Friday, November 30, 2018


The Garrick Year, Margaret Drabble, William Morrow & Company, 1964, 221 pp
Of the last 19 novels I have read, 15 were written by women. I have reveled in being so immersed in the female point of view and somehow thrilled to be assured there are so many ways to be female.
The Garrick Year is Margaret Drabble's second novel. She is British, the sister of A S Byatt, and a frightfully good writer who is perceptively tart with humorous undertones.

Emma, mother of two small children, is married to an actor in the early 1960s. She has a chance for a career in television, not as an actor but more as some kind of show host. David, her husband, is an actor and equally ambitious for a career in the theater and possibly movies.

When an American heiress funds the renovation of the Garrick Theater in a provincial English town, David is called by the prestigious director to act in several plays for a season there. Emma gives in, not gracefully, so they rent out their London home, set off for Hereford with kids and au pair, and the fireworks begin.

For these two strong and restless as well as self-centered persons in their late twenties, life is never dull, except for Emma's dull hours in a hideous house with her kids. She is a house-proud woman. Emma and David contend, they are so much alike in some ways, they make up with humor and heart.

I loved the book for the characters (after all theater people are all characters, on stage and off), for the tension between this couple, for the absolute truthfulness about the confines of parenthood and fidelity. Emma is one of the great young married mothers I have met in literature. I understood her every emotion and action because I went through all that in my early married days.

The novel captures what it was like for women in the mid 60s when feminism was a barely conceived movement but we were all feeling it and finding our way. It was good to remember how much we loved our loving, our children, but also our freedom.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018


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How to (Un)cage a Girl, Francesca Lia Block, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, 120 pp
This book of poetry is by the author of the stupendous Weetzie Bat, my favorite YA novel ever! After I finished the WB Yeats collection in September, I went to my shelves and found only three books of poetry: an already read collection of Edna St Vincent Millay, The Standard Book of British and American Verse published in 1932, and a signed advance reader copy of these poems by Block. That night I opened How to (Un)cage a Girl and resumed my new poem-a-day practice.
There is no doubt that these poems come from the unique sensibility of Francesca Lia Block. Magical, emotional, probably auto-biographical. In three sections she does teenage years, young woman years, and more mature woman years.

The poems express the secret thoughts of women. While they are set in a world of adventurous, sometimes misbehaving females, I think that even the most proper, well-behaved women have these secret thoughts and feelings.

I just ordered Sylvia Plath's Ariel. Female poetry is what I need these days. Are you reading poetry? If yes, what?

Monday, November 26, 2018


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If Morning Ever Comes, Anne Tyler, Alfred A Knopf, 1964, 265 pp
This is Anne Tyler's first novel. The other day I read her latest, Clock Dance. Bookends! Don't be put off by the silly reprint cover shown here. I don't know what they were thinking. 
Only 22 when it was published, she got a rave review by Orville Prescott in the New York Times. Not bad for a young woman's first novel in 1964. I learned that she studied writing with Reynolds Price in college. Maybe he gave her a hand in getting published.

It is quite a Southern story with echoes of Eudora Welty. Ben Joe Hawks is studying law at Columbia, though not because he necessarily wants to be a lawyer. He has a widowed mother and six sisters back in North Carolina and feels responsible for them. 

Suddenly one morning he hops a train and heads home. He feels worried about all those females. When he arrives they are all like, "Oh, hi," but don't see any need to be worried over. 

Of course you can't go home again, especially to the South in mid-twentieth century America. That was also the theme of that disappointing Robert Penn Warren novel Flood I read recently. Tyler's book has plenty of emotion but it is not melodramatic. Her trademark human but offbeat characters are already there.

Apparently she has said she wishes she could disown her early novels. If I could have a chat with her I would say don't. I have a soft spot for first novels. It is like looking at a baby and trying to picture how that individual will grow and become to be.

I had a soft spot for young Ben Joe Hawks. There is something endearing about a lone male in a house full of females. As he tries to knit his past into his present, I felt all those females should have worried about him!

(If Morning Ever Comes is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 23, 2018


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The Golden State, Lydia Kiesling, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2018, 290 pp
Let me start by saying that I adored this novel. I have spent more time thinking about how to review it than I did reading it. (It was compulsively easy to read.) During the days I spent thinking about what I wanted to say, I have gone out to lunch, picked up new glasses, had dinner and plenty of drinks at a music event and listened to the hour long interview with Lydia Kiesling on the Otherppl podcast. Meanwhile the library due date for the book has come and gone. Time, as they say, is up.
Daphne, the mother of 14-month-old Honey, her first child, has been juggling too much for too long. Her Turkish husband has been kept out of the United States by immigration bureaucratic fuckery for months. She has a full time job and a good daycare for Honey but money is tight, her somewhat cool job involves more bureaucracy, and she is lonely for her husband.

One Friday she has a mild meltdown. On the way to work, she turns around, goes back to their apartment, packs up basic necessities, picks up Honey from daycare and splits. Since this happens in San Francisco, CA, USA, Daphne has a car. She also has an inherited mobile home (the nice kind with a yard on a piece of property) in a small high desert town.

During her ten days there, she spends hour after hour with Honey, pretty much obsessing over her current life situation. Such is the writing skill of Lydia Kiesling that she turns these ten days of the minutia of toddler care, the odd encounters smart, liberal Daphne has with the Trump supporters in town, the obsessive pingponging of her mind, into a gripping narrative.

I have not spent hours at a time with small children for many years; over 40 years ago with my own, almost 20 years ago with my grandchildren. I have apparently not forgotten the strange brew of deep love for them and even deeper boredom as the hours pass. I always felt overcome by the love and guilty about the boredom. I have never felt more understood about all of that than I did while reading The Golden State.

Then, all of a sudden (though surely both Daphne and I should have seen it coming) this young woman involves herself so impetuously in an ill-advised situation that I feared for her and Honey for the last 90 pages. I mean real fear, heart-pounding, foreboding fear.

I got to know Lydia Kiesling's writing through a regular feature on The Millions, one of the first highly successful literary blogs. She wrote brilliant, interesting reviews about many of the 100 Modern Library novels. I was drawn to her voice, her perceptions, her style. In fact, she had the most influence on me as a reviewer out of the countless book reviewers I have read. She is now the editor of The Millions and The Golden State is her first novel. From the first page I recognized that voice.

If you are a mom, not the perfect kind but the kind who wants (or wanted) to be as perfect as possible without losing touch with the rest of your life, I recommend this novel. It is like therapy and the writing is as perfect as we all wanted to be.

If you are Lydia Kiesling and you read this review, I hope I did your novel justice without giving away too much but leaving all the other delights therein for other readers to discover on their own.

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2018


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Clock Dance, Anne Tyler, Alfred A Knopf, 2018, 292 pp
This wonderful novel is the latest from Anne Tyler and proves (at least to me) that she has not lost one whit of the qualities that infuse all of her work: deep perception of human beings and of what makes life hard and where joy might be found. This is her 22nd novel in 54 years of publishing. It is the sixth one I have read and I don't intend to stop until I have read them all.
Willa Drake, my goodness, had a long path to finding herself. She had her reasons from childhood. She is one of those women who has every good quality you could hope for in a person except the ability to assert herself. I know in these days of whatever stage of feminism we are in, we like stories of strong women who can do it all and have it all. Maybe that is because there are still too many women like Willa.

The novel is also full of the slightly off characters who people Anne Tyler's stories. Sometimes I think we, especially Americans, like to hang out with fairly mainstream people, though look where that has gotten us.

Willa is on husband number two, when she makes an impulsive decision that opens up her life at the age of 61. Impulsive decisions are not new for her. What is new is that this one brings her what she wants.

Another theme in Anne Tyler's books is that our faults or negative qualities or shortcomings can work in our favor when we least expect it. I always find that an encouraging idea.

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

Monday, November 19, 2018


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Death of a Citizen, Donald Hamilton, Titan Books, 1960, 227 pp
Some months ago I wondered out loud on this blog if there were any novels about the early days of the CIA during the Cold War. Lisa at Captivated Reader went to work for me and found the Matt Helm series. Death of a Citizen is the first in that series.
Matt Helm had worked for the CIA (or its preceding organization) during WWII. He left the service after the war, married a lovely woman and had two kids. He became a writer of popular Westerns and thought he had made a pretty good life for himself.

However, his old boss, now a CIA guy, came looking for him in the guise of Helm's former partner during the war. His assassin nature reared up, as well as his lust for Tina, that former partner. He was back at it. This time he was supposed to save the life of an American nuclear physicist.

Death of a Citizen is a fast-paced thriller with plenty of sex, blood, double-crosses and mysterious persons. Matt has a style all his own preferring knives and pistols. His attitude toward women is definitely mid-20th century and his mental state is naturally conflicted. 

I liked the book well enough to try a couple more in the series. I hadn't thought the CIA carried out missions inside the United States. I thought that was the FBI's territory. Clearly I have more to learn.

Sunday, November 18, 2018


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Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh, Random House, 1964, 300 pp
It was with great anticipation that I opened this middle grade novel from 1964. I have often come across characters in other novels who mention Harriet, as well as writers who extol the book for being influential to them from childhood. In fact, Miriam Toews, author of All My Puny Sorrows, said in an interview that Harriet the Spy was one of her favorite books as a kid.
I was expecting a lot and I got a lot but not what I expected. It is true that Harriet is plucky, always a good personality trait for a middle grade female protagonist. It is also true that she has to learn hard lessons and overcome a sort of bullying. She is not, however, a particularly nice child.

Harriet is impulsive, nosy, noisy, sometimes rude and quite judgmental about the grownups and kids she interacts with. She carries a notebook with her at all times, jotting down her observations about these people. She goes to school and does her homework but considers her real work to be spying. Everyday after school she visits locations on her "route" and notes what is going on. 

Eventually I got used to Harriet, even feeling sympathetic to her approach to life and admired her independence. Being the only child of wealthy parents who had turned her over to a "nurse" whom she calls Ole Golly (a wise sort who encourages Harriet while giving good life advice) it is quite a shock to the girl and the reader when Golly finds a suitor, marries him and moves away.

Harriet's journal and her disturbing behavior after Golly leaves land her in big trouble at school. She overcomes it but the lesson she "learns" is to remain true to herself and use her proclivities more cunningly to turn her situation around.

By the end, I got why so many admire the book. It is a story for rebels, outliers, fiercely independent types, and of course writers. Harriet discovers she is a writer but also that her spying powers her writing. She could grow up to someone like Patricia Highsmith!!

Warning to moms: if you want your daughters to become nice, well-behaved women who fit in comfortably, don't let them read this one.

(Harriet the Spy is available in paperback and hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


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All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews, McSweeney's, 2014, 321 pp
Sometimes a novel has so much heart, is so full of love, humor and good cheer in the face of hard times, that when I finish reading it I feel I have been given a huge gift I didn't even know I needed or wanted. All My Puny Sorrows was such a novel for me.
In fact, words fail me as I try to figure out how to write a review. I have had the book on my shelves for some time. I put it as the October book for my own 2018 challenge to read a book a month from my last 12 years of TBR lists. I am so happy I did.

So I will just say that if you have ever had a gnarly sorrow in your life which seemed to have no solution or for which you could find no solace, you must read All My Puny Sorrows.

Monday, November 12, 2018


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Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck, New Directions, 2017, 283 pp (originally published in Germany by Albrecht Knaus Verlag, 2015; translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.)
This reading group pick was an interesting look at another country's immigration problems. I had heard much praise for Jenny Erpenbeck's fiction and was glad to be introduced.
Set in Berlin, it is a ripped-from-the-headlines topic put into a fictional story. Richard, a retired classics professor, is at loose ends. His wife is no longer living and he feels without a project.

He notices some African refugees on a hunger strike outside the tent city where they have been living. Curious, he makes up a questionnaire and begins to interview individual refugees. Little by little, he becomes involved with several of the men, trying to help them. Naturally that forces him to learn about how his country is handling what has becomes something of a crisis.

Of course, the rulings and proceedings are a Kafkaesque maze of barriers for the refugees. They are not allowed to work without proper papers which are nearly impossible for them to get. Then the news makes these people look like moochers wanting handouts.

As Richard develops relationships with some of these men, the reader learns how much they have lost, how bored they are with nothing to do after being used to hard work in their home countries, and how the wars at home created by outside interference both political and business related have caused them to be forced to flee. It is enough to make your blood boil.

I recently read The Map of Salt and Stars, another angle on this mess. Richard with his classics knowledge does this cool thing of relating current turmoil to ancient history. Go, Went, Gone added even more understanding to realizations I have been having about how history is going.

It seems to me that the history of mankind on this planet is a continuous series of upheavals as peoples vie for resources, territory, and power. Sometimes there are periods of peace in one area or another, other times certain rulers amass enough power to control large areas for long periods of time. Thus advances are made in science, art and philosophy but eventually conflict erupts again, when the less powerful and the oppressed rise up.

It is as if the cultures of the world are contained in a vast Cuisinart. All gets churned, sliced and diced as new groups rise to power. Right now in the world that start button on the Cuisinart is being held down and nobody likes it. Yet the daily lives and stories of us all go on.

I didn't love Go, Went, Gone as much as I did The Map of Salt and Stars but it gave me more to think about. Jenny Erpenbeck is a wonderful writer and I will read her earlier novels.

(Go, Went, Gone is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 09, 2018


I'm From Electric Peak, Bud Smith, Artistically Declined Press, 2016, 130 pp
Basically a novella from an indie press and indie writer Bud Smith, this was the April, 2016 selection from The Nervous Breakdown Book Club. I have been reading one book a month from the club in an effort to at least not fall further behind since I am maintaining my subscription there. The books come once a month and keep piling up on their own special stack on my shelves. 
I'm From Electric Peak is a gritty romp of a read that I would have been sorry to miss. Kody Green is an orphan, a teen who escaped from the Mayweather home for wayward youth. He is in love with Teal Carticelli and plans to talk her parents out of sending her to Italy after they forced her to have an abortion. Kody was the father.

The story is wild, the violence is so over the top that it takes on cartoon proportions, the love between Kody and Teal is epic. Soon they are on the run, stealing cars to keep moving, having bittersweet but harrowing adventures across the country.

One blurb on the back of the book put it in the genre of outlaw love stories and it does have a Bonnie and Clyde essence. I would put it in the genre of young loser dudes of America. I loved every page and read it in a couple hours. It is worth any number of nonfiction books on the "broken heart of America" as another blurb called it.

I don't think I will ever forget Kody and Teal.

Thursday, November 08, 2018


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The Messenger, Daniel Silva, G P Putnam's Sons, 2006, 334 pp
This thriller is #6 in Silva's Gabriel Allon series. I must say that each book so far has been more exciting than the last. 
Gabriel Allon is an art restorer but that is just his cover. He is a spy and also often an assassin for Israeli intelligence. In The Messenger, the evil entity is al-Qaeda. It appears that the organization is planning a more audacious attack on the Vatican that will top what they did at the World Trade Center. 

For the first time in the series, that I can recall, Gabriel teams up with the CIA. I read the book right around the time that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Saudi Arabia. A certain high-powered Saudi businessman features in the story, so even though it is now 12 years since the book was published reading it was like going behind the news of today.

As always, Silva presents his Israeli-centered viewpoint on world events but this time I really felt the series moving towards the present.

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

Tuesday, November 06, 2018


Reading groups are slim for me this month. But first a recap of last month's meetings:
My somewhat dysfunctional One Book At A Time group ended up not meeting in October so we will discuss Sunburn this month. I have already read, loved and reviewed that one, but I have no idea how the members will react to the book.
New Boy got mixed reactions at Tina's Group; every gradation from loved it to hated it and some in between. The one male member thought it was brilliant to set Othello in a middle school. His wife found it boring and it never caught on for her. So of course we had a great discussion.
The Underground Railroad almost destroyed many of the Bookie Babes due to its grim subject matter and one member just could not get with the underground railroad being a real thing in the book. Another great discussion. We all got super involved with the heroine and found her amazing.
The Tiny Book Club found much to ponder from reading Jenny Erpenbeck's Go Went Gone, about African refugees in Berlin. I will be reviewing that one soon.

Now for November I only have one other group meeting:

Bookie Babes:
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Have you read History of Wolves? If you are in one or more reading groups, what are you discussing in November? 

Sunday, November 04, 2018


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Bye Bye Blondie, Virginie Despentes, The Feminist Press, 2016, 245 pp (originally published in France, 2004, by Editions Grasset & Fasquelle; translated from the French by Sian Reynolds.)
I first learned about this contemporary French author in 2015 when I read Apocalypse Baby, a novel she published in France in 2010. Wow! I was an instant fan. Bye Bye Blondie is an earlier novel of hers and was not quite as wild as Apocalypse Baby, which is not to say it was not wild.
We first meet Gloria roaming the streets in the rain after a violent fight with her boyfriend during which she almost killed him. She is in her forties, she is now homeless and suffers from attacks of extreme rage. She finally reaches one of her few remaining friends who agrees to put her up temporarily.

Then comes the back story of her tumultuous and rebellious teen years. She spent some time on a mental ward to which she was committed by her parents. In part, this is a story of the cruelty of mental health treatment and the lasting effects of it on her life. Basically the treatment turned her from a wild young girl into a mentally ill young girl.

While in the asylum she met her soulmate Eric, also the great love of her life. They remained a couple after being released and led the way in their middle class French town for all the disaffected youth: drugs, 90s punk bands, counter culture on high volume. The relationship did not survive.

Now Eric is a successful, rich TV star and when Gloria runs into him at a party, the love between them reignites. He brings her to Paris where she lives with him in a luxury she had never known and basks in his loving care. But her wounds are too deep. It is wrenching to read about her attempts to fit into "normal" society and her periodic descents into the rage she has carried for so long.

Yet I kept hoping for her, that she could find peace of mind and happiness without sacrificing her independence. In some ways this is a romance, but a feminist romance. It seems to be a hopeless story. In other ways it is a testament to the uses of rage and violence when a woman refuses to be quelled, molded and deceived.

Gloria takes the path that Elena Greco restrains herself from taking in My Brilliant Friend. She also reminded me many times of Mathilde in Fates and Furies, and of many other heroines I have loved in fiction. Despentes writes with even more power than Ferrante or Groff. The brutal details are probably more than some readers can stomach, but when a woman goes full tilt with her demons and determination the results are not pretty. 

Ultimately though, Bye Bye Baby is a testament to love, to a woman finally admitting to herself that emotional safety can be found and acceptance of love does not have to equal captivity. Quite a triumph of great writing and great perception.

(Bye Bye Blondie is available in the paperback English translation by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, November 01, 2018


Even though I took a four day vacation during which I read a total of 86 pages, I still managed to read 12 books. As usual it was a good mix but I fell down on reading for My Big Fat Reading Project. I did read three translated books.

Stats: Fiction: 11. Big Fat Reading Project: 1. Written by women: 8. Mystery: 1. Drama: 1. Translated: 3. Thriller: 1.

Authors new to me: Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, Laura Lippman, Bud Smith, Jenny Erpenbeck, Miriam Toews.

Countries I visited: United States, Syria, France, Israel, Germany, Canada.

Favorites: The Map of Salt and Stars, Sunburn, Bye Bye Blondie, All My Puny Sorrows.
Least favorite: Flood.

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How was your reading in October? Which were your favorite books? Have you read any of the ones I read?