Tuesday, March 20, 2018


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The Ice Palace, Tarjei Vesaas, William Morrow & Co, 1963, 176 pp (originally published in Norway, translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan)
I learned of this exquisite novel from John Self's blog Asylum. John Self is a reviewer for The Guardian but he reads many more books than he gets to review, hence the blog. 
Tarjei Vesaas, the author of the novel, was an acclaimed Norwegian poet and novelist (1897-1970) who came within a hair's breath of winning the Nobel Prize, but didn't, in 1964. A serendipitous moment occurred this week when I saw on Lithub that it was the anniversary of his death.

This novel is the story of two eleven-year-old girls who meet at school. Siss has lived in her town all of her life and is the one at school who other kids consider their leader. Unn is the new girl, recently taken in by her aunt after her single mom has died.

The two girls spend an afternoon in Unn's room, getting to know each other. The connection is intense with an underlying sensual throb. Unn tells Siss she has a secret she had never told anyone. She doesn't tell it to Siss either but does say she is not sure she will go to heaven. You feel this is the beginning of a deep friendship.

Within 48 hours Unn has vanished in an ice storm, so the rest of the story relates how Siss deals with the fallout of that.

My little plot summary sounds like a YA novel you might pick up in contemporary times but it is nothing like that. It is mysterious, psychological though not heavy handedly so, and so beautifully written. I kept finding myself holding my breath as I read.

I can't tell you more because anything else I say would be a spoiler, but if you love amazing writing and decide to read The Ice Palace, all will be revealed in a short time. I read the book in one evening. Even if you have a bad memory, you will remember what it is like to be eleven years old.

(The Ice Palace is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, March 17, 2018


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The Child Finder, Rene Denfeld, HarperCollins Publishers, 2017, 184 pp
I had read and loved Rene Denfeld's first novel, The Enchanted, so I was happy when one of my reading groups chose this one. It is just as good.
Naomi is an investigator who finds lost, missing, and abducted children. Based in Oregon, she was a lost child herself who was eventually found and taken in by a wise and wonderful foster mother. She is known to certain police officers and parents who have a word of mouth network that brings her cases. Naomi also has much buried trauma that gives her nightmares and keeps her from forming close relationships, but she is an expert in her field. She is the "child finder."

The novel is a mystery. Madison Culver, the captive of a disturbed man who abducted her, has been lost for three years. All her parents know is that she vanished into the woods at five years old while the family was looking for a live Christmas tree. They have hired Naomi to look for their daughter. The brilliant construction of the novel lets us see both Madison's story in captivity and Naomi's investigation. While the reader knows that Madison is alive, neither Naomi nor Madison's parents can be sure though they feel she is.

The second mystery concerns what is buried in Naomi's psyche. Will she remember? Can she ever form an attachment to the foster brother who loves her?

Despite some quite graphic and disturbing scenes, there is so much tenderness in this story that it prevents the reader from getting overwhelmed. Also as it is fairly short and fast moving, you don't have to stay inside the horror too long. The suspense caused my heart to pound many times.

Rene Denfeld is a heroine to me. She has deep compassion and wisdom about the human condition. She never seems to fall prey to despair. She seeks truth and justice but not vengeance or blame. If more of our leaders had even an ounce of all that, we would have a better world. She inspires me.

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018


Shoo-Fly Girl, Lois Lenski, J B Lippincott Company, 1963, 176 pp
I have not read much children's literature lately so this was a nice change. Lois Lenski wrote many books for children as well as doing her own illustrations. I loved her American Regional Series and read many of them as a child. I have re-read them over the past few years. Each book tells the story of a child and family in a different region of the United States back when regions were actually regional.
Shoo-Fly Girl is Suzanna growing up in an Amish family on a farm in Lancaster County, PA. Other families have cars, television, and ready made clothes. Suzanna and her siblings ride in horse-drawn buggies, wear clothes made by their mother, and do not even use electricity, though it is the early 1960s.

Suzanna got the nickname Shoo-Fly because one day she ate an entire shoo-fly pie, in secret. There is even a recipe! Her family gives everyone a nickname. It is hard to keep secrets in a family with nine children, though Suzanna and her adored older brother manage to keep quite a few.

The secrets and the experiences of these two children interacting with non-Amish friends are the heart of the story. Do they want to break away and live like their friends do or will they choose to remain Amish and live by the old ways? "We are Amish. We do not change." Those are the words they hear whenever they question the ways of their people.

It is a lovely story. As always, Lois Lenski did her research first, spending several weeks living with the Amish before writing her book. She brings it all to life: the strict but loving parents, the long hard days of chores, the deep underlying closeness and happiness in the family, and the stresses on the children who must come to terms with being different.

In this day and age, it feels a bit cultish though there is no evidence of any psycho, charismatic leader. Just a way of life being handed down for generations, very Bible based. According to what I could find on the internet, they are still going strong in Pennsylvania.
(Lois Lenski's books are out of print but can be found in libraries and through used book sellers.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


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The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch, HarperCollins Publishers, 2017, 267 pp
This novel is the most post, post-apocalyptic one ever. Leave it to Lidia Yuknavitch and her fierce imagination. It is chilling, dense with story, in fact so dense it seems longer than 267 pages. Yet, I read it in two days.
Earth is as destroyed as it can be while still supporting a bit of human life. Climate change and nuclear war have left it radioactive. People must live in caves where they subsist on things that grow in the dark. Violence is still constant.

A beyond evil version of Elon Musk and the remaining wealthy people of the world live on a sort of space station platform, hovering over the planet and uploading any remaining resources via some advanced transporting technology. This leader, Jean de Men, subjects his followers to an uber police state, cult like existence but though most of the inhabitants are decadent and fooled by his "entertainments" there are two rebels.

On Earth, Joan, child-warrior, heroine, possessed of powers that echo the Orogenes in N K Jemison's Broken Earth trilogy, has been "martyred" by Jean de Men. (Actually the Broken Earth trilogy is even more post post-apocalyptic than The Book of Joan, now that I consider it.) Anyway, Joan lives to fight and die another day.

The imagery and personalities in this tale of horror are beyond disturbing. Perhaps only Lidia Yuknavitch could have created such things. The action is non-stop and almost addictive. It is not all gloom and doom however. Out of ultimate destruction comes hope and even possible enlightenment for humanity. If a reader can stomach the horror, The Book of Joan is an amazing read.
I have been drawn to these sorts of books lately. I blame N K Jemison as well as our current President and his lackeys. I hereby create a new genre sobriquet: Not For The Faint Of Heart.
(The Book of Joan is available in hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, March 11, 2018


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Podkayne of Mars, Robert A Heinlein, G P Putnam's Sons, 1963, 170 pp
This sci-fi, adventure, space yarn is the second Heinlein book I have read from 1963. It started out just fine. Podkayne is a teenage girl, born and raised on Mars, with a burning desire to visit Earth and a goal to become a space pilot and commander of deep-space exploration parties. She is smart and brave, not opposed to "marriage in due time," but has big plans for her life.

She loves her family. Her mother is a master engineer, often away from home for her profession, her father a historian, and her younger brother an annoying genius.

After several delays she, her beloved uncle and her brother do set off for a journey to Earth via Venus. They endure radiation storms, Podkayne gets to hang out with pilots and learn, and they get into horrendous danger on Venus.

Along the way are many annoying bits about Podkayne realizing that it doesn't do to appear too intelligent around men and other ideas similar to the advice I used to read in Seventeen magazine in the 1960s. I thought perhaps Heinlein was mocking such ideas. Finally comes the shocking and tragic ending.

Well, it turns out that Heinlein's publishers didn't like this ending and convinced him to change it, but the Phoenix Pick reprint I read (published in 2015) restores his originally intended ending.

There follows a letter from Heinlein to his agent, dated 1962, stating that his original ending was intended to show that it is all the mother's fault because she was "the highly successful career woman who wouldn't take time to raise her own kids." That aroused my rage and thinking back on the story, all the clues to that viewpoint were there.

I will continue to read Heinlein just to see what else he does and to do my own study of a highly successful career man who held such views, to be aware of how he perpetrated such stuff in his fiction, to keep me aware of this poison as I live and read. It was still the mid 60s when he wrote this one. Maybe he got over it?
I have nothing against motherhood, I have nothing but admiration for women who manage both careers and raising children, and I have respect for women who admit they cannot or do not want to do both and must make a choice. I do have everything against a man prescribing how a woman should lead her life.

(Podkayne of Mars is available in the revised Phoenix Pick paperback with the original ending by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. If you want the 1963 ending you will have to find a used copy of the G Putnam's Sons book published back then.)

Thursday, March 08, 2018


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The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, Grove Press Inc, 1966, (originally published in Barcelona, 1963, translated from the Spanish by Lysander Kemp), 409 pp
I read my first book by this author in 2002. The Green House, his second novel, was one of the challenging literary novels I was starting to read in those years, having somewhat satisfied my desire for trashy, escape reading. I was rekindling my aspirations as a writer and wanting to read Literature. It was around that time that I invented My Big Fat Reading Project. Vargas Llosa was one of the celebrated authors of the Latin American boom and went on to win the Nobel Prize in 2010.
The Time of the Hero is his first novel and also a challenge to read: multiple characters, a disjointed time sequence, switches from third to first person and back again. Often I was not sure who was who, especially since many characters had real names and nicknames. OK. Enough whining. I did catch on and was spellbound by the end.

Most of the book takes place behind the walls of the Leoncio Prado Military Academy on the edge of Lima, Peru. It follows a group of cadets through their four years there, the equivalent of high school. The boys come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and were sent there for various reasons but the underlying intention is to produce soldiers. Peru has a long history of war and unrest.

The titular "hero" was placed in the Academy by his mostly absent, philandering father for the purpose of "making a man of him" and steering him away from the suspected unmanliness of his poetry writing. (Vargas Llosa himself was sent to a military academy by his father for similar reasons. Just goes to show you.)

About eight of these boys stay together as a sort of gang for the duration. They give each other nicknames like The Jaguar, The Boa, Curly, The Slave, and The Poet. The Jaguar is their leader, a tough sociopath who is the best at never getting caught and never giving a fuck about anyone. They drink and smoke, they joke constantly about sex, they have sex with each other (consensual and predatory), all without their teachers and officers catching on.

One night this rowdy group of pubescent male creatures draw straws and send the loser to steal a chemistry exam from the school building. Good grades are one of the conditions of getting leave. Another cadet informs on the guy and is ultimately murdered by one of the boys.

What a gnarly tale! Along the way the back stories and family lives of several characters are revealed including their romantic/lustful encounters with young girls in Lima. The authorities conduct an investigation after the murder and all comes to light but they decide on a cover up to protect the reputation of the Academy, the officers, and the military in general. This includes throwing the most principled and honest officer under the bus.

The novel is a morality tale, a mystery, and a treatise on what constitutes heroism. In the end, the murderer is revealed to the reader as is the fate of The Poet. It is only then that it becomes clear which back story goes with which cadet. I had not seen the denouement coming, the sign of a good novel.

I was left somewhat in awe of how Vargas Llosa constructed such a novel for his first time out. It is perhaps a bit overdone, a bit pretentiously obfuscating, but it shows deep thinking about Peru, life, and big ideas like good, evil, honor, truth, and love.

This quote from Jean Paul Sartre, the epigraph before Part One, sums it up well:
"We play the part of heroes because we're cowards, the part of saints because we're wicked: we play the killer's role because we're dying to murder our fellow man: we play at being because we're liars from the moment we're born."

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

Wednesday, March 07, 2018


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The Weight of Ink, Rachel Kadish, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 560 pp
This long and complex novel was so much my kind of book; possibly one of the best novels I have ever read. It demands quite a bit of the reader as well as an interest in philosophy. It is one of those stories about intelligent women who just cannot stay in the roles expected of her by society and religion. Set in two time periods, it features a connection across centuries between two specific women. The setting is London in the early 21st century and in the 1600s.
Helen Watt is in her 60s, slowly losing to Parkinson's Disease and a top historian teaching at the university level. When a former student contacts her regarding some 17th century Jewish documents he discovered while renovating his home, Helen finds the kind of thing that can make a historian's career. Due to her health and university politics, she begins a race against time.

The documents include writings by Ester Velasquez, an emigrant to London from Amsterdam. She was an orphan taken in by a rabbi who, blind, and poor, had no scribe to help him. Ester was thus permitted to scribe for him, something women never did back then. The rabbi was a survivor of the Spanish Inquisition who escaped to Amsterdam and had then been sent to London by his temple with the assignment to help the fledgling Jewish community there, as Jews were newly allowed back into Great Britain. 

Ester has a background full of loss and confusion. She is comforted by her access to the rabbi's books and spends all of her free time studying while she learns her way around London. Within a few years the Plague and the Great Fire of London will decimate the city and she will be on her own again.

The novel fairly reeks with history. Both Helen and Ester long for philosophical and historical understanding, while men and romance only create problems for them. They each desire to live in their minds unmolested; longing vs self-preservation are the emotional bedrock of the story in both of their lives.

Then there is the Spinoza connection. I am no expert on philosophy but rather am a self-taught dilettante in the subject. From the reading I have done, Spinoza is my favorite philosopher. Due to Ester's position as a scribe she is able, surreptitiously, to strike up a correspondence with Spinoza, posing as a man. They engage in epistolary discussions about Spinoza's ideas, thereby providing the poor banished Jew with friendship and a sounding board for his wildly heretical thinking. I realize this might not be every reader's cup of tea but it was complete joy to me.

Much more goes on in the story but I think it is best to let other readers discover it on their own. Discovery is another theme in the book actually. If you are someone who has spent time pondering the meaning of life and questioning all you have been taught, there are riches awaiting you in The Weight of Ink.

I read and discussed the book for and with one of my reading groups. Of the eight members, six are Jewish, though not all are practicing. One of us was raised Protestant, one Catholic. Oh what a great discussion we had!

Personally I had an experience of enlightenment as I read but I think that belongs in my autobiography rather than a book review. I only mention it as evidence of how powerful a book this is.

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