Sunday, March 29, 2020

THE GREEN BERETS


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The Green Berets, Robin Moore, Crown Publishers, 1965, 430 pp
 
The #5 bestseller in 1965 was a tough read for me. In 1965, I graduated from high school. By 1967, I was a full-blown protester against the Vietnam War. When I started My Big Fat Reading Project, reading books from the 1940s, I found many antiwar sentiments alongside books about, and even glorifying, war.
 
For decades I embraced pacifism. Now in my 70s, I realize that pacifism is a fine ideal but does not work out in real life. All the way from what would you do if someone was trying to destroy a loved one to what if some country is trying to destroy your own. I have also espoused non-violence but observed that eventually most oppressed humans resort to violence. 

Robin Moore was a journalist who got permission to train as a Green Beret and then imbed himself with these Special Forces units in Vietnam to get first hand information on how and why they practiced guerilla warfare. He turned those experiences into fictional stories about some of the operations. According to him, JFK wholeheartedly backed the endeavor, including CIA involvement in some of the operations. The idea grew out of the realization that for Western nations to fight communism in the far east, it appeared impossible to win by conventional military manuevers. 
 
Having read the book, mainly loathing it the whole way, I understand those pressures better. I also learned how the US Military was at war with itself over these new approaches and how some of the top generals actually sabotaged the Special Forces. I felt fortunate to have read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, in which I got the story of the conflicts within the Vietnamese governments. 

Fast forward to the present when the art of war has become even more complex. I don't need to explain. Just read the news.

I still believe that war is not the answer to human problems though it sure seems that to many it is just accepted as the way things are. I don't mean to discount the bravery, patriotism and commitment of soldiers but I do condemn the huge loss of human lives as the price we pay. 

I really do wonder, if any entity could do a correct poll or survey, what the majority of human beings think about the necessity or inevitability of war. What do you think?

Now we are fighting another war against little invisible things called viruses. War news has suddenly become almost absent but it is for sure war and human beings are not united in this war either. Of course there are plenty of courageous and dedicated individuals doing all they can to save lives, to do the right things concerning the spread of the virus; there are officials taking appropriate steps to protect lives. We will get through it somehow but again the result is huge losses.

I am sorry if this post brings you down. I pondered whether or not I should enter this review into the conversation today. Still, this could be a time for us to dedicate ourselves to becoming more educated and responsible for our fellow man, to consider alternatives to the past and what we as individuals, families, groups, can do for each other and our planet. Out of suffering and mistakes and destruction can come new understandings and intelligence and bright ideas.

Keep the wisdom!



Saturday, March 21, 2020

CANTORAS


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Cantoras, Carolina De Robertis, Alfred A Knopf, 2019, 312 pp
 
All my reading groups were of course cancelled and postponed this month, so that gives me room for more reviews. There will be no Reading Group Update for March. This book was the pick of The Tiny Book Club, though we have yet to meet.
 
Three years ago I read this author's wonderful The Gods of Tango. I loved Cantoras just as much. It covers 36 years of life in Uruguay, from 1977 to 2013. The story opens during the years of rule by a military government. The crushing of all dissent, the curfews, the fear of being "disappeared," the deadness of not being able to trust anyone, has brought the citizens of this small country to despair.

I admit I did not exactly know where in South America, Uruguay is. Now I do. I now also know how the military dictatorship came about as well as how the people finally broke free and restored democracy there. Not a spoiler because that information is available.

De Robertis brought this history to vibrant life through her account of five lesbian women who came together to protect each other. Homosexuality was considered one of the worst transgressions under the regime. For these women, coming out was so dangerous that it resulted in a double repression. 

There are passages of horrible incidents balanced with passages of incredible courage and joy. Inevitable horror without any certainty of victory.

The writing is a stunning combination of sensuousness, detailed description of city life but also of the natural world at the beach where the women create a home together. The characters are filled with realistic human interaction.

The story is a glorification of the power inherent in people to live and love in freedom.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

THE SYSTEM OF THE WORLD



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The System of the World, Volume Three of the Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, 2004, 886 pp


Last spring, Neal Stephenson's latest novel, Fall, or, Dodge in Hell was released. I bought the hardcover right away ( I always buy his books), but it sat on the shelf. 

I am a committed fan of this author. I read Snow Crash, his third book, in 2004 and was impressed! 

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Great characters, exciting plot. Since I had not yet read William Gibson, I thought it was he who had invented cyber-punk. Actually, as it turns out, they both did. In 1984!

I went on to read The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon. Always lagging a decade behind. Both were amazing.

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In 2008, Books Expo America was held in Los Angeles. I got to meet Neal in person. He is a tiny, short, rail thin man with a beard, an elf! I picked up an ARC of Anathem, released 9/2008. He signed my copy. He seemed quite the introvert who practiced social distancing as a life style though he has always kept a strong web presence.
 
I have still not read Anathem, but was inspired by meeting him and began his Baroque Cycle. I read Quicksilver and was exhilarated to find descendants of Cryptonomicon characters Jack Shaftoe and Daniel Waterhouse, not to mention Enoch Root, back in the late 1600s. Also I met my favorite female character ever, Eliza of Qwghlm.

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If you have not read these books, I may have lost you by now. If you have, I hope you are reliving the wonder of it all.

The Baroque Cycle consists of three volumes, each of which is well over 800 pages. Set in the late 1600s and early 1700s in England, France and all over the known world in those times, the books trace the transformation of Europe away from the Dark Ages and into rational, scientific systems of government and finance.

That might sound ponderous and boring. It is not! The Thirty Years War, the discovery of calculus by Isaac Newton and Gotfried Leibniz, the effects of alchemy on science, the explosion of gold and slavery due to the expansion of the New World, and more, are given the Alexander Dumas (Count of Monte Cristo) treatment. 

A mind boggling cast of characters engage in unlimited adventures: Kings and Queens, Dukes and Lords, pirates, Royal Society geeks and The King of the Vagabonds, Jack Shaftoe fill the pages. By the end of the three books the system we now spend time navigating and fighting, that is Banking, has been born.

As I finished my reading year of 2019, feeling like I had run and won a marathon by reading 156 books, I caught my breath and determined to read in 2020 as many as I could of the long, I mean really long, books I had been putting off. Forget quantity. Read those tomes.

So, in January I reread Quicksilver. I did love it the first time but did not think I had entirely understood it. I have to thank the late Dorothy Dunnett and the two of her intricate historical novels I read not too long ago (The Game of Kings and Queen's Play), for showing me how to read such things. In fact, Neal acknowledges her as an influence.

In February, I reread the second book of the Baroque Cycle, The Confusion, about which I recalled nothing but feeling confused after reading it in 2012. I am pretty sure I assimilated it this time.

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My conclusion after the second reading: Many people these days think or worry that the world is getting worse. I think human beings on Earth have always led a mostly insane course, with a few who work towards acquiring knowledge as a means of creating a just civilization. What we see going on now is still following both of those trajectories.

This month I read, for the first time, the third volume, The System of the World. I was for it ready now. All immersed in the history and the characters, I was dying to find out if Newton and Liebniz would ever resolve their differences, if Jack and Eliza would ever make up, and what would become of the long suffering Daniel Waterhouse.

The conflicts and plots and mostly gruesome adventures of these characters continue in this volume without respite. Queen Anne of England (did you watch "The Favourite" last year?) meets her demise and is succeeded by King George I. Great Britain, Europe and the world will move forward and never be the same. The System of the World, as we now know it, has been born. 

As for Eliza, Jack, Newton and Leibniz, you will have to read the books yourself.

On this 14th day of March, 2020, as the world stays home and watches pantries empty, gets bored, tries to quell anxiety as best we can, I give you probably the longest post I have ever written. I hope it has helped fill some time for you.

If you have too much time on your hands, all of the Neal Stephenson books I have mentioned are available as ebooks and audio books, not to mention real books. You will be whisked away to times much different than ours and yet feel rather at home. The great conflict between reason and madness continues. 

I look forward to reading that signed copy of Anathem in April.



Sunday, March 08, 2020

THE HILLS REPLY


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The Hills Reply, Tarjei Vesaas, Archipelago Books, 2019, 275 pp (orig published in Norway, 1968, translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokka in 1971 under the title The Boat in the Evening)
 
 
 Like many people who read books, I have for some years now been on a bit of a tepid quest to read more literature from countries beyond the USA, UK and the major countries of Western Europe. It is a quest fraught with non-comprehension, frequent naps while reading, and the dawning realization that storytelling comes in many forms different than what one becomes accustomed to in the above named locales.

Because I began this quest with the desire to experience life in cultures other than my own, I don't begrudge the difficulties. I am finding what I sought. Choosing what to read involves a mix of lurking on translated lit sites, paying attention to Nobel Prize recipients, and finding small presses dedicated to translating such literature into English.

One of the best of such presses is Archipelago Books, headquartered in Brooklyn, NY. I have read some gems published by this press so this year I opted for a one year membership. For $15 a month I get 12 brand new, beautifully bound paperback books with flapped covers, printed in the US on fine paper.

The Hills Reply was the first selection for 2020. I was thrilled to receive it as I had read a novel I loved by Tarjei Vesaas, The Ice Palace. However, The Hills Reply was Vesaas's last novel and something quite different.

In 16 chapters, the author contemplates various incidents in his life from boyhood to elderly man. Most of these chapters do tell a story but the writing is always like a prose poem. Here are the first lines from the first chapter, As It Stands In Memory:

"There he stands in sifting snow. In my thoughts in sifting snow. A father and his winter-shaggy, brown horse, in snow."

In that chapter the boy is working with his father to clear a logging road of snow. He counteracts the monotony, the cold and his "sharp-tongued father" with imaginings about animals.

Every subsequent chapter follows the boy growing up, going through his life's changes, working through his inner feelings and difficulties and challenges. He is usually walking or engaged in outdoor activities. He seeks answers and understandings through observation of the natural world.

It took me six days to read the book and to figure out at least some idea of what Tarjei Vessas was attempting. The man rarely traveled from his family's farmland but wrote many novels, short stories, poems, and plays. He is quite revered in Norway and has a worldwide readership. 

I spend many hours inside my house these days, reading and writing. When I leave my house, I spend most of my time with other readers. In spring, summer and fall, I work outside tending my big yard, watching it move through the seasons, observing the trees, the shrubs, the flowers, the birds, insects, and small animals with whom I share the property. When I travel it is most often lately with my husband by car to visit National Parks.

After reading The Hills Reply, I became aware that this author had put together for me an understanding of the inner life of my mind and imagination with the ways I solve my problems through my own experiences with life forms other than human. 

I claimed in my post about the books I read in February that this book was my least favorite. That was true while I was reading it but the book haunted me. I now feel it was worth the time spent grasping for comprehension among all its words. Once again I was reminded to spend time in and pay attention to the natural world as a positive healing activity. I will most likely read it again over the coming years.

I hope you are all as well as you can be in these times and that you enjoyed a nice long review from me this week.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

BOOKS READ IN FEBRUARY






Here I am for my Saturday post. Also Happy Leap Day! Today's post is about the books I read in February. I had a great month with 11 books read.

I have not just been goofing off and reading though. I am about to wrap up a semi-final draft of a chapter for my book. The book is autobiography mixed with a survey of the literature I have chosen to read from the years I have lived, the Big Fat Reading Project I am often talking about. The chapter I have all but finished covers 1961 when I finished junior high (as it was called then) and started high school. The working title for my book is Reading For My Life and the chapter title is Teenage Wasteland. 

I appreciate your comments about missing my longer reviews, so in March I will try to serve up at least one, maybe two of those, featuring books I especially enjoyed reading in February. 

Stats: 11 books read. 10 fiction. 5 by women. 3 historical novels. 1 children's picture book. 1 nonfiction. 2 thrillers. 1 mystery. 1 translated. 2 for My Big Fat Reading Project (epic fail because I had planned to read 4 for that.)

Authors new to me: Bel Kaufman and William Gibson

Countries I visited: USA, France, Great Britain, Korea, Norway, Japan.

Favorites: The Water Dancer and Interior Chinatown

Least favorite (only because it was hard to read for me): The Hills Reply


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I hope your February reading went well and would love to know what your favorite reads were.


Saturday, February 22, 2020

SONG OF SOLOMON, THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN AND THE WATER DANCER



Today I have some actual reviews for you. I hope you still like my new method of mini-reviews. These are three of the best novels I have read lately.

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I reread this for one of my reading groups. It is Toni Morrison's third novel and her first time writing from a male point of view.

Milkman, the main character, takes a long time to come of age. His parents had a marriage of deep conflicts and his mother nursed him for many years. Hence his nickname. When his parents each tell him their separate sides of the story, he goes off to find out the truth of his family roots. He is looking for reasons and he finds plenty.

In addition to getting a deeper understanding of the novel from my second reading, I got a renewed purpose to tell my own story. If someday my sons read it, at least they will know how it was for me and how their childhoods became so crazy. At the end, Milkman flies! 


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In another reading group pick, Lisa See sets her latest novel on a Korean island and reveals the lives of women divers, called haenyeo, from 1938 to 2008. These women supported their families by reaping from the sea the marine creatures that fed them and brought in income.

She explores her favorite topic: friendship between women. She also gives a history lesson about Korea from the days of Japanese colonization through the Korean War and up to the 21st century.

The women lived a matrifocal life: they worked in the sea and in their own fields, having numerous children who were cared for by their husbands while they dived. They also suffered great loss as political changes on the island led to mass killings that included many of their children, husbands and friends.

Through her meticulous and voluminous research Lisa See does her usual excellent job of making a foreign culture come to life while delving into the deep griefs and guilt that left her main character almost psychologically destroyed. Yet this woman had strengths beyond anything I could even imagine.


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My reading groups brought me the best books this month. The Water Dancer is truly amazing! I already knew Ta-Nehisi Coates to be a perceptive writer who can expose hard truths with equal parts fact and emotion. In his first work of fiction he tells the story of the early Abolition movement, the Underground Railroad, and Harriet Tubman, all through the eyes and voice of a slave in Virginia.

It, like Song of Solomon, is a coming of age tale as well as a treatise on how lost memories being recovered can change a man, a woman, a child, an entire people. The parallels between this novel, Toni Morrison's book and Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, are of course many. 

Hiram Walker, son of his enslaved mother and his plantation master father, falls into a special power called Conduction. Harriet Tubman also had that power and helped Hiram develop his own. In doing so, he finds his history, his purpose and his strengths.

I had to pay close attention as I read. Hard to do because the story is so gripping and the writing so vivid that all I wanted to do was turn the pages as fast as I could. 

Have you read any great books lately? I can recommend each of the above if you have not already read them.

 



Saturday, February 15, 2020

READING LIST FOR 1964



I finally finished my reading list for 1964. As most of you know, in 2005 I began what I call My Big Fat Reading List. It entails reading the top 10 bestsellers, the award winning novels, and a selection of authors I chose to follow through the years. It is a huge, possibly impossible to complete, project which is the major part of my research for writing a book about my life as it relates to the literature of the years I have lived.

This list is one of the longest so far and it took me from April 2018 to January 2020 to get through it. I post the list for you here because I know some of my followers are interested in my project. In 1964 I finished my junior year of high school and began my senior year. It was a momentous year in the United States as well as around the world, but fiction tends to lag behind the news because it takes longer to write. So, no books about the Beatles yet!

BESTSELLERS

1.    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carre
2.    Candy, Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg
3.    Herzog, Saul Bellow
4.    Armageddon, Leon Uris
5.    The Man, Irving Wallace
6.    The Rector of Justin, Louis Auchincloss
7.    The Martyred, Richard E Kim
8.    You Only Live Twice, Ian Fleming
9.    This Rough Magic, Mary Stewart
10.                  Convention, Fletcher Knebel and Charles W Bailey II


OTHERS

1.                 PULITZER: No award
2.                 NEWBERY: It’s Like This, Cat, Emily Cheney Neville
3.                 CALDECOTT: Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
4.                 NBA: The Centaur, John Updike
5.                 HUGO: Way Station, Clifford Simak 
6.                 EDGAR: The Light of Day, Eric Ambler
7.                 Arrow of God, Chinua Achebe-Nigeria
8.                 Black Hearts in Battersea, Joan Aiken
9.                 The Bloody Sun, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10.             The Book of Three, Lloyd Alexander
11.             Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
12.             Clans of the Alphane Moon, Philip K Dick
13.             The Drought, J G Ballard
14.             Encyclopedia Brown Boy Detective, Donald J Sobol
15.             Farnham’s Freehold, Robert A Heinlein
16.             Flight of a Witch, Ellis Peters
17.             Flood, Robert Penn Warren
18.             For the Good of the Cause, A Solzhenitsyn
19.             The Garrick Year, Margaret Drabble
20.             Girls in Their Married Bliss, Edna O’Brien
21.             The Glass Cell, Patricia Highsmith
22.             Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
23.             If Morning Ever Comes, Anne Tyler
24.             The Italian Girl, Iris Murdoch
25.             Julian, Gore Vidal
26.             A Kind of Anger, Eric Ambler
27.             Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby, Jr
28.             Little Big Man, Thomas Berger
29.             The Little Girls, Elizabeth Bowen
30.             A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
31.             The Old Boys, William Trevor
32.             The Old Man and Me, Elaine Dundy
33.             A Personal Matter, Oe Kenzaburo
34.             Queen’s Play, Dorothy Dunnett 
35.             The Ravishing of Lol Stein, Marguerite Duras
36.             Ribsy, Beverly Cleary
37.             The Shadow of the Sun, A S Byatt
38.             Shepherds of the Night, Jorge Amado
39.             The Silence of Herondale, Joan Aiken
40.             Sometimes A Great Notion, Ken Kesey
41.             The Spire, William Golding
42.             Star Watchman, Ben Bova
43.             The Two Faces of January, Patricia Highsmith
44.             A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir
45.             The Wapshot Scandal, John Cheever
46.             Web of the Witch World, Andre Norton
47.             With Shuddering Fall, Joyce Carol Oates
48.             The Woman in the Dunes, Kobo Abe


What were you doing in 1964? Were you even born yet? Have you read any of these books? 

Saturday, February 08, 2020

FEBRUARY READING GROUP UPDATE


February is another busy reading group month for me. Even though I have read three of the books before I decided to reread both The Night Circus and Song of Solomon. In fact, I am so happy with that decision that I might also reread An American Marriage. 

Tina's Group:
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Tiny Book Club:
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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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What are your groups reading? Have you discussed or read any of these books? 


Saturday, February 01, 2020

BOOKS READ IN JANUARY


I had a great month reading long books (two were over 900 pages) as well as reading books I wanted to read without worrying about how many. I got back to my writing as planned and have written most of the rough draft of my next chapter. I also finished reading the books for my 1964 list and got to the first bestseller of the 1965 list. Can you guess which one that was? For some reason I read mostly historical fiction. Was the present too much to deal with in January? You bet!

Stats: 8 books read. 8 fiction. 6 by women. 6 historical fiction. 1 magic. 2 rereads: Quicksilver and The Night Circus

Countries I visited: USA, Great Britain, France, Israel.

I have read all of these authors before so no new ones. 

Favorites: The Source and The Night Circus
Least favorite: The Great Alone

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I have not been much of a rereader in my adult years but I had never finished Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy so I went back to the beginning with Quicksilver. Perhaps reading two long historical novels by Dorothy Dunnett had an influence because I got much more from Quicksilver than I did on the first read. 

I was sure I would not reread The Night Circus (it was for a reading group) but wow, I loved it even more than I did the first time!

Have you read any of the books I did? What were your best reads last month?




Saturday, January 25, 2020

JANUARY READING GROUP UPDATE



A great line up of books to discuss this month:

Tiny Book Club:
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Molly's Group:
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Carol's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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Bookie Babes:
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I have already met to discuss the first four titles. I can attest that those made for good discussions.
Have you read and/or discussed any of these novels? Did you discuss any others lately that worked well for a reading group?


Saturday, January 18, 2020

TOP 25 BOOKS READ IN 2019


Once again, it was hard to choose only 25 of all the wonderful books I read last year. I made a short runners up list. Not all of these were published in 2019 but all were read during the year.
Starred titles indicate books reviewed on the blog.

*Bowlaway, Elizabeth McCracken
*Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, Janet Fitch
*Daisy Jones & the Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid
*Disoriental, Negar Djavadi
*The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin
*Juliet the Maniac, Juliet Escoria
*Little Big Man, Thomas Berger
*The Lonely Hearts Hotel, Heather O’Neill
*Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, T Kira Madden
*The Loved Ones, Sonya Chung
*Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli
*Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
*The Neverending Story, Michael Ende
*The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
*Once Upon A River, Diane Setterfeld
Palm Latitudes, Kate Braverman
*Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
*Stone Upon Stone, Wieslaw Mysliwski
*Sula, Toni Morrison
*The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E Harrow
*The Testaments, Margaret Atwood
*The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers
*Trust Exercise, Susan Choi
The Vexations, Caitlin Horrocks
*Washinton Black, Esi Edugyan

Runners Up
*The Blue, Nancy Bilyeau
*A Kind of Freedom, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
No Walls and the Recurring Dream, Ani di Franco
*The Prisoner of Heaven, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
*Sisters In Law, Linda R Hirshman
*Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
*Wintering, A Novel of Sylvia Plath, Kate Moses

Happy Reading in 2020!
 


Saturday, January 11, 2020

BOOKS READ IN DECEMBER




Happy New Year! My holiday break went a bit longer than planned. I spent the last week in December reading enough books to make my yearly goal of 156 books. It was glorious reading that many books in one year but keeping up with the reviews of them became more time consuming than I had predicted and writing on my own book went completely dead by about May.

So I spent the first week of the New Year figuring out what changes I needed to make. I decided that my own writing must take priority and my reading should be focused on the lists of My Big Fat Reading Project because that is the main research for my book. I considered giving up entirely on the blog but I treasure the relationships I have made through it. So for now, here is the plan: Read primarily from My Big Fat Reading Project and for my reading groups. Write reviews for my own edification as relates to my writing. Post here about once a week, mostly lists such as the books I read each month, the Reading Group Update and possibly the occasional review of books that I especially love.

One day a week I will visit the bloggers I follow and leave comments when I truly have something to say. (I hope this is enough to keep in touch.) Write at least five days a week (that also includes research and revision as I go.)  If you want to see what I am currently reading you can follow me on Goodreads or Twitter. Thank you in advance for understanding.

Stats for December: 13 books read. 11 fiction. 8 by women. 3 from My Big Fat Reading Project.
2 historical. 4 thrillers. 1 mystery. 1 memoir. 1 biography. 1 picture book.

Countries I visited: Brazil, Great Britain, Greece, France, Poland, USA.

Authors new to me: Kate Braverman, Ani DiFranco, Lili Anolik, Caitlin Horrocks, Julie Otsuka, Simms Tabak

Favorites: Palm Latitudes, No Walls and the Recurring Dream, The Vexations

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How did your reading go in December? Have you read any of these?