Tuesday, November 28, 2017


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Shadow of the Moon, M M Kaye, St Martin's Press Inc, 1956, 799 pp
Over two decades ago I devoured M M Kaye's The Far Pavillions and Trade Wind. She writes the kind of long books I love: so readable and so historically instructive. Some months ago my blogger friend Helen reviewed Shadow of the Moon on her excellent historical fiction blog, She Reads Novels, reminding me I had missed this one. 
After I read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, I was inspired to learn more about the history of India. I was still too timid to try Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children again after a failed attempt to read it some years ago, so Shadow of the Moon seemed just the thing. It was!

The British East India Company is in the waning years of its heyday. It is about to morph into the British Raj when its power to rule India passed to Queen Victoria after an uprising that nearly bankrupted the world's most powerful trading company.

Through the eyes of Winter de Ballesteros, half British heiress and half Spanish Condessa, this novel tells the story of the rebellion by the Sepoys, the Indian infantry soldiers in the British East India Company army. I really got the sense of how much and for how long India was under the power of the British: for over 250 years under the East India Company and then another 73 years under the British Raj before achieving independence in 1947.

The story goes deeply into the results and discontents of misrule. It is actually astonishing how much political history Ms Kaye covers in a novel that reads like a historical romance.

Winter is a typical heroine for novels of this kind. She is naive and romantic, but strong and brave. After a life of sorrows and losses, she gets her happy ending. Life for women in India was difficult in the extreme. Both English and Indian women suffered in many ways, lost babies, died from disease, and had virtually no rights. Winter can be a frustrating character but considering all the trials she survived from the day of her birth, she became a beloved heroine for me.

I admired how well M M Kaye captured that aspect of womanhood where no matter how brave, smart and resilient a woman was, she was forever being left behind to endure pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood while her husband took off to settle business and political troubles. It's enough to make me want to watch Wonder Woman over and over!

I loved the book. It took me seven days to read 274 pages of Susan Sontag but only four days to read 799 pages by M M Kaye. I do need both novels of ideas and those with propulsive storytelling in my reading life, but Ms Kaye combined the two so seamlessly. Now I actually feel sufficiently girded to tackle Midnight's Children.

(Shadow of the Moon is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 26, 2017


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The Benefactor, Susan Sontag, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1963, 274 pp
This is Susan Sontag's first novel and the first thing I have read by her. I read it because it is on the 1963 list of My Big Fat Reading Project and because I am reading everything I can by women known to be intellectuals, outside of the usual box of female fiction writers, and possessed of a prickly nature. It was a difficult read.
Hippolyte is a man looking back on coming of age in Paris in the mid 20th century. First of all, why is he called Hippolyte? Hippolyta was Queen of the Amazons in Greek mythology. (I only know this because I looked it up.) Hippolyte has nothing godlike (or goddesslike) about him. In the blurbs and reviews of this book, he is compared to Candide, the main character in Voltaire's novel of that title. I have not read that. So clearly I was out of my depth.

In his youth, Hippolyte was given permission by his indulgent father to live in Paris with a stipend and do whatever he desired. He began to have disturbing dreams and spent most of his time alone interpreting those dreams while trying to relate them to his waking life. He also caroused with his friend Jean-Jacques, an author by day and a secret male hustler by night. Hippolyte then takes a mistress who he mistreats. She haunts him for the rest of his life.

The premise of this faux memoir is that Hippolyte does finally come to a certain understanding about who he is and the life he has lived. I could relate to that because I am trying to do the same thing in writing my own autobiography. The other trouble I had while reading The Benefactor was that I could not bring myself to care about the man.

I have made my maiden voyage into the work of Susan Sontag and it was on a rough sea. The other day I found an essay on Sontag's novels and it gave me enough hope that if I keep reading her I will eventually be rewarded.

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


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Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward, Scribner, 2017, 285 pp

This is an amazing novel! I read it just two weeks before Jesmyn Ward won the 2017 National Book Award for fiction. In fact, it is her second win for that award. She won for her first novel, Salvage the Bones, in 2011.
Sing, Unburied, Sing has ghosts. How many time have I run into ghosts in this year's reading? It tells the story of African American families by revealing one of those families through the eyes of Jojo, who is 13. His mother is black, his father is white. He has assumed the role of mother/father/brother/protector for his baby sister. Kayla is the shimmering star of the book and rendered so exquisitely by the author that you can feel her clinging to Jojo as if she is clinging to you.

Jojo, Kayla and their mother Leonie live with Leonie's parents. Grandpa has secrets in his past, including a prison term. Grandma is dying from cancer. Leonie's brother is dead due to one of those ways Black boys die in this country. Jojo and Kayla's father Michael is in prison on a drug-related charge but he is getting out and Leonie takes her two children on a road trip through two Southern states to pick him up.

Reading Sing, Unburied, Sing was like traveling in a foreign country for a white woman like me. It is almost too much, especially because the writing is so good, putting you into these people's lives. You live with them and with all the ghosts of their people who died of racism, by racism, through racism. Almost too much until I remembered that these are people who live in my country all mixed right in with the white people. 

I have been reading books by and about people of color for decades. About slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights; about the customs, the music, the drugs, and all the work-arounds they have developed just so they can exist in American society. I made a count from my reading records, kept since the 1980s. Out of hundreds of authors I have read, only 33 are African American. 

So you see that the stories we are primarily being told are by white authors. In her acceptance speech for her 2017 win at the National Book Awards ceremony, Jesmyn Ward said, "Throughout my career when I've been rejected, there was sometimes a subtext, and it was this: 'People will not read your work because these are not universal stories.' "

Translation: the predominately white publishing industry assumes that their predominately white readership feels these stories are not universal. What? As Richard Wright said, "White man, listen." Racism and it effects on citizens of all colors is a universal story. How else do we overcome this scourge on our nation if we don't know the stories?

It is a big win for America that Jesmyn Ward has won the National Book Award twice. It is a win worth being proud of for us all. She has brought to us the ghosts who live on in our history.

For your reading adventures, here is a list of the 33 African American writers who have told me their stories:

James Baldwin
Paul Beatty
Gwendolyn Brooks
Pearl Cleage
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Edwidge Danticat
Ralph Ellison
Angela Flournoy
Paula Fox
Yaa Gyasi
Zora Neale Hurston
Marlon James
N K Jemison
Mat Johnson
Edward P Jones
Jamaica Kinkaid
Imbolo Mbue
James McBride
Kim McLarin
Terry McMillan
Toni Morrison
Barack Obama
Dexter Palmer
Ann Petry
Alice Randall
John Ridley
Zadie Smith
Lalita Tademy
Alice Walker
Jesmyn Ward
Dorothy West
Colson Whitehead
Richard Wright
How many of them have you read? 

(Sing, Unburied, Sing is currently available on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, November 18, 2017


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The Moon By Night, The Austin Family Chronicles Book 2, Madeleine L'Engle, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1963, 270 pp
I love Madeleine L'Engle's books. Aside from A Wrinkle In Time, she has written many other novels, some for adults and some for young adults. The Austin Family Chronicles would be shelved as Young Adult I suppose.
I am not generally a reader of what I call "comfort fiction" but there are a handful of authors who write in a way that comforts me and L'Engle is one of them.
The Austin family was first introduced in Meet The Austins. They are portrayed as a variation on the ideal American family who live in a rural Connecticut town. The time is contemporary for the year the book was published (1960) and they are a tight knit bunch with wise and loving parents.

In The Moon By Night, Vicky Austin is again the narrator. She is now 14, the second of four kids in the family. At this time she is going through the pangs of adolescence, those first stirrings of private thoughts and longings, mostly about boys. She tries to guard this closely in her mind and heart while suffering the inability to fully share with her parents and her adored older brother. 

Oh, I remember those feelings from when I was 14! Because this volume was published in 1963 when I was 15 going on 16, I felt a special affinity for Vicky. That year was possibly the last year of white middle class American life before the country exploded into a chaos of change.

The Austin family is about to explode into change as well. Dr Austin has accepted a job in New York City so they will move in the fall from their idyllic home to life in the city. Vicky will be forced to leave her friends and the only lifestyle she has ever known and go to a new school, make new friends and experience urban life for the first time.

The parents have decided the whole family will take an extended vacation for the summer, a camping trip across the United States to California and back. The kids are rather appalled at this idea, each for different reasons, but the parents rule. So off they go with their station wagon, tents, and portable stove.

Thus the backdrop for Vicky's first summer as a teen is a road trip and the reader gets to experience National and State Parks with all the various climates, topography, and varieties of people to be found in our vast country. Vicky meets two boys over the course of their travels and must decide on her own, but with intrusive barrages of advice from her parents and siblings, how to understand and love these two very different examples of male creatures who are not family members.

L'Engle manages to sidestep excessive sentimentality, to show examples of good parenting and conjure the feelings of adolescent sexual awakening. Yes, it is rather tame and the escapes from danger a bit unbelievable at times, but I was never bored. 

I think the author was creating in this series the traditional family she wished she'd had. Since I had something close to that when I was growing up, as well as road trips every summer, I felt right at home. I shared Vicky's exasperation; that feeling that your parents will never understand who your really are along with the hope that they will.

(The Moon At Night is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, November 16, 2017


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Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz, Harper, 2017, 496 pp
I was looking forward to Magpie Murders, read for one of my reading groups, but while I enjoyed it I wasn't as crazy about it as it seems almost everyone else in the world was. It is a mystery within a mystery, the two are interrelated, and it just felt too long. That may have been because I started reading it a bit too close to the meeting date causing me to rush through in my best power-reading mode.
The mystery within a mystery is one "written" by the fictional Alan Conway, a bestselling British crime writer. His entire book, Magpie Murders, is reproduced in the novel I was reading, also called Magpie Murders. Are you confused yet? I am quite certain that Mr Horowitz intended so.
The actual mystery which must be solved by Alan Conway's editor Susan Ryeland, concerns the death of her author. Did he commit suicide or was he murdered? Why was the manuscript he turned in just days before his death missing the last chapter? It is all too clever by half, as they say in England.
Bottom line: if you like Agatha Christie style mysteries with plenty of red herrings, a long list of suspects, and a sleuth who figures out who and why before you do, you will love this one. In fact, you will double-love it. I liked Alan Conway's mystery better than Anthony Horowitz's. That is just weird because Horowitz wrote them both. 

(Magpie Murders is currently available in hardcover on the mystery shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 13, 2017


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Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue, Random House, 2016, 382 pp
This is an excellent novel. The author, Imbolo Mbue, is an immigrant from Cameroon to the United States, as are two of her main characters. She has been a resident of the US for a decade and got her education here while her characters are basically undocumented and struggling mightily to get legal.
Contrasts are the theme. Jende Jonga and his wife and son live in Harlem. She has a student visa due to expire. Jende is undocumented and working with a questionable lawyer to get a green card. They live close to the poverty line, roaches and all, but are joyful and hopeful for the better life they will give their children.

Clark Edwards and his wife are part of the one percent. He works as a senior executive at Lehman Brothers and hires Jende as his driver. His wife Cindy somehow rose from poverty herself and snagged a trophy husband but she is not happy, drinks too much, and takes pills. Their grown son has refused law school and taken off for India to find a "truer" life.

When Lehman Brothers goes down, Jende loses his job and you know the rest. So, stereotypes possibly but Imolo Mbue uses her characters and the events of the time to show us American citizens with all of our relative wealth and privilege what the American Dream means to us and to them.

The book is unputdownable and made for a good, long, impassioned discussion in my reading group. All kinds of attitudes I hadn't known were harbored in the minds of my fellow readers came to light regarding said dream, immigration, and our lack of understanding about today's immigrants known to us primarily as gardeners and nannies. At one point, as our voices rose around the table where we meet at Barnes & Noble, as one member said, "They don't belong here," a young woman cruised by announcing herself as a Dreamer and said, "Yes we do!" It was a 2017 moment.

(Behold the Dreamers is currently available in paperback on the adult fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, November 11, 2017


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Means of Ascent, The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume 2, Robert A Caro, Alfred A Knopf, 1990, 412 pp
The second volume of Caro's biography of Lyndon B Johnson is the sordid tale of how he stole his election to the US Senate. That is right. He did! At the time, he was accused of doing so but not busted for it. It was 1948, he lawyered up and escaped justice in the courts. Caro did the research and uncovered facts that had been buried for decades.
Coming in at 412 actual reading pages (not counting notes and index) this volume is approximately half the length of Volume 1, The Path to Power. It covers just seven years. The sense of a man who would do anything and everything to reach his goal of being President of the United States with the underlying thirst for power and the determination to "be somebody" continues. This is Caro's thesis about the man.

I have been discussing POTUS 35 with various friends and acquaintances ever since I finished the first volume in August. Many of them feel he was a great and important Commander-In-Chief. I began reading the series with the negative bias I formed against the man in the late 1960s when I was an anti-war hippy. Nothing I have read so far has disabused me of that bias. I will keep going and attempt to maintain an open mind.

Was his Great Society really great? Was his Civil Rights bill actually effective? Did he know what he was doing in Vietnam? Most important for me is to discover if he ever became a true statesman and leader with the good of our country as his prime motivation, or at least part of it. I get it that being President is a hard job and they all make mistakes.

The next volume, Master of the Senate, should be another eye-opener regarding how our upper legislative body works. It will be the longest volume yet at about 1100 pages. Am I up for the challenge? You bet.

(Means of Ascent is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2017


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Reckless, My Life As A Pretender, Chrissie Hynde, Doubleday, 2015, 312 pp
I meant to read this when it first came out. Then I forgot. Earlier this year I was reminded when my blogger friend Susan at The Cue Card reviewed it.
Who was not a Pretenders fan in the 1980s? I was singing in a cover band at the time (back then it was known as a TOP40 band because we performed the hits of the day as long as people could dance to them.) I sang "Brass In Pocket" with all my heart, though I could never quite capture the sound of Chrissie's voice.

Her memoir is a trip through the 50s, 60s, and 70s. First in her hometown of Akron, OH, where her dad worked for Bell Telephone and her mom was the embodiment of the "feminine mystique." Chrissie was a good girl in her childhood but once she got hooked on music her path was set.

The 60s was high school, getting high, and going to see any band she could get a ride to. Somehow she graduated and got accepted at Kent State. Yes, she was there in the crowd during the shooting of college students protesting the Vietnam War.

Chrissie was not born under a bad sign. She had luck protecting her throughout a wild and dangerous young adult life. She learned guitar, she loved guitar gods, she took anything available to get high, but always she was trying to form a band. It was a long time coming but finally in London, The Pretenders became reality. Her book tells the whole story.

The Pretenders also became on "overnight" success. None of us knew it had taken her over a decade to get there. The substance abuse of course went into overdrive but her luck held. Like any self respecting rocker who plans to have a long career, she eventually quit all the drugs and tours to this day.

Chrissie Hynde is not only a great songwriter. She is a great writer. Reading her book is like having her right in your head telling her incredible story. Quite simply, she rocks!!

(Reckless, My Life As A Pretender is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 05, 2017


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The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, W W Norton & Company, 1963, 395 pp
Getting through his iconic feminist text took work but I am so glad I read it. The work of reading it took different forms.
Hardest to read were the passages where she cited primary sources such as Freudian psychiatry, sociology, magazine writing, and the advertising of the times. Only when I reached the end of the book did I appreciate the meticulous way in which she built her thesis. It made for a good many pages of fairly dry reading.

I concluded that she had been influenced by both Simon de Beauvoir's The Second Sex as well as some of Vance Packard's early books such as The Hidden Persuaders, The Status Seekers, The Waste Makers, and The Pyramid Climbers, all of which I have read. She had done her homework and was proving it.

I understand why she did that though, because as a woman writing about women in the early 1960s, she knew she would take some heat and had to stand strong.

Another part of the work for me was all the emotion she evoked. I was only a sophomore/junior in high school when the book was published. I did not know of it then but I wondered if my mother had read it. One day near the end of her life, my mom told me and my sisters that when she was raising us she often felt she had lost track of who she was!

The book got me thinking about and remembering what it was like being raised in a suburban New Jersey town by a stay-at-home mom. I realized that she had channeled all her creativity as a musician into running a home, managing her husband and bringing up three daughters. I also gained plenty of insight into why I felt so smothered by her when I was a kid.

Then I pondered the choices I made as a young wife and mother. I felt chagrined to recognize how much the "feminine mystique" still had a hold on me in those years and caused such conflicted emotions and guilt as I tried to also follow my own dreams and keep a semblance of my own identity.

All in all, it was a rewarding reading experience despite how long it took to get through the book. After all, it was THE book that started second wave feminism. All the later complaints about The Feminine Mystique lacking diversity are true. The women Betty Friedan was writing for were the white, middle class citizens of America. Even so, she hit on universal truths for women: the importance of birth control, legal abortion, education, and the right for all women to be fully contributing members of society.
I feel this is an important book that traces why and how women were sent back home after WWII and what that did to us and our children. It was an eye-opening book to read in 2017.

(The Feminine Mystique is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


Friday, November 03, 2017


Reading group plans are small this month. Some of my groups are on hiatus due to the holidays. I will not be attending the One Book At A Time meeting nor reading the book, but I am including it anyway.
Bookie Babes: 
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One Book At A Time:
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Tiny Book Club:
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Do you have reading group plans this month? If so, what are you discussing? Do you have any recommendations for good discussion books? 

Wednesday, November 01, 2017


October in SoCal is not what it was in my earlier years. The leaves don't turn colors or fall until November. I don't have kids or grandkids around to carve pumpkins with or dress up in costumes. This year it was heat and more heat, fires near my loved ones in NoCal (one family lost a home), but thankfully lots of good reading.

Stats: 10 books read. 7 fiction. 5 written by women. 3 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 3 mystery/crime/thriller. 3 nonfiction. 2 biography. 

Favorites: Edgar & Lucy, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Reckless.
Least favorites: none, I liked them all!

Here is what I read:
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How was your October reading? Favorites? Recommendations?