Saturday, December 31, 2016

BOOKS READ IN DECEMBER









December may have been my best reading month this year. Despite the parties, the holiday preps, and some long fat books, I read 10! I had hoped to wrap up the 1962 list for My Big Fat Reading Project but alas I only read two of those and still have eight to go. Instead I have spent the days after Christmas reading from my towering TBR stacks and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Except for one that was only tolerable, I loved every other book I read. I had hoped to get reviews posted for all the December books by tonight. That did not happen either. I was reading! 

Stats: 10 read. Fiction: 10. Written by women: 7. Reread: 1. Historical (at least partially): 3. Mystery/thriller: 2. Translated: 1. Big Fat Reading Project books: 2.
Favorites: Moonglow, Swing Time, The Story of the Lost Child.
Least favorite: Something Wicked This Way Comes.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

MOONGLOW





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Moonglow, Michael Chabon, HarperCollins, 2016, 429 pp


Summary from Goodreads: In 1989, fresh from the publication of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon traveled to his mother’s home in Oakland, California to visit his terminally ill grandfather. Tongue loosened by powerful painkillers, memory stirred by the imminence of death, Chabon’s grandfather shared recollections and told stories the younger man had never heard before, uncovering bits and pieces of a history long buried and forgotten. That dreamlike week of revelations forms the basis for the novel Moonglow,...
It is a tale of madness, of war and adventure, of sex and desire and ordinary love, of existential doubt and model rocketry, of the shining aspirations and demonic underpinnings of American technological accomplishment at mid-century and, above all, of the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies.  

My Review:
My reading in December has included so many great novels and this is one of them. Michael Chabon takes the memories of a week spent with his dying grandfather and by refiguring them as fiction, spins a yarn that covers how the history of that man's lifetime determined the history of the author's family.

Grandfather's history goes back to WWII, continues into postwar times when Nazi scientists were recruited for American development of both weapons and space travel, and continues on to demonstrate the ways that the past creates the present for individuals, families, societies, and even extends into the future.

The grandfather is a larger-than-life character. Because Chabon's week with him happened just after he had published The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, his first novel, anyone who has read his later novels can see influences from his grandfather's tales in the characters Chabon created later. 

I found in Moonglow a more sober Chabon. Some of the freewheeling hysteria of his recent novels is subdued. Not that Grandfather was not a freewheeling character, not that he was not surrounded by hysteria for much of his life, but that the author in looking back now finds it also full of sorrows and a certain regret.

As much as I am fascinated by debut novels, when an author is often the freshest he or she may ever be and still sparkling with innocence, I realized while reading this one why I like the works of an author's later more mature work. Because no one can see the big picture of how one's life is embedded in the ways of the world around one until one is about half-way through. That big picture is sobering indeed as you see the interlocking pieces and how they formed the jigsaw puzzle that is your present.

One feature of the story I particularly liked was Chabon's growing understanding of his mother and his maternal grandmother. We all have at least one of the former and two of the latter. As children all we can do is love or, failing that, put up with them, but by middle-age we can see behind the scenes of their lives and understand some of why they shaped our lives as they did.

I think Moonglow may be best appreciated by an older reader though hopefully has much potential insight to reveal for a younger one. My only qualm after finishing it was wondering how long I must wait for the next Chabon novel. Well, there are a few of his I have not read yet, so I can console myself with those.


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



Saturday, December 24, 2016

THE KING MUST DIE





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The King Must Die, Mary Renault, Random House, 1958, 338 pp


I am always excited to find a new author to admire. Of course, Mary Renault is not new to the world. She was born in London in 1905 and died in 1983, having built for herself a reputation for vivid historical novels, many of them set in Ancient Greece. She was named by J F Kennedy as his favorite author. I have meant to read her for years and am so pleased to have found a wonderful writer with a great deal of scholarship and intelligence backing up her fiction.

The King Must Die is the first of two novels covering the life of Theseus, a legendary hero of ancient Athens. Mary Renault takes quite some literary license with the legend, the major one being that Theseus was not of heroic size but was of short stature. She explains the archeological evidence for this in her Author's Note, painting him as "a light-weight; brave and aggressive, physically tough and quick; highly sexed and rather promiscuous, touchily proud, but with a feeling for the underdog; resembling Alexander in his precocious competence, gift of leadership, and romantic sense of destiny."

Theseus tells his own story and it is as wild and full of adventure as you would expect from a man who may have had Poseidon for a father and who killed the famous Minotaur, that half bull/half man who fed on human flesh. She makes this complex character come to life, carefully depicting the ways he learned to use his mind as well as his courage and strength to overcome enemies and obstacles.

A few years ago I managed to get through Will Durant's The Life of Greece. I loved having Theseus fleshed out as it were and the daily world of ancient Athens and Crete made real. I already have the second volume, The Bull From the Sea, on my shelf. I look forward to reading her other novels about Plato, Alexander and more.

I want to thank Helen and her She Reads Novels blog for having a part in leading me to finally reading Mary Renault.

 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY





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A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving, William Morrow, 1989, 627 pp


I am a big fan of John Irving. Whatever wild tangent he goes off on, I accept his novels unconditionally. He puts so much of himself, his views, his character, into every one. And his capacity for exploring and celebrating all the weirdness of humanity is of the highest order.

I first read Owen Meany in 1999. At that time, I had previously read Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp and loved both. Owen Meany felt like his masterpiece then and on rereading it now (for a reading group discussion) and having read five other of his books, I have decided it still holds that position for me.

I have written elsewhere about the practice of rereading, something I rarely do. In this case, it was an entirely worthwhile experience. The seventeen years of living I have done since the first reading afforded me a much deeper penetration into the story and the characters.

Owen himself seemed both more tragic yet less Christ-like than he did before. The narrator, John, seemed more worthy of pity. I mean, to have someone as odd as Owen make him become a Christian is just, I don't know, so weird. But none of that matters because this is a novel about how one's childhood and youth, one's family and hometown, the historical events one lives through, one's friends and enemies, create the life one will lead as an adult.

I had completely forgotten the influence of the Vietnam War and somehow had not felt as searingly the intelligence of Owen, his visions, his ability to orchestrate events. On my first reading John barely registered for me. He moved to Canada for Pete's sake!

I was a war protestor in the late 60s and helped lots of guys evade the draft. That draft was a Damocles sword hanging over so many lives. I think reading The Sympathizer this year reawakened many memories and added to the depth of my experience reading Owen Meany now.

All in all, this was a highlight of my year of reading in 2016. 


(A Prayer For Owen Meany is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

HERE I AM





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Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2016, 571 pp


Summary from Goodreads: How do we fulfill our conflicting duties as father, husband, and son; wife and mother; child and adult? Jew and American? How can we claim our own identities when our lives are linked so closely to others’? These are the questions at the heart of Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in eleven years--a work of extraordinary scope and heartbreaking intimacy.

Unfolding over four tumultuous weeks, in present-day Washington, D.C., Here I Am is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. As Jacob and Julia and their three sons are forced to confront the distances between the lives they think they want and the lives they are living, a catastrophic earthquake sets in motion a quickly escalating conflict in the Middle East. At stake is the very meaning of home--and the fundamental question of how much life one can bear.
 


My Review:
At its heart, Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel is the story of a marriage unraveling. That the couple are upper-middle-class American Jews in the early 21st century only adds to it richness.

Jacob and Julie's initial passion turns out to be unsustainable in the face of parenthood, disappointed careers and, possibly most of all, the unrealistic demands they have placed on each other. While some readers and critics have complained about the novel being autobiographical, I say there are legions of married couples who find themselves unable/unwilling to fulfill their marriage vows but how many can write about it as well?

Others express the criticism that Foer has taken on too much for one novel: marriage, children, religious identity, Israel, etc. For me the kids were possibly the best feature in the story and I already knew he could do kids right from reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I also wonder how any serious novelist can write about contemporary times without including the spiritual and political aspects of life. They are so intrinsically bound together in these times.

I was impressed, I found the book easy to read, it challenged my mind, and the characters, if rarely admirable, were complex and fascinating. I was thinking about it for days after I finished reading. 


(Here I Am is currently available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES





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Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury, Alfred A Knopf, 1962, 307 pp


Ray Bradbury's classic was going to be my Halloween book. I am glad I chose We Have Always Lived in the Castle. They are both about dealing with evil but Shirley Jackson did it better.

In Something Wicked, the story takes place in Green Town, IL, a week before Halloween when a ratty carnival comes to town, blown in on a dark and stormy night. Best friends Jim and Will, both just days from turning 14, can't resist. They live next door to each other and have years of practice sneaking out at night.

What they witness at that carnival freaks out each boy in a different way. Will runs from it, Jim is drawn in. What follows is loss of innocence, one boy coming to an understanding with his father, while the other figures out his deepest desires.

It is a classic story about good vs evil, innocence vs experience, and the cusp of adulthood. I had a problem, as I usually do reading Bradbury, with his awkward and overwrought prose and with the transparency of his themes. I was sorely tempted to leave the book unfinished but I kept reading and hoping to figure out what makes this book so admired by so many.

So I finished, I did not figure it out, and I am done with reading Ray Bradbury. I have read seven of his books and had the same experience nearly every time. I liked The Martian Chronicles best, but I prefer Neil Gaiman for innocence lost stories and Shirley Jackson for creepy evil ones. 


(Something Wicked This Way Comes is currently available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH





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Into the Beautiful North, Luis Alberto Urrea, Little Brown and Company, 2009, 338 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the United States to find work. Recently, it has dawned on her that he isn't the only man who has left town. In fact, there are almost no men in the village--they've all gone north. While watching The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides to go north herself and recruit seven men--her own "Siete Magníficos"--to repopulate her hometown and protect it from the bandidos who plan on taking it over.

Filled with unforgettable characters and prose as radiant as the Sinaloan sun, Into the Beautiful North is the story of an irresistible young woman's quest to find herself on both sides of the fence.


My Review:
I loved this book! It was fun to read with wonderful characters but was also a light satire about heavy and complex issues: Mexico in the 21st century, the failings of its government, the ridiculous tourist trap that is Tijuana, the dangers of crossing the border into the USA, and the different fates of Mexican immigrants both legal and illegal. If that was not enough, it contains a quest, a road trip, and a coming of age story.

As ambitious as all that sounds, Urrea pulled it off seemingly without effort. Nayeli is one of those heroines who captures both your heart and mind, so determined, so ethical, heedless of danger and compassionate.

If you have never been to Mexico (that would include me), or if you live in America but were born there, or if you are some combination of both, I think you would find much to enjoy as well as ponder in the novel.

As far as "building a wall" goes, well good luck with that!  

Monday, December 12, 2016

MY REAL CHILDREN





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My Real Children, Jo Walton, Tor Books, 2014, 320 pp


The election happened. I could not read fiction. I had a review deadline for The Terranauts and was almost through reading that so I got professional (more than I can say for some politicians I will not name) and finished it. I had the next book on my reading plan for the week sitting there but I just couldn't start it. 

One of the little known blessings of e-readers is that I have almost a library of unread books there that I forget I own. Like a recovering invalid, I flipped through all those titles and Jo Walton called out to me. Better yet, she rescued me.

When the story opens, Patricia is in one of the upper tiers of a senior facility. She surreptitiously checks the notes clipped to the end of her bed, where nurses list actions taken, medications given, and evaluations: "confused today" "very confused." Patricia's memory is slipping away but when she remembers to check the notes she can also find out the date.

Patricia is the most confused about her children. "Sometimes she knew with solid certainty that she had four children, and five more stillbirths: nine times giving birth in floods of blood and pain, and of those, four surviving. At other times she knows equally well that she had two children, both born by caesarean section late in her life after she had given up hope. Two children of her body, and another, a stepchild, dearest of them all."

In her reality, all of these children visit her. Very confused she is!

My Real Children is one of those stories of alternate lives a person could have; like Kate Atkinson's Life After Life or Making It Up by Penelope Lively. All of these books feature women whose lives are matters of chance, as are everyone's, but with the added, or should I say, lessened chances that women have. 

Love, sex, marriage, childbearing and child raising all dependent on sufficient or not enough knowledge, opportunity, support, and freedom.

How many times have I thought, what if I had not made that choice (of husband, job, religious affiliation, school, move, pregnancy, separation, etc.) 

I loved Patricia in all her variations and I loved the way Jo Walton constructed her novel. I am not one who goes in for "comfort fiction." This is not that but I did feel comforted and it was what I needed the day I read it. 


(My Real Children is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Friday, December 09, 2016

THE TERRANAUTS





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The Terranauts, T C Boyle, Ecco, 2016, 508 pp


Note: I am way behind on posting about the books I have read, so it will be my attempt to catch up by the end of the year. You can always binge read my reviews on that boring time that is Christmas Day after dinner!

This review was originally published at Litbreak.

 
T C Boyle’s new novel is all about the plot, with the author is at his acerbic best. You would not be blamed for thinking he has no faith at all in humanity until you get to the end. I can’t tell you about that because it would be the final spoiler of all the spoilers I will not reveal.

In case you were living under a rock like I was in 1991, one of the major science experiments of all time called Biosphere 2 put a crew of eight scientists into an artificial glass-enclosed ecological environment for the purposes of demonstrating its ability to support human life leading to the successful colonization of planets. Located in Oracle, AZ, it was a 3.14-acre facility stocked with animals, seeds, trees, and five biomes. The carefully selected four women and four men were committed to remain sealed in for two years with phone lines to headquarters and a viewing window for visitors as the only contact with the outside.

These men and women were called Terranauts but they were human beings with many of the strengths of young, highly educated adults and all of the weaknesses. It is just the sort of story that an author like T C Boyle would be attracted to as a novelist. The publisher calls it “A deep-dive into human behavior in an epic story of science, society, sex, and survival.” It has all of that though Mr Boyle is always and forever mainly interested in human behavior. He does not miss one quirk or forgo any chance to take such behavior to the limit.

The day that the Terranauts go into the biosphere is called Closure. In Part 1, Pre-Closure, we meet the sixteen hopefuls as they vie for the eight spots available and then are chosen much like the sorting ceremony in Harry Potter. Three of the16 tell the story in alternating chapters. Dawn, nickname Eos, is a blonde beauty designated as Manager of Domestic Animals, strong in purpose and loyalty to the project. Ramsay, known as Vodge, will be Water Systems Manager with a second hat of Communications Officer. In addition to his scientific skills he is the consummate PR guy, as well as a ladies man. Linda is passed over, full of rage, and though she had been Dawn’s best friend before closure she turns traitor. Her chapters give the view from outside as she hangs on hoping to be chosen for the second team two years hence.

Included in the cast of main characters are the visionary who had conceived of the project (GC, short for God the Creator, is his nickname, known only to the Terranauts) and his chief aide Judy, nickname Judas. In order for GC to keep his investors happy, all manner of media events and spin must be created, another stress and strain on the outcome.

Reading along, one wonders how such dedicated, trained scientists could possibly be so venal, self-involved, hateful, and scheming. But isn’t that what we have been wondering for the last two years as we suffered through the Presidential campaign and its aftermath? It made for some queasy reading hours.

A good amount of science permeates the novel, though not as much as in The Martian or Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, but the focus is on interpersonal drama, personal motivation, and the very real physical/psychological hardships inside Biosphere 2. Combine that with the fact that these longsuffering candidates, who have worked for years at low pay, will emerge as celebrities when they successfully complete the two year enclosure. Whether they will prevail or not, a whiff of cult essence permeates the mindset of every person involved in the experiment from GC on down through the Terranauts themselves, the 16 upcoming candidates for the next two year enclosure, to all the support staff. It is the classic visionary and his loyal minions scenario that T C Boyle has explored in earlier novels like The Women and The Inner Circle.

Through every shift of loyalties, every emergency, and the many twists of plot, he keeps you hanging by threads of hope and anxiety. Though everyone stays in character, some admirable, some despicable, none of them are without complexity. If you have ever had experiences with cultish groups, you will be fully invested in the novel. If you haven’t, you might not be. Either way, expect some shifts in your own worldview. This is one of his best.


(The Terranauts is available in hardcover and ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

THE SUICIDE OF CLAIRE BISHOP





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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

DECEMBER READING GROUP UPDATE









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

THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE





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


THE SUNDAY FAMILY READ


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

BOOKS READ IN NOVEMBER








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

LAST DAYS OF NIGHT





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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

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE





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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

THE SLAVE





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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.  

Sunday, November 20, 2016

ELIGIBLE





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Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, 2016, 488 pp


This retelling of Pride and Prejudice gave me some of the most reading fun I have had this year. Paul Beatty's The Sellout and Mat Johnson's Loving Day were close runners up though based on the more serious subject of racism. Eligible is about 21st century white people behaving badly.

I don't feel any need to rehash the plot except to say that Sittenfeld hewed closely to Pride and Prejudice while cleverly recreating the major plot points to fit contemporary American society. If we found the Bennet family annoying in the original version and Darcy enigmatic, we are quite completely exasperated by these characters in Eligible. Meanwhile we are laughing all the way.

So to the naysayers out there who called the novel trashy (yes, intentional), over-the-top (yes and so was Jane Austen in her time), not what they expected (what, did you really just want to read Pride and Prejudice again?), I say I am sorry you didn't get it and if you don't think there are families like this today in America, you must be living under a rock.

This is Darcy and Liz with cellphones, reality TV, tabloids, and the insidious class consciousness still  with us. But it also shows us that people can change, terrible teens do grow up, and the parents will never understand.


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

Thursday, November 17, 2016

THE QUEUE





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The Queue, Basma Abdel Aziz, Melville House, 2016, 217 pp (translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jacquette, orig pub by Dar Altanweer, Cairo, Egypt, 2013)


This was a challenging but in the end quite affecting novel. The author, an Egyptian journalist, is also a psychiatrist who treats victims of torture. Excellent credentials for writing a novel about the impact of government oppression. 

The story opens in an unnamed Middle Eastern city with Dr Tarek Fahmy reviewing the file of his patient Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed. Said patient had come to him for the removal of a bullet in his groin, received during an uprising that has come to be known as the Disgraceful Events. 

Though the uprising failed it had an unlooked for upshot: The Gate, where citizens must go for even the most basic permissions but which never opens. A queue of petitioners grows and grows so long that one cannot see from one end to the other. In order to conceal all evidence that any civilians were shot during the uprising, Yehya must receive permission for the operation to remove the bullet, a permission that will never be granted because that would be an admission that a civilian was shot.

The queue becomes a community in itself attracting people from all walks of life. Many of them camp out there for weeks and weeks so as not to lose their place in line. I pictured something like the lines that form in America for concert tickets and such, except that in this queue the gate will never open.

I grew to admire many of the characters. Yehya, always in pain and slowly dying, is the Stoic. Amani, his girlfriend, in her attempts to help Yehya, pays a terrible price including mental torture. Um Mabrouk needs medicine for her son; her "camping spot" becomes a gathering place where she serves snacks, always has the latest news, and makes a living there instead of going to her job. Ehab is the journalist who keeps writing for the dissenting newspaper that employs him but will not always publish his articles.

When I finished the book, I had to lay on my reading futon with eyes closed and mind wandering for a good 30 minutes until the devastation wreaked on me began to fade. I felt a bit of what Amani must have felt when she was kept captive in a place of darkness, where she could not see, smell, hear, taste or feel anything.

I can't say that I found much hope in the story except from the characters who did their best to stand up to the oppression and not give in. Human beings are equally strong in cruelty and dissent. What impressed me most was the realistic portrayal of the effects of totalitarianism on the human psyche. Basma Abdel Aziz is an incredible writer.


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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

THE ITALIAN GIRL









The Italian Girl, Iris Murdoch, Viking Press, 1964, 171 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Edmund has escaped from his family into a lonely life. Returning for his mother's funeral he finds himself involved in the old, awful problems, together with some new ones. One by one his relatives reveal their secrets to a reluctant Edmund: illicit affairs, hidden passions, shameful scandals. At the heart of all, there is, as always, the family's loyal servant, the Italian girl.
 
 
My Review:
This is Iris Murdoch's eighth novel. I have been reading her novels in order of publication and become quite a fan. She brings a philosophical bent to her fiction. Though the next book for me would have been The Unicorn, one of my reading groups picked this one so I set aside my OCD tendency and went with it. Some critics have considered it one of her weakest novels. I liked it just fine.
 
The younger son, Edmund, has come home due to the death of his mother and tells the story with wistful viewpoints of each member of the household. Lydia, the deceased mother, had been controlling and no longer interested in her husband (now deceased) once she had two sons. She was overly possessive of the boys in alternating periods. Otto, the older brother, still lives in the family home with his wife Isabel and daughter Flora, now a teenager.
 
In Murdoch's usual way, the details of the family come into focus like a developing photograph until you have a distressing picture of psychological disturbance and broken relationships. Edmund, no surprise, has trouble with females, never married, and is possibly still a virgin. Otto drinks, is vegetarian, and works unsuccessfully as an engraver, mostly making tombstones. He has always had criminal-type assistants who cause trouble and are then replaced.
 
Otto's wife, it turns out, is having an affair with the current assistant, David, who has also been sleeping with the daughter and gotten her pregnant. Otto is sleeping with David's mysterious and troubled sister. Quite a mess but this is one of Murdoch's typical families. Edmund's pathetic attempts to help these people all go awry, almost to the point of comedy. Dark comedy is another facet of Murdoch's fiction.  
 
The title is the key to this fractured family, but you don't find out the full significance of the Italian girl until the very end. All you know until then is that the family has had a series of Italian girls as servants. These girls do all the housework, raised the boys when the mother needed a break, and served as companion to mother. The mystery of this arrangement is the big reveal at the end.

I found the novel to be one of her most exquisitely written books. Each scene is carefully drawn with lovely descriptions that create atmosphere and allow you to see ever more deeply into the characters. In fact, it was adapted for the stage by James Saunders and originally performed in 1968.

In spite of there being not a single likeable character, I felt for them all. Murdoch seems to be telling us that in any family there are secrets. Secrets of the heart due to failures to connect, unawareness of what goes on, a lack of perspective caused by the claustrophobia of family. I have found that to be true in most families I know, even the good ones.


The Italian Girl is hard to find in paper; used book retailers do have it. It is also available as an ebook through Open Road.
 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

THE BIG GREEN TENT





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The Big Green Tent, Ludmila Ulitskaya, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015, (translated from the Russian by Bela Shayeviich, orig pub in Russia, 2011) 573 pp


Summary from Goodreads: The Big Green Tent is the kind of book the  term “Russian novel” was invented for. A sweeping saga, it tells the story of three school friends who meet in Moscow in the 1950s and go on to embody the heroism, folly, compromise, and hope of the Soviet dissident experience.

My Review:
Imagine you are a boy growing up in 1950s Soviet Moscow. You are just a bit outside the norm for a schoolboy in those times, the type who is bullied, the type who has dreams about how his life might go. You find two other boys like you and form a bond that lasts for a lifetime.

Better yet, the three of you find yourselves in a class taught by a man who can bring literature alive and who takes you under his wing. You learn that not all of life needs to be lived in fear of the KGB, in lock step to Soviet rules and plans.

So do Ilya, who loves photography, Mikha and his bent towards writing poems, and Sanya, lost in the wonder of music, become touchstones for each other. Stalin dies, there is a moment of leniency when Khrushchev comes to power, and for young people the dissident life is the thing. People still betray others who are then sent to prison camps. Maybe because these things happen daily and young people often hate injustice and desire change, they believe they can make a difference.

Despite the continuing horrors of the times, this is a great novel in the tradition of great Russian literature but set in our times and written by a woman! Ludmila Ulitskaya revels in story telling and has clearly thought deeply about her country and the souls of the Russian people.

Her novel is filled with many characters, with the thrill of defying authority, with love and loss, joy and sorrow, bravery and cowardice. The pages fly by. No wonder she is one of Russia's most popular writers. 


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

Thursday, November 10, 2016

WHAT NOW?









 

What Now?

I feel bad. I feel abused. I feel like taking to my bed with a bottle of vodka. I feel outraged at my country. I feel like I am suffering from a great loss and cannot think straight. I feel apathetic. I feel afraid. I feel guilty. I feel small. I feel confused.

All through this Presidential election campaign, I felt a growing awareness that the country I am living in is not the country I thought I was living in. Now I know for sure that I have not really been looking at my country as it is. I was lulled into a feeling of hope and security by evidence that change was truly happening: change for women, minorities, and the under-represented people in our society. I thought we were ready for a woman to be our President, a woman who had the experience, the courage, and the will to continue the fight for true freedom of all people in our land but who could navigate the treacherous waters of the world as it is, who could continue to redeem our country in the eyes of the world.

I did not realize the extent of the anguish many of my fellow Americans are going through everyday as they try to make a living. I did not realize how very angry are the white, straight, conservative Christian men and women of this country. How ripe this segment of our society, who are still a slim majority, were for the con game of a demagogue who has played on their fears and insecurities to advance his own hunger for power and recognition.

I could not bring myself to post a blog about a book I read three weeks ago before this rude awakening was forced on me. Even though this morning, when I checked my reading log, I see that the next book I was to post a review about is actually completely apropos: The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, a novel about Soviet Russia in its latter days.

I watched Hilary Clinton’s address to her campaign team yesterday morning and once again admired her courage, her clear thinking, and all the other qualities she has for leadership. I went to my reading group last night to discuss Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, a wonderful piece of historical fiction about the early years of electric power in America; the intersection of science, finance, and the law. We discussed, we drank wine, we got to giggling about pussy grabbing. The gloom began to lift.

This morning I read a great article on Lit Hub: Literary Voices React to President Donald Trump. Again I went through the whole spectrum of emotions. I started making decisions about my future reading. At one point I decided to read only books by women of all races, creeds, and nationalities. At another point I decided to drop the blog and just work on my Big Fat Reading Project and my memoir. I jotted down a quote from Dan Peipenbring of the Paris Review: “And read as often and as violently as you can.”

As always, I was restored by writers.

Lately, in my life, I have been pondering the concept of rebalancing. It is an ecological, Buddhist, Tao Te Ching, long-view concept. Human beings get out of balance due to all kinds of factors that are part of daily life but some cosmic force works always to bring the dichotomies of life back into balance. All of those emotions I cited in the first paragraph of this essay are brought about by the terror of things getting so out of balance that life or the universe will end.

My conclusion today is that I had not totally been facing how out of balance the world and the human race truly is at this time. It is not that I did not know that. It is that I thought things were improving. And I think they are but not as much as I had thought. A huge factor in the cosmic force towards balance is sentient beings. When the storm is over, when the fire is out, when the smoke clears, it is up to sentient beings to come out of disaster mode and start thinking, planning, setting things to rights.

The best sentient beings I know are people who read and write, clearly and as truthfully as they can. That is us! Bloggers, readers, authors, publishers. We dare not give up, give in, or stay silent. We need to read it all, even the words of white male chauvinist bigots. Everyone in a free society gets to have a say, we need to know the enemy and understand him, and we need to be in conversation with him.

So, I will read, I will write, I will attempt to be in concert with the forces of balance, I will not pander, I will not be silent. I will be back tomorrow with my next review.

Thank you for visiting and reading my blog. Take heart, carry on, be the change you want to see in this world, keep the faith, and all that good stuff!

Saturday, November 05, 2016

HAG-SEED





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Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood, Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016, 283 pp


My Review (originally published on Litbreak):


 
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The fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare Series turned out to be the best one so far. A retelling of the oft performed and retold The Tempest, this one is laid out like an intricate puzzle and seeing the pieces come together while reading it was pure enjoyment. It is another example of the brilliance that underlies all of Margaret Atwood’s writing.

For someone who has difficulty reading Shakespeare’s plays, Hag-Seed did me the favor of decoding the many layers of The Tempest. Her main character for the modern day version, Felix Philip, is the former Artistic Director of a Canadian theatre festival, whose total immersion into creativity led to his being thrown under the bus by his assistant Tony. He stands in for Prospero, Tony for the usurping brother Antonio. After malingering in a cave-like rented house for several years, his festering obsession with revenge burning a hole in his soul, he finally changes his name and takes a position teaching the Literacy Through Literature program at a nearby prison. There he will stage his version of The Tempest, the one he never got to put on at the festival.

The prison becomes Prospero’s island for Felix. His methods for teaching Shakespeare to mid-level criminals are inspired. I enjoyed reading about that almost as much as anything else in the novel. He gets beyond the low literacy level of some of his actors and stage crew by forming them into teams that help each other “get it.” He channels their antisocial predilections and develops a method for casting the play that manages to side step the daily potential for violence. For example, he asks them to find all the swear words in the play and then allows only those to be used in class. No f-word, no s-word, just whoreson, plaguey, pied ninny, etc.

Beyond the well-rounded characters of the various prisoners, there were two more that captured me. Miranda is all over the story. One of the reasons Tony was able to outwit Felix was that the Director lost his daughter, named Miranda of course, when she died of meningitis at age three. During his self-imposed exile she reappeared as a ghostly imaginary friend and he conjured a whole life for her as the years went by. For the prison production of The Tempest, not one inmate would agree to play a girl, so Felix located the original young woman he had cast as Miranda in the aborted Festival version of the play,  convincing her to brave the dangers at his current job and take the part. Anne-Marie Greenland was my favorite character: preternaturally creative but tough, full of fun, and a kick-ass dancer. Of course the prisoner who plays Ferdinand falls for her, hard. She also embodies some of the best characters from earlier Atwood novels, especially Grace Marks from Alias Grace as well as Ren and Toby from the Maddaddam trilogy.

Finally comes the revenge. Tony moved on to politics after usurping Felix and visits the prison performance with his new buddies. They intend to shut down the Literacy Through Literature program. Felix and his students manage to get these fellows into a position where he can get back at Tony and save his current job. The scenes where that revenge takes place are over the top, clever, and suspenseful, but require a large suspension of disbelief by the reader. It had to be part of the novel but I was not completely convinced by that section.

These are only the highlights of what made Margaret Atwood’s retelling so dramatic. Not a page is without surprises and treats for the reader. It is as if she is Prospero herself, rendering an entertainment for her captive audience, that being any reader who opens the book. Not only is Felix’s story a retelling of the play, The Tempest is also performed in full, making the entire production the original play within a new play. 


(Hag-Seed is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
 

Thursday, November 03, 2016

NOVEMBER READING GROUP UPDATE








Reading group activity always winds down at this time of year due to the holidays. Fine with me because it gives me a shot at all those books I meant to read this year but haven't gotten to yet. Only three meetings this month and I have already read Vinegar Girl. It is all good.


Laura's Group:

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Bookie Babes: 

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One Book at a Time:

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Since this is the month for giving thanks, I would like to give thanks to all the wonderful readers in my reading groups, to all the outstanding authors I have read this year, and to you who follow and read and comment on this blog. All of you are the shining center of my life (along with my husband, ha ha, but he reads also.)





Tuesday, November 01, 2016

BOOKS READ IN OCTOBER









I had a stellar reading month in October! 

Stats: 13 books read. All fiction. 8 written by women. 2 historical fiction. 1 children's lit. 1 drama. 2 retellings of classics. 3 translated. 4 from My Big Fat Reading Project 1962 list.

Favorites: Commonwealth, Hag-Seed, The Big Green Tent, Eligible, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
Least favorite: Pale Fire




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Which were your favorite books read in October? Did you read any you did not like? My Halloween read was We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Did you have a Halloween read?