Friday, November 29, 2013



The above is a motto of independent bookstores but also describes my holiday so far. I haven't had to cook much but food is plentiful, oh my.

Today is a magical day, being the birth date of three incredible authors.

Louisa May Alcott, 1832. I used to know the first page of Little Women by heart because I read it so many times. It was the first book that made me want to write a novel someday. Still working on that. LOL!

C S Lewis, 1898. I also read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe over and over, but my favorite book of his was Till We Have Faces.

Madeleine L'Engle, 1918. A Wrinkle in Time made her famous but her early novels are special and unique for their insight into creative females coming of age, especially The Small Rain.

It is a nice rainy morning in LA and I am reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catheyanne M Valente. Have to do something besides eat!

Are you reading or just eating?

Sunday, November 24, 2013


John Steinbeck, Writer, Jackson J Benson, The Viking Press, 1984, 1041 pp

I like to read biographies of authors I admire. Usually I read the author's novels first and then the biography but in this case I read the biography of John Steinbeck as I read the novels. It worked out well because Jackson Benson wrote about Steinbeck's writing of each book and what was going on in his life as he wrote. I found it reassuring to learn about the agonies he went through as he wrote, the self doubt, the difficulty in settling down to write. I have similar problems, the difference being that he finished and published many novels.

Because of My Big Fat Reading Project, I started reading Steinbeck in 2003 with The Grapes of Wrath which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. I've been reading this life of Steinbeck for 10 years! Of course since the man lived for 66 years, I read it in one-sixth of the time it took him to live his life. 

The original title of the 1984 hardcover Viking edition was The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. It makes him sound like a cartoon superhero. In fact, though he was not looking for fame or fortune, the man always pursued adventure and travel. He had a strong interest in heroic deeds.

Since Benson already wrote over 1000 pages, I don't need to write more paragraphs except to say it was wonderful to get such a full picture of an author whose novels I have loved. He was a complex, tempestuous person who married three times and had an unhappy relationship with his kids but kept the same literary agent and publisher for his entire career. Despite his interpersonal issues, he cared passionately for people, justice, and his country.

I always manage to forget the subject of a biography will die at the end. When Steinbeck died, I cried. Thanks to Jackson J Benson's hard work and sympathetic understanding, I almost felt I had known John Steinbeck.

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Daughter of Silence, Morris L West, Dell Publishing, 1961, 243 pp

I didn't like this one. It was the #8 bestseller in 1961 and is the story of a murder trial in Tuscany written by a popular Australian author. The characters all have troubled personalities. Two psychiatrists involved in the trial spout lots of Freudian analysis. The writing is turgid and I could see the climax coming long before it happened.

To make the legal angle more exciting, the author introduces the ancient Italian practice of vendetta. That was interesting to a point but because West is not Italian, it all feels like an outsider and a spectator trying to make sense of people and traditions he does not truly understand.

The female characters are ridiculous: the murderer (a woman) is deeply crazy due to childhood trauma, the lawyer's wife is compulsively promiscuous, while a young painter is wise and compassionate beyond her years. Standard bestseller types who still show up in current novels such as Gone Girl.

I call this kind of book "bestseller bullshit" though some authors, such as Harold Robbins with The Carpetbaggers, are so good at it they at least entertain the reader.

(Daughter of Silence is out of print. It is best found in libraries or through used book sellers.)

Friday, November 15, 2013


The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt, Little Brown and Company, 2013, 771 pp

This extraordinary novel will definitely go on my top favorite books list for 2013. Despite its length I read it in four days, each day reading more pages than the day before and staying up later than the night before.

I finally read The Secret History two years ago at the insistence of a reader friend. My experience was mixed and it was one of those books I liked better after I finished it than I did while reading it.

The Goldfinch grabbed me right away. I had obligations in life during those four days but all I wanted to do was read about Theo Decker. First he was deserted by his father, then he lost his mother in a terrible explosion in a New York City art museum, and then one thing after another happened until he finally got some semblance of control over his life. What Donna Tartt does with this plot pretty much defies description though hundreds of reviewers and bloggers have tried.


1. The character of Theo; thoroughly modern but so Dickensian.
2. His functionally alcoholic Russian friend Boris. Frenemy?
3. The thing Theo did while still in shock from the explosion that he then had to keep to himself, making his life a misery. (Now that I think of it, The Secret History had a similar theme but Tartt takes it to a whole new level.)
4. Theo's hopeless love for Pippa.
5. The way Hobart and Blackwell was a portal to another world for Theo.
6. The author's deft and compassionate portrayal of PTSD. I have not seen it done better.
7. The seamless melding of a coming-of-age tale, a love story, a thriller, and an apologia for art, with the philosophy of life Theo settles on at the end.

I was going for a Top Ten List but by the time I got to #7, I had said all I wanted to say.

Of course not all novels can be this great though I wish more of them were.

(The Goldfinch is currently available on the shelf in hardcover at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available as an eBook by order.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


I am a little bit late this month. I am running behind on everything it seems. I hope I am not late for New Year's Day!

The New Book Club:

Once Upon A Time Bookstore Adult Fiction Group:

One Book At A Time:

Bookie Babes:

What are your reading groups reading in November?

I would also love to see comments on books that provoked good discussions.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, Grove Press, 1961, 318 pp

This book was published in something like 1934 in France and was instantly banned everywhere else. It was called immoral and smutty and indeed I first read it while at a babysitting job in the 1960s during my ongoing search for the truth about sex.

Beginning with Nabokov's Lolita and D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, the famous obscenity trials of the 1950s brought such books into legitimate print in the United States. Many of them became overnight bestsellers. Tropic of Cancer was the #6 bestseller in 1961.

I suppose you could say that these books started the sexual revolution. They certainly did for me. Raised in a German Lutheran family under the thumb of guilt, trying to be "good" and fascinated with being "bad," they led me down the treacherous path of "personal freedom."

When I read Tropic of Cancer in my teens I was thrilled to learn all the dirty words and to discover that some people had sex whenever they felt like it and just because they wanted to. Somehow it was lost on me that Henry Miller was a guy while I was a girl. Even today, despite Anais Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, and all my other spiritual sisters in crime, women and personal freedom, women and sex, women and just about anything else you can think of is still a long work in progress.

Reading Miller now in my mid 60s, I saw that he was even more dangerous than the old Puritan hierarchy ever dreamed. (Or maybe they knew?) His auto-biographical fiction was a big fuck you to the repressive control of progress, materialism, money-grubbing, and even, if I may be so bold, to the imperialist vision of the Western white man's world where if everyone just agreed with big cars, Coca Cola, and democracy, we would have utopia (translation: world domination) across the earth.

Basically the man was an anarchist; not the angry, destructive kind but the happy, optimistic kind. So OK, I am now old enough to know that life is various and complicated, that easy answers are not available. But wow, it sure was bracing to read his propulsive, all-caution-to-the-wind, song of himself. Even when he was hungry, cold, and broke on the streets of Paris, you get the feeling the kid's alright.

He lived almost 88 years!

(Tropic of Cancer is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 08, 2013


The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1961, 281 pp

This is the last one of John Steinbeck's novels, published the year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I have now read all of his novels in order of publication from The Grapes of Wrath, 1939, forward. Someday I will go back and read his earlier novels but for the purposes of My Big Fat Reading Project I am done with Steinbeck.

With the exception of The Pearl, I have quite liked and sometimes loved these novels. Steinbeck, during his lifetime, was plagued by dismissive if not downright hostile reviews from the East Coast literary establishment. Yet his books sold well and often appeared on bestseller lists. This one was the #10 bestseller of 1961. 

I find him unpretentious and even humorous at times. He is the Woody Guthrie of American literature, taking up for the common man and the struggles with virtue faced in lives of under privilege.

Steinbeck was largely self-educated, brought up by his father on Shakespeare. The title of The Winter of Our Discontent is a quotation from the first line of Shakespeare's Richard III. The novel's protagonist, Ethan Allen Hawley, is the descendant of a prosperous family whose fortunes were made in the days of seafaring and whale oil. 

But the last of that fortune was squandered by Ethan's father in one ill-advised investment. All that is left is the family home where Ethan lives in genteel poverty with his beloved wife and two children. He works as a clerk in Bay Hampton's grocery store, owned by an Italian immigrant. 

Though Ethan knows his wife would like a higher standard of living so she could hold her head up more proudly in the town, that his kids would like to keep up with other kids at school, he is not himself ambitious. One Good Friday morning he undergoes a sudden change of heart and determines to redirect his economic future by engaging in the dubious practices that currently pass as "getting ahead" in late 1950s American life.

He is not unintelligent nor is he a coward. By availing himself of the political and economic facts from his banker, he betrays his best friend and cooks up a foolproof scheme to restore his rightful place in Bay Hampton.

The 1950s and 1960s were littered with novels about the soul-crushing effects of working for money and status, e.g. the bestselling The Man With the Gray Flannel Suit; the literary Revolutionary Road. Steinbeck comes at the theme as only he could with his gimlet eye of truth, the sensibility of a man who truly loved his wife, the empathy earned by having himself acquired fame and fortune but not happiness.

As he said in a letter to his agent in 1957, "I think it is true that any man, novelist or not, when he comes to maturity has a very deep sense that he will not win the quest. He knows his failings, his shortcomings and particularly his memories of sins, sins of cruelty, of thoughtlessness, of disloyalty, of adultery, and these will not permit him to win..."

In this mood, he wrote The Winter of Our Discontent.

(The Winter of Our Discontent is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, November 06, 2013


At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcon, Riverhead Books, 2013, 372 pp

When I read Daniel Alarcon's first novel, I knew I had found a writer I would follow, that I would read every novel he would write. It has been a long wait, five and a half years to be exact, since I read the last page of Lost City Radio.

His new novel is similar in location, an unnamed South American country, but later in time. The civil war that had displaced and separated so many people in the first book has been over for almost a decade and the evidences of war have been built over until the capital city resembles a late 20th century peaceful and upwardly mobile urban area.

Thus the revolutionary tone of upheaval, chaos, and sacrifice that permeates the earlier novel is missing. Alarcon still excels in creating tortured characters longing for people they will not connect with and ideals they will not achieve but he is forced to tell the story from such a different angle.  For the first half of At Night We Walk in Circles, I thought I might be reading a different author.

Nelson grew up during the war, called "the anxious years" by his father. A few years after the war ended, Nelson entered the Conservatory, apparently a theater school. The young man became obsessed with Henry Nunez, playwright and leader of the revolutionary guerrilla theater troupe Deciembre. Though he is an inexperienced and mediocre actor, his hero worship lands him a role in the touring revival of Nunez's notorious play The Idiot President. During the war years a performance of this play had resulted in Henry being accused of terrorism and sentenced to spend several years in a dreaded prison known as the Collectors.

Nelson sets off with Henry and another actor, traveling deep into the interior, learning the acting craft from Henry as they put on performances in town squares, school auditoriums, private homes and vacant lots. By this time the novel is almost half over and it is hard to tell what is the point of all of Nelson's insecure, anguished approach to life. In fact, Henry's past had become central to the story: his arrest, his prison years. and his broken spirit since returning to the outside.

Suddenly a convergence of past and present propels Nelson into an impossible situation leaving him trapped in a desolate mountain village. All the earlier pages have been the set up to Nelson's fate. Despite my love for Lost City Radio and my admiration for Alarcon's writing, I had come to that middle point of the novel feeling lost, bored, and let down. Partly due to Nelson's maddeningly indecisive and withdrawn personality and equally due to a slow pace and no apparent plot, I seriously considered reading something else.

I turned the next page and all had changed. Nelson was clearly doomed but where his fate was leading him and how the past and present were tangled and what Alarcon is telling us about identity, character, imagination, and about the intersections between the political and the personal, became the most interesting things in my world.

In addition to the problematic construction of his story, it turns out that the narrator is not the author but a mysterious character whose identity is finally revealed after that sudden change in the middle. I was pleased that Alarcon rescued me and left me somewhat awestruck by the end. Over time, I have a feeling my memory of reading At Night We Walk in Circles will be a fond one. Walking in circles at night in the prison yard with his fellow inmates was Henry's antidote for the horrors of his confinement there. Reading this novel evoked a similar feeling.

(At Night We Walk in Circles is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 03, 2013


Broken Harbor, Tana French, Penguin Group, 2012, 447 pp

As of this, her fourth novel, Tana French is officially on my list of favorite authors. She is brilliant at combining mystery, police procedural, and psychological insight while setting her stories in the lives and people of 21st century Ireland. Her writing is literary and her characters seem to breath on you while you read.

Broken Harbor, of all her novels, owes the most to current events. When the Celtic Tiger went off into the wilderness of European Union economic collapse to die a sad and terrible death, Ireland was hit hard in the building, new housing, and real estate market. 

Broken Harbor had been a rustic, seaside area but was renamed Brianstown during the boom and built up into a suburban estate with an ocean view. Now it has become a ghost community of abandoned half-finished homes where the few remaining families live with sewage problems and no street lights in crumbling homes they can no longer afford miles away from family and friends. It is a perfect modern gothic setting.

A big case hits the Dublin Murder Squad. Pat Spain and two small children living in Brianstown are found murdered; his wife severely injured and at the point of death. The case goes to Detective "Scorcher" Kennedy, ambitious but middle-aged and eager to recover his position of the highest rate of solves on the squad. Tana French develops many layers in the intersection between Kennedy and the family as she explores her timeless theme of the ways a buried past can return to haunt a person.

Kennedy spent summers in Broken Harbor as a child. It was there that his mother committed suicide after which his little sister became mentally unstable. He has assembled a persona and approach to life meant to overcome and put order into his tragic childhood. Though he is brusque and opinionated, he is used to being in control at work and in his personal life.

Jenny Spain married her teenage sweetheart and when he became successful, they moved to Brianstown intending to live the modern middle class dream. Jenny was also someone accustomed to being in full control of her life but when Pat loses his job it all deteriorates. Now she lies in the hospital unable or unwilling to talk. She is Kennedy's only living witness to the murders.

I read this immediately after finishing Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois. Again the use of cell phone records and evidence from Pat Spain's internet searches and on-line chats fueled the investigation though here the murderer is found and the motive made clear. Kennedy gets his solve by the end but the cost is brutal. This is one of the best descent into madness tales I've read, especially because more than one character walks down that slippery slope.

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