Sunday, March 31, 2013


Heidi, Johanna Spyri, published in Switzerland 1880, 243 pp
Heidi was one of my most read books as a child. I think our family owned it so I could just pick it up and read it whenever I wanted to. I remember being entranced by the fact that Heidi's aunt made her wear ALL her clothes so there would be nothing to carry on the journey to Grandfather. It was a hot spring day when Heidi made that first climb up the mountain to her grandfather's cabin. I felt sorry for her being so over-dressed but I knew right away that the aunt was a "bad person."

As soon as they got to Grandfather, even though he was thought of as a "bad person," I could tell he was good. It only made the aunt more bad for leaving her niece with someone considered to be dangerous.

There you have the wonder of Johanna Spyri's writing. She didn't come right out and say who was bad, good, or otherwise but showed these qualities by her storytelling. Her heavy religious message did not bother me as a child because it fit right in with what I had been taught. It didn't bother me during this rereading either, even when Clara's grandmother was clearly preaching Christian theology, because it is done with so much love and understanding while doing no one any harm.

I did notice that the first half of the book is more interesting and exciting while the second half has more lessons, as it were, and gets a bit serious. It turns out that Ms Spyri wrote two books: Heidi's Years of Learning and Travel, then Heidi Make Use of What She Has Learned, later combined into one. Those titles hint at the shift in emphasis. I did always like the first half the most, but remember being so happy when everything turned out well for Heidi, Peter, Clara and all the grandparents. 

In any case, I loved it just as much as ever, I cried a few times, and was overjoyed to spend time with someone whom I once considered a friend.

(Heidi can usually be found on the Children's Classics shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore or can be ordered in a variety of versions.)

Saturday, March 30, 2013


The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2013, 667 pp

Joyce Carol Oates!!! She is a force to be reckoned with. I haven't read her for several years but I grew up in Princeton, NJ. When I learned that her new novel was historical fiction set on and around the campus of the Ivy League University where she has been a professor of creative writing for over 30 years, I knew it was time to revisit both the author and the town.

I first read JCO in the late 1980s. Languishing in Los Angeles, where I was involved in an attempt to "go straight" after years of rebellion and excess, by taking a course in management training, I haunted a used bookstore on Franklin Avenue and picked up Marya: A Life (1986). Plunged into a world of impoverished grit and abuse that shocked my soul, I began to suffer from delusions of being followed by creepy people. I even managed to get mugged one evening. The novel reawakened all my deepest childhood fears.

Over the next decade I made my way through her first eight novels. I became aware of her mixed critical reception, including complaints about her overheated prolixity and the inevitable mockery that results from such relentless productivity. I moved on to other authors but never forgot her ability to take me to those dark places inherent in any human soul.

I am here to tell you that she has not lost her touch. The Accursed chronicles a curse or horror that fell upon the upper crust of Princeton society in 1905-1906. Just beyond the Gilded Age, during which the rise of railroads and steel and coal mining created the most wealth our young country had ever known, the early years of the 20th century saw the stirrings of socialism, muckraking, workers unions and strikes. This novel captures it all.

An array of well-known characters appear: Woodrow Wilson, then President of Princeton University; ex-President of the United States Grover Cleveland; current President Teddy Roosevelt; Upton Sinclair, living just outside of town where he completed The Jungle; Jack London; Mark Twain; and even an individual claiming to be Sherlock Holmes. The main character though is none other than the Devil himself.

The issue addressed is passion in its variegated forms and the manifestations that suppression of passion creates in society: illness, abduction, oppression, abuse, injustice, and madness. All of these roil beneath a veneer of wealth, privilege, religion, and intellectual pursuit amongst the wealthy businessmen and professors and clergy of Princeton, disturbing their families to the point that most are convinced a curse is abroad in the town.
Oates speaks through the measured narrative voice of an historian, son of one accursed professor; also through the hysterical journal of a rich matron reduced to invalidism due to an "unspeakable" accident suffered during her honeymoon; and even through Woodrow Wilson's letters to his wife as well as to a love interest. When she is portraying the scenes of violence and degradation stemming from the curse, the voice is unmistakably hers.
Not one character escapes the underlying satire wafting through this tale. While the novel masquerades as historical fiction it brings the reader face to face with our hypocrisies, our Puritan heritage, and our cruelties. As I said, Joyce Carol Oates has not lost her touch.
I finished The Accursed feeling as ill as some of the characters, as insane as others, and as despairing. There are villains, there are heroes, there is evil and God, but who is who and which is which had confounded me for almost 700 pages. The world we see" is not the world that is. As one of Oates' titles exhorts us, "You Must Remember This."

(The Accursed is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton, Atria, 2009, 549 pp

I am almost ashamed to admit I liked it, but The Forgotten Garden pleased me in many ways. Mostly I fell in love because it put me back into the delicious reading mode of The Secret Garden, one of my most loved books as a young girl. In fact, this piece of women's fiction is The Secret Garden for grown-up females. Frances Hodgeson Burnett even makes a cameo appearance.

The book has everything: an orphan, a mystery, three generations, Australia, an English manor house, romance, and a secret garden, and two awesome heroines. The writing is pretty good, with some odd quirks. Though the plot is predictable she still keeps you guessing until the very end. That end is a long time in coming but I was a happy reader on almost every page.

The accomplishment is that Morton took the elements that made The Secret Garden so captivating to me as a child and that made me a lifelong voracious reader, and adapted them to a contemporary novel. Really she did not miss a trick. 
I realized why I like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield so much, why I love Tana French and even Joyce Carol Oates. All of these authors (and more like Charles Dickens, Charles Frazier, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to give the boys a chance) create a magical brew of storytelling wherein the mundane facts of daily life are imbued with the wonder and somewhat supernatural essence that hides behind the illusion of what we call "real life."

I look for many different experiences when I read but most of all I look for that magical brew.

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

Friday, March 22, 2013


Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter, HarperCollins Publishers, 2012, 292 pp

You can read all the reviews and reader comments and blog posts and blurbs, but you never really know about a book until you read it yourself. I was excited to open Beautiful Ruins but my high hopes were gradually but steadily reduced to disappointment.

Too bad because the premise was great: aspiring actress finds herself in the midst of the filming in Rome of  "Cleopatra," a movie that was plagued by the contentious love affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, budget overruns, and box office disaster. It was the early 60s and Jess Walter's descriptions of the Italian coast are great.

But description hardly makes a novel. Unfortunately most of Walter's characters are flat. I don't mind a novel that jumps back and forth in time but in Beautiful Ruins the jumps are awkwardly placed. Much of the drama in this tale of life's disappointments is written without originality and did not move my emotions.

A few sections are excellent. His portrayal of Richard Burton shimmers with that actor's power, alcoholism, and self-absorption. A chapter where a washed up rock star tries to make a comeback at a festival in Scotland gets the details, the sordidness, and the exploitation just right. The long-suffering reluctant hero, Pasquale Tursi, a young Italian man in love with two women and with honor, was the character who held the story together and made me keep reading.

As uneven as the shores of Italy's Cinque Terre, the novel has peaks of stark wonder and slimy pools of quite mediocre writing. It kept me off balance and hoping but ultimately left me bruised and tired.

In this year's Tournament of Books, the book was paired against The Song of Achilles and both suffer from similar problems. Beautiful Ruins won that round but fell to Gone Girl in the quarter finals. If I had been the judge of either round Beautiful Ruins would have won both times. Comments anyone?

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

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson, Random House, 2007, 404 pp

I read Bryson's memoir of growing up in the 1950s as research for my own memoir. As he did in A Walk in the Woods, he had me laughing out loud, long and hard. But the biggest revelation for me was the huge disparity between life as a boy child and life as a girl child during that decade. 

At least from his point of view, boys had much more freedom to roam, they were encouraged to be physical (sports, getting into fights, etc) and daring (trying cigarettes and booze, ditching school.) Emulating superheroes played a huge role in establishing a boy's identity. 

His mother worked outside the home; mine stayed at home being a housewife. His dad was a sports writer and traveled often; my dad was a secret writer but was home every night. Making parallels is always tricky.

I was reminded of the polio scare, how bad it was at the dentist, the things we didn't worry about such as fallout from nuclear testing, food additives and those clouds of DDT spray.

When I returned to my own writing, I had been fairly annihilated. Compared to Bryson's hyperbolic humor, my own recounting sounded serious, perhaps dull. It took a while but as I found my own voice again I also had to admit that for this female, growing up in the 1950s was not that funny.

(The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, March 15, 2013


The Light Between Oceans, M L Stedman, Scribner, 2012, 319 pp

I must say, my reading group picks so far this year have pleased me. This one is clearly women's fiction but was overall a rewarding read addressing heart-wrenching questions about motherhood.

Tom Sherbourne, an Australian WWI veteran, took a post as lighthouse keeper on a remote point in SW Australia. He had emotional wounds from the war so the solitude and required orderliness of his tasks suited him.

One day during his biannual leave, he met Isabel, the bold, rebellious, and only surviving child in a family who lost two sons in the war. Eventually they married and she moved to the lighthouse with him.

Though they were happy together, two miscarriages and a still birth had cast shadows over the marriage. When a small boat washes up carrying a dead man and a living baby, Isabel convinces her husband they should keep the baby, who is the answer to Isabel's prayers. So Tom compromises his moral principles and falsifies the lighthouse records to make his wife happy.

Of course, anyone who commits such treachery, no matter how good the reasons for doing so, must suffer eventually. Tom and Isabel pay in perhaps more ways than are plausible when the baby's real mother appears.

What I found intriguing about the story was the historical event of WWI having caused the loss of so many young men. A side of war not often considered is the pain, especially for mothers, of all those lost sons, not to mention the dearth of available young men to marry. Isabel suffered the loss of her brothers along with her parents. She remained their only living child and I thought she felt compelled to give her parents grandchildren. In her small town, there was not anyone she wanted to marry until Tom came along.

The birth mother of the found baby lost her husband due to war related issues. The baby was all she had left of a man she had loved dearly. Ultimately both women went to extremes over the little girl, producing loads of melodrama and tragedy for many people. I could see how such a result was traceable to the havoc of war.

While these conflicts were drawn out past the point of suspense to weariness for the reader, the novel rings true. Those two mothers had been driven to desperation and so could not find a way to reconcile. I'm not sure the effects on the child were realistic. The bittersweet ending felt less true. Can people really heal from war related familial damage in just one generation?
(The Light Between Oceans is currently available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


The Picturegoers, David Lodge, MacGibbon and Kee, 1960, 238 pp

The Picturegoers is David Lodge's first novel and it read very much like one. He has continued to release novels for over 40 years, was short-listed twice in the 1980s for the Booker Prize, and always gets respect from British book reviewers. Therefore he is included in My Big Fat Reading Project. Therefore I read his first novel.

The charming aspect of The Picturegoers is its portrayal of the end of an era when everyone went to the movies because there was not yet any television. The movie theater of the novel works, somewhat awkwardly, as a micro-environment for several disparate characters and their stories.

The key character, Mark Underwood, is a self-centered literature student who comes to board with a Catholic family. Mark falls in lust with the family's eldest daughter (a convent-raised 19 year old recently rejected in her desire to become a nun) and pretends to return to the church from which he had lapsed. As the daughter falls in love with Mark and becomes a modern woman, Mark falls back into Catholicism and decides he may become a priest.

I think this rather TV sitcom type plot was meant to be tongue in cheek, but it made me queasy. David Lodge admits as much in his introduction to the 1993 Penguin reissue. So I will continue to read his novels as I move through the decades and see where he went from here.

(The Picturegoers is out of print but the Penguin paperback is available from used book sellers.)

Monday, March 11, 2013


Ivyland, Miles Klee, OR Books, 2011, 528 pp

It seems that every year the Tournament of Books features one off-beat, somewhat experimental novel by an under known author. Ivyland takes that spot this year.

A sort of post apocalyptic, disjointed, phantasmagorical romp by way of multiple voices, it left me confused and reeling.

At least it is set in New Jersey, where I grew up, so I am familiar in a hazy way with Trenton and the Pine Barrens and the Jersey shore. The characters are mainly teens from broken families but everyone suffers from a Big Pharma created scourge, either economically, emotionally, mentally, or because of a gruesome physical disability. Everyone is also on multiple drugs plus heavy alcohol intake.

So the story is a nightmare, owing much to Kafka, Bob Dylan and television...I could go on but I would only be showing off or feeling more confused. Underlying all the weirdness is a deep, pulsing sadness, festering like a wound not healing properly. By the time I reached the end I felt quite hopeless about the future of anyone or anything.

Did I like Ivyland? Not really. But somehow I kind of respected whatever Miles Klee was trying to do. I would read his next book just to see where he goes from here.

(Ivyland does not appear to be available through independent bookstores, except through the Kobo Reader link at Once Upon A Time Bookstore, but can be obtained on-line from OR Books. I read it as an eBook from Barnes&Noble.)

Friday, March 08, 2013


Sermons and Soda Water, John O'Hara, Random House, 1960, 328 pp

O'Hara hit the 1960 bestseller list twice. This collection of three novellas was #10 and was originally released as a boxed set of three volumes. (I found the three volumes at my local library without the box.) I liked these novellas better than any of his novels so far. He curbed his wordiness and made excellent use of his skill with dialogue. They each went down like eating ice cream.

Some male friends from O'Hara's usual haunt of Gibbsville, PA, turn up in each novella so you get a picture of their lives as young people growing older and wiser. The period covers the stock market crash of the 1930s and the years beyond.

The first thing I read by O'Hara was his debut, Hellbox, a short story collection. He had written most of them for The New Yorker and had the sound of a hot new writer on the make. Again it was his snappy dialogue that impressed me. I think he was at his best when he was not taking himself so seriously.

In Sermons and Soda Water, you really get the feel of the 1920s wildness being drowned in the troubles of the Depression and can see what life was like for the middle class in those days. I realized that while his female characters are drawn in ways annoying to me now, they are portraits of how women were then due to how men perceived them.

(Sermons and Soda Water is out of print. Try your local library or used booksellers.)

Wednesday, March 06, 2013


May We Be Forgiven, A M Homes, Viking Penguin, 2012, 466 pp

I started out almost hating this book and ended up loving it. A M Homes appears (if you believe everything you read on the Internet) to have a prickly reputation for upsetting people and going out on limbs as a writer. This is the first I have read by her.

She DID upset me for the first long while in the novel. Despicable George, the younger asshole brother, who by the way is the only character who changes not a whit. All the violence, gratuitous to the max. I thought I was in for a slog through our dysfunctional, medicated, materialistic world including horrid kids.

Then there is Harry, the older brother. Such an interestingly complex character who changes big time from indecisive, sexually weird victim to responsible, caring human being. In fact, the degree of change is almost not believable except that A M Homes so competently chronicles his every experience and his inner life through a first person voice without excess of any kind. By the end I was wishing there were more men like him in the world.

Lest I have made it sound like this is merely a sad, heavy story (actually it is), let me assure you that great heaps of absurdity, satire, and laugh out loud moments abound. Did I mention the kids? Yes, she does kids perfectly and they are not wholly horrid.

Instead of a slog, I was treated to a romp through our dysfunctional, medicated, materialistic world which addresses the true questions of our times: what is the meaning of family anyway and how do we recreate it out of the mess we have made?

Out of a list of 16 novels for the 2013 Tournament of Books, I have found six so far that are exceptionally good and May We Be Forgiven is one of them.

(May We Be Forgiven is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, March 04, 2013


Ourselves to Know, John O'Hara, Random House, 1960, 408 pp

Either John O'Hara got better as the years went by or I am getting to know him better as an author. This novel earned him the #5 spot of the 1960 bestseller list and I liked it more than his earlier novels.

He works over most of the tropes found in the popular fiction of 1960: sex, psychological insight, homosexuality, and bad women. The main character is one of the richest men in his small eastern Pennsylvania community. He has issues, especially with women. When in his forties, he marries a 19-year-old sex-crazed woman and eventually murders her. (No spoiler: you learn about the murder early in the book.)

Though he kept me turning the pages and took various turns I wasn't expecting, I was bothered because the guy got away with it due to his wealth and connections. Certainly the double standard when it comes to women and sex was in full force in the early 20th century when the story takes place. But it still enrages me to read about it. If he had killed his wife's lover he probably would have been sent to prison, but it was "understandable" that he would murder an unfaithful wife. End of rant.

The psychological portrait of the protagonist was more interesting to me as well as a sort of meta-fictional technique which put the reader into the consciousness of the man telling the story. 

O'Hara claimed that he wrote to record what American life was like before World War II and I suppose he did. At the same time he was obviously keeping up with literary trends and sneaking them into his potboilerish best sellers. He was no Thomas Wolfe or William Faulkner, but he tried hard to make the grade.

(Ourselves to Know is out of print, available at libraries and from used book sellers.)

Sunday, March 03, 2013


The Round House, Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins Publishers, 2012, 317 pp

I wish I could say I have read all of Louise Erdrich's novels. She has written 14 for adults and 6 for children. I've read 3 of the adult novels, one of the children's, and each time I have finished with a sense of fulfillment and of having had some of the mysteries of life made clear. I can't ask for more from an author.

That Erdrich won the National Book Award for The Round House was a wonderful, if somewhat long in coming, acolade. I suppose the award led to the novel being chosen for the Tournament of Books. She has written another masterpiece.

Let's say you are a member of that utterly dispossessed segment of America known these days as Native American. Then let's say you are female, educated, a wife and mother, as well as dedicated to keeping good records of the parentage of all children in your community. I would call such a woman a saint, a rare and vital link of spiritual proportions between the past and the future. Let's say that you were brutally raped and survived due to equal parts chance and bravery.

That is the story of Geraldine Coutts. The Round House is the story of thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts and his quest to solve the crime spurred on by his devotion to his mother. I suppose such a story has been told before in novels, but this is the res. The law does not fully apply there so Joe must go outside the restraints that cripple his father, a tribal judge, in finding any justice for Geraldine. As Bob Dylan says, "To live outside the law you must be honest."

As usual in a Louise Erdrich novel, there are numerous threads, so the story is rich with tribal lore, reservation survival tactics, and intricate webs of family relations and loyalties. All of this plays out in what amounts to another world juxtaposed with contemporary American life.

Joe is one of Erdrich's better creations. You would think she had once been a thirteen-year-old boy. The incessant hunger, the sexual urges and antics, the primal love for his mom, and the bravery of an Indian on the cusp of manhood. It is enough to break your heart. It broke mine, but also filled it with thanks because I too have good sons.

(The Round House is available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released on 4/13/2013.)