Sunday, March 26, 2017

NOTES OF A NATIVE SON





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Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin, Beacon Press, 1955, 175 pp


When I originally created My Big Fat Reading Project lists, I had planned to read only James Baldwin's novels. Seeing the 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro last month changed my mind. Now I want to read everything he wrote.

Notes of a Native Son is a collection of essays including a book review and a movie review, all published in various magazines between 1948 and 1955. Baldwin was only 24 years old in 1948 but that incisive intelligence and willingness to speak truth to power was already in full display.

I find it challenging to review such a collection so I will simply record some quotes that spoke to me and my growing knowledge of the human condition.

From "Everybody's Protest Novel" 1949:
"It is the peculiar triumph of society-and its loss-that it is able to convince those people to whom it has given inferior status of the reality of this decree; it has the force and the weapons to translate its dictum into fact, so that the allegedly inferior are actually made so, insofar as the societal realities are concerned."

From "Many Thousands Gone" 1951:
"It is only in his music...that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story."

From "Journey to Atlanta" 1948
"Negroes distrust politicians most."

Much more to ponder can be found in these pages. The overall idea I took away is that history matters; we are our own history. It is crucial to have learned history in order to understand ourselves, others, and our present.

My reading list for 1955 consists of 39 books. Ten female authors are represented and now one, but only one, American Negro. Does anyone know of other books by American Negroes published in 1955? 

A little reading group story: My intrepid Tiny Book Club, membership of three women, went to see I Am Not Your Negro together one week after having met to discuss Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. We discussed the movie over dinner and decided we were not done with the subject nor with James Baldwin.

We each chose a different Baldwin book to read and met again to discuss. I read Notes of a Native Son, the other two read Going to Meet the Man (his story collection from 1965) and The Fire Next Time (two long essays published in 1963) respectively. It was a pretty cool way to structure a reading group discussion.


(Notes of a Native Son is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, March 24, 2017

BLACK WAVE





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Black Wave, Michelle Tea, Feminist Press, 2016, 325 pp


I was not sure I was going to like Black Wave. It was a contender in the 2017 Tournament of Books. I had listened to an interview with Michelle Tea on the Otherppl podcast. So I took the plunge. She has written and/or edited 14 books. This one, like several earlier ones, is a mashup of memoir and fiction with a meta-fiction section in the middle. I guess you could call it experimental. I was surprised by it and it worked for me.

The first section is set in San Francisco. Michelle writes about herself in third person. She is in her late twenties, a published poet, living the life of a poor, substance abusing, promiscuous lesbian in the Mission district. It is 1999. 

This part is raw in the extreme and Michelle is an unlikeable woman. She is unfaithful to her lovers, unable to reciprocate in love, living on the edge of poverty and usually drunk. She also experiments with heroin and feels unconcerned about getting addicted because she inhales rather than shoot it. Truly it is a wonder she remains alive and out of jail.

One day she decides she needs to get her life more together so she moves to Los Angeles intending to write screenplays. She gets a job at that bookstore on Franklin Ave in Hollywood. She drinks wine until she passes out every night. She tries to adapt her life to a screenplay by changing herself into more accessible characters. That is the meta part and the second section.

Then the story gets even more weird because the world is going to end and by the final page, it really does. But as life around her gets more strange by the day, Michelle gets it together. She gets sober, makes peace with her two lesbian mothers, and finds a state of grace.

That is where she got to me. I still felt I was obsessively reading about a messy, sometimes disgusting breakdown of a person and the world, but the juxtaposition of the two became brilliant and full of truth about human beings. Each of us as an individual has an inescapable destiny, she seems to be saying. In parallel to that sobering fact, so does the human race.

Black Wave is not a feel-good book, not at all. It is in many ways appalling and readers will either love it or hate it. I didn't hate it because it has too much about it that is great and I almost loved it for reasons I find hard to articulate. I am extremely glad I read it. At the end, I felt good.


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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

BRUSH BACK




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Brush Back, Sara Paretsky, G P Putnam's Sons, 2015, 459 pp


Now I have read all of Sara Paretsky's books and I am ready for her newest one, Fallout, which will be released next month, April 18, 2017!

I first read Sara Paretsky in 2005 when one of my reading groups read and discussed Fire Sale. I was hooked! I felt, and still feel, that V I Warshawski was the best female private investigator of all. I went back and started reading all her books in order.

Brush Back takes V I back into the South Side Chicago neighborhood where she grew up. An old boyfriend appears one day asking for her help in exonerating his mother Stella, who has served a 25 year stint behind bars for manslaughter. She had been convicted of murdering her own daughter, but is still claiming innocence. However, she is no victim but is in fact a violent, crazy woman and she hates V I with a passion.

As in every Sara Paretsky mystery, what seems like a small matter explodes into a trail of corruption and injustice involving white collar crime. Also as usual, the police have little interest in getting involved, leaving it up to V I to risk her life tracking down the truth.

In Brush Back a blue collar neighborhood has been gutted by the closing of the steel industry and overrun by gangs and drugs. It is being somewhat propped up by a purported do-gooder who is as corrupt as they come. V I takes plenty of flack for having left the neighborhood and having had a degree of success with her private investigator one woman business. Rather than anyone being glad to see her coming back to help, she is vilified and obstructed at every turn, even though her deceased cousin Boom-Boom is well-loved for his success as a famous hockey player.

The book is so timely. Those down-trodden South Side residents are a part of the demographic that put our current President in office. The criminal behind all the supposed "good work" he does in the neighborhood is the one who is actually driving the area further down. What is he hiding?

In these days of calls for activism, V I Warshawski is an admirable example of the dangers involved in exposing corruption, greed, and the rotten spots in city politics. I wish I was that brave. At least I read the books. Follow the money is still an important watchword. 


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

Friday, March 17, 2017

DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING





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Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien, W W Norton & Company, 2016, 463 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences. 


My Review:
This novel about China under Mao, then under Deng, at Tiananmen Square, spoke to me on so many levels and I felt passionate about it on every page. Three days after finishing it, my thoughts and heart are still reverberating.

For many, including two-thirds of the reading group who went with my suggestion, it will be a challenging read. Music, the study and composition and playing of, permeates the story. The three generations of two extended families interweave. Time is fluid. But it is very much a female perspective on political change and oppression, on the attack to the sense of self and freedom of thought for all people who live under it, especially to creatives.

The author preserves a secret story within her story. As far as I am concerned, she has fulfilled the purpose of novels, of writing fiction and of using language to express the nearly inexpressible. Math, music, writing across cultures and borderlines can be antidotes to oppression, providing a tenuous hold on sanity. I adore intelligent women and have added Madeleine Thien to my growing list.

I was encouraged to read this novel by a review on The Nature of Things blog. Thank you Dorothy! Here is a link to her excellent review: http://birdwoman-thenatureofthings.blogspot.com/2016/12/do-not-say-we-have-nothing-by-madeleine.html


(Do Not Say We Have Nothing is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

LYING ON THE COUCH





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Lying on the Couch, Irvin D Yalom, Basic Books/HarperCollins, 1996, 369 pp


Irvin D Yalom is an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University who also writes fiction. Three years ago I read and found stimulating his most recent novel, The Spinoza Problem, so when one of my reading groups chose this one, I looked forward to it.

Lying on the Couch was his third novel and I think he was still working out how to switch over from writing technical works to writing fiction. It wasn't bad; in fact it is a thought provoking look at the inner workings of professional psychotherapy, but it had some rough patches.

Two therapists come into conflict. Marshal is the entrenched older mentor to Ernest Lash. The former believes in the efficacy of psychotherapy with all its guidelines and procedures, but has deep issues himself about success and money. He mentors the younger Ernest Lash, formerly trained as a psycho-pharmacist (meaning one who prescribes drugs rather than counseling) but who has now become a "talk-therapy" proponent. The two clash over methodology and how open a therapist should be with his patients.

Threaded through their professional relationship are other characters and story lines. Marshall falls prey to a patient who is in fact a supremely successful con man and is almost ruined. Lash is the victim of a predatory female patient bent on seducing him in revenge for Lash having broken up her marriage to another of his patients.

The whole novel nearly collapses under the psychological and criminal thriller element the author layers on to what is also a treatise on the state of psychiatry in the late 1990s. The sexual aspects are a bit cringe-worthy, the criminal elements are somewhat improbable, and despite the propulsion of a rather trashy plot, I felt queasy much of the time.

Really, the novel is enough to put the reader off from ever submitting to any sort of therapy. If therapists are actually working out their own obsessions and mental problems as they try to help others, how can anyone fully trust them?

We had a profound reading group discussion. I decided that there are always people with a fervent desire to help others, whether they be therapists, ministers, teachers, family or friends. Once the political and economic interests of organized institutions get involved with helping others, the subject of help gets murky and sometimes outright destructive. 

Often I feel I have gained more insight into my own troubles and relationships by reading great fiction, more than I ever got in the countless hours of therapy I have had. I can't say that therapy didn't help me sometimes but for now I am sticking with fiction.

I don't think that was Yalom's intention, but his novel cemented my decision to leave therapy alone in the future.


(Lying on the Couch is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT





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The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown, Viking Penquin, 2013, 370 pp


In 1936, the varsity crew of the University of Washington's rowing team went to the Olympic Games in Berlin and took the Gold Medal in eight-oared rowing. That is known historical fact. When Daniel James Brown published The Boys in the Boat in 2013, the world learned the back story to that achievement. What a story it is.

The author was a neighbor of Joe Rantz, one of the crew members. Close to the end of his life, Joe Rantz was ill and being cared for by his daughter. She happened to be reading aloud to Joe, Brown's earlier book, Under a Flaming Sky. The old man wanted to meet the author since he had been a friend of Angus Hay, Jr, who featured in that book. Thus Brown's next book was born, a story almost as good as the book itself.

Due to Joe's daughter having kept all manner of records and stories about Joe's life and about the rowing team, Joe is the central character. He also told as much as he could to Daniel James Brown over a series of interviews in 2007 before passing away in September.

This is a story of triumph by a bunch of young men who grew up in the Great Depression, most of them in and around Seattle. I was struck by how hard life was for people in those times; people who had no safety net. I have read a good deal about that period in American history but no other book I've read has brought so much day to day insight into those people's lives.

It is also a story about how a great team is made, about rowing and the boats. About being a rowing coach. And about George Yeoman Pocock, the builder of most of the boats in use at that time and the guru of rowing technique.

By contrasting life as it was for the boys leading up to the Olympics with what was happening in Germany under the rise of Hitler, the story is broadened and laid into the stream of world history as it were.

All of this makes for a powerful book and took me by surprise. I have always preferred novels to any other kind of reading material and even to movies. Somehow I have let more and more non-fiction stray into my reading, in part due to my many wonderful reading groups with the democratic way we bring books to each others' attention. In fact, that is how I came to read The Boys in the Boat and our discussion was one of the best.


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

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

THE GODS OF TANGO





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The Gods of Tango, Carolina De Robertis, Alfred A Knopf, 2015, 363 pp


Another fabulous novel! It will live on in my memory perhaps for as long as I live.

In 1913, Leda leaves her tiny Italian village for a new life in Argentina. Her cousin/fiance has been there for a couple years and has finally written for her to join him. The wedding ceremony has taken place in her village without him present and her mother is so angry with her for leaving that she will not even say goodbye. Oh, the terrible things we do to each other. In addition, Leda's best friend has recently died under horrific and mysterious circumstances.

So, along with a suitcase and a trunk containing her father's violin, she boards a ship with hopes, fears, and losses as her primary baggage. When she finally arrives in Buenos Aires, she is greeted by her new husband's best friend with the shocking news that Dante is dead, killed by a stray bullet in an Anarchist riot just for being an innocent bystander.

Buenos Aires is a city teeming with immigrants, a violent place with large areas of poverty contrasted with the wealthy. After months of barely surviving as a single woman, Leda becomes infatuated with the Tango, teaches herself to play the violin with the help and encouragement of an old man who lives in her building, and decides to go into the city's nightlife as a male violinist. She takes Dante's name, wears his clothes and lives an incredible life as a musician.

The novel is as seductive and flamboyant as a Tango. Having been a violinist earlier in my life, having played in orchestras, sung in bands, and written my own music for many years, I was enthralled. This is also a history of the Tango, a musical genre that has parallels to the Blues in North America, and has gone through constant changes as it became one of the most popular musical and dance styles of South America. I watched videos of the Tango as I read.

Leda's story, living as Dante, is dramatic, full of challenges, triumphs and heartbreak. It is also a tale of her awakening sexual identity and the conflict between the accepted church-inspired views of women with what really goes on in the secret personal lives of both men and women.

Carolina De Robertis writes prose the way a composer writes music and drew me into a rich and passionate world I had not known much about. It is a sexy novel that will have you reaching for your partner or sending you out to find one. 


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

Monday, March 06, 2017

MARCH READING GROUP UPDATE









I must say, my reading groups are doing quite well at selecting books I am interested in reading! Or, in the case of Moonglow, a book I have already read and loved, so am dying to discuss. My only exception this month is A Man Called Ove, which doesn't exactly seem like my kind of thing, but there is a movie and it is by a Swedish writer, so I will take a chance.


Laura's Group:

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Tiny Book Club:

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Tina's Group:

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One Book At A Time:

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Bookie Babes:

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If you are in a reading group or groups, what are you discussing this month?
 

Sunday, March 05, 2017

THE DAY THE WORLD CAME TO TOWN





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The Day the World Came to Town, Jim Defede, Regan Books, 2002, 244 pp


The book is poorly written and quickly became boring to me, but I did learn some things I did not know before. The reading group who chose the book mostly felt the same way and our discussion lasted about twenty minutes before it devolved into the usual these days: a discussion of our new President and how he is doing. 

But the book: On 9/11 right after the Twin Towers were hit, the United States closed its airspace. You may remember. I forgot that part. All aircraft headed for the US from other countries were forced either to turn back or land elsewhere. Thirty-eight jetliners were ordered to land in Gander, Newfoundland, requiring that small town of 10,000 people to play a Red Cross role for over 6000 travelers plus flight crew members. The book tells this story.

According to Jim Defede, it all came off without a hitch, there was no violence or unpleasantness, all the townspeople and local businesses pitched in to shelter, feed, entertain and even provide medical assistance where needed. This went on for six days.

If one can believe all this it is heartwarming in these these times of closed borders, burgeoning numbers of refugees, etc, etc. It was nice to contemplate that the world is made up of mostly nice people. The author chose to follow the stories of a select number of stranded passengers. You feel their individual troubles and anxieties but not enough to upset the reader too much.

Of course, I wondered how my small town of approximately 20,000 on the edge of Los Angeles would react in such a situation. Would we be that generous and that friendly? Hm. 


(The Day the World Came to Town is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

BOOKS READ IN FEBRUARY








Despite the shorter number of days I had a stellar reading month: 11 books. It did help that many were excellent, that it was rainy and cloudy and cold almost all month, and that hubby was gone on business for the last week. Odd for me, I read four non-fiction books, three of which were reading group picks. I so wanted to finish the 1962 list for My Big Fat Reading Project, but I did not quite make it. I only have three to go so I will finish that list in March for sure.

Stats: 11 read. 7 fiction. 2 sci fi/speculative/fantasy. 5 by women. 4 non-fiction. 3 from My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 translated. 2 for Tournament of Books.

Favorites: Version Control, All the Birds in the Sky, The Time of the Doves, The Gods of Tango and Do Not Say We Have Nothing. (That is a lot of favorites! No wonder it felt like such a good month.)
Least favorite: The Day the World Came to Town.


And the books were: