Monday, April 29, 2013


The Child Buyer, John Hersey, Alfred A Knopf, 1960, 258pp

This was an odd book. John Hersey has a theme in most of his novels: the juxtaposition of individuals with societal/government actions. In this case, a Mr Wissey Jones arrives in a small American town with the intention to literally buy a child. Barry Rudd is that child, 10 years old, from a somewhat poor and uneducated family but showing signs of genius. Mr Jones is a consummate salesman with that ability to ferret out the true objections, fears, and wants of people in order to get said people to agree with what he wants them to do.

Mr Wissey Jones, it turns out, works for a secret United States government department. I have no idea if the story is based in fact and I don't really want to know. The government is looking for young geniuses in order to train them for specific uses related to defending democracy. Jones is authorized to pay significant reimbursement to any family who will turn over a child to him.

What a creepy idea! Especially in a "democracy." Unfortunately Hersey frames the story within a series of hearings by a state senate committee appointed to investigate the case of Mr Jones and Barry. The book is written as the transcript of those hearings. Inventive though this approach may be, it made for some strange reading.

I give Hersey credit for creating a pretty good satire attacking the wacky ideas on education which grew out of the communist scare and the space race as well as the involvement of psychology in American education. I wonder how many people read this book when it was published in 1960.

(The Child Buyer is out of print. It is best found through used book sellers. It was not even in any of my libraries.)

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2012, 267 pp

I enjoyed reading this novel. Ben Fountain won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, was a contender in the Tournament of Books, and had written daily for 18 years before his first book was published. He knows about dreams, struggle, and delayed rewards.

Billy Lynn is one of several novels to come out recently about the war in Iraq. I haven't read any of the others so I can't say it is the best, but it is a good one.

The eight soldiers in this novel are the survivors of a firefight with Iraqui insurgents. Because a Fox News tape of the battle went viral, Bravo Squad became America's most famous heroes of the moment. Due to falling public support for the war, they have been dispatched on a nationwide media "Victory Tour" and for Billy Lynn and his comrades it is a Magical Mystery Tour as surrealistic as anything ever conceived by John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

I can't imagine what this would be like, being feted and fawned over, fed and boozed and drugged, back in the USA with full blown PTSD and knowing all the while that you would return to the war to finish your tour of duty. Yes, you survived but you still stand a 99% chance of being killed.

Ben Fountain imagined it for me. Billy gets to have an early Thanksgiving dinner with his mother and sister, he and Bravo Squad spend a hungover day at the Dallas Cowboys stadium and participate with nearly disastrous results in the halftime show alongside Destiny's Child. Billy, who has a crashing headache all day but can't find a single aspirin, falls in love/lust with a cheerleader. A Hollywood agent has come along on the tour, trying to get a movie deal for the squad, promising untold riches, if it happens, if they live to see it.

Billy Lynn is a 19-year-old Texas native. He is just a guy with no prospects, barely any experience except as a soldier and tries to process what he sees. It is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking.

The novel could be called anti-war, anti-American, anti-big business, and I suppose it is. Fountain portrays us as we are and it's not pretty. When the Dixie Chicks protested the war, it ultimately ruined their career. Billy and his buddies are faced with a similar quandary but enough time has passed that Ben Fountain made his career instead.

What a country. What a world. When will we ever learn?

(Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, April 22, 2013


The Sand Child, Tahar Ben Jeloun, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1987, 165 pp

Although something is always lost in translation, I love reading novels by authors from other countries. Tahar Ben Jeloun is Moroccan and writes in French. His style of storytelling is curvy, almost circular, with repeating motifs and multiple tellers, making it a challenging proposition for all of us in the reading group who chose it.

But it was provocative, poetic writing about a female child whose father decided to claim was a boy. Desperate for a male heir after his wife had presented him with seven daughters, without a single thought about the effects it might have on this child, he just faked it. Those effects were myriad and devastating.

The book encompasses several levels or themes: gender, post-colonial conditions in Morocco, Islamic mores, and storytelling itself. 

As I read, I could feel the grit of the sand, smell the dung and spices of the market place, and reel in the confusion of this unfortunate female as she grows up and grapples with her identity. It was like taking a trip to a foreign land where nothing at all feels American.

Friday, April 19, 2013


Shop Indie Bookstores

The Mothers, Jennifer Gilmore, Scribner, 2013, 275 pp

There is a new word in the zeitgeist: Fertility. It appears to be a problem aligned to a socioeconomic level.  Middle class women who put off baby making for careers, who rack up stress out in the cold, hard, competitive world of the workplace, then find it hard to conceive and/or carry a baby to term.

The story telling in Jennifer Gilmore's novel about mothers encompasses the ones with children, the pregnant ones, adoptive mothers looking for babies, and birth mothers looking for other mothers to take their babies. What grabbed me by the throat was the voice of Jesse.

Jesse's voice is a raw and naked scream of anger, anxiety, and longing. Because Jesse's mother was so busy flitting around the world working for social justice, Jesse and her sister were mostly raised by an African American nanny. Now approaching 40 and having endured years of fertility treatments and In Vitro Fertilization, she and her husband Ramon have resigned themselves to adoption. The process only gets more complex and nerve wracking as it sends them into new roller coasters of hopes raised and dashed.

Rarely have I read any dialogue of marital fighting that sounds so much like real life. Still more rare is the re-creation in fiction of female emotion as it really and truly feels. You see, we've been quelled, we've been told over and over to calm down. Jesse says to Ramon, "Do not tell me to calm down. A word of advice? Don't tell any woman to calm down. Ever."

Ramon is not a bad guy or a bad husband. He is in there pitching all the way. He has his own hurts on the father side of things. But he is not ever going to be a mother. Jesse is. She will not be denied.

I think The Mothers is not a universal story. It is about an array of particular mothers and their particular experiences. Most of all, it is Jesse's story. There could well be women who would hate this novel. I know for sure there are men who would tell Jesse not only to calm down but also to shut up already.

I read, impelled by this woman's anger, anxiety, and longing. I emerged at the end emotionally ravaged, not convinced that Jesse would be a good mother but certain that she would raise a daughter who had free emotions. We don't find out. The book ends.

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

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel, Henry Holt and Company, 2012, 410 pp

Just great! Hilary Mantel is hands down my current favorite historical fiction author. In her sequel to Wolf Hall (and her second in a proposed trilogy about Thomas Cromwell) she continues her fascinating study of a man who served Henry VIII, doing most of the king's dirty work for him, and who lived in conflict both internal and external.

This volume concerns the elimination of Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn. She had also failed to give him a male heir, but worse she was wildly, recklessly adulterous, opening the door to Cromwell when it was time for her to go.

Anyone who claims that Bring Up The Bodies can be read with enjoyment and full understanding without having read Wolf Hall is probably just trying to sell you the book. Not possible!

You need to know Henry VIII in all his megalomaniac obsession with obtaining a male heir. You must be one with Mantel's version of who Thomas Cromwell really was. It is required to have lived with Katherine, the first wife, and Anne Boleyn in her early days as the usurper. Not to mention having the background on the Seymours of Wolf Hall and why they would even agree to put forward the virginal Jane as the next queen.

As Cromwell goes about his work of being the henchman, wending multiple paths between the gossip, self-seeking, and power struggles, I felt his every self doubt and his sense of impending doom. He never loses his cutting edge but knowing the outcome and knowing the stakes takes nothing away from the intrigue, tension, and danger of his machinations.

Waiting for and watching the progression of events that lead to Boleyn's exposure, trial, and final demise is deliciously excruciating. It is Mantel's triumph that she can wring so much drama and insight from what has been recorded history for almost 500 years. She deserves all the acclaim and prizes she has won.

(Bring Up The Bodies has now been released in paperback. It is available also in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Onion John, Joseph Krumgold, Thomas Y Crowell, 1959, 248 pp

What a difference six years can make, at least in writing for children. Joseph Krumgold won a Newbery Award in 1954 for And Now Miguel, a book written in what I would call the old style of kid lit. In 1960, he won again with Onion John. Despite the somewhat off-putting title and a truly odd dust cover illustration, this middle grade novel is as hip as Beverly Cleary was in her day.

Original dustcover

Andy Rush, Jr is coming of age in a small New Jersey town. His father owns a hardware store where Andy works after school when he isn't running with his gang of friends. The boys are into baseball and roaming the town. The tone is completely late 1950s and makes the story clip along.

Krumgold however is really following the same theme as he did in Miguel: that cusp of childhood dealing with the awareness of adults as people with their own flaws and worries.

Onion John is the community's nickname for a Polish immigrant who lives in a rundown house on the edge of town, barely speaks English, and survives by means of odd jobs and finding stuff at the dump. Andy learns how to understand what Onion John is saying and they become friends. 

In fact, Onion John becomes a hero to Andy. The boy falls under the spell of this man's folk wisdom. Of course, Andy Sr, has big plans for his son and they don't include a weirdo like Onion John. Worse, Andy Sr enlists the whole town in a project to make Onion John into a "normal" guy, with disastrous results.

That is the conflict and Andy must work his way through his loyalties and love for two very different father figures. This is a well told story with great characters and no preaching. I liked Andy's friends as much as I liked Onion John. Actually Onion John rocks, both the man and the book.

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

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Where'd You Go Bernadette?, Maria Semple, Little Brown and Company, 2012, 221 pp
A Tournament of Books contender recommended by a friend whose tastes often parallel mine, this is an easy entertaining read that makes humor out of many contemporary foibles but has the offbeat Bernadette, who keeps it from being trite.
The story takes place in Seattle with side trips to LA and Antarctica. Bernadette, who used to be one of only a few famous female architects, suffered a "big, bad thing." She and her Microsoft genius husband are raising a daughter in an odd decrepit "home" that used to be an asylum for disturbed girls. Bernadette is not as bad a mother as the one in The Glass Castle, but I kept thinking of that deranged artist as I read. Bee, the daughter, is precocious and self-sufficient; not surprising given the parents.

I had fun reading it but it faded fast from my memory. Maria Semple has been a successful screenwriter which explains to me why reading her book felt like watching a movie. I don't usually remember movies unless they have a huge impact on me.

The use of documents (emails, faxes, letters, articles, journal entries) is I guess a modern version of the epistolary novel. Semple does it well but it felt somewhat precious or contrived to me.

Actually I liked Bernadette and was kept engaged as her story revealed why she ran away but I felt bad for Bee. She deserved better parents. I suppose most kids do.

To summarized this disjointed review, I had mixed feelings.

(Where'd You Go Bernadette? is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, April 08, 2013


The Dissident, Nell Freudenberger, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, 427 pp

This is her first novel. I liked it much better than her second, The Newlyweds. I see now why she got such glowing reviews her first time out and was chosen as one of Granta Magazine's best young novelists.

The writing is excellent: tight, witty yet serious, with a plot that moves and pulls you despite frequent doses of back story.

Yuan Zhao is a young Chinese artist on a one-year residency in Los Angeles. Because of his past links to radical movements in late 20th century China, he is called "the dissident." For reasons not made clear, he is being hosted by a wealthy Los Angeles family, living in their guest room, and teaching a class at their daughter's private school.

The American family is almost a caricature of upper middle class dysfunction except that each family member is so clearly drawn, especially the self-deluded mother and wife. What impressed me even more was the author's authentic grasp of the sections set in China.

Best of all, as I read along, getting more and more involved, it suddenly dawned on me that for Yuan Zhao something quite fishy was going on. By the time I reached the amusing but happy ending I was amazed by the intricate and sure handed way Freudenberger had led me through a maze I hadn't fully recognized I was in before I knew I might have gotten lost.

Great read!

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

Thursday, April 04, 2013


Starship Troopers, Robert A Heinlein, G P Putnam's Sons, 1959, 263 pp

Starship Troopers won the Hugo Award in 1960. (Until 1965 when the Nebula Award was created, the Hugo was the only major science fiction award.) I have also learned that a sub-category of sci fi is called military sci fi. This book falls in that category and has a reputation of being Heinlein's most controversial work.

As far as I could tell it is a story in praise of soldiers: their toughness, bravery, and loyalty to each other and to the country, planet or intergalactic entity for which they fight. Heinlein took his experiences in the US Navy and made up a story about a soldier named Rico who trained with and fought for a futuristic military branch called the Mobile Infantry.

These guys wore atomic powered armor and were dropped on enemy planets with orders to wreak as much destruction as possible. The enemy against mankind was an intelligent arachnid species nicknamed the Bugs.

I belong to that much maligned segment of humanity called pacifists. I am staunchly antiwar. My spiritual heroes include Jesus, Buddha, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr, etc. I was educated to understand that as Americans, we fight for democracy, we always win, and we have God on our side. As far as I can tell, in any war, each side feels justified by some kind of spiritual belief that they are in the right and should be proud to kill and destroy the enemy for the good of their own portion of mankind. Sounds like insanity to me.

Therefore I pretty much hated this book the whole way through. It is an age-old quandary. If someone or some group of someones is out to conquer or destroy you, what should you do? Is mankind doomed to a tooth and claw existence or do we have abilities which should enable us to rise above such animalistic tendencies and find a more constructive method of resolving differences?

If we spent as much money and sacrificed as much human life as we do on war to create a harmonious existence with each other, I don't see how we could fail. But where is the fun and excitement in that, eh?

Heinlein was a consummate storyteller and a fine writer. I suppose his curse was that he was also a deep thinker but failed himself to find answers. He wrote it all down in his stories and if Starship Troopers was controversial, his next book went beyond controversial to provocative. Within two years, Heinlein won the Hugo Award for Stranger in a Strange Land. I am eagerly anticipating my rereading of one of the hippy manuals I read in my youth.

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