Monday, September 18, 2017


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The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson #1, Robert A Caro, Alfred A Knopf, 1982, 768 pp
So far in my quest to read a biography of each President who held office during my lifetime, I have covered Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. I have been mostly content with the biographers I chose but Robert A Caro tops them all. He even managed to keep me interested for at least 80% of the time.
Reading presidential biographies feels a lot like being in school, except that most of the American history I studied in school was deeply slanted towards the sentiments that all of our Presidents were awesome dudes and America is the most democratic country in the world. Reading these carefully researched books has given me the education about my country I need to be a confident and wise citizen and voter.

The Path to Power only covers Johnson's first 36 years from his birth to his election to the House of Representatives to his first failed campaign for the Senate. He was born in the Texas Hill Country, an impoverished farming area. His father had been a well-loved member of the Texas House of Representatives but later fell into debt and alcoholism. It was at his father's side as a child that Lyndon became fired up about politics, but where his father wanted to serve his constituents, Lyndon was in it purely for the power, the attention, and therefore the votes.

Caro portrays him as a fairly disreputable character with a genius for the political game. No morals, no deep love of country, no mission to make America great, though quite a few of his actions did improve the lives of many. What drove him was a burning desire to be somebody and a great capacity for working the game for his personal gain. 

He was not a good student, he was not admired or even liked in his childhood by anyone but his mother and one cousin, and later Lady Bird. But once he set his sights on a goal of his own choosing he was tireless. His goal was to be President of the United States. This volume covers the years when he began to build the connections that would take him to that goal. Because he would do anything to win, he often did and thus eventually gathered around him several slavish and devoted admirers who would do anything for him.

I have always viewed politics as a dirty game with the occasional bright star I could respect. The book did nothing to disabuse me of that notion. Johnson learned all the tricks and invented some of his own. In a time when due to the Depression, campaign spending was fairly low, Johnson managed to work his way into the confidence and gratitude of men with money and spent more than any candidate for public office had, at least in Texas. He was not above stealing votes, stuffing the ballot box and later buying votes.

I could go on and on but if you want to learn about the state of the union from 1920 to 1944, just buckle down and read the book. It is an eye-opener.

Because I started my project with Truman, I didn't know much about Franklin D Roosevelt, President from 1933 to 1945. I know more now. I also got a pretty good history of Texas from the years before LBJ's birth up to WWII. If I didn't know better from reading those other biographies, I would have finished the book thinking that Texas single-handedly invented dirty politics.
Ahead of me are three more volumes to read about this man (and possibly four since Caro is writing the final volume as I write this review.) This kind of reading takes longer to get through than reading novels. I read this one for over two months, averaging 20 pages a day while reading 24 novels in between.
It has enlightened me a great deal as to how the world of government and politics works. I am less upset about our current administration than I had been before I read it. My country has had truly awful Presidents before; dishonest, ignorant, unstable human beings who nevertheless were elected into office. Somehow our system of government survives and the country powers on. Plato was right however. A republic cannot stand when the populace is uneducated, when the franchise is not universal, and when money/business/finance is the main engine behind the government.
The least I can do is get educated and vote. 

Friday, September 15, 2017


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The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, Harper & Row, 1963, 275 pp
I admit that I had reservations about reading this novel which is based on the author's own experience with mental illness. I put off reading it for years. Odd, because I have read other novels and memoirs featuring people who descend into madness and actually liked them. I think because we all know that Sylvia Plath committed suicide just one month after The Bell Jar was published, I was concerned about what I would find.
What I found was some of the more wonderful writing I have read. Poetic imagery, wry humor and pithy observations enough to make me wish I had known her. I did find mental anguish but not a victim mentality or even narcissism, just a sense of bewilderment about what had happened to Esther Greenwood, the autobiographical stand-in for Sylvia. Most telling though was her fear of the future once she was released from the asylum.

"I had hoped, at my departure, I would feel sure and knowledgeable about everything that lay ahead--after all, I had been 'analyzed.' Instead, all I could see were question marks."
Because the timescape is mid 1950s, one is given a patients-eye-view of the barbaric treatments of those times (shock treatment, insulin shock, and the sexism from male practitioners.) Now we have all these designer drugs for every mood and diagnosis. The fact that these drugs are also attempts to alter the mind and personality does not fill me with much more confidence however. I am not up-to-date on the current statistics as far as saving lives goes with the drugs, but I am up-to-date on some of their failures.
The final section of the edition I read is A Biographical Note by Lois Ames (at one time contracted by the family to be the official biographer.) That was the saddest part by far. It depicts a gifted and determined woman who struggled to overcome her demons but in the end succumbed within eight years of having been pronounced "cured."
Well, I have read it now. I am no longer afraid of the book but I am just as certain as I have always been that there is much more understanding of the human mind needed to help those who are afflicted with mental illness. 

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


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The Land of Green Plums, Herta Muller, Metropolitan Books, 1996, (originally published in Germany as Herztier by Rowohlt Verlag, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann), 242 pp
I read this for my Literary Snobs reading group, in which a friend and I read only novels written by Nobel Prize winners. One really has to be a literary snob to get through this challenging read.
It is a story about the trauma and political oppression under which four young people lived in Romania. After WWII, Romania was taken over by a communist dictatorship. President Nicolae Ceausescu was considered the most Stalinist government leader in Eastern Europe, responsible for years of the suppression of freedom of expression, violence, imprisonment and execution. The atmosphere made friendship virtually impossible because betrayal was a way of life.

The female narrator and her three male friends are all of German descent, grandchildren of Germans who had immigrated to Romania as farmers after WWI. They are now suspect in the country because some were Nazis during the second World War, but if they emigrate back to Germany are still cultural outcasts viewed suspiciously as not German but Eastern European.

We never learn the narrator's name but she, Edgar, Kurt and Georg have all left their rural homes and families for the city in order to study Russian and try to find jobs. They each witness suicides and disappearances of other students and coworkers. They meet in coffeehouse courtyards and talk in a sort of code. When they mail letters to each other they enclose a hair. If the letter arrives without a hair they know it has been read by censors.

The sense of dread grows ever more dark as the story progresses toward the decision each must make: stay at risk of imprisonment and death or return to Germany without any hope of employment. In between the various incidents of their daily lives are the narrator's flashbacks to her childhood in the country as well as desperate letters from her mother begging her to return home.

The plot is thin, the writing poetic and dreamy, bordering on nightmarish. My experience of reading this novel was a struggle to read even ten pages in a sitting and the feeling of a heavy weight sitting on my chest. Still, I am not sorry I read it because I feel it necessary to grasp what life is like for people under oppression. Understanding what that is like and how human beings do or do not survive it seems to me to be part of my participation in being human.

Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize in 2009. She has written many novels, at least nine of which have been translated into English. She was born in Romania of German parents in 1953, lived under the Ceausescu dictatorship, emigrating to Germany in 1987. She is a survivor who lived to tell the tale. I may read her again. Novels I have read recently (The Shadow Land, Pachinko, Do Not Say We Have Nothing) tell similar stories but are written in a more Western style. Muller's Eastern European style carries an emotional integrity not found as fully in those other novels. As a Western/American reader I need both styles.

(The Land of Green Plums is available in both hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, September 11, 2017


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I Found You, Lisa Jewell, Atria Books, 2016, 342 pp
This was a perfectly entertaining read for a hot summer day. I finished it in two sittings. With a bit of romance, a mystery, and a quirky single mom who was just right for my tastes, it took me away from all the heavy issues of our current times.
Most of the story takes place in a British seaside town. Alice Lake, whose free-wheeling lifestyle has left her with three children all from different fathers, creates art out of old maps to support her family. She also collects people who seem to need her, despite the concerns of her best friend. When she finds a man on the beach one morning who has no idea who he is or how he got there, she takes him in.

Over two decades earlier, in the same town, a young girl was lost at sea while her father died trying to rescue her. As the amnesiac staying with Alice begins to recover some memories, it appears he could be connected to that unsolved drowning. 

Though I did think I had figured out who he was before it was fully revealed, I remained in doubt until the very end because the clues could have led to another man, also gone missing. Now that is a good mystery if you ask me.

I had never heard of this author until my Bookie Babes reading group picked the book. Lisa Jewell has been writing popular romantic and mystery fiction since 1999! Fourteen of them, with a new one, Then She Was Gone, coming next spring. I have found a new author to turn to for light reading.

(I Found You is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, September 09, 2017


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1984, George Orwell, Harcourt Brace & Co, 1949, 279 pp
I reread this apocalyptic novel for one of my reading groups. I forgot how bleak it is. It makes The Handmaid's Tale seem benign in comparison.
I am glad I reread it though because 12 years have passed since my first reading and I got a new perspective on how much more the world has moved toward the concepts that Orwell harps on as to the ways that personal freedom can be eroded and taken away from citizens. "Total War" "Newspeak" "Big Brother Is Watching You" The rewriting of history, the alteration of definitions of words, the deletion of words entirely from a nation's vocabulary.
If one is aware of these things one can spot them as they happen. Though our political system is far from perfect, it does have checks and balances that still work. Though our media and journalism contains seeds of all those above mentioned concepts, it is still relatively free.
In times like these, the responsibility of being a citizen feels like a crushing burden but what other choice do we have? It is such an oxymoron that freedom is something that must be fought for.
Have you read 1984? In school? Recently? If so, what are your thoughts on it? It makes a great book for group discussion. 
(1984 is almost always available on the classics shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017


Well, I have been through a disaster incident and survived with only a three day absence from my normal life. Last Friday a fire broke out along the freeway nearest to my home and within hours was a raging brush fire that burned over 4000 acres of brush land in an area that had not had a fire for over 60 years. Amazingly only 4 homes burned down, all in remote regions. No one died. Only 8 were injured.

But the fire came within only yards of our house. We were ordered to evacuate on Saturday afternoon and just returned home yesterday, after staying with a friend. Our home was not damaged in any way and by yesterday when we came home the fires at the perimeter were out. Seeing flames raging over a ridge and down a mountainside that close to us was terrifying but now the skies are blue again, the smoke is gone and except for some scorched earth patches, my neighborhood looks like it usually does.
In my 25 years of living in the Los Angeles area, I have experienced two earthquakes and one fire close enough to see the flames and smoke but not near enough to endanger my home. I have been so fortunate. There is nothing like going through something like this to give one the sense of what it is actually like for people who experience extreme events. 
During the four days I read not a page. Fortunately my reading group schedule is light this month though I will not have finished the book for Laura's Group by the time we meet tomorrow.

Here is the line-up:

Laura's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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Bookie Babes:
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If you are a reading group member, what are you discussing this month? Do you have any suggestions for good books to discuss? 

Friday, September 01, 2017


While everyone else was watching the eclipse, suffering through Harvey, fighting floods and looking forward to cooler temps in September, we were just hot! Trying to stay cool, hydrated, and keep our gardens alive. We are still hot and thinking about November when it will finally cool down and the leaves will fall. That is life in southern California.

I predicted I would read fewer books in August because of some long ones on the list, but I didn't even get that right. I read 11 which is only two less than my fabulous July accomplishment. Sometimes it is good to be wrong!

Stats: 11 books read. 6 written by women. 2 mysteries. 1 dystopia. 1 non-fiction. 1 biography. 1 translated. 5 from My Big Fat Reading Project.

Favorites: News of the World, Leaving Cheyenne, The Trespasser, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Least favorite: Ill Will

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What books were your favorite reads in August? Any duds?