Sunday, December 30, 2012


Mr Ives's Christmas, Oscar Hijuelos, HarperCollins, 1995, 248 pp

Oscar Hijuelos' third novel began a bit slowly but in some way I have yet to figure out, took hold of me with a gradually tightening grip and left me gasping for relief at the end. The writing is deceptive. It seemed almost simple, almost pedestrian, until I found myself embedded in the hearts and minds of Mr Ives and his wife.

The couple, Mr Ives of Cuban descent and Mrs Ives of Irish, are bound together by passion, intellect, and faith. Content to remain living in a multicultural neighborhood in Upper Manhattan which has seen better days, they are raising two children and are deeply involved in their church and community when disaster strikes. Robert, their son, who is days from entering the seminary, is killed during an incident of senseless violence by a neighborhood punk. Every good thing in their lives, especially their love for each other and their faith in God, is tested.

The impact of a child's death on a marriage and family has been depicted many times in fiction. Hijuelos makes the story new again, mostly due to his two main characters. In an almost bland third person voice he brings the reader so close to Mr Ives and his lovely, vibrant wife Annie, he dives so intricately into the minute personal differences between them as they deal with grief, with religious belief, with life itself, that the novel tested my own faith in love, in mankind, in a Supreme Being, and in life itself.

I don't know if the amount of emotional turmoil in Mr Ives' Christmas is every reader's cup of tea. I didn't think I would be able to stomach the overtly Catholic views. But then again, I have been drawn in by Graham Greene, especially The Power and the Glory. As I watched the movie version of The Life of Pi on Christmas Eve, I remembered that part of my love for that book was Pi's seriously held and seriously tested faith in the three religions he practiced simultaneously.

Oscar Hijuelos did not turn me back to the Christian faith of my youth. He performed another kind of miracle and renewed my faith in living by one's values and in the divine nature of human love.

(Mr Ives's Christmas is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, December 28, 2012


Lovers and Tyrants, Francine du Plessix Gray, Simon and Schuster, 1967, 316 pp

I loved this novel unconditionally. I have always meant to read Francine du Plessix Gray because I had the impression of a smart, outspoken female, along the lines of Mary McCarthy, Simone de Beauvoir, etc. Her latest novel, The Queen's Lover, was released recently, reminding me that I still hadn't read anything she had written. As is my usual practice, I went for her first novel.

Her books seem to get tepid reviews, though she gets a lot of respect, making me think that possibly she is not easily accessible and has a unique take on whatever she writes about. I was right!

Lovers and Tyrants is probably autobiographical since the life of Stephanie, the main character, follows Gray's life: born of a French father and Russian emigre mother, raised in France and then America after escaping the dangers of World War II. The theme of tyranny by those who love us the most felt true to me.

If I had read this novel in the 70s when I was going through my own awakening to feminism and personal freedom (and I so wish I had), I would have loved it and learned from it and been given courage by it. Women in their 20s and 30s today might not find it as moving because life actually is better for women now. Not perfect, but better.

Reading it now, in my 60s, with my children grown and having worked out many of my issues with men, marriage, and motherhood, was an emotionally satisfying way of looking back over what it was like for me. In many ways, it acted as absolution and benediction for all the missteps I made.

If you are a woman who has grappled with the disconnect between the urge to nurture and the urge to flee, I recommend Lovers and Tyrants to you. Gray's writing is wild and impassioned, sometimes undisciplined, sometimes overblown. But it is from the depths of an intelligent, creative woman who will not be denied and who claims all the rights due to a human being.

(Lovers and Tyrants is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


The Queen of Cool, Cecil Castellucci, Candlewick Press, 2006, 166 pp


Continuing my completist reading of Cecil Castellucci's novels. The Queen of Cool is her second after Boy Proof.

I didn't love this one as much but it has highlights. Libby Brin is #1 popular girl at school. She is spoiled at home: even when she rarely gets grounded, she gets out of it. She has her own car, a huge wardrobe, and all the requisite toys. Her boyfriend's mind resides in a lower body organ than his brain or heart.

She lives in Los Angeles and (highlight) stumbles into an internship at the LA Zoo. I admit, I always enjoy books set in LA since I live here. At the zoo she has to work with Tiny, a "Little Person" and Sheldon, a science geek, two people at the extreme bottom of the coolness rating.

Naturally her eyes are opened to the shallowness of her existence. I have nothing against midgets or geeks but the message that they are people too was a bit off-putting in its preachiness.

I did enjoy watching a female teen realize that life includes more than clothes, parties, cars, and gossip. The biggest highlight was a novel for teens that admits to the amount of drinking, drug use, and sex going on in high school.

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

Friday, December 21, 2012


The Constant Image, Marcia Davenport, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960, 253 pp

The #6 bestseller of 1960 was purely awful. It falls in that category of fiction by the likes of Danielle Steele: endless descriptions of clothing, jewelry, and furnishings; passages of mildly bad sex writing; the vacillating obsessive maunderings of a young woman in love with the wrong man. Perfect bestseller material for a certain type of female reader who is not me.

Set in Milan, the story makes a big deal about the difference in moral values between Americans and Italians. Of course, they are all rich and in fact, infidelity is still infidelity when such an amount of lip service is paid to the sanctity of family. Included is the old conventional wisdom that the men are expected to fool around but the women are either victims or sluts. As my straight-laced grandma used to say, "It takes two to tango."

I guess that is enough ranting. After all, it was my freely taken decision to read the bestsellers from 1940 onward and even books like this fit the premise: the popular books reflect the culture of the time.

(The Constant Image is justifiably out of print but available in libraries and through used book sellers.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


The Hours Before Dawn, Celia Fremlin, Victor Gollancz, 1958, 190 pp

One of the pleasures of reading all those old books for My Big Fat Reading Project is discovering gems like this. The Hours Before Dawn won the Edgar Award in 1960.

Louise Henderson is the young mother of two children in 1950s London. Her infant does not sleep much, especially between the hours of 2 AM and dawn. He cries incessantly so that by the time he is just a few months old, Louise is so sleep deprived she moves through her daily housewifery duties in a daze.

Mr Henderson is a typical 50s husband who wants his dinner on time and thinks his wife should be able to quiet that baby so he can sleep at night. Neighbor women on either side of their home are busybodies: one is full of advice on child rearing and the other threatens to call the authorities about the screaming baby.

When the Hendersons let out a bedroom to a local school teacher, strange things begin to happen. It takes Louise several weeks to realize something weird is going on, being so sleepy that she is always on the verge of nodding off.

Once she realizes their boarder Vera may be the cause of the trouble, Louise turns amateur sleuth and saves her family in the nick of time.

The Hours Before Dawn equals the best of Shirley Jackson for its abundance of creeping creepiness as well as its wry take on motherhood and the plight of the housewife. Luckily for me, the book was reprinted in 1995 by Black Dagger Crime Series and I found it at my local library.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin, 1959, 298 pp

At last, I am no longer a Philip Roth virgin. He broke out with this collection of the novella, Goodbye, Columbus and five short stories, for which he won the National Book Award in 1960.

The theme of all the pieces is second and third-generation Jews moving from the ghetto into assimilation as Americans. I liked the novella for its characters and plot, though he stole shamelessly from Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar. I fell shamelessly into the love story between Neil Klugman, poor New York City Jew, and Brenda Patimkin, New Jersey suburban Jewish American Princess. After all, this is one of the major plots of American literature in the late 20th century and already Roth could write like nobody's business.

The short stories ranged from not quite good to deeply weird but they had all been published in mags like "The Paris Review" and "The New Yorker." That was the way young, white, male writers gained recognition in those days and clearly Roth got his due.

Conclusion: I will continue with Roth's novels and ignore the short stories.

(Goodbye, Columbus is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Clea, Lawrence Durrell, E P Dutton & Company, 1960, 287 pp

Sadly, I have come to the end of The Alexandria Quartet*. It has been a revelatory reading experience and I now see why this dated collection is still read, praised, even loved.

I found Clea the weakest of the four, perhaps because Durrell is winding down, as is the historic city of Alexandria. (These days it is considered an unsafe location for tourists.) During the time covered by Clea, the British Empire's heyday is coming to a close. In his inimitable way, Durrell infuses all of this into a sad farewell.

Clea, who had always been a shadowy presence in the earlier novels, now has her day. She is an artist, a painter. Of all the women in the Quartet, she comes across as the most well balanced; a sort of Earth Mother figure and the feminist of the bunch. The nararator (whom I assume is Durrell himself) finally has a love affair with her. He is older and wiser now, but Clea is wiser still.

The End.

*The Books of the Alexandria Quartet:

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012


The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown, G P Putnam's Sons, 2011, 318 pp

This novel did pretty much nothing for me. It is a type: I would call it "women's fiction with a quirk." The three Andreas sisters, raised by a nice but distant mother and a Shakespeare professor who named them after Shakespearean women, grew up in a small college town. The family was wont to approach life via quotes from Shakespeare plays and sonnets. They were all great readers, mostly because there was nothing else to do in their small town.

As the novel opens, they are all adults, two have moved away and one is living nearby. Because their mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer, they come together in their childhood home, ostensibly to care for her, but actually to escape their screwed up lives. Then they have conflicts and realizations and it all turns out happy.

Readers of my blog know that I have a fatal flaw which prevents me from being able to enjoy Shakespeare. When I realized how lame it was, I only finished The Weird Sisters because it was a reading group pick. I thought I might like it because three years ago my two sisters and I came together to care for our mother after she had a major stroke. That experience brought out the worst in our relationship. 

But this excuse for a novel borders on Shakespeare-light, worse than No Fear or Cliff Notes, just a bunch of quotes thrown in sometimes apropos of nothing. The characters are predictable and they get off much too easy for the mistakes they've made.

I used to have an acquaintance who was a writer and opened a bookstore on the California coast. She had a sign by the cash register offering a refund for any book you bought there that you didn't like. One day a man came in brandishing a book and yelling that she had robbed him of his time. She had recommended the book to him and he had hated it. He was demanding to be repaid for his reading time.

Of course that is one of those tales of horror told by booksellers and we had a good laugh about it. But honestly, I felt this way about The Weird Sisters.

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

Saturday, December 08, 2012


With or Without You, Domenica Ruta, Spiegel & Grau, 2012, 207 pp

This memoir came into my hands in advance reader's edition form. It will be released in February, 2013. I devoured it in one gulp. It came with high praise from Amy Bloom and Gary Shteyngart. The marketing person compared it favorably to The Glass Castle. All good.

But for at least 50 pages I was underwhelmed. Where was the lyricism of The Glass Castle? Where was the "darkly hilarious" tone? I admit those 50 pages went by in a flash but couldn't say why.

So yes, bad mother on drugs, poverty, crazy unstable life, addiction, blah, blah, blah. The kid turns out to be a reader, the mom does a couple actual helpful things, and this girl, who by middle school was hooked on OxyContin, managed to graduate with good grades from high school and college, while getting into a prestigious MFA program. Did I mention that she also became an alcoholic?

Try as I might to analyze what happened, all I know is that I got hooked on Domenica Ruta's deadpan, affectless prose. Then when she finally figured out that to survive she needed to lose the mom, I had to find out how she did it. Because the truth that makes this memoir real is that we love our mothers no matter who they are or what they do. Even the best, most perfect moms can haunt you; the poisonous ones are an addiction in themselves.

Final analysis: With or Without You is powerful, possibly a classic in the memoir genre, and does not sugarcoat the damage done nor what it takes to live with said damage. Not exactly inspiring, definitely sobering (no pun intended.)

(With or Without You is available in hardcover or audio CD by advance order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, December 07, 2012


Welcome to Hard Times, E L Doctorow, Simon and Schuster, 1960, 209 pp

Doctorow's first novel is a literary western. That's right. It was shelved in Westerns at my library. In truth, it is a philosophical though action packed story set in Dakota Territory during the wild, lawless days when the West was being settled.

The writing is taut and just about perfect. You can see, hear, almost smell the town of Hard Times and the characters leap to life. The "Bad Man from Bodie" rides into town, rapes the whores, then burns down the entire town.

Blue is the default philosophizing mayor. In penance for failing to defend his town from the Bad Man because he was not willing to kill the guy, he attempts to rebuild the town and to create a family by taking in Molly, one of the raped whores, as well as the young son of his best friend who died in the fire. Molly reminded me of Kathy from Steinbeck's East of Eden.

But evil has visited the town once and Doctorow creates some serious foreboding and foreshadowing. You know it's coming back. Quite a page-turner for such a philosophical book because the symbolism is embedded in the drama.

(Welcome to Hard Times is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, December 02, 2012


Meet the Austins, Madeleine L'Engle, Vanguard Press, 1960, 191 pp


When Meet the Austins was published in 1960, Madeleine L'Engle was two years away from publishing her break out book A Wrinkle in Time. Somewhere I read that she was quite discouraged as an author at this time, even though she had been writing stories since childhood. She got published but prior to Wrinkle in Time her books had not sold well. In the long run, Meet the Austins grew into her second most well-known series.

I loved this book. It has all the charm of my favorite childhood book, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, but is set in contemporary times. L'Engle had a rather sad and lonely childhood, spent mostly in boarding schools. She must have channeled all her longing for a close family life into this book.

The Austins live in comfortable but not overly prosperous conditions in a rambling house somewhere outside of New York City. Mr Austin is a medical doctor, Mrs Austin a stay-at-home mom. Four kids, two dogs, several cats. Classical music, books (their mother reads to all four every night before bed even though the littlest is four and the oldest in high school.) An uncle who lives in the city is an artist and Mrs Austin's BFF, Elena, is a touring pianist.

Into this idyllic scene comes seven-year-old Maggy, who has just been orphaned and has no where to go. Maggy was the daughter of one of Elena's friends but since Elena is often touring, the Austins take her in. The little orphan is a spoiled brat who behaves badly so the Austins tame her with love and their special brand of discipline, but not before she manages to bring turmoil and even danger to the family.

The story is predictable, narrated in the first person of Vicky, an observant 12-year-old who sounds much like L'Engle, but the tone is an indescribable mix of common sense and warmth. I can't imagine any reader not falling for this family and wanting to be part of it.

Interesting biographical fact: L'Engle and her husband adopted a seven-year-old girl in 1957. The child's parent who left her an orphan had been a close friend of Madeleine's, who by 1957 had a 10-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son.

Meet the Austins is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)