Tuesday, July 31, 2018


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RIFT, Kathy Fish + Robert Vaughan, Unknown Press, 2015, 211 pp
Have you ever signed up for a book subscription? It is like the old Book of the Month Club but in modern form. You enroll and agree to pay for and receive a book each month. There are many of these, some from small presses, some from outlets like the New York Review of Books. You agree to take what you get. It is like Christmas or your birthday once a month.
As I have mentioned before, I have been enrolled in the Nervous Breakdown Book Club since 2015. I haven't loved every book I've received but I have been introduced to many gems I might otherwise not have found on my own or might have passed over. Sometimes I get a brand new hardcover by an author I love for only $9.99, the monthly fee.

However, like other books I buy, I don't always get around to reading them. In fact, out of the 43 books I've received over the years, I have 21 sitting on a special shelf waiting to be read. I feel guilty.

RIFT was the December, 2015 selection and the remaining unread 2015 book. In a rather OCD moment, I opened it to read. As you may also remember, I am not a fan of short stories. RIFT is a collection of stories by two different authors. Not only are these stories short, they are super short and fall into a sub-genre of short stories known as 'flash fiction." Some are only a page long, none are more than six pages. 

OK, I thought, I'll read a couple a day. How long can that take? Over the weeks a wondrous phenomenon occurred.

My problem with short stories is they are too short. I like to settle in to a story and stay for a while. I think nothing of reading novels that are 800 to 1000 pages long. As I read these well-crafted though sometimes quirky pieces, I was impressed by how well most of them created in my mind a complete picture of character, place, and even of time having passed.

I have been terribly blocked on my own writing project for a few years. I lost my momentum and have not been able to get it going again. The best I have been able to do is once in a while write a short scene or collection of memories about an incident.

Reading these flashes of writing by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan, I realized that I have been doing something similar with my project. I checked on the chapter I'd been struggling over for so long and saw that almost all the pieces are there. I have not been writing flash fiction but I have been writing flash autobiography!

I am now well into putting that chapter together. Some of the bits I wrote are in the wrong place and will go into other chapters, but the writing that I thought was just me being lame, or worse, lazy was in fact the way I dealt with my writer's block.

If you are still reading (I thank you and apologize for going on so long) you may be a writer yourself. You may have had a similar problem. I exhort you now to just keep reading books and keep jotting down something at least now and then. You too can break through.

Most of all, I thank Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan and Bud Smith (the publisher of Unknown Press) and Brad Listi, who runs the Nervous Breakdown Book Club, and whatever goddess watches over me, for bringing me just what I needed.

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

Monday, July 30, 2018


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Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate, Ballantine Books, 2017, 334 pp
This novel was the July pick for my reading group The Bookie Babes. Aside from a few details I liked it much more than the other reading group book this month, Little Fires Everywhere. It is one of those books spanning two time periods, one in the 1950s and the other in contemporary times. Orphans, adoption and family secrets make up the themes. If those two little blonde girls on the cover don't get to you, they will by the end.

Whenever children become orphans and then get adopted, you have stories about birth parents, adoptive parents, and the kids floundering in between. Often there are secrets and in Before We Were Yours, you have a villain: Georgia Tann. She was a historical personage who kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families for over two decades from her Memphis-based adoption organization.

Through numerous twists and turns, perhaps a few too many, everyone in the story finally learns who they were and how they became who they are. That is a happier story than most.

My favorite character was Rill, one of the adoptees. She is the type whose loyalty, bravery and daring saves the day but who can never be sure until the day is saved.

We had a deeply satisfying discussion, especially in these times of separated families and displaced children roaming the world looking for each other. It is enough to break our hearts on a daily basis and therefore good to have a story where people finally find each other.

(Before We Were Yours is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, July 28, 2018


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Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng, Penguin Press, 2017, 336 pp
Summary from Goodreads:  Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When the Richardsons' friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia's.
Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.

My Review:
I read this for my One Book At A Time reading group. I had mixed reactions. According to Goodreads I am in the minority there. 

I simply do not care enough to write about the plot. I give you the Goodreads summary. I do grant Celeste Ng admiration for her storytelling chops. I could not put the book down and read it in two days.

Yet, I felt uneasy as I read, appropriately for the characters, but also for myself because it seemed she might have pulled some cheap tricks bordering on being manipulative with my emotions.

After our book club discussion the other night, where I was again in the minority, I decided to let the uneasiness go. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an author providing sustained entertainment for readers and the results are in on this one. It did. I concede.  

(Little Fires Everywhere is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Friday, July 27, 2018


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The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner, Scribner, 2018, 336 pp
Rachel Kushner's third novel is a prison story, a woman's story, and a look at mass incarceration through those stories. 
We first meet Romy Hall on a bus from a Los Angeles county jail to Stanville Women's Correctional Facility in California's Central Valley. We also meet the characters who will feature in her time in prison. Before long we learn that she has been convicted of murder and sentenced to two life sentences plus six years. No chance of parole for 37 years at which point, if parole is not granted, she will begin her second life sentence. Romy is 29 years old and the mother of one son.

Romy tells her own story throughout the novel. This is just one stroke of Cushner's genius. By the time she is telling it, Romy no longer has a voice anywhere in society. The story is one of limited opportunity due to her family life, lots of wild promiscuous behavior from 6th grade on in San Francisco, a consuming aversion to any regular jobs available to her, and a street wise brilliance on how to get by.

During the years Romy worked in a strip club, the Mars Room, giving lap dances and making good money, she picked up an admirer who became her stalker. He even followed her to Los Angeles when she moved there and continued to stalk her until, in self defense, Romy hit him with a metal rod. He died. She got a clueless and useless public defender. You know the rest.

Another stroke of genius in Cushner's writing is the way she explicates crime through all of her characters. A couple years ago I read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. I could tell that Rachel has read it too. It's not that we don't know that our criminal justice system is dysfunctional, that too many innocent people go to prison, that mass incarceration only removes the unwanted from society and from view with no attempt at rehabilitation. It's that it is too complex a societal epic fail for most of us to comprehend.

As one of the books' characters puts it: "There were stark acts of (evil): beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools."

The Mars Room is in no way a pleasant novel. It is about as far from a beach read as you can get. It is a great novel, as all of Cushner's novels are, because she is gifted with the ability to absorb the ills of a social system, melt them down in her writing crucible, and transform them into the truest of stories about how those ills play out in the lives of individuals, particularly females.

(The Mars Room is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2018


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Way Station, Clifford D Simak, Doubleday & Company, 1963, 182 pp
I think this especially hot summer has affected my brain. I have turned into a fan of short novels. Way Station was just right for a hot day and evening. It was barely past the page count for a novella and while it posed several intriguing ideas it moved right along.
Clifford D Simak made his living as a journalist for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, but he loved science fiction and wrote it on the side. He began publishing stories in the sci fi zines in 1931. After Way Station was serialized in a magazine in 1963, it was published in book form and won for Simak his first Hugo Award in 1964.

Enoch Wallace fought in and survived the Civil War, then returned to the family farm in Wisconsin. When the story opens he is still there and is 124 years old. Because shortly after the war he was visited by an alien from space and offered the job of keeper of a way station, an interstellar transfer stop for sapient species traveling the starways.

Enoch accepted, his parents having died and left their only child the farm. His house was fitted up by aliens and as long as he stayed inside he did not age. He met all manner of beings who left him gifts and reading material. He came to believe that these alien creatures existed on a higher plane than mankind. Being afraid for the way the world was heading for another war, he developed a purpose to somehow bring Earth into the interstellar community and thus prevent his home planet from destroying mankind.

When a US government agent comes snooping around, the Way Station is in danger of being compromised. It is a fabulous tale full of unexpected developments and strange creatures. The mid-20th century trope of aliens keeping watch on mankind, waiting for humans to reach a higher consciousness is in full form here. And why not, with nuclear annihilation being the worst fear in those times.

In fact, a friend of mine who is a UFO researcher still believes that! I need to ask him if he ever read Way Station.
This book completes my reading of the award winning books on the 1964 list of My Big Fat Reading Project:
Pulitzer Prize: no award was given that year due to the prize's advisory board finding not one novel worthy of the prize.
Newbery Award: It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville
Caldecott Medal Award: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
National Book Award: The Centaur by John Updike
Edgar Award: The Light of Day by Eric Ambler
(Way Station is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, July 22, 2018


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All the President's Men, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, 1974, 336 pp
You might ask why I read this book now. After I finished it I asked myself why everyone isn't reading it these days. I had watched the movie, Mark Felt (about the FBI special agent who was known by Bob Woodward only as Deep Throat during the Watergate investigation.) That led me to watch the movie by the same title made from the book All the President's Men. The movie was good but I felt there might be more to know, so I read the book.
In 1970 I had my first son followed by another in 1973. We were hippies and we hated Nixon because of our protest against the Vietnam War and because of the Kent State shootings. For some reason, I paid no attention to the Watergate scandal. I blame that on being sleep deprived and living in what my sisters and I call "the baby zone." In fact until I saw Mark Felt I was still hazy on what Watergate was all about.

Both movies made me aware that we are in a similar situation now, in my opinion, with an unstable President who attacks the press and is under investigation for illegal activities regarding his election to the office.

Though both movies were excellent, the book is indeed better and more informative. It gives the entire blow-by-blow account of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward's and Carl Bernstein's investigative reporting on Watergate and how that contributed to Nixon's resignation. It is a thrilling though terrible account of criminal behavior and cover ups instigated by President of the United States Richard Nixon and carried out by the men closest to him. It was the #2 non fiction bestseller in 1974.

Though Watergate seems almost tame in comparison to today, the story shows the importance of a free press when the American public needs to push back against branches of our federal government, the FBI, and the federal justice system.

Exciting, sobering and so timely. I am so glad I read it. It gave me hope and restored the shaky state of my confidence in our democracy.

(All the President's Men is available in the 40th anniversary paperback edition by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, July 21, 2018


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The Centaur, John Updike, Alfred A Knopf, 1963, 299 pp
I thought I was done with Greece for a while but it turned out, not exactly. The Centaur is John Updike's third novel, it won the National Book Award in 1964, and is a loose retelling of the Greek myth of Chiron, noblest of all Centaurs.
George Caldwell is Chiron. It is 1947 and George is unhappily though gratefully employed as a high school teacher in the small Pennsylvania town where some of Updike's novels are set. The story takes place over a few winter days in the life of George, his wife and his son.

In the myth, Chiron was wounded by a poison arrow. The wound never healed, the pain never lessened. As a Centaur he was immortal but, longing for death, he traded his immortality as atonement for Prometheus, who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to mankind. Prometheus plays a large part in Circe, the novel I read a few weeks ago.

This novel probably follows the myth more closely than I was willing to work for. I was content to enjoy Updike's tale while I noted that sometimes George appeared as a Centaur but most times as a man. He consistently appeared as an emotionally wounded man.
The chapters alternate between George and the first person voice of his teenage son. That son has dreams of being a painter, is frustrated beyond endurance by his father, and yet tries to understand him. 

I love John Updike's writing. Whether in description, dialogue or action, every word contributes to creating his tale. Therefore, even though the connection to the myth was tenuous for me, I was thoroughly absorbed in this novel about a husband and father who knew he was flawed but gave all he had to his family.

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

Wednesday, July 18, 2018


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Prince of Fire, Daniel Silva, G P Putnam's Sons, 2005, 364 pp
This is the fifth volume in Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series. I am reading them in order and was pleased to find Prince of Fire to be the best and strongest one yet.
Gabriel Allon is an Israeli and a part-time assassin for Israeli intelligence, known as The Office. His cover and other passion is as an art restorer. In the earlier volumes the reader learns of his past and how he came to be a spy for Israel, how his son was killed in a reprisal by Palestinian terrorists that put his wife in an institution. Gabriel Allon carries enough loss and sorrow to break a man.

Prince of Fire opens with a massive explosion in Rome. Investigations by The Office reveal that Allon's cover has been blown and he is pulled back to Israel and put into full time service.

An intricate plot and a fuller history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict make this a completely absorbing read. As always, I feared for Gabriel's life. It is only knowing that there are 13 more books in the series that kept me confident he would somehow come out alive. In fact #18, The Other Woman, was published just the other day. 

Despite everything, something good finally happens in the personal life of this fearless and competent assassin. I experienced a deeper understanding of the conflicts in Israel than I had before. I think these books give a more balanced picture than do the news reports. They explain from both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides the complexities that make it seem so insoluble. 

I have lately been slowly making my way through the fourth volume of Will Durant's Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith. I was reading the section on Islam, 569-1258 AD during the time I read Prince of Fire. The conflicts between Islam and Judaism go back much father than most people realize today.

It is undoubtedly too much to ask that current world leaders should study this history but it would surely help if they did.

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

Monday, July 16, 2018


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Everything In This Country Must, Colum McCann, Picador, 2000, 143 pp

A few weeks ago my husband and I went to dinner at the home of one of his clients. Among the six of us present were several readers, so we had good book talk. The client's husband lent me this collection of a novella and two stories by Colum McCann. How great is it to have put in your hand a book you have not read yet by an author you love?

The first Colum McCann novel I read was Dancer. It blew me away. He is Irish and has the story telling gift. He can take any world event and distill it down to the personal by creating characters who live and breathe on the page.

This collection is his fourth published book. I had never read his early work. The title story is about a young girl who must witness the saving of their only horse from drowning. It is set during the Troubles and brings into stark relief the complete antipathy between a Catholic Northern Ireland man and a unit of British Troops.

The second story, "Wood," shows a mother and daughter taking care of the family lumber mill while the father lies incapacitated at home. I didn't quite get the point of that one except there were secrets.

The novella, Hunger Strike, was one of the most powerful pieces of fiction I have read. Again the Troubles. A 13 year old boy and his mother seem to be hiding out in a small coastal town. The boy's uncle, his missing father's brother, is in jail and participating in the 1981 Irish hunger strike.

Through the eyes of this boy, as he tries to figure out what is going on, McCann creates the effects of this non-violent political act on relatives and everyday people. He does not go into the politics much but the emotions, the fears and the hopes of the Irish took residence in my heart and mind.

I feel like I have been waiting a long time for a new novel by Colum McCann. I found an interview from January, 2018, where he states he is working on a novel. Now I see that there are at least three early novels I have not read. Good!

Saturday, July 14, 2018


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Don't Skip Out On Me, Willy Vlautin, Harper Perennial, 2018, 269 pp
This is such a sad story but it is so good. I might never have discovered Willy Vlautin but his latest novel was the February selection of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club, to which I have a subscription. Don't Skip Out On Me came in the mail.
Then Brad Listi had Willy on his Other People podcast and I got a crush on the guy just listening to him talk. He is a down-to-earth blue collar family man who writes novels, writes songs, and plays in a band.

Horace Hopper is a half-blood Paiute Native American. His mother dropped him off at his racist, Paiute-hating grandmother's when he was just a little kid and never came back for him. As a teen, he became a ranch hand for an old Nevada sheep raising couple, who made sure he finished high school and treated him like a son.

Enough damage had been done though so Horace never felt he was good enough to deserve the love and care he got from Mr and Mrs Reese. He thought he needed to be somebody first. At 21 he takes off to become a boxer. Hating the Paiute part of himself he endeavors to pass as Mexican.

Once Horace goes out on his own the story gets more sad than ever. He knows how to work hard and he gets a job and a trainer. His worst trouble is loneliness but he also gets taken advantage of by his trainer. He is good at taking abuse but the beatings he takes as a boxer on the way up are gruesome. Personally, I hate boxing.

Willy Vlautin writes in a spare, stripped-down style. I never did figure out how he made me feel so much emotion about every single character. I totally loved Horace and Mr and Mrs Reese. I think I love the book because of its perfect balance of love and sorrow.

Why should anyone read this super sad story? Well, anyone who does not like such stories should NOT read Don't Skip Out On Me. Anyone else will be amazed by how much it gets to you.

Here is what Willy has to say on the question, from an interview:
"Sometimes reading about loneliness can make you feel less lonely. And perhaps you could try to be good like Horace and learn to do the right thing. I take inspiration from him and his patience. Maybe after you read the book, you'll feel a little bit less alone."

(Don't Skip Out On Me is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, July 13, 2018


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My Heart Hemmed In, Marie NDiaye, Two Lines Press, 2017, 279 pp (orig pub in France by Editions Gallimard, 2007; translated by Jordan Stamp)
Readers who follow my reviews know that I don't mind wandering lost for a while in a novel. This is the third novel I've read by French author Marie NDiaye. She never fails to challenge me while drawing me in to her world of people who are themselves challenged by race, origin or social status in a European setting where they don't fit.
Nadia and Ange are dedicated school teachers who have risen from humble beginnings to a tenuous French middle-class life in Bordeaux. They are childless and consider themselves better than their fellow teachers. A growing awareness that they are despised in their community culminates in a physical attack on Ange.

While Ange refuses any medical care, malingering near death in his bed, Nadia fights for her identity. She roams the city, trying to understand how they have fallen so short of what they desired.

Through allegorical haunting and psychological suffering, Nadia revisits her first husband, the estranged son of that marriage, and finally the parents she rejected long ago. Eventually she gains clarity.

One of the things I recognize in NDiaye's novels is that the lives of lower-class immigrants in France are only a parallel of the immigrant experience in America. Often these are people who come from countries once colonized by the French. Like any immigrant they come to France seeking a better life but must suffer from a loss of family and traditions, amounting to a loss of identity. 

Her writing is powerful, rich and disturbing. She paints the confusion and displacement of her characters in the tones of nightmare with echos of their origins. Whenever I read her, I am made aware of the suffering we all experience as human beings trying to achieve connection in a world where differences are often stronger than similarities.

Marie NDiaye is the daughter of a French mother and a Senegalese father, raised near Paris. She published her first novel at seventeen. She won the Prix Goncourt in 2009 for her third novel, Three Strong Women, which I have read. That novel landed her on the Man Booker International Prize 2016 finalists list. Her 2013 novel, Ladivine has also been translated into English and is perhaps my favorite of the three I have read.

(My Heart Hemmed In is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


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Blackout, Connie Willis, Ballantine Books, 2010, 491 pp
This was the June selection for my self-created challenge to read 12 books from 12 past years of my TBR lists. I have always wanted to read Connie Willis because she has won so many awards (seven Nebulas and eleven Hugos) and gets great reviews. But I have been tricked!
Blackout is the first of two books that comprise one story. The second book is All Clear. Both came out in 2010 and won the Nebula and the Hugo jointly in 2011. Blackout is long, in fact it felt longer than 491 pages, and it just ends with the story only half told. Since both books won together, I wonder what possessed the publisher to not bring it out as one long book.

Anyway, I liked Blackout. If you think you have read enough WWII novels (and you probably have!) I recommend adding these two books to your lists. It is a new look at the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Connie Willis does this by using time travel.
In a large nutshell, there exists in 2060 Oxford an enormous time travel endeavor to study what makes a hero. Historians are being sent back in time to various major past conflagrations. The four main characters are sent to Britain in 1940. Time travel had been working fairly smoothly and suddenly has gotten chaotic with frequent changes of assignments.
Worst of all the characters in Britain find that their contact points, called "drops," from where they can come and go between 1940 and 2060 don't seem to be working properly. They are stuck in World War II.
Such a cleverly constructed story. My nutshell is not big enough to explain how but discovering that is at least half the fun of reading the book. To complicate situations further, each character finds herself or himself becoming invested in the circumstances of the times and torn between their duties as historians and their wishes to be of use. They dare not do anything that might change the future but what if they have?
The set up and plot require continuous and repetitive missed connections. My only complaint is this became as tiresome for me, the reader, as it must have been for the characters. By the end of this volume I felt exhausted, my nerves were frayed, and so it was for the time traveling historians. It was the ultimate missed connection to learn I was only halfway through the story.

I concluded that Connie Willis had accomplished a feat. This is the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as experienced by the citizens: the workers, shop girls, parents and children; those who went to the shelters every night not knowing whether or not their homes would be intact the next morning. Still they continued to ride the subways and buses and go to work during the day. An amazing population of practical sturdy people brought to life in a book.

The author must have done prodigious research. It is as if you are there and have traveled through time yourself. At the same time, you care desperately about the historians.

Now I am hooked and must find the time to read All Clear soon before I forget the details. The title suggests that it all comes out right in the end.

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

Saturday, July 07, 2018


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It's Like This, Cat, Emily Neville, Harper Collins, 1963, 180 pp

As part of My Big Fat Reading Project, after I have finished reading the top 10 bestsellers of a given year, I go through the award winners. As of 1964 there were only six major awards given in the United States. These days there are scores of them.

It's Like This, Cat won the Newbery Award in 1964, given for the best writing for readers aged 8 to 12. Up until 1963 this award favored historical fiction and some rather dull "improving" type stories. 1963 was a breakout year for the Newbery when Madeleine L'Engle received the award for A Wrinkle in Time.

It's Like This, Cat showed promise that the Newbery's hidebound nature had truly changed, though the main character is a bit older than usual. David Mitchell is 14 and the story is set in contemporary times in New York City.
David has a frail mother who suffers from asthma. His father is a somewhat overbearing stuffed shirt. Son and father argue often, setting off the mother's asthma attacks. 

I don't know if the city was safer in the mid-1960s than it is today (probably not) but David roams freely with his friends. He gets around by subway, bus, bicycle and his own two feet. These kids think nothing of walking blocks and miles through the city.

Despite David's difficulties with his dad and kids his age, he has an adult friend. Kate is a crazy cat lady who lives alone and rescues cats. She gives one of these to him, a tomcat who becomes his main companion during the course of the story. What a fine cat he is too!

By the end, David has a best friend, a girlfriend, and a better understanding of his father. The story is reminiscent of Beverly Cleary and full of good writing. The author went on to write four more children's books while raising five kids in New York City.

(It's Like This, Cat is available in paperback and is usually in stock at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, July 05, 2018


A few of you who follow the blog have expressed interest in a summary of the Bestseller List of 1964. I completed reading the 10 top bestsellers about a week ago, so here are my thoughts.

The List:

When I started My Big Fat Reading Project in 2002 I was on my way out of a cult where we were discouraged from reading the news and watching TV. (Please don’t ask me questions about this. I am writing my story and one day it will be public.) In any case, I was starved for pop culture and had little to no idea of what had been going on in the world for the past 10 years. I had always been someone who learned from books but at the time I wasn’t looking very far into the world except for my own country. I figured that the American fiction bestsellers would be a way to catch up. That is why I began to read these lists.

Since I also planned to write a story about how I ended up where I did, I decided to go back to my beginnings. Then I went back even further to the year when my parents met: 1940. It wasn’t a bad plan because World War II was a turning point in modern life. One way or another, we are all children of that conflict. Along the way I added other books to my reading lists. I read 22 books from 1940. For 1963 I read about 50. Like an atomic explosion my lists have mushroomed and I have branched out to reading books from other countries as well as history.

The idea though has not changed. I don’t know if it is still valid at this point in the 21st century but I have found it possible to get a sense of the 20th century from reading books.

The big topic in the 1964 list is the Cold War. It underlies or influences the stories in seven of the books: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Armageddon, The Man, You Only Live Twice, The Martyred, Convention, and even This Rough Magic. This topic came up in just three novels from the 1962 list, two in 1963.

The next most common topic, though it overlaps with some of those mentioned in the above paragraph, are three books focused on American politics: Armageddon, The Man and Convention.

In earlier years books about the two World Wars often dominated the lists. In 1964 only Armageddon, about the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War, and The Martyred, about the Korean War, made the list. I consider the Korean War a direct outcome of WWII. Now instead of looking back at war, we are looking ahead to a possible final war.

Also in earlier years, religion and particularly Christian stories sold well. 1964 saw only two: The Rector of Justin and The Martyred.

Spycraft is probably an up and coming bestselling subject in the ensuing decades. The few spy books in earlier lists were some of Graham Greene’s novels. This list has two: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and You Only Live Twice.

The opening events of the sexual revolution can be found in the lists going back several years but 1964 wasn’t that sexy. Of course it is hard to have fiction without sex but as far as changing mores go all we got was Candy and Herzog.

Another popular subject in the 1950s and early 1960s was class conflict. I see that falling away and in fact only The Rector of Justin took it on in 1964.

Personal growth began being an American concern in the postwar years. It showed up in this list in Herzog and The Rector of Justin. Racism had a slow year with The Man standing alone in spotlighting it. Romance, another former big seller, has taken a back seat, found only in Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic where it combines with the one mystery book. Historical fiction is nowhere to be found on the list.

I have found it true in both in the 1940s and 1950s that a shift takes place about mid-decade and the phenomenon has occurred again demonstrating how the Cold War was so thoroughly on the minds of Americans that it sold books!

Now you have read my thoughts. Do you have anything to add or even challenge? I would be happy to hear from you.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018


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The Alice Network, Kate Quinn, William Morrow, 2017, 494 pp
Summary from Goodreads: In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption. 1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She's also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie's parents banish her to Europe to have her "little problem" taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.
1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she's recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she's trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the "Queen of Spies", who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy's nose.
Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn't heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth...no matter where it leads.

My Review:
This was a reading group pick. I had my doubts but it turned out to be an absorbing, exciting pageturner. Based on a real British spy network composed of women during WWI, it tells the complete stories of three of those women. Eve Gardiner, one of them, is an invented character while the other two were real.

My goodness, the courage those women had! I have read about John le Carre's spies becoming disillusioned and being thrown under the bus, but Eve Gardiner's experience was at least 100xs worse. So many scenes of the ways these women were made less of because they were female. It gets your rage up. Charlie St Clair, the post WWII character, is also strong, though all the things she did in early pregnancy made me fear for her. She breaks most cliches.

I had to return the book to the library before I had a chance to write my review. So I cheated and used the Goodreads summary. The story includes a couple romances and Kate Quinn did a pretty good job with that part, though she does fall into what I call "romance writing." Nothing worse than what Mary Stewart used to do, in fact better. The rest of the book though is strong historical writing as well as being a thriller.  

Despite all the horrors of war, there is a happy ending. We had a long and full discussion at reading group. The one man in the group had big realizations about what women have to put up with. The rest of us, including his wife, just nodded and smiled knowingly. Truly this is a book probably many men would like while also having their own realizations. 

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

Monday, July 02, 2018


A slight reading group schedule this month. I am down to 4 reading groups in my life these days. Two of them meet approximately every other month, so the average is 3 a month. I am good with that.

Report on last month's books: Audacity by Melanie Crowder was enjoyed by all. We talked about Judaism. Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton was a complete hit. One of our members has visited Cuba three times and told stories about that. We decided the romance was OK because Cubans are a romantic people. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn was a winner for Tina's Group. I will talk more about that when I post my review. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith brought mixed reactions. Everyone liked the Sara de Vos story but liked less the modern woman's story and something in the way the author went back and forth in time broke up the story too much for a few readers.

This month:
One Book At A Time:
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Bookie Babes:
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I am reserving judgement on both books until I read them One is about orphans. I usually like orphan stories. Have you read either of them?
I now have a couple followers who I know are in reading groups. What will you be discussing this month? Do you have any recommendations for my groups? 

Sunday, July 01, 2018


June was hot, cool and in between with foggy mornings (known in So Cal as the June Gloom) and sunny days. I have a big yard which had to be kept happy with creative solutions to watering, all the shrubs needed pruning, and I love spending time out there. Father's Day was oddly the 14th year since the day my Dad died, so a somber day. Then came the Solstice along with the bugs. Still, I made my goal of 12 books!

When I set myself the goal of reading 12 books a month all year I knew it would be challenging. Now that I have done so for half the year, I have noticed that I have a rhythm going. To get that much reading done I've had to spend less time on the internet (a good thing I believe) and less time fooling around. I'm not sure but I might not be cleaning the house as much:-) 

In my reading last month I visited NYC, Russia, Washington DC, Kansas, Greece, Chicago, France, London, Nevada and Ireland.

Authors new to me were Melanie Crowder, Kate Quinn, Emily Neville, Connie Willis and Willy Vlutin.

Stats: 12 books read.  12 fiction. 8 written by women. 4 historical. 4 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 Young Adult. 1 Middle Grade. 2 mystery. 1 speculative. 1 translated.

Favorites: Fall Out, Circe, and The Alice Network. 
Least favorite: none!
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Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org
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Have you read any of these? Feel free to post a link to your reviews in the comments.
How did your June reading go? Are you making your reading goals for the year?