Friday, October 30, 2015


Apocalypse Baby, Virginie Despentes, The Feminist Press, 2015, 336 pp (translated from the French by Sian Reynolds, orig pub 2010 in France by Editions Grasset & Fasquelle)
Summary from Goodreads: Valentine, the troubled daughter of a well-off but dysfunctional Parisian family, vanishes on her way to school. Inexperienced private detective Lucie Toledo is hired to find the missing teenager, and enlists the help of a formidable agent with a past, known to her friends as the Hyena. Their quest, from Paris to Barcelona and back, uncovers a rich cast of characters whose paths have crossed Valentine's, leading to an alarming climax. Part political thriller, part road-movie, part romance, the latest novel by subversive writer and film-maker Virginie Despentes won the Prix Renaudot 2010 for the pitiless gaze it directs at society in the age of the internet.
My review:
For several years I've been following a couple blogs that deal solely in translated literature: Three Percent and The Complete Review. This year I set myself a challenge to read more novels translated from other languages by writers that live in other countries than the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, and Australia. How have I done so far?
Counting up I found that out of 92 books read this year, eight were originally written and published in another language. That is almost 9%, so not too bad.
Of those eight books, three had already become hot sellers in America: From Italy Elena Ferrante's The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; Nina George's The Little Paris Bookshop, written in German but set in France. Three are classics written and translated long ago: Independent People by Haldor Laxness from Iceland, Dead Souls from Russia by Nikolai Gogol, and The Marioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki from Japan. I also read Yannik Grannet's The Goddess of Small Victories, written in French but set in Vienna and America because it is about the wife of Kurt Godel.
Reading those books has been a good experience though what I really want is more books being written and set in the 21st century so I can get a grasp of what life is like now in countries I have not traveled to. Apocalypse Baby fit the bill.
It was written in French and set in Paris and Barcelona in about 2008 or 2009. Though I have been to Paris two times in my life, I only had the tourist experience. The two female private investigators searching for a missing teenage girl are beyond streetwise and operate far outside the tourist milieu.
Valentine, the missing teen, is from a somewhat privileged family but her mother Vanessa is of North African Arab descent, being the one sister who clawed her way out of the ghetto to marry a French novelist. After Vanessa deserted the novelist and her daughter, Valentine grew up to be a full participant in the naughtiest of youth culture pastimes. 
One of the investigators is Lucie, over 30, a bit of a non-motivated loser who tends to do the least work possible. The other is a force of nature called The Hyena, a feminist lesbian with a secret agent for hire past which has pretty much caught up with her. 
As they troll through Parisian youth culture and the Arab slums of Barcelona, the book presents a view of these cities not seen in tourist brochures or even on the news. Valentine is one of the more depraved teens I've found in a novel: groupie, slut, fearless narcissist. But as the reader is dragged through this miasma of lust and violence, an even more deadly political scene rears its head and leads to an almost unbelievable climax.
I found Apocalypse Baby an exciting read full of complex characters, wise commentary on current topics, humor, and nail biting suspense. For me, it painted a gritty picture of 21st century life in two European cities. I realized that any modern country has its own unique mix of situations made up of economic, ethnic, and other cultural factors.
Possibly the book should come with a warning sticker although the cover illustration may act as its own warning. I recommended it to one of my reading groups and it was just too much for two of the ladies. Virginie Despentes is an award-winning author and filmmaker in France. She has written nine novels, only three of which have been translated into English.
One more thing: I found this book through Three Percent's 2015 World Cup of World Literature. I am working my way through the list. 

Monday, October 26, 2015


This is going to be a dual review covering the first two volumes of Jane Smiley's Last Hundred Years Trilogy. I read the first volume in August and the second one about two weeks ago. Just to be clear, Jane Smiley is one of my favorite authors and though I have not read every one of her novels, I have never been disappointed with any I have read.

Some Luck, Jane Smiley, Alfred A Knopf, 2014, 395 pp

The first of the trilogy centers around an American farming family from Iowa beginning in 1920. The trilogy will span a century. This one ends in 1952. Each chapter covers a year and includes incidents in the family and in the country from that year.

The writing is super smooth and I grew to be totally invested in every single character. Obviously covering an entire year in fairly short chapters necessitated quite a distilling of history and that is part of the brilliance of the books. Early in this volume she portrays the early life of the first children in the Langdon family from their young viewpoints, reminding me of the way she imagined the horses' inner lives in Horse Heaven.
The story begins just after WWI in the year after my mother was born, the year my father was born. It moves on through the prosperous 20s, the crash of 1929, the Depression, the drought that caused the Dust Bowl, WWII, the rise of communism, the beginnings of the Red Scare, the mechanization of farming and the change to growing mostly corn, and the Korean War.
Due to My Big Fat Reading Project, I am familiar with these historical periods much better than I was when I finished my formal education. Smiley does an excellent job of showing how each period affected farmers in the Midwest. It could have been history light but is instead a tour de force concerning the development of farming, the diaspora of offspring from a farming family, and the life of women in that 33 year progression.

One of my favorite characters was Rosanna, the mother, who personifies how quickly the hard life of a farm wife in those years aged women. The whole book has a wonderful tone of family connection amidst hardship and rapidly changing times.
In an earlier decade or if Jane Smiley was a man, this novel would have been a Pulitzer Prize contender. It was long-listed for the National Book Award. 

Early Warning, Jane Smiley, Alfred A Knopf, 2015, 476 pp
Now we come to volume two. This one follows the offspring of the Langdon family while the lives of many of the original parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents end. From 1953 to 1986, it covers the years I was growing up and beginning my adult life. All but one of the children of Walter and Rosanna scatter all about the United States, finding their roles in life, marrying, having their own families, and navigating their own joys and tragedies.
Again she weaves in the social and political turbulence, illustrated in the effects these changes have on the families, year by year. The book is never dull, often exciting, and frequently sad, as she gathers and intertwines all the threads. Her evidence shows how unique the United States of America is and how family ties are also bonds which will inevitably be broken to a degree as people grow up. It also shows how one's family, if one was lucky enough to have a fairly intact one in those days, could ground and anchor a person's life.

Smiley touches on several truths: that childhood and the teen years are the most fun, how adulthood is mostly the grueling hard work of accepting or trying to avoid responsibility, and how old age basically sucks. Or maybe that is how I read it because that is how I see it at this point in my life.

By the end of Early Warning I got the sense of what a saga the trilogy is. If you have ever perused Jane Smiley's book about writing, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, you will know, just by the reading list she covers, that she may have read more sagas than any working novelist today. A true saga does not moralize and this one does not. These are not sentimental, heartwarming books, but rather stories full of tragedy, humor, and a bit of philosophy.

And now I am fortunate because #3, Golden Age, had been released. I can finish the saga before the year ends!

(Both Some Luck and Early Warning are available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


From the acclaimed filmmaker, artist, and bestselling author of No One Belongs Here More Than You, a spectacular debut novel that is so heartbreaking, so dirty, so tender, so funny--so Miranda July--readers will be blown away.

Here is Cheryl, a tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone, with a perpetual lump in her throat. She is haunted by a baby boy she met when she was six, who sometimes recurs as other people's babies. Cheryl is also obsessed with Phillip, a philandering board member at the women's self-defense non-profit where she works. She believes they've been making love for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.

When Cheryl's bosses ask if their twenty-one-year-old daughter Clee can move into her house for a little while, Cheryl's eccentrically-ordered world explodes. And yet it is Clee--the selfish, cruel blond bombshell--who bullies Cheryl into reality and, unexpectedly, provides her the love of a lifetime.

Tender, gripping, slyly hilarious, infused with raging sexual fantasies and fierce maternal love, Miranda July's first novel confirms her as a spectacularly original, iconic and important voice today, and a writer for all time. The First Bad Man is dazzling, disorienting, and unforgettable.

My Review:
The book summary is correct. The story is tender and gripping, it is slyly hilarious but also ridiculous at times. The sexual fantasies are over-the-top raging though probably better than 50 Shades of Grey, which I have not read; will not read. The maternal love is fierce and was my favorite aspect of the story.

I actually enjoyed reading all of it though I can't think of anyone I know to whom I could recommend it. Possibly if Anne Tyler were putting out her first novel in 2015, she could have gone this way.

Margaret Atwood recently said in an interview that these are not the times to write realistic fiction (paraphrase) and explained in another interview that she meant stories about middle class life, family stories about love and relationships. Miranda July appears to have a similar viewpoint.

Most of the people in my extended family are fairly regular. So are the members of my reading groups. The people in this novel are quite whacked and far from regular. They have the usual human wants and dreams with an inability to get them.

But there are ever widening fissures in the lives of these regular people I know and the standard human pattern (if there ever were such a thing) is undergoing cataclysmic change, so I think reading these books like Miranda July's, being written by GenXers, GenYers, and Millennials, are perhaps the best way to get a glimpse of what is going on. Speculative fiction is the new realistic novel!

(The First Bad Man is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 16, 2015


Note: Due to requests from a few followers, I am resuming reviews of the books I read. Thanks for caring and especially for letting me know you do!

Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff, Riverhead Books, 2015, 390 pp

Description from Indiebound:
From the award-winning, "New York Times "bestselling author of "The Monsters of Templeton" and "Arcadia," an exhilarating novel about marriage, creativity, art, and perception.
"Fates and Furies" is a literary masterpiece that defies expectation. A dazzling examination of a marriage, it is also a portrait of creative partnership written by one of the best writers of her generation.
Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.
At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed. With stunning revelations and multiple threads, and in prose that is vibrantly alive and original, Groff delivers a deeply satisfying novel about love, art, creativity, and power that is unlike anything that has come before it. Profound, surprising, propulsive, and emotionally riveting, it stirs both the mind and the heart.
My review:
There is truly not more I can ask of an author than the power of her story to engross me completely. Despite a few times when I could not comprehend why Lauren Groff did what she did in structuring this novel, I knew I was in the grip of the truths and weirdness that make up any long term relationship.
In the first section, "Fates," which by the end I realized was from Lotto's point of view, the story of how he came to be the person he was kept me riveted except for the endless round of parties during the early years of their marriage. But even though reading about those parties became tedious, I later saw how she used them to build many of the main characters giving the reader a developing picture of who they really were and who they were pretending to be.

Then in the second part, "Furies," when we learn who Mathilde really is, the formative events of her past come to light. You may wonder how a woman can keep so many secrets from a man she truly loves, but looking back on my own marriage it seems to me that any woman is compelled to secrecy, to certain lies and misdirections, to all of the pulling of strings behind the scenes. It is the way we find agency in what is still a man's world.

There were times in Mathilde's section when I had to suspend my disbelief in order to assimilate incidents. During the many times shifts I sometimes felt lost and adrift. But Groff never forgets her reader. In fact, she gave me courage to own up to my own rage and sorrow and mistakes.

This is a book about marriage but ultimately it covers many things: creativity, secrets, effects of early loss and abuse on later life, but best of all the absolute rage of a woman. Even in a happy marriage, the role of wife is no bed of roses.

Mathilde is a mighty character worthy of Shakespeare. The novel reminded me of others I have been deeply moved by: Joyce Carol Oates novels, Hild by Nicola Griffith, The Furies by Fernanda Eberstadt, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and all of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante.

(Fates and Furies is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, October 15, 2015


A fellow blogger (Jessica Bookworm) tagged me with this meme. I went to my bookshelves to answer the questions. It was geeky and fun!

1) Find a book for each of your initials.
J: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
A: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
K: King of the Gypsies by Peter Mass

2) Count your age along your bookshelf.  Which book is it?
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

3) Pick a book set in your city/county/country.
Lost Canyon by Nina Revoyr

4) Pick a book that represents a destination you would love to travel to.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Barcelona)

5) Pick a book that’s your favorite color.  
Hild by Nicola Griffith (blue)

6) Which book do you have the fondest memories of?
Little, Big by John Crowley

7) Which book did you have the most difficulty reading?
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West (still trying to read it)

8) Which book in your TBR pile will give you the biggest sense of accomplishment when you finish it.
City of Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

All of you, my readers and followers, are hereby tagged. I would love to see your answers in the comments!    

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


For many people September is a month of cooler days and nights and changing leaves. Not so in So Cal and especially not this year with the drought. It was hot, it was dry, and it seemed endless. 

But I had one of my best reading months this year. Every book was a favorite in some way. 

Stats: 11 books read. 7 by women. All fiction. 2 speculative fiction. 1 set in China. 1 set in Italy. 2 set in California.

Top favorites: Painted Horses, The Lower Quarter, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.


My reviews on Goodreads can be followed here.
My tweets here.

Sunday, October 04, 2015


How do you like the image this month? Do you think it will get me more hits? Ha. It was so hot this past month, this could have been me reading. Except I have air conditioning and electric fans. 

I did not make it to the meeting at Skylight Books to discuss Elana Ferrante because I was under the weather literally. But Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay was wondrous. Sometimes when I love a book so much I am wary of discussing it with others. Does that ever happen to you?

October is looking good. I have already read two of the scheduled books but am eager to discuss them all.

The New Book Club:
Once Upon A Time Adult Reading Group:

One Book At A Time:

Tina's Group:

Bookie Babes:

I figure if I keep asking, someday someone might answer. What are you reading for a reading group this month? Did you notice there are 5 questions in this post? You may answer any one of them!!