Friday, August 30, 2013


Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan, Nan A Talese/Doubleday, 2012, 321 pp

I have long considered myself a fan of Ian McEwan. Turns out I'd read just one of his novels, Atonement, which goes to show what a fine novel that is. Even so, I was shocked to discover that Sweet Tooth is only the second book I have read by him. I loved it just as much but for different reasons.

Set in 1970s London, Sweet Tooth is the code name for an MI5 operation aimed at manipulating the public mind by funding writers whose politics agree with the aims of British intelligence. A cockeyed scheme indeed, but according to McEwan it had been attempted during the early years of the Cold War with authors such as George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. Since buying an author is right up there with herding cats, you can imagine the amount of backfiring that goes on in the story.

Serena Frome, beautiful and intelligent, well read and perpetually horny, is recruited into MI5 by the usual subterfuges made known to us by John Le Carre. Subsequently, because she is also politically naive and a bit ditsy, she accepts an assignment to infiltrate the literary life of a budding writer and offer him the means to write full time. The author of course is taken in by her story about a foundation and its grants to promising writers. Serena of course sleeps with the author and falls in love with him. Horny and ditsy don't mix well with intrigue.

So things get messy, it is all very tense, and then there is a surprise ending. Have you noticed I like surprise endings and rarely see them coming? I am sometimes embarrassed by my gullibility as a reader but it sure makes reading novels like Sweet Tooth fun.

I also fell for all the inside details on the literary scene in 1970s Britain plus the historical insight I gained about a decade during which I was either stoned or raising babies (not at the same time.)

So, literary romance mixed with spy craft. Totally fun. McEwen is such a good writer.

(Sweet Tooth is currently available on the shelf in paperback and in hardcover or eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, August 25, 2013


The Waste Makers, Vance Packard, David McKay Company Inc, 1960, 327 pp

This is the third volume in Vance Packard's series of books about American life and sociology. In it he makes the case for calling America a society of waste makers by documenting the wanton discarding of automobiles, appliances, and gadgets due to the desire for the newest and the latest. That desire was created by advertizing.

During the 1950s, manufacturers began building obsolescence into their products both by lowering quality so that stuff wore out faster and by focusing on yearly style changes. American shoppers were made to want the newest, the latest, and even homes bought from previous owners were called "used homes." 

Behind this was a carefully planned emphasis on consumerism perpetuated by the belief that to maintain a healthy economy more and more goods must be manufactured and bought whether people needed them or not. Even having more babies and encouraging population growth was a good thing because it created more customers!

He captures the materialistic mood of the 1950s and goes on to expose the inevitable consequences: depletion of natural resources, pollution, the decline of cities as suburbia grew, the failure to predict the costs of educating all those extra kids, as well as the moral and spiritual effects on a population whose main goal was to acquire things.

As in his other two books, Packard pretty much predicted the mess we are in today. In fact, reading this one was an eerie experience because most of what he warned about in 1960 is right here all around me in my life and the lives of my children and grandchildren.

Packard was brutally attacked by big business in his day for exposing their strategies. He was also mocked for writing "popular" sociology. But I know my dad read his books and now I know why we had a Rambler as the family car. I bet Ralph Nader read him and Betty Friedan was inspired to write The Feminine Mystique by reading The Waste Makers.

In fact, many of his suggestions for resolving the issues created by such rampant consumerism are now also part of life as people who can see beyond their cars and restaurant level kitchen appliances and computers and phones, attempt to bring our world into balance.

I recommend these books, The Hidden Persuaders, The Status Seekers, and The Waste Makers, to anyone who cares about life for our descendents, because he explains clearly and fairly concisely how we got to where we are. Happily in each book he is a better writer. This one was not boring at any time.

(The Waste Makers is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Caramelo, Sandra Cisneros, Alfred A Knopf, 2002, 439 pp

Some years ago I bought this book for the title. I had a new kitten, a calico with a caramel colored strip right down the side of her face. Since I love caramel in any form (those chewy candy squares, Ben and Jerry's Caramel Cone ice cream, caramel in coffee drinks, etc) I named her Caramelo.

I am sorry to report that the book is not nearly as entertaining as my cat. It begins with the Reyes family making one of their yearly summer trips from Chicago to Mexico City to visit the "awful grandmother." It take them forever to leave and another few forevers to get there.

This Mexican American family has a history. All families do, in fact I am writing the story of mine. It is a trick to keep it interesting to anyone else but myself. Also like me, Cisneros views the family through herself and the coming of age of Lala, the only daughter and the baby of the family, who has six older brothers.

It took me forever, it seemed, to read. I don't know Spanish and she uses tons of Spanish words which I looked up because they were not always explained by the context. I enjoyed seeing late 20th century life through the eyes of a woman of Mexican heritage. I don't know much about that culture, though I am surrounded by it in Los Angeles, and now have gained more affinity for Mexican Americans. I liked that too.

My problems with Caramelo were a writing style I could not get used to and the feeling that Cisneros failed to keep her readers in mind. Still, I'm not sorry I read it because I don't think I have read any novels by a female of Mexican descent or a female of Mexican nationality, except for The Wedding by Mary Helen Ponce, whom I know personally.

Now that I think of it, Cisneros shows in her novel the cultural reasons for the lack of successful Mexican female authors. It was worth getting through Caramelo just to learn about that. Perhaps I was not her intended ideal reader and she wrote this book for other frustrated Mexican women.

(Caramelo is available in various formats in both English and Spanish by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl, Viking, 2006, 514 pp

Marisha Pessl's long-awaited second novel, Night Film, was published the other day and I still had this one sitting on my shelf, in hardcover, unread, since 2006. Actually, I started it when I bought it, right there in the bookstore cafe. But this is a book you need to be in the mood for. I guess I wasn't in the mood back then.

I don't care what any reviewer, jealous author, or reader says, I loved this book! Yes, she is much too clever for her tender years, and long-winded, and over writes her thousands of facts, ideas, and opinions. I think all of that is a brilliant example of showing and not telling. Marisha Pessl shows what type of nerdy, intellectually self-confident young lady her heroine, Blue van Meer is. I have met girls like that in college and in bookstores. 

Gareth van Meer, Blue's father, unabashedly a take off on Humbert Humbert (that disgusting man who is Lolita's pedophile) has made Blue what she is. He does not abuse her sexually but emotionally, being a lying liar, and yet in the end you realize he has prepared her for the inevitable.

In fact, every character in this novel is a masterpiece, each one essential to the underlying mystery of Blue's life. Watching Blue add up the clues, catching on to all the sly satire (maybe not as accomplished as Nabokov's but darn close) and seeing Blue deal with it, was some of the most fun reading I had all summer. 

Now I am ready for Night Film. I predict Ms Pessl will surprise me again.

(Special Topics in Calamity Physics is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine, HarperCollins Publishers, 1997, 232 pp


I have a house guest right now, a sister of my daughter-in-law's, about to begin her senior year of college. Having been a voracious reader since she learned to read, she is extremely well read and we've had wonderful wide-ranging book talks every day she has been here.

A couple weeks before she arrived, she mentioned she had reread Ella Enchanted, a book I had always meant to read. So I did and we got to discuss it right in my guest room/office. 

It is a retelling of the Cinderella fairytale. Gail Carson Levine turned Ella into a much more interesting character than Walt Disney did. On the day she was born, Ella was put under a curse by the fairy Lucinda. It was meant to be a gift but Lucinda is a fractured fairy. The gift of obedience meant that whenever anyone spoke to Ella in the imperative mood (Stop crying. Go to sleep. Eat your spinach.), Ella was compelled to obey.

In fact, Ella reminded me so much of my goddaughter, a self-determined rebel against the status quo. And the agonies she experiences whenever she attempts to disobey a harmful order are made so real by the author. Of course, the point is that all children must break the spell of always doing what they are told if they want to live their own lives as adults.

The step-sisters, the prince, and the true fairy godmother, the pumpkin coach and the midnight cutoff are all there but tweaked just enough to make it good. Ella's quest to track down Lucinda and get the spell lifted is full of danger and excitement. I loved the way Ella and the Prince became attracted to each other; much more like a modern day romance.

I was enchanted.

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

Friday, August 16, 2013


Franny and Zooey, J D Salinger, Little Brown and Company, 1961, 201 pp

I read all of Salinger, sadly not much, when I was very young, either in high school or college. Except for some of his short stories, I was infatuated. It was the first time I read fiction that echoed my inner life.

The thing is, whenever I read his books again, I feel the same way. Either I have not matured since my late teens or the concept of "maturing" is hogwash. I suspect it is the latter. When I read my old journals, I find I am pretty much the same person I always was.

Franny and Zooey are two long stories about the younger Glass family kids. I hadn't realized that Salinger had intended to go on writing about this family as a long term project until I read the jacket cover flap on my library copy. Perhaps he did go on writing about them in seclusion, but the only books that got published after this were Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Seymour: an Introduction in 1963 and the last collection of his short stories in 1967.

The Glass family is probably a model for every dysfunctional family since. Compared to the pervasive idiocracy of contemporary American life though, the Glass family is dysfunctional because of their shared high intelligence, rather than their shared ignorance.

Franny and Zooey is almost completely dialogue and reads like a play with stage directions. Normally such a thing would bore me to death, but what dialogue! What humor! What pathos without any sentimentality. 

OK. Enough. It's a short book. It's not to every reader's taste. You'll know soon enough if it is to yours. I just have to say again how amazed I was to read this some 45 years later and feel the same things I did on the first reading.

The #2 bestseller in 1961. Looks like its going to be a good year.

(Franny and Zooey is available in hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, August 09, 2013


The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1961, 758 pp

My reading list for 1961 started with this fictional biography of Michelangelo. It was the #1 bestseller that year, demonstrating that readers found a huge fat book about a renaissance artist worthy of their time and dollars in the early part of such a momentous decade.

The whole novel is a moving testament to art, artists, and the creative life. Michelangelo was never as famous or wealthy as other artists during his lifetime. For one thing, he was not a good businessman and cared not a whit for money or comforts. Even so, he was the sole support of his father and brothers. He lived only to carve marble and later to paint.

He was fortunate to have the backing of the Medici family in Florence while still a young man just starting out. However the Renaissance was a turbulent time subject to fanatics like Savonarola and rather rapidly changing Popes. In fact, those Popes were his nemesis throughout his life.

Despite all, he broke new ground in sculpture and created those lasting works we still revere today: the David statue, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the dome of St Peter's Cathedral, and many more. His drive to create art was more enduring than any political insanity. He simply could not be stopped or contained.

This is not to say he didn't suffer. Bouts of despair and depression could paralyze him for months at a time but he rose again and again from the emotional ashes only to create something even more wondrous.

Naturally I found his agony and his ecstasy inspiring. I have believed for a long time that no amount of oppression can kill the urge to create, but is is always an uplift to read about real examples of that belief. 

I recommend this book to anyone who walks a creative path in life.

(The Agony and the Ecstasy is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, August 06, 2013


Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw, Spiegal & Grau, 2013, 379 pp

The best part of Five Star Billionaire is the end because of a surprise plot twist I did not see coming at all. Getting to the end took a while but the slow build involved five complete life stories and skillful character development.

Most other reviews I have read are heavy on the five main characters as is the front cover blurb, so I won't spend my time retelling what you can find anywhere. The most brilliant character is a city: modern Shanghai with its frenetic rate of change and its contrasts between old and new. A city like New York or Paris or London where people come to make dreams happen.

Whether his story is set in Malaysia (The Harmony Silk Factory) or Indonesia (Map of the Invisible World) or Shanghai, Tash Aw always addresses the effects of politics, Western influence, and uprootedness on the individuals in his books. His mastery of these themes grows more sure-handed each time and Five Star Billionaire is as big and ambitious as Shanghai, taking the reader relentlessly and progressively deeper into the lives of those five characters. Instead of one protagonist, he gives us five of equal strength.

As they circle around one another it becomes clear that Walter Chao is the kingpin. He is wealthy and we learn from his own voice how he got there. His bestselling self-help book, written under a pseudonym and entitled "Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire," was intended to help others achieve success. Like many supremely successful businessmen, he has secrets though they aren't the ones he gives away in his book. The true motivations of Walter Chao, the reasons for the moves he makes, and what he wants from the other four, make up the mysterious flavor coursing through the novel.

Rereading the first few pages, I discovered the clue to that twist at the end. So brilliant is the storytelling, I was mesmerized, misled and unsuspecting. Once again an author has had his way with me. I love that! Five Star Billionaire has been long-listed for this year's Booker Prize. I hope Tash Aw wins.

(Five Star Billionaire is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, August 02, 2013


Charles Dickens: A Life, Claire Tomalin, The Penguin Press, 2011, 417 pp

I am in the world's smallest reading group. One other person and me. We read books that don't get picked by the other reading group we are in. We discussed this book for three hours over lunch at a Cuban restaurant.

Though it seemed to take forever to read it, I am so glad I did. Charles Dickens was one of the first authors to become a superstar in the way that Neil Gaiman is a superstar. Because he wrote many of his novels initially in magazine serial form, affordable by the "common" people, he was beloved by hordes of English folks.

Also he wrote about the "common" people, another reason they loved him. He gave them a voice and exposed what life was like for poor people in English cities. Not many authors wrote about such things in the 19th century.

I was surprised to realize that I've only read four of his 14 major novels: David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations. Each one made such a huge impression on me that I felt I was well-read as far as Dickens went. Now I am determined to read the rest. Yes, he was melodramatic and sentimental, but who cares?

Of course, he was a human being and had his failings. Claire Tomalin reveals all side of the man. I had no idea how much energy this man had, how active he was in so many areas. 

As a biography, the book becomes quite tedious at times and especially slows down just past the middle but picks up again in the last sections. He had so many children and most of them were a disappointment to him, as eventually was his wife. As far as I can tell, he put most of his life into his novels in one way or another, so you could just read the novels and skip all the literary criticisms by Tomalin.
Most surprising of all, even though I knew he would die at the end, I cried when he did. Charles Dickens gave so much impetus to modern fiction, he left a record of 19th century English life drawn on by many writers who followed him, and he showed that good fiction is for all readers, not just the snooty educated types. He always recognized that people like to be entertained when they read.

(Charles Dickens: A Life is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)