Monday, December 11, 2017


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Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan, Scribner, 2017, 433 pp
I have long been a fan of Jennifer Egan. She always does something different. This time she has written historical fiction with a noir/crime slant. Still her concerns remain intact. Those are crime and redemption as well as the consequences of decisions made and actions taken. Hovering over those concerns are her clear-eyed view of the way historical changes impact the lives of individuals.
Manhattan Beach opens with a scene featuring the three main characters of the book, Anna Kerrigan, her father Eddie, and nightclub owner Dexter Styles. It is some time after the stock market crash of 1929. Anna is eleven and worships her father, who often takes her with him when he makes his "business" calls. This time they call on the very rich Dexter Styles and Anna perceives a new nervousness in Eddie.

It is a startling opening chapter in which the reader is given only glimpses into what is going on because we see it primarily through her eleven-year-old eyes. Though she is intelligent, perceptive, and feisty, there is plenty she doesn't know about her father and about life.

Most of the rest of the novel is Anna's story with Eddie's and Dexter's woven in. We learn how Anna felt when her father disappeared and how she carved out a life for herself, away from her long suffering mother and her crippled sister, both of whom she also loves deeply. 

By the time WWII begins she is working in the Brooklyn Naval Yard and still bucking anything that could hold her back. Against all odds she becomes a diver, working to maintain and repair ships for the war effort. She also becomes involved with Dexter Styles again and the stories of these three characters circle around each other.

I have read my share of historical fiction but Egan puts a new twist on the genre. The historical bits are woven in like the faintest thread in this tapestry of lives. In fact that thread is so faint that I sometimes felt adrift, but it did not matter because it is the characters and the ways their lives connect that make the novel.

Underlying all that happens to Anna, Eddie and Mr Styles is the world of organized crime, whether it is playing the stock market, doing the dirty work for union bosses, or marrying into a banking family. Anna is a shining beacon of a female. Not a moll, not a floozy, and not a basically nice but defeated woman like her mother, but the kind of female any self-respecting woman would like to be.

Everyone in this novel has secrets, including Anna, and all are crippled in some way because of them. As Anna finds her way back to the dad she had convinced herself she did not love anymore, all those secrets are revealed. Somehow Jennifer Egan makes the novel deeply sad and joyfully alive at the same time.

(Manhattan Beach is currently available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, December 07, 2017


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The Obelisk Gate, N K Jemisin, Orbit, 2016, 391 pp
In the second book of her Broken Earth trilogy, for which N K Jemisin won the Hugo Award for the second year in a row, we continue to follow the characters from the first book, The Fifth Season. A minor character from the first book becomes a major one.
Essun and her daughter Nassun, who were cruelly separated in the earlier book, alternate chapters. If you have ever had a child taken from you, this story will rebreak your heart. The determination of both to find each other in the aftermath of the chaos which began in The Fifth Season, is the emotional heart of the story.

In addition, more of the background to the world of The Stillness is made known to the point where it became crystal clear that this is one of the farthest-into-the-future worlds I have come across in any kind of fiction, ever! Positively chilling to imagine that the forces which are, whether we believe it or not, destroying our earth could lead to what the author posits in these books.

I had a little trouble with the voices. The mother Essun's story is told in second person, her daughter Nassun's in third person, and then there is another third person voice who is not identified. For many pages, this was freaking me out but finally I just went with it. I am hoping it all becomes clear in the final volume. As in the first book, more and more is revealed about what is going on, what happened in the past, and which characters are working for good, which for evil.

I admire N K Jemisin for being so out there with this series. I imagine she wondered if what she was writing would be read by anyone at all, yet still she went ahead and told the story she had to tell. I think one could read these books on a couple different levels, either for the adventure of the tale and/or for its parallels to the world today. In any case, her bravery as a writer paid off. Two Hugo Awards, almost 2000 reviews on Goodreads, and an overall rating of 4.36 stars. 

She also violated every taboo against mixing fantasy, science fiction, and magic in one story. I find that exhilarating. If you love any of those genres, you will love The Broken Earth trilogy. I can't wait to read the final volume, The Stone Sky. Then I will have to decide whether I should read all three books again or read her earlier books.

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

Monday, December 04, 2017


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The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark, Alfred A Knopf, 1963, 142 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Like the May of Teck Club itself—"three times window shattered since 1940 but never directly hit"—its lady inhabitants do their best to act as if the world were back to normal: practicing elocution, and jostling over suitors and a single Schiaparelli gown. The novel's harrowing ending reveals that the girls' giddy literary and amorous peregrinations are hiding some tragically painful war wounds.

Chosen by Anthony Burgess as one of the Best Modern Novels in the Sunday Times of London, The Girls of Slender Means is a taut and eerily perfect novel by an author The New York Times has called "one of this century's finest creators of comic-metaphysical entertainment."
My review:
I can always count on Muriel Spark to cheer me up. "Comic-metaphysical entertainment" indeed. I have now read seven novels by this Scottish born writer and have only scratched the surface of her work. She wrote 24 of them before she died in 2006 at 88 years of age.
These mildly impoverished female survivors of WWII live in an old boarding house in London, surrounded by bomb wreckage. Ages vary and even within the building there is a class hierarchy because it is, after all, Great Britain in the postwar world. Rationing is still a hard burden and they are all single but mostly looking for love
While keeping their chins up, they hold the general feeling that "all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions." Except none of them are all that nice and every one holds wounds of one sort or another, mostly emotional ones.
Why did reading this short novel cheer me up? Because we all harbor certain wounds and life is never certain, but it is entertaining to have a look at how others in another city and country, another century, deal with theirs. Their petty squabbles, their determination to carry on, even the violent ending, made me feel less alone. 
(The Girls of Slender Means is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Saturday, December 02, 2017


I had one of my lowest number of books finished in November ever. For the past few years Thanksgiving has become an event filled with many happy days spent eating, drinking and carrying on with family. This went on for a full week and I don't regret a minute spent! All the books I finished were great except for one. Also, in these interesting times, I am proud to say they were all written by women!!

Stats:6 books read. 6 fiction. 6 by written by women. 4 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 fantasy.
Favorite: Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Least favorite: The Benefactor.

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How was your reading in November? Better than mine I hope!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


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Shadow of the Moon, M M Kaye, St Martin's Press Inc, 1956, 799 pp
Over two decades ago I devoured M M Kaye's The Far Pavillions and Trade Wind. She writes the kind of long books I love: so readable and so historically instructive. Some months ago my blogger friend Helen reviewed Shadow of the Moon on her excellent historical fiction blog, She Reads Novels, reminding me I had missed this one. 
After I read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, I was inspired to learn more about the history of India. I was still too timid to try Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children again after a failed attempt to read it some years ago, so Shadow of the Moon seemed just the thing. It was!

The British East India Company is in the waning years of its heyday. It is about to morph into the British Raj when its power to rule India passed to Queen Victoria after an uprising that nearly bankrupted the world's most powerful trading company.

Through the eyes of Winter de Ballesteros, half British heiress and half Spanish Condessa, this novel tells the story of the rebellion by the Sepoys, the Indian infantry soldiers in the British East India Company army. I really got the sense of how much and for how long India was under the power of the British: for over 250 years under the East India Company and then another 73 years under the British Raj before achieving independence in 1947.

The story goes deeply into the results and discontents of misrule. It is actually astonishing how much political history Ms Kaye covers in a novel that reads like a historical romance.

Winter is a typical heroine for novels of this kind. She is naive and romantic, but strong and brave. After a life of sorrows and losses, she gets her happy ending. Life for women in India was difficult in the extreme. Both English and Indian women suffered in many ways, lost babies, died from disease, and had virtually no rights. Winter can be a frustrating character but considering all the trials she survived from the day of her birth, she became a beloved heroine for me.

I admired how well M M Kaye captured that aspect of womanhood where no matter how brave, smart and resilient a woman was, she was forever being left behind to endure pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood while her husband took off to settle business and political troubles. It's enough to make me want to watch Wonder Woman over and over!

I loved the book. It took me seven days to read 274 pages of Susan Sontag but only four days to read 799 pages by M M Kaye. I do need both novels of ideas and those with propulsive storytelling in my reading life, but Ms Kaye combined the two so seamlessly. Now I actually feel sufficiently girded to tackle Midnight's Children.

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017


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The Benefactor, Susan Sontag, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1963, 274 pp
This is Susan Sontag's first novel and the first thing I have read by her. I read it because it is on the 1963 list of My Big Fat Reading Project and because I am reading everything I can by women known to be intellectuals, outside of the usual box of female fiction writers, and possessed of a prickly nature. It was a difficult read.
Hippolyte is a man looking back on coming of age in Paris in the mid 20th century. First of all, why is he called Hippolyte? Hippolyta was Queen of the Amazons in Greek mythology. (I only know this because I looked it up.) Hippolyte has nothing godlike (or goddesslike) about him. In the blurbs and reviews of this book, he is compared to Candide, the main character in Voltaire's novel of that title. I have not read that. So clearly I was out of my depth.

In his youth, Hippolyte was given permission by his indulgent father to live in Paris with a stipend and do whatever he desired. He began to have disturbing dreams and spent most of his time alone interpreting those dreams while trying to relate them to his waking life. He also caroused with his friend Jean-Jacques, an author by day and a secret male hustler by night. Hippolyte then takes a mistress who he mistreats. She haunts him for the rest of his life.

The premise of this faux memoir is that Hippolyte does finally come to a certain understanding about who he is and the life he has lived. I could relate to that because I am trying to do the same thing in writing my own autobiography. The other trouble I had while reading The Benefactor was that I could not bring myself to care about the man.

I have made my maiden voyage into the work of Susan Sontag and it was on a rough sea. The other day I found an essay on Sontag's novels and it gave me enough hope that if I keep reading her I will eventually be rewarded.

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


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Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward, Scribner, 2017, 285 pp

This is an amazing novel! I read it just two weeks before Jesmyn Ward won the 2017 National Book Award for fiction. In fact, it is her second win for that award. She won for her first novel, Salvage the Bones, in 2011.
Sing, Unburied, Sing has ghosts. How many time have I run into ghosts in this year's reading? It tells the story of African American families by revealing one of those families through the eyes of Jojo, who is 13. His mother is black, his father is white. He has assumed the role of mother/father/brother/protector for his baby sister. Kayla is the shimmering star of the book and rendered so exquisitely by the author that you can feel her clinging to Jojo as if she is clinging to you.

Jojo, Kayla and their mother Leonie live with Leonie's parents. Grandpa has secrets in his past, including a prison term. Grandma is dying from cancer. Leonie's brother is dead due to one of those ways Black boys die in this country. Jojo and Kayla's father Michael is in prison on a drug-related charge but he is getting out and Leonie takes her two children on a road trip through two Southern states to pick him up.

Reading Sing, Unburied, Sing was like traveling in a foreign country for a white woman like me. It is almost too much, especially because the writing is so good, putting you into these people's lives. You live with them and with all the ghosts of their people who died of racism, by racism, through racism. Almost too much until I remembered that these are people who live in my country all mixed right in with the white people. 

I have been reading books by and about people of color for decades. About slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights; about the customs, the music, the drugs, and all the work-arounds they have developed just so they can exist in American society. I made a count from my reading records, kept since the 1980s. Out of hundreds of authors I have read, only 33 are African American. 

So you see that the stories we are primarily being told are by white authors. In her acceptance speech for her 2017 win at the National Book Awards ceremony, Jesmyn Ward said, "Throughout my career when I've been rejected, there was sometimes a subtext, and it was this: 'People will not read your work because these are not universal stories.' "

Translation: the predominately white publishing industry assumes that their predominately white readership feels these stories are not universal. What? As Richard Wright said, "White man, listen." Racism and it effects on citizens of all colors is a universal story. How else do we overcome this scourge on our nation if we don't know the stories?

It is a big win for America that Jesmyn Ward has won the National Book Award twice. It is a win worth being proud of for us all. She has brought to us the ghosts who live on in our history.

For your reading adventures, here is a list of the 33 African American writers who have told me their stories:

James Baldwin
Paul Beatty
Gwendolyn Brooks
Pearl Cleage
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Edwidge Danticat
Ralph Ellison
Angela Flournoy
Paula Fox
Yaa Gyasi
Zora Neale Hurston
Marlon James
N K Jemison
Mat Johnson
Edward P Jones
Jamaica Kinkaid
Imbolo Mbue
James McBride
Kim McLarin
Terry McMillan
Toni Morrison
Barack Obama
Dexter Palmer
Ann Petry
Alice Randall
John Ridley
Zadie Smith
Lalita Tademy
Alice Walker
Jesmyn Ward
Dorothy West
Colson Whitehead
Richard Wright
How many of them have you read? 

(Sing, Unburied, Sing is currently available on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)