Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Maya's Notebook, Isabel Allende, HarperCollins, 2013, 387 pp

Isabel Allende never lets me down. Whether she writes a novel about a comic book hero (Zorro), a memoir about losing her daughter to a rare disease (Paula), or a coming-of-age/young adult hybrid (Maya's Notebook), I read happily absorbed in the story and the characters. Behind everything she writes is an underlying sense of history and a humanist creed about the worth of individuals.

Maya: deserted physically by her mother and emotionally by her father, was raised by her grandparents-Nini, a strong, protective, mystical woman who escaped from Chile during the politically troubled 1970s and Popo, a gentle and loving African-American astronomer and professor. When Popo dies, Maya goes majorly off the rails, leaves high school, runs away, and descends into drug abuse with all the attendant horrors.

Eventually Nini finds and rescues her but by then she is in so much trouble that Nini sends her to a remote Chilean island to hide out. There, Maya begins to keep a journal and documents her journey back to sanity while making a record of how she got so crazy. Thus Maya's Notebook is exactly that. Maya's story told in Maya's voice. 

Though this is a gritty story with plenty of human degradation, criminality, sex, and drugs, it has equal amounts of beauty. Nini's purple house in Berkeley, CA, and her fellow members of the People's Independent Republic of Berkeley embody a beauty of spirit. The island in the archipelago of Chiloe, where Maya lives for a year comprises wild beauty, native myths, the encroachments of modern civilization, and Manual Arias. Manual is Nini's old friend who has consented to take Maya in and protect her. Their initial meeting goes like this:

"I'm Manual Arias," the man introduced himself in English.
"Hi. I'm on the run from the FBI, Interpol, and a Las Vegas criminal gang," I announced bluntly, to avoid any misunderstandings.
"Congratulations," he said.
"I haven't killed anybody and frankly, I don't think any of them would go to the trouble of coming to look for me all the way down here in the asshole of the world."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to insult your country, man. Actually it's really pretty, lots of green and lots of water, but look how far away it is!"
"From what?"
"From California, from civilization, from the rest of the world. My Nini didn't tell me it'd be cold."
"It's summer," he informed me.

The snotty tongued Maya and the reticent Manual eventually help each other to dig out of equally horrific pasts and though the final pages of what is a truly exciting story may be a bit sentimental, they are part of the character of the entire tale.

A troubled teen from a fractured family survives by acquiring a whole tribe, because Maya herself contains a beauty that compels many.

Isabel Allende talks about the book here.

(Maya's Notebook is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


I had cataract surgery on my right eye on Monday. Now I have 20/20 vision in that eye but my old near-sighted left eye still has a cataract which will not be fixed until late December. That boils down to a sort of weird monovision for distance and a somewhat useless left eye. This is not conducive to reading or computer work except in short stints. 

Please bear with me. I will be back. I have a pile of excellent books already ready to review. I will get to them as soon as I am able. 

Meanwhile I am catching up on literary podcasts including the awesome Other People, where Brad Listi interviews cutting edge current authors, often published by small and independent presses. Check it out!

Thanks for your patience.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


There are certain novels that are so wonderful they keep me reading, always hoping I will find another wonderful one. If you are a reader, I am sure you can think of at least ten such novels. What is even more wonderful is how personal this is, how each reader is unique as to what makes a novel wonderful.
Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, was such a novel for me. Now I have added her latest novel, The Invention of Wings, to my personal list of wonderful novels. And this is the last time I will use the word wonderful in this review!

The story involves a slave owning family and their slaves. The Grimke household is located in Charleston, NC. In 1803, on her eleventh birthday, Sarah Grimke is given her own personal slave, Hetty, also known as Handful because she is one.

Although her family has always owned slaves, Sarah is horrified by the idea of herself owning another human being. Instead she makes Hetty into a friend and begins teaching her to read. Soon enough both of them are in big trouble, but from that day on Sarah, Hetty, Hetty's mother Charlotte, and Sarah's baby sister Angelina are bound together. 

Sarah and Angelina grow up to be abolitionists and feminists, though of course they are expelled from their family home and from Charleston. All four women struggle, rebel, and suffer before the Civil War has even begun. Each one crosses the treacherous lines and boundaries of family, racism, and patriarchal traditions in a relentless search for freedom.

Readers of this blog know that I take umbrage at writers who unsuccessfully tell stories about other races, nationalities, or countries to which they do not belong. I hereby admit that some authors can manage such a feat convincingly and Sue Monk Kidd has done it twice. But if a person of color reads this review and disagrees, I am open to what you have to say.

I read The Invention of Wings in two days, carried along by the excellence of Ms Kidd's writing craft and immersed in her characters' adventures. I felt proud to be a human being. Here it is 2014 and we still encounter racism and oppression of women on a daily basis but from the beginning of time there have been individuals who stood up to humans oppressing humans and said, "No!"

(The Invention of Wings is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 09, 2014


A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch, The Viking Press, 1961, 248 pp

Martin is happily married to Antonia but also has a mistress names Georgie. Antonia is older than Martin and undergoing analysis. Suddenly she leaves Martin and moves in with Anderson, her analyst. Anderson's sister Honor tells Antonia about Georgie. Honor is such a truly cracked character that she makes the rest of them look only mildly weird in comparison.

Again a 1961 novel about infidelity. In contrast to Wallace Stegner's A Shooting Star, this one is a breath of fresh air with that almost slapstick feeling Murdoch does so well. Every time I felt I had a grip on the plot, she went in exactly the opposite direction I would predict.

I can just hear some of my reading group ladies getting riled up because not one character is likable or admirable. I certainly did not imagine that the tortured, non-self-aware Martin would end up with ...ah, I can't say. But as she tells Martin, "This has nothing to do with happiness, nothing whatever."

And that is the joke percolating through the whole tale. Many of us tried open marriage in the 70s. What a Pandora's Box! We should have read The Severed Head first.

(A Severed Head is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 07, 2014


The Lie, Hesh Kestin, Scribner, 2014, 229 pp

Once again a reading group steered me to a book I'd never heard about and am glad I read. The Lie is set in Israel and though it is standard fare as thrillers go, the author (a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces) gives readers a provocative look at today's issues.
Dahlia Barr, a tough attorney based in Jerusalem and known for defending Palestinians accused of terrorism, accepts recruitment into the Israeli security establishment. She believes she can change the system from within and do away with torture.
Then her 21 year old son, a soldier, is kidnapped by Hezbollah and the political becomes personal for Dahlia.
I have read David Grossman's To The End Of The Land and Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness, not to mention a great amount of historical fiction about war. It is the mothers who suffer most, at least from my point of view. 
In this novel I found a mother who was in a position to do much more than wait at home in fear and grief but that very position put her straight into the most difficult conflict of her life. What a gripping story.

(The Lie is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 03, 2014


Wallace Stegner has been an uneven novelist for this reader. I first read his 1943 historical The Big Rock Candy Mountain, a book I could not put down. The Preacher and the Slave, about Joe Hill and the Wobblies was also riveting. A couple others left me either bored or less than enraptured.

He was a great writer both in craft and the conveying of emotion, but sometimes I feel he tried too hard, even to the point of preaching his message too obviously. In A Shooting Star he went overboard on wordiness, his story arc took too long to arc, and while he tried hard to understand his female protagonist, a judgmental flavor spoiled the result.

I've had a time reading my 1961 list, as it has featured many long books and some weaker books by authors I have previously admired. However, as harbingers of cultural change to come, especially the sexual revolution of the late 60s and the second wave of feminism in the 70s, many of these novels are examples of how writers had their fingers on the pulse of change before it became apparent in mainstream culture.

Sabrina Castro, raised in a deeply screwed up but fabulously wealthy family, married a physician. As her husband became successful with rich matrons in Los Angeles, he began to neglect Sabrina. Because she was not able to conceive a child, she was restless, unfulfilled, and lonely. What does a woman in such straights do? She takes a lover. Thus the drama begins.

And goes on and on. Stegner creates tension with Sabrina's indecision about her marriage, her husband (a sanctimonious jerk), and her future. I am fully aware that female dithering is commonplace. I have been guilty of it myself. Reading about it drives me to distraction.

So OK, he gets that aspect of female life and it is in the 1950s when a woman could not easily go outside of accepted societal norms, no matter how rich she was, but it still went on too long. I also detected whiffs of Freudian concepts about females suffering from infantile behavior. Yuck! A woman working through issues with a messed up mother is not infantile, she is working through issues.

Bottom line: worth reading as a sign of the times; maddening that it took me six days to do so.

(A Shooting Star is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)