Tuesday, July 30, 2013


The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, Neil Gaiman, William Morrow, 2013, 178 pp

Of course I loved this book. I love anything Neil Gaiman writes. It is impossible for me to be objective about his books because of this unconditional love. I could have wished it was longer so I could have stayed in his world for more hours, but even the brevity of the story is probably perfect.

Told in first person by a man who has just attended a funeral for a family member, it is a tale of returning to childhood memories and making sense of an incident not clearly understood when it happened. All it takes is a sad event and a familiar location. Then the unraveling begins.

All children have gone through terrible and scary events without much help. Sometimes it doesn't seem wise or useful to talk about such things with the parental units. You just know they won't understand or have anything helpful to say.

Because kids have a strong sense of justice, there are times when we have to become our own superhero or superheroine and take matters into our own hands. There is danger, you are afraid, and you have to sneak around.

I loved the way the boy was generally unhappy, found it hard to make friends, and spent his best most wonderful times lost in books. He was open to magic and understood that adventures were often scary and also required him to be brave.

I loved the three female characters: grandmother, mother, and Lettie Hempstock. Lettie was eleven, the boy seven, and she became his protector. She was the bravest of all though she made some mistakes.

Any parent who has a child who doesn't fit in and who spends hours alone whether reading or wandering or playing video games, knows that child is troubled about something. It is good parenting to pay attention and keep watch over such a child. But it's also good to have faith in the young person's ability to find his or her way.

I went to see Neil Gaiman talk about his new book. Even though we all had tickets in advance, the line to get in circled a city block and ended curled into a parking lot. It was hot, late afternoon. Finally we were all seated in the venue and Neil came on stage. The level of excitement, cheering, screaming, and applause was like being at a rock concert. Fantastic!

A boy who had his troubles and got lost in books, grew up to be one of the most well-known and loved authors. He seems to handle his fame and fans with a level-headed grace. He has also found good friends and love and he is happy to work hard at what he loves to do.

In his stories and novels and comics, he comes across as having some secret knowledge which he is compelled to share by means of storytelling. In The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, he writes for adults who remember what it was to be a kid. I read the book in a few hours and I plan to read it again, probably several times, the way I used to read my favorite books as a child. Just because.

(The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, July 26, 2013


After all these years I am still in a bunch of reading groups. The ones I attend have members who actually read the books and we actually discuss them. Sometimes I read books I would not otherwise have picked. Sometimes lately I opt out and decide not to read the chosen book and then I don't attend the meeting. Mostly I am enriched both by the books we pick and the discussions we have. 

Here is what these groups will be reading in August:

The New Book Club (we are a splinter group of an older club)
Tina's Group (she makes us dinner!)
Once Upon A Time Bookstore Adult Fiction Group
One Book At A Time (meets in a Mexican Restaurant)
Bookie Babes

Are you in a reading group? Why? What are you reading in August?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Map of the Invisible World, Tash Aw, Spiegal & Grau, 2009, 318 pp

In his second novel, Tash Aw moves the setting from Malaysia to Indonesia. The story takes place on a fictional remote island and in Jakarta, the capital. Indonesia, due to many twists of fate involving both Asian and Western conquests, calls itself a country. In actuality it is a string of islands, large and small and distinct from each other.

One of those islands is Bali, well known to Americans thanks to Margaret Mead's books and lectures. A cultural anthropologist, she made studies during the 1930s of native culture on Bali, resulting in hundreds of photographs and even film. In my young feminist days I became fascinated by Mead's findings in Bali and for many years dreamed of visiting, though I never did.

Therefore reading Map of the Invisible World was bittersweet for me. The time frame of the story is the 1960s with Sukarno in power. Indonesia achieved independence from its colonial Dutch masters in the 1950s but within a decade was beset by unrest, communist antagonism to American influence, and outcry against Sukarno's corrupt government. The idyllic life portrayed by Margaret Mead became strained by the influx of modern life and industry in the cities, with those effects felt even on the small remote islands.

Adam, the main character, was adopted at the age of five by Karl, a single Dutch man born in Indonesia before independence. When Karl's family returned to the Netherlands, he failed to adapt to life in the cold Northern European country, so as a young man he returned to Indonesia with plans to become a painter. He made his home on a small remote island similar to Bali.

Adam's origins are unknown because the orphanage where Karl found him had not kept records. It is assumed by his looks that he is of mixed parentage. Karl raised Adam to speak English, disciplined him according to Western standards but also taught him the tales and legends of Indonesia.

When Karl is arrested by communist soldiers, Adam at 16 is aware enough to know that Karl's fantasy of being one with the Indonesian people is not going to save him from either being killed or deported. So begins Adam's quest to find the father who raised him, leading the young man to Jakarta and smack into the middle of the conflicts there.

I finally get to go to Indonesia, at least in a novel, and everything is in turmoil. This is a sad story but also a look at Indonesian history from a Southeast Asian viewpoint. One of the characters is a middle-aged professor in Jakarta who could have been Margaret Mead's daughter. In fact, her name is Margaret Bates (Mead's married name was Bateson.)

Adam learns that Margaret used to be a lover of Karl's. She also has connections to the American Embassy, so he looks her up as someone who could help him save his father. I am falling into trying to tell the plot but this plot is as convoluted as a Balinese trance. So I will say no more except that Tash Aw created a story of contrasts and of history as it impacts the lives of individuals.

He seems to be telling us that circumstances bring about terrible loss and trouble resulting in individuals who are driven by guilt and rootlessness. No truly happy endings exist and many things are left unresolved for most of us. By chance, and again by circumstance, some find hope but most are haunted by what they cannot control.

I found this refreshing. I found it to be true. It made me question the characteristic Western or American belief in always being able to "fix" things, to "find closure," to assign blame and cause. In the hands of Tash Aw, those beliefs or goals became laughable if not impossible.
(Map of the Invisible World is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, July 19, 2013


My Education, Susan Choi, Viking, 2013, 296 pp

Susan Choi's new novel will be known as that steamy book about an affair between two women. Steamy it is, but that is only a part of its allure. The sex writing is extremely good but that is because Susan Choi can write as well as, if not better than, anyone writing novels today.

This book is a campus novel, a love story, a domestic tale, and features male characters who are as deeply complex as the two main female characters. I am trying to sound like a calm and composed reviewer but the truth is I loved this book with as much youthful and ill-advised passion as 20-year-old Regina loved 32-year-old Martha.

Who did not confuse lust with love at that age? Who did not love extravagantly and hopelessly from a position of self-involvement and narcissism? Who at the age of 20 could ever understand that the object of her affection just might have a couple other things going on in his/her life beside oneself? And who did not grieve as self-destructively as possible for a ridiculous amount of time, but in the end, live to love again?

Oh, you never did? I pity you.

Regina is a grad student in literature. Martha is a literature professor, as is her husband. Martha is also a cyclonic force of a person, a free spirit, and about as self-involved as a wife/mother/professional woman can be. The affair between them, beginning on the night of a disastrous dinner party Martha fails to pull off, goes on for much of the book. The collapse of Martha's marriage, the child custody battles, and finally the end of the affair are all seen through Regina's eyes.

And that is perfect because in the latter part of the book, when Regina has grown up, become a wife and mother and author herself, the reader gets to see Regina looking back from an older and wiser perspective. I loved that part also because the more mature Regina is still who she was: a passionate, loyal, one hundred percent type of woman.
A word about Susan Choi's sentences: amazing. But that is such an overused word. On any given page you can find at least a couple examples of these creations that reel out with thought, emotion, description, time shifts, and yet you never get lost, the rhythm never falters, and she gives you the complete picture. Oddly, as I attempted to pick a few examples, I realized that they all fit so seamlessly into the story, each one moving it along, that by themselves they are just long sentences. Either you will have to take my word for it or read the book yourself. 
Any writer, well except maybe Hemingway, would be fascinated to the point of wanting a course in Susan Choi's sentences complete with writing exercises. I think I will just make up my own.
Ms Choi will be visiting my city during her book tour. I will be there in the audience to see if I can ascertain how she can have written the excellent A Person of Interest and then have turned around to take a love story into such exciting territory.

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

Friday, July 12, 2013


The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis, Simon & Schuster Inc, 1960, 496 pp

Nikos Kazantzakis always challenges me as a reader. I find it hard to get up a good reading pace because I have to reset something in my mind to connect with his style and his way of telling a story. This, his last novel and the final book on my 1960 reading list, was no exception. I finally got through it by reading 50 pages a day and then reading something lighter.

As you could surmise from the title, The Last Temptation of Christ is not in any way light reading, but it is powerful in the extreme. I have read my share of novels based on the life of Jesus over the past several years because many of them were top 10 bestsellers in the 1940s.

The Nazarene, Sholem Asch, 1940
The Robe, Lloyd C Douglas, 1942-1945 (really it stayed on the bestseller list for 4 years!)
The Big Fisherman, Lloyd C Douglas
Mary, Sholem Asch, 1949

The only one of these that was equally as powerful as Last Temptation was Sholem Asch's The Nazarene. Both Asch and Kazantzakis come at what is possibly the world's best known story from skewed viewpoints. Asch takes on the conflict between a Jew's understanding of Jesus and that of a Christian.

For Kazantzakis, his novel was the culmination of a life spent searching for meaning and of his conflict between flesh and spirit. He imbues Jesus with both, depicting his youth as a time of confusion and nightmares about who he is. Due to constant urging by his mother to marry and have children, he falls in love with his distant cousin Mary Magdalene but cannot bring himself to consummate his desire, except in dreams.

Another twist in this book is the actual identity and role of Judas Iscariot, who is portrayed as a revolutionary devoted to freeing the Jews from Roman rule. I won't give any more away except to say he is not characterized as the betrayer he appears to be in the Gospels.

Kazantzakis got himself into a world of trouble with the Church in Greece. When his book was published there in 1955 it was banned by the Church. When he died he was denied Christian burial in his own country. Judging from the ideas in the novel, he would have found that an apt conclusion to his time on earth.

There was a movie made in 1988 directed by none other than Martin Scorcese. I never saw it back then but recall my father, who struggled with doubt about his faith, being deeply moved. I will be watching it soon.

Now I am finished with Nikos Kazantzakis. Despite all my difficulties reading his books, I know that he changed me in ways I have not even yet fully realized.

(The Last Temptation of Christ is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Sacre Bleu, Christopher Moore, William Morrow, 2012, 394 pp

Well! If reading novels can be a window into an author's mind, I confess that I don't understand Christopher Moore's mind. He has some obsessions I'm quite sure. The color blue, art, and penises were the three I recognized here.

I read this (and one other, The Stupidest Angel) because it was a reading group pick. A couple of those readers were annoyed by Moore's irreverence. But most of us, including me, were entertained. Because blue is my favorite color and because I love the Impressionists, Moore held my interest and the many pages flew by.

Painters in Paris in the 1890s. A Mysterious woman. The Colorman. Lots of whores, brothels, and syphillis. Van Gogh, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and more. Time travel and the supernatural. What a stew of ideas and imagination!

By the end, all of his threads and theories did not quite add up, but I didn't care. I had been shown a good time and now I'm curious to read more about the many artists who populated that period in Paris. I wanted to hop on a plane for the City of Light but more than that, wished I had a time machine to take me to the Paris of 1890.

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

Sunday, July 07, 2013


The Night Gwen Stacy Died, Sarah Bruni, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 274 pp

The other night I saw "Man of Steel" which I liked and disliked in equal measure. It must be my year for Superheroes in film and books, because The Night Gwen Stacy Died is loosely connected with Spiderman. I had forgotten that Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker's girlfriend.

Being raised by careful parents in the 1950s, I was not allowed to read comic books. Truly, I wasn't interested and never understood the allure until I read Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. As far as I can tell, comic books in the 1940s were the equivalent and forerunners of video games, particularly for boys. 

Sarah Bruni says in an interview that she never read comic books as a child either but in her first novel a young boy grows up without a father and changes his name to Peter Parker. He has dreams in which future events show up and scare him to death, so he becomes obsessed with preventing these events and saving the victims.

At the age of 26, Peter is a taxi driver and meets 17-year-old Sheila Gower at the Sinclair station out on the edge of Iowa City, where she works after school and dreams of moving to Paris. Sheila runs away with Peter to Chicago, only to discover that she has become Gwen Stacy to Peter, who expects her to help him save the next victim. They fall in love and Sheila has to intuit what the hell is going on with Peter Parker, who he really is, and what this new role in life requires of her.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I started reading. The story begins with pages of telling, not showing, the inner life of Sheila. I saw with a clarity I had not previously understood, why writing classes and books tell you to start your novel off with a bang if you want to get published and snare readers. Perhaps Sarah Bruni was counting on all of us having seen the many Spiderman movies over the years and thus to catch on. In fact I did keep getting mental pictures of Kirsten Dunst. I felt Peter's angst through Tobey Maquire's portrayal of the troubled boy.

The Night Gwen Stacy Died turned out to be a fabulous piece of imaginative writing complete with coyotes bringing enlightenment in slipstream fashion. A love story, a redemption story, a mystery, and a sensitive study of identity, dreams, and heroes. What starts out as an incomprehensible mess turns into a heart-stopping thriller set in the slums of Chicago. 

It made me recall all the boys I helped to grow up with their loves of Evel Knievel, Yngwie Malmsteen, Luke Skywalker, with their capes and skateboards and guitars and light sabers. How we figure out who we are and who we wish we were and how to get back the people we have lost. Now I can't stop thinking about this novel nor keep myself from peering into the personas of my friends. 

Who did you pretend to be?
(The Night Gwen Stacy Died is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, July 04, 2013


American Dream Machine, Matthew Specktor, Tin House Books, 2013, 460 pp
This big chunk of a novel is about many things. Most obviously it is about Hollywood, specifically about talent agent Beau Rosenwald, who rises to power alongside his friend Williams Farquarsen. Together they build a successful agency which they call American Dream Machine.

It is also about the "American Dream." Rosenwald, son of a plumber from a New York City borough, is the epitome of the self-made man. Of course he has a fatal flaw or two and eventually succumbs to them but not without a fight.

Then it is about three young men, the sons of Beau and Williams, their misspent youths, their wasted, stoned, wild days and nights on the streets, in the canyons, cruising the hoods, the bars, and the beaches of Los Angeles. These are troubled boys in the special way that kids of parents in "the business" as we call it here, are uniquely troubled. Nate, illegitimate son of Beau, narrates and spends his life seeking love and recognition from his father.

If all of that isn't enough, there is a mystery surrounding Beau's partner Williams. Nate finally solves it in the final chapters, but the effects of the mystery are more interesting than the reveal.

I can't say I loved the book but I liked it for many reasons. Despite its tawdry subject, Matthew Specktor is clearly well read in literature, writes with great style and exhibits a delicious love/hate for Hollywood and Los Angeles that permeates his tale. I would go so far as proclaiming him a Saul Bellow for the 21st century. But John Fante, Raymond Chandler and others make their presence felt like ghosts in  dark alleys.

American Dream Machine is long, it meanders, in a way it is a man's book. But by the end I didn't want to leave the world of those boys now become men. It was like when I go on a trip. It is a relief to get away from this insane city but I am always so happy to get back.

(American Dream Machine is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, July 01, 2013



This past weekend I read the last book on the 1960 list for My Big Fat Reading Project. It took me 10 months to complete the list of 33 books not read before (of course I also read current releases, reading group picks and the books I reviewed.) I definitely got the feel of a new decade. Sex! Psychology. Except for a couple exceptions, religion was distinctly missing. Here is the list. Books with a * are reviewed here on the blog. You can use the search function to find them.

Advise and Consent, Allen Drury*
Hawaii, James A Michener
The Leopard, Guiseppe di Lampedusa*
The Chapman Report, Irving Wallace*
Ourselves to Know, John O'Hara*
The Constant Image, Marcia Davenport*
The Lovely Ambition, Mary Ellen Chase*
The Listener, Taylor Caldwell*
Trustee From the Toolroom, Nevil Shute*
Sermons and Soda Water, John O'Hara*

PULITZER PRIZE: Advise and Consent, Allen Drury*
NEWBERY AWARD: Onion John, Joseph Krum*
CALDECOTT AWARD: Nine Days to Christmas, Marie Hall & Aurora Labastida*
NBA: Goodbye Columbus, Philip Roth*
HUGO AWARD: Starship Troopers, Robert A Heinlein*
EDGAR AWARD: The Hours Before Dawn, Celia Fremlin*
The Bachelors, Muriel Spark*
The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Muriel Spark*
A Burnt Out Case, Graham Greene*
The Child Buyer, John Hersey*
Clea, Lawrence Durrell*
The Country Girls, Edna O'Brien
The Dean's Watch, Elizabeth Goudge
The Kingdom and the Cave, Joan Aiken*
The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis*
The Magician of Lublin, Isaac Bashevis Singer*
Meet the Austins, Madeleine L'Engle*
No Longer at Ease, Chinua Achebe*
The Picturegoers, David Lodge*
The Prime of Life, Simone de Beauvoir*
Rabbit Run, John Updike*
Set This House on Fire, William Styron*
The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth*
South of the Angels, Jessamyn West*
Two Weeks in Another Town, Irwin Shaw*
The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O'Connor*
Welcome to Hard Times, E L Doctorow*

Do you have a favorite book from 1960 that I missed?