around the snow child's neck.

Mabel was a life long reader. She brought her collection of books to the Alaskan wilderness, among which was an ancient tome of folktales. One of those tales is about a child made of snow who grows up to fall in love with a human man. It is not one of those stories with a happy ending.

The novel moves slowly at the pace of a dream. There in the passage of time and seasons events transpire, but these are presented as vignettes, almost like scenes in a play. I knew it would end in tragedy, I could recognize and feel the progression towards that. Mabel knows the end of the folktale but lives and hopes as though she has a daughter of her own at last.

I read the book while on vacation in Marin County, CA. The trip was a respite from weeks of hot weather, from months of dieting and exercise, from my so-called real life. A nephew's wedding took place on the shores of the San Francisco Bay followed by the reception at a rustic bed-and-breakfast deep in the fog of Muir Woods near the top of Mt Tamalpias. We spent lovely sunny days surrounded by extended family and grandchildren.

The pace of The Snow Child fit perfectly. It calmed and relaxed me. Children are a gift, they grow and leave, they rarely turn out the way you planned, they are sometimes spiteful and ungrateful for all your sacrifices on their behalf. Sometimes they die before you. All of that is contained in this novel. The complex tangled strands of parenthood presented simply as part of the truth of life. Not a pageturner, not a thriller, not a bit pretentious, but stark and raw and full of love and wonder.

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


The Newlyweds, Nell Freudenberger, Alfred A Knopf, 2012, 337pp

Let me just say right at the start that I read this less than impressive novel for a reading group. I have many highly anticipated novels on my TBR list and would much rather have been reading Michael Chabon (Telegraph Avenue), Zadie Smith (NW) or Susan Straight (Between Heaven and Here).

I have not read Ms Freudenberger's earlier novel, The Dissidents. I have been aware of her status as a hot young author. She did not measure up for me to the young authors who have blown me away in my reading this year: Jennifer Egan, Emily St John Mandel, Hari Kunzru, Scarlett Thomas, and more.

Her purpose in writing about Amina, a young Bangladeshi woman who marries an American man she met on an internet dating site, is to show the stresses and confusions of living between two cultures. She does make those stresses and confusions clear but compared to Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake or Brick Lane by Monica Ali, The Newlyweds felt too light, too thin; the characters lacked depth; and the story was weak on tension and emotional heft.

Of course, these are merely my opinions. The reading group members all enjoyed the book and felt they had learned something. The Newlyweds is a nice, easy read for those who don't like to be challenged too much. I know that sounds so condescending but I can't help it.

The Newlyweds is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


The Status Seekers, Vance Packard, David McKay Co, 1959, 323 pp

This volume is Packard's follow-up to The Hidden Persuaders. In it he posits that despite our fond belief in America being a democratic society, we are in fact not classless. According to his studies of sociology and observations based on his travels and interviews, he outlines a "system of horizontal social strata" consisting of five divisions. In addition he presents a vertical system of cross-strata based on differentness, such as racial (Blacks, immigrants) and religious (Jews.) In other words you can be a wealthy, educated African American but that does not mean you are wholly or truly considered upper class.

He also points out trends following World War II and their results as of the the 1950s: the growing emphasis on college education, the tendency of big business to hire college grads for management positions instead of people with experience in running their own businesses, and the increase in technology as it influences blue collar professions.

I was not convinced that all his data adds up in the way he seemed to think it did, but he is one of only a few writers at that time who tackled the subject. He presents his findings in everyday language, taking them out of academia and to the streets.

As I read, I realized the stresses my parents were under while raising a family. They were both college graduates from families who were blue collar, second generation German immigrants. Although they claimed to resist the marketing pressures of the 1950s, they were proud to be homeowners who could afford to put an addition on the house as we grew up and to raise us in a "good" neighborhood in Princeton, NJ. They sent me and my two sisters to college. I think they felt they had achieved a somewhat upper middle class status and wanted us to live that way.

Of course, we entered college in the 60s, all became hippies, dropped out and took up alternative lifestyles. Then those lifestyles ended up being mainstream in the yuppie 90s. We were also raised with plenty of encouragement and opportunities in the arts. Packard states that artists, musicians, and writers float more effortlessly among the classes and I have found that to be true.

The Status Seekers is slanted against big business because of its regimentation which he documents at length. Packard is also clearly on the side of the common man and considers himself free of racial and religious prejudice. I suppose today he would be called a bleeding liberal. 

The writing style is less lively than in his previous book. I did a good bit of skimming. He gets downright preachy in the final chapters and comes across as an innocent utopian. "If only people would..." People don't, in my experience. I admire him though, for telling it like it was and I hope he made some people uncomfortable. He provides a sociological perspective on how we ended up in a deep recession with the one percenters holding most of the wealth.

(The Status Seekers is out of print but can be found through used booksellers.)

Sunday, September 09, 2012


Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Judy Blume, Yearling, 1970, 149 pp


Judy Blume is nine years older than I am. I did not read her books growing up because they weren't published yet. They would have helped me a great deal but by the time this one was published in 1970, I was married and having my first baby.

I decided to read this now because I have come to the part of my memoir where I need to write about my early awareness of sex and all that goes along with changing from a child to a teen to a young woman. I found myself very blocked and finally decided that early taboos about the discussion of these subjects were damming up my creativity. I'd heard that Judy Blume addressed these issues and thought maybe reading her books would help. It has!

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is not much about sex; it is about waiting for and finally getting that first period. It is also about family, friends, boys, and religion.

Margaret is eleven, almost twelve, and entering the 6th grade. She is an only child and has been brought up with no religion because her mom was Catholic, her dad Jewish. The marriage caused Margaret's mom to cut all ties with her parents. So big issue right there. Though her parents are fairly cool, Margaret feels she needs to learn about both religions.

That is all I am going to say because if you haven't read it, I would spoil it for you. It is a fabulous, honest, and open book about a girl growing up in America, full of humor and heartbreak. I think every 6th grade girl should read it but of course the book banners and challengers don't agree.

If you are a mom and your daughter wants to read it, I advise you read it first yourself and make your own decision. If you are a daughter and your mom or teacher or anyone tells you not to read it, you will have to make your own decision as well. All I can say is that I have found out lots of things no one would tell me about by reading books.

(Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is available in paperback on the children's shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, September 07, 2012


The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Jonathan Evison, Algonquin Books, 2012, 276 pp

 Ever since his debut novel, All About Lulu, I have been in love with Jonathan Evison. He wowed me again with last year's West of Here. I am thrilled to say he has done it yet another time with his new one. He is among a handful of current novelists who reassure me that the age of fiction is far from over, no matter what the doomsayers would have us believe. I am going to see him read and regale us next Tuesday night at Skylight, one of LA's ultra cool indie bookstores.

Ben Benjamin is one of those early 21st century men who walk the fine line of gender roles as we slowly balance the male/female spectrum of existence. His wife got the better job early in their marriage, so he stayed home to raise the kids. I love the truthful, heartfelt, and hilarious rendition of what that is like for a guy. Funny thing is, it's not that different from what it's like for a woman.

If there is a theme to this novel, it is that we are all called upon to be caregivers at some point in our adult lives and we all fail in so many ways. Ben fails miserably when his children die in an accident for which he is pretty much fully responsible, even if it was an accident.

Having lost everyone and everything he truly loves (his wife leaves him after the accident), having run out of money and nearly maxed out his credit lines, having no marketable job skills, having really no reason to go on living but just keeping on the way most of us do, Ben enrolls in a class: The Fundamentals of Caregiving. Evison serves up more truth, heart, and hilarity.

So, bolstered only by the barest essentials of bodily care, professional bullet points, and the unlikely recommendation to keep an emotional distance from your client, Ben becomes the caregiver for Trev, a 19-year-old, horny, moody, domineering victim of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Instantly the already wobbly Ben is in way over his head.

The story careens its way into a redemption tale that only Jonathan Evison could have written. Poised on the exact brink between antic humor and deep despair, he depicts Ben, Trev, and a collection of desperate, heartbroken human beings as they take a road trip worthy of Kerouac or Steinbeck.

In my professional review at BookBrowse, I attempt to explain how great is Jonathan Evison's writing. He has always been great but now he has honed and fine-tuned everything: plot, characters, description, emotion. He makes it look effortless, as if he is merely tossing off a tall tale at the pub over a few pints.

Just read it! It is short, it is not ever boring even for a paragraph. Best of all, during this election season when all you hear is recycled bullshit, you will get the truth of modern American life.

(The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks, Viking, 2011, 300 pp

The plot (or is it the theme?) of Geraldine Brooks' latest novel could be "life sucks and then you die."
Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed reading it because Brooks is a good storyteller and a competent writer, if a bit careful and self-controlled.

Set in the mid 1600s during the pioneer days of English Puritans, it is based on the true story of how a Native American youth, Caleb, became the first of his people to graduate from Harvard. The tale reeks with adversity: "good" versus "bad" Puritans; white man versus native; male versus female; human versus the elements; and more. The minister father of Bethia, the heroine, even pits his one God against the magic and pantheism of Caleb's uncle, the medicine man.

I have a horror of attempts at religious conversion; the idea that a person must believe in a certain god in order to attain eternal life just makes me cringe and always has ever since I was a five-year-old in Sunday School. But it is a prevalent practice among human beings and Brooks does well using it for tension without too much of a judgmental tone.

Bethia is one of Brooks' signature females. She is put through the wringer and holds up for a good long time. I kept thinking about The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton, though Bethia is more Anne Hutchinson than she is Mrs Winthrop. As in all her other novels, Ms Brooks made me care about her heroine and kept me interested in her suffering, which was huge, and her triumphs, which were puny by comparison.

Bethia first meets Caleb when they are children and he opens her eyes to new ways of looking at life and the world, while she teaches him to read. That time of innocence, when a child begins to look outside her family and upbringing, when we have that certainty that anything is possible and are clueless about the dangers of trying to change the status quo, is one of the shining sections in Caleb's Crossing.

I don't think it is a spoiler to say this tale is a tragedy. Surely we are supposed to see that these characters were trail blazers and opened doors to those who came after them. But at the end of the book I did not feel uplifted. I felt like, no matter how hard someone tries, life sucks and then you die.

(Caleb's Crossing is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, September 03, 2012


Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley, Alfred A Knopf, 2000, 561 pp

 Jane Smiley's novel about horse racing is one of the best books I have read this summer. It was loaned to me by my sister-in-law, a horse woman herself and daughter of a horse woman. Jane Smiley owns a race horse or two and clearly knows plenty about the subject. A big part of the book's success is the way she makes the horses characters in the story as much as she does the humans.

I knew nothing about the world of horse racing, except that people like to go to the races and bet money. I learned more than I knew there was to know about the individuals who own race horses (usually wealthy), the ones who train them (often fanatical), the jockeys, and the major races of each year along with their locations and prizes. Smiley provides a list of characters and horses but not a glossary, so I kept my iPhone handy and the terminology is easy to find on the web.

For the most part, reading the book was a perfectly painless way to learn because the facts are couched in the stories of individuals, including their dreams, their interpersonal troubles, the highs and lows of the racing life, and the many, various ways that these persons relate to horses.

Smiley takes on the big issues and questions of live, love, business, ethics, etc. Her novel is sprawling and long and rich with emotion. I always enjoy her fiction because of the non-judgmental approach she takes to human foibles; the heady brew of dry humor plus pathos by which she makes us know that often the bad guy wins and the nice people lose. In this one, almost every character, human or horse, gets what he or she wants in one way or another, deserved or not.

It is a long book, cleverly plotted with intertwining destinies, and I never wanted it to be over. I will probably not ride a horse again in my life and, unless someone invited me along, I would not attend a race, even though the Santa Anita track is just down the freeway. But I don't think I will ever forget the animals or the humans, so well did she bring them to life. Now I understand completely how people can love horses so much.

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

Sunday, September 02, 2012


Houseboat Girl, Lois Lenski, J B Lippincott Company, 1957, 176 pp


Houseboat Girl is another Lois Lenski book that stands out in my memory as a favorite when I was growing up. I was ten years old when it was first published and I bet I found it at the library. I did not find it at the library in 2012, but my sister collects the Lenski books and she had a copy. It has also recently been republished in paperback and as an eBook by Open Road Media.

Patsy is going through that most wrenching experience for a ten-year-old girl of moving away from all your friends. On top of that, her family is setting off in a houseboat, planning to live on the Mississippi River all summer with no firm destination in mind. Patsy's parents are river people who get restless when they stay too long in one place.

Patsy's story is similar to Birdie Boyer's in Strawberry Girl. Both girls are in new locales and situations and have to learn about "mean people" when their fathers get into conflicts with other men. Like Judy in Judy's Journey, Patsy wants to settle down in a real house somewhere so she can go to school and have friends. But she also discovers the wonders of the river and the excitement of being on a journey.

The book is part of Lenski's American Regional Series. I'm amused at myself to have discovered that I read all the "girl" stories and skipped the "boy" ones when I was a kid. Obviously I was not boy crazy yet. By the time I was, I had moved on to Beverly Cleary's teen books.

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

Saturday, September 01, 2012


A couple weeks ago I completed my reading list for 1959. These lists are part of what I call My Big Fat Reading Project. I have been working on the project since June 2002, when I started with a reading list from 1940. So finishing 1959 is a milestone because I have now completed the second decade of the project. I also turned 65 last month and am beginning to realize that I may never complete the darn thing. I mean, do the math. Also the lists keep getting longer. However I am getting the education in literature that I envisioned and that is what matters to me.

The 1959 list took me a year and a half to complete for all kinds of reasons. I was distracted by several life changes but most of all it felt like because it was the end of a decade and I was so eager to get into the 1960s, it just went dragging on and on.

You can find reviews for almost all of these books here on the blog. Just put the title into the search window in the top left corner. You can also find all the earlier lists by looking through the archives. I suppose I should gather the links for these in the sidebar. If even one person comments with such a request, I will do it!

Exodus, Leon Uris
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
Hawaii, James Michener
Advise and Consent, Allen Drury
Lady Chatterley's Lover, D H Lawrence
The Ugly American, William J Lederer and Eugene L Burdick
Dear and Glorious Physician, Taylor Caldwell
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Mrs 'Arris Goes to Paris, Paul Gallico
Poor No More, Robert Ruark

PULITZER: The Travels of Jamie McPheeters, Robert Lewis Taylor
NEWBERY: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare
CALDECOTT: Chanticleer and the Fox, Barbara Cooney
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD: The Magic Barrel, Bernard Malamud
HUGO: A Case of Conscience, James Blish
EDGAR: The Eighth Circle, Stanley Ellin

Absolute Beginners, Colin Macinnes
The Borrowers Afloat, Mary Norton
The Cave, Robert Penn Warren
Children of the Alley, Naguib Mahfouz
Coal Camp Girl, Lois Lenski
Free Fall, William Golding
The Good Conscience, Carlos Fuentes
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow
Jean and Johnny, Beverly Cleary
The Mansion, William Faulkner
Miguel Street, V S Naipaul
Momento Mori, Muriel Spark
My Brother Michael, Mary Stewart
Passage of Arms, Eric Ambler
The Poorhouse Fair, John Updike
Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut
The Status Seekers, Vance Packard
Time Out of Joint, Philip K Dick
Zazie in the Metro, Raymond Queneau