Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Boy Proof, Cecil Castellucci, Candlewick Press, 2005, 203 pp

Last month I attended a reading by Jonathan Evison (The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving) at Skylight Books in Hollywood. Introducing Jonathan was Cecil Castellucci. "I know that name," I thought. Sure enough she is one of the more truly hip YA authors writing these days. I had seen her books all the time when I worked at Once Upon A Time Bookstore, but somehow never read any.

In my usual fashion I started with her first novel. Cecil Castellucci, in my opinion, is a direct literary descendant of Francesca Lia Block. For contemporary teens she take the place of Beverly Cleary.

Egg is the all time, essential high school geek heroine. She is brilliantly intelligent, has the highest grades in her school, knows all about science fiction books and movies. Her mom, with whom Egg lives in a teen vs mother detente, strives daily to recover her life as an actress. Egg's dad, divorced from the mom naturally, is a successful special effects dude who travels most of the time.

So yeah, broken home, deeply sad and alienated, dressing and acting as weird as possible, Egg is "boy proof." But to have a novel, that has to change. Enter Max Carter. He shows up first in AP English. He is as smart as Egg, possibly smarter, but he is a chick magnet. You know the rest.

Of course, I loved it. Just the right tone all the way through, especially for teens living in Los Angeles or wishing they did. The happy ending is not what you think it is going to be. It is so much cooler than that.

(Boy Proof is available in paperback on the YA shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available as an eBook by order.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Motor City Shakedown, D E Johnson, Minotaur Books, 2011, 340 pp

I have been visiting Detroit, MI, since I was a toddler. My mom's family are all Michigan people and we went there every summer, driving from Princeton, NJ, across the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Ohio Turnpike and stopping first in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit. My mom's older brother worked for Ford Motor Company and I had three cousins there.

I transferred to the University of Michigan in my junior year and remained living in Ann Arbor for the next 24 years. Detroit has played a large part in my life. When I learned about D E Johnson's historical mystery series set in 1911 and featuring the son of a car company owner, I had to check it out. Detroit Electric was a producer of early electric cars and Ford Motor was a big competitor.

Unwittingly, I read the second in the series which picks up shortly after the first left off. But Johnson handles the back story adroitly so it all makes sense and actually made me want to read the first one: Detroit Electric Scheme.

The writing is not stunning but serves the purpose for a mystery just fine. Though Will Anderson is a well-to-do young man, he manages to get himself mixed up with gangsters, a crime boss, union organizers and crooked cops. In fact, besides covering the transition from electric to internal combustion engines, the story also delves into the early days of the Teamsters Union. And Edsel Ford is a character.

Pretty good stuff. The heroine is a socialite but is no girly girl. She has guts and in the end practically saves her boyfriend, Will Anderson. I will be back to read The Detroit Electric Scheme and his latest release, Detroit Breakdown.

(Motor City Shakedown is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, October 22, 2012




Today is Doris Lessing's birthday. She is 93. She was born in the same year as my mother, 1919. She is one of my heroines. I like that she wears blue in many of her later photos and how she is often resting her face on a hand. Most of all I love how fearless, creative, on the bleeding edge she has always been. 

She is one of only 12 women to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She does not yield to praise, criticism, mockery, or worship. She is herself. What more can any human being hope to be, but especially women?

I am just a short way into reading her novels. I began with The Summer Before the Dark, 1973, a novel about a woman waking up to herself after playing the mother and wife role for many years. I loved her realism, her courage and her truth. From there I went to the beginning of her list and am coming forward.

The Grass Is Singing, 1950. I was blown away by the quality of the writing and again the realism about family, girlhood, and race.
This Was the Old Chiefs Country, 1951. Her first collection of short stories mostly derived from her early years in Zimbabwe, where she was raised.
Martha Quest, 1952, is the first in her Children of Violence series. Her is where her feminism really begins to show, though she does not like being lumped in with feminists.
Five, 1953 is a compilation of five short novels. I do not generally read short stories or novellas but Doris Lessing loses no power because of brevity.
A Proper Marriage, 1954. This is how we end up married, pregnant, mothering, going crazy, leaving it all behind. Or at least it is how it happened back in the day.
Retreat to Innocence, 1956. The first novel set in England. She later wished it had not been published but I see it as a logical progression of thought.
Ripple From the Storm, 1958. The third in the Children of Violence series, follows Martha after A Proper Marriage. This is the stage where we try to find out who we are by joining questionable political groups and getting disillusioned.

The next book for me is The Golden Notebook, 1962, her most well known novel. I am about a third of the way through my 1960 list, so it will be a little while.

I doubt that she will come across this post, but I do hope that more readers will discover her books because of it. And I send out my admiration and best wishes to a woman who put me into words. That is a large part of why I read.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon, HarperCollins Publishers, 2012, 465 pp

Michael Chabon makes me a happy reader. When I finish one of his novels, I know I have been worked over, played with, and challenged. With Telegraph Avenue he has done it to me again.

How did he work me over? With a convoluted plot for one thing. As usual I was fairly lost and confused for the first 60 pages. He is busy introducing characters, setting scenes, jumping into the past, and I'm just trying to keep up. It is like hiking with an experienced, fit, onward! type in an unfamiliar location.

Though a protagonist does emerge and is in fact introduced on page one (Archy Stallings, part owner of the failing Brokeland Records, a black veteran of Desert Storm who has yet to mature), I spent the entire book thinking there were six main characters whose lives are intertwined just as in real life. You may be the protagonist of your own life but without at least five other key people, your life would be inexplicable.

How was I played with? He made me wade through the minutia of universes with which I am partially or wholly unfamiliar, but he made me like it. (He always does this: comic books and superheros in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; an alternate history of Jews, gangsters and natives in Alaska in The Yiddish Policeman's Union.) This time it is 1970s jazz and soul plus Blaxploitation martial arts cinema and modern midwifery mixed with the history of the borderline between Oakland and Berkeley.

Pulsing along beneath the surface like a rhythm section are Chabon's usual themes: Love-hetero, homo, parental, and between same sex friends. Multicultural clash and blending with a strong Jewish flavor. Fatherhood-what does it mean, how is it ever done right, what does it have to do with manhood? Last but not least, the mystery of females-their ferocity, their needs, their hormones, their destinies.

Words, words, words. I happen to love smart Jewish males showing off. Details, lovingly and lengthily described, tossed out into cul de sacs which do not further the plot. Chabon can turn the world into a combination shopping mall/museum. But the plot keeps moving inexorably to a finale.

Telegraph Avenue takes place over just a few weeks. Archy's wife is about to give birth, Brokeland Records about to go under, deep old social, racial, and personal wounds coming back to haunt these two families who are pretty much the salt of the earth when it comes to their neighborhood. They are challenged, they each come close to complete failure. I was challenged to live outside of my life, wondering all the while how on earth life just keeps on.

(Telegraph Avenue is available right now in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in other formats by order.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


The River of Doubt, Candice Millard, Doubleday, 2005, 353 pp

My adult children tell me I am opinionated. Well, first of all, at my age I feel entitled to a few opinions. Here are a couple definitions: "unduly adhering to one's own opinion or to preconceived notion" (Merriam Webster); "someone who isn't afraid to give their personal opinion" (Urban Dictionary). 

I think it boils down to two things. In this age of post-political-correctness, saying what one thinks is fraught, unless you are a political talk radio person or blogger. Opinions become opinionated views if one is not open to reinspecting them or even changing them from time to time.

For years and years I have preferred fiction (novels actually) to nonfiction. My only exceptions to this opinion were biographies and memoirs about writers and artists. In recent months my reading groups have been choosing more nonfiction. I have moaned and groaned, but I always read the chosen book. I have also been reading some history as research for my own memoir. The upshot of all this is that I have changed my opinion or at least altered it. I can learn from nonfiction, but more to the point I can enjoy it.

The River of Doubt did not change my opinion of Teddy Roosevelt, who has always seemed to me to have lived by an annoying ubermacho, war mongering creed. I got some insight into why that is in Candance Millard's book but I still feel that way. However, I also realized that I have a heretofore unadmitted weakness for extreme adventure tales, of which this book is a good example.

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt lost a presidential election and got depressed. He couldn't lead his country, he had no war to fight in, so he turned to his other love: exploration. Apparently, he had always used extreme physical challenges as an antidote for depression. A never before explored river in the heart of the Amazon jungle was just the ticket.

While the story has its share of malaria, disgusting creatures, infected injuries and low food rations, it is still a fascinating journey through the jungle. Roosevelt met his match in Brazilian explorer Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, one of the toughest, most principled dudes I have ever met in any book. As these two alpha males duked it out, overcoming every possible barrier to making it down the river and back to civilization, the reader is there with them, their crew, the indigenous peoples, the piranhas, the monkeys and the bugs.

Despite a couple of lulls in the narrative, the story rages on, as though the author were channeling Roosevelt. In fact, she herself spent time on what is now called Rio Roosevelt. I read the whole book in two days. Nonfiction rocks!

(The River of Doubt is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 12, 2012


Two Weeks in Another Town, Irwin Shaw, Random House, 1960, 372 pp

Another novel about Americans in Rome, as was The Imperfectionists, but much better. The era is postwar mid 1950s. Jack Andrus was a hot Hollywood star in the 1940s until World War II completely disrupted his life. He served in the army, came home wounded and scarred, lost both his place in the movie industry and his wife, then emigrated to Paris.

As the novel opens he is married to a French woman of the conservative French wife and mother type. They have two children, have spent whatever passion they once had, and Jack has a boring administrative post in NATO. A call from his old director changes everything.

Off he goes to Rome for two weeks to help his one-time friend in an attempted comeback as a player in the world of cinema. All of Jack's past comes back to haunt him and he spends the two weeks working it out. It is a satisfying, dramatic story because Irwin Shaw struck that magic balance between literary chops and storytelling.

Because I have done so much reading about Europe in the 1950s recently, including the Simone de Beauvoir memoirs, I felt familiar with the Paris and Rome portrayed. Shaw was a screenwriter early in his career and some of his novels, including this one, were made into movies. He knew the movie world from financing to studios to stars. He also had his fingers on the pulse of society and since he lived in Europe from 1951 onwards, had a wider view than some of the America-centered novelists I have read from those years.

I was entertained throughout. Perhaps he went a shade too far on the melodrama but I admired the skill with which he put the reader into the minds and hearts of his characters while imbuing the story with a sense of menace. Life in the late 1950s was not as dull and "normal" as it looked on the surface, especially in Europe. Two Weeks in Another Town offers a glimpse into those times.

(Two Weeks in Another Town is out of print, so best found in libraries or through used booksellers.)

Thursday, October 11, 2012


The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman, The Dial Press, 2010, 269 pp

This did not turn out to be the book I expected. It's form is short stories connected by their setting: an English-language newspaper in Rome. Each story features a reporter, columnist, editor, or staff person at the paper. Throughout the book, a history of the paper becomes clear.

Some of these individuals turn up more than once, along with details about their personal lives, so the reader gets to know them in a sketchy, scattered way. Because The Imperfectionists traces the death of a particular newspaper, it is timely but not particularly dramatic.

It just did not come together in a satisfying way. Probably for readers who have worked as journalists, it would be an emotionally relevant story, the way fiction about bookstores is for booksellers.

I have never been a journalist nor have I been a reader of newspapers. I haven't a sentimental bone in my body for young writers whose passion is to report the truth and I don't really care that they become disillusioned. How could they not know going in that newspapers are mostly in the business of selling sensation and that their owners must please the advertisers if they want to stay in business?

Finally, I am weary of collections of short stories presented as novels. I am not a fan of short stories so with few exceptions, I end up feeling tricked. Rachman is a good writer and if he wrote an actual novel, I would read him again.

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

Sunday, October 07, 2012


The Kingdom and the Cave, Joan Aiken, Doubleday & Company, 1960, 160 pp


Many years ago when I was reading by the alphabet system (as did Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), trying to read all the fiction in my library by authors whose last name began with "A", I discovered Joan Aiken. I read several of her novels for adults and especially liked Midnight Is a Place as well as Voices In an Empty House.

The Kingdom and the Cave is her first novel, written when she was just 17 years old, which would have been 1941, but not published until 1960. It is now out of print and rather hard to find. By 1960 she had published two collections of short stories for children. 

This first novel has the quality which had charmed me in the novels I read: she presents children as fully fleshed out individuals who are capable, full of courage and often more sensible than the surrounding adults.

Such a child is Michael, son of a King and Queen whose kingdom is threatened but who are clueless about how to protect it. Michael, his excellent cat Mickle and an old mare by the name of Minerva, save the day. One of the first things Michael has to learn is to speak U. A. L. (Universal Animal Language.)

So there is danger, adventure and magic. There are talking animals and evil Under People. Honestly, this is as good as the Narnia books (and free of the moral lessons) or even equal to Harry Potter in many ways. The book is recommended for middle grade readers.

Joan Aiken just wrote and wrote for more than 40 years; over 35 books (including the award winning Wolves of Willoughby Chase) and hundreds of short stories. In 1982 she even wrote The Way to Write for Children. I must check that out.

(As mentioned above, this book is out of print. I could not find it at any of the libraries I use. It is available from used booksellers.)

Friday, October 05, 2012


The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson, Random House Inc, 2012, 443 pp

Sometimes, not too often, but sometimes, an author writes fiction about people and places outside of his own milieu and pulls it off. As far as I can tell, Adam Johnson is not any part Korean, so I was leery about this book, but it is great! He did his research, both reading and trips to North Korea. As he said in interviews, for the rest he used his imagination. For us, who can't know what goes on there, he has told at least part of the story.

The hero was deserted by his mother and raised by his father, who runs an "orphanage" which is in truth a child labor camp. The father dared not show favoritism to his son and so was harder on him than the orphans. But just the fact that Pak Jun Do knows he is not an orphan (worst status of all for a North Korean) gives him a sense of self that carries him through a life of horror and suffering and allows him to be a hero, at least in his own mind.

The first part of the book is about Pak's young life. It is reminiscent of David Copperfield except a hundred times worse. He comports himself well as a young man and rise to some heights in the eyes of the state but more tragedy strikes.

In the second part, a new voice takes over; jolting in the extreme but somehow Johnson made me get over it. This second part was harder to believe because Pak takes on the personality of a legend and the tale gets taller in every chapter. I wondered if Johnson himself became so horrified by the totalitarian oppression that he was compelled to get fantastic in the opposite direction. If North Korea had saints, Pak would be one.

Two things struck me. One is when Pak had a shattering realization about his mother's act of leaving him behind. It was the strongest emotional passage in a story bursting with the full range of human emotion.

The second was the overall assertion that the human spirit is unconquerable. That is one of my cherished beliefs and also a frequent message in fiction. On my cynical days I think the idea is just a daydream I use to make myself feel better. I'm almost afraid I have been played by Adam Johnson, but he did it so well, I am fine with being gullible.

(The Orphan Master's Son is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, October 03, 2012


Rabbit, Run, John Updike, Alfred A Knopf, 1960, 309 pp

John Updike's second novel definitely has the feel and sound of a new decade in literature. Getting through my 1959 reading list was such a slog but 1960 so far has been enjoyable with strong signs that a sort of literary tipping point had been reached.

Novels from the 1950s such as Peyton Place, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Lolita, gave evidence that cultural taboos against writing about sex were loosening. In Rabbit, Run Updike raised the bar. Rabbit Angstrom's sexual thoughts and encounters are fully described. 

Disillusion with a proscribed middle class world of dull work in offices and social climbing at home, which I read about in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Revolutionary Road, Saul Bellow's early novels and others, explodes in this account of one man's boredom and frustration and longing for escape. Rabbit, with his conflicted sense of responsibility, of moral rights and wrongs, is so far from the earnest, upright sort of hero found in the first half of the century. As I read, I kept thinking of modern male characters such as Chip Lambert in The Corrections.

The writing is exciting but polished at the same time. Updike spent some years writing stories and columns for "The New Yorker" and that influence shows. He veers from finely crafted sentences and descriptions to terse bursts of words when relaying Rabbit's actions, but it is all balanced nicely.

The biggest surprise to me was the religious angle. Rabbit, after deserting his pregnant wife and young son, is approached by the wife's family minister who endeavors to bring the couple back together. There is a satiric tone to their interactions on a par with Muriel Spark. At the same time, both grapple with faith and sin in passages that sound like Graham Greene. 

Except for his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, which I read 10 years ago, I have not read John Updike before. I just always heard about him and his Rabbit novels. It seemed to me he was either revered or reviled, usually because of the sex, and I would get him confused with Philip Roth. Well, nothing beats actually reading the books.

(Rabbit, Run is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, October 01, 2012


The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Pantheon Books, 1960, 285 pp

The #3 bestseller in 1960 is historical fiction, translated from Italian. It was the Sicilian author's only novel and when it was published in Italy, became that country's top-selling novel ever! Today it is considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature, according to Wikipedia.

Sicilian nobleman Don Fabrizio Corbera's world is being forever changed. The 1860 revolutionary Garibaldi along with his Redshirts set into motion the Risorgimento, resulting in the unification of Italy into a nation. For Don Fabrizio, this meant the disintegration of his family as nobility due to an erosion of Italy's class system and the rise of a moneyed middle class. 

Of course, this is not an isolated story. The Age of Enlightenment, begun by 17th century philosophers and leading to upheavals all over the continent, eventually changed the entire Western world. In the 18th and 19th centuries, nobles losing their good thing was the story.

The Leopard's author was the last in a line of minor princes in Sicily and wrote his novel, based on the life of his great-grandfather, in an effort to combat depression after his palace was bombed during World War II. His style is a wonderful mix of human insight, humor, philosophy, and nostalgia. 

The old prince Fabrizio, a womanizer who also loves his wife, a thinker and astronomer, father of daughters, places his hope for the future on a favorite nephew. He foresees the downfall of his family and the nobility, but knows he is powerless to prevent it. 

Besides the engaging prose and evocation of a long gone lifestyle, I was drawn in to an understanding of what it was like for such people to see their way of life crumble. Lampedusa also seems to be questioning if the lower classes were really any better off under "democracy." He shows how serving a prince or a noble family gave them a sort of honor that could not be replaced under the new political system. Maybe so, maybe not. 

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