Saturday, February 18, 2017


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Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Spiegal & Grau, 2015, 152 pp

Summary from Goodreads: In a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, Coates confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black bodies and lives. Thoughtfully exploring personal and historical events, from his time at Howard University to the Civil War, the author poignantly asks and attempts to answer difficult questions that plague modern society. In this short memoir, the "Atlantic" writer explains that the tragic examples of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and those killed in South Carolina are the results of a systematically constructed and maintained assault to black people--a structure that includes slavery, mass incarceration, and police brutality as part of its foundation. From his passionate and deliberate breakdown of the concept of race itself to the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, Coates powerfully sums up the terrible history of the subjugation of black people in the United States. 

My Review:
For me, this book defies being reviewed. It is so personal, so true, so well thought out. I don't feel I have the right and I certainly don't have the nerve to write about what this man wrote.

I already knew we are not, in America, living in a post-racial world. Racism is alive and well and being committed as a harmful act gazillions of times every day.

I thought I already knew what it is like to be Black in America, but now I know I can't ever even really know.

I suppose I felt "lucky" or "blessed" that my karma this lifetime is to be middle class and white. Now I know that is the ultimate privilege, even if one is female or lower class or poor. Anyone seen as White in this country is safer, has more opportunity and more freedom than a Black person, no matter how much education or power or money that Black person has.

So I thank Ta-Nehisi Coates for writing this book, for getting it published, for thinking so hard and writing so clearly, for applying his intelligence and his love for his son to what is more than just a problem but is actually an insanity.

I don't know what to do about it except to keep reading and encouraging others to read the books by people of color who tell us White people what it is like for them. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Jacqueline Woodson, Malcolm X, Walter Mosley, Colson Whitehead, Gloria Naylor, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Mc Bride, Dorothy West, and many more. I encourage you to read all of them. Then do what needs to be done where you live, where you work, where you vote. 

(Between the World and Me is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, February 16, 2017


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Version Control, Dexter Palmer, Pantheon Books, 2016, 495 pp

Back in 2010, I read Dexter Palmer's first novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion, and I did not like it much. Seven years later I confess that it was more a case of I didn't get it. I was ignorant of the steampunk genre back then so had no way to determine how or if his steampunk setting was any good. Compounding my ignorance, I somehow missed that it was a retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest not to mention that as of 2010 I had not read The Tempest. My apologies to Dexter Palmer. I will give the novel another read one of these days.

Version Control on the other hand blew me away. I did not even mind the obvious fact that Palmer was intending to blow as many minds as he could. Though the novel is set in a near future time (including self-driving cars, an internet dating service whose actual moneymaker was data collection sold to political and marketing clients, and a President who appears to people personally on their hand-held devices to wish them Happy Birthday and give them words of wisdom about their "private" worries) this is a love story steeped in science.

Rebecca, who had to go back to living at home after college because she could not find a job, met Philip on the dating site where she also finally got a job. Philip is a mad scientist deeply involved with quantum mechanics, string theory, and developing an invention he calls the "causality violation device" but which the press calls a time machine.

In Version Control, Palmer takes the ever and increasingly popular time travel trope into uncharted territory. He is still pretty wordy (he has a PhD in English lit from Princeton University, so), he is still cramming everything under the sun into his story, and his writing style is still a bit pedestrian though he has his lyrical moments. But he has written a highly entertaining story with perplexing twists and turns and made me even try to understand the science.

When the surprising conclusion I did not even see coming signaled the end of the novel, I felt like I would rather keep reading Version Control for the rest of 2017 rather than start another book.

(Version Control is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


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The Nix, Nathan Hill, Alfred A Knopf, 2016, 620 pp

In an interview with Nathan Hill, he talks about how he spent years trying to become a novelist by writing what he thought publishers would buy and worked himself into a defeatist state of mind. Finally he got a job teaching writing and used his spare time to write what he wanted to say. The result was The Nix.

The protagonist, Samuel Andresson-Anderson, is then somewhat of an autobiographical character, a not uncommon circumstance in a first novel. I found him to be a sympathetic character reminiscent of fellows in books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Adrift in a sea of losses (his mother, his best friend, his one true love) he loses himself in on-line gaming as he struggles/procrastinates in writing a novel, long overdue, the huge advance he'd received long spent. Then his long lost mother resurfaces.

The structure of this novel is unwieldy and certain sections could be called over-written. By the time I finished reading all 620 pages, I forgave Nathan Hill everything. He wrote the story of a family that is littered with the universal detritus of failures, cowardice, love, bad communication, terrible parenting, immigration, myths and ghosts.

Somehow, and somewhat ungracefully, he stuffed all of this into what is either a sprawling mess or a brilliant synthesis of American life over the past century. Samuel's grandfather ran away from a hopeless future in Norway, landing in a mid-western American town with a job for a company that produced chemical weapons of mass destruction. He brought with him the Nix, a piece of Norwegian folklore about an evil trickster who steals whatever you love most and breaks your heart.

He raised his daughter Faye on stories of the Nix, leaving her in a state of personality disintegration. She escaped to Chicago in 1968 and got involved with the protests at the Democratic National Convention. Though she eventually returned home and married her high school sweetheart, she was more traumatized than ever. She left Samuel and his father when her son was a boy, disappearing completely. As she enters Samuel's life again decades later, she has been accused of a sordid crime committed in Chicago during the demonstrations.

As in the common current technique of novel writing with the story moving back and forth in time, the mysteries and losses of Samuel's life are revealed to both Samuel and the reader. The result is a heart wrenching story about how we make sense of our parents' actions and the possibility of reconciliation after deep misunderstanding and hurt. Along the way we also get to relive a social history that brings us up to where we are today.

The Nix is a long read that alternates between action and introspection. It won't please everyone but it was a bestseller last fall, has had glowing reviews and 4+ stars on Goodreads and Amazon. I loved it.

(The Nix is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, February 11, 2017


The Sword of Aldones, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ace Books, 1962, 164 pp
Because I read and loved The Mists of Avalon back in the 80s, I decided to include Marion Zimmer Bradley in My Big Fat Reading Project and read all of her novels in order of publication. The Sword of Aldones is the first book she wrote in her renowned Darkover Series.
There are two schools of thought regarding how to read that series because, like Star Wars movies, they were not written in chronological order. MZB provided a numbered chronological list before her death and some people read them that way. She also recommended reading the books in order of publication, so that is what I am doing.

The Sword of Aldones was written when she was 16, so while she had clearly done her world building in her mind, not all of it comes across smoothly. It is mostly an action tale, there are many characters, and the magic, of which there is plenty, doesn't all make sense. 

I liked it anyway, as a tale of two intergalactic civilizations in conflict. Terran is on a path to take over as many planets as possible for trade purposes. Darkover runs on magic and myth. It is a theme of hers and of many other writers, both speculative and historical. I found that theme in Mary Renault's two historical novels about the legend of Theseus (The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea.) It is also the major theme of The Mists of Avalon

The writing and plotting and characters are all a bit sketchy and suffer from her inexperience but her voice is there and the promise of what became a fascinating series.

(The Sword of Aldones is out of print but can be found at used book sites and in audio and ebook versions. Happy hunting!)

Wednesday, February 08, 2017


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Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, Max Porter, Graywolf Press, 2016, 114 pp

Nearly everyone alive has lost someone dear to them. Not everyone can write well about it but Max Porter has done it in breathtaking fashion.

A man has lost his wife suddenly, unexpectedly due to an accident. His two young sons have lost their mother.

Three voices reach out to us:

The boys as a sort of braided, combined consciousness, with the young boys-eye-view of the events, the emotions, the weird adjustment to a life run only by dad and a home without a mom.

The dad, figuring it out day by day, seeking oblivion but tethered to life by his boys.

The crow, an imaginary presence who drops feathers as he performs the role of grief counselor and family guardian. That crow symbolizes the magical thinking so well described by Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking.

Max Porter has been a bookseller and is currently an editor for Granta Books. He loves poetry and this is his first novel. You can learn about how and why he wrote it by listening to his interview on the Otherppl podcast, but I suggest reading the book first.

Very short chapters, some of which read like poetry, take you through the grieving process of the man and his sons. That crow is a trickster myth character who mixes words, sounds, free verse, and shenanigans.

If you have ever lost someone you loved and grown weary of the stock phrases (I am sorry for your loss), the platitudes of grief counselors, the surreal days and nights of dreams and hauntings by the lost one, this book will feel so familiar.

Such grief never really ends and it can make one feel slightly insane, so for me it brought new insights and a sort of reassurance and comfort and forgiveness for my own. 

(Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, February 06, 2017


Reinhart in Love, Dell Publishing Inc, 1962, 438 pp
Where did I learn about this author? From an obituary when he died at 89 in 2014. He is one of those under-sung, under-read, literary authors. It was a cinch I would go for that label!
I read his first novel, Crazy in Berlin, 1958, and found it challenging. It was the first literary novel I had read set at the beginning of the Cold War, in which Carlos Reinhart, an American serviceman, is completing his enlistment in Berlin as a medic. I decided it had been worth reading, so I continued with this account of his first year back in the United States as a civilian.
He has troubles fitting in. He lives at home in Ohio with parents who are some truly strange but very American characters. He falls in love with the secretary at the office of a real estate mogul where he took at job and eventually they marry. 
True to the character I got to know in the first book, he stumbles into the oddest adventures, all the while trying to figure out how to be an employed man, a husband, and a fellow who has the idea that he is an honest person.

The story includes hot subjects like racism, corruption in local politics and business, and lots of sex. Berger writes rather long, convoluted but grammatically correct sentences filled with literary allusions. Reading him requires work and concentration. Once again I was rewarded by his subtle satire, his humor, and his fine-tuned awareness of life in America.

Since that perception of middle class life is part of what I am looking for when I read these books from the 1960s, it worked fine for me. However, unless that is something you are looking for in your reading, I can't give this novel a high recommendation to all readers.

(Reinhart in Love is out of print. Check for it at your favorite used bookseller site.)

Sunday, February 05, 2017


I got a bit behind on blogging this week. I spent a good deal of time reading, hanging out with friends and seeing movies. All worthwhile activities in these insane times. Reading groups are more wonderful than ever for me right now because getting together with real live people and discussing books is the needed antidote for my compulsion to read and follow the news. The news makes me feel crazy. The people and discussions bring me back to sanity.

It is going to be an interesting month with the groups. And believe it or not I have joined another group: The Literary Snobs! We are a start-up group this month, we are small with just three members, and we are dedicated to reading books written only by Nobel Prize winners. New reading groups are subject to all kinds of attrition so we will see what happens.

Laura's Group:

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One Book At A Time:

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Molly's Group:

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Bookie Babes:

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Literary Snobs:

What are your reading groups reading in February?