Monday, April 26, 2021



Dear Bloggers and Followers,

Due to some psychic upheaval over the past few weeks, I have taken the decision to discontinue my efforts in the Blogosphere. I have kept Keep The Wisdom going for almost 16 years, a pretty good run. My original purpose was to create a "web presence" as it was called in 2005, to make some connections and build an audience for the book I had started writing. 

I have made many wonderful connections. However the blog itself gradually took over and consumed more and more of my writing time. Thus I made less and less progress on the book. Since I will turn 74 years old this August, I must face some facts about the time I have left to finish the project.

It is a tough decision because I have made so many great friends here. I love and respect all of you and wish you the best in your reading endeavors. 

I will leave the blog online for as long as the technology supports it. I'll be posting the books I read on Goodreads and Twitter, if you wish to follow me there. 

Thank you so much for following me here, for sharing your blogs with me, and especially for all your comments. 

Goodbye for now.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021


The Twin, Gerbrand Bakker, Archipelago Books, 2009, 343 pp (originally published by Cossee, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2006; translated from The Dutch by David Colmer.)

The Twin won the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. I have had it on my shelf of unread Archipelago translated books for eleven years, never suspecting that it is an almost perfect novel. Sometimes books find me at just the right time though.

The eponymous twin is Helmer, a late middle aged man who lost his twin brother at age 18. They were as close as twins often are but their father favored the other boy. Henk had been engaged to be married, he had intended to carry on there at the family farm. Helmer had been at university but was obliged to return home and take over his brother's duties. 

The novel opens as Helmer is moving his aged father to an upstairs bedroom. His mother has been dead for a decade. As Helmer moves through his DIY renovation of the first floor, through his daily routine of farm drudgery, it becomes clear that he has pretty well lost himself through the years he was forced to be Henk. He could have said no, I'm going back to university, but he did not. 

The story of a man looking back on his life has been one I have read in many novels and memoirs. Rarely have I read it done so well. Perhaps that has something to do with the setting, of dikes and rivers and lakes and marshy ground, all rendered with exceptional skill. 

Also, and most wonderful, is how Gerbrand Bakker packed so much life, loss, beauty and wry humor into his pages. By the end I felt I had known Helmer, his family and neighbors, the years as they passed, as well as if I had been there with them. Though the novel is a painting in words about loneliness as a chronic condition, I did not close the book feeling sad, depressed or sorry about anything.

I did want to get on a plane and go to The Netherlands. No other book I have read set in that country has given me that urge.

Saturday, April 10, 2021


 The big news is that one and maybe two of my reading groups will meet in person this month because all members are fully vaccinated! I am excited about every book that will be discussed this month.

One Book At A Time:

I have been on a bit of a Joyce Carol Oates obsession lately and recommended this one for our group. 

Carol's Group:

I am so excited to read this latest book by Kazuo Ishiguro. We may meet on the patio of one of our members.

Bookie Babes:

This is nonfiction but sounds like a good read about a female spy ring in France during the German occupation of France.

Tina's Group:

This group has not met during the pandemic because the leader does not favor meetings on Zoom. Now we are all vaccinated so we will meet at her house to discuss this book about women who use poison to liberate women from men who have harmed them. Sounds good to me!

How is it going with your reading groups? Have you discussed any of these books? 

Wednesday, April 07, 2021


Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges, Grove Press, 1962, 174 pp (originally published 1956 by Emcee Editores, Buenos Aires, Argentina, translated from the Spanish by Anthony Kerrigan.)

Sometimes you go on a first date and just nothing happens. I was anticipating a huge, great experience when I first opened the book. So many readers seem to revere this writer. I read the first "story," thinking I'd gotten the hang of enjoying short stories lately. That piece, entitled "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertuis" read like a foreign language to me, even though it was translated into English. I meandered through its 19 pages and where. What did I just read?

At the rate of one a day, I pressed on. It was like being in a place where I did not, could not, know or read or understand the language. OK, I thought, as one sometimes does on a first date, who does this guy think he is?

After a few days I realized that these "stories" were more like essays or fictional book reviews about books and authors I did not know. Fine, so that is like being at a party where you are not hip to what everyone else is talking about. You just drink.

Finally I admitted that I was in over my head. I sent messages on Twitter to authors I follow who might be nice to me. They were. They offered some tips. I kept going.

I began to see a glimpse of what authors like William Gibson, John Updike, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes have raved about. Borges, as some have said, "has read all the books." Books I probably will never read but books that formed a labyrinth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon wrote a four volume series of novels anchored by what he called the Labyrinth of Books. Labyrinths are a key image with Borges. I finished this collection of 17 stories and found three I especially liked: "The Form of the Sword," "Three Versions of Judas,"  "The South." I felt I had been through an initiation that might or might not have included ingesting certain substances. All I was sure about was that it had been an initiation.

Being a Leo, a feminist, a woman who asserts herself, I don't enjoy being made to feel dumb or inferior. Still, I had to admit I had been in the presence of an intelligence, insouciant for sure, but nobody's fool. Someone I could learn from.

I own another collection by Borges, entitled Labyrinths. It contains all of the stories in Ficciones plus other writings. When I get over myself, I will read that and see what else I can learn.

Because I know one thing for sure: many stories and novels are fairytales, designed to make us feel comfortable in the lives we think we are living. In a way, such literature is as much of a lie as what we get from advertising or politics. I suspect that writers like Borges had something else going on. I am interested in finding out more about that. We will have a second date.

Friday, April 02, 2021


 Since I have lived in California, March has become a favorite month. Trees begin to leaf out, daffodils and flowering trees seem to change overnight, birds sing in the early mornings and sometimes I can take one quilt off the bed. The increasing number of people receiving their vaccinations gave us hope. 

My reading was all over the place in genre and style and location. I visited 6 countries other than America, I was introduced to 6 authors new to me, and I read books translated from the Dutch, the French and the Spanish. 

Stats: 9 books read. 8 fiction. 3 by women; low for me; 2 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 thriller. 2 historical fiction. 3 translated. 1 memoir.

Places I went: Jamaica, Hong Kong, Wales, Pakistan, Netherlands, Tunisia.

Authors new to me: Sharon Kay Penman, Malala Yousafzai, Jorge Luis Borges, Gebrand Bakker, Daniel A Hoyt, Yamen Manai.

I had many favorites: My Year Abroad, Here Be Dragons, Annie and the Wolves, The Twin, The Ardent Swarm.

Have you read any of these books? What were your favorite reads in March?

Wednesday, March 31, 2021



I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai, Little Brown and Company, 2013, 270 pp

This reading group pick turned out to be better than I expected. In case you missed it, MalalaYousafzai, aka The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot By the Taliban, made headlines around the world after she was shot and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

Her story is uplifting. Since she was a small girl, she loved to read and write, she loved school, and was encouraged by her father, a Pakistani advocate for education of both boys and girls. Hers and her father's outspoken presence in Pakistan drew the attention of the Taliban who eventually sent a young gunman to shoot her down while she was riding home from school in October, 2012. She lived through horrific medical procedures and recovered thanks to international outcry and support.

I learned from a child's POV what it was like growing up in Pakistan from 1997 to 2012. Still to this day she is not welcome in her country. Due to her transfer to Great Britain while she was fighting for her life, due to skillful surgeons and doctors, she recovered. She has continued to work for education, especially for women.

The book was co-written with British journalist Christina Lamb. It reads smoothly and I felt it captured Malala's childhood voice nicely. She was only 15 when she was shot. Her recovery took two years including several operations and extended physiotherapy.

Now anytime I feel angry about the lack of rights and opportunities for girls and women around the world, I think of Malala and what she endured. Apparently it is all a matter of enduring.

Monday, March 29, 2021


 Annie and the Wolves, Andromeda Romano-Lax, Soho Press, 2021, 344 pp

When I discovered that Annie Oakley was a main character in this novel, I had to read it. Annie Oakley was a childhood heroine of mine. I never missed an episode of the TV series and for years when we played cowboys outside, I was Annie and my bike was my horse. I also had a cap gun and a holster.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is a trusted author for me and she maintained that trust in her latest novel. She creates wonderful flawed characters and her plots include history, mystery and a bit of psychology. In Annie and the Wolves she proved she can handle a dual timeline better than most.

The portrayal of Annie Oakley in the TV series certainly showed her as the phenomenal and fearless sharpshooter she was, but it provided little concerning the facts of her life. I was absorbed by the history Romano-Lax dug up, showing who Annie was, the abuse and trials she overcame as well as her passion for enabling women to protect themselves. 

The current timeline features Ruth McClintock, an historian whose obsession with Annie nearly derailed her career and her love life. Both Annie and Ruth suffered from residual and debilitating consequences of violent accidents, including out-of-body episodes that seemed strangely like time travel.

Exciting, thought-provoking, and a deep exploration of female revenge, this novel thrilled me to the core.

Here are links to my review of two earlier novels by this author:

The Spanish Bow

The Detour

Friday, March 26, 2021



Here Be Dragons, Sharon Kay Penman, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985, 701 pp

How do you choose what to read next? For me it is complex. I have lists, I have plans, I have impulses. I first learned about Sharon Kay Penman from a blogger. Helen at She Reads Novels, my favorite historical fiction blog, has reviewed Penman's books over the years. Since her books are often long, as is this one, I kept putting off reading her.

The impulse came when I learned of Ms Penman's death on January 22 of this year. I then felt guilty for not having read her yet because I would no longer be able to tell her if I liked her books. It also happens that I am gradually making my way through Will Durant's The Age of Faith, a history of the Middle Ages.

Here Be Dragons, set in Medieval England and Wales, is a historical fiction lover's dream come true. Solid research; the evocation of time and place, people and customs; dramatic set pieces that bring wars and kings and feuds and families to life; and best of all to me, equal time given to the women.

The story ranges from 1133 to 1216 during the reigns of several Plantagenet Kings: Henry II, his sons Richard I (the Lion Heart) and King John. Eleanor of Aquitaine appears, wife of Henry II, mother of Richard I and John. She does not come across as favorably as she does in other stories I have read but she looms large.

The focus however is Wales and the exploits of her Princes, including both internal feuds and their attempts to keep the English Kings out of their country. When King John marries off his illegitimate daughter Joanna to the powerful Welsh Prince Llewelyn, in an attempt to secure a truce, the stage is set for a grand passion fraught with conflicting loyalties.

I spent many days reading Here Be Dragons. I was never bored. In fact, I was spellbound. I love studying history and then reading the historical novels that bring the key figures and the attendant families and personal struggles down to the everyday particulars.

This was a perfect example of that with a passionate love story that includes great sex and stormy emotions but is never overdone. I will read more by Sharon Kay Penman. She wrote 13 other books!

Have you read this author? If so, which ones are your favorites?

Monday, March 22, 2021


 My Year Abroad, Chang-rae Lee, Riverhead Books, 2021, 498 pp

This is Chang-rae Lee's sixth novel. I have read every single previous one and loved each one in different ways.

I loved My Year Abroad for several things: the smart, sassy and delicious writing; the hero Tiller and his viewpoint as an Asian/American young man; the absolute richness that Chang-rae Lee brings to all his novels.

Let's go right to Tiller. In many ways he is a mess and yet he is wide open to experience. He has a secret sorrow and is so emotionally vulnerable I just wanted to give him hugs all the time. He is so game and willing when he follows the other main character, Pong the Chinese/American entrepreneur, into Asia. He just keeps trying to be whatever Pong seems to see in him. Many wild adventures ensue, seemingly millions of meals, predatory men and women of all levels of Asian society, and scenes that are barely believable. 

There is an alternating time line in the story concerning Tiller's life in New Jersey, both before and after his year abroad. This was somewhat annoying except by the end I realized the author did me a favor. No matter the horrors Tiller experienced in that year, you know he made it through and you are shown his inner strengths in the kindest way possible.

That last paragraph may sound like a spoiler but it is not because you know all along that he did survive. The wonder of the book is that you still worry he won't.

The smart and sassy aspect includes Lee's deftness with the way college age Americans speak and behave. Also the exact truths he writes about our modern times, stereotypes, global trade practices, the effects of capitalism as a global phenomenon, all done in emotional yet humorous ways.

In case you are thinking this is a lot to unpack, you are right. You will know quite soon in the book whether it is your kind of story or not. It certainly was mine.

Friday, March 19, 2021


 As You Were, David Tromblay, Dzanc Books, 2021, 236 pp

This memoir was the February 2021 selection of the Nervous Breakdown Book Club. It is a searing and tough read.

David Tromblay grew up outside Duluth, MN, son of a Native American father and a woman too young to be a mother. David's mother ran away from his father's abuse, ultimately dropping her two kids off at their paternal grandmother's because she could not afford to raise them by herself. 

But grandma was just another link in the chain. Ripped from her tribal home and sent to one of those boarding schools where they practiced a brutal form of conversion therapy designed to turn Native American children into White people, she has no other parenting skills than strict, abusive discipline.

As soon as David is old enough, he enlists in the military and serves successive re-enlistments. It is no more and no less dangerous than his childhood, even in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is all he knows about survival.

When he finally leaves the military, broken in body and mind, he finds his spirit and a way to live through writing. What a writer he is! The memoir is written in second person, a way to distance himself from himself. It works brilliantly.

If you are triggered by violence, especially towards children, I would not fault you at all for skipping As You Were.

I have a few thoughts I would like to mention. For many years I have been reading both history and historical fiction by authors from all over the world and set in places all around the globe. The through line to it all is violence, struggles for power, feuds, genocides, etc. 

Another through line is love, faith in a higher power, the benefits of literacy, education and the arts. All of this is part of being human. 

What I learned from David Tromblay, and not for the first time, is that while our bodies can be weak and vulnerable, our spirits are tough. I never tire of reading just about any kind of story. Trauma can be found anywhere from the home to the streets to the battlefield, even within the natural world. It takes a certain equation of toughness and compassion to get us through.

Sunday, March 14, 2021


 Birds of America, Mary McCarthy, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1965, 344 pp

Never would I ever have guessed that I would love so much this novel from 1965. I should not have been that surprised. Mary McCarthy is one of my favorite female 20th century writers, so intelligent, such sharp humor.

Peter Levi is the son of a Jewish historian, the stepson of a Jewish scientist, the son of a thrice married Anglo Saxon Protestant mother who is also a world famous harpsichordist. He passed his younger years being shuttled between New England and Berkeley, CA. He was in love with his mother as a child. By the end of the book, when he is just 19, he still loves her deeply but is aware of her flaws.

I suspect that a great deal of why I was so taken is the time period. Peter grew up in the same years I did. My parents never divorced but my father was an armchair intellectual, my mother had been an aspiring organist. They were both liberals to the end and encouraged me to be well read, well educated, and intelligent.

Peter is a bit awkward socially. He studies philosophy in college. For most of the novel he is in his junior year at the Sorbonne in Paris. He loves the natural world, is in favor of the Civil Rights movement and agonizes continually about how to be. Most of all, he is against war, the Vietnam War in particular, and has the draft hanging over him, as did all the young men I knew at that age.

How do you write a coming of age tale that is emotional, political, philosophical, and traces so delicately the mother/son relationship, all at the same time? How do you create a woke young man in the latter half of the 20th century? How do you breathe life into such a worldly yet confused character? Read The Birds of America and learn.

Friday, March 12, 2021


 Once more, on Zoom, at least three of my groups will meet. But a glimmer of hope with the vaccine rollout is stimulating speculation about when, where and how we could me in person again.

One Book At A Time:

I know, you are thinking didn't we discuss that last month? Due to illness, the meeting was postponed until March, so I will do my best to remember why I loved this book so much.

Bookie Babes:

Not a book I was dying to read, but I can understand it was chosen to give us hope.

Carol's Group:

This is one of my favorite books ever and while I will not reread, I am beyond excited to finally discuss it with the great readers in this group.

Have you read or discussed any of these books? Are you anticipating meeting in person again if you have a reading group or two you belong to?

Wednesday, March 10, 2021


 Solaris, Stanislaw Lem, Harvest Books, 1970, 204 pp.

[Translation note: Solaris was written in Polish and published in Poland in 1961. The Harvest edition of 1970 was translated from the French by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. Stanislaw Lem pronounced the French translation "poor." In 2011, Bill Johnston published the first and only translation direct from the Polish to English.]

Solaris is the third of three books I read in February that have a Polish connection. The first was the historical novel Poland by James Michener. The second was Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, set in a 21st century Polish village. Solaris is by a Polish author but is set in space. This little challenge left me giddy.

I read Solaris because it is an iconic sci fi novel published in 1961 just as the space race was taking off. I read the "poor" Kilmartin/Cox translation mentioned above, not knowing until the other day that there was a better one. That may explain some oddities I noticed.

If you are interested here are two links with more about Stanislaw Lem and the two translations.

Even so, it is an amazing tale about a station on Polaris, a planet orbiting two suns and covered mainly by an ocean, possibly a sentient body of something similar to water. This ocean functions as a sort of massive brain with the power to create psychological changes in the Earth scientists who come to study it.

The novel opens with the arrival of Kris Kelvin, a trained psychologist and astronaut, who finds the station in disarray with two of the remaining astronauts acting quite deranged and a third dead. Kris is a strong, no nonsense character, brave and deliberate. Soon enough he too begins to suffer from what may be hallucinations but may be something else.

I did enjoy and admire the story. It dawns on any reader who has read much science fiction that Lem did not write a standard sci fi tale compared to American works. His book is also allegorical, humanistic instead of militaristic, and satirical about the whole space project as it is playing out on Earth. He seems to be making an examination of what may lie beneath man's quest to find life on other planets.

Each character has brought his personal psychological baggage to space. The ocean on Solaris appears to have the purpose of revealing the suppressed emotional darkness of that baggage to the spacemen, causing what appear to be hallucinations of people from each one's past.

So very creepy and disconcerting but also exciting. You wonder who will succumb and who will survive. Kris Kelvin tells this story of how he came to penetrate the purposes of the ocean. Did he? Or did he go insane? The end of the story is a somewhat murky yet somehow satisfying conclusion.

Two movies have been made from this translation. One in 1972 by Andrei Tarkovsky and one in 2002 by Stephen Soderberg, starring George Clooney. I saw one of them, not sure which, several years ago and came away not understanding what I had just watched. I have requested the 1972 movie from Netflix. 

Now tell me of your Solaris encounters, if you have any.

Sunday, March 07, 2021


 Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk, Riverhead Books, 2019, 274 pp (originally published by Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow, Poland, 2009; translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.)

When I reviewed Poland  by James Michener, I mentioned two books I planned to read by Polish authors. This is one of them and is the third novel I have read by Olga Tokarczuk. She is my favorite Polish author.

"Drive your plow over the bones of the dead" is a line from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Janina, protagonist of this novel, has many interests, one of which is working with a friend to translate William Blake into Polish.

If all of that sound obscure and scholarly, the novel is anything but. Instead it is a murder mystery, even a thriller. Men in Janina's village are turning up dead. It looks like murder but the police are not doing much to apprehend any suspects. Janina's attempts to provide evidence in the form of letters to the police chief are almost comical, making her appear to be an aging crank who is possibly losing touch with reality.

Her voice as the first person narrator of the story is unmistakable. "I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by ambulance in the Night." She despises her given name and has "afflictions" that can send her to bed for days. I can relate to that!

She is also an accomplished astrologer and does the charts of everyone she knows by which she predicts what will happen to them. When she is well she has incredible energy and strength. Her escapades in the village bring the sense of a small 21st century Polish town on the Czech border to life.

I won't say more because I would certainly spoil it for future readers. I found it all so entertaining with unique characters, some of whom reminded me of my interactions with New Age friends and my own past as a nonconformist hippy.

This is the third novel I have read by Tokarczuk, winner of the Man Booker International Prize and the Nobel Prize. Her latest novel, The Books of Jacob, historical fiction featuring a Polish Jew who claimed to be the Messiah, is due in English in early 2022. I can hardly wait.

Thursday, March 04, 2021


 Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, Casey Cep, Knopf, 2019, 336 pp

This was the February pick for my Bookie Babes reading group and I was not sure I would be happy with it since it is nonfiction and I was longing to discuss fiction. No problem. It was great!

I am surely a fan of Harper Lee. I have read To Kill A Mockingbird and seen the movie. I have read the controversial Go Set A Watchman and the Charles Shields biography Mockingbird. Casey Cep managed to incorporate those books and the movie into a deep diving story of Alabama as it influenced Lee's writing and her life.

Furious Hours has three parts, ingeniously constructed like a puzzle that leads to "the last trial of Harper Lee."

Part One: The Reverend concerns a Black man in Alabama, born in the year that Alabama Power began to build a dam which would flood a large area not too far from Harper Lee's family home and thus bring electricity to the state. Willie Maxwell did become a Reverend, preaching to a wide flock of African American Southern Baptists. 

He was also a con man who perfected a life insurance scam. He ensured, then murdered three wives and numerous relatives, after which he collected their death benefits as beneficiary of their policies. He became rich, feared in his community, and suspected of practicing voodoo.

Part Two: The Lawyer. Tom Radney was an Alabama defense lawyer and politician with Presidential aspirations. He became famous for never losing a case. The Reverend Willie Maxwell hired Radney each time he was accused of murder but was never convicted of either murder or fraud.

Part Three: The Writer. Years passed and Tom Radney never made it to the White House due to being too progressive for a Southern politician. When a member of the Reverend's congregation put three bullets into the Reverend's head, that member was charged with murder.

Tom Radney took the case intending to get the murderer of his former, now deceased client, off on an insanity plea. Harper Lee arrived, after years of isolation and no novel to follow To Kill A Mockingbird, watched the trial and determined to write a true crime account of the entire story.

Though the whole book was fascinating from a historical standpoint, Part Three was the best. It was a relief to have Harper Lee finally appear. The amount of biographical material about her in this section stands way above what Charles Shields presented in his biography. I learned more about her relationship with the infamous Truman Capote than I had read anywhere else. 

Casey Cep writes perceptively about Harper Lee's well known writers block and then details the extreme effort The Writer made to bring her book to completion. As far as we know she failed though I was left with the hope that, like Go Set A Watchman, it could still someday appear.

If you are a Harper Lee fan and/or a true crime aficionado, you will most likely be as thrilled with Furious Hours as I and my reading group members were. Casey Cep showed herself to be a consummate writer of creative nonfiction. The amount of history, biography, and cultural critique she fit into just a little over 300 pages is a feat. Especially because she made it so easy to follow and so delicious to read.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021



Baltimore Blues, Laura Lippman, William Morrow, 1997, 273 pp

Perhaps ill-advised, but I decided to add another mystery/crime writer to my lists. A little over two years ago I read Sunburn by Laura Lippman and was so impressed by her talent in making a misbehaving female character so likable. I have a thing for misbehaving women who manage to escape controlling men!

Baltimore Blues is her first novel and the first of her 12 book series featuring detective Tess Monaghan. Tess had been a top reporter for the Baltimore Star newspaper but like so many papers in the early 1990s, the Star folded leaving Tess unemployed. She is making do with part time jobs, living cheap with a relative who owns a bookstore.

When her rowing buddy gets arrested for the murder of his fiancée's boss, Tess goes into action. She knows the city, she does not believe her friend is guilty, and she usually feels she can do a better job at finding out stuff than anyone else. Annoying, I know. I also have a thing about annoying women who are good at what they do.

I thought the plot was a bit over complicated but so are the plots of Sara Paretsky, whose books I love. Since this is Tess's first go at being a detective, she has to learn as she goes giving lots of opportunities for red herrings and blind alleys. She is at ease with complicated matters due to her half-Irish, half-Jewish family. 

It all fit together in the end. Some bad actors turn out to be good, some rich people turn out to be very bad. Best of all, Tess and I found out who the murderer was on exactly the same page!

Sunday, February 28, 2021


 Though February was only 28 days short, it felt long. On the other hand I only read 9 books, I fell behind on my reviews and distractions were many. I started out with a book that took seven days to read, I had two missions of mercy to accomplish and I got my second COVID vaccine giving me a somewhat lost day feeling some reactions to the shot 24 hours later. I feel fine now and ready to take on March with renewed vigor.

It was satisfying to have read so much translated fiction and to put in more time than I have lately on My Big Fat Reading Project. I also finished a rough draft of a chapter for the book I am writing. 

Stats: 9 books read. 5 written by women. 2 mystery/thriller. 1 historical fiction. 2 nonfiction. 1 sci fi. 1 memoir. 3 translated. 3 for My Big Fat Reading Project.

Places I went: Poland, France, Egypt, United States (Maryland, Connecticut, Alabama, Wisconsin), Outer Space.

Authors New To Me: Casey Cep, Stanislaw Lem, David Tromblay

Favorites: Poland, Afterlife, Furious Hours, Birds of America

How was your reading in February? Have you read any of these books? 

Thursday, February 25, 2021


 Afterlife, Julia Alvarez, Algonquin Books, 2020, 256 pp

I read this for my One Book At A Time reading group. I loved it.

I have a vague memory of having read How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, this author's first novel, about four sisters adapting to New York City after being uprooted from their Dominican Republic home. All I remember is that I did not like it much, found the sisters too flighty and self-involved. I think that says more about me as a reader back then than about Julia Alvarez as an author.

Afterlife, her first adult novel in over 14 years, centers on Antonia; a senior woman, a retired professor of literature and a devastated new widow. This is an author writing what she knows (some of the story feels autobiographical) and what she doesn't know (she still has her husband.)

While Antonia is trying and mostly failing to deal with her bereavement, she is hit from all sides by the suffering of others, including her three sisters and an undocumented pregnant Mexican teen who shows up in her neighborhood. With all these distractions and calls upon her to assist others she finds a way to go on living, with new purpose and hope.

I loved the writing, which is as light as a backyard bird and as full of emotion and imagery as a poem. Antonia's mind and soul are full of literary references from the books she has read and taught for most of her life. Those insights provide sustenance but also require realignment when brought to bear on real life.

I can't say I loved all the characters because many are unlikable but I found empathy for them. Those sisters are just as self-involved and out of control emotionally, while equally bound by their loyalty to each other, as the Garcia sisters were.

All is leavened by moments of almost laugh-out-loud humor, keeping the dark tragedies of the story from overwhelming the tale. I felt cared for as a reader by this largehearted author.

Depending on the day you ask, I still sometimes feel like a 40-something woman but in truth I am in the same age bracket as Julia Alvarez. That may be why I felt her story so deeply. Work, family, politics, loss, can all be so disappointing. Novels like this keep me going when I need encouragement.

Sunday, February 21, 2021


 Poland, James A Michener, Random House, 1983, 556 pp

This is the 15th book I have read by this master of historical fiction. Though it has been on my shelves for many years I read it at this time because I had two other novels coming up written by Polish authors. I became interested in the country and its authors through a member of The Tinies reading group who is of Polish descent and has visited there several times. I wanted to learn more.

Michener begins: "In a small Polish farm community during the fall planting season of 1981, events occurred which electrified the world, sending reverberations of magnitude to capitals as diverse as Washington, Peking and especially Moscow." Who knew?

In 1981, Poland was still under Soviet Communist rule. The farmers of that small community sent a representative to meet with Communist officials proposing a farmers union in order to better their economic status. They were denied but the meeting was a turning point in Poland's fight to free themselves the Soviet Union.

In Chapter 2, the story jumps back to 1200 AD in the times of Genghis Khan and proceeds forward, following members of three families and their descendants to show how Poland reached that 20th century crisis. It is a tale of Nobles, Kings, Clergy, merchants, Jews, small land holders and peasants.

Once a vast land, areas of Poland have been carved away over time by the barbarian Tartars, Russia, the Austro Hungarian Empire, and Germany. The propensity of their Nobles to hang on to their lands, castles and riches plays out in relation to what amounted to slavery among the peasants, or serfs as they were then called. For centuries self-interested interactions between the Nobles and surrounding hostile nations led to wars and lack of a strong government for Poland. 

Such a tempestuous journey from Medieval to modern times makes for absorbing reading. Wars and battles, victories and losses, bravery and love of country, artist and musicians (Chopin), a majestic landscape of rivers, mountains and forests. Always the backbreaking work of serfs to keep the population fed and served and to provide cannon fodder for the wars.

Because the novel was published in 1983, plenty has happened for Poland since. The current government has been free of the Soviet Union for several decades now but is right wing and conservative. I looked up some of the history of those decades. Though the country is more sound economically, a strong Catholic presence and the tone of the government impacts women's rights and the freedoms of writers. 

It is good to have the long range picture, including the horrors of WWII, the Nazi concentration camps, the Soviet influence after that war, and the ongoing conflicts between Christians and Jews in Poland. In fact, it is difficult to understand the current news about any country so foreign to Americans. Michener's book filled in the gaps in my knowledge and was well worth spending a week to read.

Friday, February 19, 2021


 Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen, Mariner Books, 2021, 233 pp

It is widely known that I have not been a fan of short stories. By reading more of them lately I am discovering what makes a short story satisfying for me, though I am not ready to articulate that clearly yet.

Land of Big Numbers was a miracle. Every story in this collection is great. The author is, I believe, Chinese-American and a journalist who spent four years as a Beijing-based correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She seems to have soaked up the essence of 21st century Chinese life.

Each story grabbed me from the first line. It was as if the characters were right in the room with me. Tension builds quietly yet relentlessly tale by tale. I found myself almost holding my breath until I learned what would happen, each time for 10 stories. The theme tying them together is the better life for Chinese people under the current government at the cost of some of their freedom. A heady concept created by this author without outright judgement. 

Thanks to The Nervous Breakdown Book Club for selecting Land of Big Numbers as the January 2021 book. Thanks to Brad Listi at the Otherppl podcast for a penetrating interview with Te-Ping Chen. I will be watching for more from this author.

Monday, February 15, 2021


 Exposing the Past, Alice Zogg, Aventine Press, 2020, 223 pp

Have you ever come across a stranger who looked just like you? I once did many years ago. I saw "myself" across a crowded ballroom. It was extremely disorienting. Was I where I was standing or was I on the other side of the room? I never saw her again. I was not sure I wanted to. I hoped I had imagined the whole thing.

Not so for two of the main characters in Alice Zogg's latest stand alone mystery. Sherry Rinaldi saw her Doppelgänger in the mirror next to her in the ladies room while on vacation on Maui, Hawaii. The two women spoke, joking about being twins. They exchanged first names, discovered they both lived in California; Sherri in Pasadena and Kirsten in San Diego. Then they went their separate ways.

Sherri could not let it go though and despite her husband's strongly worded advice, she pursued the connection. She tracked Kirsten down and eventually they learn the truth but not until another woman dies.

Exposing the Past is an expertly plotted mystery, very up-to-date with DNA testing, cell phone texting and much driving up and down the Interstate 5 freeway. The two women found their answers back in the 1970s.

Alice Zogg is my friend. We met shortly after she had self-published her second book. I reviewed that one for a local paper and she has given me a copy of each new book when it comes out. We meet for lunch occasionally and talk about writing. She has 15 books to her credit now. I have 15 years of blogging about books to mine and a book I am always working on but feel I may never finish.

Life is wonderfully strange but fiction can be stranger, as it is in Exposing the Past. There can also be danger in writing about the past. My book is autobiographical in part and I have spent some uncomfortable days, even weeks, as I look at my past and that of the world. Alice too has written a memoir, mainly for her descendants, though she let me read it. Of course, she wrote hers in just a few months!

Thursday, February 11, 2021


 To Mervas, Elizabeth Rynell, Archipelago Books, 2010, 192 pp (originally published as Till Mervas by Albert Bonniers Forlag, Stockholm, Sweden, 2002; translated from the Swedish by Victoria Haggblom)

I have been neglecting my Archipelago Books shelf for too long. I must say that every book I have read from this excellent publishing house of translated literature has provided great reading. To Mervas was no exception.

Marta, a solitary middle-aged Swedish spinster with a troubled past, receives a letter from her lover of over 25 years ago. He writes, "Marta, Mart! I'm in Mervas. It is not possible to get any farther away. And no closer either. Your Kosti."

Though I have never been to Sweden, I have read enough novels set there to have a feel for the country. Never had I heard of Mervas. I learned that it is a region of abandoned mining in the far north.

Marta's journal entries from the November day she receives Kosti's letter, reveal her childhood (brutal), her affair with Kosti (aborted by a huge argument), and her sad life ever since. She struggles with her fear of moving out of her lonely existence and a conviction that going to find Kosti is her last chance to make something meaningful of her life.

The writing is crystal clear, both in the telling of Marta's inner turmoil and in describing the journey she does finally make to Mervas. Elisabeth Rynell is both a poet and and a novelist. To Mervas is her third novel and the first to appear in English. 

It is a story of hope. Even a woman like Marta, who has suffered from terrible trauma and losses, can pull from her suppressed memory the moments when she had strength and so venture again into life.

I loved this novel from its gorgeous cover to its final page.

Sunday, February 07, 2021


 Though my reading groups are still meeting on Zoom, I did not feel like finding another Zoom image for this post. The books and the discussions are the thing, after all. Only three meetings this month as The Tinies are still on hold due to the illness of one member. 

My best news of the month so far is that my husband and I have received the first dose of the Corona Virus vaccine. Many of my reading group members, since we are predominately over 65, have also received first doses. It takes persistence and paying attention to get appointments and I wish it could all be rolling out faster, but the wave has begun!

All the books for my groups are new to me and I am looking forward to each one. Have you read any of these books?

One Book At A Time:

I have enjoyed the previous books I have read by Julia Alvarez. This is her first adult novel in 15 years and it features a retired woman and sounds just as entrancing.

Bookie Babes:

I am always interested in anything more I can learn about Harper Lee, so while I have felt a little overbalanced with non fiction lately, I will willingly read this.

Carol's Group:

Tokarczuk is another author I have enjoyed. This one has been called a "deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale." It is set in the author's native Poland, a land with uncounted bones beneath the soil. Just today I will finish James Michener's Poland, read so that I know more of the history of the country.