Tuesday, April 25, 2017

THE GROUP





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The Group, Mary McCarthy, Harcourt, 1963, 368 pp


I don't know how I had never read Mary McCarthy's most famous novel. I have known about it for most of my adult life and always thought I would get to it someday. Well, now I am reading 1963, the year it stayed on the bestseller list for months and months, ending up as the #2 bestselling novel, and someday is here.

The group consists of eight women who formed an exclusive clique at Vassar College, rooming in four double rooms and spending most of their time together being smart and snarky. This is very much a women's book. It opens at the wedding of Kay, just a few weeks after their graduation as part of the Class of 1933. At the wedding, we are introduced to all of them, their backgrounds, their quirks and the tensions between them.

I suppose a reader could see the novel as dated. It was 84 years ago that these women were embarking on adulthood, it was only three and a half years into the Great Depression, it was before WWII.

While Vassar was a prestigious female college not all of the group are privileged though some come from wealthy families. They are all quite conscious of a huge shift in the country, economically, politically, and socially. Each one is figuring out how to take her place in such a world.  FDR is an unknown quantity whom most of their parents abhor. Communism and socialism (almost equated in those times) are rearing up as viable political stances. Sexual mores are just beginning to shift. The couple getting married have already been sexually active and living together.

The story follow these women through marriages, adulteries, separations and divorces, through careers and even a death. The Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler, the attack on Pearl Harbor all occur. At the end the United States is about to enter WWII.

As I read, it seemed less and less dated. Mary McCarthy of course was mid her career as a public intellectual while writing this novel just as the so-called sexual revolution was about to erupt. But I thought that even up until today, women continue to face the same issues. Except for one of the eight, who comes out as a lesbian near the end, there is little diversity among the characters besides middle class vs upper class. Yet, we are as much today in the midst of tremendous upheaval economically, politically, and socially, as well as sexually.

So I decided that "dated" is not the correct epithet. Perhaps the novel is historical, but in fact I found it part of the stream of history for American women, a history that is ongoing. Reading it gave me a sense of relief from the particular stress of our times. Every generation faces change and upheaval, from our great grandmothers flowing on to our great granddaughters. Mary McCarthy was a contentious, sometimes bitter and catty woman possessed of fierce intelligence and sensitive feelings. She preceded our fierce female intellectuals of today and some of them even admit her influence on them. I should say so! 


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

Sunday, April 23, 2017

TO THE BRIGHT EDGE OF THE WORLD





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To the Bright Edge of the World, Eowyn Ivey, Little Brown and Company, 2016, 413pp


Summary from Goodreads: Set again in the Alaskan landscape that she bought to stunningly vivid life in THE SNOW CHILD, Eowyn Ivey's new novel is a breathtaking story of discovery and adventure, set at the end of the nineteenth century, and of a marriage tested by a closely held secret.

Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska's hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men. The Wolverine is the key to opening up Alaska and its huge reserves of gold to the outside world, but previous attempts have ended in tragedy.


My Review:
I loved reading this novel so much. I read and deeply enjoyed Eowyn Ivey's first novel, The Snow Child, but her new one feels like the novel she was born to write.

It is a story of journeys, external and internal. Every principle character experiences major changes in their personal world views.

Colonel Allen Forrester leads an expedition into the wilds of Alaska in 1885, sent by the US Army to map and evaluate the territory for a future we now know as our 49th state. His new much younger wife, Sophie, stays behind at Vancouver Barracks in the Oregon Territory, pregnant and alone except for a young housekeeper.

Like any journey worth taking, the book starts off slowly, takes seemingly forever, and is filled with harrowing events and states of wonder.

Blended in is a modern story about two men, distantly related to a member of the expedition and to Sophie, respectively, who both want to preserve their history.

The author clearly did excellent research and some readers may find that too present in the novel, but I felt even during some tedious passages that she enriched me and the story with it. 

As in The Snow Child, she includes some mythical stuff. The man in the black hat who can turn into a crow acts to keep Allen and Sophie connected over distance and time. Allen is gone for almost a year; letters are slow or lost. A native woman who joins the expedition as a guide was once married to a wild animal. I think she might have been my favorite character.

There is much more, but I leave it to readers to discover as I did, the breadth and width of this story.

When two "civilized" people brush against the wilderness, as Allen and Sophie did, change is inevitable. The suspense of their love story almost drove me around the bend by the end. This is a tale as stark and beautiful as the Alaskan wilds and as rewarding as the most romantic love story.


(To the Bright Edge of the World is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


  

Friday, April 21, 2017

CAT'S CRADLE





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Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, Holt Reinhart and Winston, 1963, 192 pp



Summary from Goodreads:
Dr Felix Hoenikker, one of the founding 'fathers' of the atomic bomb, has left a deadly legacy to the world. For he's the inventor of 'ice-nine', a lethal chemical capable of freezing the entire planet. The search for its whereabouts leads to Hoenikker's three ecentric children, to a crazed dictator in the Caribbean, to madness. Felix Hoenikker's Death Wish comes true when his last, fatal gift to humankind brings about the end, that for all of us, is nigh...

My Review:

This is the fourth Vonnegut I've read and his fourth novel published. According to Wikipedia, "After turning down his original thesis in 1947, the University of Chicago awarded his master's degree in anthropology in 1971 for Cat's Cradle." I don't quite know what to make of this except that Vonnegut was 25 when he first wrote the story, that it is hard to imagine him in college, and that a writer's life is usually less than smooth.

In any case, I think this is my favorite novel of his so far. It made me laugh on a day when I needed to laugh. One of the main characters, Newton Hoenikker, is a son of the fictional co-inventor of the atom bomb, so that fit nicely with my recent reading of J Robert Oppenheimer's biography and helped dispel some of my atomic gloom.

Except it didn't really because this is an apocalypse tale, the world almost ends due to the mysterious substance ice-nine, and the underlying tone is gloom and hopelessness. These days people seem to be getting weary of apocalyptic novels but they have been around for decades. As a matter of fact, we and the planet are still here. Chicken Little? Or is it just taking longer to destroy the planet than was originally predicted? 

(Cat's Cradle is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

THE MOTHERS





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The Mothers, Brit Bennett, Riverhead Books, 2016, 275 pp


One day in late February, in a spree of book buying, I bought The Mothers in hardcover because it was on the Tournament of Books 2017 list and had a long wait at the library. Then I kept putting off reading it and when it fell out of the Tournament in the early rounds, I resigned it to the TBR stacks. 

One day in late March, I read an astute interview with the author on The Millions blog and was so intrigued by her approach to the subject matter that I just picked up the book and started reading. The novel is essentially a look at both sides of abortion from the viewpoints of middle class African Americans in a California beach town north of San Diego.

Nadia Turner lost her mother to suicide, unexpected, unexplained. Nadia is a good girl, a good student, with aspirations. She wants out of her little community and has been accepted with a full scholarship at the University of Michigan. 

But her grief over her mother and her father's distant ways of parenting send her into depression, partying, and her first sexual relationship. The minister's son at their church, Luke, who is five years older than Nadia and an injured football player whose goals in sports have been ruined, gets her pregnant.

Nadia is determined to get an abortion. Luke gets the money from his parents, but on the day of the procedure he deserts her. Further developments include new partners for both and it all gets complicated. The novel is a study in ambiguity. The main characters get what they want but not who they want.

Life is messy. Brit Bennett's writing style contains a bit more detachment than I would have liked. You are told what happens with the characters but you don't quite feel it. Still, this is a first novel about big current issues brought down to daily existence for individual human beings. I have always been pro-choice politically but pro-life personally. The Mothers showed me how it is possible to carry both in one's heart and mind. There are no simple answers but we are all working on it. 



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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

KING RAT



Notice to followers: For the past two days I have been fooling around with the comment settings here. I think I lost a couple comments in the process. My apologies. But the upshot is I have enabled comments from "Anonymous" visitors, so some of you who have not been able to comment in the past perhaps now can. You can also sign in with the URL of any blog or website that you have. Here's to increased comments!



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King Rat, James Clavell, Little Brown and Company, 1962, 490 pp


At last, the final book on my 1962 reading list. I read this a long time ago before I was keeping my reading log, so sometime in the 1980s. It was my first experience with what I now call Prison Camp Lit. The dirt, the starving, the dysentery, etc. Ugh.

I remember it as a shorter book. The reprint I got from my local library contains sections left out of the original publication in 1962, giving a look at some of the wives and girlfriends of the prisoners and what they were going through while their men were in the camp. Some people on Goodreads (mostly men) didn't like having those parts added; they felt it broke the spell. I say, it was some much needed relief.

In any case, I am glad I reread it. I had no idea about such things in the 1980s. My, how innocent I was. Imagine writing regularly to someone you loved, not knowing if he was even still alive, not knowing if he got your letters.

I hadn't remembered much except for the King and the rat farm. I hadn't known that the book was based on Clavell's experience in such a camp in WWII and that Peter Marlowe was based on himself.

Though the rest of his Asian Saga books are so very long, I think I may reread them also as I come to them in My Big Fat Reading Project. At least I already know they are not set in a prison camp. 


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

Thursday, April 13, 2017

EVIL AT SHORE HAVEN





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Evil At Shore Haven, Alice Zogg, Aventine Press, 2016, 209 pp


Alice Zogg is a longtime friend of mine. She has written 11 mysteries. I met her when she had just published her second one. We have a deal: she gives me a signed copy of each book as it comes out, I read it and post a review on this blog.

Alice made the decision when she wrote the first one, to skip all the machinery of finding an agent, trying to get her book sold to a publisher, and still after all that probably having to do her own promotion and marketing. Thus she has always self-published. 

She loves to write. While her books are more in the vein of the cozy mysteries of Agatha Christie or PD James than of the thriller type, all but one have a female private investigator named R A Huber. Later ones include a female assistant, Andi. They also deal with current issues.

Evil At Shore Haven is set in a senior facility in Southern California with the usual tiers of independent, assisted, and full care living. Residents have been dying under suspicious circumstances. Despite rumors, no wrongdoing has been found by law enforcement officers or coroners.

R A Huber started her private investigator services after retiring from her lifetime job. In this, the tenth and final book of the R A Huber series, she had also retired from private investigator work and turned the business over to her much younger assistant Andi. Andi convinces R A to come out of retirement just a but and go undercover as a patient at Shore Haven. Together they uncover a scam whose perpetrators almost get R A and Andi killed as well.

As in all her books, the plotting is intricate though the characters are somewhat thinly drawn. It kept me turning the pages and I finished the book in two sittings.

I admire Alice for continuing to write on her own terms for the pure enjoyment she gets from doing it. We differ in that I love to read more than I enjoy writing (meaning I have not finished a book yet!) Alice loves to write more than she likes to read. She is working on the first of what may become a new series or may be a stand alone. So we bid goodbye to R A Huber.

In 2006, after reading her fourth book, I conducted an interview with Alice. Nine years later on the momentous occasion of the retirement of R A Huber, I decided it was time to catch up with the author. Here is our latest interview/discussion:

KTW: You made the decisions to self-publish from the beginning of your writing career. Are you still happy with that decision?

AZ:  
 My answer to that question is yes. I self-published my first book in 2003, way before it became popular to do so. I had valid reasons for not trying to get published the traditional way. One was that, with my female private investigator protagonist being an older woman, there wasn't much chance I could capture the interest of a publisher. My own age also played a role in my decision. At the time I was 60 and couldn't afford to wait years before an agent might convince a publisher to take a look at my manuscript. Now that I'm well into my seventies, my time is even more limited.

KTW: Are there any lessons you have learned from self-publishing 11 mysteries that you might like to share with other authors?

AZ: 
I have self-published 10 mystery novels in the R. A. Huber series and a stand-alone mystery. The stand-alone is from the point of view of a man, which was a bit of a challenge but fun to write. So far, my books have not been profitable, due to my reluctance to do extensive self-promotion. Still, I have no regrets. I write first and foremost for my own pleasure. If readers enjoy my stories, I consider that an extra bonus.
There are pros and cons to self-publishing. The biggest issue is that you are the sole person responsible for the content and appearance of your book. You don’t have a slew of professionals helping its creation along. The same goes for marketing. Traditionally published authors have it easier in that respect. On the other hand, it is truly your own work. Nobody is asking you to do major plot changes or additions. Naturally, you need to hire a good proofreader, as well as an editor.

KTW: Do you ever read books about the craft of mystery writing? If so, what have you found helpful? If not, or in addition, what have learned in the process of writing all these books?

AZ: 
No, I have not read any “how to” books about mystery writing. However, I have learned a lot about the craft from speakers at our monthly Sisters in Crime meetings. One thing that comes to mind: “Write about what you know, and if you don’t, do extensive research.”

KTW: Have you discovered insights about writing or about yourself as a writer over the years?

AZ: 
Every now and then I ask myself, how could I have lived my first 60 years without writing? I cannot imagine my life without it now.

KTW: I know you have been a member of the local Sisters In Crime chapter for many years. How has your membership been of assistance to you?

AZ: 
 Sisters in Crime is an exceptionally worthy organization. As I mentioned already, I’ve learned a great deal from speakers at the chapter’s monthly meetings. Sisters in Crime also organizes events at local libraries, such as author readings and panel discussions. Member authors can also get a book signing spot in their booth at the annual L. A. Times Festival of Books at the USC campus every April.
This year, I will be signing at the Sisters in Crime booth Sunday, April 23, from 2:00 - 4:00 p.m.



On Monday, May 1, from 3:00 – 7:00 p.m., I will also be one of the authors reading and signing at the Glendale Central Library for their grand opening event.

KTW: How does it feel to have brought the R A Huber series to an end?

AZ:
After 10 books in the series, I feel it is time to permanently retire R. A. Huber. I had fun with her while it lasted.

KTW: You have told me you are deep into writing your next book. Would you care to share any tidbits about it? Will you still have a female protagonist? Will it also be a mystery?

AZ:
The book I am working on, Accidental Eyewitness, is definitely a mystery. It is another stand-alone and has no particular protagonist, just various characters, all suspects, of course. The location is on a tropical island of my imagination (The place does not exist.) And that is about all I am ready to reveal at this point.

KTW: Thank you Alice and best wishes to you! 

(My apologies for the formatting. I remember Alice telling me how much she had to learn about formatting when she first began submitting her manuscripts to Aventine Press. Perhaps I should get some pointers from her!)

(Evil At Shore Haven is available in hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)




 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

CARAVANS





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Caravans, James A Michener, Random House Inc, 1963, 431 pp


This is the first book I read for my 1963 reading list. It was #4 on the bestseller list for that year. At under 500 pages it is short for a Michener book. 

The location is Afghanistan. The year is 1946. I would bet that the country was not much in the news in the year after WWII ended though it was a time of anxiety about the USSR and the spread of communism. In the story however, the anxiety at the US Embassy in Kabul is over an American young woman who had married an Afghan man she met in college and returned with him to his country.

When the story opens, Ellen Jasper's parents back in Pennsylvania have not heard from their daughter in some time and have contacted their senator, asking him to put pressure on the Embassy to investigate her whereabouts and well being.

Mark Miller, descendant of Jewish immigrants to the US from Germany in the mid 19th century, is now posted in Kabul as a junior grade State Dept officer. Since he speaks the language the assignment goes to him to find Ellen. Why mention that he is Jewish? It plays into the story in an interesting way.

The novel is a wonderful introduction to this country in the days when "Kabul today shows what Palestine was like at the time of Jesus" as they were wont to say at the Embassy. In fact, the Mullahs rule the society and Miller is a witness to two incidents of stoning; one of a female adulterer and one of a male homosexual. But there are also young men who wish to bring the country into modern times, both as a society and technologically. Ellen's husband is one of those men.

As Miller sets out in pursuit of the missing woman, Michener takes the reader on a journey through the mountains and deserts of that forbidding land. According to his Author's Note, he himself spent time traveling in Afghanistan before writing the book. Plenty of adventure ensues, during which he draws a complete introduction to the lives, issues, and customs of the times. Of course, there is also romance and some pretty racy scenes for a Michener book

I was somewhat amused by Michener's treatment of the Ellen Jasper character. Miller does find her. She is fearless, wild, and in complete disagreement with wars and progress and the American imperialist agenda. She goes through men as if it were the free love era of the 1960s. Michener was no fan of hippies, protesters, or any anti-American sentiments. Indeed he was a complete patriot. So he approaches this character with a combination of psychological interpretation and condescension. However, Mark Miller falls for her and hard. 

I could see how the book became a bestseller in 1963! 


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