Sunday, October 18, 2020


 Over the summer I completed reading the 1965 bestseller list for fiction. If you have followed my blog for a while you are familiar with what I call My Big Fat Reading Project. If you are new, go to the link to learn about why I read these best selling novels of long ago.

I have only reviewed three of the ten books here and I will provide the links to those reviews. Otherwise I will give you a brief synopsis of the other seven. The purpose of this post is to give my thoughts on how these books shed light on the events of 1965. It is my theory that in the 20th century the bestseller lists, which are based on sales, give evidence of the interests and concerns of fiction readers in any given year.

#1: The Source: Michener used the framework of an archeological dig at an ancient site in Israel to cover the vast history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Religious themes always sold well in the early years of the 20th century, but had not been as popular in the 1960s. I would think this one was of interest because of the growing tensions in Israel in the decade. 

Michener shows the connections between the religions and provides a history of their major conflicts. He made me think about religion, why humans need the idea of God, how religion had brought both order and chaos to our lives. An excellent read.

#2: Up The Down Stair Case: Bel Kaufman's book about her first year teaching in a public NYC high school is both hilarious and cautionary. The rules, the disorganization, the lack of supplies but most of all the challenges of making learning important to inner city teens, give what I was quite sure was an accurate picture of the scene. I wonder if LBJ's War on Poverty spiked an interest in this one.

#3: Herzog: This novel was also the #3 bestseller in 1964 and then won the National Book Award in 1965. It is his 6th novel but the first to make the top ten bestseller list. A middle aged intellectual is betrayed by his best friend who steals his wife. Bellow had cashed in on the midlife crisis plot before and since men still read fiction in the 60s, he did it again. 

#4: The Looking Glass War: The Cold War produced the spy fiction genre and Le Carre first hit the bestseller list in 1964 with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. By his own admission, after that success , le Carre wanted to tell the real truth about the state of British intelligence in the early 1960s. The novel is grim. He shows a nation no longer the world power it was. Intelligence has become a political endeavor inside the offices of the military and intelligence branches. He became the antidote to Ian Fleming and James Bond.

#5: The Green Berets: These guys were the sexiest of military intelligence operatives during the Vietnam War so it is no surprise that this revealing but patriotic inside look at how they did the job would be a bestseller. I was appalled.

#6: Those Who Love: Irving Stone's biographical novel of Abigail and John Adams and their roles in founding American democracy must have had high appeal to readers still reeling from the assassination of JFK. For me, reading it in 2020, it was an indictment of how we have failed to keep those ideals. To his credit, John Adams as portrayed here had his doubts about that very thing at the time.

#7: The Man With the Golden Gun: This was the final James Bond novel. It takes place in Jamaica, though begins with Bond being brainwashed by the Russians after his capture in the prior book, then being given electric shock therapy by MI6 to make him fit for another mission. Again, the Cold War makes for bestsellers.

#8: Hotel: Arthur Hailey made his career with this first top ten bestseller. It is set in a famous New Orleans hotel which has seen better days and is now facing a hostile takeover by a hotel chain. Racism plays a large part in the story and that made it ripe for the times in 1965.

#9: The Ambassador: This was Morris West's third top ten bestseller. The second book on this list set in Vietnam, it is a fictionalized account of the months leading up to the CIA backed coup and assassination of South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem. The CIA giveth and the CIA taketh away when their implanted rulers stop playing by US rules. The novel does a fair job at showing the complexities of Vietnamese politics at the time and the toll this took on an American ambassador to the country. It captures that moment when LBJ began to plan his major escalation of the war.

#10: Don't Stop the Carnival is one of Herman Wouk's whimsical novels. A Broadway promoter decides to get away from the constant pressure of his job and the harsh New York winter by buying a hotel on a fictional Caribbean island that feels a lot like Jamaica. What was it about Jamaica in 1965?. It is a rip roaring read with some cringe inducing views of the natives who of course are Black and the many gay people who have taken refuge there from the homophobia of America. 

So there you have it. Have you read any of these books? I felt they gave me a pretty good picture of some of the major issues and concerns in America in 1965. I am now reading the novels that won awards in that year and will create a similar post when I finish those.

Sunday, October 11, 2020


Bridge of Clay, Markus Zusak, Alfred A Knopf, 2018, 534 pp

This is the second novel by Markus Zusak, following The Book Thief. I read it for the One Book At A Time reading group.

From the title I thought it would be about a bridge made of clay. Instead it is about a character named Clay who builds both a literal bridge made of stones and a figurative bridge in order to heal his broken family.

Clay is the fourth of five brothers living in Australia. Their father married a refugee from Eastern Europe and it was one of those wonderful marriages full of love. The eldest brother, Matthew, narrates the story of his family. Weaving back and forth in time, he reveals the tragedy that shattered the love and closeness between two parents and five boys. To tell what form that tragedy took and the effects it had would be nothing but a spoiler.

The writing is as imaginative as that in The Book Thief. Because of how convoluted the plot is, some of my reading group members were so baffled that one did not finish, one was quite bitter about the time spent reading it. This provided quite a raucous discussion!

I read all 534 pages in three days. I grew to love trying to figure out the many mysteries presented and to care for all the characters, even the unlikable ones. Zusak covers a large amount of time, a multitude of incidents, and many characters. The antics and adventures of the five brothers were never dull. 

Clay is a sort of Christ-like figure though it is not a religious story at all. Instead it proclaims the power of love to overcome tragedy and misunderstanding.

Friday, October 09, 2020


Yes, my reading groups are still meeting on Zoom. We may be doing so for a while yet. It is still better than no reading group meetings at all. As you will see, in this month of impending doom and desperate hope for better days ahead, the books this month are all in some way political.

One Book At A Time:

Carol's Group:

Bookie Babes:

Have you read or discussed any of these books? What are your reading groups discussing this month? If you were in a reading group what books would you want to discuss? 

Sunday, October 04, 2020



White Masks, Elias Khoury, Archipelago Books, 2010, 303 pp; (originally published in Lebanon, 1981, translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet)

This was the translated book I read in September. Elias Khoury is Lebanese. I have read two other novels of his and loved them both: Gate of the Sun and As Though She Were Sleeping. Like those two books, White Masks takes place in Beirut. Since that country had been in the news, I thought it might be appropriate.

Though the novel was published in the United States in 2010, it was originally published in Lebanon in 1981, making it one of his early novels. It covers a period of months during the Lebanese Civil War which lasted for 15 years, 1975-1990. The war was religious, political, and devastating to the country.

The corpse of Khalil Ahmad Jaber, a civil servant, was found in a mound of garbage. He had been missing for weeks before he was found. A journalist, who narrates the story, sought to piece together what had happened to Jaber. He interviews many people, including the man's widow. Thus the reader gets a sense of life in Beirut during the early part of the war.

I won't tell you this was easy to follow. Each person interviewed has their own particular story to tell about Jaber, about his or her own life and about the violence around them. I got a sense of what it was like for everyday people, for the police and the soldiers. Hard times for all and quite a bit of brutality. Khoury shows the breakdown of society typical of any area where war is being waged.

It was a brilliant way to portray all of that and it was also a mystery. I was interested in the effects of civil war on the psyches and inner lives of men, women and children. The front cover blurb speaks of the resilience of people. I did not get that. I got that such an amount of chaos and uncertainty breaks people. It certainly broke Khalil Ahmad Jaber.

Some American pundits claim we may be heading for civil war in America. I sincerely hope we do not come to that.

Friday, October 02, 2020



My reading in September was all over the place. I had a plan but instead I picked up whatever looked good on my shelves. Of course I read the picks for my reading groups and finished both a poetry collection and a book of essays I had been reading for a while. All in all I had a feeling of freedom.

Stats: 13 books read. 10 fiction. 5 by women. 1 historical fiction. 2 thrillers. 2 children's books. 2 nonfiction. 1 translated. 1 poetry.

Countries visited: United States, Lebanon, Italy, Australia, Ireland, Spain.

Authors new to me: Beatrice Schenk De Regniers, Maia Wojciechowska, Natalie Diaz, Langston Hughes.

Favorites: Deacon King Kong, The Just City, Not Without Laughter, High Country
Least favorite: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

The new Blogger has forced me to retrieve book cover images in a new way. I cannot seem to control the size of each image which bothers me. Hopefully it won't bother you. I am behind on my reviews, as usual, so if you want to find out more about a given title you will have to go to Goodreads or somewhere else on the web. If you have any tips for me on this matter, please let me know.

Have you read any of these titles? What were your favorite reads in September?

Wednesday, September 30, 2020



The Just City, Jo Walton, Tor Books, 2015, 280 pp

What a wonderful surprise this was! The goddess Pallas Athene creates an experiment to build a planned community where Plato's Republic will be brought to life. She gathers adult teachers from all eras of history and various countries. 10,000 children, bought from slavers, will be raised and taught Plato's principles and allowed to become their best selves.

Apollo joins in, having arranged to become a human child. Socrates shows up to question everything and keep Athene on her toes.

It is a brilliant story with plenty of fault lines built in, leaving the reader in suspense as to the success of the experiment. Since I have read Plato, the Illiad and the Odyssey, I was just knowledgeable enough about Greek mythology and philosophy to hang on to the tale by my mental fingertips.

I have only read two of Jo Walton's books previously: Among Others and My Real Children. Each time I am delighted, so I must read more.

Are any of you fans of Jo Walton? If yes, which of her books have you read?

Sunday, September 27, 2020



Deacon King Kong, James McBride, Riverhead Books, 2020, 365 pp

I read this for the reading group I call Carol's Group. I was excited because my husband loved it and it got great reviews. Well, I had a hard time getting going with it. Lots of characters and and time shifts.

Deacon King Kong is a deacon in a predominately Black neighborhood church located near the projects in 1960s south Brooklyn. He is also a drunk who stays mildly intoxicated all day long on a concoction his best friend brews up and calls King Kong.

The entire neighborhood scene is humorously chaotic with some sad overtones. Many of the characters have nicknames. The Deacon's is Sportcoat. Mixed in are Latinos and Italian mobsters. Plus there are drug dealers, a murder or two, cops, love affairs and at least two mysteries.

That was a lot to keep track of but once I got past the feeling that the story was just spinning its wheels, I came to enjoy it and wanted to find out how it would end.

James McBride does not simplify what life is like among these people for the reader. I approve of that. Life in any community is messy. His characters are not stereotypes, but rich and complicated. Nothing is black and white for anyone and that is not a pun. However, Black lives are unique in their own way and the novel makes both of these truths quite clear.

I am glad I read it. I feel I understand some things I did not have clear before.