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Literacy and Longing in L.A.

By Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack Bantam Dell, 2013 We know right off the bat that Dora, the protagonist in this charming novel, is going to have trouble when, in the Preface, we learn that when she was seven her inebriated mother drove the car, with her children in it, off a bridge. So we are not surprised to find her, in chapter 1, wallowing in despair after separating from her second husband.  Dora literally wallows- in a hot, deep bath, where she spends all weekend reading novels. Ah, I was hooked. A heroine who loves to read. Not only do literary quotes head each chapter, there are literary quotations throughout the book, which, in case we don’t recognize them, are acknowledged in footnotes. Footnotes! And at the back of the book there is a seven page bibliography. But Dora is no geeky bookworm. She’s witty, attractive, bored by the blind dates her friends set up, and falls in lust with a fellow booklover. He works at the local bookstore, but has aspirations to be a screenwriter. “It’s that L.A. hyphenate thing – no one is really what they’re doing. Everything is just temporary until their real career starts,” her sister remarks. But Dora is snowed by Fred’s erudition. “My god. Just kill me now,” she thinks when he quotes Dorothy Parker. Dora, however, has no career to speak of.  The story touches on issues of class, with extreme Hollywood wealth contrasting with the situation of ordinary Californians. Dora eventually emerges from her bubble (bath) to learn what is important in life. The love of literature is the unusual theme that underpins this fine novel. If the characters lived in New York this would not surprise but it was a delightful departure from the norm to read about book addicts in Tinseltown. This is the first book written by the duo of Mack and Kaufman, a film and television producer and former Los Angeles Times staff writer, respectively. (They’ve since written two other romantic comedies.) They have an intimate knowledge of the worlds they write about, and Literacy and Longing in L.A. moves along as if written by one voice. It is quite a remarkable feat.

The Good House

The Good House By Ann Leary St. Martin’s Press, 2012 The North Shore of Massachusetts is famous for its light, the low angle at which the sunset illuminates its farms and marshes as it slides towards the marshy inlets to disappear into the sea. The string of little towns, Newburyport, Rowley, Marblehead, Salem, Ipswich, Hamilton and Gloucester have attracted settlers since the time of the Puritans. The area is famous for its seventeenth century witch trials, its fishermen still haul in cod and lobsters, while its wealthier denizens ride to the hunt and play polo. About forty miles from Boston, the North Shore is still not easy to get to, and therefore, to live there is a conscious choice by those who can afford to choose, or it is somewhere you live because you were born there, your ancestors were born there and truly, there is no where else you would rather live. In the fictional town of Wendover, set in the North Shore, who better would know the town gossip and exemplify the symbiotic relationship between the townies and the newcomers than the town’s top real estate broker? Hildy Good, the narrator of Ann Leary’s The Good House, knows that the only way to make money in the town these days is through antiques and real estate. The creaky old houses are pulled apart by their wealthy new owners, and renovated to look old again, providing work for realtors and  antique dealers, plumbers, handymen and landscapers. Hildy Good parlays her descent from a famously hanged witch and her deep knowledge of the townspeople to advantage when she sells houses, and she straddles the world of her rich clients and the townies. Hildy is the hinge to the story of a relationship between someone whose ancestors have lived in the town for generations and a newcomer. But Hildy is a secret alcoholic. Actually, the secret is only to herself. It is obvious to all around her that she has a problem. When the book begins, she has recently come out of rehab, drinks soda water at parties and at night puts herself to sleep after several glasses of the wine she’s stashed in the trunk of her ex-husbands MG, which he abandoned in the garage.  This kind of wonderful detail permeates the writing of this terrific novel. Ann Leary’s gentle satire absolutely nails the socio-economics of the area, and her delightfully unreliable narrator pulls the story along.  The underlying theme of an addiction’s lure provides the emotional heart of this book. Highly recommended.

Queens of Ancient Crete – And The Men Who Loved Them

Queens of Ancient Crete – And The Men Who Loved Them The Year God’s Daughter The Thinara King The Moon of Asterion By Rebecca Lochlann Erinyes Press, 2011 A rich blend of historical novel and fantasy, the first three books of  The Child of the Erinyes  series are set in Bronze Age Crete. The Year God’s Daughter, The Thinara King, and In the Moon of Asterion, trace the fortunes of Princess (later Queen) Aridela, her lover and consort, Chrysaleon, and his half-brother and rival in love, Menoetius. I was captivated from the start, ordering the next book as soon as I had finished the last. Rebecca Lochlann has created a world both recognizable and yet sinister, a world that spun its year around the annual ritual sacrifice of the king and his apparent cannibalization by the island’s women. The people believed that the annual sacrifice was necessary to fructify the crops. Horrible, yet Lochlann convinces us of the characters’ sincere belief in the necessity for this ritual, and in their faith in their gods and their afterlife. She’s spent many years researching this ancient world, then let her imagination fly with her strong female characters, Aridela, her tutor, Selene the Amazon, and Themiste, the priestess. Beautiful descriptive writing, fast-paced and convincing.

Hand of Fire: A Novel of Briseis and the Trojan War

Hand of Fire A Novel of Briseis and the Trojan War

By Judith Starkston Fireship Press, 2014 It’s hard enough to write about an historical figure. Hard because the experts will always be there to find an inaccuracy, tiny or large. How much harder it is, then, to write about a figure from a poem? A figure twice removed from reality. Judith Starkston has achieved this. In her excellent book, Hand of Fire, she brings to life Briseis, the healing priestess of the goddess Kamrusepa and noblewoman of the city of Lyrnessos, an ally of Troy. In Homer’s epic, the Iliad, Briseis was captured by Achilles during the Trojan War. Judith started her book with a question. If Briseis, an intelligent woman as her profession attests, was captured and enslaved by the Greeks, why would she develop such an attachment to her enemy, Achilles? After all, he had killed her father, her three brothers and her husband. Briseis apparently loved her captor. According to Homer the affection was mutual, or when Agamemnon demanded Briseis be given to him, Achilles defied his commander and refused to fight. The decision gave the edge to the Trojans and the Greeks begged Achilles to relent. Only when Patroclus took to the field in Achilles’ armor and was killed did Achilles return to battle, kill Hector, and desecrate the body. Later he is killed by an arrow to the heel. The novel skillfully weaves complicated emotions into a plot that is built on the edifice of the poem. What we know from the Iliad is that Achilles was a golden hero, beloved of his men. He loved Patroclus, his companion from boyhood. Briseis may have been as star-struck as others in the presence of Achille’s charisma. Judith Starkston knows that it would be too simple to say Achilles loved Briseis and that his jealousy when Agamemnon seized her was the linchpin that caused the crisis of the poem. She shows us that Achilles was caught in a larger psychological web. His mother Thetis, a water goddess, had tried to make him immortal but left a weakness. In the poem, Achilles is fated to die. Hand of Fire ends just before this inevitability. Caught up in a war made by men, Briseis will have to make a choice. A great read. Recommended.

What is Women’s Fiction?

Big Little Lies By Liane Moriarty G.P. Putnam’s Sons-Penguin Books USA, 2014

What is Women’s Fiction? It is not romance, though it usually has what the Romance Writers of America call “romantic elements.” Neither is it exactly “chick lit”. That genre was established well and truly with Helen Fielding’s character Bridget Jones and her diary. Awkward, warm, silly Bridget is so easily recognizable we all love her. Helen Fielding apparently based her book on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – and that, dear readers, is in my opinion, a classic work of Women’s Fiction. I’d say the major definition is that the characters in Women’s Fiction are usually a little older than in chick lit, maybe in their thirties or forties. Often they have children. Or they want children and that drives the plot. Unlike romance, or chick lit, Women’s Fiction often deals with larger issues than ending happily ever after with Mr. Right. Women’s Fiction is often indistinguishable from “upmarket commercial fiction” except that the viewpoint character is a woman. That is not to say that works of Women’s Fiction get the literary attention they deserve. Even if they are best-sellers. Take Liane Moriarty. This exceptionally talented novelist has written book after book that zooms to the best seller list. In her latest book, Big Little Lies, Ms. Moriarty takes on the subject of kindergarten. Bullying, by the children, and by the parents, is her theme, as the innocuous school, in its beautiful Sydney beachside setting, becomes a microcosm for all the nastiness that inhabits the world of adults. The author’s sense of humor is never too far beneath the surface and the book is laugh out loud funny at times. The heart of the story, however, is domestic violence. It is riveting and disturbing, the more so as it shows how difficult it is for the victim to leave. This is not chick lit by any means. So, what it comes down to is this. Women’s Fiction, in my view, simply shows a fictional world through the eyes of a woman or women. That’s why, in my next couple of posts, I’m going to review books of historical fiction with female protagonists. Watch this space.

The Age of Miracles

The Age of Miracles By Karen Thompson Walker Random House, 2012 I’ve been captivated by Karen Thompson Walker’s dark vision of the end of the world. The novel, narrated through the eyes of a middle school girl, tells the story of the “slowing”, when the earth one day slowed its rotation around the sun, and days and nights extended. Crops die, birds drop from the ground because gravity has changed, and I won’t give away the plot by saying that scientists are mystified. In the book, the narrator recalls that a few years before, the bees had started dying. That is actually happening now, and no one knows why. By intermingling real events with imaginary ones, Walker makes us believe her story could happen. Karen Thompson Walker’s narrator’s awakening adolescence fits the sense of wonder that people feel with the “slowing.” The world she shares with others is changing drastically, just as her own world shifts as hormones work their bodily magic. Walker captures the confusion these changes bring, and writes with elegiac sadness of the loss of the ordinary. A tragedy for the planet, perhaps, and yet Walker’s title is just right. She manages to infuse her tale with a sense of life’s mystery and amazement.

Alternating Viewpoints in Fiction

Don’t know about you, but I was absolutely riveted by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Told in the alternating points of view of Amy and Nick, a childless couple married five years this creepy, plot- twisting novel kept my attention till the last page. Then there is The Silent Wife, by A.S.A Harrison. Here, another childless couple, though older, Jodi and Todd, go about their lives in alternating chapters, in mutual misunderstanding, evasion and outright deception. Like Flynn’s novel, murder is committed, and the characters are less than attractive. But their actions are understandable, and the plot-twisting ending is remarkably satisfying. Now I’ve just read a brand-new book with alternating viewpoints. It is Principles of Navigation, by Lynn Sloan. (Fomite, Burlington VT. 2015) Set in 1998-9, the book begins with the protagonist, Alice, desperately trying for a baby with her husband, Rolly. They’ve been trying for three years and Rolly refuses to get medical intervention. Alice appears to believe that the new millennium will give them a child and a new chance at happiness. The novel is told in the alternating viewpoints of Alice and Rolly and shows their disintegrating relationship as the months wear on. Interestingly to this reader the character of the husband, Rolly, is much more appealing. He has flaws and failures as a husband, but he hurts, he changes, and we care about him. The character of the wife, Alice, becomes harder and more alienating as time goes on. Her behavior drives the plot. Or rather, he makes a move, she resists. Like a chess game, each acts according to what pushes them forward, even as each is unaware of their most profound motivations.  In life, we propel ourselves forward according to often unconscious instructions. Perhaps the title, Principles of Navigation, refers to this blind drive to reproduce, as locked into our genes as any other creature’s, and we push onward upstream against all obstacles,  like the salmon when they spawn.

Organic On A Budget

Organic On A Budget The Feast Nearby by Robin Mather (Ten Speed Press, 2011) Wildly Affordable Organic by Linda Watson (Da Capo Press, 2011) What happened to the old domestic skills of cooking to a budget and eating food that has not been contaminated with pesticides? Is it even possible to do that now? While we say they want to eat a healthier diet, we tend to believe this option is only for the well-off. Really? Food writer Robin Mather felt that the locavore food movement was perceived as being for the “foodie elite,” when in truth it is how our ancestors always ate, and she wrote a book to prove how she lived on a food budget of $40 a week. And that was in Michigan, surrounded by snow for five months a year. Mather, a food writer for the Chicago Tribune, found herself without an income when she simultaneously lost her job and her husband. She retreated to live alone in a vacation cabin on Lake Michigan, and there began an experiment in frugal living. She chronicles this year long journey-in-place in a marvelous book, The Feast Nearby. She canned, froze, baked, and bartered to fill her larder.  One has to admire her fortitude as she faced financial misfortune, and the surprising richness of spirit she found within herself.  She’s written a series of essays and recipes. If you’re interested in actually measuring how to stretch your food dollars, meal by meal, Linda Watson’s Wildly Affordable Organic by Linda Watson, sets out to show readers how to “Eat Fabulous Food, Get Healthy and Save the Planet All on $5 a Day or Less.” “Food evangelist” Linda Watson believes in eating a vegetarian diet, based on plants that have been raised organically. Her book is not so much about eating locally as about eating well on an extremely limited budget. She decided to experiment for a year, buying and cooking on the monthly food stamp allowance of $1.53 a meal. She bought at chain supermarkets and state farmers’ markets. She “scoured old cookbooks and interviewed older cooks,” and changed her cooking style to make use of bulk and seasonal purchases. With her new shopping list she tested her budget at Whole Foods and found she could still cook at less than $2 a meal. The book includes shopping lists and price comparisons. The result is a charming how-to manual filled with satisfying recipes. Each of these books offers the following principles to shop by: -Buy bulk staples of flour and rice. -Reduce or eliminate meat in the diet. -Buy fresh fruit and vegetables in season and in bulk. -Learn to preserve food safely by canning and freezing. -Save on gas or electricity by using the oven to cook several things at once, cook more than you need and freeze extra. -Make simple food elegant by the use of garnishes. -Vary your diet by exchanges, as in the potluck party. -Eat with others. You’ll talk more and eat less.


Longbourn by Jo Baker Random House, 2013 The popularity of Downton Abbey and the spate of movie versions of Jane Austen’s novels makes this book almost inevitable. Inevitable doesn’t always mean good. But this book surpasses expectations. Jo Baker has created a novel out of the “downstairs” people of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennet family – drama queen Mrs. Bennet, her five marriageable daughters and their father, bibliophile Mr Bennet, bored with it all, the bonnets, the dresses, the dances  – are served by a small overworked household staff. The story opens in the kitchen with the servants. Sarah is a young woman, probably about seventeen years old. Polly, the “scrub” is a mere child, about ten or eleven. Mr. Hill is the ancient footman, groom, and jack of all trades. He is getting too old for the work, and the whole shooting match is held up by the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill. Mrs. Hill, capable, hard-working and kind, is the heart of this novel, though there are three viewpoint characters. The others are Sarah, and James Smith, a mysterious stranger who arrives at Longbourn and becomes the family’s footman. Through her portrayal of the day to day work of these servants and her lyrical  descriptions of the English countryside, Baker has  given us a fascinating view into everyday life in the early nineteenth century. That would have been enough for me, history buff that I am, but it would not have made a novel. On the edifice of Austen’s fictional characters and place, though, Baker has created a plot so powerful that it enhances the original Austen model. Unlike Austen, Baker moves the reader beyond the safe little Tory world of Longbourn, to the Napoleonic War raging in Europe, which in Pride and Prejudice is central to the plot because of the stationing of the English Militia in the town of Meryton. Though Austen’s own brothers served in the Navy, in her novels the war is seen only through the eyes of home-bound women, who see officers as marriage material. In the second half of Longbourn, Baker takes the reader beyond England to Europe and back again, exposing the perennial horrors of war, and showing us the social inequities that led to the revolutions of the nineteenth century. Jane Austen has been criticized for portraying a small world-view, comfortable and smug – even though her writing is actually rapier sharp, exposing women’s limited options. In Longbourn, Jo Baker redresses this alleged fault.

Montpelier Tomorrow

Montpelier TomorrowMontpelier Tomorrow By Marylee MacDonald All Things That Matter Press, 2014. Lou Gehrig’s Disease or ALS, is a devastating disease. The victim loses motor function, may undergo personality changes, and will eventually be unable to eat and to breathe. How do family members cope with this disease when it strikes? Based on real-life experience, Marylee MacDonald has written a fine novel about how a family deals with this situation. I urge you to read Montpelier Tomorrow. At first, Colleen Gallagher’s instinct was just to help her daughter, who gave birth to her second child the same week her husband was diagnosed. But as her son-in-law Tony’s disease progressed, he became the third child in the family, not only physically disabled but regressively self-centered, compounding the difficulties of care. The novel raises so many questions: What does it mean to be a good mother, a good wife? How do we make end-of-life decisions that preserve the dignity not only of the dying, but of the caregivers? How do we make end-of-life decisions when the consequences of putting someone on a respirator or a feeding tube are not honestly discussed by medical professionals? Why is it so difficult to get a terminally ill person onto Medicaid?  Who pays for custodial care? Who should? You cannot read this novel and come away unchanged.