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!