Wednesday, May 29, 2013


The Bone People, Keri Hulme, Penguin Books, 1985, 545 pp

This amazing novel has been described by readers as difficult, unusual, strange, impossible to read, all time favorite, impressive, beautiful. It won the Booker Prize in 1985 and was reprinted as part of the Penguin Ink Series in 2010. It is a book readers either love or hate and it won't go away.

The three main characters, a woman, a man, and a child, are each in their own ways ruined by loss. Kerewin Holmes, an artist who can no longer paint, lives in a tower she built on the New Zealand Sea. Estranged from her part Maori, part European family, she drinks to avoid her despair. Despite her alienation and self-destructive habits, I found her sympathetic and intriguing. 

Kerewin's hermetic existence is invaded by a mute and troubled child, Simon, who capriciously worms his way into her heart. I think she sees herself in him. Though he can't speak, he is intelligent, wily, desperate for affection, untrustworthy and out of control. 

Along comes Joe, Simon's foster father. He is another Maori/European mix and surrounded by the Maori side of his extended family. Having lost a beloved wife and child, he has a charged and complicated relationship with Simon. His personal faults drive him to physically abuse the boy.

The story about these three is a sometimes unwieldy mix of love story, cultural confusion, and mystery. Unbelievable alcoholic consumption and emotional devastation combine with achingly beautiful and poetic description to create an exploration of New Zealand life that is nothing like any novel I have read lately.

Reading about how these characters act out their troubles and their hopes, I became involved with them as deeply as the people I grapple with in my own life. Despite some very grim scenes involving cruelty and abuse, I found myself hoping their humanity could overcome their demons.

The very factors that make The Bone People difficult to read (the poetic and reflective writing, the horrors, and the tumbling, twisted form of the plot) are what make it amazing and beautiful. There are plenty of novels that celebrate the resilience of the human spirit. Keri Hulme balances the hope of that resilience with the perils. In a culture where ancient values have been almost obliterated by Western views, the hardships of life put these characters to ever more difficult tests.

The author shows all of this with compassion, even humor, and made me think about the vast amounts of wisdom mankind has lost in our race for dominion over each other and the world. I feel honored to have read The Bone People.

(The Bone People is currently available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, May 25, 2013


To The End Of The Land, David Grossman, Alfred A Knopf, 2010, 576 pp

I've been wanting to read this book ever since it came out three years ago. I kept putting it off and finally formed the world's smallest possible reading group with one other person, a woman from one of my regular reading groups. We set a date to discuss it and encouraged each other along. I am so glad we did that. 

Ruth is Jewish and has visited Israel twice. She is the mother of two grown sons, as am I. We met for lunch and talked about the book for three hours!

To The End Of The Land is about so many things. It is about an endearing but torturous love triangle. It is about motherhood in all its glory and suffering. It is about love and family in war-torn Israel. It is about lost causes. And much more.

Ora is the mother. The novel opens with a 43 page long prologue that I had to read three times before I grasped what was going on. In 1967 three very sick victims of an illness consisting primarily of high fevers, meet up. They are in hospital with only one nurse to care for them. War is raging nearby but these three quarantined teens are too delirious to understand what is going on. Ora falls in love with the other two, Ilan and Avram. Their destinies are forever entwined due to the alchemical crucible of fever, fear, sex, and love.

Eventually they recover and go back to their lives. Everything that happens thereafter is embedded in the eternal conflict that is the modern state of Israel.

Ora marries Ilan; Avram is captured and tortured by Egyptian soldiers. Ora has a son by Ilan and a son by Avram. The constant war and mandatory military service, the threat of death and all that stems from these factors are the only sure things in their lives. But for Ora, her sons, as well as her husband and her lover (who by the way are best friends and soul mates) are the central facts of existence.

It is hard to explain the emotional power of this novel. That a man could write so truthfully about a woman is one of those feats of literature; almost proof to me of our basic essence as spiritual beings who in any life take on the role of male or female. Ora is a wild and primal force as a mother, a lover, and a woman. But Ilan and Avram and the sons are no less than she.

Once again I have read the story of motherhood and its basic truth that no matter what, your children grow up and leave you. Though this has also been my experience, I have yet to come to terms with this paradox and neither does Ora. What mothers will do to maintain themselves as protectors of their children involves a level of sacrifice AND power transcending any amount of aggression and destruction that men can wreak on life.

The wonder of this particular story is how eloquently and thoroughly David Grossman has revealed all of the above. His book has the reputation of being a difficult read and I imagine that means different things to different readers. I found it difficult in terms of its length and its emotional impact but ultimately for me it became one of those books that I will never forget and that was an important step in understanding many questions I have had about life. 

I want every mother I know to read it. I want the President, Secretary of State, and anyone else in our government who has to deal with the Israeli/Arab conflict to read it. I want all the leaders of the world to read it. I know that won't happen.

Just like the besotted and determined Ora, I will not stop hoping and talking and cajoling and pleading and living for a future that honestly only women can create. David Grossman must have an incredible mother because he clearly understands this.

(To The End Of The Land is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Shop Indie Bookstores

Mary Coin, Marisa Silver, Penguin Press, 2012, 261 pp

I did like this partly historical novel; not as much as I liked Marisa Silver's last novel, The God of War, but I liked it. She used the famous Migrant Mother photo by Dorothea Lange to create her own fiction, changing all the names and telling an adapted story about Dust Bowl migrants. She tied those historical characters to people in the present.

She circles around between the lives of the migrant mother, the photographer, and a young man from one family of big planters who employed migrant workers, with regular jumps into the present. In interviews, Marisa Silver freely admits to doing all the research on the characters and then making up her own story about them. So it is hard to know what is fact and what is fiction, but it makes for a good tale.

I once did a writing exercise that required me to study the photo of the migrant mother and compose a few paragraphs about what I imagined was going through her mind. It was a bit eerie to read the novel and hear some of my own thoughts being echoed.

My reading group mostly discussed the art of photography, the differing roles of photographer and subject. I was not much conscious of that topic as I read.

Instead I became immersed in the two women themselves and the ways that circumstances had shaped their lives, especially as mothers. Both had to make hard decisions due to the Depression. Both had to assume full responsibility for their children and each one reacted in different ways. 

Then there is a modern day male character whose passion is history. He discovers the past by means of artifacts and documents and photographs and eventually traces his family history back to the Dust Bowl days. In some ways, his life parallels the lives of the historical characters, allowing the reader to ponder the ways we make sense of the present by reconstructing lives of people who came before us. Since most of my writing currently is in the memoir genre, that was interesting or at least curious to me.

The writing in this novel veers back and forth between deeply personal accounts of the characters and somewhat emotionless recounting of historical events. Every time she switched from one style to the other was a jolt for me and kept me from ever fully sinking into the book. I think her characters were compelling enough to have shown the history, obviating the need for all the telling.

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

Monday, May 20, 2013


Defending Jacob, William Landay, Delacorte Books, 2012, 421 pp

I read this for one of my reading groups. It was a fast, sometimes disturbing, but essentially for me, mediocre read, along the lines of Jodi Piccoult. I felt the author did not ever quite decide what kind of book he was writing.

If Defending Jacob had to fit into a genre, it would be either Crime Fiction or Legal Thriller. Indeed, William Landay was educated as a lawyer and has worked as an assistant district attorney. In the novel, Andy Barber, father of Jacob, is an assistant district attorney. When his son is accused of murdering a classmate at his middle school, Andy's position becomes a liability. 

We discussed long and hard at the reading group meeting. It is never made completely clear in the book whether or not Jacob committed the murder. Three of the eight members of my group thought he did not, five were convinced he did! I imagine that the author would be curious to know that because the main theme of the novel was the laughable but horrible inability of the legal system to determine the guilt or innocence of individuals who go to trial. Underneath that failing are the investigative shortcomings of law enforcement bodies.

Even though Landay attempts to meld the above with family issues, societal patterns and questions about whether or not antisocial violence is an inherited trait, I perceived that he was really gnawing away on this question: how many murderers and other vicious criminals are at large in society and how many innocent people are sitting in our jails?

I had some problems with all aspects of Landay's writing including his style, his plotting, and his characters. But in the end I realized that I am not critical of Sara Paretsky or even Janet Evanovich on those points. If a crime/mystery/legal thriller tells a good story and raises important points about our live, that is fine. But Sara and Janet write from a well worked out stance. I am not so sure about Mr Landay.

(Defending Jacob is available in mass market paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in other formats by order.)

Saturday, May 18, 2013


The Bachelors, Muriel Spark, J B Lippincott Company, 1960, 219 pp
The Bachelors couldn't have been written by anyone but Muriel Spark. However, it was not as great as other novels of hers I have read. The central characters are all confirmed bachelors and are loosely friends. I could not imagine being married to any one of them without a shudder, which I suppose is the point.

These men are brought together by a legal case, though only one is a lawyer. Patrick Seton, a spiritualist medium but really a con man, is on trial for "fraudulent conversion." (Yes, I had to look that up. It is a civil crime of defrauding a family member or personal acquaintance.)

As is often the case with a novel by Spark, there is not one redeeming character, including the females. I am not bothered by that and these characters are as well drawn as always. It is a braided tale and not particularly compelling, so I wasn't always wanting to remember who was who and who did what.

The best chapters come at the end when the stakes get higher and the trial is held. Sometimes novels are dated yet carry little historical import. This was one of those for me.

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1951, 216 pp

I first learned about this book through Jo Walton, whose heroine in Among Others read it, among many other books. (Here is a list.) Naturally I then kept coming across the title on blogs, etc. My husband saw me reading it and remembered seeing the movie. (1962, British film.)

The book is short. Pretty good 1950s science fiction. I was struck by the way Wyndham interwove ideas with the plot, but then realized that was the way it was done in most of the 1950s sci fi I have read. Some authors do it better than others; Asimov was the best but Wyndham is not bad.

The triffids are odd plants that can move. Somewhere just before I read the book, I came across an article (probably on the web) about trees that can "walk" by putting down roots ahead of them and letting go of roots behind them. Now I can't remember what they are or where I read it. The wonders of the reading life!
Triffids are carnivorous, except they kill people first with a poisonous sting, then eat them when they are fully dead. Technically they are carrion eaters which is actually more gross.

Otherwise The Day of the Triffids is about the aftermath of a planetwide disaster and the ways people figure out where to go from there. It was never exactly clear how the green flashes of light from a meteor shower were connected to the menace of the triffids. Nor was it clear where the triffids came from, though they became a menace when men began to farm them and use one of their byproducts for fuel. 

I see why it became a classic and how it influenced many later sci fi books. If you intend to be or are a writer of science fiction, you must read John Wyndham. But he is more than historically relevant. The Day of the Triffids is a good read.

(The Day of the Triffids is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, May 13, 2013


No Longer at Ease, Chinua Achebe, Ivan Oblensky Inc, 1960, 170 pp

Chinua's second novel, following Things Fall Apart, jumps several generations in time. Obi Okonkwo, an Ibo from eastern Nigeria, has returned from university studies in England and takes a position as a civil servant in Lagos.

Obi was the brightest boy from his village and had been granted a scholarship by the Umuafia Progressive Union, a social group that keeps current and former inhabitants of the village connected even after they move to other towns. He is a young man to whom much has been given and much is expected. But it is the mid 1950s and rapid change is the order of things.

Soon enough, despite a salary beyond the wildest dreams of anyone from Umuafia, Obi finds himself short of funds, as he tries to keep up with a higher standard of living. In addition, he is engaged to a young woman who will never by accepted by his family or village because of an ancient curse that haunts her family. Tragedy looms and finally arrives.

At first I missed the powerful story of Things Fall Apart. By the end I realized that it could not be the same. The tragedy is the same: the loss of certainty and the surrender of old tribal values in an effort to mix with the White Man. But the times are so different that Obi mistakenly hopes his modern views and education will see him through.

Thus, it seems the story is more tawdry, less shocking. Not only have native Africans lost their spiritual center, so have the English and indeed much of the world. The horror of colonialism has become the commonplace. Yet Obi's efforts to carry on as an African while trying to assimilate into modern times are just as tragic as the headman's failure in Things Fall Apart. Things have fallen apart further.

(No Longer at Ease is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, May 11, 2013


American Rust, Philipp Meyer, Spiegel & Grau, 2009, 367 pp

Oh my. Oh my. This is a dark depressing novel. I was already depressed when I started it and more so when I finished. A small town near Pittsburgh, PA, in the early years of the 21st century, consists of the people who have remained after the demise of the steel industry in America. All is rundown: the people, the structures, the restaurants, even the police department. It is as though the apocalypse already happened.

Meyer's seamless conjunction of the personal, the political and the sociological does more than any documentary or series of news reports to make the effects of America's loss of manufacturing comprehensible to readers.
The protagonists, Isaac English and Billy Poe, are 20-year-olds who have missed the ring that young men must grab in order to make a life as adults. They both have their reasons, which forms the back story. Isaac has a crippled father and a mother dead by her own hand. Billy has a mother full of broken dreams and an unreliable father. 
As these two young men get themselves into a world of trouble, as they each try to outrun it, the story builds with unbearable tension. About two thirds of the way through I gave up hope that any sort of redemption or happiness was possible for any single character.
I read American Rust because I have meant to read it since it came out. (Philipp Meyer has a new novel, Son, coming out later this month and I wanted to read this one first.) My father worked for US Steel all his adult life until he retired around 1980. My comfortable middle class upbringing and my inheritance were paid for by that corporation. My father's dreams were crushed by it, even though he worked in offices at headquarters in Pittsburgh and then on Wall Street in New York City. I can't ask him now because he has passed from this life, but I wonder if he took early retirement because he saw what was coming.

Another theme in American Rust is the innumerable ways that parents fail their children and are in turn disappointed by them. A hard hit for me because I am dealing with all that in my own life at this time. As painful as it was to read about, I did realize that this theme is ancient; it happens to us all. I also became aware that in times of accelerated change, the generational conflicts are magnified.

This is a novel that obliterates any boundaries between fiction for men versus fiction for women. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is for those of us who care about what is happening to our lives and our country.

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

Tuesday, May 07, 2013


Woke Up Lonely, Fiona Maazel, Graywolf Press, 2013, 323 pp

The publisher's letter to the reader in the front of my review copy of Woke Up Lonely suggests there are two ways to read the novel: speedily while being propelled by the action or taking one's time to savor Maazel's precision, wit, and prose. In my first reading I attempted the speed method but kept being foiled by the prose. I got to the end feeling supremely annoyed. Who is this Fiona Maazel anyway, I thought, and why is she considered to be so hot?

She tells us the story of Thurlow Dan, founder and leader of Helix, a cult that promises to cure loneliness. The opening pitch in Dan's words:

"Here is something you should know: we are living in an age of pandemic. Of pandemic and paradox. To be more interconnected than ever and yet lonelier than ever. To be almost immortal with what science is doing for us yet plagued with feelings that are actually revising how we operate on a biological level. Want to know what that means? I'll tell you."

Of course, in the way of people who found cults in an effort to solve their own problems, Thurlow Dan is hopelessly disconnected from other people. He deserted his wife and year old infant nine years earlier after being serially unfaithful and has wound up rich, famous, under investigation by the American government for possible acts of terrorism, still in love with his ex-wife, and lonely as hell.

Esme, the ex-wife, is a freelance agent working for Homeland Security. She does her best to raise her daughter Ida in her spare time while secretly trying to save Thurlow from himself. Time is running out though because the cult leader's misguided attempt to test his theories on North Korea's Dear Leader has landed him in some very hot water. The lunatic fringe of his cult harbors terrorist leanings and if Esme doesn't pull off something brilliant, the man she still loves is going down.

My problem was that I did not figure all this out until I had almost finished the book. Due to the author's impressive vocabulary, I had to keep stopping to look up words. Nothing wrong with that; I love words. But I kept losing track of the plot as Maazel's brilliant set pieces, such as the speed dating as procurement method for Helix and the creation of Esme's elaborate disguises and the mother/daughter scenes with Ida, kept flashing like rooms from a fun house. Not to mention that at least six of the main characters each has his or her own plot.

The advance-praise blurbs for Woke Up Lonely left me sputtering with refutation. "I may have bruised ribs from laughing." I didn't remember laughing. Once. "This is a book you need." Why do we need to be told how lonely and disconnected we are? "It leaves your ears, mind and soul ringing for days." Well, actually a few days later I had to admit it did. So I tried the second suggested reading approach. I began again, taking my time, paying attention, letting Fiona Maazel talk to me.

Sure enough, like meeting someone who at first comes across as despicable and later becomes a great friend, the whole thing fell out and I got it. This author writes with the absurdist sense of early Iris Murdoch. She comports herself with the linguistic showmanship of Michael Chabon. Woke Up Lonely is a satirical social critique, a modern day romance, a literary thriller, and a tragedy that as it turns out, is also comedy. In my second reading, I am laughing.

I am not worried about bruising any ribs though. I've come through denial, anger, and bargaining. We are in deep trouble. I am depressed and don't plan on achieving acceptance. In the final scene comes the ultimate mockery of achieving acceptance. Instead, I challenge readers to finish this book and report back.

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

Saturday, May 04, 2013


The Magician of Lublin, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Noonday Press, 1960, 243 pp

Yasha Mazur, magician, lover, free spirit in prewar Poland, "could never understand how other people managed to live in one place and spend their entire lives with one woman without becoming melancholy." He had a dutiful and loving Jewish wife in his hometown, but most of the year he traveled the country. A woman in every town, a young female assistant for his act, an industrious agent, all assure Yasha money, variety and freedom from melancholy.

He could open any lock, escape from any enclosure, walk a high wire. His master plan was to escape Poland by converting to Catholicism and marrying one of his lovers. They would move to Italy and he would perform in the capitals of Europe amassing riches and fame.

Singer makes you admire this fellow with his carefree outlook, his allegiance to no particular God, woman, or country. Yasha reminded me a bit of Franz Liszt, the first world famous, touring musician.

But like Liszt, his wanderlust masked the deep melancholy and fractured conscience that was Yasha's true character causing a life of indecision, worry, and depression. The Magician of Lublin is a moral tale about the consequences of rejecting the faith of one's family and the country of one's origin. Or it could be seen as a creative example of the human condition.

Oh the writing! So evocative of location and times. So perceptive with regard to the protagonist, his friends, and the women. It is as if the entire story walks a tightrope and when the inevitable fall comes, everyone falls with this energetic, lovable, inspiring freedom seeker into the pit of darkness and retribution.

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

Wednesday, May 01, 2013


South of the Angels, Jessamyn West, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1960, 564 pp

I read this book while going through extreme emotional distress due to a family matter. I love Jessamyn West and she is one of those treasures I've discovered while pursuing My Big Fat Reading Project. South of the Angels is her longest book so far. Due to the state I was in it took me over a week to read, but whenever I would let her have my heart and mind, I would come away feeling blessed and healed.

Jessamyn West is about as far from sappy as you can get. She writes about people and families from a wise and wry perspective. Her characters may be fictional but they are so much like real people, with all their graces and faults, that I trust her insights implicitly. She was raised a Quaker in Indiana, then relocated to California, so became known as a Western writer.

The time is just prior to and during the outbreak of World War I. A less-than-upright businessman based in Los Angeles is developing a property south and east of LA in what is now Orange County. He has sold lots to all kinds of people promising sun, irrigation, no frost--a Garden of Eden waiting to be turned into orange groves.

Sylvester Perkins, the developer, is the first character we meet, but his purpose in the story is to be a foil to the settlers of what is called The Tract. These settlers are united only by a common dream: to start a new life away from whatever had made them unhappy so far. Otherwise, each is unique.

Without much of a plot, the first two years on The Tract meander along as these people and families live in tents, build houses, endure water shortages, Santa Ana winds, killing frost and blazing sun. Today this would be a reality TV show like Survivor, but in Jessamyn West's hands it is almost an instruction manual for life. Babies are born, people fall in love, children rebel, men compete. By the end everyone is changed in many ways.

The world abounds with pioneer novels but South of the Angels stood out for me as something special. I wish Ms West were still alive so I could write her a lovely note. Instead, I can post this review and hope that a few more readers discover her and find the peace of mind I did.

(South of the Angels is out of print. It is available from used booksellers. I found a copy in the library.)