Thursday, May 28, 2020


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The Reckless Oath We Made, Bryn Greenwood, G P Putnam's Sons, 2019, 434 pp
Bryn Greenwood is another author I have followed since her first book. This is her fourth novel and once again she writes about the often overlooked, often stereotyped people of Middle America. Her territory is Kansas.
I love her books because they are unflinching looks at these people and because she is one of them, one who bootstrapped herself up and is well on her way to creating her very own genre.

Zee is a woman with burdens, including an easily triggered temper, a housebound hoarder of a mother, and a gullible sister. She does what she must to cover the many expenses of her life as well as the huge holes in her psyche.

When she meets Gentry, a young man somewhere on the spectrum who sees himself as a medieval knight, she finds herself with a champion for the first time in her life.

Gentry actually speaks in Old English, is killer with swords, and lives by a code of honor pretty much lacking in our modern world. Of course Zee, with her long sad history of making a mess of everything she attempts, does not handle this well.

Reading The Reckless Oath We Made requires heaps of suspension of disbelief. It might not be for everyone. However, it is full of so much soul and compassion that I was not worried about trying to understand Gentry's weird language. I loved how Bryn Greenwood created such a hard ass, shoot-herself-in-the-foot female with a heart bigger than Kansas.

If you love a quirky kind of story that makes your own problems look puny in comparison, if you secretly wish there could still be fairy tales in this heartless world, this is the modern fractured fairy tale for you.

Friday, May 22, 2020


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The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War, Serge Pey, Archipelago Books, 2020, 135 pp (translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith, originally published by Zulma, 2011)
This was another wonderful selection from my Archipelago Books subscription. The author, Serge Pey, is a French writer and poet. His parents fled Spain during the Spanish Civil War only to be interned in a concentration camp in France, due to the defeat of the Spanish republicans.
His book grew out of the stories told him by his exiled compatriots. The imagery and characterizations demonstrate his poetical skills and his political heart. He is for those who oppose oppression and fight for freedom.

He celebrates human resilience in the acts of resistance found in each of these interrelated stories. Children born and raised in the camp, old soldiers of the Spanish republicans, mothers, healers, and even some animals come to life. 

The magical infuses many of the incidents. Ghosts and spirits and mystical powers work right beside both brave and desperate humans.

It is the nature of concentration camps to practice brutality but Serge Pey balances atrocity with every possible type of life force in the human spirit.

Sunday, May 17, 2020


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Anathem, Neal Stephenson, HarperCollins, 2008, 935 pp
Since I have not been working on my writing during the pandemic, I figure I can at least squeeze in a few more reviews. I know I have followers who like Neal Stephenson and this one was up there with my favorite reads lately, so here you go.
Another Neal chunkster read! Anathem followed the last one I read: The System of the World. After writing three novels set in the 17th and 18th centuries, he surged way ahead to the year 3000!

The book got mixed reactions when it was published in 2008, even from some of his most diehard fans. My husband advised me that I did not need to waste my time.

I felt my time was well spent, even though it included flipping to an extensive glossary of terms. All the scientists, philosophers and mathematicians are cloistered off in coed monasteries where they study and discuss endlessly their theories while maintaining a wobbly relation with the outside world.
That other world includes the illiterate, irrational, unpredictable people, living on fast food and glued to their devices. There are some exceptions though.

There is a system by which new generations are brought into the monastery setting, since the fras and surs take a vow not to reproduce. I liked the long view on how these new generations are selected and trained.  Various regulations cannot prevent rivalries and tensions, even rebellion within the walls, which made all those characters human after all.

Of course, this is Neal Stephenson, so there has to be more to the book than philosophical and scientific discussion, though despite some great ideas there is maybe a bit too much of that. Sure enough an alien spacecraft lands and the secular powers are so overcome with fear that they must call on the wise guys to help deal with the menace.

Wild adventures ensue including space travel and first contact and all manner of life threatening capers. Also the the scientists, philosophers and mathematicians of all ages get to put their knowledge to the test, including quantum theories as applied to other worlds. 

I found it all absorbing, original in many ways, and clever as can be.

Thursday, May 14, 2020


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The Glass Hotel, Emily St John Mandel, Alfred A Knopf, 2020, 301 pp
I have read and loved every one of Mandel's novels. She has certain preoccupations: young women, loneliness, travel, lost mothers, to name a few. The Glass Hotel places these topics in a story about the financial disaster of 2008.
Vincent began life on Vancouver Island and lost her mother at a young age. She has a troubled brother. One night while tending bar at the most grand hotel on the island, she meets the owner. Jonathan is a super wealthy "investment manager." A year later she marries him, not for love but to get her off the island. Her time with Jonathan takes place among the wealthy in New York City.

This could all have been a device to explore the financial depravity and devastation of the times. It was so much more because of the brilliance of Vincent as a character. Mandel circles through several viewpoints and reading the story is like watching a mirror ball rotating and reflecting the scenes from many facets.

Vincent (and to a lesser degree, her brother) are the everywoman and everyman. As in any great work of fiction they show us ourselves, our dangerous inattention to what goes on around us, our preoccupation with personal issues. It is a gently piercing wake up call just as much as Station Eleven was.

I got to the end, wishing the story could have gone on forever. I remembered how much I always get immersed in the worlds of Emily St John Mandel. The condition of melancholy wraps around me as a reader while at the same time making me feel less alone.

Sunday, May 10, 2020


Good evening at the end of a lovely Mother's Day. My three Zoom reading groups will meet this month. Two of the books are rereads for me but I am happy to reread them. I have already finished Little Women. Today I started The House of the Spirits. I am wild with excitement to read Louise Erdrich's latest, The Nightwatchman.

One Book At A Time:
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Bookie Babes:
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Tiny Book Club:
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Are any of your reading groups going in some form or other? If yes, what will you discuss in May? Have you read or discussed any of these? 

Wednesday, May 06, 2020


Those Who Love, A Biographical Novel of Abigail and John Adams, Irving Stone, Doubleday & Company, 1965, 647 pp
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A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn, Harper & Row, 2015, 688 pp

Today I have two related reviews for you, because the first book led me to the next. I am ranting and I warn you that these are not cheerful reviews.

Those Who Love was the #6 bestseller of 1965 and took me eight days to read. Though it has a slant, Irving Stone did give a picture of the dreams and ideals of this couple as English settlers in Massachusetts. John Adams's dedication to create a balanced government of three branches that would ensure a true democracy was based on deep study of England and the history of other countries. He was trained as a lawyer, he put his wife through much hardship, she was a strong and understanding companion. He became the second President of the new nation, after George Washington, and already the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, on which he worked tirelessly with the Founding Fathers, was cracking at the seams.

The problem was they did not address all the issues. Only men who owned a certain amount of property could vote. The Adamses were not rich, they probably only squeaked by property-wise. They were not in favor of slavery but to get all the colonies to agree on the Constitution, compromise was in order. The rights of Native Americans, slaves, women and the workers of the new country upon whose shoulders the edifice stood, were left out.

I suppose that this is the trouble with a certain kind of idealist. They do not see or understand the 99% of humanity who do most of the work. To understand more about how we got to today, in the middle of a pandemic with a Federal government and a complete idiot of a President who appear to have no idea what they are doing, I decided to read the Howard Zinn book. In fact, I learned that John Adams was up against more than he knew.

I read A People's History of the United States by taking one chapter a day. It took me 25 days and some of it was a slog. He is not the greatest writer.

He does, however, tell the story of the forming and building of the American Empire from a different slant than Irving Stone; also a different slant than kids in school used to get in their American history studies.

In every chapter he contrasts the unrelenting drive of the monied class for expansion, growth, progress and more wealth with the realities of the lower classes. The crimes of our country are really no different than the crimes of any empire building country throughout history.

From reading historical fiction and also the Will Durant history books, I have been aware of what gets done when a nation has that drive towards power and aligns government with finance to achieve those aims. Since I was raised and educated to see America as the best and greatest country in the world, I don't think I ever until now truly confronted what my country has wrought to create that reputation. (I am also aware that not everyone would agree with what I am saying here.)

The other main point of Zinn's book is that the oppressed, be they Native Americans, women, Blacks, workers, immigrants or the people of other countries we have stolen land from or filled with our military bases or plundered for natural resources, will always tend to fight back. It might be inspiring to think that way, well actually it is. I, however, was left with the feeling that capitalism always wins, that our government is still allied with business and the rich, as it has been from its founding.

Perhaps because as I read the book, we were dealing with a pandemic that seemed to be worse here than in other places in the world, that was flattening but not lessening, I could not escape the idea that this is part of our payback, that we are hated by the people we have abused (called terrorism), that we have damaged the world almost to the breaking point (called climate change) and that if my fairly comfortable, deluded and ineffectual middle class goes on this way, we deserve everything that we have coming. I don't feel completely hopeless. I feel mostly enraged.

Sorry to be a downer. I advise reading Zinn's book, if you haven't, if for nothing else than to understand the actual mechanisms of power, money, the military and our politics. Mechanisms that keep us placated and unaware while the military/industrial complex and the bankers continue on their destructive path. He does a good job delineating how that works. I have wondered for a long time how those in power think that money will protect them if the world goes down.

So, I leave you with yet another quote from a Joni Mitchell song: "Who you gonna get to do the dirty work, when all the slaves are free?" The song is "Passion Play" from her 1991 album, Night Ride Home. You can find it on YouTube.

Saturday, May 02, 2020


April had a bit of everything: rain, clouds, sun, heat, virus, flowers and ended up with a green world in my neighborhood. Similarly my reading was all over the place, a good thing since I was stuck at home. I just fell into reading and had a good time!

Stats: 12 books read. 10 fiction. 6 by women. 2 thrillers. 3 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 poetry. 1 speculative. 2 translated. 1 history.

Places I went: Russia, Turkey, Vietnam, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Spain, France, United States.

Authors new to me: Alex Gilvarry, Serge Pey

Favorite books: The Glass Hotel, The Robber Bride and Unsheltered.

Least favorite: None, I liked them all.

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I hope you are surviving this brief breath in eternity, however long it may seem. I hope reading was a solace or escape or even a source of wonder in April. We will get through this.