Friday, January 31, 2014


The Waters of Kronos, Conrad Richter, Alfred A Knopf, 1960, 176 pp

Conrad Richter was a well respected mid-century writer whose series about a midwestern pioneer family, The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), were his most popular books. I read The Town because it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1951 and enjoyed it for the good story telling and the history of the midwest.

The Waters of Kronos is a whole different type of novel. I would say it was experimental for its time though not as far out there as his contemporaries Wright Morris or John Barth.

John Donner is an aging man in ill heath when he goes back to his home town, seeking answers in the past. Unionville lies somewhere amongst the mountains of the northeastern United States and has been underwater for years due to a large hydroelectric dam on the River Kronos.

Donner talks his way past a guard at the gates of the fenced lake and before long finds himself in the Unionville of the past, in the years of his childhood. Richter uses a cross between time travel and symbolism as he has Donner roam the town where no one, even members of his own family, recognizes him.

Page after page of description, of memories and nostalgia, do not reveal much about Donner's childhood, except that he feared his father, adored his mother, and left home as a young man. He works through a Freudian/Jungian hatred of his father but finally still longs for the mother's love and acceptance.

Richter won the National Book Award for The Waters of Kronos, wrote one more novel and passed away in 1968 at the age of 78.

(The Waters of Kronos is available in a university paperback reprint by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. I found a copy at my local library.)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton, Little Brown and Company, 2013, 830 pp

I was dying to read this book from the moment I heard about it. The Booker Prize winner for 2013, a young female author purported to be highly intelligent (I love young intelligent female authors) from New Zealand (I have a thing for fiction from down under.) Finally I got through the holidays and all that end of the year stuff, cleared the decks, and settled down for a nice long winter read.

Well! Reading the beginning of The Luminaries is an eye-of-the-needle proposition. If you can make it through Part One, 360 pages, you will probably make it to the end. Many are called but few are chosen, though I must say that is rather true of most Booker Prize winners.

Before I had gone even 100 pages, I switched from my beautiful hardcover copy (graciously sent to me by the publisher free of charge, I guess because I have a blog) and began reading the digital galley edition on my iPad. Because the hardcover was so heavy it was hard to switch back and forth from the page I was reading to the character chart at the beginning. That chart of characters is essential to following the story.

Yes, the characters. There are 20 main characters, one of whom is dead; all important and intrinsic to this tale of the 1860s Gold Rush in New Zealand. At first I was annoyed by the lengthy description of each person. It felt like too much telling, but it turned out that the author had painted vivid pictures of each in my mind helping me to remember them as I got to know them further through the story.

I tried to make sense of the astrology connection but finally gave it up. I don't know enough about astrology to get what she was doing, though I might have missed a whole level of the novel.

It took me a full week to read The Luminaries. By the end I was reading over 200 pages a day due to the telescoping nature of the book's structure, but the beginning was rough. I'm not sure quite how she captured me. I do like gold rush stories for the sheer lawlessness and desperation involved. This one is also a mystery with possibly a few too many red herrings and ultimately it's a love story though that does not become apparent until the end. She does a good end, tying up all the loose threads and sorting out all the clues. I became extremely fond of the lovers and don't guess I will ever forget them.

I felt a sense of accomplishment in finishing The Luminaries. I didn't love it but I knew Eleanor Catton had had her way with me for which I admire her immensely. Not a book for the faint of heart or the light-minded, but a rollicking, honest, and in-depth look at human nature run amok.

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

Sunday, January 26, 2014


Emily's Runaway Imagination, Beverly Cleary, William Morrow and Company, 1961, 221 pp


I was in a bad mood when I started reading this book, about a girl who is always being told that she lets her imagination run away with her. It instantly made me feel happy.

Emily is nine going on ten. She is the only child of a farming family outside Pitchfork, a very small town in Oregon. Her mother came from somewhere east, possibly Chicago, where she had been a teacher. Her father is descended from pioneers who came to Oregon generations ago. They all work hard and Emily's mom gets involved in starting the town's first library.

Though a specific date is never mentioned, times are hard and Emily's grandfather gets one of the town's first automobiles, so it must be the 1920s. Beverly Cleary later wrote a two volume autobiography. I haven't read those yet but from what I have gathered, I would say Emily's Runaway Imagination is somewhat autobiographical. In any case, the book is another example of her smooth and entertaining writing style with children as fully realized characters.

My favorite chapter was the one where Emily decides to bleach their horse, an old plow horse whose white coat, mane, and tail are mud stained and yellowed. Emily's cousin, who has lately read Black Beauty three times in a row and thinks it the most wonderful book ever, is coming for a visit from Portland, where she lives with her well off parents.

When Emily tells her mom she wants to bleach the horse, Mom just tells her to follow carefully the directions on the bottle. She works hard, all day in the hot summer weather, and gets a good result but worries that the animal is still clearly a plow horse. But the cousin is enchanted and even learns to ride it without a saddle.

One of the important rules on the farm is never waste food. The first step is always clean your plate because "think of the starving Armenians." I was still told that growing up in the 1950s! It cracked me up because I've never seen that phrase in a book before.

Since the book is set in the past, compared to most of Cleary's books which were contemporary for the times, I felt I was reading a combination of Lois Lenski and Beverly Cleary. I wonder if Lenski was an influence of Cleary's. If I were still teaching or tutoring, I would use the books of both these authors to bring history alive for my students.

(Emily's Runaway Imagination is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, January 24, 2014


The Bird Skinner, Alice Greenway, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014, 306 pp

I might never have heard of Alice Greenway if it weren't for my practice of being in multiple reading groups. The leader of one of those groups brought Ms Greenway in to do a reading from her first book, White Ghost Girls, in 2006. I immediately bought and read the book and had that wonderful feeling I get when I find a new author to love.

I've had to wait eight years for the second novel, probably worth the wait, because there is not a shred of sophomore slump in The Bird Skinner. While the first novel was essentially about teenage sisters, this one is about an old broken curmudgeon at the end of his life.

Alice Greenway is a tragedian of the first order. She sees into the minutely individual ways a human being can suffer. It takes an old soul to understand that to live is to suffer, a Buddhist concept, as well as to comprehend that a person may come to terms with loss and with his own shortcomings but not necessarily recover from them.

Jim Carroway has suffered great losses in every decade of his life while also following his consuming passion for ornithology whenever his life permitted, even at times when he should have been taking more care with that life. His most recent loss is the leg that has been amputated, for what reason we never learn. He retreats to the family house on an island off the coast of Maine where he spent summers as a child, determined to drink and smoke himself to death.

Sounds awful, I know. And it is. The novel is a study of a man whose life-changing incidents all left him with post-traumatic stress; serial PTSD. If he hadn't been the tough and nasty character he became, he would never have survived for as long as he did.

When it came to studying birds, he was fearless, ultra competent, and driven. A Darwin. An Edward O Wilson. When it came to human interaction he was found lacking. 

Because the novel follows the form of a person looking back over his life, the whole story comes to light in the patchy, uneven way that memory works. Every scene of suffering is leavened with exquisite writing about the natural world as well as the moments of grace Jim finds. The reader is made to care about this most graceless of men and to hope for his recovery.

The wonder is that even as various fine people come to Jim on his island and help him in various ways, even as he seems to find his soul again, even as we are seduced into hope, the author keeps from us what will come about in the end, though she has Jim telling us all along where he is headed.

I have a little pile of books called "How did she/he do it?" Books I will reread or have reread to discover the answer. This one goes on that pile.

(The Bird Skinner is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


The Progress of a Crime, Julian Symons, Harper & Brothers, 1960, 211 pp

This mystery won the Edgar Award in 1961. Hugh Bennett is a 22-year-old reporter for a small town paper in England. He dreams of getting to London eventually for work on a national paper.

When he is sent out on the usual boring assignment to cover a Guy Fawkes Night, he witnesses the murder of a local tavern owner. Before long he is involved with a top crime reporter from a big London paper as well as with the sister of one of the suspects.

A gang of knife-carrying motorcycle youths are called in, questioned, and eventually two of them are charged and tried for the crime. The London paper pays for a lawyer to defend the youths in exchange for access to the families. As the situation grows more tense, Hugh learns the ways of the world and has to grapple with his own moral compass.

The storytelling is not particularly gripping, in fact might be a bit too literary for crime fiction, but does deal with teen crime, the political and economic conditions of the times, and class conflict in mid-20th century Britain. These are the times that gave us the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones. Not many writers were addressing teens yet in 1960. Probably Catcher in the Rye spawned the genre and I read a 1959 novel, Absolute Beginners, also set in England, that featured teens as a new demographic. It will be interesting to see the development of such books as I continue through My Big Fat Reading Project, especially since I myself became a teen in 1960.

(The Progress of a Crime is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014


The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O'Connor, Little Brown and Company, 1961, 460 pp

The bestseller list for 1961 had a good share of long books and this one, at #8, seemed longer than its pages. I have now finished reading the top 10 bestsellers for that year.

Edwin O'Connor wrote in that wordy 1940s style, aspects of which were over-explaining and repetition. I am quite weary of the style and got weary of the story long before it was over.

Novels about religious themes still made the bestseller lists throughout the 1960s. The Edge of Sadness, about the troubles of a Catholic priest, also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962. God was not dead yet.

Father Hugh Kennedy is middle-aged when the novel opens but his entire life story gets told as well as the history of an Irish-American family who influenced him. No sexual troubles but a period of alcoholism from which he recovered and the loss of his mother at a young age had lasting effects.

O'Connor in my mind is the Irish John O'Hara. His novels are all set in Boston and he wrote about an era that was passing away during the middle decades of the 20th century. 1961 was the year John F Kennedy took office and American Protestants were curious about Catholicism not to mention queasy about having the first Catholic president. That explains to me the bestseller status and the Pulitzer.

While the novel was only moderately good it was interesting from a historical/sociological viewpoint.

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

Friday, January 17, 2014


On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee, Riverhead Books, 2014, 352 pp

If Chang-rae Lee chooses to write a futuristic novel we can safely say that speculative fiction has moved out of the ghetto of genre into the uptown of mainstream fiction. That he has brought about a distillation of the gated-compound-versus-the-barbaric-wilds trope into a quest for the fine line between free will and fate only proves what we have known all along: that speculative fiction explores the various what-ifs of human existence and is built upon our oldest myths.

"It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore. We think, Why bother? Except for a lucky few, everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone. You can search it, you can find pix or vids that show what the place last looked like, in our case a gravel-colored town of stoop-shouldered buildings on a riverbank in China, shorn hills in the distance. Rooftops a mess of wires and junk. The river tea-still, a swath of black. And blunting it all is a haze that you can almost smell, a smell, you think, that you don't want to breathe in."

That calm measured prose, a Chang-rae Lee hallmark; that theme of the displaced Asian person trying to understand how to fit into the Western world; a heroine, strong, slightly skewed, but eerily sympathetic. Anyone who has read this author will feel that familiar zing in this first paragraph.

We are placed in the midst of the repurposed areas of a future America following a long decline. Have I read a modern novel where the narrator is a plural first person representing the consciousness of an entire town? I don't think so.

They are retelling the story of Fan, skilled diver in the labor settlement of B-Mor. She maintains the gigantic fish tanks where high quality seafood is grown for the inhabitants of the elite walled villages, the areas where only the most intelligent and wealthy live in supreme luxury and safety.

Fan is about 16 years old and Reg, her lover and husband to be, has vanished. They think he has been captured for some role in a Charter village because the rumor in B-Mor is that Reg was "C-free." His blood did not carry the taint that almost every other person harbored, an anomaly of serious interest to the medical science of the day.

Fan commits an act of destruction in a town where order and obedience is revered, then hits the road. The town figures she has gone in search of Reg and indeed she has. Thereafter we follow her through the anarchistic counties where she suffers from violence and benefits from kindness; then into the village where she suspects Reg might be, where she benefits from kindness but in the end suffers from a different sort of violence. To readers of The Road or Oryx and Crake, this is familiar territory.

I wanted Fan to accomplish her quest. I craved the moment when she and Reg would be reunited. I marveled at Fan's strength of character even as I feared it would not be enough.

The title comes from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:

"There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our venture."

Fan flames out into obscurity. The collective voice of B-Mor is finally convinced of the rightness of the quest. "Don't hurry Fan. Stay put for now. We'll find a way. You need not come back for us." Freedom is a state of mind maintained by persistence and action. We yearn for the protection of irony but Chang-rae Lee once again has stripped that all away.
(On Such A Full Sea is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Eisenhower in War and Peace, Jean Edward Smith, Random House, 2012, 766 pp

Another long, seemingly endless biography of an American president. For those of you whose knowledge of American history is shaky, Eisenhower was the 34th president and served two terms from 1953 to 1960 as a Republican. In my plan to read the biographies of Presidents under whom I have lived, completing this one puts me at two down and ten to go.

Eisenhower is known for keeping the country out of war, for balancing the budget, for standing firm on desegregation, and for being tough on unions. He was Supreme Allied Commander Europe during World War II and had never declared a political party until the Republicans nominated him in 1952.

According to Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower's two main strengths were luck and administrative ability. Due to many years of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and bad eating habits, he had major surgery for a digestive ailment and a heart attack near the end of his first term. He lived to run again, get re-elected, and serve a second term.

He had a long marriage to Mamie but they spent extended periods of time apart during his military career. Their first child died at three from scarlet fever. The second had a military career as well as four children, the eldest of which married Julie Nixon and had Camp David named after him.

It was interesting to realize that this man kept us on a fairly even keel during the beginning years of the Cold War. Despite never having faced combat as a soldier, he had seen enough of war to know that it was not a workable solution to world problems and he abhorred atomic weapons. He tried his best to keep a restraining hand on the military and arms budget but I'm not sure he succeeded. According to Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States, by the time Eisenhower left office in 1960, the military budget was at 49.7% of the entire US budget.

Despite Eisenhower's warning in his farewell address about the dangers of our "military-industrial complex" that scenario has only increased during my entire adult life. Possibly our 34th President meant well but I came away from the biography with the impression that big business and the military were the power behind him. I can't believe he didn't know that.

I grew up thinking that Eisenhower was an ineffective, middle-of-the-road joke of a President. (My dad was an Adlai Stevenson supporter.) Jean Edward Smith clearly attempted a balanced picture of the man but he didn't change my mind.

(Eisenhower in War and Peace is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, January 11, 2014


Rebecca West: A Life, Victoria Glendinning, Ballantine Books, 1987, 263 pp

It was about twenty years ago that I decided to move on from reading mostly trashy novels and became an autodidact in the field of literature. It was a good decision and set me on a fabulous adventure. Every now and then however, I would get in over my head and fall into the abyss of abysmal ignorance. Such has been my experience with Rebecca West.

Possibly due to a new reissue in 2007 by Penguin Classics of her magnum opus, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, possibly due to my frustrated efforts to understand the Bosnian War, I obtained a copy of the book; the 1982 Penguin edition. I began to read and was defeated before I even made it through the 23 page Prologue. What I retained was a mysterious curiosity about the author. It was clear to me that here was a genius at work.

About a year later I came across a copy of her novel, The Fountain Overflows. I was browsing through a used bookstore (oh how I miss those days) and picked up the book for 49 cents. Here was a book of only 313 pages instead of 1150 and a novel at that!

I read it and was transported. It still stands out in my memory as one of the best books I have ever read. The writing is astonishing and the story of the family somehow heartbreaking and soothing at the same time. After finishing the novel, I made another stab at Black Lamb and Grey Falcon but again was overwhelmed, though at least I recognized my trouble: I lacked the mental geography for a place once known as Yugoslavia, a big black hole also containing the history of Europe before World War I. That was about five years ago.

I kept on reading my odd mix of those old books from the 1940s and 1950s for My Big Fat Reading Project, contemporary fiction, Will Durant's Story of Civilization series, not to mention all the books I might otherwise have never read except for the many reading groups I attend. The reading pattern of an autodidact indeed.

I've also been reading the Blog of a Bookslut for several years. Jessa Crispin is a sort of modern Rebecca West who never fails to alert me to books not mentioned on most other bookish sites. Last fall she mentioned a biography of Dame Rebecca by the acclaimed literary biographer Victoria Glendinning. I procured a used paperback and read it as part of my end of year reading spree.

At last my eyes were opened. Yes, Rebecca West was a genius. She wrote prodigiously for her entire life: book reviews, journalism, novels, and non-fiction books on many topics. She made her living as a writer and a good living it was. She was the lover of H G Wells by whom she had a son and suffered mightily in her attempts to raise the child while maintaining her career. She was the personification of the trap in which most creative and intelligent women of the 20th century lived.

Glendinning portrays Rebecca West as "both an agent for change and a victim of change. In a very early article, 'Things Men Never Know,' she described how girls were reproached for having weaker bodies, weaker brains, weaker wills, and weaker emotions than boys, but if a girl decided to put this right and to become strong and clever and brave, then she was told she had lost her 'real value' and that no one would love her." (Introduction, p xv.) Anatomy of a trap!

I began writing this review on January 9th, the birthday of Simone de Beauvoir. Rebecca West was born in December, 1892. For me it shakes out like this: Rebecca West could have been my grandmother; Simone de Beauvoir could have been my mother. Neither of them were quite mother material and neither have I been, but I am talking about a philosophical maternal lineage. It gives me great comfort to claim these women as ancestors of my mind. I am enriched, encouraged, and spurred on to make the most of what gifts they have bestowed upon me in the years remaining to me.

I will read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in 2014.

(Rebecca West: A Life is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore, as well as from used booksellers.)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014


You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt, The Penguin Press, 2013, 290 pp

Elliott Holt's first novel was just OK, not great but an interesting story about a friendship between two young girls, the Cold War, Russia, and moving on. Novels by American writers set in Russia have proliferated in recent years and I have read quite a few, so it is hard not to compare them.

I'll get my quibbles out of the way. Sometimes the dates of incidents in the story occurring in the late 1970s and early 1980s felt inaccurate to me. I was not following the Cold War and fear of atomic annihilation in those years. Looking back now, I can't recall thinking about that stuff after 1969, so I could be wrong.

I kept comparing this book to A Partial History of Lost Causes. Holt covers a similar set of descriptions about post-communist Russia, the cold, the vodka, the smoking, the ugliness, and the scamming, but the emotional depth of her tale does not plunge as far as Jennifer DuBois did in her novel.

What I liked was the main character, Sarah Zuckerman, and her slow emergence from innocence. It is true to me that one can become submerged beneath the personal power of a friend, especially at 10 years old, and when the inevitable betrayal comes, it causes an arrested development in the betrayed. One has been a dupe. The author accurately portrays such a catastrophe.

She also writes well and I will read her next novel. As she says in the last line, "I had new stories to tell." When it comes to books set in contemporary Russia, I plan to stick to Russian authors in the future.

(You Are One of Them is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in March, 2014)

Sunday, January 05, 2014


The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, Catherynne Valente, Feiwel and Friends, 2011, 245 pp

Here is another book I read for the title. Who could resist a book with "circumnavigated" in the title? Also for the cover because it has a red dragon on it, not to mention a blurb from Neil Gaiman.

The story is fantasy for middle-grade readers. September had just turned twelve and had grown bored of her life when the Green Wind, dressed all in green, appeared at her window and said, 

"You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child. How would you like to come away with me and ride upon the Leopard of Little Breezes and be delivered to the great sea, which borders Fairyland?"

"Oh yes!" breathed September.

So she goes and gets a red dragon with his wings in lockdown as a best friend. Warned not to eat fairy food she is hungry for much of the book. She has to learn who to trust and who to fear. Soon enough, she becomes a champion for justice and does indeed make her own ship in order to fulfill a promise while she rescues her friends from an evil Marquess.

It is all wonderful with never a boring paragraph. September is a complex, rarely well-behaved girl who struggles with her temper, with disobedience and selfishness, and who suffers due to loyalty. Moralizing is absent except when September truly attempts to reign in behaviors that are preventing her from her quest to restore Fairyland to better days.

Ms Valente has restored the fairytale to all its gruesome glory. There are sequels.

(The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, January 03, 2014


Well I wasn't late for New Year's Day, but I never did post the Reading Group Update for December. Now it is a new year and hopefully lots of great reading and discussing to look forward to. Here is what I have coming up in my reading groups this month.

The New Book Club:

Once Upon A Time Bookstore Adult Fiction Group:

One Book at a Time:

Bookie Babes:

World's Smallest Reading Group:

I have already read The Goldfinch and am so excited to discuss it. Clearly the movies are driving some of our selections, but I am looking forward to reading all the other books.

What are your reading groups reading in January?

Wednesday, January 01, 2014


I only read 111 books in 2013, my lowest ever since 2005 when I read 110. I averaged 2 books a week instead of 3 or 4, averaged 110 pages a day instead of 140. Those higher averages are from 2010 when I read 160 books. 

Looking back over this past year I see that I was distracted by personal troubles and turned to the internet and (most shameful of all) playing Solitaire on my iPad, when I could not settle down to reading. On the positive side, I wrote more including progress on my memoir and on my novel. I also wrote 18 professional reviews. Some of that time on the internet was spent on research for my writing but I can't deny that way too many hours went by while I jumped around here and there. 

That is the trap I guess. I think I could maintain my focus better when I used to research in libraries using books. It is so easy for one thing to lead to another on the web but I also think it is a matter of finding the best way to use it as a resource. The internet is an amazing invention and like all new inventions there are benefits as well as drawbacks. 

Enough! I need to get reading!!

I still managed to read many great books last year and as usual had fun winnowing my list of favorites down to 25. Except for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (only found on BookBrowse) and On Such a Full Sea (releasing next week and not posted yet), my reviews of all the rest of the books can be found here on my blog. Not all of these books were published this year and the order is alphabetical by title, not most favorite to least. I loved all of these books for many different reasons.


The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone
The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates
The Bone People, Keri Hulme
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra
Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw
Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Hild, Nicola Griffith
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood
May We Be Forgiven, A M Homes
My Education, Susan Choi
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee
The Round House, Louise Erdrich
The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart
Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl
South of the Angels, Jessamyn West
Thinner Than Skin, Uzma Aslam Khan
To the End of the Land, David Grossman
Transatlantic, Colum McCann
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
Woke Up Lonely, Fiona Maazel
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, Anto Di Sclafani