Saturday, March 23, 2019


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The Years, Annie Ernaux, Seven Stories Press, 2017, 231 pp (originally published by Editions Gallimard, Paris, France, 2008; translated from the French by Allison L Strayer.)
I read this because it is a memoir. I read memoirs and autobiographies as aids to the book I am writing, either a memoir or an autobiography depending on which day you ask. When I first heard about The Years, I learned that this acclaimed French writer covers her life against a background of social and political French life, comparing and relating her passages to those events. I am attempting a similar feat.

Unlike myself, Annie Ernaux is exemplary in her brevity. She manages to compress 1941 to 2006 into just a bit over 200 pages. Reading the book was like watching a newsreel, barreling through her upbringing, her schooling and her adult life, complete with the major news, the literature, music, movies and changing styles and mores.

At times she is remembering her world by looking outside herself, other times by recalling her emotions and observations. Since I have never lived in France, many of the cultural bits were outside my experience. That problem was eased by the fact that we have both been through these changes simply by living in the world during almost the same decades.

She often mentions Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, and other French authors I have read, making me feel more at home. I have read from those authors about the German occupation during WWII, the resistance, the Algerian War, the involvement of French intellectuals and youth with socialism and communism. New to me though was what has happened in France from the 1970s on.

The book was a great boost to my own writing project. Unless other readers are interested in mid 20th century French life, it might be less interesting. If you have visited France over the years though, it is an inside look into changes you may have noticed.

Just as I was reading it, The Years was included on the long list for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, another bonus for book nerds.

Thursday, March 21, 2019


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Lake City, Thomas Kohnstamm, Counterpoint, 2019, 304 pp
So, we've had Occupy Wall Street, the election of Trump, Hillbilly Elegy, etc. Now we are starting to get the novels about economic inequality, its causes and outcomes. Last year was Jonathan Evison's excellent Lawn Boy (just out in paperback) as an example.
Thomas Kohnstamm is a buddy of Jonathan Evison's. His debut novel, Lake City, is set in Evison's stomping grounds of the Northwest and its anti-hero Lane is another loser white guy who is doing his best to rise out of his impoverished Lake City neighborhood in northeast Seattle.

Lane has plenty of ambition. He has learned how to game the system. By the edge of his fingernails he has scrabbled his way into a college education, even a PhD program at Columbia in New York City

He also has goals: to get into a secure position in a well funded NGO and help the world, giving more opportunities to people like himself. However, his rich wife, currently funding his graduate studies, seems to have left him. Now he is back home, sleeping in his mother's garage and trying to hold things together.

The novel is one of those sad but funny, heartbreaking but savvy stories about social divides. I would say the author nails it pretty well. At times, it felt like he couldn't decide whether he was writing a literary novel or a gritty send up, a redemption story or a slap stick satire.

By the end I concluded he had done all of the above, resulting in some uncomfortable moments for the reader. Still I was impressed by the urgency of his plotting and found Lake City hard to put down.

The novel was the January 2019 selection of The Nervous Breakdown subscription book club. Thomas Kohnstamm's interview on the Otherppl podcast includes hair raising stories of his days as a travel writer and his years spent writing his first novel.

Monday, March 18, 2019


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The Witch Elm, Tana French, Viking, 2018, 509 pp
Just knowing that Tana French has a new novel puts me in an anticipatory state. I got on the waiting list at the library right away though it still took months to get a copy. Apparently I am not alone.
I had heard that The Witch Elm was not a Dublin Murder Squad sequel but a stand alone. It was more than worth the wait.

I have no intention of giving away any plot points. The novel takes its time, it messed with my head, it pretty much upended all my expectations of what it would be about and how it would turn out. The psychological tension built until I was beyond impatient to know all the answers to all the questions posed.

With her protagonist Toby, she created an unreliable narrator more confounding than I have ever come across before. Most of the time, he did not even believe himself. I was reminded of Cassie in The Likeness.

This is still a crime novel but the viewpoint is inverted to give the criminal mind prominence instead of the cop's. It is brilliantly done.

Friday, March 15, 2019


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Wintering, A Novel of Sylvia Plath, Kate Moses, St Martin's Press, 2003, 313 pp
After completing Sylvia Plath's final poetry collection, Ariel, in February, I wanted to know more about the woman. I discovered that I had this novel about her on my shelves. When I found a positive recommendation for it by Janet Fitch, it seemed a good place to start.
The novel covers mostly the last year of Plath's life with some backstory about earlier years. I found it to be breathtaking in writing style, almost as if Kate Moses were channeling Plath's poetry style into prose.

She covers many of the incidents in Plath's life that could have been the inspiration for the poems in Ariel. It was rewarding to read about those incidents, then turn to the poems and reread them. The chapter titles were also the poem titles. This was just what I wanted!

The Author's Note at the end of the novel convinced me that Kate Moses had done her Plath studies with diligence, consulting the major biographies as well as her journals. She gives the reader full disclosure on what was fact and what she imagined. 

I also saw the 2003 movie, "Sylvia," starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia and a young Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes. Excellent acting, lovely cinematography but less satisfying than Kate Moses's novel. 

Now on to an actual biography, after a short break. Spending too much time with Lady Lazarus is a bit hard on my own mental health.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


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Generosity, Richard Powers, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2009, 322 pp
Summary from Goodreads: When Chicagoan Russell Stone finds himself teaching a Creative Nonfiction class, he encounters a young Algerian woman with a disturbingly luminous presence. Thassadit Amzwar's blissful exuberance both entrances and puzzles the melancholic Russell. How can this refugee from perpetual terror be so happy? Won't someone so open and alive come to serious harm? Wondering how to protect her, Russell researches her war-torn country and skims through popular happiness manuals. Might her condition be hyperthymia? Hypomania? Russell's amateur inquiries lead him to college counselor Candace Weld, who also falls under Thassa's spell. Dubbed Miss Generosity by her classmates, Thassa's joyful personality comes to the attention of the notorious geneticist and advocate for genomic enhancement, Thomas Kurton, whose research leads him to announce the genotype for happiness.
My Review:
Last year I read and loved The Overstory. This year I plan to read all the rest of Richard Powers's novels in reverse order of publication by reading one a month. This is turning out to be quite an immersion into one author and a way of looking back into the last 30 some years of scientific and social history. 
In Generosity, Powers combines the science of genetics, an examination of how stories are written, and the ways that science and commerce become entangled. His characters serve his ideas and I am coming to see a pattern in these novels.
The main ethical question he addresses is the use of genetic data to rearrange the human mind and body as a means to circumvent disease and mental illness. A big question!
The inexplicable bliss of Algerian refugee Thassadit Amzwar drives the plot. She is a great creation of a character, at risk of exploitation and the destruction of her personality.
Though this novel did not quite reach the wondrous heights of Orfeo or The Overstory, it was a worthwhile look at the potential dangers and the powers of science in relation to society and the media. If you could give your child the guarantee of happiness by genetic manipulation, would you? 

Saturday, March 09, 2019


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Plants Don't Drink Coffee, Unai Elorriga, Archipelago Books, 2009, 200 pp (translated from the Basque by Amaia Gabantxo)

This novella was my February selection for my challenge to read one translated book a month. From the title and cover art I thought it might be experimental. Instead it is a moving story that managed to bring me a large dose of joy during the dark and rainy days of last month.

Much of the book is in the voice of young Tomas. Listen to him: "Plants don't drink coffee. They don't like coffee, and neither do flowers or trees. Birds don't like it either. My aunt told me. I do. Sometimes I don't breathe while I drink my cafe con leche."

Tomas is staying with his aunt because his father is gravely ill, in hospital, and his mother sits by her husband's bed. His teenage cousin is hard at work on a summer project to collect all the insects she can find in the village. Tomas accompanies her and wants himself to find a rare blue dragonfly. It is said that the one who catches it will become the most intelligent person in the world. I fell in love with Tomas.

Throughout the summer, at his aunt's and at family gatherings, he listens to their stories and tries to piece the details together from his eight-year-old limited experience of life. Along with him, I got a picture of small-town life there in these current times.

By the end he has had to deal with many new concepts. I was so inspired by this deceptively simple tale from the Spanish area of the Basque Country that I began to write again myself, after a long dry spell.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019


Recap from February: The Tiny Book Club loved A Terrible Country and we discussed for hours while playing word games. The Address got mixed reactions at Tina's Group and you already know mine. The Leavers had One Book At A Time talking about motherhood, immigration and sad losses. The Bookie Babes, all but one, were fascinated by The Wonder and we talked about our religious upbringings. Overall a great month for my groups.

Now for March: A book about a child captured by Indians in the 19th century, the Booker Prize winner, poetry from Russia, historical fiction and Lisa See! Also, I have joined a new group made up of two friends from an old group that went defunct. What am I thinking? We don't have a name yet but will meet in the food court of a mall, so for now we are The Food Court Group. Stay tuned.
One Book At A Time:
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Tiny Book Club:
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Molly's Group:
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Bookie Babes:
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Has anyone broken down and joined a real life reading group lately? For those who attend reading groups, what are you reading in March? How were your meetings last month?

Tuesday, March 05, 2019


King of the Corner, Loren D Estleman, Bantam Books, 1992, 294 pp
This is the third novel in Estleman's Detroit Crime Series. I have also read the earlier two, Whiskey River and Motown. All are excellent crime fiction and stand out for me because I lived near Detroit from 1967 to 1991.
This one is set during the last year I lived in Ann Arbor. Though I was completely immersed in my job that year, I was vaguely aware that Detroit was in big trouble as a city. Ford Motor Co was basically gone from the Motor City, rampant unemployment was leading to the explosion of Big Crime, and a corrupt mayor leading a rapidly declining population that was more than 50% black completed the disaster.

Doc Miller, a former Detroit Tigers baseball star, has just been released from prison after serving seven years for manslaughter. He is a white guy, now a minority in the city, and broke, with no future in baseball, living with his brother's family, working in his brother's business. Not in the best shape for making decisions.

He is however, a pretty savvy fellow and knows his way around the city despite how much has changed while he was locked up. He takes a job as a driver for a slick and successful bail bondsman, hoping for better income and more interesting work. Instantly he is in the thick of crime, police relations and racial tension. King of the Corner is the story of how he beats the odds and figures out what he wants.

I loved it. Reading the book filled in a lot of gaps left by my former oblivious state. Perhaps readers not familiar with Detroit would be less enthusiastic about the book, but knowing the city like I did for over 20 years, I could picture it all. I could appreciate what Colman Young, the city's first Black Mayor, was up against during those years.

Estleman is just as good as Detroit's more famous Elmore Leonard. I think he violated some of Leonard's Rules For Good Writing by being more literary, more historical and more philosophical, but the literary snob in me leans toward the less famous Estleman.

Saturday, March 02, 2019


I chose this dreary dark photo because a majority of days here in the Los Angeles area looked like this: sunless, rainy, cold days. Despite my worries about freezing night temperatures decimating my red apple ground cover, I am beyond grateful for all the rain. Also though feeling like a shut-in some days, I loved having the time to read.

The biggest blessing was finishing a lovely little translated novel that proved to ignite a breakthrough in my writing. I have returned to the only stratagem that keeps me writing: no email, no internet when I first get up. Just coffee, journal entry and writing. I am at the end of two weeks of this plan and the writing is going well.

I also had a week of moody depression just before that breakthrough and almost decided to give up this blog. (I noticed a few of my blogger friends had similar thoughts, one of them even did give up blogging, hopefully only temporarily.) As it turned out, I missed all the wonderful connections on books and reading that come from keeping my blog going and following other blogs. So, a compromise. I will be writing shorter reviews and otherwise just keeping up the best I can. 

Stats: 12 books read. 11 fiction. 7 written by women. 1 poetry. 2 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 historical. 1 middle-grade. 1 translated.

Authors (lots!) new to me: Sonya Chung, Keith Gessen, Elaine Dundy, Fiona Davis, Lisa Ko, Unai Elorriaga, Kate Moses.

Places in went: In the USA, New York City, Detroit, Chicago. Korea, Great Britain, Russia, Basque Country.

Favorite reads: The Loved Ones, The Leavers, Plants Don't Drink Coffee
Least favorite: The Address

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How was your reading in February? What were your favorite reads? How is your weather?

Thursday, February 28, 2019


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Ribsy, Beverly Cleary, William Morrow & Co, 1964, 220 pp
I have been following Henry Huggins all the way from the beginning in My Big Fat Reading Project. Henry is the owner of Ribsy, perhaps the world's most wonderful dog. This book is the 6th and final one in the Henry Huggins series, so it is sadly time to say goodbye.
Only one real life dog has ever won my heart. Nipper was the dog of my best neighborhood friend. I longed for a dog but pets that could run around were not allowed in our house. I must have missed my moment because I have had no love for dogs in my adult life.

Ribsy, who is the star of this story, put me back to my 11 year old self when I loved Nipper. The magic of the book is that Beverly Cleary tells it all through Ribsy's point of view. Boy, does she do a great job of it!

She made me love this dog as he tries to find his way home after getting lost. Lassie will make even the most hard-hearted human cry, but Ribsy made me laugh out loud, even as I followed his difficult days looking for Henry.

PS: I just checked and Beverly Cleary is 102 years old. Her birthday is April 12th, so almost 103!!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019


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The Leavers, Lisa Ko, Algonquin Books, 2017, 300 pp
This excellent novel was the February selection of my One Book At A Time reading group. It was a hit, giving us plenty to discuss.
In yet another modern day immigrant story, Polly Guo, undocumented Chinese woman struggling with poverty and young motherhood in New York City, goes missing. Her 11 year old son, Deming, lands in social services and eventually is adopted by an academic white couple from a small town outside the city.

It is a sad story with a satisfying ending as Deming struggles with his identity and his loss. It weaves along and around. We learn Polly's back story and watch Deming grow up, always wondering why his mother deserted him and finally beginning to search for her.

Not until almost the end do we learn the shocking truth about Polly's disappearance. I especially liked the way the author dealt with all the emotions of the many characters and the resolution she created for Deming in the end.

Monday, February 25, 2019


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The Address, Fiona Davis, Dutton, 2017, 297 pp
I read this for a reading group. The author writes popular women's fiction about historical icons. The "address" is the Dakota, the residence where John Lennon lived with Yoko and where he was shot and killed. This story does not however cover that period.
Instead it covers the early years when the building first opened in 1884 and a parallel story at the same location in 1985. The modern part features descendants of Theodore Camden, a real life historical person who was one of the building's architects.

If not for the reading group I doubt I would have read the book. While it was fairly entertaining, I would not have missed much. For me the writing did not stand out. Fine for a popular book but the story was a bit too predictable despite the mystery embedded in it.

In the 1800s a woman tries to rise in the world and runs into the usual pitfalls and barriers for women of those years. In the modern plot, a woman faces similar troubles. Ho hum.

Thursday, February 21, 2019


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The Old Man and Me, Elaine Dundy, NYRB Classics, (orig pub by Victor Gollancz, London, 1964) 231 pp
 I read this as part of my 1964 list. Just a short review today because I am getting behind on those again. Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado, 1958, is perhaps her best known work. I have not read that one yet, but now I want to. The earlier book is set in Paris, this one in London.
Honey Flood (as she calls herself) is an American girl in London. An angry young woman to be precise, looking to recover what she considers to be her rightful fortune.

In those years when the angry young men were all the rage in Great Britain, she gives them the female side. The story is quirky, sometimes dark, but also hilarious in parts. The twisty plot is revealed by the unreliable narrator Honey. I had a great time reading it.

I hope all the women I know have had their wild days or are having them now! Sex and substances with no thoughts of consequences.

Reading this was great for reminiscing. You don't know until almost the last page how it will end. I thought the ending was perfect.

(The NYRB Classics reprint, the edition I read, is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2019


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A Terrible Country, Keith Gessen, Viking, 2018, 335 pp
I read this for the Tiny Book Club and because it is one of the three books of the play-in round at The Tournament of Books. I expected the novel to be interesting and it was. I don't know why I am so drawn to Russia but I have read many, many books set there as well as written by Russian authors old and current. Perhaps because for all my life they have been our chief enemy.
A Terrible Country is somewhat subdued in comparison to all those other novels but in its quiet way gave me a feel for what Russia is like now.

Andrei Kaplan, single, early 30s, son of Russian immigrants, dragging out his PhD dissertation in New York, has been called by his brother Dima to return to Moscow and care for their elderly grandmother. Dima had been living back in Russia for some time, as a kind of lesser gangster, but one of his schemes has landed him in enough trouble that he must leave the country or risk going to jail.

Andrei goes. He finds his grandmother in a progressive dementia. He finds Moscow fairly unrecognizable from what he knew in his youth. His Russian is rusty and his money is tight.

His grandmother is confused, a bit rickety though she likes to walk, but when she is not moaning about how all of her friends are dead and how lonely she is, she is sweet. My dad had Alzheimers and though he was not always sweet to my mom or his caregivers, he was always sweet to me. Some years after he died I cared for my mom who had had two bad strokes. So I could relate to the scene of Andrei in a small apartment with this elderly woman, his fumbling attempts to help her out, his frustration and apprehension about losing her. Both of Andrei's and Dima's parents are dead. She is the only family they have left.

Over the course of a year, Andrei learns his way around, his Russian comes back, he finds some guys to play hockey with and he befriends a group of activists who stage small protests against the Putin government. The pace of the story is a bit slow but I didn't mind. Spending 335 pages inside Andrei's head, I came to a fondness for him despite his loser demeanor. He even finds a girlfriend. 
But he is no match for these people who grew up under communism and have lived through all the changes since. This is a political story but Keith Gessen makes it personal. That was the main appeal of the book for me since I only know of today's Russia through the news. The other characters make more clear how the country is made up of people, not just their leaders. 

Beyond that I got a poignant look at an immigrant who goes "home" only to feel like an exile from America and then to find out how American he actually is.

(A Terrible Country is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.

Sunday, February 17, 2019


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Ariel, Sylvia Plath, Faber and Faber Limited, 1965, 81 pp
I finished reading another poetry collection on the Read One Poem a Day plan. It was the first poetry I have read by Sylvia Plath.
I am no expert on poetry. Except for short bits in my school days I have never studied the genre. I have not wanted to learn about the techniques, the rules, the forms; I have not wanted to dissect poetry too much but rather to simply experience the poems.

Reading Ariel gave me pause though. In many of these poems I could only guess at what she was expressing. The imagery is so sharp it almost caused me pain, physical and mental, yet I could not exactly grasp what she was saying in many of them despite reading them again and again.

Knowing this was her last batch prior to taking her own life, successfully after several attempts, may have colored my reactions. I felt she was in deep psychic pain but was also in a deeper love with life and the world.

After finishing the book I read somewhere that her husband, Ted Hughes, edited the poems for publication. Knowing only the speculations and rumors that he was somehow responsible for her death, I was shocked! Was this another F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda story?

One of the best things about reading as much as I do is how I discover my deep pockets of ignorance. What do I actually know about either of these people? Not much. So I went looking. Now I have a list of biographies about Sylvia and collections of the poetry of both.

I see that I have yet another project. Oh my. In my research I got the sense of a strong creative bond between the two poets. I am the most interested in that and look forward to learning much more. Anyone who could write the poems in Ariel had to have been imbued with the level of creativity I admire in many artists.

Saturday, February 16, 2019


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Warlight, Michael Ondaatje, Alfred A Knopf, 2018, 226 pp
Somehow I have never read Ondaatje's most famous book, The English Patient. I think I saw the movie. I did read The Cat's Table and liked it more than many other readers.
I liked Warlight but did not love it wholeheartedly. As in The Cat's Table, there is a boy trying to figure out his parents. In the year following WWII, in London, a 14 year old boy named Nathaniel and his older sister are left in the care of some dodgy characters when their parents leave for Ceylon, or so they are told. It is all quite mysterious concerning those parents.

The kids are supposed to be in boarding school but they hate it there. Their enigmatic guardian, The Moth, arranges for them to live at home and commute to school. Eventually he does not even insist they go at all.

Thus Nathaniel has an unsupervised coming of age that includes his adventures with a criminal friend of The Moth's and a passionate affair with a wild girl. Then life becomes dangerous, the mother reappears, the father never does.

I liked the first section when the parents are gone. Nathaniel is a plucky lad, learning the ways of the world.

The second section after the mother returns and supposedly finishes raising her children was less satisfying. She is the ultimate secretive woman and later in life Nathaniel figures out why. In this section, it is all terribly sad and his life goes nowhere. All the highlights were in that year with The Moth.

The writing is beautiful, I must admit. The story of what happened to the characters is a piece of little known Postwar history and undoubtedly important, but lives are ruined in a John le Carre type of wasted lives story. No redemption.

It was not that I was surprised by how horrible the world can be. I just think the second section laid it on a bit too thick.

The novel is a contender for the 2019 Tournament of Books, pitted in the first round with Call Me Zebra, a book I loved. I predict that Warlight will win that round and that is also sad to me.

(Warlight is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in April, 2019.)

Thursday, February 14, 2019


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The Loved Ones, Sonya Chung, Relegation Books, 2016, 279 pp
Summary from Goodreads: In this masterful novel of inheritance and loss, Sonya Chung (Long for This World) proves herself a worthy heir to Marguerite Duras, Hwang Sun-won, and James Salter. Spanning generations and divergent cultures, The Loved Ones maps the intimate politics of unlikely attractions, illicit love, and costly reconciliations.

Charles Lee, the young African American patriarch of a biracial family, seeks to remedy his fatherless childhood in Washington, DC, by making an honorable choice when his chance arrives. Years later in the mid-1980s, uneasy and stymied in his marriage to Alice, he finds a connection with Hannah Lee, the teenage Korean American caregiver whose parents' transgressive flight from tradition and war has left them shrouded in a cloud of secrets and muted passion.

A shocking and senseless death will test every familial bond and force all who are touched by the tragedy to reexamine who their loved ones truly are--the very meaning of the words. Haunting, elliptical, and powerful, The Loved Ones deconstructs the world we think we know and shows us the one we inhabit.
My Review:
This amazing novel surprised me. It was the next book on my stack of unread Nervous Breakdown Book Club selections, from October, 2016. The title made me expect some kind of "women's fiction." Well, it is family fiction but not the bestseller kind I tend to avoid. 
Generations, divergent cultures (Korean, Black American), loss, finding the ones you love outside the box of "loved ones," and so much heart.
It is not perfectly written per popular fiction or even literary fiction directives. It goes back and forth through time though in the best possible way. The characters are not likeable. They are real like the rest of us.
Actually the writing is fearless, taking the reader to places and emotions that continue to astonish. The way Sonya Chung demonstrates the interactions between politics, society, belief systems, all these weighty topics, through stories that happen to everyday people is what I expect from great fiction. 
(The Loved Ones is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Monday, February 11, 2019


The Old Boys, William Trevor, The Viking Press, 1964, 191 pp
It seems I have been hearing about this author for years, probably because he was shortlisted several times for the Booker Prize. The Old Boys was his second novel. He immediately won prizes and went on to write novels, short stories, and even plays. Whatever he wrote, he kept winning prizes, awards and at last a KBE: Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Though he was born, raised and educated in Ireland, he emigrated to England and stayed there.
I was therefore expecting a great deal as I finally came to William Trevor on the 1964 list of My Big Fat Reading Project. The first unsettling surprise was that the "old boys" are quite old, in their 70s. Why would an author starting out in his 30s write about such old guys?

The plot concerns a coming election for the next president of the Old Boys Association which is connected with the boarding school (called public school in England) these old guys attended. Anyone who has read British literature knows about the cruel and unusual goings on in those places, often leaving people scarred for life. I was not excited about reading another one of those stories.

My boredom with these old boys continued to the end but since the story was contemporary with the early 1960s in Great Britain, I found a little to interest me. This is the time and environment that gave us all those great bands from Britain: the Beatles, the Stones, etc. This was when the rebellion was born.

Though no one in the book starts a band, the story of these guys dredging up all their old friendships and hostilities as they dodder through meetings, had a quaint historical feeling, showing me what the lads of the 60s might have been wanting to shake up.

In fact, many British writers in the 50s and 60s did write about the hidebound, stuffy but crumbling and defeated British class system and mores of the Postwar era: Muriel Spark, A S Byatt, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and more. They eventually moved into more modern stories.

I am sure William Trevor did so as well. Since his writing style is already quite good in The Old Boys, I will keep reading his novels as I move through my reading project, hoping to enjoy them more than I did this one.

Have you read this author? If so, which books did you enjoy the most?

Saturday, February 09, 2019


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Orfeo, Richard Powers, W W Norton & Company, 2014, 396 pp
Last year I read The Overstory. I was majorly impressed. I had not read Richard Powers before but the minute I finished that novel I wanted to read everything he wrote. Rather than go back to his first novel and read forward, as I usually do with an author, I decided to do the opposite. I created a personal challenge to read his novels in reverse order of publication, one per month throughout 2019. Orfeo is the novel that preceded The Overstory.
I loved this one as much though for different reasons, the main one being it is centered around music, the deepest love of my life. Peter Els is a composer, just about my age. The novel begins in the present time of post 9/11 days with a catastrophe and then proceeds forward with interspersed sections that trace Peter's entire life. I loved that too because it was like looking at a parallel history to my own.

Catastrophe, mostly self-created, has defined his life. His goals have included composing music that pushes boundaries, seeking connection between music and science (he is also a biologist), and loving his wife and daughter.

These goals clash and bring about a desperate friction between his drive to create and his need for love and human connection. That line from Joni Mitchell: "Caught in my struggle for higher achievement and my search for love" (from the song "Same Situation" on Court and Spark.)

Due to his latest experiment in his home microbiology lab, Peter is being pursued by Homeland Security as a possible terrorist. He goes on the lam, hoping to tie up the loose ends of his life or even possibly escape capture.

After completing this one, I see that to read Richard Powers you must be in shape as a reader. Like being trained for a marathon because you need fitness and stamina. Reading him is exhausting, though in a good way. You must be willing to learn stuff you didn't know before and to suspend disbelief to the utmost.

The reward is to have your thinking opened wide, possibly disarranged, and to find yourself with more ways than previously conceived of looking at life, people, history, science, and the world we live in today. 

Not for everyone, I concede, but I love that.

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

Wednesday, February 06, 2019


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Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life, Kim McLarin, Ig Publishing, 2019, 182 pp
In this brilliant and truthful essay collection, Kim McLarin covers just about every aspect of living in America as a Black woman. I was enlightened, amused, made quite uncomfortable at times, and impressed over and over by her intelligence. You know I have a thing for intelligent women.
Everything she covers is important to a grown or growing woman: on-line dating, depression, racial injustice in the courts, anger, marriage, motherhood, bad partners, revenge vs non-violence, and more. The whole perspective is a Black woman's. I know, it says that in the subtitle, but it bears repeating.

The essay that punched me the hardest, "Becky and Me," considers friendship between Black and White women. As I read I felt there was not any way for me to be a good friend to a Black woman. I had to look at why I have not had a Black female friend since the third grade. I spent hours trying to figure out how I could make a Black female friend at this point in my life and to reason out why I do not even cross paths with Black women in my daily/social activities. I wondered if Kim McLarin would accept me as a friend and truthfully I felt unworthy, unsure of myself, even kind of rejected.

As I gradually got over myself, I realized (not for the first time) that Black Americans have spent way more time observing and figuring out White Americans than we have spent attempting to get a true picture of them. It was James Baldwin who got me started thinking about all that but he is a man.

My education is not complete, nor is my experience. The inherent and continuously glossed over racism in this country will give us problems for a long time to come, perhaps always and forever. This book is a valuable resource I think for both Black and White women and men.

Kim McLarin is bold, intelligent, relentless and brave as a writer and as a human being, but what stood out most for me in her collection was her honesty. A Grown Black Woman Speaks. Yes, she does.

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

Monday, February 04, 2019


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The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin, G P Putnam's Sons, 2018, 343 pp
Sometimes I love a novel because I feel so at home with the emotions, the characters, and the author's theme. That was the case with this book.
On a hot summer day in 1969, four children from the Lower East Side, aged 7-13, sneak away to consult a woman rumored to have the power to tell fortunes and name the day you will die. Two sisters, two brothers, led along by the older brother, agree to go because it is hot, it is summer and they are bored. Each one is filled with his or her unique brand of trepidation.

By the time each child has received, separately and alone, that death date, I felt I knew the personality of each. The rest of the novel follows what they made of their lives and how the death date influenced their actions.

It is a wondrous family tale, full of repercussions from the Holocaust, the changing mores of American society over the next several decades, and enough joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams, births and deaths, secrets and revelations, to make every page shimmer.

Chloe Benjamin is a phenomenal writer with imagination to spare and a big, huge heart.

(The Immortalists is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, February 03, 2019


Recap from January: Dirty Blonde and Half-Cuban turned out to give us much to discuss in One Book At A Time regarding Cuba, sex workers, and family connections. The Immortalists was loved by all at Molly's Group and would make a good reading group selection for any group I think. The Bookie Babes were somewhat underwhelmed by Hillbilly Elegy though we discussed the issues it covers for a long while.

Now for February:

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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What are your groups discussing in February?

Friday, February 01, 2019


Most places in the northern hemisphere, January was a cold, cold month. Of course the opposite was true in Australia, etc. Cold weather is great reading weather and I took advantage of it. Since I exceeded my goal of 144 books read in 2018, I am challenging myself to read even more this year. So far I have. I did not get all of those books reviewed and posted here but I came close. The rest will be posted in the next week.

Stats: 15 books read. 14 fiction. 8 written by women. 1 non-fiction. 4 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 2 translated. 4 historical. 1 thriller. 1 dystopian.

Authors new to me: Oyinkan Braithwaite, Buddadeva Bose, Lisa Wixon, Uzodimna Iweala, Chloe Benjamin, William Trevor.

Places I went: United States, Scotland, France, Nigeria, India, Japan, Great Britain.

Favorites: I gave 5 stars to 7 of the books. Top two favorites were The Lost Queen and The Immortalists.
Least favorite: not a one!

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What were your favorite reads in January?