Sunday, March 31, 2019


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Milkman, Anna Burns, Graywolf Press, 2018, 352 pp
I am so glad this wonderful novel won the Booker Prize and that my new reading group picked it; otherwise I might not have read it.
I fell under the thrall of the narrative voice. I have read so many Irish novels, so much about "The Troubles," but at last I get what it was like to live through them. Anna Burns so captured the inexplicable confusion, the constant worry, the unending violence, the elements of the conflict, by weaving it all into the coming of age of her main character, "middle sister." 

I am still recovering from the worst sickness I have had in years so it is hard to write anything coherent. I will probably read this next week and cringe. I wanted to put the word out about the book though.

I will instead send you to two of the best reviews I have read from blogger friends:
My Welsh blogger friend Karen:
My Texas blogger friend Dorothy:
Have you read this one yet? If not, are you going to now? You will not be sorry!

Thursday, March 28, 2019


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The Ravishing of Lol Stein, Marguerite Duras, Grove Press, 1966, 181 pp (originally published in France by Editions Gallimard, 1964; translated from the French by Richard Seaver)
I have long wanted to read Marguerite Duras. Now I have and it was difficult but I will read more. Something about her way of looking at and writing about how love, desire, and passion can send a female mind into utter breakdown is intriguing; both the fact of the breakdown and the description of it.
Lol Stein at 19 years old was jilted by her fiance for another woman during summer vacation. It happened at a ball, the biggest one of the season, just a couple months before the wedding date. She fell into a deep mental illness assumed by her family to be caused by the incident. Some years later Lol married another man, moved with him to a different town, had two children and appeared to be the perfect mother and wife, keeping a perfect home.

For some reason, they moved back to her childhood home and she began to recreate her tragedy by spying on her old best friend Tatiana from that summer when they were 19. She stalks Tatiana and one of her lovers in the guise of a voyeur but proceeds to draw that lover's attention to herself. At least that is what I managed to figure out with some help from an analysis of the novel I found on-line.

Reading this book was not unlike reading Clarice Lispector, it was similar to some novels I have read by William Faulkner in writing style, even reminded me a bit of Patricia Highsmith. I don't, I can't recommend this type of writing to anyone particularly. One does not read such writing necessarily for enjoyment.

I am writing this review on the eighth day of having a horrible bout of the flu. I was not sick when I read Lol Stein but while I have been sick I have felt something like she seemed to feel in the story. Divorced from my usual fairly competent self, unable to carry out the demands of daily life, but knowing that the "real me" is still there or will be back when I am better. 

Marguerite Duras was born of French parents in Indochina (now Vietnam) in 1914. She was one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century in France, wrote 22 novels, as well as stories, plays and screenplays, essays and memoir during her 82 years of life.

If it is true that we read to know we are not alone (it is true for me), then Duras has proved herself to me as someone who can put into words how it is when a woman feels alone, can gather her in and say she is not. It is possible to carry what are socially unacceptable thoughts, emotions, and desires while still living the charade we call life. That fine line.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019


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The Parking Lot Attendant, Nafkote Tamirat, Henry Holt and Company, 2018, 174 pp
I read this debut novel about Ethiopian immigrants living in Boston because it was a contender for the 2019 Tournament of Books. I am feeling pretty mighty because this year I managed to read 14 of the 18 books selected for the Tournament, with two more I intend to read over the next month or so.
The story is gloriously off-kilter. If you live in any large city, you probably use downtown parking lots. In Los Angeles these are sometimes in permanent locations and other times are pop-up affairs on evenings and weekends. You turn your keys over to some guy who is clearly not white mainstream American. You hope you get your car back without dents. You don't leave valuables in your car and you are careful not to lose your ticket. Usually you pay a pretty good price for not having to drive around looking for a place to park.

But have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes? Wonder no more. The Parking Lot Attendant has two main characters. Ayale, who runs the lot, and the narrator, an unnamed 15 year old girl. All the characters are Ethiopian but you only get to know Ayale, the narrator, and her father. 

Ayale is a character right out of an Iris Murdoch novel: charismatic, controlling, hidden agenda. The girl, having an absent mother and a mostly silent father, falls under Ayale's spell. She is in it for the attention she gets from him but does not know enough about the world to understand how she is being manipulated. Ayale turns out to be a schemer, amassing a following and the funds to take back political power in Ethiopia; at least that is his plan.

This novel is a mostly successful mashup of unreliable narrator, coming-of-age, loss of innocence, African politics and the alienation of the immigrant. Pretty good stuff, experimental in an accessible way while it plays on the reader's heart. 

By the end I was singing a Beatles song in my head:
"You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to save the world"
Revolution, 1968

Saturday, March 23, 2019


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The Years, Annie Ernaux, Seven Stories Press, 2017, 231 pp (originally published by Editions Gallimard, Paris, France, 2008; translated from the French by Allison L Strayer.)
I read this because it is a memoir. I read memoirs and autobiographies as aids to the book I am writing, either a memoir or an autobiography depending on which day you ask. When I first heard about The Years, I learned that this acclaimed French writer covers her life against a background of social and political French life, comparing and relating her passages to those events. I am attempting a similar feat.

Unlike myself, Annie Ernaux is exemplary in her brevity. She manages to compress 1941 to 2006 into just a bit over 200 pages. Reading the book was like watching a newsreel, barreling through her upbringing, her schooling and her adult life, complete with the major news, the literature, music, movies and changing styles and mores.

At times she is remembering her world by looking outside herself, other times by recalling her emotions and observations. Since I have never lived in France, many of the cultural bits were outside my experience. That problem was eased by the fact that we have both been through these changes simply by living in the world during almost the same decades.

She often mentions Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, and other French authors I have read, making me feel more at home. I have read from those authors about the German occupation during WWII, the resistance, the Algerian War, the involvement of French intellectuals and youth with socialism and communism. New to me though was what has happened in France from the 1970s on.

The book was a great boost to my own writing project. Unless other readers are interested in mid 20th century French life, it might be less interesting. If you have visited France over the years though, it is an inside look into changes you may have noticed.

Just as I was reading it, The Years was included on the long list for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, another bonus for book nerds.

Thursday, March 21, 2019


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Lake City, Thomas Kohnstamm, Counterpoint, 2019, 304 pp
So, we've had Occupy Wall Street, the election of Trump, Hillbilly Elegy, etc. Now we are starting to get the novels about economic inequality, its causes and outcomes. Last year was Jonathan Evison's excellent Lawn Boy (just out in paperback) as an example.
Thomas Kohnstamm is a buddy of Jonathan Evison's. His debut novel, Lake City, is set in Evison's stomping grounds of the Northwest and its anti-hero Lane is another loser white guy who is doing his best to rise out of his impoverished Lake City neighborhood in northeast Seattle.

Lane has plenty of ambition. He has learned how to game the system. By the edge of his fingernails he has scrabbled his way into a college education, even a PhD program at Columbia in New York City

He also has goals: to get into a secure position in a well funded NGO and help the world, giving more opportunities to people like himself. However, his rich wife, currently funding his graduate studies, seems to have left him. Now he is back home, sleeping in his mother's garage and trying to hold things together.

The novel is one of those sad but funny, heartbreaking but savvy stories about social divides. I would say the author nails it pretty well. At times, it felt like he couldn't decide whether he was writing a literary novel or a gritty send up, a redemption story or a slap stick satire.

By the end I concluded he had done all of the above, resulting in some uncomfortable moments for the reader. Still I was impressed by the urgency of his plotting and found Lake City hard to put down.

The novel was the January 2019 selection of The Nervous Breakdown subscription book club. Thomas Kohnstamm's interview on the Otherppl podcast includes hair raising stories of his days as a travel writer and his years spent writing his first novel.

Monday, March 18, 2019


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The Witch Elm, Tana French, Viking, 2018, 509 pp
Just knowing that Tana French has a new novel puts me in an anticipatory state. I got on the waiting list at the library right away though it still took months to get a copy. Apparently I am not alone.
I had heard that The Witch Elm was not a Dublin Murder Squad sequel but a stand alone. It was more than worth the wait.

I have no intention of giving away any plot points. The novel takes its time, it messed with my head, it pretty much upended all my expectations of what it would be about and how it would turn out. The psychological tension built until I was beyond impatient to know all the answers to all the questions posed.

With her protagonist Toby, she created an unreliable narrator more confounding than I have ever come across before. Most of the time, he did not even believe himself. I was reminded of Cassie in The Likeness.

This is still a crime novel but the viewpoint is inverted to give the criminal mind prominence instead of the cop's. It is brilliantly done.

Friday, March 15, 2019


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Wintering, A Novel of Sylvia Plath, Kate Moses, St Martin's Press, 2003, 313 pp
After completing Sylvia Plath's final poetry collection, Ariel, in February, I wanted to know more about the woman. I discovered that I had this novel about her on my shelves. When I found a positive recommendation for it by Janet Fitch, it seemed a good place to start.
The novel covers mostly the last year of Plath's life with some backstory about earlier years. I found it to be breathtaking in writing style, almost as if Kate Moses were channeling Plath's poetry style into prose.

She covers many of the incidents in Plath's life that could have been the inspiration for the poems in Ariel. It was rewarding to read about those incidents, then turn to the poems and reread them. The chapter titles were also the poem titles. This was just what I wanted!

The Author's Note at the end of the novel convinced me that Kate Moses had done her Plath studies with diligence, consulting the major biographies as well as her journals. She gives the reader full disclosure on what was fact and what she imagined. 

I also saw the 2003 movie, "Sylvia," starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia and a young Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes. Excellent acting, lovely cinematography but less satisfying than Kate Moses's novel. 

Now on to an actual biography, after a short break. Spending too much time with Lady Lazarus is a bit hard on my own mental health.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


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Generosity, Richard Powers, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2009, 322 pp
Summary from Goodreads: When Chicagoan Russell Stone finds himself teaching a Creative Nonfiction class, he encounters a young Algerian woman with a disturbingly luminous presence. Thassadit Amzwar's blissful exuberance both entrances and puzzles the melancholic Russell. How can this refugee from perpetual terror be so happy? Won't someone so open and alive come to serious harm? Wondering how to protect her, Russell researches her war-torn country and skims through popular happiness manuals. Might her condition be hyperthymia? Hypomania? Russell's amateur inquiries lead him to college counselor Candace Weld, who also falls under Thassa's spell. Dubbed Miss Generosity by her classmates, Thassa's joyful personality comes to the attention of the notorious geneticist and advocate for genomic enhancement, Thomas Kurton, whose research leads him to announce the genotype for happiness.
My Review:
Last year I read and loved The Overstory. This year I plan to read all the rest of Richard Powers's novels in reverse order of publication by reading one a month. This is turning out to be quite an immersion into one author and a way of looking back into the last 30 some years of scientific and social history. 
In Generosity, Powers combines the science of genetics, an examination of how stories are written, and the ways that science and commerce become entangled. His characters serve his ideas and I am coming to see a pattern in these novels.
The main ethical question he addresses is the use of genetic data to rearrange the human mind and body as a means to circumvent disease and mental illness. A big question!
The inexplicable bliss of Algerian refugee Thassadit Amzwar drives the plot. She is a great creation of a character, at risk of exploitation and the destruction of her personality.
Though this novel did not quite reach the wondrous heights of Orfeo or The Overstory, it was a worthwhile look at the potential dangers and the powers of science in relation to society and the media. If you could give your child the guarantee of happiness by genetic manipulation, would you? 

Saturday, March 09, 2019


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Plants Don't Drink Coffee, Unai Elorriga, Archipelago Books, 2009, 200 pp (translated from the Basque by Amaia Gabantxo)

This novella was my February selection for my challenge to read one translated book a month. From the title and cover art I thought it might be experimental. Instead it is a moving story that managed to bring me a large dose of joy during the dark and rainy days of last month.

Much of the book is in the voice of young Tomas. Listen to him: "Plants don't drink coffee. They don't like coffee, and neither do flowers or trees. Birds don't like it either. My aunt told me. I do. Sometimes I don't breathe while I drink my cafe con leche."

Tomas is staying with his aunt because his father is gravely ill, in hospital, and his mother sits by her husband's bed. His teenage cousin is hard at work on a summer project to collect all the insects she can find in the village. Tomas accompanies her and wants himself to find a rare blue dragonfly. It is said that the one who catches it will become the most intelligent person in the world. I fell in love with Tomas.

Throughout the summer, at his aunt's and at family gatherings, he listens to their stories and tries to piece the details together from his eight-year-old limited experience of life. Along with him, I got a picture of small-town life there in these current times.

By the end he has had to deal with many new concepts. I was so inspired by this deceptively simple tale from the Spanish area of the Basque Country that I began to write again myself, after a long dry spell.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019


Recap from February: The Tiny Book Club loved A Terrible Country and we discussed for hours while playing word games. The Address got mixed reactions at Tina's Group and you already know mine. The Leavers had One Book At A Time talking about motherhood, immigration and sad losses. The Bookie Babes, all but one, were fascinated by The Wonder and we talked about our religious upbringings. Overall a great month for my groups.

Now for March: A book about a child captured by Indians in the 19th century, the Booker Prize winner, poetry from Russia, historical fiction and Lisa See! Also, I have joined a new group made up of two friends from an old group that went defunct. What am I thinking? We don't have a name yet but will meet in the food court of a mall, so for now we are The Food Court Group. Stay tuned.
One Book At A Time:
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The Food Court Group:
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Tiny Book Club:
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Molly's Group:
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Bookie Babes:
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Has anyone broken down and joined a real life reading group lately? For those who attend reading groups, what are you reading in March? How were your meetings last month?

Tuesday, March 05, 2019


King of the Corner, Loren D Estleman, Bantam Books, 1992, 294 pp
This is the third novel in Estleman's Detroit Crime Series. I have also read the earlier two, Whiskey River and Motown. All are excellent crime fiction and stand out for me because I lived near Detroit from 1967 to 1991.
This one is set during the last year I lived in Ann Arbor. Though I was completely immersed in my job that year, I was vaguely aware that Detroit was in big trouble as a city. Ford Motor Co was basically gone from the Motor City, rampant unemployment was leading to the explosion of Big Crime, and a corrupt mayor leading a rapidly declining population that was more than 50% black completed the disaster.

Doc Miller, a former Detroit Tigers baseball star, has just been released from prison after serving seven years for manslaughter. He is a white guy, now a minority in the city, and broke, with no future in baseball, living with his brother's family, working in his brother's business. Not in the best shape for making decisions.

He is however, a pretty savvy fellow and knows his way around the city despite how much has changed while he was locked up. He takes a job as a driver for a slick and successful bail bondsman, hoping for better income and more interesting work. Instantly he is in the thick of crime, police relations and racial tension. King of the Corner is the story of how he beats the odds and figures out what he wants.

I loved it. Reading the book filled in a lot of gaps left by my former oblivious state. Perhaps readers not familiar with Detroit would be less enthusiastic about the book, but knowing the city like I did for over 20 years, I could picture it all. I could appreciate what Colman Young, the city's first Black Mayor, was up against during those years.

Estleman is just as good as Detroit's more famous Elmore Leonard. I think he violated some of Leonard's Rules For Good Writing by being more literary, more historical and more philosophical, but the literary snob in me leans toward the less famous Estleman.

Saturday, March 02, 2019


I chose this dreary dark photo because a majority of days here in the Los Angeles area looked like this: sunless, rainy, cold days. Despite my worries about freezing night temperatures decimating my red apple ground cover, I am beyond grateful for all the rain. Also though feeling like a shut-in some days, I loved having the time to read.

The biggest blessing was finishing a lovely little translated novel that proved to ignite a breakthrough in my writing. I have returned to the only stratagem that keeps me writing: no email, no internet when I first get up. Just coffee, journal entry and writing. I am at the end of two weeks of this plan and the writing is going well.

I also had a week of moody depression just before that breakthrough and almost decided to give up this blog. (I noticed a few of my blogger friends had similar thoughts, one of them even did give up blogging, hopefully only temporarily.) As it turned out, I missed all the wonderful connections on books and reading that come from keeping my blog going and following other blogs. So, a compromise. I will be writing shorter reviews and otherwise just keeping up the best I can. 

Stats: 12 books read. 11 fiction. 7 written by women. 1 poetry. 2 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 historical. 1 middle-grade. 1 translated.

Authors (lots!) new to me: Sonya Chung, Keith Gessen, Elaine Dundy, Fiona Davis, Lisa Ko, Unai Elorriaga, Kate Moses.

Places in went: In the USA, New York City, Detroit, Chicago. Korea, Great Britain, Russia, Basque Country.

Favorite reads: The Loved Ones, The Leavers, Plants Don't Drink Coffee
Least favorite: The Address

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How was your reading in February? What were your favorite reads? How is your weather?