Sunday, June 30, 2019


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The Passage of Power, The Years of Lyndon Johnson Book 4, Robert A Caro, Alfred A Knopf, 2012, 605 pp
I have been reading Robert Caro's four extensive volumes about the life of Lyndon B Johnson over the past two years. The experience has been a master class in politics, power, the workings of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the interaction between the Executive and Legislative Branches, and 20th century history up to 1964.
The Passage of Power begins with LBJ, still in his role as the most powerful Senate leader possibly ever, trying to decide if he will run for President in the 1960 election. Because he waffled for too long, he did not get the nomination but was asked to be running mate for John F Kennedy. Becoming a vice president under JFK was a huge descent in influence and an almost complete loss of power. 

Then JFK was assassinated and in the space of a few hours, LBJ was in the position he had dreamed of and schemed to reach for most of his life. The next chapters cover his first hours, days, and months filling this new role. That part was as exciting as the parts in Book 3, Master of the Senate, when he achieved his power there and gave that body a 20th century makeover.

The final section covers how he used his Senate leader experience to get passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

I came of political age in the mid 60s at the height of protests against the Vietnam War. My opinion of this man was formed and largely colored by what happened in those years. My friends and I purely hated him. I am glad I took the time to read so much about him. He was deeply flawed but now I am aware of how much influence he had during his presidency and how much change he brought about.

I understand him now as quite a Machiavellian figure whose strengths could overcome his weaknesses. Robert Caro is still writing the final volume but I want to read it immediately. At the end of The Passage of Power, Caro makes it clear that he feels LBJ held his baser instincts in check long enough to get much positive legislation passed but that his momentum and that of our country would be lost because of Vietnam.

I realize that many people do not have the time to read almost 3000 pages about one POTUS, but anyone who does will learn much about politics and the role of government in America. Having read these books, I feel smarter, more able to parse the news, make sense of what is happening today, and hopefully make the best use of my right to vote, a right for which so many women before me have fought.

Saturday, June 29, 2019


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Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith, Harper & Brothers, 1950, 281 pp
I have been reading Highsmith for several years but just skipped around. I decided to go back and read the books I've missed. It turns out this was her debut novel. Most people know the movie, adapted by Alfred Hitchcock. Raymond Chandler was one of the screenwriters!
Two men meet on a train. Guy Haines, a successful architect with a new love is traveling to his small hometown in Texas, planning to meet with his first wife Miriam and convince her to get a divorce. There are complications and he is approaching complete hatred for the woman. Charles Anthony Bruno is the psychopath of the story, hates his stepfather, adores his mother, and drinks way too much.

The two men do not exactly hit it off but Bruno floats the idea that they could swap murders. He will kill Guy's wife, Guy will kill his stepfather. Of course Guy sees the insanity of it all and does not agree.

When Miriam does turn up dead a few weeks later, the reader knows Bruno did it, Guy suspects he did. Bruno shows up in Guy's life again, stalks him and finally manipulates him into enough madness to carry out his end of a bargain he never agreed to.

It is all there in her debut novel: the lurking menace, the psychological factors that push an ordinary person into crime, and the suspense that feature in every one of her books. No wonder Hitchcock wanted to make the movie, though the story was changed radically.

You know all those psychological thrillers that seem to come out daily lately? Yes, those. I am more convinced that ever that Patricia Highsmith birthed the genre. No one has done it better. In fact, now that I have read seven of her novels, I feel compelled to read the rest.

Patricia Highsmith novels I had read so far before this one:
The Talented Mr Ripley
Deep Water
A Game For the Living
The Price of Salt
The Cry of the Owl
The Glass Cell
Have you read any of these?

Thursday, June 27, 2019


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The Miernik Dossier, Charles McCarry, The Overlook Press, 1973, 256 pp
One of my duties as a wife is to find books for my husband to read. He enjoys this service! When I came across Charles McCarry, I thought we both might like him but The Miernik Dossier, his first book, got some worrisome reviews while his second, The Tears of Autumn, got raves. So I got the second one and we both found it excellent. Husband requested The Miernik Dossier, no matter what, and we liked it just fine.
Paul Christopher is the series' character. The Miernik Dossier is a spy road trip novel told via reports from different agents all working undercover at the World Research Organization in Geneva, a specialized agency of the UN. The time is 1959. The villain of the times of course is communist Russia.

The negative comments I had seen about this book center around the format and I get it. Reading reports, internal memos, transcriptions of recorded conversations, was at first off-putting. Also each agent was referred to sometimes by last name, sometimes by first. I felt confused.

Reading on despite all I became hooked on the story, figured out the whats and the whys and was thoroughly entertained. I finished the book impressed by an intricacy which kept me guessing, worried and on the edge of my metaphorical seat.

Crossing the African desert in a Cadillac with Paul Christopher, the American operative, a British agent plus his wild girlfriend, a Muslim prince and a Polish scientist suspected of leading a Russian terrorist plot, was the most mysterious yet fun road trip I never actually took.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019


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The Neverending Story, Michael Ende, Doubleday & Company, 1983, 396 pp (originally published by K Thienemanns Verlag, Stuttgart, 1979; translated from the German by Ralph Manheim)
I have been meaning to read this book for years. My blogger friend, Marianne from The Netherlands, mentioned it in a list of Top Ten Books I wish I read as a child and reminded me. I searched it out the next time I was at the library and it became the second children's book I read in June.
The story is fantasy truly in the German fairy tale style. Bastian Balthasar Box is a fat little boy of about 10 years. He is motherless, bullied at school, loves to read and has a somewhat distant father. Kids with missing mothers just go with fantasy, don't they?

One rainy morning on the way to school, Bastian darts into a bookshop to escape the boys chasing him. He meets the curmudgeonly owner and ends up stealing a book while the man isn't looking. Hiding away in the attic of his school, he reads the book and finds himself inside the story. Eventually he becomes a hero in the land of Fantastica and learns many lessons from all sorts of creatures.

The copy I read is exquisite. Each chapter starts with a letter of the alphabet set in a detailed illustration. That letter is the first letter of the first word in the chapter. Whenever Bastian is on earth the type is red, when he is in Fantastica it is green.

The emotional impact is strong. If I had read this at 10 years old, I might have seen the sense in what my parents were trying to teach me about life. Like Bastian, I insisted on figuring that out on my own by reading books. I was also a fearful child and may have gotten over my fears earlier and saved myself a lot of mistakes. But the book did not exist when I was 10.

However, reading it at my advanced age I could appreciate all the philosophy the story carries. It was as deep as any of the books I have read by Herman Hesse. I loved The Neverending Story on every page.

Sunday, June 23, 2019


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Educated, Tara Westover, Random House, 2018, 329 pp
I have read quite a number of books, both novels and memoirs, about Mormons. This is one those, in memoir form, and is pretty much the best one so far.
Breaking the bonds from a cult is always tough. Tara Westover's main magic key was education. I happen to believe that is the best method, though when someone is raised in such a circumstance there are family ties to deal with as well. Those ties double the emotional and psychological trauma.

Tara Westover has written an excellent book with honesty and heart. It was grueling to read about all that she went through as a child with her parents and her siblings. She used the strengths she had to reach for any opportunity to get away and build a life that suited her. 

I felt she may have had to evade some aspects of her family life and her subsequent hurdles after leaving. I thought she did so out of respect for her family or, as one of the reading group members said, for legal reasons. She is a canny writer though and gets her points across, letting us read between the lines.

Thursday, June 20, 2019


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Copper Magic, Julia Mary Gibson, TOR Books, 2014, 220 pp
Once in a while I like to read a novel meant for children. I read this one because the author is sister-in-law to a member of one of my reading groups. It was wonderful.
Violet Blake is 12 years old in 1906. She lives near Lake Michigan alone with her father, a farmer. Her mother took Violet's adored baby brother and went off on a journey to be with her people and heal from depression. Violet has begun to feel they may never return.

One day she finds a copper talisman in the shape of a hand. If ever there was a girl in need of some magical thinking, it is Violet. She is strong, capable and brave but she also lies.

As she says on the first page, "There wasn't one soul who knew how I made up things. I did it just for the doing of it, not just lying when you're cornered like anybody will."

I loved Violet at once. As she goes about making wishes on the copper hand, some of which come true, she encounters all manner of opportunities as well as difficulties. All she wants is her mother and brother back.

In addition to the setting, the time period, the characters, I enjoyed this story the most for the empowerment Violet gives herself, once she decides to take her problem into her own hands.

Sometimes magical thinking backed up with real life deeds does make wishes come true.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019


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Plowing the Dark, Richard Powers, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000, 415 pp
The next book in my challenge to read all the novels of Richard Powers this year was a challenge!
He uses two parallel stories to investigate how we perceive and navigate reality, imagination, confinement, freedom and, as always, modern society.
One of his stories is set on Puget Sound on the northwestern coast of Washington State. A collection of math geeks, coders and an artist are combining their talents in the late 1990s to create early, cutting edge virtual reality rooms. Funded by some deep pocket billionaires, this little band of imaginative pioneers barely set foot outside the lab.

I have virtually no reality on virtual reality. I don't exactly know what coding involves except that it is based on higher math. I have never engaged in VR games though I am aware of them, have seen movies about them and read a few books. The concept of worlds that seem to be there but are not is a hard one for me to grasp. I could sort of picture what was going on in the lab but truthfully, my head spun.

Luckily the characters were real, talented, troubled and intrepid individuals even if they lived on junk food and hardly slept.

The secondary story on the other hand was almost too real. An American English teacher of Middle Eastern descent has been taken hostage by terrorists who hope to send a message to Western powers. The September 11, 2001 attacks have not yet happened, but its antecedents are simmering in this war-torn Mediterranean city.

The young hostage's suffering and imprisonment are gruesome but are a counterpoint of daily reality to the VR in that lab in Washington. The man uses his imagination and memory to create for himself a reality in which he can survive.

The novel is as dense and wordy and exciting and philosophical as any other Powers's novels I have read so far. Struggle though I did to comprehend much of it, I reached the end once again transformed, once again pondering life in new ways.

An Esquire reviewer, Sven Birkerts, is quoted on the back cover of Plowing the Dark as saying, "Mention Richard Powers's name and see writers get that far-away look in their eyes: They are calculating the eventual reach of his influence." Well, I get the same look in my eyes and in my own private virtual reality when I read and later ponder his influence on me.

Monday, June 17, 2019


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Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Ballantine Books, 2019, 368 pp
This book went down like a succession of vodka martinis without any hangover! As you probably know, it is the story of a fictional 70s rock band, their formation, rise and fall. Singer/songwriter Daisy Jones, already trending herself, is injected into The Six by the all-seeing wisdom of record company execs and it works even better than foreseen.
Naturally all of us of a certain age think of Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks. This is not them, though the author says she drew on their history as well as The Eagles. 

The hardest thing in the world to do is to write a novel or make a movie about rock and roll. "Almost Famous" gets my bet for best rock band movie. This it the best rock band novel ever.

The author precisely nails it all and her hipness quotient never falters: the music, the song writing, the tours, the drug and alcohol abuse, the sex, the music business of the times, the interpersonal angst, the misogyny, and all those intrepid dreamers.

It really was a golden age. Though no musician emerged unscathed, those people and we their fans, made something more exciting and new than pop culture had ever done. At least that is my opinion.

I loved this book! So much!!

Saturday, June 15, 2019


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The Young Widowers Handbook, Tom McAllister, Algonquin Books, 2017, 282 pp
The January 2017 selection of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club has a misleading title. It surely is a perceptive blend of whimsy and tragedy. Hunter Cady did indeed lose his young wife too soon. The novel however is distinctly not a handbook. It is a road trip novel, one of my favorite types of stories. 
Now that I think about it, except for Thelma and Louise, most road trippers are male, either in search of adventure or looking for themselves. Some run away from loss, some run for their lives after a crime. A road trip can be a way of accelerating change. 

Hunter Cady, carrying his wife's ashes, to which he often talks, escaping his wife's mother as well as his own, is sure no one will ever understand and accept him as Kaitlyn did. He does find wry adventure and comes to find a new version of himself.

This debut novel may not be a masterpiece but it is nicely done and gave me hours of emotional ups and downs while ultimately leading me to a feeling of well being.

Thursday, June 13, 2019


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Casino Royale, Ian Fleming, 1953, 218 pp
Continuing my recent obsession with spy lit from the 50s and 60s due to writing myself about growing up under the Cold War and the Mushroom Cloud. Casino Royale was the first book in the James Bond series, though the movies were not made until 1967 and 2006.
As I read the book, I kept getting mental pictures of the casino scene. I don't think I saw the 1967 movie (supposedly a kind of spoof) but my picture memories come from the 2006 version starring Daniel Craig.

In any case, the book is the story of Bond's first mission as a double O. His assignment is to bankrupt a ruthless Russian agent who's been on a bad luck streak at the baccarat table. It is way less sexy than the movie; of course there is a woman but not much happens of a sexual nature.

The casino scene is so tense, I think my blood pressure rose though it is usually low. Then came the double crosses. 

I love these short bursts of fictional adrenaline, easily read in one day.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019


The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham, Ballantine Books, 1957, 247 pp
I have now read four of John Wyndham's intelligent speculative fiction novels. I did not read them in publication order but am filling in the ones I missed. His books are sometimes called frightening but I find them intriguing. His style is so conservatively British that it counteracts the frightening bits for me.
Midwich is a small English village that keeps to itself and is rather behind the times. One September evening a mysterious silver disturbance descends on the village and remains for 24 hours. Afterward no one is harmed but within a month all the females of childbearing age find themselves pregnant.

The village minister, the main busybody female, a late-middle-age historian/writer, and MI5 all get involved, trying to contain and manage the potential shame, hysteria and upheaval. Each one of these characters has an agenda.

The children born from this seemingly extra-terrestrial incident are somewhat detached and have strange powers including a mind meld capacity and an ability to make people behave oddly. If they don't they die. 
I found it a darn good read. The husband of one of my good friends is a UFO researcher and just last week our government conceded having knowledge of and years of collected data on UFOs. Did I enter the Twilight Zone? 

Saturday, June 08, 2019


The Silence of Herondale, Joan Aiken, Doubleday & Company, 1964, 185 pp
I first discovered Joan Aiken in 1991. That was before the internet, so my method for finding books was the library. Remember those days? Ever since I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn I had dreamed of following Francie's method of reading all the fiction in the library from authors whose names started with A all the way to Z. I never finished the A's! I did get to AI and there I found Joan.
I read eight of her novels for adults in the 90s and remember many of them fondly. Now all the rest of her books are on My Big Fat Reading Project lists. 

The Silence of Herondale was her second stand alone novel. It is a Gothic mystery with the requisite creepy elements and romance. The storytelling is just as smooth as I have always found in her books. Though reminiscent of early Mary Stewart and somewhat in the style of Agatha Christie, it has its own flavor and does not feature a detective. 

Deborah Lindsay, originally from Canada, is down to her last few pounds. Her parents died tragically a couple years ago so she is trying her luck in London, living in a boarding house, attempting to make a living writing for magazines. Her room was recently pillaged by a robber. 

She has accepted a job as governess to a teenage girl, Carreen, a prodigy who has already written several plays produced on the stage to great acclaim. Everything seems just a little off, especially Carreen's guardian who hired her, but she has taken the job simply to survive.

Soon enough all goes quite wrong. Deborah and Carreen land in a crumbling mansion outside the small English town of Herondale, where the girl's uncle has just died, where her slightly shady cousin has turned up, and where nobody in Herondale is talking.

The characters are great, the several mysterious aspects of life in Herondale create suspense and both Deborah and her charge find themselves in danger. It was another refreshing palate cleanser from the rigors of Sisters In Law. I could let Deborah take all the risks and let Joan Aiken explain it all to me.

Friday, June 07, 2019


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Deep South, Nevada Barr, G P Putnam's Sons, 2000, 340 pp
In #8 of Nevada Barr's National Park mystery series, she enters the 21st century. Park ranger Anna Pigeon, at 45, has taken a promotion to District Ranger. Her new assignment is the  Natchez Trace in Mississippi. Anna has never been in the deep south and every kind of unpleasant surprise greets her within two days of her arrival: weather, misogyny, racism and murder.
Anna has always been her own particular version of a feminist including being strong and brave. In Deep South these traits are sorely tested. One of the highlights of the story is the nuanced way the author explores the plight of a woman in a higher position than sexist men. Another is the meticulous interweaving of race and religion among the southerners, especially in a rural area. Then she brings in a whole bunch of teenagers, one of whom is the murder victim.

Riveting. The story seemed more suspenseful than ever in a highly suspenseful series. Barr's writing about the natural world is always excellent but in this one she outdoes herself. This was just what I needed after the dense reading I experienced in Sisters In Law.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019


I have a busy month coming up with my reading groups. Five different meetings. I have already read two of the books but it has been so long since I did that I am going to reread. I am looking forward to them all.

Tina's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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Carol's Group:
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Tiny Book Club:
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Bookie Babes:
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Have you read or discussed any of these books? What are your groups reading in June?

Monday, June 03, 2019


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Sisters In Law, Linda Hirshman, HarperCollins, 2015, 301 pp
This nonfiction reading group pick is subtitled How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went To The Supreme Court And Changed The World. It was a hard book to read for me because all I know about law and courts I learned from watching Perry Mason as a kid and reading thrillers. While the story of the first two women to serve as Justices of the Supreme Court is exciting stuff, I had some trouble following all the cases.
However, some years ago I tried to read The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin and was defeated. Linda Hirshman managed to crack the code for me and I appreciate that a great deal. Now I understand how that court works.

I knew more about RBG, having seen both the 2018 documentary RBG as well as the 2018 movie On The Basis Of Sex. I knew virtually nothing about Sandra Day O'Connor except that she was the first (FWOTSC) and served as a swing vote between the conservative and liberal justices. This book goes into great detail about each woman and the friendship between them. They were quite different in some ways.

What I enjoyed most was learning about the clear intention of RBG to change conditions for women in a deliberate sequence of cases designed to change precedents. Compared to many other things in life, her method is slow. It takes years and decades. Her belief is that if you want to change society you must change the laws. She has done that!

I am very glad I read this book. While the fight for equality is a long slog and while the ingrained, unexamined prejudices about women held by men makes me spitting angry, I could see how her method has worked. I felt some hope. Also we now have three women on the court: RBG, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Another curious fact is that all nine justices are either Catholic or Jewish.

Now all of her work is at risk. With the conservatives in the majority on the court, much of what she has done in setting precedents at least makes it more difficult for those conservatives to send us backward. I have begun keeping track of the cases heard through a great website,

Our reading group discussion was wonderful. We are all liberals, several work in the legal world and we are all women, of course!

Saturday, June 01, 2019


It seemed we had the coldest, rainiest, most cloudy May ever. The flowers bloomed, the grasses remained green, the peacocks hatched and I, spared from yard duty, got lots of reading done. 

Stats: 13 books read. 12 fiction. 7 written by women. 5 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 translated. 1 nonfiction. 3 spy thrillers. 1 mystery. 1 speculative.

Places I went: France, Iran, Great Britain, USA states of Oregon, California, Massachusetts and Mississippi. 

Authors new to me: Djavadi Negar, Charles McCarry, Elizabeth McCracken.

Favorites were Disoriental, Bowlaway, Daisy Jones & The Six. I had no least favorite because all the books I read were good.

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Have you read any of these? As always, I have lots of reviews to post but they will come. Did you have a favorite book among the books you read in May?