Tuesday, February 27, 2018


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V., Thomas Pynchon, J B Lippincott Company, 1963, 492 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Having just been released from the Navy, Benny Profane is content to lead a slothful existence with his friends, where the only real ambition is to perfect the art of "schlemihlhood," or being a dupe, and where "responsibility" is a dirty word. Among his pals--called the Whole Sick Crew--is Slab, an artist who can't seem to paint anything other than cheese danishes. But Profane's life changes dramatically when he befriends Stencil, an active ambitious young man with an intriguing mission--to find out the identity of a woman named V., who knew Stencil's father during the war, but who suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.
My Review: 
So I made it through the first novel by Thomas Pynchon, also the first I have read of his novels. If you have never read it and you look at the Goodreads summary above, it looks straightforward enough. It is not!
I felt lost for quite a while; lots of characters and two time lines that pay little attention to letting you know what happened when. There are a ton of wikis for V. on the web but I did not use them that much. After all, a new reader in 1963 had no wikis, so I pretended I was one of them. Eventually I fell into whatever groove there was to be had and went along for the ride.

The parts about Benny Profane and the Whole Sick Crew take place mostly in New York City in 1955. All very beat sensibility and Cold War ennui. Quite an unsavory bunch they are. Even though the European/North Africa parts were way more confusing, I liked those parts better. They had a spy thriller essence to them and several incidents took place in Alexandria, a city I have a fondness for from reading Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. It is nice to have somewhere to feel at home when one is reading a chopped up, confusing story.

In the end, I felt it had been worth my time to read such an iconic book by an author revered by so many. I am actually looking forward to reading more Pynchon. His style reminded me of Michael Chabon whom I love. Also I found echoes of certain Beat authors I read in my 1950s lists.

One other thing: I was reading V. concurrently with Norman Mailer's Presidential Papers. Both were published in 1963 and the parallel ideas and sentiments and views about America at that time in both books were startling. I don't know if the two knew each other or ever hung out, but for sure they were reading the same stuff and thinking along the same neural pathways.

I have about 10 books left on my 1963 reading list and I am getting weary of the year, but V. was a breath of fresh air and a harbinger of things to come. The same thing happened when I was reading the 1940s and 1950s lists. About midway through each decade, I began to feel a shift with the older styles falling away the new ideas and concerns popping up.

I created My Big Fat Reading Project with the idea that I could learn about the whole big picture of the years I have lived by reading the important books of each one. I am thrilled over and over as I keep finding this turning out to be true.

(V. is available as a Perennial Classics paperback reprint by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, February 26, 2018


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Firestorm,  Nevada Barr, G P Putnam's Sons, 1996, 307 pp
This is the fourth book in Nevada Barr's mystery series, all set in US National Parks. I am reading the series because they are well done and because it is my puny attempt at activism in these times when our parks are at risk.
Firestorm was especially timely after the horrendous fire season we had in California last fall. In fact, it is set in Northern California's Lassen Volcanic National Park, home to jagged peaks, meadows, lakes, volcanoes, and steaming fumaroles (openings in or near a volcano through which hot sulfurous gases emerge.)

Anna Pigeon, park ranger, has been sent to Lassen as a camp medic and security officer to join the team fighting the Jackknife Fire. (According to the author's website, this is a fictional fire based on one she once worked in her park ranger days in Idaho.) As Anna treats the crew in the medic tent, you get minute knowledge about what these firefighters suffer while battling huge fires. You also learn about the various characters on the team, their talents and their grudges.

After several days of this, a cold front moves in with snow following. The camp is demobilized and all personnel begin to move out, trusting the weather to finish their job. But Anna and her crew are delayed due to the last minute rescue of a firefighter with a broken leg.

Within a couple hours, the erratic winds of a thunderstorm preceding the blizzard turn the ravine where they were stationed into a firestorm. As it explodes in flame, this crew of eight is trapped with only little individual tent-like fire shelters to protect them.
Many hours go by until the fire passes and that is when you learn what it is like to be dependent on these little shelters to stay alive while feeling like one is being baked to death. As Anna and her team members emerge one of them is found dead from a knife stabbed into his back.
At that point the story grows from an extreme adventure tale into a desperate race to determine who committed the murder. There they are in a tiny cabin, with the snow and the cold and no food for over 48 hours before a rescue crew can get to them. Anna is still being the medic but also relentlessly pursues her detective work as security officer. Danger, privation, and fear do their work on them all but of course Anna solves the crime while the clues are fresh just before their rescue arrives.
Great mystery fiction with a fearless heroine alongside the gritty realities of firefighting. When we had the fires last fall I remained glued to the videos and updates from the news and the Fire Department feeds on Twitter, but now I know much more about what really goes on! 

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

Friday, February 23, 2018


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The Secret River, Kate Grenville, Canongate Books, 2006, 334 pp
There is a trend happening among some of the bloggers I follow involving either reading books one already owns from our groaning shelves and/or getting around to books on our TBR lists. On New Year's Day as I was considering my reading plans for 2018, I created a combination of both. I went back through 12 years of my TBR lists and selected one book from each of those years, 2006-2017. From these 12 books, some of which I already own, I made a list, one to be read in each month of 2018. How geeky is that?
From my 2006 list I chose The Secret River for January. I have always wanted to read it since I first saw a review. I also particularly love Australian authors and have now found in Kate Grenville a new one to love.

The Secret River is historical fiction set in the years when Great Britain began shipping off their criminals to New South Wales, a land recently discovered by the famous explorer James Cook. Makes sense right? Why build more prisons when you can get good cheap slave labor to build up a new colony? 

William Thornhill in 1806, a dirt poor illiterate bargeman on the River Thames, shoring up his meager income with petty crimes, is finally caught. His sentence could have been hanging but instead he is deported to New South Wales and takes his new spunky, literate wife Sal with him.

Once in their new city, Sydney, they begin the long and challenging climb from convict to pioneer. Sal has babies, works hard and smart to increase their fortunes, but is never reconciled to staying. Her dream is to take their new found riches back to London.

William becomes a boatman on the Hawkesbury River and finds a lust for having his own land. Eventually he gets it and a host of new troubles. The indigenous peoples have no concept of private property. While they are not innately hostile, the settlers manage to arouse their anger. As you can imagine, or may have read about, it gets ugly.

William Thornhill is one of the last to agree with violence as a solution but eventually has no choice if he wishes to realize his dream. So this is a cautionary tale about the necessary evils inherent in dreams.

The novel was a complete page turner, written with a sure hand, propulsive story telling and fully fleshed out characters. I want to read both sequels and also was inspired to learn more about Captain Cook, who it seems unwittingly opened up the world to the colonial ambitions of the British Empire.

(The Secret River is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, February 22, 2018


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The Presidential Papers, Norman Mailer, G P Putnam's Sons, 1963, 335 pp
I don't know for sure why I read this except that I have a fascination for Mailer. I don't particularly recommend it to the general reader but I am glad I read it. The book is a collection of articles originally written by Mailer for various magazines and newspapers between June, 1960 and August, 1963. In collecting these writings for book form, Mailer added later comments and did some revisions. On publication day John F Kennedy was still alive.

Throughout Mailer rails about American society and politics, as only Mailer could do. He includes a couple pieces written about the Democratic Convention that nominated Kennedy, another about the Kennedy campaign, and one with thoughts about Jackie Kennedy. Thus the title.

Since I have read a full biography of JFK and am currently on the third volume of Robert A Caro's huge biography of Lyndon B Johnson, this was a good companion piece for me. I would recommend the collection for those interested in that period of American history.

I don't necessarily agree with all of Mailer's viewpoints but I have to admire his style, his nerve, and his stances on what was happening to America in those years. I even have to admire his huge raging ego. New fact to me: he was a co-founder of The Village Voice!

(A 2012 reprint of The Presidential Papers is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


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The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, Cherise Wolas, Flatiron Books, 2017, 531 pp
I tore through this long novel in two and a half days. Another novel that had so much relevance to my life, I wondered if Cherise Wolas knew me.
Joan Ashby, our heroine, was already a successful and much loved writer in the eyes of both critics and readers. Her two short story collections were best sellers and she had traveled the world doing readings. She had money. She had planned to remain single, childless, and to continue writing and publishing for the rest of her life.

Just as she began writing her first novel, she met and fell in love with Martin Manning, an up and coming surgeon. She told him, "There are two things you should know about me. Number one: My writing will always come first. Number two: Children are not on the table. I possess no need, primal or otherwise, for motherhood."

Reader, she married him. She got pregnant. She had the baby. A couple years later she had another. Within a short time her writing came last. It would be 28 years before she published again. And this novel is that story.

The writing is excellent and pulled me along like any of the novels I have loved. The construction of the story is daring, including excerpts of Joan's short stories and flashbacks to her life before marriage and children. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out.

Finally, after writing secretly for all those years, after performing motherhood and wifehood to the best of her ability, after Martin has betrayed her in so many ways, after her sons have demanded more of her than she could have imagined, she breaks away and engineers her own resurrection.

This novel has been compared to Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Not everyone loved that novel but I did, unconditionally. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is no less wrenching a portrayal of the harm done to women, but somehow it feels milder. I loved Groff's literary prose. In fact, I was amazed by it. Cherise Wolas writes with assurance in this first novel but the book felt more commercial to me, more consciously designed to be a page turner and to avoid offending readers. When Joan escapes to India and begins to learn meditation and make new nourishing female friends, the book takes a turn into Eat Pray Love territory. I loved that book also though not everyone did, but it was way more twee than Fates and Furies. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby falls somewhere in between.

My conclusion is that women's stories are many and varied, though the theme remains constant. They all need to be told and I for one need to read them. I find that I can compare and contrast these different versions but my judgement is clouded by all the emotion and betrayal most women have experienced. We ask for it in many ways, we are perhaps too trusting, we surely love too much. In any case, Joan Ashby's story is one among the best versions of our tale.

(The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, February 19, 2018


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The Game-Players of Titan, Philip K Dick, Ace Books, 1963, 215 pp
Reading Philip K Dick, for me, is like hanging out with a super odd friend and just marveling at how very odd he is. This is the ninth book I have read by him. I am reading his books roughly in the order he published them though I have skipped a few. He was very prolific at the beginning and it seems I can only take so much of his clunky prose.
However, he was so prescient, perhaps the most of all speculative writers ever and that is why he fascinates me and many other readers. 

In this one, Earth is ruled by an alien race that presents as amorphous blobs. The human race is dying off due to a low birth rate. The remaining adults are obsessed with Bluff, a game in which they gamble for cities and spouses, while drinking heavily.

It is funny in a black humor way. All the characters are unlikable. Everything changes every few pages. The set piece is a game of Bluff on the alien planet Titan, with the two races competing for Earth.

Read it at your own risk!

(The Game-Players of Titan is mostly out of print. Try your library or favorite used book seller.)

Friday, February 16, 2018


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Run River, Joan Didion, Ivan Obolensky Inc, 1963, 264 pp
I first read Joan Didion in 2000. Play It As It Lays, published in 1970, was her second novel. I grabbed it off a library shelf because I had heard of her, had heard it was a classic LA novel, but I was in no way prepared for what I found, except maybe by the seven Joyce Carol Oates books I had read by then. That disturbing tale of a woman's descent into madness as she compulsively drove the freeways of Los Angeles kept me from falling asleep after I read it in one evening.
Since then I have read her memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband, and Blue Nights, about the death of her daughter.

Joan Didion is a great writer. Her precision reminds me of Nadine Gordimer, her incisive intelligence reminds me of many of my favorite female intellectual writers, and her ability to plunge into the murky depths of the human psyche is the JCO connection for me.

Run River was her first published novel, though she had already been an editor at Vogue Magazine and went on to write articles for many publications. It is set in her hometown of Sacramento, CA, and features two families, descended from pioneers, whose rural ranches are falling into ruin.

The novel explores a troubled marriage, an insular community, and their roots in California history. Lily is a serial adulteress and her husband Everett is a bitter, failing, though still wealthy rancher who nevertheless loves the fragile Lily and their children. In his own uncommunicative way, he tries to protect his family and his wild sister. The book opens on the final tragedy of their lives, then goes back to show how they got there.

In some ways it was similar to many of the bestsellers I have read from the 1940s and 1950s about wealthy dysfunctional families. Though it has the hallmarks of a first novel, of its being derivative, those qualities of Didion that have gained her critical acclaim in both fiction and nonfiction are all on display.

Last month I watched The Center Will Not Hold, a documentary of Joan's life. It can be seen on Netflix streaming. I was enthralled by this look into her life, her writing and the way she feels about it all looking back from the age of 83.

Nine days later I read Run River. Not every reader falls under this woman's spell but I have, with every book I read. My life has been tame in comparison, though never boring or even calm, but she speaks to my experience as a woman coming up in the late 20th century and trying to make sense of the 21st.

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

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


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Miss Burma, Charmaine Craig, Grove Press, 2017, 355 pp
This astounding novel was such a worthwhile read. All I knew of Burma, now called Myanmar, was that in recent years it has been ruled by an oppressive military junta, closed off from the world. My clearest impression was of the time in 2004 when the country refused any foreign aid after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Just the other day they were in the news as the genocide of minorities continues there.
So what happened in that poor tortured country? Charmaine Craig is the daughter of Louisa Benson, who rose to fame in Burma and the world when she began winning beauty contests and eventually became a contestant for the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant. This novel is the story of the author's mother and her grandparents, but it is also a history of Burma from WWII onward.

I call the book astounding because of the way it entwines the personal lives of her family with the tumultuous political upheavals of their country. It covers colonial abuse and then neglect by the British Empire, bitter enmity between ethnic groups as well as intermarriage between the groups, and the horrific human rights abuses that have gone on. The incredible bravery and resistance of the author's mother and grandmother and their fight for freedom as members of the Karen people, the most despised minority of Burma, makes that political history come alive.

It is a lot to take in. Love between husband and wife, parents and children, siblings, is almost impossible to maintain in such situations. The suffering of these people challenged my imagination. The question is, aside from the right and need for people to tell their stories, do you want to read and know about it if you are one of the more privileged members of the human race. As a reader, that is your choice and you have the right to choose.

At this point in history it often seems that mankind will never change. The powerful will always suppress the weak and nearly always win. The news will either upset or soothe, depending on the outlets we choose to read. Reading historical novels like this, especially when based on real people, inspires me. Sometimes the apparent weak are stronger than it appears and that urge for freedom and justice does have an impact.

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

Sunday, February 11, 2018


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Dune, Frank Herbert, Chilton Books, 1965, 473 pp
Brief Summary from IndieBound: Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, who would become the mysterious man known as Muad'Dib. He would avenge the traitorous plot against his noble family--and would bring to fruition humankind's most ancient and unattainable dream. 
My Brief Review:
I have finally read this iconic book, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. I thought I was possibly the last person on earth to have not read it before, but at our reading group meeting, out of five attending, only two of us read it for the first time.

Anyway, it was just as great as all its champions say. So much of what influenced my worldview in the 1960s is encapsulated in the story: ecology, the dangers of big corporations to both the planet and society, the evils done to native populations when empires come to colonize. Then there is religion, fantasy, witchcraft, and even quite an exploration of hero worship and cult-like communal social groups.

I think if anyone in publishing read the above paragraph, eyes would roll and scoffing would take place. Who does this guy Frank Herbert think he is kidding? He was not kidding. He really did have the knowledge of history and the writing chops to pull it off.

I am so glad I read it. I loved every page. Thanks to the member of Molly's Group who convinced us to choose it. I am also glad I bought my own copy. It is a book worth rereading.

(Dune is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. I ordered my copy there and it arrived in three days.)

Friday, February 09, 2018


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The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, The Dial Press, 1963, 106 pp
This man was so eloquent, his mind so capacious, his ability is to present ideas imbued with emotion but with such clarity. In this slim volume he both stirred me up and calmed me down. It has two parts.
The first, My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a mere eight pages is just that, a letter. I read somewhere, but can't find it now, that this letter inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Between the World and Me. Baldwin is advising his nephew to be strong, assuring him that he is, and recommending a path for the future he will face.

"And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we with love, shall force on our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it." (He is talking about their white brothers.) "We cannot be free until they are free." That advice requires almost inhuman or above human strength and a whole lotta love.

Approximately 53 years later on, Coates was not so full of that love. Too many great leaders slain, too many more black sons slain or imprisoned. Quite a bit more anger and fear than Baldwin was showing in 1962 when he wrote his letter. 150+ years since one of our greatest Presidents issued that proclamation is a long time to wait for the change that was supposed to come. Five generations of waiting.

I found the second much longer section more interesting: Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind. It is James Baldwin losing his religion and yet not really. I knew something of Baldwin's religious life, told as fiction in Go Tell It On The Mountain. In this version he deconstructs it further. A lot happened to him in ten years.

He tells of returning to America after living abroad, of witnessing the cruelties laid on Blacks who followed Martin Luther King's non-violent methods of protest, of befriending Malcolm X, of meeting Elijah Muhammad.

Finally he pulls it all together as really only James Baldwin can do and explains what it would really take to put an end to racism in America. In those words I heard the echos of the truth at the heart of any of the world's religions: the ability to love ourselves and our fellow man is the key to a more just world. He admits to how hard that is for any human being. Then he ends with a prophecy that has come forth from any religion's story of the flood, in the words of a slave song: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time."

I can't say that this brought me hope. I don't think Ta-Nehisi Coates operates from a place of hope. The fire does approach more closely everyday. In some areas of the world it has arrived. Is this ancient dream of peace, justice and brotherhood only that? A dream? Is that why so many write, read, and discuss? Can it ever become reality?

What I do recognize is that James Baldwin, along with many other people of good will, found that dream in a church of some kind. The truly brave and tough people of good will walk out of church into the world to participate in realizing the dream. No matter what name those people give to this spiritual practice, they are my people.

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

Tuesday, February 06, 2018


I am a little bit late posting this. I can't seem to keep up with blogging because I am having such a great time reading. Terrible problems I have, right?

Reading groups are a bit quiet this month. The One Book At A Time group never met in January due to rampant flu-not me thank goodness. So we will discuss Miss Burma this month. Laura's Group went on hiatus for the holidays and has so far not been resurrected. And the Tiny Book Club also had a member down with two bouts of flu. To date we have not discussed The Wreath from January as a group and have not got a new book picked. Did you really want to know all of that? Well, now you do.
Here's more: Some of you wanted to know how my groups did with the fantasy novels last month. Well, it was all a great success. In Molly's Group three of the five attending had already read Dune but reread. Molly and I were new readers of the sci fi classic. We all were totally thumbs up on the book and had a rousing discussion. 
I had been quite worried that my recommendation to the Bookie Babes that we read The Fifth Season would end in disaster, since some of them had never even read fantasy before. Well, we had two haters, one of whom said she kept wondering what was wrong with her because she couldn't understand the story at all. But the rest, 7 out of 10, either admired the imagination at work or completely loved the story, the characters and the challenge. One member had already finished the second book in the trilogy by the time we met and was well into the third. Our motto at Bookie Babes is "take a chance on a book" and last month we lived it!

Here is the line-up for February. I am excited to discuss all three:
One Book At A Time:
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Tina's Group:
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Bookie Babes:
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What are your groups discussing this month? Has anyone newly joined a reading group lately? 

Sunday, February 04, 2018


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Joy in the Morning, Betty Smith, Harper & Row, 1963, 294 pp
Sometimes even a reader such as myself needs a heartwarming book. The good thing about Betty Smith is that her version of heartwarming is always peppered with enough realism about the way life goes that she, narrowly, avoids sentimentality.
I have read her most famous novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, several times. I will probably read it again someday. Joy in the Morning was her last novel. After reading it I learned that she devoted much of her writing life to plays. In fact Annie, the heroine of this novel, is a budding playwright and overcomes anything in her way to become one.

It is 1927 when Annie leaves her Brooklyn home at the age of eighteen, against her mother's advice, to marry Carl. They had met in Brooklyn but Carl went off to a mid-western university to study law. Soon Annie followed. Carl's mother also opposed the marriage.

The early years of any marriage always involve adjustments, especially in the days when couples did not live together beforehand and had rarely had sex. Often a young couple is not financially secure. All of this is the case for Annie and Carl and this story is full of hardship. Then comes the Depression and the first pregnancy.

If there is one thing Betty Smith knows about life it is how women in those days provided the stability that makes a family, both emotionally and in the day to day practical matters. Annie is as dreamy as any young woman but she also has grit, a huge heart and a good sense of humor.

So she uses her imagination to outwit adversity and her stubbornness to keep writing those plays. Add to that her wisdom in how to keep Carl somewhat settled down when he (as we say in our house) "gets like he gets," and you can't deny she is a wonder.

I must say that all of Annie's lovely and admirable qualities do strain a reader's credulity but somehow I never care when reading Betty Smith. She just gives me hope and makes me feel happy. We all need that sometimes, right?

(Joy in the Morning is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, February 01, 2018


Here in Los Angeles we had a few cold days, a couple rainy days, a mudslide down our street, but all in all fairly mild weather compared to much of the rest of the country. The peacocks were happy. So was I since I set an ambitious reading goal for 2018, not because I want to compete with anyone but because I have recommitted to my writing and have a lot of books to get through. I was happy to have made my goal of 12 books read and I liked every one!

Stats: 12 books read. 10 fiction. 7 written by women. 5 by authors new to me. 2 historical. 1 Nobel Prize winning author. 1 translated. 1 mystery. 3 speculative. 2 non fiction. 7 for My Big Fat Reading Project.
Favorites: Miss Burma, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, The Secret River.
Least favorite: none

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I am way behind on writing my reviews of these books and posting them here but hope to get caught up soon plus make my reading goal for next month. 

How was your reading in January? Do you have any recommendations for me?