Friday, June 28, 2013


Rules of Civility, Amor Towles, Viking, 2011, 324 pp

I had been mildly interested in this one. Really I just liked the title and the cover. But I had been so disappointed by The Paris Wife which came out around the same time and is set in the same era, that I kept putting off reading it. Also I thought the author was female but Amor Towles is male, works at an investment firm in Manhattan, and looks middle-aged in his author photo.

I was pleasantly surprised by a well-written, page-turner that started out like a piece of fluff but went ever deeper as the story progressed. Working class girls mix with the upper crust, drink lots of gin in jazz clubs, and the secrets of the characters are discovered by a first person narrator named Katey Kontent.

This voice of Katey's was not convincingly female but, as it turned out, she was a highly intelligent, self-sufficient young woman, one who grew up in the heady Jazz Age years when women first got the vote and had unheard of freedoms. Of course, she falls for the wrong guy. The story of their love is unlike most of the modern romances I have read. It combines tenderness and grit.

Amor Towles owes a debt to many bestsellers I've read from the 1940s: John O'Hara, James Hilton, John P Marquand, Daphne du Maurier, Mary Jane Ward, to name a few authors who wrote great commercial fiction in that decade.
I can highly recommend Rules of Civility to almost any reader. An inspiring heroine, New York City in the late 1930s, and that very American trait where the rich are not always who they appear to be, make the novel alluring and thought provoking at the same time.

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

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House Inc, 2013, 397 pp

I like Curtis Sittenfeld's novels. She writes with insight about life as a female, whether teenager, college student, or married woman. She captures the inner, silent monologue of daily existence for characters who are intelligent but have fractures when it come to self-identity. I also harbor a fascination for stories about sisters since I was raised with two of them and we had no brothers. Sisterland satisfied all of this and is about identical twins to boot.

Kate and Violet grew up in a sad, somewhat silent home situated in the conservative Midwestern American city of Saint Louis. Their father spoke little without emotion; their mother spent most of her time in a dark bedroom being depressed. The girls named their room "Sisterland" and relied on each other for most of their needs. When the mother stopped making dinner, the girls taught themselves to cook but made it look as though Mom had made the meal. After dinner, their father would say, "That was delicious, Rita."

But the major trouble was the ability of both sisters to "sense" the future and other people's secrets. During eighth grade, Kate abuses her talent in order to impress the most popular girl at school but the results backfire horribly, driving a wedge between the twins and causing Kate to deny her psychic abilities. Kate grows up, marries "the man of her dreams" and lives the constrained life of a stay-at-home suburban wife and mother of two. Violet's outgoing, contentious personality leads to bisexual relationships and a freelance career as a psychic.

Still, they are twin sisters living in the same town with their sisterly bond and troubled childhoods between them. Though they drive each other nuts, neither one would dream of deserting the other. Disaster threatens when Violet goes on Good Morning America to predict a massive earthquake in Saint Louis, right down to the date. Disaster strikes on the predicted date but the shaking and destruction is personal, not literal.

Sittenfeld is at her most humorous ever in this novel. All of the anguish is buoyed up on a layer of wry observations and ludicrous situations. As Kate relates the story in an anxious, even obsessive voice, the characters provide the laughs. Violet is a constant annoyance, barging in on Kate's ordered life always needing something: a ride, a loan, an outfit to wear, etc.

Rosie, Kate's two and a half-year-old, has the best voice of all. "Where's Rosie's baloney?" (The baloney is a puzzle piece about lunch foods to which she is particularly attached.) "When you take off your diaper it makes Mama very sad." " Rosie wants a banana." Only a brilliant writer of dialogue could let you know what kind of mother Kate is by means of the things Rosie says.

Eventually Kate makes a huge mistake and has to pay in major terms. After having learned about the lives of these twins, after having becomes invested in their conflicted relationship, it feels almost cruel for this organized, dutiful woman to have her life turn out badly. The wonder of Curtis Sittenfeld's writing is the way she lets us know that rarely do we get what we deserve and usually we get what we fear. So OK, that is a bummer but done in such an entertaining and perceptive manner that you feel better about yourself and more tolerant of others. You feel like the author might be your best friend and that she gets you.

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

Monday, June 24, 2013


Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1916, 213 pp


Understood Betsy is another book I read many times as a child. I have been rereading those favorite books to help me remember what I was like then as an aid to the memoir I am writing.

Betsy is an orphan being raised by relatives in St Louis, MO. Her Great-Aunt Harriet and cousin Frances are over-protective worriers. The effect of all Frances's sympathy has made Elizabeth Ann into a thin, pale, and timid nine-year-old.

Then Aunt Harriet becomes deathly ill. Betsy must be sent to a Vermont farm where the dreaded Putney relatives live so that Frances can devote all her time to caring for Aunt Harriet. It is the Putneys who give Elizabeth Ann her nickname.

In Vermont, Betsy has chores, she learns to cook, gets a kitten, walks to a one-room schoolhouse by herself, and no one worries about her one bit. She finds out that she can rely on herself, becomes robust and happy. 

By the time Cousin Frances comes to take her home, Betsy doesn't want to leave but of course feels guilty. She is saved by a nice plot twist which reading it this time I saw was an obvious deus-ex-machina. As a child I only knew I was so relieved that Betsy could stay where she was so happy.

I was an over-protected kid, though it made me rebellious in spite of my fears. For me this book was part of my fantasy about having a different mother who understood me better. It fit in nicely with Heidi, The Secret Garden, and other books where misfortune turns out to be favorable for the child heroine.

Despite being able to see through the plot and the ideas behind it, I still felt all the old feelings I used to get when I was nine, ten, and even probably eleven. I don't see how Dorothy Canfield (her maiden name when she wrote it) could have done a better job because she so completely captured the nine-year-old viewpoint.

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

Saturday, June 22, 2013


The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner, Scribner, 2013, 383 pp

Rachel Kushner's new novel is perhaps too literary to appeal to some readers, but it is literary in the best way. Her first novel, Telex From Cuba, addressed the Cuban Revolution primarily through the eyes of American businessmen and their families living in Cuba. In The Flamethrowers, revolution in terms of workers uprisings in 1970s Italy, works as a comparison to the decline of industry in America seen through the eyes of avant-garde artists in New York City. 

Political and sociological change is always complicated. Kushner treats these complications with a subtlety that can demand more than a reader looking for a good story may want to invest.

Then there is Reno, an aspiring artist in her early 20s, nicknamed after her hometown. She is a complex character, raised among working class people, who gets off on speeding motorcycles and danger but lacks self esteem and an ability to stand up for herself when dealing with men and older people in the art world.

Despite my frustration as a reader with Reno's passivity, she became for me one of the more interesting protagonists I have met in fiction so far this year. During her time in New York City, as she hooked up with one dubious character after another, I kept thinking of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids. Reno, however, lacks any sort of moral compass. She is just adrift and goes along with whomever she is hanging around, having a bad time and being distracted from her art.

Reno reminded me of myself. I was her age in the 1970s, trying to break free of a family and moral background I no longer believed in but clueless when it came to men; active but clueless. I am not certain that young women today realize how hard it still was back then to be taken seriously as an artist of any kind if you were female.

My personal take on this novel is a sense of amazement that a woman who is at least two decades younger than myself could capture what it was like in those years. When Reno finds herself at the end of the novel once again waiting for some man to give direction to her life and begins to awaken to the idea that she is going to have to find that direction within herself, I felt redeemed for all the hours I had spent reading about the miserable time she was having. Many women (and many artists) never have that awakening.

I admire Kushner for having made me wait so long. If all the scenes and characters and all the pages describing Reno's inner state, which is written about in exquisite prose, had not come before, the beginnings of change in Reno would have had no impact.

It seems like I have been reading many books lately where I don't see the reason for the plot until the end. If I had given up on these books after 100 pages, as I felt tempted to do, I would have missed so much. Not once was I sorry to have continued to spend my reading time and every one of these novels enriched me.

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

Sunday, June 16, 2013


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler, Marion Wood Book/Putnam, 2013, 308 pp

Having been forced to read Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club for a reading group and being the only one who didn't like it, I only decided to read this one based on some very glowing pre-publication reviews. It was like reading a completely different author. I loved every page and especially was captivated by the narrator.

Then I got the opportunity to review it for BookBrowse. My review is accessible for the next several days without having a subscription. It begins thus:

          "Karen Joy Fowler's new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a story about a family torn apart by the loss of one member. While that is not an unusual occurrence in novels about families, never have I read one in which the lost member was a chimpanzee..." Read the rest here.

(We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, June 15, 2013


The Harmony Silk Factory, Tash Aw, Riverhead Books, 2005, 378 pp

I don't believe I have read a novel set in Malaysia before. I admit I was a little vague on where that country is and had to look it up. Tash Aw made a big splash with this first novel. His third, Five Star Billionaire is being published in July and I decided it was time to investigate this author. It was a good decision.

The Harmony Silk Factory is the textiles store of Johnny Lim who came to Malaya with his peasant family from China in the early 20th century and rose up in business and politics. The novel is made up of three sections, each of which tell Johnny Lim's controversial story from a different perspective. Was he a hero of the people or a collaborator? What did he really sell from his imposing structure?

His son Jaspar, whose mother died during childbirth, sees his father as dishonest in both business and politics. Snow, the wife who died, left a diary in which she portrayed a man who loved his wife dearly but whose love was unrequited. Finally, Johnny's only true friend, Peter Wormwood, presents another side of the man from the viewpoint of an Englishman who had gone native.

At times I felt a bit adrift but could tell that the story of Johnny would come together like a jigsaw puzzle by the end. And it did, though I understood that knowing any individual is a matter of one's own perceptions and that others will see that individual in various other ways. The novel is a brilliant examination of that truth.

For me, the story was also another piece of the puzzle concerning life in the Far East during the 20th century. I suppose I could read more history books about the area but it is working just fine for me to use a historical timeline found somewhere on the web while I read novels. The interrelations of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Malaysians, etc, come alive through the characters and their stories in novels as they rarely do for me when I read history.

It is the stories of the people that I find gripping and we are so fortunate to have had a publishing business to bring us these stories now for hundreds of years. Tash Aw was born in Taiwan to Malaysian parents, grew up in Malaysia, moved to England for university, became a lawyer and then a writer. He does not write like a lawyer, but like the great storytellers of the ages. 

His next novel, Map of the Invisible World, 2009, is already on my shelves. I can't wait.

(Unbelievably, The Harmony Silk Factory is out of print. I found a copy at my local library. Hardcovers and paperbacks are available from used booksellers.)

Thursday, June 13, 2013


A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash, William Morrow, 2012, 325 pp

Wiley Cash's first novel is not great but it is really good. It evoked a wide-ranging and deep discussion at the reading group for which I read it. I acquired my copy as an ebook from my library. I like getting to borrow an ebook but it vanishes on the day it is due. Now it is three weeks later and I took no notes so must rely on my memory to write about it.

In a small North Carolina town tucked into the mountains, nine-year-old Jess lives with his parents and his autistic brother Stump. They have a unique relationship because Stump does not talk. Dad grows tobacco and Mom goes to her Pentecostal church. She is looking for answers because of Stump. 

Believe it or not, these people are so cut off and backward compared to modern life that they don't know anything about autism. Some of them fall for a preacher who has them handling snakes and practicing the laying on of hands for curing illness or casting out demons. All I will say is that something very bad happens to Stump in that church.

I know this stuff goes on in the American South. A few years ago I read Robert Hellenga's Snakewoman of Little Egypt, a better book by the way, and did some research on Pentecostal churches. It seems that oftentimes these churches that go in for snake handling and all the other strange practices are led by preachers who have crossed over into a psychopathic zone and wield some freaky power over their congregations. Such is the case in this novel.

I like dark southern tales. This one was marketed as a literary thriller, it won the British Crime Writers Association Dagger Award for a first book, and is in the coming-of-age genre as well. All quite ambitious and successful.

What worked for me were the characters and the plotting. Jess, his grandfather, Adelaide Lyle (who serves as the town's midwife and is the true healer there) are all so well drawn, you feel you could touch them. The evil preacher, the mom and actually every character just jump off the page in equal measures of description, dialogue, and action.

It is the excellent writing that make the book as good as it is. Underlying that is a kind of religious tone about faith and redemption. I don't doubt the author's awareness or belief or whatever it is he has grappled with but his execution just made me a little squirmy. It is not that I don't like novels with religion in them, but as in writing about sex, it has to be done well.

(A Land More Kind Than Home is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, June 08, 2013


Set This House on Fire, William Styron, Random House, 1960, 507 pp

I read this as part of my Big Fat Reading Project and also because ever since I read Sophie's Choice so many years ago and had my mind completely rearranged, I vowed to read all of Styron's novels. In a way, it's a good thing he didn't write too many because each one is such a heavy dose of human anguish and Faulkner-like rambling complete with long philosophical passages run through some character's mouth. Reading too much Styron in a row could induce suicidal thoughts at least, maybe worse.

In fact, Set This House on Fire does include a possible suicide and an artist trying to drink himself to death. After reading The Bone People just two weeks earlier, another novel full of fall-down-drunk scenes was almost too much. 

I am having trouble here writing a coherent review. Possibly a certain incoherence in the novel was contagious. So I'll give a little plot summary and then mention some observations.

Peter Leverett had been doing the ex-patriot thing in Paris (it is the late 1950s and the Marshall Plan created plenty of jobs for Americans in Europe in those days.) On his way back to the States he stops in Sambuco, a small Italian coastal town, to see an old friend from boarding school named Mason Flagg. Within two days, Peter has hit a pedestrian who ends up in a coma; Mason Flagg is dead; Cass Kinsolving, the drinker, is involved up to his inebriated eyeballs in the death of Flagg; and Peter finds himself embroiled as only an innocent bystander can be.

Where Styron fell down is in the structure. Peter Leverett, at the beginning of the book, has invited himself to visit Kinsolving some years after the Sambuco incident, making the entire novel a back story. The intimations of violence and madness hinted at in the first few pages are not fully revealed until almost the end of 500 pages, requiring a large amount of patience in the reader as well as the attention span so missing in our current society.

By the time this somewhat lame attempt at a murder mystery is fully solved (and mind you, Kinsolving who knows what really happened, was drunk and blacking out during most of the incidents) I hardly cared anymore who had done what. Except that I kept reading to find out.

You see, I just cannot write succinctly about what became a tangled, endless, reflective story involving the examination of so many heavy themes: evil, domination, art, redemption, love, and violence.

Putting Set This House on Fire into the context of 1960 novels, there are certain parallel topics. Irwin Shaw's Two Weeks in Another Town featured an American in Italy mixed up with the movie business. There was a whole side story in Styron's book involving movie business folks.

Another recurring theme that year was young men trying to make sense of the late 1950s drive for affluence, the power of business versus the relevance of art. Two examples are Ourselves to Know by John O'Hara and Rabbit Run by John Updike. As I come to the end of my 1960 reading list, it turns out to have been quite the pivotal year in literature. Styron was clearly immersed in the thinking of the times as he wrote his novel.

One last observation: Peter Leverett serves almost completely as a sounding board and observer. Stingo served that function in Sophie's Choice as did Jack Culver in The Long March

Despite all these quibbles, not once did I consider abandoning the book. I was impelled by wanting to know what happened in Sambuco even while I felt impatient to find out. Styron made me care whether or not Kinsolving got the redemption he sought. This is in the end a good dark Southern saga, though it probably appeals only to a certain kind of reader, of which I am one.

(Set This House on Fire is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, June 05, 2013


Dreams of Joy, Lisa See, Random House Inc, 2011, 349 pp

Dreams of Joy is the sequel to Shanghai Girls, at the end of which Joy runs away from Los Angeles to find her real father in Shanghai. When I finished Shanghai Girls, I couldn't wait to read the sequel but as it turned out, it took one of my reading groups to put it in front of me two years after its publication.

Dreams of Joy takes place in China and follows Joy as she finds her way around Shanghai, eventually locates her father, and becomes a member of a communist village. Pearl, the mother who raised Joy, also arrives in Shanghai determined to find her daughter and keep her from harm.

It is a dramatic story set during the challenging times of the New Society in Red China. For Pearl, the changes in the city she fled twenty years earlier are heart breaking. Joy has all of her hopeful illusions about communism and her father shattered. By the end, the mother and daughter have retraced new versions of the horrors experienced by Pearl and her sister May in their first escape.

Pearl and May finally come to terms with their mutual love for Joy's father, the conflict that powered the earlier novel. The man in question, a self-centered and successful artist whose life and talent were ruined by the communist regime, grows up at last. (Not spoilers because the way in which all this occurs is what matters in the novel.)

Lisa See's depictions of China during Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward are grisly. She has never shied away from the gritty realities of life in China, no matter the period of history. And if she resorts to melodrama, she does it well, in the tradition of the 19th century classics. I am glad I read Dreams of Joy. I wonder what she will do next.

(Dreams of Joy is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in other formats by order.)

Monday, June 03, 2013


TransAtlantic, Colum McCann, Random House Inc, 2013, 262 pp

Part family saga, part historical fiction, and a big love song to Ireland, TransAtlantic is an emotional journey of a novel. Interwoven with the lives of four women are tales of historical figures. 

Lily, a housemaid who escaped the Irish Potato Famine in 1845, was inspired to find freedom in the United States by Frederick Douglass when he visited Dublin. Lily's daughter Emily, a journalist, eventually sailed for Britain with her female offspring, Lottie, after covering the first transatlantic flight made by Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown. Lottie settled in Belfast with her English husband and in later years met ex-senator George Mitchell, sent by President Clinton to help broker the Belfast Peace Agreement. Lottie's daughter Hannah lived through and suffered during The Troubles and ends the matrilineal line in true 21st century style.

Perhaps I shouldn't have made the above paragraph so orderly because Colum McCann's story does not fall out in linear fashion. Much of the pleasure found in this novel is due to the way he structured the tale. He opens in 1919 with the transatlantic flight, establishing an imagery of ocean crossings that plays throughout, then shoots back to 1845 and Frederick Douglass. 
Lily Duggan sets the tone for the four women: feisty and tough with endless reserves of courage. These women are ancient Celtic goddesses reincarnated into roles of the last century and a half. The whole thing is like a rock ballad from the acoustic intro through heartfelt verses to power chord choruses that build to the climax and final fadeout.

I first fell in love with Colum McCann when I read Dancer, his fictional tribute to Rudolf Nureyev. History, tragedy, and passion lived in the dancer's very veins. He suffered it all, danced it, reveled in it. TransAtlantic is a full 75 pages shorter yet encompasses at least eight fully developed characters as it touches on several major historical events. An economy of prose, shorn of any unnecessary verbiage, brings each character to life and shows the impact of history on the people who live through it.

The story grows, the intensity ebbs and falls but never fades. Facts and locations and episodes bloom into emotional significance. Is it an Irish thing? By the end, I felt I was floating in eternity, feeling the never-ending influence on the present of what has come before even as our lives flow into and create what will be the future. 

For the epigraph, McCann quotes Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. "No history is mute. No matter how much they own it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is." Not an Irish thing, a literary thing.

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