Tuesday, April 30, 2019


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The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison, Holt Rinehart and Winton, 1970, 164 pp
Toni Morrison, one of my top three most loved authors, turned 88 in February. I have read all of her novels though not in order of publication. I plan to read them all again. At the February meeting of my One Book At A Time reading group, I mentioned Ms Morrison's birthday and was dismayed to learn that not one of them had read any other of her novels except Beloved. Therefore I suggested The Bluest Eye. We read and discussed it in April.
I had remembered this novel as the heart-wrenching story of a young girl whose deepest desire was to have blue eyes. I did not remember the startling details. Pecola Breedlove, black, poor, unloved, comes into the lives of two sisters, black, not as poor, and a bit more loved. The younger sister tells the story, looking back on herself at 10. Her sister Frieda and Pecola are 11.

Toni Morrison always writes about race, about the brutal facts of life for the people we whites call Black in our country when we are being what we think is polite, enlightened and beyond racism.

The narrator opens with a story early on about getting a blond, blue-eyed white doll for Christmas, thereby setting up the concepts of what America found beautiful in the 1940s, especially when it comes to females. I have to say right here that I am blond and blue-eyed, yet I have always had issues with my own looks. Have I been good looking enough, have I been thin enough, have I worn the right clothes.

The brilliance of the novel is that while it is a story about identity and beauty or the lack of it in a Black female child, any woman can fall right into the tale and empathize with these Black girls and women. Though a Black female probably has the most difficult position in our society, any woman at all has it rough. The things we won't do to be thought beautiful and desirable, to feel safe. The things Pecola did will break your heart.

This first novel by the first American Black woman to win the Nobel Prize is an introduction to her astounding intelligence and perceptive views. Though she later expressed dissatisfaction with the book, it seems to me she had to write it as an overture to the symphony she has written in the rest of them.

Of the members who showed up for our meeting, all had been put into the state of awe I hoped for. Great discussion of course. I hope they go on to read more Toni Morrison.

Saturday, April 27, 2019


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As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner, Random House, 1930, 231 pp
I read this esteemed classic by the Nobel Prize winner for Tina's Group. I am glad we chose it. I have read a good deal of Faulkner, mostly the novels published from 1940 and on. Therefore I knew what I was getting myself in for but worried that the other reading group members would find it rough going.
Even I, who have been reading some heavy doses of stream-of-consciousness writing over the past many months, was dismayed at first. My blogger friend Dorothy at The Nature of Things not long ago gave me permission to seek help when confronted with a difficult work, so I went on-line and found a character list. There are five children in the Bundren family.
As their mother lays dying we get to know them, each taking chapters in turn. In another challenge these characters speak in both dialogue with each other as well as interior monologues, the stream-of-consciousness passages. No quotation marks are provided so you just have to get used to that.
It is a dreary tale. When mother Addie Bundren finally dies, father Anse Bundren (one of Faulker's deeply misogynist, southern backwoods males) declares they must take the body back to the town where Addie was born, because that was her dying wish.
They do this but it takes forever in a mule-drawn wagon, with the rain, the flooding, the washed out bridges, and then the heat. So gritty. All the many family problems haunt their journey, alternating between various dysfunctions and the dark humor Faulkner inserts into the disastrous incidents they encounter.
By the end though, I knew why this novel is often called one of the greatest American novels. The majority of our reading group were similarly impressed. The member who suggested it had done his research and we benefited from it, though thankfully he did not dominate the discussion. 
There was a dissenter who purely hated every page and was not won over, but that is the fun of reading groups.

Thursday, April 25, 2019


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Shell Game, Sara Paretsky, HarperCollins, 2018, 398 pp
Sara Paretsky knocks another one out of the park in her latest novel, Shell Game. She takes on ICE, art fraud, and missing persons. At first the two people missing seem unrelated to each other. V I Warshawski has been implored by her tried and true friend Dr Lottie Hershel to find her missing nephew. The young Canadian archeologist, working at a Chicago museum, is a main suspect in a murder case. Meanwhile his girlfriend has been rounded up and put into detention by ICE for being an illegal alien.
Within a day V I gets a desperate call from her own young niece who has come to Chicago looking for her missing twin sister. The twins are V I's nieces by marriage, being the daughters of her ex-husband's deceased sister.

As is usual in a Sara Paretsky book, the tale is twisted, full of old axes to grind and as confusing to V I Warshawski as it is to the reader. I have read all of her books so I am used to this state of affairs and have complete faith in the author and her intrepid P I.

Eventually the twin plots become entwined. Everyone gets what they deserve but only after V I goes through her share of harrowing danger. Lee Child has a blurb on the front cover: "Sara Paretsky is a genius." She must be. How else does she remain sane while constructing such intricate plots and delving in to so much evil?

Also, in another case of reading synchronicity, Russian poets Anna Akmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, whom I read just the other day, are mentioned by one of the characters!

Monday, April 22, 2019


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The Secret Servant, Daniel Silva, G P Putnam's Sons, 2007, 380 pp
In Daniel Silva's seventh book of the Gabriel Allon series, the war on terror is in full swing. The first part of the story shows how an Israeli assassin gets involved in said war. Israel, after all, has its own private war on terror doesn't it? 
Gabriel had been sent on a routine assignment to Amsterdam, charged with purging the archives of an Israeli intelligence asset who had been murdered while posing as a Dutch terrorism analyst. Gabriel discovers a radical Islamist underground in the city who are planning to kidnap the daughter of the American ambassador to the Netherlands.

As in the last book, The Messenger, Gabriel once more gets involved with the CIA and must also deal with the uncooperative head of MI5 as he searches for the young American woman who was indeed kidnapped. His concern is to find her before she is murdered which would result in many other nasty outcomes.

I don't know how Mr Silva manages to ramp up the tension, danger and entertainment in each succeeding book but he did it once again. I kept telling myself that as there are so far 11 more books in this series, there is no way Allon is going to die, but I was worried for him the whole time nonetheless. 

More chilling though is the sense this book gives of the rapidly growing radical Islamist presence in Europe. Reading the news these days, it is obvious as terrorists are either blamed for or claim many violent incidents that seem to occur at least monthly. When Notre Dame caught fire the other day, that was my first thought and probably others wondered the same. Even so, this 2007 novel was sobering.

One extremely tricky plot point in The Secret Servant is a character who claims to have given up any involvement with radical Islam but whose son turns out to be a key member of the terrorist cell holding the American woman. The father contacts Gabriel, offering help.

When I finished this book, I just wanted to pick up the next one.

Saturday, April 20, 2019


Shepherds of the Night, Jorge Amado, Alfred A Knopf, 1966, 360 pp (translated from the Portuguese by Harriet De Onis, orig published by Livraria Martins Editora, Sao Paulo, 1964)
 I have been neglecting my 1964 list lately so I put three on my April reading plan. Jorge Amado was a Brazilian author whose novels about social classes, especially the lower ones, are full of rollicking scenes and expose the hypocrisy of the upper classes. He sets these tales in the Brazilian state of Bahai, where he was born and raised. 
(As an aside, when I read translated books for My Big Fat Reading Project, I put them on my lists in the year they were first published, usually earlier than the English translation.)
The "shepherds of the night" in this collection of three character-related novellas, are a group of men who spend their nights drinking rum and bedding their women, many of whom are prostitutes. From the opening page of the book: "We shepherded the night as though she were a bevy of girls and we guided her to the ports of dawn with our staffs of rum, our unhewn rods of laughter."

In the first novella, one Corporal Martim, looked up to by all of these men, commits the unspeakable act of getting married. In its hilarious and poignant pages, his friends expose the wife for the conniving woman she is, break up the marriage, and rescue their dude.

The second novella concerns the christening of a blue-eyed mixed race baby whose mother died and who was brought to his grandfather Massu to be raised. Massu is a large, very large, Negro with a soft, very soft heart. He is part of the gang. Here we get a look at the cross section of Afro-Brazilian voodoo cults and the Catholic Church brought to Brazil by European colonists. Plenty of magical realism brightens up the tale.

Finally, the third novella deals with clashes between the poor, the government and the press. Oh my, this one could have been set in the present as the families connected with the gang of "shepherds" try squatting on a piece of property owned by one of the major industrialists of Bahai who is also a slum lord.

I was not sure I was going to enjoy the book when I started it. I forgot that I almost always feel this way when I begin an Amado novel. (This is my sixth.) Then I get captured by his storytelling skills and lost in his characters' adventures. I was happy to spend a few days in another culture, all the while seeing that human beings are more similar than they are different all around the globe.

Thursday, April 18, 2019


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New Jersey Me, Rich Ferguson, Rare Bird Books, 2016, 327 pp
This was another Nervous Breakdown Book Club selection, from November, 2016. (I have only got one more book from 2016 for the TNB. For those of you working on the unread books on your shelves, congratulate me for another one down!)
I have truly come to appreciate the books from this subscription for introducing me to authors and indie presses I might not have found on my own. Rare Bird Books is right here in my own city. Rich Ferguson lives here now but he grew up in New Jersey. He is also a poet and a musician.

New Jersey Me is his debut novel. I grew up there too but in the rarefied, privileged town of Princeton. Ferguson's NJ is one of those depressed, blue collar Jersey shore towns, Springsteen territory, teenage sex and drugs and rock and roll. 

His protagonists Mark and Jimmy are bored, horny, 15 year olds prone to skipping school, staying stoned on their moms' prescription meds, pot and beer. They also read books and listen to music constantly. Mark's dad is a cop, his mom a Mary Kay superstar. The two have been separated since Mark was about six, after his mom walked out and basically left him with his authoritative but distant father. Jimmy has two parents at home who let Mark stay there whenever he needs to but are blissfully unaware of most of these boys' escapades.

All Mark wants, besides the usual teenage boy's needs, is to get away, preferably to California. This is the story of how he survived that town until he achieved his goal. It is its own fever dream, gritty and wild and full of a certain heart. Like early Springsteen mixed with Fleetwood Mac desires and daredevil Joan Jett type girls.

If you have ever read and liked Tom Robbins, Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut, Kerouac, Chabon, you will like New Jersey Me. If you grew up there, you will love it.

You can also catch an interview with the author on the Otherppl podcast.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019


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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J K Rowling, Scholastic Inc, 2005, 652 pp
I first began to read the Harry Potter series in 2000 and made it through the first three books. My granddaughter was given the first book to read by her third grade teacher who had singled her out as one of the best readers in the class. Since it was I who taught her phonics, I was proud. In fact, she has never liked reading fiction and she didn't finish the book. When I read it I thought it was pretty advanced for any third grader.
In 2007, when the final volume was about to be published, I was working in a bookstore with a thriving children's section. All these kids were reading the series and the level of excitement about Deathly Harrows was immense. We were having a release party at midnight on the release date which required pre-purchase of the hardcover book as admission. The event sold out weeks ahead.

I had wanted to be ready. All employees would play one of the characters at the party and I was to be Miss Trelawney. Since it had been seven years, I had forgotten most of the story. I started over at the beginning a month before the party, but only made it to HP#5, The Order of the Phoenix. I think I was pretty convincing as Miss Trelawney, dressed in flowing shawls and sitting at a table telling fortunes. I had one of the longest lines!

Books #4 and #5 were each double the length of the first three books, Harry was extremely stressed out and in a bad mood for the whole time, and time was up for me. I never went back for the final two books until last month when I needed something magical to get me through the end of my illness. 

I have liked all the books but I think Half-Blood Prince is my favorite so far. Harry is in his final year at Hogwarts, he is not longer a kid but a 17 year old teen. The content has become Young Adult, though nothing more than snogging goes on.

Anything I could relate about the plot would be a spoiler. The action is fast and shocking, even more dreadful at times than anything that came before, and I was impressed by how well J K Rowling portrayed her teenagers. Harry learns quite a bit more about who he is and what might be his destiny. I am committed to finishing the final volume soon.

I recently began following a blogger new to me. Brian has been reading the series and blogging about it as he goes at http://briansbabblingbooks.blogspot.com/. I have him to thank for the inspiration to find out the rest of Harry Potter's story.

Friday, April 12, 2019


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The Echo Maker, Richard Powers, Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2006, 451 pp
This was the fourth Richard Powers novel I read. After being so impressed by The Overstory last year, I decided to read one of his novels every month in reverse order of publication. I usually read an  author in order of publication so doing Powers's books this way is giving me the weird sensation of experiencing an author devolving. In fact, so far I have liked each novel just a tiny bit less while remaining in awe of how he ties science and/or the arts to stuff that happens in real life. 
Powers won the National Book Award for this one and it was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Mark Schluter lives in a remote Nebraska town. He has been a slacker most of his life but due to his first steady job in a meatpacking facility, he has managed to purchase a mobile home at the age of 27. Though he spends most of his off time getting drunk and stoned with his buddies, he feels he has got something pretty close to his dream life.

Then he has a near fatal car accident in the middle of the night while driving his pickup truck on a deserted road, leaving him in a coma from a severe head injury. Enter his older sister Karin, who has always been his protector. She moves into his mobile home and spends her days by his bedside. When Mark finally comes out of the coma, he is convinced that this woman, who looks and talks and sounds just like his sister, is an imposter. 

He remembers very little about his accident but a mysterious note left by an unknown person seems to him to be the key to recovering his memory and finding out what happened.

Karin, who despite having only bad luck with men, is an intelligent person. Not satisfied with the doctors on Mark's case she does her research and contacts a famous cognitive neurologist, Gerald Weber. This man comes from New England to take a look and diagnoses Mark with Capgras syndrome; the delusion that people in one's life are doubles standing in for the real person.

After this the story gets stranger by the page. Gerald Weber is having a midlife career crisis. Karin takes up with an old friend who is involved in a green initiative to save the local river basin from business investors. The basin is a stopping off place in the migration path of sandhill cranes. Karin's old boyfriend is involved with the investors. Mark falls in love with one of his nurses, but Weber is convinced he has met her somewhere before in his life.

I read this while I had the flu so in some ways the convoluted plot fit in with my semi-delirious state. Richard Powers has stated in an interview that his intention was "to put forward...a glimpse of the solid, continuous, stable, perfect story we try to fashion about ourselves, while at the same time to lift the rug and glimpse the amorphous, improvised, messy, crack-strewn, gaping thing underneath all that narration."

Well, yes he did that at the same time the flu was doing that to me. So I don't know. Maybe it was the best time for me to read The Echo Maker. Everything gets worked out by the end of the book, except that none of the main characters remain the same as they used to be. Kind of the way I felt when I got better.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019


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America Is Not the Heart, Elaine Costillo, Penguin Random House, 2018, 408 pp
I read this debut novel because it was a contender in the 2019 Tournament of Books. It did not win though another debut novel I read did: My Sister the Serial Killer.
While I ended up liking the novel, I felt it suffered a bit as far as structure went. It jumps back and forth in time quite frequently. I could tell that the author was relating the main character's present life to incidents from her past but it was somewhat awkwardly done. I often felt like I needed more information sooner than I got it.
Other than that, I was caught up in the story of a late 20s Filipina come to America because the Philippines had become too dangerous for her. Her name is Hero and she was born into a wealthy family. After spending some years studying to be a doctor in her home country, she went rogue and joined the resistance to its current government.

Hero spent 10 years hiding out with a cadre of resisters until finally she was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. After her release, her uncle, now in America, pulled strings to help her emigrate. In the present time she is living in Milpitas, CA, a suburb of San Francisco in a section called the South Bay, now part of Silicon Valley. She stays in her uncle's house in a neighborhood of Filipino immigrants helping out with her young niece.

The story tells how she deals with her PTSD and her bi-sexual orientation among a heavily Christian group of people. She also comes to terms with her birth family in the Philippines while finding her place with her new family in Milpitas.

I am glad I read America Is Not the Heart. I never knew much about the Philippines beyond its figuring in WWII and I learned plenty. I enjoyed reading about the customs, ceremonies, food and interactions of the Milpitas Filipino community. 

While living at our previous home, my elderly neighbor had a live-in caregiver who was a Filipina. They were both lovely women and we became friends as we shared a driveway, but I never asked Denia about her background.

Back in the 90s, when I used to tour to promote my albums, I played at a Borders Books and Music store in Milpitas, never knowing about the Filipino community there. Music played a big part in the book, both traditional and popular. The people would have parties in their garages, sitting on the concrete floor, drinking and eating and dancing to the tunes spun by one of their people who worked a side-line as a DJ.

All part of the tale of immigrants in America.

Monday, April 08, 2019


I chose this image today because I could not find the one I usually use and because I am expecting a bit of excitement/disagreement this month. Each book has something I predict will cause some rowdy discussions. If you have read any of these, you may write about what you think might happen in the comments.

Tina's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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Carol's Group:
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Bookie Babes: 
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If you are in a reading group, what are you discussing in April? Have you ever discussed one of these in a group?

Saturday, April 06, 2019


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Dark Elderberry Branch, Marina Tsvetaeva, Alice James Books, 2012, 52 pp (translated from the Russian by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine)
This was the third translated book I read in March. The others were The Years and The Ravishing of Lol Stein. I came upon all three by different routes and none were on the list of my self created challenge to read one translated book a month. It appears I have opened a door in my reading life and a flood is coming through. How exciting.
Dark Elderberry Branch is a book of poetry that also includes an afterword about the poet's life by one of the translators. It was the March selection of my Tiny Book Club, suggested by the member who is a poet. We are having a Russian moment, having read Keith Gessen's A Terrible Country prior to this.

The poems in this collection got under my skin, delighted me, and gave me chills. I fell in love with Marina Tsvetaeva as have many others. The book comes with a CD of the poems being read in Russian. Though I do not speak or read Russian, hearing these poems in their original language while reading them in English was completely surreal.

Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) grew up in the last years of Tsarist Russia, lived through the Revolution of 1917 and the early years of the USSR. Those years are also covered in an amazing novel I read about a year and a half ago: The Revolution of Marina M by Janet Fitch. Early in the story the heroine, also named Marina, is about to turn 16 and plans to be a poet. It was in this book that I first read the names of Marina Tsvetaeva and her compatriot Anna Akhmatova. Marina M would to out to the coffeehouses to catch a glimpse of them and hopefully hear their poems. The two wrote poems for each other.

All part of the magic of reading.

Thursday, April 04, 2019


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Pillar of Fire, America in the King Years, 1963-1965, Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster, 1998, 613 pp
First of all a health update: I am much better! Almost back to normal in fact. Thanks for all the well wishes.
I spent 11 weeks reading Taylor Branch's second volume of a biography centered on Martin Luther King, Jr. Checking back in my reading log, I was surprised that it has been about four years since I read Volume I, Parting the Waters. During those years I read the first three volumes of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon B Johnson. These two biographical feats dovetail perfectly, especially in Pillar of Fire, because the two men became inextricably entwined in the history of mid-20th century America.

Though I can only read these tomes at a rate of 10 pages a day, so dense are they with persons and events, I am thrilled to be experiencing what I was hoping to find by taking history in college. Especially in what I consider very trying times these days, learning all this history about my country (and much of it was just as trying) gives me courage and hope in some ways while it also has me laughing helplessly at how absurd it all is.

Pillar of Fire focuses intently on the entire Civil Rights Movement during 1963-1965, so it about much more than MLK himself. The movement in those years had become fractured into numerous groups and organizations, much of the time unaligned and full of conflict. Taylor Branch follows all of this on an almost day by day basis. The continuous actions of non-violent protest in the South, the friction between King and Malcolm X, the entry of white college students and ministers from the North and West, and the riots in Northern Cities are all covered in great detail.

President John F Kennedy was assassinated before he could manage to get much done for racial equality. Lyndon B Johnson in his first years as President did get the Civil Rights Bill through Congress. However the KKK kept on bombing churches and killing Black people, getting away with it in the courts of the South. 

Thanks to J Edgar Hoover and his obsessions, LBJ could not find a way to provide Federal support for integration despite his new law. He also had the growing situation of Vietnam to deal with. That left King and all the other civil rights leaders to carry on basically without backup.

What struck me hardest as I read was how long and hard it can be to bring about social change, how tirelessly all those thousands of people kept at trying to make the law a reality and getting Blacks the right to vote.

Ten years after Rosa Park's refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, segregation was still the everyday practice in the South. Malcolm X was assassinated. By 1968 Martin Luther King would be too. Today, Black Americans are still at the mercy of brutality, poverty, and incarceration in what we are told is "our great nation." Over 150 year have passed since we freed our slaves, on paper.

So, next up for me is Robert Caro's The Passage of Power, the parallel story of LBJ's years 1958-1964. Another 605 pages. Then one more volume about MLK. Then, God willing, the final LBJ volume from Caro. I sure hope he is able to finish it.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019


Despite everything, I managed to do plenty of reading in March. Spring finally arrived with swathes of green, blooms, birds and butterflies. I visited 5 countries, 5 different states in America, and met 8 new authors. 
Stats: 12 books read. 9 fiction. 8 written by women. 2 biography/memoir. 3 translated. 1 poetry. 1 YA. 

Places I went: Ireland, France, Russia, Philippines, Great Britain. In the US, cities of Seattle and Boston, states of CA, NE and NJ

An incredible 8 authors new to me: Thomas Kohnstamm, Annie Ernaux, Tamirat Nafkote, Marguerite Duras, Anna Burns, Marina Tsvetaeva, Elaine Costillo, Rick Ferguson.

Not a bad book in the bunch but my favorites were The Witch Elm and Milkman.

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How was your reading in March? Favorites?