Wednesday, July 31, 2019


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The Secret Lovers, Charles McCarry, E P Dutton, 1977, 308 pp
My husband and I are continuing to read and enjoy this spy series. The Secret Lovers is the third one. Its title turned out to have a double meaning. Several characters are double agents. Many have relationships that go back a long way, including to the Spanish Civil War and even to the Russian Revolution. Everyone has secrets.
Paul Christopher, special agent of the CIA, is the protagonist in the series. To make things as confusing as possible, this one takes place earlier than the previous book, The Tears of Autumn. Paul is married to a psychologically fragile woman from a wealthy Southern family. Their love is strong but she is not doing well with being the wife of a spy who is continually going off to various European countries on dangerous missions about which he can tell her nothing.

The story is set in 1960. The Cold War is as cold as it always was. The operation that makes up the plot has to do with smuggling a novel out of the USSR, the author being in a Soviet prison. It was cool to have all that Russian literary intrigue mixed in.

I must say that reading The Secret Lovers was a test of my mental acuity and memory as I struggled to keep track of all the threads. I had to be in Paul Christopher's mind while at the same time learning some facts before he did. Forget all those games you see on-line to sharpen your mind. Just read Charles McCarry once in a while and you will stay sharp.

Nevertheless, and sorry to John le Carre, I think this is the best novel I have read about the toll that working in intelligence inflicts on the personal lives of its agents.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019


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Selected Poems, Gwendolyn Brooks, Harper & Row, 1963, 137 pp
I finished this collection of selected poems by Gwendolyn Brooks. I have got the habit now of reading a poem a day, usually before bed. Even more than fiction, a poem takes me out of my own head and into the poet's.
Ms Brooks was a phenom when it came to publishing books of poetry: 19 of them. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first Black author to do so. "I am interested in telling my particular truth as I have seen it," she wrote. Her truth comes from her life as a Black woman in America. 

She only wrote one novel, Maud Martha, 1953. I liked it so much that for years I was upset she didn't write more novels. I am no longer upset. Her poems are just as good. I hope one day to read all of those 19 books.

So far in my poetry adventure I have read 20th century poets. Now I am ready for the earlier works, the foundations of modern poetry. I have dug out The Standard Book of British and American Verse from my shelves. It begins with Chaucer (1340-1400) and ends with Vita Sackville West (1892-1962). On the advice of Christopher Morley, who wrote the preface, I am reading it back to front, "so that you begin with the contemporary mood and gradually swim towards older words and manners," as he says. It is a huge book, 735 pages. It may take me the rest of my life to read! I feel fine, after Gwendolyn Brooks's rendering of her American experience, about swimming towards earlier beginnings. It is part of what we do as we age.

Sunday, July 28, 2019


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All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, Harvard University Press, 1998, 259 pp
Summary from Goodreads:
The nation was powerful and prosperous, the president was vigorous and young, and a confident generation was gathering its forces to test the New Frontier. The cold war was well under way, but if you could just, as the song went, "put a little love in your heart," then "the world would be a better place." The Peace Corps, conceived in the can-do spirit of the sixties, embodied America's long pursuit of moral leadership on a global scale...More than any other entity, the Peace Corps broached an age-old dilemma of U.S. foreign policy: how to reconcile the imperatives and temptations of power politics with the ideals of freedom and self-determination for all nations.
My Review:
I read this as research for my autobiography. It is a history of the Peace Corps from its beginning as a program created by President John F Kennedy in 1961 through to the late 1990s. The Peace Corps is still going today though we don't hear much about it. After finishing the book I discovered that they have a presence on Twitter and now follow their posts there.
The book is good thorough history. It tracks the political scene all through the years covered, as the organization was built, and as changing times had their effects on the Peace Corps in its attempts to live up to American ideals.
Though sometimes a bit dry, I made it through the book at my usual non-fiction reading pace of 10 pages a day, finishing it in a month. 
Of course I was aware of the Peace Corps during my high school and college years, but I was more aware of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. I was strongly in favor of the first and rabidly against the second. Back then I thought I was "with it" but looking back now, I was in truth quite unsavvy when it came to politics. Most of what I knew came from radical friends. This book was like a crash course in what I had missed and dove-tailed nicely with the biographies of JFK, LBJ and MLK I have read over the past few years.
I find it odd that I never knew personally a single Peace Corps Volunteer and have still never met one to this day. 
Reading the book made me rather sad about the lost idealism of the 1960s. Despite our current cynicism about the world, I think many boomers still wish we could get that spirit back. It got me wondering if the Cold War and all that has followed was not so much a political and ideological fight but a financial conflict between the "haves" and the "have nots" of the world. Certainly the "haves" hold the power with no intention of letting go or sharing or helping if that means giving up an inch of that power.
I recommend the book to anyone grappling with ideas, politics, the uses of power, and what that means for the future.
Were you ever a Peace Corps Volunteer or have you ever known one?

Friday, July 26, 2019


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Death Is Hard Work, Khalad Khalifa, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2019, 180 pp (originally published in 2016 by Nawfal, Lebanon, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price.)
This novel, set in present day Syria, is my translated book for the month. It turned out to be another example of Death Bed Lit. In fact, it could be the Syrian version of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
Abdel Latif, an elderly man from a village near Aleppo, lays dying in a Damascus hospital with his son Bolbol standing by. The old man extracts from Bolbol a promise to make sure he is buried in the family plot back in their village, Anabiya.
Anabiya is just a few hours drive from Damascus. How hard could it be? Bolbol contacts his older brother Hussein and his sister Fatima, convincing them to make the journey with him. Hussein procures a small van, Fatima gathers provisions. They get the unembalmed body in the vehicle and set out.

Syria at this time is a war zone and the few hours' drive takes three days. Clogged roads, competing militias, checkpoints with long lines every few miles. Due to the high death rate from continuous bombings, they had to take Abdel's body away from the hospital with only a death certificate and it begins to decay in the brutal heat. Every difference, grudge and personality defect between the siblings boils up. 

In a mere 180 pages, Khalifa relates the history of this family and what the war has done to them. It is not all grim because a black humor pervades the tale giving a look into the Syrian soul and temperament. I kept trying to imagine how it would be to travel through such trying conditions.

Khaled Khalifa has an earlier novel set in Syria: No Knives in the Kitchens of This City. Both novels won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. The author is Syrian born and lives in Damascus, refusing to abandon his country despite the dangers created by its Civil War. For that alone, I figured I could pay him the homage of reading this truly horrifying but finely written tale.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019


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The House of the Broken Angels, Luis Alberto Urrea, Little Brown and Company, 2018, 321 pp
This family story about Mexicans living in the United States turned out to be much better than some reader reviews had led me to expect, though many critics praised it. Luis Alberto Urrea, a Mexican/American writer whose roots go deep into Mexican history, is I think one of the better authors we currently have. Especially when it comes to the Tijuana border situation and the immigrant experience.
The "Angels" of the title are the patriarch Miguel Angel de la Cruz, known in the family as Big Angel, and his half brother, known as Little Angel. The Angels share a father who had two wives, one Mexican and the other American.

Big Angel is on his death bed. (Death bed novels have been cropping up quite a bit for me lately, causing me once again to name a genre: Death Bed Lit.) This current head of the family wants one last birthday party and summons all the disparate branches, siblings and offspring of his father's far-flung people.

Over the course of two days they assemble and their complicated history becomes known to the reader as they tell their stories. Most of them live in and around San Diego, the California city that practically sits on the border, that encompasses a wide diversity of economic strata and racial combinations.

So, with equal parts humor and tragedy, love and hate, family ties and turmoil, I got yet another understanding of the forces that drive people to reach for opportunity, happiness, safety and love. Also the prices paid and the schemes gone wrong.

The novel is not a polite story. Big egos, infidelity, wayward youth, drugs, sex, heroism, and violence fill the pages. If you have a nice polite family background composed of upright people with admirable values, you will either experience discomfort or receive an entertaining yet compassionate look at men, women and children who have gambled everything to live in Los Estades Unidos.

Sunday, July 21, 2019


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Normal People, Sally Rooney, Hogarth, 2018, 273 pp
This intimate story of two young friends, a boy named Connell and his classmate Marianne, left me wondering what made it so captivating but left me feeling less impressed than so many other readers were.
Two kids in high school, both insecure for different reasons, see something in each other that makes them feel understood for perhaps the first time. Connell is the son of a single mom and never knew his father. Marianne is from a wealthy but strange family. Connell's mom is the cleaner of Marianne's palatial home in a small Irish town near Sligo.

As I read, I was reminded of my high school years, my own insecurities, how self-involved I was. Truthfully it was disconcerting to realize and remember the degree of that self-involvement, despite having a good stable family with most of my needs met.

In high school, Connell was popular because he was a star athlete. Marianne was shunned because she was so weird. They then go to the same college in Dublin where Marianne blossoms, has tons of friends but Connell can't seem to fit in.

Through it all they have lots of sex (hidden from others in their hometown but openly in Dublin.) They talk to each other incessantly, they feel that mutual understanding but in other ways they are as unknown to each other as they both are to themselves. They break up, get back together, several times. 

I understand all of it. I think if I were in my 20s or 30s, I would have loved the novel and even learned truths from it.

In its heart this is a deep and wise tale. Sometimes though I felt slightly bored. I am not the target generation. That is my conclusion even after a full discussion with my reading group.

Friday, July 19, 2019


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Moscow Rules, Daniel Silva, G P Putnam's Sons, 2008, 425 pp
Another great thriller in the Gabriel Allon series. This time the Israeli assassin gets mixed up with an evil arms dealer in early 21st century Russia. In the post-communist years of gangsters and oil wealth,  former KGB personnel are cashing in while using the same old techniques. Gabriel is forced to learn the Moscow rules of espionage.
Ivan Kharkov is about to deliver a huge shipment of deadly weapons to al-Qaeda which will be used for terror attacks against major cities, more deadly than 9/11.
Gabriel goes to Moscow due to the death of a journalist who was critical of the Kremlin. Her newspaper's publisher had requested a meeting with Allon. While he is there, undercover, Karkov's wife approaches him with a deadly proposition.
It takes Silva quite a few chapters to set the scene and introduce all the characters but the tension builds and once Gabriel gets to Russia I was convinced I was reading a realistic portrayal of conditions there in the early Putin years.
As always, Daniel Silva was a few steps ahead of our times. I read an interview concerning how he keeps writing about incidents similar to what eventually happens in the real world. His answers were eye-opening. I suppose those of you who avidly follow good news reporting can also read between the lines.
Moscow Rules is Silva's 8th in the series. His latest, The New Girl, #19, came out just the other day. If I could read one a month, I could be caught up by the time his next one comes out. It is tempting. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019


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A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir, G P Putnam's Sons, 1966, 106 pp (originally published in France by Libraire Gallimard, 1964, translated from the French by Patrick O'Brian)
Have you ever spent the last days of your mother's life by her side? I have. This memoir of that experience by my much read and much admired Simone de Beauvoir hit me hard but not unpleasantly.
In the first volume of de Beauvoir's memoirs, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, written when she was in her forties, covered the first 23 years of her life. Her experiences and insights helped me understand my relationship with my mother. We both fought against our mothers' protective and restraining methods of raising a girl.

Simone's mother fell dangerously ill in 1963 when Simone was 55 years old. Her mother went to hospital, nursing home and finally into hospice care when inoperable cancer was found. Mine had two major strokes from which she could not regain enough strength to care for herself and eventually passed away 10 years ago, also in hospice though not due to cancer. She declined any sort of life support and my sisters and I honored her wishes. I was with her everyday for 3 months, the last 5 weeks of which I was her primary caregiver at her home.

Reading A Very Easy Death was like going through it all again: my mom's bewilderment at being so reduced, watching over her in the hospital and rehab facility where some bad things happened with doctors, nurses and techs, then feeling I had failed to save her when she finally passed. 

However, the other thing I shared with Simone is a coming to peace with who my mother was and understanding her so much more deeply. We were no longer at odds in those final months, a huge gift to both of us. 

Simone de Beauvoir is a brilliant writer. She made the concerns, the exasperations, the humorous moments, the grief and relief, so real. This book captures the details, the essence of that passage in life with complete honesty. I know it is honest because I have been there.

I wish I had had this book with me in 2009.

Sunday, July 14, 2019


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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J K Rowling, Scholastic Inc, 2007, 759 pp
I have made it through entire Harry Potter series. Very glad I finished it. The story wraps up perfectly.
In any world, known or unknown, I would want Harry on my side, plus also Hermione.

Friends who have your back, loyalty, courage and intelligence are the values J K Rowling is teaching without any lecturing, moralizing, or any of the other annoying elements sometimes found in books for children.

I think someday when I am truly ancient and can't do much else, I will read these books again.

For adults who have never read them and wonder if they should, see the reviews of my blogger friend Brian at Babbling Books.

Now on to Sara J Maas because my way-younger-than-me blogger friends keep raving about her.

Friday, July 12, 2019


Edsel, Loren D Estleman, The Mysterious Press, 1995, 291 pp
This is the fifth book in Estelman's Detroit Novels series. This series consists of stories of cars, crime and corruption in Detroit, MI, America's former Motor City. I enjoy them because I lived in Ann Arbor, MI, right outside Detroit, for much of my life. One of my uncles was a foreman at Ford Motor Company and my mother's entire family was from Michigan. We visited every summer of my childhood. All I was lacking was this inside look at the ways cars, crime and corruption made Detroit what it was and in many ways what it became.
Each book highlights a particular decade. Edsel is set in the 1950s and ace newspaper reporter Connie Minor, a main character in the first book, Whiskey River, returns. He is more than 20 years older and has been reduced to writing ad copy. He has also just been diagnosed with diabetes. On the first page, Minor is hit with news of his former nemesis, the biggest gangster in Detroit during Prohibition.

Connie Minor lands a job doing advertising and promotion for the upcoming release of the Edsel, one of the worst failures in Ford Motor's history. The story of Ford in those days, its president who is the grandson of Henry Ford, the connections with Walter Reuther who leads the United Auto Workers union, and the mysterious tie-ins with current crime bosses is eye opening. In Loren D Estelman's hands it is also highly entertaining.

As always, the writing is sharp, taut and colored with a noir tinge. It is his perceptive analysis of Detroit in those days compared to the rest of the country ringing with authenticity that always leaves me knowing more about that city with which I was so involved, almost more that I'm sure I want to know!

Do you live in or near a big city and find yourself drawn to novels set there? Hit me with some titles.

If you have ever had anything to do with Detroit, you must read Estleman. His books are sadly out of print in paper but easily found in libraries and as ebooks. 

The books I have read previously in the series are:
Whiskey River: set in 1928-1929
Motown: set in 1966
King of the Corner: set in 1990

Wednesday, July 10, 2019


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Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston, J B Lippincott, 1942, 308 pp
This was my second time reading the incredible Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography. I first read it in 2003 as part of the 1942 list for My Big Fat Reading Project. This time I read it for a reading group. I loved it both times.
Hurston was at the height of her career in 1942. She had published several novels including Their Eyes Were Watching God and she was riding high as one of the few female authors among the Harlem Renaissance phenomenon. Little did she know that her life was about to change and the world was going to leave her in the dust tracks. It was not until Alice Walker resurrected her writing in 1975 that she started to be read again. 

Zora Neale Hurston had a burning desire for story. She read her way out of poverty and seemed to find people who wanted to help her along all through her teenage and adult years. She never rejected that help whether it came from Black or white people, but made the most of it.

Her life was not easy but her spirit was one of tremendous buoyancy, allowing her to bounce back, reinvent, find friends and never dwell on her troubles. This comes across in her writing which is insouciant and rambunctious. My troubles have been nothing in comparison but I have been blessed with that trait of bouncing back, so I felt a kinship with this woman throughout both readings.

I suppose due in part to the increased awareness and discussion about racism still being such a trouble in our country, reading the book this time I noticed her views on all that even more. Those views were so balanced with heart and humor. I understood how much her studies, her travels and her experiences contributed to her understanding of people in general.

If you have never read Dust Tracks on a Road, I recommend it. If you have, let me know how you felt about it. The Bookie Babes all felt positive towards it. Somehow our deep and long discussion did not leave us feeling discouraged or helpless but in a sort of awe about human beings. Seventy-seven years later Zora Neale Hurston reached through time and did that to us.

Monday, July 08, 2019


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Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens, G P Putnam's Sons, 2018, 368 pp
I kept hearing from my reading friends about how great this novel is. They were right! It just hit all my sweet spots for fiction.
Kya is a lonely girl living in marsh lands on the edge of a small North Carolina coastal town. Her father is an abusive drunk but he is the only family she has left. Her mother took off when Kya was only six. She and her older siblings fend for themselves as their father leaves for long periods of time.

So Kya is raised by the marsh, its wild life and tides and swamps and waterways. When she must go into town for supplies, the "upright" people find her strange. They begin to call her the Marsh Girl.

As her siblings leave home one by one, she is the only one left to cook for her father and even has a period of good relations with him but finally he too disappears. She has to figure out almost everything for herself while hiding from truant officers and social services.

I know this sounds terribly dreary and it is. The depths of Kya's loneliness breaks your heart. Still, her intelligence and resourcefulness are amazing. The writing about the natural world and her relationship to it is exquisite. She makes friends with a boy from town who teaches her to read, opening up a whole new world for her. 

As years go by more trouble comes and finally she is trapped by it, even though she has become a young woman and has managed to write and illustrate a book about her marsh, even though she's had it published and made money.

Perhaps it was inevitable because she came of age, leading to her involvement with two men. Her unusual combination of intelligence and innocence could only lead to trouble in such a precarious environment.

I was full of worry for Kya through the entire book but in her own way she survives it all. A completely satisfying ending left me knowing I had read an extraordinary story.

Saturday, July 06, 2019


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The Blue, Nancy Bilyeau, Endeavor Quill, 2018, 434 pp
This novel is a wonderful modern example of historical fiction written in the style of Daphne du Maurier and Mary Stewart, complete with a brave and reckless heroine, romance and both English and French settings. The "Blue" is a color used to paint on porcelain, tricky to formulate and much sought after in 18th century Europe, where porcelain is all the rage and making fortunes for it producers.
Genevieve Planche, our heroine, is an English-born descendant of Huguenot refugees from France. All Protestant sects in France were hounded, persecuted, imprisoned and even burned at the stake in the 16th and 17th centuries. Those who emigrated found acceptance in England as well as in other European countries and the United States. In fact Nancy Bilyeau is a Huguenot descendant.

Genevieve at 24 years of age is not interested in porcelain. Her dream is to be a famous painter in the "historical" style (Rembrandt, da Vinci, Michelangelo), a profession open only to men. She cannot even find a teacher willing to take her on. Instead, she finds the deceptively charming and seemingly wealthy Sir Gabriel Courtenay, who strikes a deal with her. If she will go as a spy to the famous English Derby Porcelain Works and steal the formula for cobalt blue paint, he will finance her art studies in Venice.

So eager is she to get to her goal, she goes with only minor trepidation off to Derby, posing as a painter of flowers on porcelain plates, cups and bowls. She impresses the owner and manages to get access to the young scientist who is working on the cobalt blue formula. She also falls in love with him and he with her. From that moment on she suffers conflicted emotions and puts both herself and her scientific lover in great danger.

Before long, they find themselves captives of King Louis XV, whose investment in the French porcelain factory, Sevres, makes him avid to get that formula for the Blue. 

I loved the novel for the story itself, for the history, and the great characters. My two fellow members of the Tiny Book Club, whom I had convinced to read it, were less enraptured. They found the writing style and plot somewhat improbable and Genevieve too ditsy or something. They were however, quite excited to learn about porcelain. I, of course, encouraged them to read du Maurier and Stewart for other excellent examples of the genre on which I thought Nancy Bilyeau based her approach.
The Tinies held our meeting at The Getty Museum of Los Angeles, first touring their exhibit of French and Chinese porcelain. I was amazed to see that the Chinese, who invented porcelain in the 7th century, had an even more vivid blue than the French. The afternoon came to be one of our most wondrous meetings.

This next part is addressed mainly to bloggers:
Yesterday I read about some snarky pronouncements made by an author regarding bloggers: that we don't buy the books but only get free review copies (as do the "critics"), that we don't use the methods of literary criticism and take attention away from the "better writers." Hm. 
Both of the other Tinies and I bought our copies of The Blue. Some of my fellow bloggers do accept free review copies, but we also buy tons of books and do our best to present balanced, well thought out reviews. 
If not for reviews from Helen at She Reads Novels and Emma at Words and Peace, I would not have learned about this novel, read it and passed it on to you my blog followers. What say you?

Friday, July 05, 2019


Whoa! Fourth of July preparations took over this week. I cleaned, I shopped, I cooked, I hosted. It was huge: fun, food, family, fireworks. OK, now I am back to my regularly scheduled activities. I hope yours was as special as ours!

Once again my reading groups have a great and varied selection of books. I have read two in the past: White Teeth I will reread because it was years ago I read it, Unsheltered I still remember well.

One Book At A Time:
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Carol's Group:
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Bookie Babes:
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Molly's Group:
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Have you read or discussed any of these? Do you have any reading groups scheduled for July? What will you be discussing? 

Monday, July 01, 2019


First off, today is my 14th Blogiversary! 
Have I really kept this up that long? Apparently so. While I sometimes get weary, as I know do my fellow bloggers, I must enjoy it enough to keep going. What I love about blogging are first and foremost, your comments. They truly do make me happy. I also have made many wonderful book friends from all over the world. A BIG thank you to all who follow here. Thanks also to all the bloggers I have met through this practice for keeping me updated on your reading, your thoughts about books, and for introducing me to books I might otherwise have missed.
Now on to what I read in June. It was another great month of reading for me. 
Stats: 13 books read. 10 fiction. 7 written by women. 1 translated. 2 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 2 historical. 1 spy book. 1 crime/thriller. 3 written for children, all of which were fantasy. 2 memoirs. 1 biography.

Places I went: Great Britain, Switzerland, France, Sudan, and an unnamed war-torn Mediterranean city, American states: Washington, Michigan, Maine, Idaho, Texas, New York, Florida and North Carolina. 

Authors new to me: Julia Mary Gibson, Tara Westover, Michael Ende, Delia Owens, Nancy Bilyeau.
Plus I am only behind by 5 reviews!

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My favorites, hard to pick because I liked them all, were The Neverending Story, The Blue, Where the Crawdads Sing, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. 

How was your reading in June? What favorites did you find? Have you read any of these?