Tuesday, May 30, 2017


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The World To Come, Dara Horn, W W Norton & Company, 2006, 310 pp

Oh my, what this book put me through! Elation, wonder, perplexity, depression and back to a cautious wonder. It is jam packed with 20th century Jewish history, art, Yiddish literature, families with mysterious pasts, and perhaps the strangest philosophy of life I have ever encountered.

The story centers on Benjamin Ziskind and his twin sister Sara. They had that bond that twins often have in childhood but it has weakened in adulthood. Ben was a child prodigy who now writes questions for a quiz show. He was the boy who knew too much. Sara is a painter, an optimist in contrast to the depression that trails Ben like a smoky miasma. Their mother was a renowned author of children's picture books. Their dad died of lung cancer when the twins were still quite young.

When Ben, recently divorced, steals a small Chagall painting from a museum exhibit, a painting he is sure hung in their home when he was a child, he opens up a Pandora's Box of memories he and his sister barely knew they had.

Immediately after the museum incident, the story jumps to an orphanage in Communist era Russia, where both Chagall and a famous Yiddish writer share a house and teach at the school for the displaced Jewish orphans. This leaping back and forth in time eventually reveals the story of the Ziskind family, one of the saddest stories I have read in a genre full of sadness.

I have read Michael Chabon, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, I B Singer, and many other Jewish writers and was looking forward to reading Dara Horn, but she took me on an emotional journey that left me enervated and depressed for quite a few days. I was thrust into my memories of certain losses I have had over the past decade or so, or else my hormones were acting up.

Near the end of the book, there is a long scene set in the author's idea of heaven, perhaps based on some Yiddish tales. She attempts to explain the meaning of the book's title, The World To Come. I generally have trouble with anyone's conception of heaven. While I realize they are all products of human imagination, this one was one of the more outlandish versions I have come across and yet it had a certain fascination for me. I wondered if perhaps she meant it to be a balance to all the sadness.

Last month, after our discussion of The Sympathizer, my Tiny Book Club felt we needed a break from the heavy fare we had been reading lately. After our lunch at Xioa, an especially good Vietnamese restaurant in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, we stopped across the street to browse in the equally wonderful Stories Books. We came across this book and thought that a mystery about a stolen Chagall painting might be a delightful and lighter read.

We could not have been more wrong. The other two members purely hated the book, the writing, and the way the story was told. I am not sorry I read it and had to admire the sheer imaginative nature of the author. But I thanked them for dispelling my depression as they ripped the novel to shreds. So, read this one at your own risk!

Ah, the life of a woman who reads too much. 

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

Monday, May 29, 2017


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The Wonder, Emma Donoghue, Little Brown and Company, 2016, 291 pp

As far as I am concerned, Emma Donoghue is herself a wonder. Though I have only read four of her many books, each one is unique both from her other books and from much of contemporary fiction I come across. I admire her as an author who has a viewpoint and works from that no matter what she writes. Part of the viewpoint is an awareness of the particular difficulties inherent in being a woman.

For hundreds of years there have been women who survived long periods without eating. Today we call it anorexia, though I would guess that the underlying reasons or causes are as varied now as they have been throughout history.

Anna O'Donnell is an eleven-year-old in mid 19th century Ireland who stopped eating on the day of her first communion. When Lib Wright arrives on the scene, Anna has reportedly not eaten anything for four months.

Trained as a nurse by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, Lib now works in England and has been hired to carry out a watch of Anna as part of a two woman team, the other of which is a local nun. Lib is certain that something other than what has been claimed is going on and that Anna is somehow getting food secretly. 

The novel juggles quite a number of factors at play in rural Ireland in those times. The potato famine is still a recent memory. The grip of the Catholic Church over the people's lives is iron but also mixed with ancient Celtic lore. Lib Wright brings modern medical science, such as it was then, and skepticism to the scene but also a secret sorrow of her own.

Of course, Donoghue is a master of plotting with a bent toward the mystery form as well as the mysterious. The story gets off to a somewhat slow start but that turns out to be effective. The reader is as out of place and in the dark as Lib herself, so as she pursues the case you are right with her the whole way. 

Most heartbreaking is the relationship that grows between Lib and Anna. Can Lib save Anna from trauma, false beliefs, as well as starvation? Can she get to the bottom of what she was sure is a hoax? Read it and find out. 

(The Wonder is available in hardcover and audio book by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, May 27, 2017


Elizabeth Appleton, John O'Hara, Random House, 1963, 310 pp
Immediately after reading Bad Sex, I picked up the #5 bestseller of 1963 and found myself again reading about adultery. Also again this is a male author writing about an unfaithful woman. What a difference 52 years can make, but then again adultery is infinitely older than half a century. It is in the Ten Commandments!
This makes the sixth John O'Hara book I have read because that is how many top ten bestsellers he had between 1949 and 1963. I have deeply mixed feelings about his fiction because, though he creates fully rounded female characters, I usually feel like he is mansplaining women to me.

What he is always actually writing about is the white American class system of the eastern part of the country. Not a whiff of diversity can be found nor is he fully comfortable with self-willed, self-realizing women. The sex is all window dressing and probably had a lot to do with how well his books sold.

Elizabeth Appleton, nee Webster, met John Appleton at a party and fell in love with him on the tennis courts. She was raised in upper class New York City wealth and privilege but found the young men of her class uninspiring. So she married Professor John Appleton, descendant of a line of professors at an old, revered private college in rural Pennsylvania. When the small college town in which she found herself and John's lack of push for advancement became uninspiring, she entered into an affair with the town's most eccentric, but also upper class bachelor.

That affair, successfully concealed from John for some years, and their marriage are the story. It was entertaining and O'Hara's writing as smooth as ever. I just was not convinced of its truth.

As far as the intervening fifty-some years go, Elizabeth ends her affair and goes on to live contentedly with her husband while Brett just keeps circling the drain. Of course, Bad Sex was not anywhere near a bestseller but despite my dislike of that novel, it may be closer to the truth.

(Elizabeth Appleton is out of print, so look for it in libraries or from used book sellers.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


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Bad Sex, Clancy Martin, Tyrant Books, 2015, 182 pp

It is not often that one of the books I receive monthly from my Nervous Breakdown Book Club subscription rubs me the wrong way, but this one did. It was for sure the dud of my May reading.

Brett, a recovering alcoholic, also a writer, breaks out of her happy marriage and her sobriety to embark on a lusty affair with an unsavory man. She know what she is doing is ill-advised and that the man is a cad, but she succumbs to lust and returns to alcohol. 

We get to watch her self-destruction. I for one could not look away. Mercifully the book is short. Had it gone on for much longer, I might have thrown it against the wall.

I am always fascinated by descent-into-madness stories, especially if the descending character is female. I don't like to think too hard on what that says about me. Brett, however, was not a convincing female character.

Their affair takes them from one high end resort to another in Latin America. In that regard, it was at about the level of reading several Vanity Fair issues cover to cover. It is supposed to be a novel about adultery but really it is about addiction: to sex, to fear, and to alcohol. The writing is disjointed, not literary in my opinion, and by the end I no longer cared a whit about what happened to Brett. 

(Bad Sex is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Monday, May 22, 2017


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Outline, Rachel Cusk, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2014, 249 pp

I have long intended to read Rachel Cusk and was impelled to get started by fellow blogger Dorothy at The Nature of Things through her reviews of Outline and Transit, the first two of the author's planned trilogy.

It is hard to explain how mesmerizing Outline is. There is no plot in the conventional sense. A woman named Faye is on her way by airplane to teach a summer course in writing in Athens. Her seatmate, a small mature Greek man, seeks to engage her in conversation. When she tells him her reason for visiting Athens, he replies that he hopes she will be near water as it will be very hot. It is very hot throughout the book, as though the heat itself were a character.

Cusk writes, in Faye's voice, "I said I was afraid that was not the case, and he raised his eyebrows, which were silver and grew unexpectedly coarsely and wildly from his forehead, like grasses in a rocky place. It was this eccentricity that had made me answer him. The unexpected sometimes looks like a prompting of fate."

Indeed, the Greek gentleman continues to appear throughout the story. By the end, we and Faye know his entire life story. And so it goes. Chapter after chapter, people appear before or next to Faye and tell her all about themselves without much curiosity about the woman herself.

By the end, Faye has become a fairly rounded out character and one with whom I felt a strange bond. Her life, her personality, is revealed however only through her responses to the people she listens to. Somehow, I learned that Faye had a recently broken marriage and two children left behind in London, but it must have been something she said to one or more of the people she listened to. 

You see, I go on and on but I cannot quite explain how Rachel Cusk managed to create such a beguiling novel full of the rich stories of the people Faye meets and the students she teaches, while seeming only to listen to them talk. All I know is that I felt so much empathy for her, as if I had known her for a long time. I am beyond relieved to know that Faye is also the narrator of the next book, because the minute I finished this one, I was already missing her. 

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017


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The Shoes of the Fisherman, Morris L West, William Morrow and Company, 1963, 374 pp

Almost every year from 1940 to 1963, there has been at least one Christian novel on the Top 10 Bestseller list. The Shoes of the Fisherman took the #1 spot in 1963. It is the story of a Pope, how he was chosen, and what he faced in trying to keep the Catholic Church relevant in the postwar, communist influenced Cold War era. Kiril Lakota, Ukrainian Russian, victim of torture in the gulags, becomes Pope Kiril I.

According to the Author's Note in the front of the book, "This is a book set in a fictional time, peopled with fictional characters." He wrote the novel in 1962. Pope John XXIII reigned from 1958 to 1963. He was known as "The Good Pope," and influenced both Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was succeeded in 1963 by Pope Paul VI, known for his reforming of the Catholic Church to be more open to the world, to engage in dialogue with people of other religions, and to champion social justice.

Morris West's Pope Kiril I is a fictional combination of the two and I had to marvel at the author's prescience. I remember bits of all this, especially what we called the Ecumenical movement, but what I remember most is the Time Magazine cover in 1966: black with a red border and taking up three-fourths of it in bold red letters was the question "Is God Dead?"

As novels go, The Shoes of the Fisherman is not great but not awful. My religious upbringing, rejected and revised by me years ago, left me with almost a gag reflex when anyone starts pontificating (pun intended) on how if everyone could just be brought to believe in the one Christian God, we would have peace and justice in the world. (My sincere apologies to anyone who believes this way.) 

As I gagged my way through the story, also full of examples of people who behave most uncharitably, I was struck once again by the fairy tale of religion. Just believe, try to do the right thing, and though you will suffer, you will live forever in Paradise after you die.

For me, the novel was good for a look at the inner workings of the Vatican, though I have read better ones, particularly The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell. Over the years, West completed what is called his Vatican Trilogy with The Clowns of God in 1981 and Lazarus in 1990. Should I read them?

(The Shoes of the Fisherman is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


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Exit West, Mohsin Hamid, Riverhead Books, 2017, 138 pp

This novel was so great, I hardly know what to say besides, just read it!

It is very much about what is going on all over the world today when people decide they must leave their homeland, meaning they must leave behind everyone and everything they know and venture into uncertainty.

Hamid Mohsin does this brilliantly without even naming the country being left. Instead he created two characters, human and real but not western, who fall in love as their city is being destroyed by internal war. As their lives get more and more restricted by the breakdown of services and the dangers in the streets, he simultaneously creates the gradual but relentless deterioration of life around them along with their growing intimacy.

Then there are the mysterious doors through which people can go like portals in a fantasy novel and find themselves in another land. These doors reminded me of the trains in Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. We talked a lot about those doors in my reading group.

As Nadia and Saeed go from Greece to London to California, they confront and deal with living out of a few bundles in camps where they are unwanted and mistrusted by the population around them. As they each discover ways of coping, their relationship evolves in ways both they and the reader could not have foreseen.

Exit West is short and I did not want it to end, but even the way it ends is wondrous.

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


Monday, May 15, 2017


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Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction, J D Salinger, Little Brown and Company, 1963, 248 pp

I hope I am not boring you, my readers, with all these books from 1963. I am making great progress on the list by reading one a week and as of today have only four of the bestsellers left to read. Then I will be on to the award winners.

I have now read all of this infamous, controversial author's books. I suppose there will be unreleased stories being published over the coming years, but this one wraps up the stuff published while he lived. In fact, the two pieces here, long stories or novellas, were originally published in the New Yorker in 1955 and 1959, respectively, during Salinger's heyday.

I happen to like Salinger, Holden Caulfield and all. I especially like his crazy Glass family, who feature in both selections here. Those precocious children who were forced to perform on the radio and grew up to be eccentric adults, seem to be forerunners of characters in novels I have read by Cynthia Ozeck, Lydia Millet, and Karen Joy Fowler.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is the story of Seymour Glass's wedding that almost didn't happen. It turned into elopement leaving all the family members flailing about or, in some cases, stuck in a taxi together. I recalled that Mary McCarthy also opened her 1963 novel, The Group, with a wedding in New York and that incident had a scene in a crowded taxi as well! Though Salinger's story is poignant, it is also one of the funniest things he wrote.

Seymour: an Introduction is filled with the angst of Seymour and his brother (who is writing the piece) and takes place after the wedding as well as after Seymour's suicide. It is meant to be a character study but serves as a farce on writing. Some reviewers have called the piece "self-indulgent." Duh! Apparently they didn't get the joke.

Earlier this year I watched the 2013 documentary Salinger. It shows the man in all the reclusive, reporter hating, misogynist glory of his later years. It was a disturbing take-down of one of my literary heroes. I wish I could unwatch it because those scenes in the movie kept coming up while I was reading. Whether the documentary is true or not, I'd rather keep my illusions about the author who has given me so many hours of reading pleasure. If you love Salinger's work and have not seen the documentary, be warned. Personally, I don't require the authors I read to be sane, well-balanced citizens.

(Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction are available in hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, May 13, 2017


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Grace, Natashia Deon, Counterpoint Press, 2016, 402 pp

I loved this novel. It is an example of what a female author can accomplish when she allows herself to write truly from her own heart and vision. 

I was already in ghost story mode from reading White Tears just before it. In Grace, the ghost who narrates the tale is the mother of the main character, Grace. Both are slaves. The ghost narrator's mother was also a slave upon whom her master kept producing babies as a way to get more slaves without having to pay for them. Except the woman kept having daughters when he wanted males for the fields.

Thus we get the stories of three generations of slave women, of murder and mayhem, of desperate escapes towards freedom. I guess I have read enough slave narratives now to have become somewhat inured to the abuse and violence that come with the institution. The key to this novel is the unending strength of a mother's love for her children. Without sentimentality, Natashia Deon plums all the conflicting emotions and deeds done under the almost mystical connection a mother has with her offspring.

This is a story of the heart complete with all the blood, pain, labor, and mistakes a mother can make. It is a story of the mind and all the conundrums of how to best rear and protect, especially daughters who are bound to become mothers themselves. Of course, ultimately it is an historical story of the suffering of females and slaves. There are also some wonderful male characters to counter-balance the depravity of the typical Southern "gentlemen" of the era.

I listened to an interview with the author on the Other People podcast. She is a native of Los Angeles, her father was a cop, and she had amazing stories to tell about her life. She is also a Christian with the kind of deep faith I can respect. The line from the novel that moved me the most was, "There is no justice. There is only grace."

For fans of Toni Morrison, and I am one of them, it is as if she has a literary daughter whose name is Natashia Deon. In my opinion, Grace should have been a huge bestseller last year. There is no justice. It must have been grace that led me to such a wonderful novel.

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


Wednesday, May 10, 2017


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White Tears, Hari Kunzru, Alfred Knopf, 2017, 271 pp

Five years ago I read Hari Kunzru's fourth novel, Gods Without Men. I was stunned by his imagination, his complicated world view, and his crackling prose. I have not yet read his earlier novels but I will. As soon as I could get a copy of his new novel from the library, I read it in three sittings.

In White Tears, he sets up an unlikely friendship between Carter, a mentally disturbed trust fund kid, and Seth, a withdrawn socially awkward dude who is obsessed with sound. Seth tells this haunted tale and opens with: "That summer I would ride my bike over the bridge, lock it up in front of one of the bars on Orchard Street and drift through the city on foot, recording. People and places. Sidewalk smokers, lovers' quarrels, drug deals. I wanted to store the world and play it back just as I'd found it, without change or addition." (My husband is a recording engineer. I was instantly hooked.)

Seth believes that "every sound wave has a physiological effect, every vibration." One day he records a chess hustler in Washington Square singing a line from a blues song. "Believe I'll buy me a graveyard of my own."

The connection between Carter and Seth is music. Carter collects old blues records. The two of them listen to them for hours. After college, using Carter's inherited wealth, the two open a recording studio with Carter as businessman and procurer of clients and Seth as audio engineer.

Within a few chapters the story takes a weird turn and then just goes into a widening gyre of weirdness. Something very horrific happens to Carter. Seth and Carter's equally deranged sister Leonie, depart for the South on a quest to find the old blues guy who originally recorded "Believe I'll Buy Me a Graveyard." Seth's belief about sound waves and physiological effects leads him into being haunted by that old blues guy.

Meanwhile Hari Kunzru leads his readers into a history and meditation on greed, exploitation, race, and the wages of sin. I finished the novel in a quandary. Who owns creativity? How is it that creative types are so often submerged by others who cannot create but can only live off of creatives?

Charlie Shaw, the creator of the graveyard song, was a black man. As James Baldwin said, "It is only in his music...that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story." I truly hope Hari Kunzru does not read this review because I even wondered if he, as an author, had exploited black musicians in order to write his novel. I am sure it was not his intention, but how many black musicians had to die to create White Tears?

But maybe, just maybe, every sound wave does have a physiological effect, so that a creative named Hari Kunzu, a mixed British/Kasmiri Hindu, could channel the vibrations of a 1920s black blues artist from Mississippi. 

(White Tears is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Monday, May 08, 2017


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City of Night, John Rechy, Grove Press, 1963, 400 pp

Oh the places I go in My Big Fat Reading Project! At #7 on the 1963 bestseller list, this novel was a ground breaker in gay fiction. I had never heard of it but my cohort in the Literary Snobs reading group knew all about it. In some ways it was unlike anything I have ever read while in other ways it felt familiar compared to some of the Beat fiction I have read.

Largely autobiographical, the story follows a young man through his peripatetic nightlife as a hustler in the dark streets of El Paso, Times Square, Pershing Square (in Los Angeles), the French Quarter of New Orleans, and the Mission District of San Francisco. His lonely, frenetic existence is portrayed as a search for identity and connection but the milieu in which he searches is a desperate world of disconnection and confused identities, made up of hustlers, queens, secret slumming homosexual men, and sad women, a few of whom are lesbians. In fact, there are few women in the book and those few seemed like stereotypes. 

What was brought home to me is how horrid life could be for gay people in mid-twentieth century America. So much secrecy, confusion, guilt and personal disintegration was necessarily their plight. Though the endless rehashing of similar scenes got to be too much for me as a reader, I wondered if life is much better for gay persons in our present time.

I can't really know because I am heterosexual and though I have gay friends there is a reticence between us when it comes to talking about sexual orientation. Is that my doing? I want to ask about or discuss what that aspect of their lives is like but I feel shy about doing so. I was raised to be homophobic and confess that it took some doing to get over that prejudice. Mostly, it took reading books.

So I thank the writers who have opened their hearts and minds in their novels and memoirs, their essays and poetry. I don't mean to sound disingenuous, but like someone who hated a certain food as a kid but grew up to like it, I can barely remember what it was like to harbor that homophobia in the past. Yet, I feel more comfortable with olives than I do with my fellow human beings whose sexual orientation is different from mine.

In any case, City of Night was a wild, sometimes uncomfortable read that brought me more understanding of what is means to be human. It also made me sorrow for the ways we mistreat each other. 

(City of Night is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Sunday, May 07, 2017


Another reading group month I am looking forward to. All books I either want to read or have read and would love to discuss. Here is the line up:

Laura's Group:

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Tiny Book Club:

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Tina's Group:

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Bookie Babes:

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Literary Snobs:

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For those of you who attend reading groups, what are you reading/discussing this month? If you are not in a group, which of these selections sound good to you?

Friday, May 05, 2017


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Scrapper, Matt Bell, Soho Press, 2015, 301 pp

This novel consumed me, chewed me up and spat me out. It changed me. A reviewer in the New York Times described it as "equal parts dystopian novel, psychological thriller and literary fiction." I could not say it better, although the dystopian aspect is so close to where we already are and have been in some areas of the world, that it was more like a summary of the kinds of places you would tell your kids or loved ones to avoid.

Set in Detroit, a city I have been in or around for most of my life, deep in the ruins of the automobile industry there, it features a legendary type of hero/fallen man named Kelly. He is a "scrapper," someone who scavenges scrap metal from the deserted factories and homes in the black hole section of modern Detroit and sells it for cash. He also fits the original meaning of the word: a fighter, a pugilist. Kelly's abusive father was a wrestling coach who taught him the ways of pugilism in his formative years. This rejected but absorbed aggressive stance has brought him trouble and a load of guilt.

So when he meets a chronically ill woman with a limp and when he rescues a kidnapped boy, all his demons and sorrow coalesce into a desperate determination to make some things right. 

Not a pretty story but dark, gritty and violent, yet filled with meanings, with understandings, about love, self-defense, duty, vengeance and atonement. Somehow Matt Bell takes this microcosm of all that is wrong in the world and makes it hauntingly beautiful.

I truly do not know how he did that. Scrapper is part of the story of civilization as it appears to us now. The ways that progress/greed and power/oppression and hopes/losses work in life, in society, in politics and government and wars. Also the ways that whatever divine spark lives in any human being can bring about transformation even in the midst of violence and decay.

Thanks again to the Nervous Breakdown Book Club for sending to my mailbox a book I otherwise may have missed. I would say that if you feel frightened by the world the way it is today, this novel could give you courage.

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

Tuesday, May 02, 2017


How do all you bloggers get your monthly summary done right at the end of the month? I am usually still madly reading the final book of the month on the last day. I salute you!

Also, somehow I only got four of the April books reviews up on the blog. That would be the first four on the list. In fact, I fell into my way too customary ditch of putting off writing up the books. But I just could not stop reading because everything I read in April was so great. The reviews will come soon.

When I started the 1963 reading list in March, I made a hard and fast rule that I would read one book a week from that list, so I could get through it as promptly as possible. The rule has made for an interesting series of transitions from modern books to 54 years ago. I hope I am not boring you with all these old books but I recommend many of them if you haven't read them before. I have to admit that my top favorites do seem to be the recent releases though.

Stats: 10 books read. 10 fiction, 4 by women, 4 from the 1963 list of My Big Fat Reading Project. I have been reading more books written by men lately, though 3 out of my 5 favorites were by women. Stats are sort of interesting but I usually don't know what to make of them.

Favorites: To the Bright Edge of the World, A Book of American Martyrs, Scrapper, Grace, and Exit West. 
Least favorite: none.