book lists

December 2, 1985

december-2-1985I’d spoken to Griffin and Amy on the phone, but this was our first face-to-face. I was slightly awed by both of them. Long before I fell in love with Griffin’s performance in the sensational film After Hours, I enjoyed his father Dominick’s books starting with The Users.  As for Amy, I was a huge fan of Baby, It’s You, an indie film she produced. The fact it was based, in part, on her high school and college life made her that much more fascinating.  Not only were they a hot young producing duo, they were classy and smart with superlative taste in literature. They fell in love with the same obscure novel I did.  They intended to option the book and produce the movie. I would adapt it for the screen.

Griffin, Amy and myself with right hand in cast at my house.
Griffin, Amy and myself with right hand in cast at my house.

The Moonflower Vine, Jetta Carleton’s first and only novel, became an overnight sensation upon publication in 1962. I don’t recall how it wound up in my hands in high school.  It didn’t look like the kind of book I gravitated toward. To be blunt, it looked boring – like a plotless description-heavy  feel-good tale of a rural family.  It looked like hundreds of similar books I failed to finish after a quick perusal of the first and last chapter. (Yes, I read the end of most books as soon as I finish the beginning. I have my reasons.)



The Moonflower Vine wasn’t one of those books. I was so engrossed I read to the last page without peeking. It blew me away. Critics raved about the grace and beauty of her writing. While exquisite language is far from the first thing I seek in a novel, it doesn’t hurt. Equally if not more important than the prose, Carleton’s characters were full-bodied and three-dimensional, bursting with life and the weight of their secrets.

Despite four months on the New York’s Times best-seller list and its selection by major book clubs, the book fell out of print. The lack of a follow-up didn’t help. Aside from two paperback reissues in the 70s and 80s, it was all but forgotten.


A couple factors led to its recent renaissance. It was featured on the “Neglected Books” website which included an endorsement by Jane Smiley. Smiley cited The Moonflower Vine in her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Perhaps most important of all, voracious fans like myself read and re-read it, and recommended it to others.

I, for instance, persuaded my sisters they had to read it. They did and they fell in love too. Since the book tells the stories of a Missouri family with three living daughters, it’s not so surprising an Iowa family with three daughters related rather strongly. Jetta’s fictional family bore enough similarities to her real family that her two older sisters felt tainted and infuriated. Was that part of the reason she didn’t write another book? They forgave her before she died in 1999.

3 Knutsen Sisters (just like 3 Soames sisters in the novel!)
3 Knutsen Sisters (just like 3 Soames sisters in the novel!)

Carleton left a draft of another novel – Claire de Lune –  behind which was published posthumously. Meanwhile – in part because so many fans consider it unforgettable – The Moonflower Vine was republished to some fanfare in 2009 by HarperCollins.

I know, it looks a little dull, but it’s not. It ranks high on my personal list of “Books that Mattered” and I highly recommend it.




My favorite Ibsen plays aren’t the ones that deal with social issues (A Doll’s House, Enemy of the People) but the ones that deal with secrets of the heart, complicated desires most people refuse to admit – even to themselves.

The common elements to Rosmersholm, When We Dead Awaken and The Master Builder are:

  • An aging artist is artistically blocked and the thrill is long gone from his marriage.
  • A stranger from the past appears and demands payment for an unkept promise.
  • The young stranger tantalizes, provokes and ultimately inspires the aging artist to ascend to high, cold isolated peaks.
  • This perilous climb results in death. Unfortunately, in Ibsen’s world the hero must choose between living death by secure but sterile marriage or actual death by passion, romance and self-actualization.

One might assume Ibsen is the aging unhappily married artist but late in life, speaking of his wife Susannah, he said, “I could not do without her greatness. “ He never left Susannah for any of his young girls. So what was going on in Ibsen’s secret heart?

Secrect Heart2

In an early work, Brand, which also ends high in the mountains with the hero’s death via avalanche, Ibsen refers to the “Ice Church”, a human soul in which love has died. All that’s left for the couple is to “try to fill that emptiness with something. Something resembling love.” (Little Eyolf)

Ibsen Plays

In an interview about The Master Builder, Ibsen said “Solness and his wife are worthy people who aren’t happy in their life together. They don’t become what they could and should have become. They aren’t actually miserable. Although they share consideration and a kind of tenderness and love, they cramp each other. They brood perpetually because each goes his own way mentally and doesn’t share with the other. Contrast Hilde and Solness. They are not extraordinary persons but they feel spiritually akin, strongly attracted to each other. They feel they belong together and life together would be immeasurably richer. They would be better people and their relationship would give their lives greater meaning. Then the collision comes – when Solness still has a zest for life, a need for happiness, and feels unable to live in subdued resignation. And so they decide to build a castle in the air and live together in spirit.

"Castles In The Air" by Kwatsu
“Castles In The Air” by Kwatsu

This lifts him higher than before, able to do things he had not been able to do for a long time.[1] He stakes his life on his passion and is killed.”

How many married people relate to this passage, even if they’re unwilling to admit it or act on it? Is this why these plays made people of Ibsen’s era so uncomfortable?

Ibsen also said, “It is wrong to think of unhappy love as two people who love each other but don’t wind up together. No, unhappy love is when two people who love each other get married and feel they…cannot live happily together.”  I think Ibsen meant, they can’t keep their passion and romance alive – but who can? Passionate romantic love requires an element of risk, uncertainty, mystery and a leap of faith – the opposite of a long term marriage.

From "What Would Your Future Look Like If You Took a Leap of Faith?" By Victoria Cox
From “What Would Your Future Look Like If You Took a Leap of Faith?”
By Victoria Cox

That’s not to say I don’t believe in marriage. I do; I’ve been married forty years (to the same man.)  However, it’s not always easy. My novel, REPRISE, struggles with these themes in more depth and I’ll write more on this topic in future blogs.

[1] Phallic symbolism no doubt intentional.


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Today marks the end of an incredible tour of Russia, Germany and Scandinavia.  This is a photo of me in Germany.

Kathleen in Germany

As I journey back home, I can’t help but think about our last few days in Copenhagen.

From a quirky ’60s restaurant where we had lunch,

A '60s lunch tabletop and the restaurant wall - festooned with old reel-to-reel tape players , record players etc - some of the kids had never seen such things!
A ’60s lunch tabletop and the restaurant wall – festooned with old reel-to-reel tape players, record players etc – some of the kids had never seen such things!

to yet another castle with an interesting throne,

King's castle privy - none of the other castles included this detail.
King’s castle privy – none of the other castles included this detail.

to our crazy Marriot Hotel.

Our crazy hotel in Copenhagen.
Our crazy hotel in Copenhagen.


A closer look at our hotel.
A closer look at our hotel.


Just ASK! Just Alex, Sam and Kathleen in this photo.
Just ASK! Just Alex, Sam and Kathleen in this photo.

Here we are in a church in Copenhagen.

So many churches and castles.
So many churches and castles.
With all the walking we have been doing, It was always nice to find a place to sit down.
With all the walking we have been doing, It was always nice to find a place to sit down.

I will leave you with this last photo as I reflect upon our adventure.

Reflecting on the crown inside Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen.
Reflecting on the crown inside Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen.


7/6/16 Let’s Talk Tolstoy


July6, 2016
I have yet to realize the above scenario. It turns out Tolstoy rarely surfaces in California small talk. Luckily, the blog format allows me to start my own conversation but it might be too late. I haven’t given Leo much thought for decades. To test my knowledge retention, I’m writing this post without using references.

My favorite Tolstoy novel was the lesser known Resurrection, written relatively late in his life. I don’t recall the hero’s name but basically the plot was as follows. An aristocrat serving as a juror recognizes the woman on trial as the same girl he and his friends gang-raped years earlier. Overcome with guilt, he accompanies her to prison in Siberia. She is not enthusiastic and, as I recall, it doesn’t turn into a love story. It’s more about the guy’s spiritual journey. It’s shorter than War and Peace and Anna Karenina.


By My Authority2









My second favorite was Anna Karenina but I confess skimming the parts about Levin. Tolstoy used Levin to pontificate on rural Russian agriculture, not exactly a page-turner. Given this, it’s ironic the section of the book I remember and admired most involved the deadly dull Levin.

Anna Karenina2

Here is how I remember it.  Levin has been set up with an eligible woman (after suffering rejection from Kitty, the woman he wants and – spoiler alert – later gets.) They’re picnicking near a river. Tolstoy describes a moment in their conversation where they both realize – or decide – this relationship is dead in the water. The energy level drops but nothing is said. No doubt some of my admiration for this passage is due to having experienced similar moments myself although I couldn’t articulate them as well.  In a future post, I’ll paste the passage in question into my blog and attempt to analyze why it works – or I’ll admit my memory failed and what I recall reading doesn’t exist. (It appears this may, in fact, be the case. I’m mortified.)

My favorite Tolstoy short story is the Kreutzer Sonata in which the aging Leo rails against the evils of lust, sex and women. In reality, Tolstoy’s wife Sonya got pregnant shortly after its publication and referred to the baby as “the postscript to the Kreutzer Sonata.”  It’s a passionate story, raging against passion.

K Sonata

Ask me what I know about Dostoevsky or Chekhov and the answer is “not much.” But just wait until someone brings up Leo Tolstoy at a cocktail party!

Here are a couple of shots of our visits to Tallinn, Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia.


My Favorite Short Story Collections

I love to read short story collections and admire the craft involved. When I tried to write a few myself, I discovered it’s a lot harder than it looks. (I’ll get into some of the reasons why in a later post.) Here are a few of my favorite collections, in no particular order.

  1. Anything by Alice Munro – she’s simply the best and she makes it look so easy!
  2. Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut and Nine inches both made me laugh out loud. I like his novels too but I like the short stories better.
  3. Dan Chaon’s Fitting Ends and Among the Missing captured something Midwestern and hard to define. They stayed in my mind for a long time.
  4. Ron Rash, both Burning Bright and Nothing Gold Can Stay – I like his novels and other collections too but these are favorites.
  5. Ron Carlson’s The Hotel Eden – and I highly recommend his book about writing short stories, fittingly titled Ron Carlson Writes a Story.
  6. Laura Lippman’s Hardly Knew Her – great twist-and-turn nourish stories from a female point of view.
  7. Marly Swick Monogamy and The Summer Before the Summer of Love. Monogamy sat on my bookshelf for years before I picked it up and read it. I loved it so much I immediately ordered The Summer Before the Summer of Love and I wasn’t disappointed. Great stories!
  8. Molly Ringwald’s When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories. I wasn’t expecting much on the erroneous assumption a talented actress couldn’t possibly write too but I was wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed these stories.
  9. Alix Ohlin’s Signs and Wonders. A relatively new writer and another great find.
  10. Jennifer Egan’s Emerald City and A Visit from the Goon Squad (linked short stories in service of a novel.)

Ten Books that Mattered (A Lot) to Me

I thought I’d compile a list of the books that really mattered to me throughout my life. Perhaps not surprisingly, I read many of them when I was very young, in my “formative” years as a reader. I don’t know if I’d rate them all so highly today based on literary criteria but that’s not my goal here – these are books I cared passionately about, books that influenced me, made a difference. Literary masterpieces and classics are conspicuous by their absence – I’ll cover my favorites there in another list. These are my top ten for sheer entertainment and emotional impact.


  • KNIGHT’S CASTLE by Edward Eager – as an adult, I’m not a huge fan of magic fantasy novels, but I loved all of Edward Eager’s magic-based book. This one, an alternative take on Ivanhoe, was my favorite.
  • DAVID AND THE PHOENIX by Edward Ormondroyd – a wonderful children’s book. I cried again when I reread it as an adult.
  • THE MOONFLOWER VINE by Jetta Carleton. Maybe because I’m one of three sister, this tale of three sisters really got to me.
  • TEMPLE OF GOLD by William Goldman. Goldman is more famous for his screenplays, but I’m a huge fan of his novels – especially this impressive debut.
  • THE MAGUS by John Fowles – I read this in college and have re-read it several times since. It starts slow but then it’s a speeding bullet to the finale.
  • REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier – possibly my first exposure to a huge twist ending – which caught my adolescent self by surprise. I read a lot of du Maurier as a result and also liked a couple more obscure ones – MY COUSIN RACHEL and THE PARASITES.
  • GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell – I’m pretty sure this is an unfashionable, politically incorrect choice, but I loved it – and like most teenage girls of my era, I identified strongly with the Ashley-Rhett dilemma.
  • GREEN MILE by Stephen King – I’m not a big fan of horror either, but this was like a textbook on how to write a page-turner – it was almost impossible to put down and the ending really paid off (for me).
  • A SIMPLE PLAN by Scott Smith – the movie is good, but the book is better. It’s so tight, so compelling, and it really stayed with me.
  • ENDLESS LOVE by Scott Spencer – the novel, not the movie. Spencer captured the crazy urgency of adolescent love (for me) and the last paragraph is a thing of beauty.


I’d love to read some of your lists if anyone feels like sharing!

My Values in Fiction

Baby K


Since I’m going to offer reviews and recommendations, I thought I’d clarify my personal value in fiction. I don’t claim to be an authority on anything except my own personal taste. Your value system is equally valid, even if it’s diametrically opposed to mine.

• I read for entertainment. Story is more important than beautiful language. . That’s not to say I don’t admire the perfect word choice – but without an entertaining story, I won’t keep turning pages.
• I read to answer questions to learn something – what happens next? Questions create suspense and propel me forward. Answers (information) should be revealed slowly to keep me interested.
• The train must leave the station (story must start) fast (preferably immediately). As in screenwriting, start late and leave early.
• Never use two words when you can use one better word. No wasted words ever.
• The best stories involve hard decisions, true dilemmas.
• Use small, concrete physical details in description but make sure they tell the reader something new about the character or story.
• Ask yourself David Mamet’s three questions.
• Why now?
• Who wants what from whom?
• What happens if they don’t get it?
• Remember – everybody has their reasons. Even villains/antagonists.
• Protagonists want something passionately. They are active, as are your verbs.
• While not always necessary in literary fiction, I prefer stories in which protagonists change / arc in a satisfying way. Even a failed epiphany is an epiphany.
• Don’t let characters say “I love you”. Show it in interesting ways.
• In literary short stories, small turning points occur when very minor decisions change everything. For me, this doesn’t work in long fiction.
• Short stories shouldn’t snap shut “like a cheap lock” – allow for ambiguity. It’s good if the reader wonders about the story after reading it.

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