Monday, February 19, 2018


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The Game-Players of Titan, Philip K Dick, Ace Books, 1963, 215 pp
Reading Philip K Dick, for me, is like hanging out with a super odd friend and just marveling at how very odd he is. This is the ninth book I have read by him. I am reading his books roughly in the order he published them though I have skipped a few. He was very prolific at the beginning and it seems I can only take so much of his clunky prose.
However, he was so prescient, perhaps the most of all speculative writers ever and that is why he fascinates me and many other readers. 

In this one, Earth is ruled by an alien race that presents as amorphous blobs. The human race is dying off due to a low birth rate. The remaining adults are obsessed with Bluff, a game in which they gamble for cities and spouses, while drinking heavily.

It is funny in a black humor way. All the characters are unlikable. Everything changes every few pages. The set piece is a game of Bluff on the alien planet Titan, with the two races competing for Earth.

Read it at your own risk!

(The Game-Players of Titan is mostly out of print. Try your library or favorite used book seller.)

Friday, February 16, 2018


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Run River, Joan Didion, Ivan Obolensky Inc, 1963, 264 pp
I first read Joan Didion in 2000. Play It As It Lays, published in 1970, was her second novel. I grabbed it off a library shelf because I had heard of her, had heard it was a classic LA novel, but I was in no way prepared for what I found, except maybe by the seven Joyce Carol Oates books I had read by then. That disturbing tale of a woman's descent into madness as she compulsively drove the freeways of Los Angeles kept me from falling asleep after I read it in one evening.
Since then I have read her memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband, and Blue Nights, about the death of her daughter.

Joan Didion is a great writer. Her precision reminds me of Nadine Gordimer, her incisive intelligence reminds me of many of my favorite female intellectual writers, and her ability to plunge into the murky depths of the human psyche is the JCO connection for me.

Run River was her first published novel, though she had already been an editor at Vogue Magazine and went on to write articles for many publications. It is set in her hometown of Sacramento, CA, and features two families, descended from pioneers, whose rural ranches are falling into ruin.

The novel explores a troubled marriage, an insular community, and their roots in California history. Lily is a serial adulteress and her husband Everett is a bitter, failing, though still wealthy rancher who nevertheless loves the fragile Lily and their children. In his own uncommunicative way, he tries to protect his family and his wild sister. The book opens on the final tragedy of their lives, then goes back to show how they got there.

In some ways it was similar to many of the bestsellers I have read from the 1940s and 1950s about wealthy dysfunctional families. Though it has the hallmarks of a first novel, of its being derivative, those qualities of Didion that have gained her critical acclaim in both fiction and nonfiction are all on display.

Last month I watched The Center Will Not Hold, a documentary of Joan's life. It can be seen on Netflix streaming. I was enthralled by this look into her life, her writing and the way she feels about it all looking back from the age of 83.

Nine days later I read Run River. Not every reader falls under this woman's spell but I have, with every book I read. My life has been tame in comparison, though never boring or even calm, but she speaks to my experience as a woman coming up in the late 20th century and trying to make sense of the 21st.

(Run River is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


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Miss Burma, Charmaine Craig, Grove Press, 2017, 355 pp
This astounding novel was such a worthwhile read. All I knew of Burma, now called Myanmar, was that in recent years it has been ruled by an oppressive military junta, closed off from the world. My clearest impression was of the time in 2004 when the country refused any foreign aid after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Just the other day they were in the news as the genocide of minorities continues there.
So what happened in that poor tortured country? Charmaine Craig is the daughter of Louisa Benson, who rose to fame in Burma and the world when she began winning beauty contests and eventually became a contestant for the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant. This novel is the story of the author's mother and her grandparents, but it is also a history of Burma from WWII onward.

I call the book astounding because of the way it entwines the personal lives of her family with the tumultuous political upheavals of their country. It covers colonial abuse and then neglect by the British Empire, bitter enmity between ethnic groups as well as intermarriage between the groups, and the horrific human rights abuses that have gone on. The incredible bravery and resistance of the author's mother and grandmother and their fight for freedom as members of the Karen people, the most despised minority of Burma, makes that political history come alive.

It is a lot to take in. Love between husband and wife, parents and children, siblings, is almost impossible to maintain in such situations. The suffering of these people challenged my imagination. The question is, aside from the right and need for people to tell their stories, do you want to read and know about it if you are one of the more privileged members of the human race. As a reader, that is your choice and you have the right to choose.

At this point in history it often seems that mankind will never change. The powerful will always suppress the weak and nearly always win. The news will either upset or soothe, depending on the outlets we choose to read. Reading historical novels like this, especially when based on real people, inspires me. Sometimes the apparent weak are stronger than it appears and that urge for freedom and justice does have an impact.

(Miss Burma is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, February 11, 2018


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Dune, Frank Herbert, Chilton Books, 1965, 473 pp
Brief Summary from IndieBound: Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, who would become the mysterious man known as Muad'Dib. He would avenge the traitorous plot against his noble family--and would bring to fruition humankind's most ancient and unattainable dream. 
My Brief Review:
I have finally read this iconic book, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. I thought I was possibly the last person on earth to have not read it before, but at our reading group meeting, out of five attending, only two of us read it for the first time.

Anyway, it was just as great as all its champions say. So much of what influenced my worldview in the 1960s is encapsulated in the story: ecology, the dangers of big corporations to both the planet and society, the evils done to native populations when empires come to colonize. Then there is religion, fantasy, witchcraft, and even quite an exploration of hero worship and cult-like communal social groups.

I think if anyone in publishing read the above paragraph, eyes would roll and scoffing would take place. Who does this guy Frank Herbert think he is kidding? He was not kidding. He really did have the knowledge of history and the writing chops to pull it off.

I am so glad I read it. I loved every page. Thanks to the member of Molly's Group who convinced us to choose it. I am also glad I bought my own copy. It is a book worth rereading.

(Dune is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. I ordered my copy there and it arrived in three days.)

Friday, February 09, 2018


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The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, The Dial Press, 1963, 106 pp
This man was so eloquent, his mind so capacious, his ability is to present ideas imbued with emotion but with such clarity. In this slim volume he both stirred me up and calmed me down. It has two parts.
The first, My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a mere eight pages is just that, a letter. I read somewhere, but can't find it now, that this letter inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Between the World and Me. Baldwin is advising his nephew to be strong, assuring him that he is, and recommending a path for the future he will face.

"And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we with love, shall force on our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it." (He is talking about their white brothers.) "We cannot be free until they are free." That advice requires almost inhuman or above human strength and a whole lotta love.

Approximately 53 years later on, Coates was not so full of that love. Too many great leaders slain, too many more black sons slain or imprisoned. Quite a bit more anger and fear than Baldwin was showing in 1962 when he wrote his letter. 150+ years since one of our greatest Presidents issued that proclamation is a long time to wait for the change that was supposed to come. Five generations of waiting.

I found the second much longer section more interesting: Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind. It is James Baldwin losing his religion and yet not really. I knew something of Baldwin's religious life, told as fiction in Go Tell It On The Mountain. In this version he deconstructs it further. A lot happened to him in ten years.

He tells of returning to America after living abroad, of witnessing the cruelties laid on Blacks who followed Martin Luther King's non-violent methods of protest, of befriending Malcolm X, of meeting Elijah Muhammad.

Finally he pulls it all together as really only James Baldwin can do and explains what it would really take to put an end to racism in America. In those words I heard the echos of the truth at the heart of any of the world's religions: the ability to love ourselves and our fellow man is the key to a more just world. He admits to how hard that is for any human being. Then he ends with a prophecy that has come forth from any religion's story of the flood, in the words of a slave song: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time."

I can't say that this brought me hope. I don't think Ta-Nehisi Coates operates from a place of hope. The fire does approach more closely everyday. In some areas of the world it has arrived. Is this ancient dream of peace, justice and brotherhood only that? A dream? Is that why so many write, read, and discuss? Can it ever become reality?

What I do recognize is that James Baldwin, along with many other people of good will, found that dream in a church of some kind. The truly brave and tough people of good will walk out of church into the world to participate in realizing the dream. No matter what name those people give to this spiritual practice, they are my people.

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

Tuesday, February 06, 2018


I am a little bit late posting this. I can't seem to keep up with blogging because I am having such a great time reading. Terrible problems I have, right?

Reading groups are a bit quiet this month. The One Book At A Time group never met in January due to rampant flu-not me thank goodness. So we will discuss Miss Burma this month. Laura's Group went on hiatus for the holidays and has so far not been resurrected. And the Tiny Book Club also had a member down with two bouts of flu. To date we have not discussed The Wreath from January as a group and have not got a new book picked. Did you really want to know all of that? Well, now you do.
Here's more: Some of you wanted to know how my groups did with the fantasy novels last month. Well, it was all a great success. In Molly's Group three of the five attending had already read Dune but reread. Molly and I were new readers of the sci fi classic. We all were totally thumbs up on the book and had a rousing discussion. 
I had been quite worried that my recommendation to the Bookie Babes that we read The Fifth Season would end in disaster, since some of them had never even read fantasy before. Well, we had two haters, one of whom said she kept wondering what was wrong with her because she couldn't understand the story at all. But the rest, 7 out of 10, either admired the imagination at work or completely loved the story, the characters and the challenge. One member had already finished the second book in the trilogy by the time we met and was well into the third. Our motto at Bookie Babes is "take a chance on a book" and last month we lived it!

Here is the line-up for February. I am excited to discuss all three:
One Book At A Time:
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Tina's Group:
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Bookie Babes:
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What are your groups discussing this month? Has anyone newly joined a reading group lately? 

Sunday, February 04, 2018


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Joy in the Morning, Betty Smith, Harper & Row, 1963, 294 pp
Sometimes even a reader such as myself needs a heartwarming book. The good thing about Betty Smith is that her version of heartwarming is always peppered with enough realism about the way life goes that she, narrowly, avoids sentimentality.
I have read her most famous novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, several times. I will probably read it again someday. Joy in the Morning was her last novel. After reading it I learned that she devoted much of her writing life to plays. In fact Annie, the heroine of this novel, is a budding playwright and overcomes anything in her way to become one.

It is 1927 when Annie leaves her Brooklyn home at the age of eighteen, against her mother's advice, to marry Carl. They had met in Brooklyn but Carl went off to a mid-western university to study law. Soon Annie followed. Carl's mother also opposed the marriage.

The early years of any marriage always involve adjustments, especially in the days when couples did not live together beforehand and had rarely had sex. Often a young couple is not financially secure. All of this is the case for Annie and Carl and this story is full of hardship. Then comes the Depression and the first pregnancy.

If there is one thing Betty Smith knows about life it is how women in those days provided the stability that makes a family, both emotionally and in the day to day practical matters. Annie is as dreamy as any young woman but she also has grit, a huge heart and a good sense of humor.

So she uses her imagination to outwit adversity and her stubbornness to keep writing those plays. Add to that her wisdom in how to keep Carl somewhat settled down when he (as we say in our house) "gets like he gets," and you can't deny she is a wonder.

I must say that all of Annie's lovely and admirable qualities do strain a reader's credulity but somehow I never care when reading Betty Smith. She just gives me hope and makes me feel happy. We all need that sometimes, right?

(Joy in the Morning is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)