Tuesday, November 24, 2015


I will be off the blog for the rest of this week. We are taking a road trip to visit with family. I plan to eat and drink and eat and drink and so on. The next generation is doing all the work. There will be lots of talking and laughing and playing of music. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers and followers. Keep The Wisdom is ten years old this year! It is hard to fathom that I have been at this for a decade. If you get bored, you can read my blog on your device while you digest. This is post #1294 and most of them are about books.

If you go back far enough you will even find some early rough drafts of chapters for my memoir, another parallel project begun a decade ago. It has turned into a version of the Myth of Sisyphus as I read the books described in My Big Fat Reading Project because I keep finding more books to put on the lists as well as more memories and thoughts to incorporate into the memoir. Who knows if I will ever finish it, but the journey so far has been amazing.
My prayers go out to all the refugees, the orphans, the homeless, the poor, and the hungry. No single one of us can feed the world or stop the wars. But I do have faith in the power of literature to shine the lights of knowledge and wisdom even into the darkest of places.

Friday, November 20, 2015


Shop Indie Bookstores

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J Ryan Stradal, Viking, 2015, 310 pp
Summary from Goodreads: When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.
My Review: This book arrived in my mailbox in advanced reader proof form. One of the perks of being a book reviewer is that publishers sometimes send me books without my requesting them. All of my family on my mother's side either live in Michigan or were born there. I lived there for over 20 years. We all cook or are otherwise involved in the food business. We consider ourselves Midwesterners.
So I was intrigued by the title though somewhat put off by the cover. The book summary did not excite me: a woman "finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota." Not my kind of book, I thought.
Many months later I listened to the OtherPeople podcast interview with the author and something clicked. Then one of my reading groups picked it and so I read it. It turned out to be my kind of book: Fractured families, an absolutely unique heroine named Eva, laugh-out-loud snarky commentary about all things foodie and, while he could have gone that way, no heartwarming ending.
Eva lost both her parents early. Her mother got a taste, literally, of wine in the life of a sommelier, and realized she was not cut out for motherhood. She vanished without a trace. Eva's father was a consummate chef and wanted to feed his newborn pureed pork shoulder. Alas, she was still on the bottle when he met his end.
The baby was raised by her aunt and uncle in near poverty but she was super smart and clearly had the food gene. In fact, after an almost fatal fling with hot peppers in middle school and despite her clueless though loving stepparents, she goes on to become an amazing chef herself.
J Ryan Stradal began his career writing for TV. You can see that in the quick flashes of scenes going by, the hyper awareness of modern culture, and a pitch perfect command of snark. But he is from Minnesota himself and probably at heart a half-grown Midwestern boy. His characters come leaping off the page as he finds the goodness inside almost every one of them. He is a master of voice and nuance.
The story flies by so it wasn't until about halfway that I realized I was only seeing Eva through the eyes of the characters who intersect with her life, making for an unusual but quite effective structure that is cinematic in style. The novel would make a great movie.
Though Eva suffers, she always prevails. And isn't that the dream of any human being? To grapple with all the hurts and misfortunes but to emerge as the superhero of one's own life. 
In summary, a delightful real-life fantasy. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


The Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare, early 1600s, read in The Riverside Shakespeare, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974. Play is 38 pp.
Summary from Goodreads:
One of Shakespeare's later plays, best described as a tragic-comedy, the play falls into two distinct parts. In the first Leontes is thrown into a jealous rage by his suspicions of his wife Hermione and his best-friend, and imprisons her and orders that her new born daughter be left to perish. The second half is a pastoral comedy with the "lost" daughter Perdita having been rescued by shepherds and now in love with a young prince. The play ends with former lovers and friends reunited after the apparently miraculous resurrection of Hermione.

My Review:
My reading friends know me as a Shakespeare hater. When I've had a drink or two I can come across that way. In reality I am a Shakespeare wimp. Reading his plays are just too much work. But I was planning to read and professionally review The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson's retelling of The Winter's Tale. Her novel is the first in a series of retellings of Shakespeare plays planned by the Hogarth Press.

So I hunkered down on Halloween weekend with my friend's Riverside Shakespeare and one of those plot summaries you can find on the internet and I made my way through, footnotes and all. I have read that this is considered one of his "lesser" plays. I liked it, but what do I know?

The theme is jealousy, specifically male jealousy. King Leontes observes his best friend King Polixenes being overly nice to Leontes's pregnant wife and spirals down into insane and violent jealousy. Everyone is harmed: the friend, the wife, the young son and heir, and the newborn baby.

The rest of the play trails through a complicated maze of secrets, mistaken identities, comedy, and madness. It's a mess and ends with some things made right though the damage cannot be undone. Jealousy + Power = Bad.

I was made to read Othello and maybe a couple others in high school and college. All I remember is "the quality of mercy is not strained" and "to be or not to be." As an adult I have read A Midsummer Night's Dream and liked it. The Tempest was also not bad.

I know the Bard has influenced literature as much as, if not more than, the Bible and folk tales. Having read The Winter's Tale surely did enrich my enjoyment of The Gap of Time which I finished last night.

Have I made a breakthrough as a reader? Have I grown up enough? Do you read Shakespeare?

(The Winter's Tale is available in many paperback editions with summaries and footnotes by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 13, 2015


The Chrysalids, John Wyndham, Michael Joseph Publishers, 1955, 200 pp
I like this cover better: 


Summary from Goodreads: John Wyndham takes the reader into the anguished heart of a community where the chances of breeding true are less than fifty per cent and where deviations are rooted out and destroyed as offences and abominations.
My review:
One more by John Wyndham. Then I am moving on. 
This one is radically different in a few ways. Though set in the future after what appears to have been a nuclear disaster, called "The Tribulation," the tone is more elegiac than in his earlier books and Wyndham is addressing a different set of issues.
The hero, David Strorm, is coming of age in a strictly religious community. His father is one of those fundamentalist types that creep me out more than any other variety of human. They live by the Bible and any plant, animal, or human showing a genetic abnormality is ruthlessly obliterated or shunned.
David's abnormality is invisible. He is a telepath and by that skill? gift? fatal flaw? communicates nonverbally with several others. The build up is slow but inexorable until David and his fellow telepaths make a break for freedom. At that point the story takes on an extreme adventure tone as the characters travel through woods and wastelands pursued by a posse that includes David's father.
It was quite the relevant read in these days of mega attention on "differences," those who want them accepted and those who consider them abnormalities.
Of course, the rogue characters are the most interesting. David's much younger sister Petra is an extremely strong telepath who has little control over her ability at age eight and inadvertently causes major troubles. She reminded me of Ramona in the Beverly Cleary books. In the end, she plays a large role in saving the others, a bit like super tech savvy kids these days who some say are leading mankind to a singularity.
Petra makes contact with an advanced female being who is from Zealand, where people have obviously recovered from "Tribulation" and rebuilt a civilization. This character put me in mind of some of Anne McCaffrey's best galactic heroines.
It is a thought provoking and complex story. Wyndham made a big leap with it and I look forward to reading the rest of his books...someday.  
(The Chrysalids is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham, Ballantine Books, 1953, 288pp
Summary from Goodreads: It started with fireballs raining down from the sky and crashing into the oceans deeps. Then ships began sinking mysteriously and later sea tanks emerged from the deeps to claim people . . . For journalists Mike and Phyllis Watson, what at first appears to be a curiosity becomes a global calamity. Helpless, they watch as humanity struggles to survive now that water one of the compounds upon which life depends is turned against them. Finally, sea levels begin their inexorable rise . . . The Kraken Wakes is a brilliant novel of how humankind responds to the threat of its own extinction and, ultimately, asks what we are prepared to do in order to survive.
My review:
I had never heard of John Wyndham until I read Jo Walton's Among Others (a book I loved in deep inexplicable ways.) The teen protagonist in that book joins a sci fi reading group at her local library and Wyndham's The Chrysalids was one of the books discussed.
I have since learned that Wyndham single-handedly redefined science fiction by not writing about "the adventures of galactic gangsters" but instead about stuff that could happen on earth if we kept going the way we were going. He called this "logical fantasy" but today it is called speculative fiction. He influenced Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale and The Maddaddam Trilogy.
His first book, The Day of the Triffids featured an attempted takeover by monstrous carnivorous plants, his speculation on genetic engineering. The Kraken Wakes involves an invasion of aliens, visible only as dots of bright red lights coming in from space and going directly to the deeps of the oceans. They begin sinking ships, capturing people from shoreline towns, and melting the polar icecaps. 
Mike and his wife Phyllis, favored journalists for the English Broadcasting Company, follow the story for years. Professor Alastair Bocker, a visionary scientist, after much ridicule, finally develops a way to obliterate the alien monsters without destroying the planet.
The writing is intelligently humorous and moves at a typically British sedate pace but you can't hold a gripping tale down. It is a leisurely page turner, if you can imagine.
Relevance for today: How earth might deal with rising sea levels. The way governments and business influence the press to keep the real magnitude of disasters from the public.
Connections with other books I've read: 
The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson where I first learned about the Deeps.
The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch in which a kid finds a possible almost extinct Giant Squid on the shores of the Olympic peninsula. He was a Rachel Carson fanboy who read The Sea Around Us over and over.
The Deep Range by Arthur C Clarke, about whale farming and the sea monsters who threaten it.
Kracken by China Mieville; the weirdest story ever about a Kraken. 
(The Kraken Wakes is a bit hard to find in print. I got my copy from the library: a John Wyndham omnibus.) 

Sunday, November 08, 2015


The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki, Alfred A Knopf Inc, 1957, 530 pp (translated from the Japanese by Edward G Seidensticker)

Summary from Goodreads: In Osaka in the years immediately before World War II, four aristocratic women try to preserve a way of life that is vanishing. As told by Junichiro Tanizaki, the story of the Makioka sisters forms what is arguably the greatest Japanese novel of the twentieth century, a poignant yet unsparing portrait of a family–and an entire society–sliding into the abyss of modernity.

Tsuruko, the eldest sister, clings obstinately to the prestige of her family name even as her husband prepares to move their household to Tokyo, where that name means nothing. Sachiko compromises valiantly to secure the future of her younger sisters. The unmarried Yukiko is a hostage to her family’s exacting standards, while the spirited Taeko rebels by flinging herself into scandalous romantic alliances. Filled with vignettes of upper-class Japanese life and capturing both the decorum and the heartache of its protagonist, The Makioka Sisters is a classic of international literature.

My review:
I came across this book in the fourth edition of The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classic Guide to World Literature by Clifton Fadiman. I bought that book several years ago as an aid to my autodidactic quest to become well read, a quest that eventually morphed into My Big Fat Reading Project. Reading The Makioka Sisters now dovetailed nicely into my current quest to read modern translated literature.
There are four sisters whose parents passed away when only two of them had married, leaving those sisters to take care of getting husbands for the younger two. When the story opens it is the mid 1930s and for upper class families marriages had to be arranged using a go-between. All sorts of ritual surrounded this procedure including the "rule" that daughters had to be married by order of age.

The third sister is shy to the point of barely being able to speak in front of a man. She is a hard sell to prospective husbands and her family is picky. Throughout the book, which spans several years, the search for this one's husband drives the plot.

Japan is already involved in their war with China and WWII begins in Europe. The family is not as well off as they used to be and the youngest sister is a wild non-conformist who could care less for tradition. She always has a man she is ready to marry and her tarnished reputation adds to the difficulties in finding a husband for her older sister.

So the drama of the marriage plot along with encroaching Western ideas gives the novel its tension. It is also a study in the inner lives of the women and their relationships as sisters. During incidents of meetings with prospective husbands, disagreements between the two older sisters, a terrible flood, illnesses, and the youngest girl's exploits, the author paints a vivid picture of Japanese society in transition. 

I found it easy to read and got involved with all the women even though it is such a long book. In the end I decided it is the Japanese version of Pride and Prejudice.

Thursday, November 05, 2015


October was another adventurous and excellent reading month for me.

Stats: 11 books read. 6 by women. 3 speculative fiction. 2 translated. AND 1 play by Shakespeare no less. 

Favorites: I loved them all in different ways though reading Shakespeare is always a challenge for me.

Reviews to come on the last four books.

What good books did you read in October?

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


The Hundred Year House, Rebecca Makkai, Viking Penguin, 2014, 335 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.

The Hundred-Year House unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate and the incredible surprises life can offer.
My review:
The more I read, the more I see that there are infinite ways to tell a story. Why shouldn't it be so? I like the variety and that only gets broader as I read more translated books and more novels written by women.
I first heard of Rebecca Makkai when she published her first novel, The Borrower, in 2011, a book about libraries, librarians, and a geeky kid who reads compulsively. All the negative stupid reader reviews I read only made me want to read it, but alas it has languished on my huge TBR list. Now I will! Because:
The Hundred Year House was so good! The eponymous house has been in the hands of one family for a century. During the Depression it was rented out to an artist's colony. That was all I needed to know. Favorite sub-genre of mine: Artist Colony/Utopian Community fiction.
The story is told (brilliantly in my opinion) by moving backward. It starts in 1999, on the eve of Y2K, with an unstable couple. Zee, a Marxist scholar and professor, and her husband Doug, out of work in the academic world and way overdue on publishing the book that could save his career. Reading Part One, you realize that both of these people are hapless in their own unique ways but Zee is also a bit whacked. Of course, it turns out she has good reason to be.
Part One is half of the book, written in a contemporary style appropriate to hapless 21st century characters and maybe it did go on a bit too long and did have me scratching my head. It was entertaining in a John Irving kind of way but not that impressive. However, though I am a slacker in many areas of life, I am not one as a reader. I read on.
Man, was I rewarded. It makes you realize the truth behind cutting weird people some slack because you don't always know what they have been through before you met them. 
In Parts Two and Three we learn what Zee has been through, why her mother is so very odd, how a portrait of an ancestor in the house makes bad things happen and is suspected to contain a ghost, but most of all what it means to a group of artists to create a community and how far they will go to preserve it.
In my usual, mostly unsuccessful practice to get my reading group members to read outside their own boxes, I pitched this, got it read by one of these groups, and was shamed by how much vitriol they exuded-toward the book, not me. (It is a thing in reading groups. You never blame the person who suggested the book, maybe because she is sitting right there and it is easier to pick on the poor absent author.)
Most of the people in this group are lawyers. I think The Hundred Year House is meant for artists and those who love artists. Or at least for people who don't need everything in life and in books to be wrapped up in neat packages with no rough edges, no "inexplanities," all mysteries solved and culprits punished.
(The Hundred Year House is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 01, 2015


Now begins two months of eating! Oh boy. But best of all, in So Cal, now begins the months of cooler temps and possible rain. The best reading days of all!

And I will start that season out with a bang because all the November reading groups are bunched into the first three weeks due to Thanksgiving. Here we go!

The Tiny Book Group:
I have already read this and discussed it last month at Laura's Group. But The Tiny Book Club is a Nina Revoyr fan group plus we are meeting at The Trails Cafe in Griffith Park for our discussion!
Laura's Group:
Really looking forward to this one because most of my Thanksgivings as an adult took place in the Midwest with my family of super cooks!
Molly's Group:
I am a Murakami virgin. And it's a LONG book. I wonder how I will do. And yes, I joined another reading group.
Once Upon A Time Adult Reading Group:
Not sure I want to read this. Sounds a bit too heartwarming. But it is translated from the Swedish, so maybe.
 Bookie Babes:
 One Book At A Time:
I have also already read this one but that is a good thing. I have a lot to get through this month and it is a great discussion book.
What are your reading groups discussing this month? Do you go to actual live meetings or discuss on-line? Any recommendations for good reading group titles?