Wednesday, February 27, 2013


The Day I Became an Autodidact, Kendall Hailey, Delacorte Press, 1988, 278 pp

I consider myself an autodidact (a self-taught person.) I dropped out of college midway and decided to learn what I wanted to learn by reading books. When Kendall Hailey's 1988 memoir came across my radar, I had to check it out.

I whizzed through the first half, delighting in Hailey's open minded parents (her father a playwright, her mother the author of the backlist classic, A Woman of Independent Means.) Along with her younger sister, they led a free-wheeling literary life of opening nights, book signing, and travel.

Kendall started her self education at the age of 16 by reading Will Durant's Life of Greece as well as most of the famous dramatists, philosophers, and historians from antiquity. She then went on to Caesar and Christ, Durant's history of Rome and its empire, then another reading list of ancient Romans. Boy, could I relate to that as I am doing a similar, though less thorough, study.

But about midway, the whole thing bogs down, becomes repetitive and loses its zing. Looking back on the reading experience a week or so later, I can see that the narrative arc went from cocky, self-determination to emotional dithering and then petered out.

In a recent interview on Book Riot, Ms Hailey comes across as breezy and contented, but I can't help thinking that she lost her courage at some point and settled for less than her 16-year-old dreams imagined. I know that happens to many dreamers, myself included, but I was looking for a heroine and didn't find one.

(The Day I Became an Autodidact is out of print. It is best found in libraries and from used book sellers.)

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Trustee From the Toolroom, Nevil Shute, William Morrow & Company, 1960, 311 pp

The #9 bestseller from 1960 took me completely by surprise. The title invoked boredom and also made little sense. But On The Beach, Shute's bestseller from 1957, had made a big impression on me and gave me hope.

The trustee of the title is Keith Stewart, one of those unprepossessing fellows from postwar England who bumbles along, doesn't expect much, but is an honest and honorable sort. These days he would be considered a world class nerd.

In his basement workshop he makes miniature models of engines, clocks, motorcycles, etc, carefully milling and lathing his own machine parts. He also writes a column for a niche magazine, the "Miniature Mechanic." Though he receives letter from all over the world and conscientiously answers every one, his take home pay is as minuscule as his models. 

Then, in the way of any good story, upheaval arrives when his sister and her fairly wealthy husband perish at sea, leaving Keith and his long suffering but supremely practical wife as guardians for their nine-year-old niece. Keith is also named trustee for the little girl's inheritance which turns out to include a valuable stash of diamonds lost on a corral island near Hawaii.

Soon enough this man who has never left England and rarely ventures from his hometown, has an adventure by air and sea the likes of which he had never imagined. Somehow, despite the unlikelihood of several coincidences, the story hooked me.

It is one of those tales where uprightness and hard work pay off. In our current world where dishonesty pays until it doesn't, where our heroes usually turn out to be false, I fell for the heartwarming simplicity of a guy who faces hardship to do the right thing and who, because he is skilled and clever and willing to go every extra mile required, wins in the end.

I made my husband read it. He is an engineer of sorts himself and a practical guy. It brought a tear to his one good eye, as we like to say about him when he (rarely) gets emotional, and pronounced it great. 

(Trustee From the Toolroom is out of print but available in libraries and from used book sellers. Also, curiously, many novels by Nevil Shute, including this one are available as eBooks from the two big eBook sellers who shall remained unnamed.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013


How Should A Person Be?, Sheila Heti, Henry Holt and Company, 2012, 306 pp

What is it about Canadian women who write? The level of intelligence is somehow a bit higher. Readers of this blog know my opinion of Margaret Atwood as one of the most intelligent women alive. Then there is Emily St John Mandell.

How Should A Person Be? touched many a nerve among readers, some pleasurably, some unpleasantly. I loved it as an honest look at the perils and responsibilities of friendship between women. That the women in the story are both artists (one a painter, one a playwright) only made it more intense for me.

I also dived right into Sheila's troubles with being married. The question of this novel set in the interrogative mood is how to be faithful (not necessarily sexually) without sacrificing one's own personhood. Another aspect of the question is how to stay in love with another person and still be selfish when one needs to be. 

I think what raises Heti's novel above the navel-gazing of which she has been accused is its philosophical underpinnings. Now that I consider that last sentence, I realize that at least a couple of my favorite philosophers were quite the navel-gazers. Didn't one philosopher say that the unexamined life is not worth living, or something like that?

I thank Sheila Heti for examining her life and having the courage to write about it. I also thank the Tournament of Books folks for putting her book on the 2013 list.

(How Should A Person Be? is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


The Listener, Taylor Caldwell, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1960, 332 pp

I did not like one thing about this book. The perils of my self-imposed Big Fat Reading Project. I only read Taylor Caldwell because she keeps showing up on the bestseller lists. There will be four more, but finally in the mid 1970s she fades away. Ever since she got on her weird variety of Christian writing, she went right downhill in my opinion. But people who read books for comfort or reassurance from a Christian standpoint seem to like her which explains how she made #8 on the bestseller list for 1960.

The Listener is not even really a novel. It is a collection of stories connected by the visits of each character to an odd sort of shrine in an unnamed midwestern city. The shrine is named The Man Who Listens. People from various walks of life come and talk to a curtain, tell their troubles, then open the curtain and realize they have been talking to God. They see the answers to their problems and then go straighten out their lives.

It felt highly contrived and gave Caldwell a platform from which she preached in a reactionary tone about the evils of modern society. I confess, I did a lot of skimming but kept on to the end. It did not get any better. In fact it got worse until I was gagging when I finished.

(The Listener is out of print, available in libraries and from used book sellers, also curiously, it is available as an eBook from your usual eBook sellers.)

Sunday, February 17, 2013


HHhH, Laurent Binet, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2012, 327 pp

Facts: Laurent Binet is French. This is his debut novel and won the Prix Goncourt for a first novel in 2010; the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. The book I read is translated from French and is on the Tournament of Books list for 2013.

Opinions: Anyone who can write a historical novel set during World War II and do something new is alright with me. Laurent Binet bravely, perhaps recklessly, put himself as author into the story, all very meta-fiction, and created an absorbing read.

It was cool to go straight from reading The Russian Debutante's Handbook, set partially in modern Prague, to reading HHhH, set in 1939-1942 Prague. The title is an acronym for "Himmler's Brain is called Heydrich." If you don't know who Himmler and Heydrich were, don't worry. Binet is a teacher by profession and knows how to teach history while making it exciting.

This is a tale about assassination and bravery and evil Nazis and war and people. Despite the authorial intrusions, or maybe even because of them, there is not a dull moment or paragraph. In fact, the intrusions create suspense.

I have not had this much enjoyment from historical fiction since I read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I have gotten the biggest benefit so far from pushing myself unmercifully to complete the Tournament of Books list by March.

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

Thursday, February 14, 2013


The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart, Riverhead Books, 2002, 452 pp

I read Gary Shteyngart's debut novel at fever pitch because I started it late for a reading group discussion. Fever pitch was the correct approach; it matches the pace of the story.

In the grand tradition of immigrant novels, Vladimir Girshkin is a young man of Russian descent adrift in a sea of confusion. He works at an immigrant resettlement agency in New York City, making non-profit wages. His girlfriend is a dominatrix by night, his father is an MD who scams Medicare, and his mother-well I never figured out exactly what it was she did but she was trying to beat the Russian immigrant odds in the 1990s by going straight.

I suppose the novel isn't for everyone. The two reading group members who showed up at the meeting at least tried but "couldn't get into it." I loved it the way I loved Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March; the way I loved Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker; the way I loved Isaac Asimov's autobiography In Memory Yet Green. The book is part of a huge story called "How I Became an American" fraught with identity crises, family strife, and hilarity.

The post-Soviet Union Russian criminal element is well represented but done with heavy sarcasm. A good part of the story is set in Prague, that city's celebrated Baroque soul swamped in the tatters of two world wars and one Cold War. Shteyngart's Eastern European characters are raised to a level of slapstick often seen in film but rarely in novels.

It was not clear to me whether Vladimir actually found himself or love or even a career, but he found safety. Just writing this now it occurs to me that safety is the rarest commodity of all for an immigrant. Rather than riches or enough to eat or religious freedom, safety is in the end what the displaced person craves most.

(The Russian Debutante's Handbook is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alfred A Knopf, 2000, 336 pp

I have only read one other Ishiguro novel before: Never Let Me Go. I once saw him speak about that book at a reading and learned that he is rather obsessed with memory and how it is related to sense of self. On the experience of reading two of his six novels, I would call him difficult to read but emotionally deep.

The emotional depth is not in the writing which is almost without emotion. By some alchemy though, I felt or maybe even contributed emotion while reading. Was I trying to add it in because it is so submerged into the text or what? At this point I am not sure.

Christopher Banks was born to English parents in Shanghai a few years before the Japanese invasion, raised in its International Settlement, and his best friend was a Japanese boy. His parents disappear when he is about ten leaving him effectively orphaned, so he is sent back to an aunt in England. He grows up to become a famous detective.

Christopher is the most unreliable narrator I have met in fiction. He has almost no awareness of his effect on other people and pictures himself differently than anyone around him does. He is attracted to a woman who also displays a fractured sense of who she is, but he proceeds through life in complete denial about the attraction.

Eventually he returns to Shanghai in his thirties, having become convinced that his parents were kidnapped. Operating under the delusion that he can find them after all these years, he feels that he can also save China from some terrible fate. I think he is actually trying to save himself.

This is a most confusing tale written in segments that alternatively move the story forward while revealing the past. Each time the narrative returned to the present, some character or situation not previously mentioned would spring up, making me feel I had missed something.

Finally, despite numerous clues, I realized that Christopher's story was not the real story. By almost the last page I saw that Ishiguro had been ruminating all along as to how well we really know ourselves, how incorrectly we sometimes perceive the world and people around us, and how trauma and displacement can render a personality into fragments. I found all of this disturbing. I was left thinking that I got what he was trying to do but was not sure he pulled it off, but I'm not sure he didn't.

(When We Were Orphans is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, February 08, 2013


The Lovely Ambition, Mary Ellen Chase, W W Norton, 1960, 288 pp

This novel was both a lovely surprise and an example of the split personality of the 1960 bestseller list. In among the somewhat shocking contemporary books about sexual and political matters of mid 20th century life, the #7 bestseller concerns family life and the power of religion.

I should have known it would be good because Mary Ellen Chase was an excellent writer. The Lovely Ambition is every bit as good as my best loved book of hers, Windswept.

A British family at the turn of the 20th century makes the amazing transition to life in the United States. John Tillyard, an unassuming, earnest young Wesleyan parson, accepts a call to take over a Methodist parish in downeast Maine. Though the move is from one rural setting to another, the contrasts are many between their English village with its conflicts between high church and low to an American community where democracy is only constrained by local habits.

Tillyard has a brilliant but long-suffering wife and three children. He is a dreamy sort of guy who loves to read and take long walks. He also has a love of sheep, shepherds, and the lambing season. In other words, an impractical sort more interested in people than in making a living.

Once the family is settled in Maine, John becomes a part-time chaplain at an asylum for the mentally deranged in the nearest city. Before long he begins to invite some of the patients for visits to their home. His belief is that by interacting with "normal" people in a calm and loving environment, they can heal from their personal traumas. Naturally, the results are mixed.

While the sexual is certainly not emphasized, the psychological questions of the time are. This aspect makes for an interesting relation to The Chapman Report in terms of examining the best ways to approach human problems.

In tone and writing style, I was reminded of some novels by Elizabeth Goudge, also of Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, both of which feature unreliable fathers as seen through the eyes of their daughters.

The Lovely Ambition is out of print and hard to find but I am glad I tracked down a used paperback from Alibris.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013


The Man From Beijing, Henning Mankel, Alfred A Knopf, 2010, 367 pp

A good read, fast and smooth. If any Swedish crime writer can match up to Steig Larsson, Mankel is at least in the running. I like him much better than Nesbo. I haven't read his Kurt Wallander mysteries and The Man From Beijing is a standalone. When I ever get through the Sara Paretsky books, I might try reading more Mankel.

I liked the character Birgitta Roslin, a middle-aged judge whose persistence solved the gruesome murder of 19 people in a tiny Swedish hamlet. She stood as a symbol of justice versus the mere efforts of the police to find a culprit.

The Chinese connection, the analysis of 21st century Chinese politics and that country's development as a world power, were all fascinating aspects of the story. I am no expert on China. What I know mostly comes from novels and I have wondered if, as Mankel notes, I should be encouraging my grandchildren to learn Chinese.

This is the kind of book that makes me feel like a citizen of the world, bewildered, anxious, but at the same time curious.

(The Man From Beijing is available on the mystery shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, February 02, 2013


The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller, Ecco, 2012, 369 pp

Here I go again. The lone dissenter. It seems that everyone but me LOVED this modern fictional account of Achilles and the Trojan War. (I am not saying that The Iliad was not fictional. Even Homer is considered fictional by some.)

In any case, Homer's classic about the great war of ancient Greece, written in the style of his times, was an ode to Greece, its heroes, its glories, and its close relationship to the gods. I read it five years ago just because I thought I should and did not enjoy it much. Dick Lit, the original example, I thought.

I wanted to read The Song of Achilles because I had so admired The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon, a story about Alexander the Great as a youth. When Song of Achilles made the 2013 Tournament of Books list, I just sat down and read it.

Madeline Miller says it took her a decade to write her first novel. She teaches Latin and Ancient Greek. She obviously poured her knowledge and love of the period into her writing.

Because this version gives a portrait of Achilles through the eyes of his companion and lover Patroclus, it paints a much different picture of the hero from Homer's. Reading The Iliad, I found Achilles to be a spoiled mama's boy. Mama, the Goddess Thetis, the sea nymph who made Achilles partly immortal, does her best to keep her son under control but Achilles comes across with more of a mind of his own in Miller's treatment.

I admired the writing and the somewhat idyllic narrative of the first half morphing into the battle scenes of the second. But I could not get past the clearly feminine voice of the entire book, the opposite problem of what I had reading Homer. A snarky suspicion kept creeping into my mind as I read: if the same sex love between Achilles and Patroclus were not the heart and engine of the story, would the novel have been so well received? Is there an agenda underlying both the efforts of the author and the adulation of readers, if not all reviewers?

I am not sorry I read it. I am glad I had read The Iliad first. Currently I am also reading Caesar and Christ by Will Durant, the third volume of his Story of Civilization. Because of reading The Life of Greece, Vol II, I finally read The Iliad. Granted that Durant was writing history, not fiction, but he hoped to reach an audience of regular readers as opposed to academics. In writing about people and life in such long ago times, he always managed to make a distinction between what he had gleaned from his own studies of the past and what were his views from the present.

Perhaps a certain lack of that distinction, sorely missing in The Song of Achilles, is what tainted my view.

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

Friday, February 01, 2013


Refugee Hotel, Juliet Linderman, McSweeney's Books, 2012, 317 pp

Refugees entering the United States from Asian and African countries in the 21st century number 64,000 a year. After often years, even decades, in refugee camps, their first experience of America is a night in an airport hotel until they are flown to their destination city. Hence the title.

Half the book is photos of these people in the hotels and in their new homes. Many end up in high-rise projects but they are given services to help them adjust, learn English, find jobs and become citizens.

The rest of the book relates the immigration stories of many of these people. Heartbreak, broken families, and lost nationalities combine with determination and hope. The 64,000 a year are the lucky ones. Millions more are still in the refugee camps, underfed, barely housed, and dying.

The book moved me and opened my eyes to the realities of the countries from which these people come. We live in a world of intense upheaval and I wonder at the disparity between my safe, secure, and prosperous life and the desperation of so many. It is hard to fathom.

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