Thursday, December 08, 2016


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The Suicide of Claire Bishop, Carmiel Banasky, Dzanc Books, 2015, 384 pp

Summary from Goodreads: Greenwich Village, 1959. Claire Bishop sits for a portrait—a gift from her husband—only to discover that what the artist has actually depicted is Claire’s suicide. Haunted by the painting, Claire is forced to redefine herself within a failing marriage and a family history of madness. Shifting ahead to 2004, we meet West, a young man with schizophrenia obsessed with a painting he encounters in a gallery: a mysterious image of a woman’s suicide. Convinced it was painted by his ex-girlfriend, West constructs an elaborate delusion involving time-travel, Hasidism, art-theft, and the terrifying power of representation. When the two characters finally meet, in the present, delusions are shattered and lives are forever changed.

My Review:
Carmiel Banasky's debut novel dwells on two long term taboo subjects concerning human life: suicide and mental illness. It also floats along between two time periods and societal issues: war protests in the 1960s and art theft at the turn of the 20th century. If that were not enough the story includes an Hasidic Jewish convert, a mysterious painter, and a wealthy unfaithful husband. 

It is a challenging read. I do not recommend it to any but the most intrepid readers. Readers who like to go beyond and beneath the standard acceptable ideas about life, family, and society. Readers who walk down the street or stand in lines and wonder about what goes on inside the people they observe around them. Readers who sometimes ponder on whether they are as well-adjusted and happy as they appear to their acquaintances and family members. Readers to whom the phrase "lost in a book" is literal.

The reward for me in reading books like this is the rich understanding of the breadth of ways that human life is lived. We are all connected, we all need help sometimes and faith in something, and we all need to take care of each other.

I have mentioned in other reviews the wonderful Nervous Breakdown Book Club, a monthly subscription service that brings you fiction and non-fiction from both mainstream and overlooked authors. I would not have heard of nor read this novel if not for them.

Brad Listi, the guy behind the book club and the editor of The Nervous Breakdown literary culture mag, also produces a weekly podcast, Otherppl, during which he interviews authors. His interview with Carmiel Banasky is here.

Finally a shout-out to the publisher Dzanc Books, independent, non-profit, and located in my spiritual hometown, Ann Arbor, MI. They publish innovative literary work, mentor emerging writers, and do much other work to advance literature and reading.

Note: I do not receive any compensation from the above entities. I just think they are great and want to spread the word.

(The Suicide of Claire Bishop is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


Tuesday, December 06, 2016


In December, all manner of different things take place during my reading group meetings: a special outing to a restaurant, a potluck dinner at my house, voting on our favorite book of the year, wild book exchanges, and even sometimes literary games. I have already made chocolate pie for a group this past Sunday and I am making another one for tomorrow night. Time to eat, drink, and be merrily literary! But we also read and discuss a book...usually.

Tina's Group:

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Laura's Group:

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One Book At A Time:

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Tiny Book Club:

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Are you having any bookish parties this month? 

Monday, December 05, 2016


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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken, Doubleday & Company, 1962, 168 pp


I have read 10 novels by Joan Aiken. I love both her adult stories and the ones for children. She was born in East Sussex, England, in 1924, was the daughter of the poet Conrad Aiken, and died in 2004. She wrote her first novel, The Kingdom and the Cave, when she was 17 and continued to write for her entire life. She portrays children in wondrous ways, similar to Elizabeth Goudge but with magic and supernatural elements instead of religious ones.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is the first in her 11 book series The Wolves Chronicles. The series is set in an alternative history of Britain, but not knowing British history well myself, that barely matters to me. What I love are the children and the story.

Two girls, one rich and exuberant, the other poor but wise, are cousins who have more exciting adventures daily than most girls have yearly. Dangers barely escaped, cruel adults outwitted, loyalty and bravery, are the keys to the tale. The parents are not neglectful, just rather oblivious in their trust of servants and governesses, but also kind and generous. A rather feral boy, reminiscent of Spiller in The Borrowers series, is their champion.

This is breathless, page turning stuff intentionally created to thrill and entertain young readers and probably laid the ground for the best in children's literature today. It makes me happy that I still have dozens of her books left to read, including retellings of all six Jane Austen novels.

The Wolves Chronicles series would make a great holiday gift for enthusiastic female young readers. 

(The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, December 01, 2016


Despite best intentions, November reading was doomed: election aftermath blues, Thanksgiving trip, and a couple long books. I did however like every single one I read.

Stats: 7 read, 2 by women, 7 fiction, 1 from My Big Fat Reading Project 1962 list.
Favorites: My Real Children and Into the Beautiful North
Least favorite: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


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Last Days of Night, Graham Moore, Random House, 2016, 357 pp

Summary from Goodreads: A thrilling novel based on actual events, about the nature of genius, the cost of ambition, and the battle to electrify America—New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history—and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country? 

My Review:
I read this excellent historical fiction because I have a bit of an obsession with Nikola Tesla. Luckily one of my reading groups picked it, meaning I read it sooner rather than later.

It is 1888 and Thomas Edison has engaged in a huge legal battle with George Westinghouse over who invented the light bulb. Electric light is just beginning to replace gas light and there is money to be made. Enter Nikola Tesla with his discoveries about alternating current, thickening the plot.

The battle is told through the eyes of Paul Cravath, just graduated from Columbia Law School and in his first year of practise as a junior partner at a small legal office. When George Westinghouse hires him to conduct a counter suit against Edison, Paul anticipates his career getting off to a great start.  

Brilliant story telling puts this untested lawyer smack in the middle of an untested legal issue. Everyone involved makes mistakes but Paul's are the most interesting since we already know how it turned out. (Well, at least I thought I did though I learned much more about the infamous rivalry.) Paul's unceasingly hard work and perpetual setbacks power the plot. Through most of the book I was as stressed out as Paul was, wondering if he would fail epically or win the day for Westinghouse. In the end, he did neither.

Reading about the intersection of science, business, and law that made the book a thriller, I was amazed both at the violence of the times and by how much the late 1800s set the stage for the oligarchy we live in today. J P Morgan gets involved as the financier. Even banking plays a role.

My favorite characters though were Tesla with his almost autistic personality and Agnes Huntington, Paul's love interest, a woman as intriguing as Lilliet Berne in The Queen of the Night.

Graham Moore is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game. I predict he will go far. 

(Last Days of Night is currently available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 


Monday, November 28, 2016


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We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson, The Viking Press, 1962, 146 pp

Summary from Goodreads: Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

My Review:
This was my Halloween read. (Yes, I am a bit behind in posting reviews.) It was perfectly spooky and unsettling.

The best aspect was a steady building of creepy tension. Though that is Shirley Jackson's most notorious skill, she kicked it up a notch here in her final novel.

Mary Katherine and her older sister Constance live alone with their senile Uncle Julian in a big house on the edge of town. The rest of the Blackwood family are dead. None of the family were liked in town and Mary Katherine is the only one who ventures there for the weekly shopping. She is bullied in disturbing ways. During the course of the tale you find out the whys for all the strangeness.

It gets continuously more disturbing and there is no redemption at the end. If that bothers you, don't read Shirley Jackson, ever!

I have not read much Stephen King but now that I have read all of Shirley Jackson's novels, I believe I may be ready. She holds up a mirror to our deepest unspoken fears and desires. We all have them as well as evil thoughts we dare not act out.

I also want to read the recently published biography: Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin. Ms Jackson gives me courage and permission to tell my own stories.

(We Have Always Lived in the Castle is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


Saturday, November 26, 2016


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The Slave, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Farrar Straus and Cudahy, 1962, 311 pp (translated from the Yiddish by the author and Cecil Hemley)

Summary from Goodreads: Four years after the Chmielnicki massacres of the seventeenth century, Jacob, a slave and cowherd in a Polish village high in the mountains, falls in love with Wanda, his master's daughter. Even after he is ransomed, he finds he can't live without her, and the two escape together to a distant Jewish community. Racked by his consciousness of sin in taking a Gentile wife and by the difficulties of concealing her identity, Jacob nonetheless stands firm as the violence of the era threatens to destroy the ill-fated couple. 

My Review:
I have not yet read anything by I B Singer I did not love. The Slave is no exception. Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978 and always wrote in Yiddish until his death in 1991, in Surfside, FL.

After all my reading this year about slavery in America, I come to this reminder that slavery is as old an institution as prostitution. Both seem to be inherent in the human story. 

The Slave is an epic in 311 pages. Jacob was a learned and pious Jew, son of wealthy parents, who found himself a slave to a farmer in a remote mountain village. His birthplace, Josefov, was a Polish town that lay in the path of Ukrainian Cossacks in the 17th century. The ensuing massacres had cleared the town of Jews. Jacob fled, thinking his parents, wife and children dead, then fell into the hands of robbers who sold him into slavery. 

Though he desperately strove to stay true to his faith, Jacob began to love the farmer's daughter. Wanda was a step above her environment, a practically prehistoric milieu of pagan superstition, tooth and claw existence, and rural poverty. But she was a Gentile and therefore forbidden. Her passion for him finally overcame his religious scruples and they planned to escape.

Of course, that plan fell through on the first attempt. Jacob's life from then on is one of perils and his search for redemption, taking him all the way to Israel as part of the early Zionist movement, at last reuniting with Wanda, and on to his final days where he finds peace and wisdom.

Besides being a beautiful love story, the novel is also a contemplation of the place of religion in human society including the contradiction that it condemns believers who do not follow its commandments while it honors the phenomenon that spirituality can lift us above our animal nature. The result is a timeless tale.

How interesting that Singer published a novel called The Slave just as the Civil Rights Movement was catching fire in America, his adopted country since 1935.