Tuesday, January 31, 2017


Mostly it rained here in the Los Angeles area and we were overjoyed! It didn't make up for five years of drought but it surely raised the reservoirs and the plant life was so grateful. Three days after Christmas my back went out and I went into hobbling mode, whining mode, and pain reliever mode. Remember when they used to call them painkillers? I guess because that is an alternate fact they are now called pain relievers. In any case, it was sciatica, it is still hanging around, but on this last day of January I am much better.

At least I could read! I read 8 books, two of which were long enough to count as two regular length novels, but long books are perfect for cold rainy days when it gets dark early. Best of all, there was not a bad one in the bunch.

Stats: 8 read. 7 fiction. 5 written by women. 1 memoir. 1 scifi/fantasy. 4 from My Big Fat Reading Project. 2 from the 2017 Tournament of Books list.
Favorite: The Nix. 

How did your reading go in January? What were your favorite books? 

Saturday, January 28, 2017


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Hillbilly Elegy, J D Vance, Harper, 2016, 257 pp

First off, let me say that this review contains my very personal reactions to this book as well as some political views. I don't generally like to get political on the blog or on social media, but the current scene has changed me. I feel I need to speak up for as long as I have a chance to do so. I don't expect everyone to agree with me and in fact welcome all comments, so long as they are not hateful or rude. 

I am glad I read this. J D Vance grew up in a small Ohio town, the son of an unstable mother who went through men the way some women go through shoes, who was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and who left her son feeling unstable, unloved, and unprotected. If not for his maternal grandparents, he would have been a statistic. Because of them and his sister along with a few other teachers and friends, he became a success story.

The grandparents were hillbillies from Kentucky's Appalachia area who moved to Ohio to escape poverty. Their story shows you can take the hillbilly out of Appalachia but you can't take the Appalachia mentality out of the hillbilly. Alcohol, inconsistent and sometimes abusive parenting, as well as the culture of Appalachia made a "middle class" family that sounded nothing like my ideas of the American middle class. J D's story is harrowing, in the way that Jeannette Wall's The Glass Castle was.

Yet, he did finish high school, he graduated from college and Yale Law School, became a successful lawyer, and found a wonderful wife. This is a story of hope leavened by the randomness of life. I would say, after reading the book, that the author is in the one percent of people who can rise above the self-defeating cultural patterns of poverty, drug use, Evangelical beliefs, and violence that plagues so much of our country.

I credit the book for painting what I accept as a credible picture of a large part of society. I am a middle class white liberal and I could hardly recognize the people in J D Vance's family. However, since the election of Donald Trump, I have forced myself to listen to/read the screeds of his followers because I felt it was important to understand why anyone would have voted for him. I still don't totally get it but I am beginning to fathom a mentality that I had been in denial about. In fact, ever since watching the movie Idiocracy, I have joked about the idiocracy. 

Hillbilly Elegy convinced me it is no joke, that in fact our country is riddled with misinformed,  under-educated, crippled individuals who are divorced from what is actually going on in the world. I am starting to understand how such a disaster can happen in the richest, most powerful democracy in the world, but I have little idea what can be done about it. 

I am aware that our new President also has many supporters who are well educated, who grew up in stable homes, who have been successful in life. I don't get that at all. It is sad.

I think Hillbilly Elegy is an important book. While it purports to be a memoir and is successful as such, the author mixed in a good deal of sociological analysis. Those sections were less successful because they led to no real solutions.

The main conclusion I came to is that it is not our government leaders or even our political system that will either solve or exacerbate these problems. It takes an entire populace, the majority of whom are dedicated to the ideals of democracy and equal rights, to justice, to liberty. The question in 2017 is do we have such a majority. I choose to believe we do.

(Hillbilly Elegy is available on the non-fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, January 26, 2017


Ararat, Stella Wilchek, Harper, 1962, 561 pp
Some years ago I stumbled upon a book by this author entitled Judith. Since that is my name and since "Judith" is a book from the Apocrypha, I decided to read it and recall it fondly. It tells the story of that infamous Hebrew woman who murdered Holofernes, an incident that inspired the famous "Judith Beheading Holofernes" painting by Carravagio. I loved the novel and intend to read it again when I get to my 1965 list.
 All of Stella Wilchek's four novels are out of print and there is little information about her on the internet. She was born in Austria in 1922, apparently escaped the Holocaust, and died in 1997 in America. She wrote well, was obviously highly educated, and was celebrated as an early feminist novelist. Perhaps she was ahead of her time because after Judith she disappeared from the publishing world.

Ararat is the story of a small group of Austrian Jews who emigrated to the fictional South American town, El Paramo, in 1939, intending to wait out the war. Their escape, journey and trials are related through the diary of Professor Bernstein, a somewhat unreliable narrator with a detached, wryly humorous tone. He observes the daily lives of several different families in great detail, giving a picture of an intensely small community set adrift in a foreign culture. 

The people rely on rumor and gossip; they compete in various ventures as they try to make enough money to survive. The consciousness of themselves as Jews, as persecuted outcasts, and as people who have lost their country and livelihoods permeate the novel.

The mountains, the natives, and the extraordinary weather of the Andean country in which they find themselves, all play into creating an atmosphere I have rarely found in any novel. (Although The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman, which I read last year, does tell a similar story.)

Eva, the 17 year old wife of Walter Kramer (he being the son of one of the most prominent families) is beautiful, sensual and a born female rebel. She is clearly one of the author's favorite characters and was mine as well. Refusing to be tamed, she has several affairs, drives her mother-in-law crazy and defies her husband. She reminded me of Mathilde in Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, with her coldblooded approach to men, love and personal fulfillment, though the stories of these women play out so differently. Eva also put me in mind of Lila in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels.

In fact, all of these novels have soap operatic qualities due to the emotional minutiae and the almost claustrophobic intensity of personal interactions. I conclude that despite wars and politics and financial issues in the macrocosm of life, it is these intimate details of life that keep us from dying of boredom or heartbreak in this vale of tears we inhabit.

(Ararat is out of print but can be obtained through used book sellers on line.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


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A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles, Viking, 2016, 464 pp

A most enjoyable read despite it length due to wonderful characters and a unique look at life in Moscow during the years immediately following the Russian revolution. 

Count Alexander Rostov, wealthy and unrepentant aristocrat, is brought before a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922 and sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, the grand hotel where he already lives in a luxurious suite. He must give up that suite and most of his possessions to live in two small attic rooms. He is not permitted to leave the building under any circumstances and it becomes his entire world for many years.

If this sounds like the girl in A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it does have its similarities, including a happy ending. But the Count is a middle-aged man, he manages to have a little money secreted away plus is well educated and wise in the ways of the world.

After adjusting to his much reduced circumstances, he is shown all the secrets of the Metropol by a precocious young girl who reminded me of Eloise, another delightful hotel dweller in the New York Plaza Hotel. 

As the story moves along the Count becomes a waiter in the hotel restaurant, acquires a daughter of his own when the young girl is left behind by her revolutionary mother, and falls in love with a movie star. All along, he learns the ways of life in a totalitarian society, he develops compassion for all kinds of people and proves that with wiles and luck, a person can figure out how to survive in any circumstances.

As entertaining and even intelligent as the story is, I did have doubts as to its likelihood. Having recently read The Green Tent and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, both of which show a much darker view of life in the Soviet Union, I could not help thinking that the Count got off too easily.

At the end of the story, it turns into more of a thriller which is full of danger and excitement, but despite some close calls no one get hurt. I decided to enjoy the excellent writing and the entertainment value along with some pithy satire. The author managed to stay just enough away from heartwarming but my heart was warmed anyway. He made me love Count Rostov. 

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


Sunday, January 22, 2017


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The Bull From the Sea, Mary Renault, Pantheon Books, 343 pp

In her sequel to The King Must Die, Mary Renault completes her fictional retelling of the legend of Theseus, Greek hero, bull leaper, mythical son of Poseidon, ruler of Athens. In the way of larger-than-life heroes he comes to downfall and death. It is almost enough to make one give up hope in our dreams to either be heroes/heroines or be saved by them.

Then again, he had adventure, danger, pleasure, even love. In this latter part of his life he returns from Crete, puts his glorious bull leaper days behind him, and tries to settle down and be a good King. He does well, he makes his kingdom more just, and he prospers.

Theseus is a high energy restless dude though and likes to go off with his pirate friends. During one of those adventures he meets his female counterpoint, Hippolyta. Although she is sworn to the Amazon goddess, she gives it all up to go with him and be the love of his life.

Meanwhile, for political reasons, Theseus must wed Cretan princess Phaedra to whom he was earlier betrothed. He has a son by each woman. It does not turn out well.

One of the central themes of both novels is the conflict between those who worshipped the Earth Mother, a matriarchal belief system, and those who saw their Kings as intermediaries between humans and the Sky Gods. Theseus is the King who thwarts the Earth Mother traditions of old and brings about full patriarchy in Greece.

As any good feminist scholar knows, this is the age old battle of the sexes, lost by women long long ago. Whether or not the result has been or ever will be good for the people of Earth, it makes for great tales. The Legend of Theseus is one of them and Mary Renault tells it extremely well. 

(The Bull From the Sea is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Thursday, January 19, 2017


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Beauty Is A Wound, Eka Kurniawan, New Directions, 2015, 470 pp (published in Indonesia in 2002, translated by Annie Tucker)

Summary from Goodreads: The epic novel Beauty Is a Wound combines history, satire, family tragedy, legend, humor, and romance in a sweeping polyphony. The beautiful Indo prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters are beset by incest, murder, bestiality, rape, insanity, monstrosity, and the often vengeful undead. Kurniawan's gleefully grotesque hyperbole functions as a scathing critique of his young nation's troubled past: the rapacious offhand greed of colonialism; the chaotic struggle for independence; the 1965 mass murders of perhaps a million "Communists," followed by three decades of Suharto's despotic rule.

My Review:
I first learned of this novel from the BTBA (Best Translated Book Award) Fiction long list for 2016. I bought it because it is a fictional account of Indonesian history and because I liked the title. It was the last book I read in 2016. Filled with wild and crazy characters, featuring colonial oppression and the rape of natural resources and as well as a mixed race descendant of a Dutch East India Company trader, it covers war, communism, slaughter, rape, unstable politics, indigenous customs, and ghosts. The result is a rich tapestry.

Not that we don't have rape issues in the United States and not that rape is ever OK but boy, it was as common as dirt in the tumultuous archipelago now known as Indonesia. The central character is a woman, Dewi Ayu, the mixed race descendant mentioned above.  She is possessed of great beauty, four daughters who are each from different fathers, and demonic powers. She is the most renowned prostitute in Jakarta.

When she rises from her grave, where she had been buried 21 years ago, all the tales and many of the ghosts come alive as well. The author then takes us back to where it all began for Dewi and brings us forward through 400 years of history.

I was drawn in from the beginning and except for a few lulls in the narrative, remained intrigued to the end. In college, I studied Margaret Mead's books about her anthropological studies on Bali, one of Indonesia's islands, and became fascinated with the area. I have since read Euphoria by Lily King (a novel loosely based on Ms Mead) and Mead's autobiography Blackberry Winter. But these are books written by Americans. Beauty Is A Wound is the first novel or book of any kind that I have read written by an Indonesian author. There is just no comparison.

As a reader you need to hang tough though. You will enter a world so foreign to any Western country with customs and beliefs strange to us. And yet, because of Western colonization there are elements of Western civilization intermixed. If you have read books by African or Asian authors, you will be prepared.

There is no denying that Dewi Ayu, her four daughters, and the men in their lives are the brilliant and vibrant center that holds the story together. As far as the human story of how we have developed from tiny bands of individuals to globalized interconnected trade and war, it is apparently one I never tire of reading.

(Beauty Is A Wound is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


Monday, January 16, 2017


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Critical Mass, Sara Paretsky, G P Putnam's Sons, 2013, 462 pp

Summary from Goodreads: V.I. Warshawski’s closest friend in Chicago is the Viennese-born doctor Lotty Herschel, who lost most of her family in the Holocaust.  Lotty escaped to London in 1939 on the Kindertransport with a childhood playmate, Kitty Saginor Binder.  When Kitty’s daughter finds her life is in danger, she calls Lotty, who, in turn, summons V.I. to help.  The daughter’s troubles turn out to be just the tip of an iceberg of lies, secrets, and silence, whose origins go back to the mad competition among America, Germany, Japan and England to develop the first atomic bomb.  The secrets are old, but the people who continue to guard them today will not let go of them without a fight.  

My Review:
This crime thriller was on my stack of reading for the last week in 2016, consisting of books I had meant to read during the year but hadn't gotten to. It is Ms Paretsky's 18th novel and I have now read them all. One more to go and I will be caught up before her next one comes out later in 2017. She is one of my top favorite mystery/crime novelists. Every book so far has been amazing for its genre.

V I Warshawski, fearless and crusading private investigator, once again finds "the crimes behind the crimes" as Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times puts it. In her hometown of Chicago she ferrets out corruption and destructive inequalities, taking down criminality and standing up for the forgotten people. If we had a few like her in every major American city, our country would be more like what our Founding Fathers hoped they were founding.

Critical Mass uncovers secrets and lies going back to the WWII arms race with its competition between Germany and the United States to develop the first atomic bomb.

Reading coincidence: Michael Chabon's Moonglow, read earlier in December, covers similar territory. In both books the traumas of Nazi concentration camps and the use of Jewish scientists to further that research are key plot elements.

The fast pace, multiple characters, extreme danger to V I's life, and her biting yet comedic take on all events are as present here as in all her books. I always make a list of characters as they appear, tedious near the beginning but eliminating the need to turn back the pages and remember who's who so I can enjoy the ever accelerating pace that invariably makes up the last 100 pages.

In Critical Mass (a physics term meaning the minimum amount of material, such as plutonium, necessary to maintain a nuclear chain reaction), Paretsky honors Jewish Austrian physicist Marietta Blau. She was a researcher whose scientific work deserved a Nobel Prize she never got because she was Jewish. Paretsky's fictional character Martina Saginor is based on Ms Blau.

Even more impressive, the story makes clear the destruction of so many lives due to secrets that were kept both by members of the researcher's family and by some sorry practices of government and corporations, hidden behind actions justified by national security.

No matter what your politics or your patriotic views, Critical Mass will challenge you to pay more attention and look more deeply into our current times. Also it is more fun than watching Twitter fights!

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

Saturday, January 14, 2017


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The Cry of the Owl, Patricia Highsmith, Harper & Row, 1962, 271 pp

I have now read five of Highsmith's novels. A few days ago I wrote in another review about the importance (for me, at least) of reading books written by women. Now I have to add that there are all kinds of women writing stories and this author is on the far side of some spectrum.

For one thing, she seems to lack sympathy for human beings or at least she rarely creates characters who are admirable and many, including women, who are despicable. I know this is true in life. None of us, men or women, are always admirable and some are despicable. Thus I must contradict myself and say that she does have a certain sympathy for the despicable and looks deeply into why and how that is. We have writers like that now, but Patricia Highsmith was doing this in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Cry of the Owl includes two spurned men. Robert, who is depressed and adrift after his divorce from a despicable woman and another man who turns hateful after his fiancee takes up with Robert. Just to unstabilize things a bit more, Robert has been lurking outside the window of this other woman's house, being a peeping Tom.

It gets messy right away as the murky motivations of both the men and the women never become quite clear. If I had to live as any one of these people, I would be fearful for my sanity. Robert at least has a couple good friends which I suppose is a sign that he is not despicable but he is unbalanced and weird in an Aspergers kind of way.

I have always been afraid of people who appear insane to me. I try to steer clear of neurotic individuals. I feel these are healthy attitudes but a better understanding of what makes such people the way they are does help alleviate the fear. Besides self preservation, it is also a fear of the unknown.

That is why I read Patricia Highsmith.

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

Thursday, January 12, 2017


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Mister Monkey, Francine Prose, Harper, 2016, 285 pp

I read Mister Monkey for an on-line discussion group. I have always meant to read Francine Prose but somehow never have. Now she has entranced me and I will read more.

I was one of the few participants in the discussion who liked the book. I think because for me it was about people with unfulfilled dreams, one of my obsessions as I get older and look back at the dreams I had.

Mister Monkey is a children's musical adapted from a novel written by a Vietnam vet with PTSD. Said novel was converted by an editor into what became a bestselling picture book for kids, along the lines of Curious George. Now the author is rich but he hates the musical because it makes a travesty of his original story.

Mister Monkey, the novel by Francine Prose (quite erroneously described as "madcap" by whoever wrote the dust jacket copy) uses the musical as a framework to take readers into the lives and souls of various people connected to an off-off-off-off-Broadway production of a tired old show. Included are several of the actors, the director, the costume designer, a grandfather, and Ray, the original author of the children's book. Each chapter features one of them but in circling around begins to connect them all in interesting and surprising ways.

I am not much of a theater goer but one of my sons spent a year of college being a set builder and one of his daughters acts in every play she can at high school. In fact, I have always liked novels set in the theater, so here I was again enmeshed in all the tacky backstage interpersonal trauma of actors, directors, playwrights, and support crew. Ms Prose must have some theater experience because she crafts those scenes so perfectly.

Ultimately though, this is a story about people of all ages and different walks of life who are mildly unhappy but looking for joy wherever they can find it. I could not put it down. 

Today the shortlist for the 2017 Tournament of Books came out and Mister Monkey made the list! I have read 6 of the 16 books that will compete in the tournament. Watch for more reviews of the rest of the books since I always attempt to read as many of them as I can. 

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


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The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions, 2015 (translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein) 473pp

This is the fourth and final novel in the Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante. All through the days of reading it, I was dying to know what became of Lila, who had disappeared at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, the first novel. When I did find out, right at the very end, it was simultaneously underwhelming and wondrous. Why?

Because Ferrante planted that mystery in my mind two years ago when I read My Brilliant Friend, then in over 1000 pages in four novels told an engrossing story about the relationship between Elena and Lila, all the while keeping me in suspense. By the time I got to the end, it made total sense yet I could almost have predicted what happened. Truly a feat, the way she kept me hooked, let me participate in the story, and satisfied me with what was less than a full surprise.

No spoiler, but there is a lost child in this volume who adds another deep layer of sadness to the story.

The only other thing I can add is pretty personal. Since the timescape of these books covers approximately the same years I have lived, they have helped me make sense of much that has happened in my life, even though they are set in Italy and I am American.  I am always newly amazed how much good fiction does this for me.

It is an important activity for women all over the world to tell their stories and to read the stories of other women. I know that sounds obvious and pedantic. Sometimes the truth is obvious once one sees it. In 2016, 58% of the books I read were written by women. Since I need all the help I can get being female in this world, I think I will go for 75% in 2017!!

(The Story of the Lost Child is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, January 08, 2017


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The Magician's Assistant, Ann Patchett, Harcourt, 1997, 357 pp

I had twice tried to start this novel in the past and had never gotten beyond the first few pages. The first paragraph is just two short sentences:

"PARSIFAL IS DEAD. That is the end of the story."

The second paragraph is a good half a page:

"The technician and the nurse rushed in from their glass booth. Where there had been a perfect silence a minute before there was now tremendous activity, the straining sounds of two men unexpectedly thrown into hard work. The technician stepped between Parsifal and Sabine, and she had no choice but to let go of Parsifal's hand. When they counted to three and then lifted Parsifal's body from the metal tongue of the MRI machine and onto the gurney, his head fell back, his mouth snapping open with no reflexes to protect it. Sabine saw all of his beautiful teeth, the two gold crowns on the back molars shining brightly in the overhead fluorescent light. The heavy green sheet they had given him for warmth got stuck in the guardrail lock. The nurse struggled with it for a second and then threw up his hands, as if to say they didn't have time for this, when in fact they had all the time in the world. Parsifal was dead and would be dead whether help was found in half a minute or in an hour or a day. They rushed him around the corner and down the hall without a word to Sabine. The only sound was the quick squeak of rubber wheels and rubber soles against the linoleum."

I had just read 217 words, full of description, with two oddly named characters and all I knew for sure was that one of them is dead. Both times I was not sure if I wanted to know more.

This time I was reading it for a reading group meeting, our holiday party, for which I was hosting. I had two and a half days to clean and decorate the house, make a main dish, and read the book. No choice but to power on.

Rereading that second paragraph for the fourth time as I started to write this review, having finished and loved the book, it makes all the sense in the world. Now I know those two characters almost as well as I know some of my friends. I know why they have such odd names, why Parsifal died, and why Sabine comes across in that paragraph as almost a mere onlooker. I still feel that was a risky way to begin a novel.

The Magician's Assistant is Ann Patchett's third novel. I read Bel Canto first, many years ago, and became an instant fan. I next read The Patron Saint of Liars, her first novel and loved it so much I could barely breathe through the whole book. I have always loved her unlikely combinations of people and situations, her theme of how unlikely most of life is but how it often works out anyway. I now think, having read six of her seven novels, that The Magician's Assistant is, if not weaker than the others, at least less successful.

The novel has no chapters. It is a 357 page long story. Magic, AIDS, murder, death, people who disappear, who pretend to be someone else, abusive men, Los Angeles vs the mid-west prairie, homosexuality, siblings, Jews, and more all crammed in. There are equally powerful scenes of love and of horrific events. It ends with a scene as confusing as the opening one.

Yet, I loved it! I think loving Ann Patchett is similar to loving one's family. You take the best, the not so good, and even the bad, as they come but you don't give up on the family. Even if you do give up on certain members for a while, you eventually go back. In fact, The Magician's Assistant is exactly about that.

Funny thing: I have since come across several other readers who had to start the book more than once to get through it. If you are already a fan, I promise you, it is worth reading. 

(The Magician's Assistant is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, January 06, 2017


Only four meetings this month and two are discussing the same book! This happens more and more often lately but it is good for my personal reading plans plus I get a wider range of ideas from attending two discussions of the same book. I know many of you don't care for reading groups but I will tell you, they are way better than just reading reviews and Goodreads/blog posts as far as exchanging ideas in real time. I feel like that is an important part of citizenship, especially in these times. End of sermon!

At the Holiday parties of my groups, we voted on our favorite book read during 2016. Each time it sparked more discussion. A common refrain was the benefit many members found from having read books they might otherwise have never read, broadening their views and knowledge and getting them out of their comfort zones. (That wasn't a sermon, just a share!)

Laura's Group:

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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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Wherever you are reading, I wish you a wonderful reading month. Have you read any of the above books?

Wednesday, January 04, 2017


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Swing Time, Zadie Smith, Penguin Press, 2016, 453 pp

I loved reading this! It is about long-time friendship between two mixed race girls in London from the 70s to now. It is about girls and their fathers. Overall, it is about women's lives as mothers and daughters, how to be a creative woman in modern times, finding a sense of self, and how privilege or the lack of affects women.

I don't believe we ever know the narrator's name, but we get to know her well because we see the world through her eyes. She has what we call in our house, the curse of self-awareness. Actually much of the time she is quite clueless, being batted around by circumstance and finding it difficult to stand up for herself. In that respect, she can be an annoying character and hers is a sad story. I have no problem with annoying characters. I suspect each of us is annoying to others in some ways.

What I love about Zadie Smith is her ability to pit such a character against characters who appear to know what they want but in truth are just as clueless when it comes to the actions they take. Thus she gives the reader a full picture of how random and heartless life can be.

The narrator's friend Tracey shares with her a dream of being a dancer and a fascination with music, performing, movies, and pop culture. Tracey is gifted and determined but also reckless. The narrator's mother wants something else for her daughter; Tracey's mother is fully behind her. Their friendship is unbalanced, it ebbs and flows, both are victims but the narrator is the rescuer.

Tracey has some success. The narrator takes a job as assistant to Aimee, a famous singer and video star. (Some reviewers say Aimee is loosely based on Madonna. I took her as an example of the world of entertainment and the unreal level of privilege that goes with that life.) Working for Aimee keeps the narrator so busy and so off-balance that she has almost no time to think about herself, the world around her, or the confusions she is running from. Yet that nagging self-awareness dogs her.

Aimee, of course, is white. She is a powerhouse of determination, but unlike Tracey she uses her fame and riches to create change in the world, including starting a school for girls in an African village. She is so protected that her recklessness harms others but never herself. The whole African scene gives the author another way to examine race, poverty and social conflict.

The novel put me in the role of spectator to all these issues, giving me a look into experiences beyond my own. It was a bit like watching the Amy Winehouse documentary that won an Oscar in 2016 or like reading all those novels by writers of color I delved into this year. I felt a grim fascination and I could not look away.

Is that a good thing? I am not sure. I am certain however that good fiction does take us readers outside of our own bubbles and Zadie Smith is stunningly good at that. The anti-heroine of Swing Time with her curse, ends up with a bit of insight and a sense that she still has a chance to be her own person.

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

Sunday, January 01, 2017


(This is not a picture of me. It is a picture of how I feel when I am reading.)

I had another fabulous year of reading. In fact, my original list of favorites for the year had 33 books on it, so just know that there were 8 runners up!

What makes a favorite book for you? For me, it is an almost undefinable quality but is always composed of one or more facets including the writing, the emotional impact, the depth of enchantment I feel while reading, the new, to me, information or learning, etc. It is all personal opinion. 

Books read: 122
Pages read: 39,123. Average pages per day: 107. Average books per week: 2.3
Published this year: 27
Fiction: 87
Non-fiction: 4
Written by women: 68
Translated: 15
My Big Fat Reading Project: 27
Children/YA: 2
Indie Presses: 6
Speculative/Sci Fi/ Fantasy: 9
Mystery/Crime/Thriller: 12
Plays: 4 (3 were Shakespeare because of the retelling project)
Classics: 1
Memoir/Biography/Autobiography: 4
Poetry: 1
Short Stories: 1
(The numbers add up to more than 122 because some categories overlap.)
All those stats are mostly for my records. Make of them what you will. I would say that reading more than 50% books written by women contributed plenty to my reading joy but I also read many excellent books written by men. I think that makes me some combination of good and bad feminist!
(Alphabetical by title, mostly published in other years, and all reviewed on this blog. If you would like to read the review, enter the title in the search box at the top left corner, hit return, and you will be taken there.)
All The Ugly and Wonderful Things, Bryn Greenwood
The Big Green Tent, Ludmila Ulitskaya
Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
Contenders, Erika Krouse
The Ecliptic, Benjamin Wood
The Enchanted, Rene Denfeld
Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins
Hagseed, Margaret Atwood
Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
La Rose, Louise Erdrich
Let Me Die in His Footsteps, Lori Roy
The Little Red Chairs, Edna O’Brien
Loving Day, Mat Johnson
Moonglow, Michael Chabon
The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee
Saint Mazie, Jami Attenberg
The Seed Collectors, Scarlett Thomas
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
Sweet Lamb of Heaven, Lydia Millet
Swing Time, Zadie Smith
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
Uprooted, Naomi Novik
Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin
The Woman Who Read Too Much, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

If I follow your blog, I have read your lists for the year's most loved books. If I don't follow you or you don't have a blog, feel free to let me know of great reads I may have missed in the comments. Thanks to everyone who visits here!