All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry

This is one of McMurtry’s earlier and lesser novels and it shows. His really good ones came later, Terms of Endearment, 1975; Lonesome Dove, 1985;  The Berrybender Chronicles, 2002;   Sacajawea’s Nickname (nonfiction), 2001).  I loved Lonesome Dove and it stood up quite well when I reread it in the early 2000’s some time.  The Berrybender Chronicles are definite favorites,  and I’ve read a lot more. This one?  – Meh.  But that may be due in part to the changing times -it feels dated.  It feels very 1970s with all the  sex, drugs and San Francisco – it’s not anywhere near good enough to be classic stuff  on its own –  McMurtry’s name from his greats will carry it.


All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers
by Larry McMurtry
1972 / 304 pages
read by  John Randolph Jones 8h 39m
rating – 6: 20th century  fiction

I’ve read quite a few of McMurtry’s novels starting with The Last Picture Show  (1966) and a few of its sequels,  Lonesome Dove (I read no sequels) the entire  Berrybender series and several stand-alones.   I even read one of his nonfictions,  Sacajawea’s Nickname (excellent).   A reader never knows quite what to expect from McMurtry,  but he is very good with a western setting.

But this is neither a “Western” in the normal sense of the genre, nor historical.  Part of it takes place in Texas circa 1970. San Francisco of the same era is another setting and the hippie-sex-artist scene is included on a general level.  It’s almost history now – the stuff of classics.

Our hero,  Danny Deck,  is a Texas-based budding writer with his first novel very recently accepted for publication.  He gets involved Sally,  a woman who is sexually involved with an acquaintance.  Sally wants desperately to get out of the relationship so Danny takes her,  marries her and they move to San Francisco.  What Sally really wants to do is get pregnant and the minute she is she ignores Danny and wants out of the marriage.

Danny is desolate but his novel is being published and then he meets Jill,  a wonderful woman although she’s depressed and still in love with a prior man. They split and Danny moves back to Texas.

I might have enjoyed this book had I read it in 1975,  but in 2016 it really feels a bit dated.  The style is interesting though – really detached.  “Cool?”  and it gets quite vulgar towards the end. It’s got some really funny scenes.

For what it’s worth,  McMurtry was raised in Texas and I’m sure he saw San Francisco for a bit in the days prior to writing All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers.  For many years he’s lived and owned a bookstore near where he was raised.

Very insterestng piece about McMurtry’s own later depression:

And a review from the NY Times:

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Arcadia by Lauren Groff – review

Thoroughly enjoyable novel – beautiful, different and so sweetly told.   It’s the story of a boy/man, Bit Stone,  who was the first child born to a loving couple who lived in a commune in northern New York State circa 1968.   Arcadia is as much the story of a commune as it is of anything – the biography of an ideal.  But the story line, the characters and their  lives,  is excellent –  the character of Bit is an astonishing accomplishment.


by Lauren Groff
2012 / 298 pages
read by Andrew Garman –  11h 8m
rating:  9 

Hannah and Abe Stone join up with a group called the Free People and travel around in upstate New York in their van.  Then one of the members is given a piece of land with a large but decrepit mansion on it.  They  decide to fix it up and call it Arcadia.  Their Little Bit is born in a van at some point during this time and grows up there – stays for a full 15 or 16 years, – it’s his home,  the only one he’s ever known.  Somewhat less than half the book is about Bit’s life afterwards.

Communal life is hard but not without rewards.  Abe and Hannah are idealistic and totally loving parents. Their little  Bit is a tiny child and very quiet, also smart and sensitive. He sees, hears, tastes, smells, feels and thinks far more than he speaks. The community works hard but always struggles with the extreme cold and hunger of serious poverty.  And as the group struggles it also grows taking in “trippies,”  “runaways,” and whomever shows up.

The years go by and Bit is 8 years old in 1974 – the year after Nixon said “I am not a crook,” the year of the oil embargo.   National events are mentioned so we can follow the years.

This book really has the feel of authenticity – I was around then  – 20 years old in 1968,  very interested in communal living and some of my friends did it and we visited.  But I didn’t ever feel like subjecting myself or my children to that kind of rather dirty (usually) existence.  I agreed with it though,  and supported, sympathized, encouraged, those who tried to forge out utopian (as close as possible)   cooperative communities,  living the ideals they believed.

This book is maybe not for everyone, but it may be going on my Top 10 of the year and because of it I’ll now have to read Groth’s latest one,  Fates and Furies which has got so much positive attention.


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Give Us the Ballot: by Ari Berman

Be warned – Give Us the Ballot is a powerful book,  but it’s not exactly an unbiased approach to the history of the Voting Rights Act.   This doesn’t bother me because there are a lot of  books out there by conservatives to counter the argument and or the situations.    Ari Berman, political correspondent for The Nation,  tells the story of the Voting RIghts Act of 1965 (like 50 years ago!),  the violent events leading up to its passage and its effects,  the counterrevolution of neo-conservatism of Reagan, Bush and on through 2015,  one year or so after the Supreme Court voted down the whole formula which was established in 1965 –

give us

Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America
by Ari Berman
2015/362 pages
read by Tom Zingarelli 12h 4m
rating – 9.25 
(read and listened) 

This is a compelling and lively tale of civil rights marches, political battles and resistance at all levels and over a significant amount of time all pertaining to the Voting Rights Bill of 1965,  it’s most important section (section 5) and it’s    But it’s a book which requires thought and effort as the pieces come together – how the ideas of affirmative action got involved in basic civil rights and how the various administrations and neo-conservatives opposed anything about the Voting Rights Act beyond “let them vote,”  (if they can).   In other words,  stop worrying about actual representation and/or  voter ID (the new “poll tax.”   It’s about the Voter ID requirement in some states.

And Berman also writes about the resistance – the “Counterrevolution”  every single step of the way from whether or not blacks in the south could even register to vote through  how districts could be gerry-mandered to maintain the white majority status quo and how race-based voter suppression can be attained (maintained) by a number of methods.   The conservatives used ferocious physical tactics as well as state legislative action,  the Department of  Justice,  the Supreme Court and, finally,  time  –  because the Reagan appointees to the courts (including the Supreme Court)  made a huge impact even unto 2015.

The organization is not strictly chronological although that’s the basic outline for it.   And the book is heavy on detail and specifics,  so the organization is not terribly “tight” – it works though because the chapter headings tell the reader what that section is basically covering.  And I’m not sure how else the scope and depth could been covered.

There has been so much violence and shenanigans,  so much legislation and so many people and court rulings and DOJ findings that some of the same names, dates, places,  ideas, come up over and over.  However,   the same people were often involved on both sides.   But even with all that, there’s surprisingly little repetition  – except that the same types of things keep happening over and over with new twists until … the whole

So the history is what’s probably important here – how the use of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has changed the problems and the tactics, if not the underlying rationale, of those opposed.  And even though times have changed and there has been some improvement –  the possibility of falling back to post-Reconstruction days is too close for comfort – Berman tries to end on a positive note but in the view of recent developments which the VRB would have prevented but now can’t – the real outlook is not rosy at all.



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Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

I enjoyed the last book I read by Boyd,  An Ice Cream War (1982),  but there’s something off with this one.  I’m not quite sure what it is.  The novel is labeled as a “spy” novel but that thread doesn’t really get started until relatively late in the game,  although when it does it lives up to the genre in its own way.

Waiting for Sunrise
by William Boyd
2012 / 284 pages
read by Robert Ian MacKenzie 13h 7m
rating – 7 / literary  historical fiction

Starting out in Vienna circa 1913,  our hero, the young and handsome professional stage actor, Lysnder Rief, is working with Dr. Bensimon to alleviate his sexual problem.   He meets some folks in the waiting room and this some of them are not quite what they seem to be.   So he has some adventures and gets into some troubles and this gets him … well .. it’s a lot of funny business twisted into what turns out to be a spy novel.  There is something about the story which actually reminds me of Michael Freyn’s Skios.

Hetty Bull, an aspiring sculptor whom he met in the waiting room,  invites him to a party after which she says she wants to sculpt him – and she does.  And yes he can. Life is pretty nice and he stays on  But then Lysander lands in jail  because of Hetty.  But all is well,  the British Embassy  assists him in escaping.  (Yeah?)

The first section has a lot of sex,  but there’s never anything really graphic by the standards of  the 21st century.  The tone is rather flat, like a case study or rather distanced character.  Our hero,  Lysander is an actor by trade and forever analyzing everything.   It works for me.

World War I breaks out and Lysander, now back in London,  joins up.   Considering he speaks several languages he’s really quite valuable so he’s then put to work as a spy – recruited by the same British Embassy guys who helped him earlier. (heh)   His first job is to find the key to a secret code which is vital to Britain’s security and held by a possible traitor.  There’s a fair amount of danger and a lot of questioning about who is telling the truth and who is working with whom and who is an enemy.  Our hero  manages to escape again albeit with a few bullet wounds, and it would seem that being even a second-rate actor in his prior life  is very helpful.   He wakes up in a British hospital.

Now he starts lying – lying and lying  – feeling that the less he tells anyone the better.  Actually,  most of the other characters are lying quite a lot.  There’s a basic theme here – from “Who is being honest?” to “What is reality?” And then of course,  what is it actors and spies have in common?

Boyd writes nicely with a generous sprinkling of appropriate metaphors some of which are quite interesting and original,  humorous at times.  The descriptions of people and places are delicious,  but the action itself is fast-paced,  the plot is good and twisty and the humor is plentiful.   I did have to keep reminding myself that this was published in 2012 because in some ways  it really feels like it was written in the 1950s – maybe that’s just the whole British spy genre thing.

Anyway,  I was bored for parts of it,  had a hard time sticking with it and  finishing,  although when I really paid attention I knew it was quite good – it never did grab me though.  (One problem might have been the voice of the narrator – blah.)

“The Spy Who Came in from the Couch” –

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Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

Another reread – this time of an old favorite author,  Barbara Pym,  who has a whole interesting life and her books are delightful and there’s even a fan club of sorts -The Barbara Pym society.


Quartet in Autumn
by Barbara Pym
1977  /186 pages
rating:  8.75    / 20th century (classic)

The setting of Pym’s near-classic  work is 1970s London and the story revolves around 4 employees in their own department of an unnamed company – maybe insurance?    The issue is that the four are apparently getting on in years, somewhat loners by nature,  and ready for retirement,  yet they are all essentially alone in the world.

They each have their own ways and are rather set in them –  they never visit each other outside of the office and for instance,  they don’t share lunches and  although they all use the library, they go individually and for their own purposes.   These are not “typical” people,  they’re loners by nature and as a result they “fall through the cracks” (as a couple of them mention during the course of the novel.)

Change is a huge theme here.  Changes in society including within the church and the church’s place in society,  race and language,  as well as in their individual situations and even their own bodies.  Yes,  life has changed quite a lot since these four,  who are now at or close to retirement age, were young,  before WWI.  And life and society keep changing – the mail girl is young and black!

The “Quartet:”

Edwin Braithwaite, a widower with a daughter in Beckenham,  checks the clerical directory at the library. He is far more attached to his local parish and the church calendar its activities govern his life.

Norman, always a bachelor, has his solitary ways,  visiting the museum or the library (to see mummified crocodiles. )  when he can or the husband of his late sister on special occasions.   He lives alone in his “bedsitter” and is apparently very frugal. No particular religious connection.

“Miss” Marcia Ivory,  never married,  lives in a rather large house, alone since her old cat as well as her mother died. She occasionally uses the library to dispose of unlikely trash. Now the social service worker seems to think she needs looking in on.  Marcia recently had an operation which “removed” something – a mastectomy?   She does have some rather peculiar habits (hoarding and bird-like eating) and tends to be reclusive although she certainly pays attention to  her operating doctor. No particular religious connection – Protestant.  – Marsha is actually rather disappointed when a man gets up after a fall and she enjoys seeing the effects of an auto wreck.

“Miss” Letty Crowe , who also has never married,  has set her retirement date although that’s rather subtle.  She’s  never married .  She uses the library to check out novels.   At the book’s opening, Letty lives in a rooming house which has a new owner,  an African minister whose religion is more raucous than what she is used to. She has a widowed friend who lives in the country.   She really needs to move.   No particular religious connection.

(SEE NOTES for more on the individual characters)

These are four delicious characters for a reader willing to work a bit to distinguish the subtle variations in each of the scenarios presented.

Although only one of the four  is actively attached to a church,  religion/church seems to play a fairly large role in the novel as a whole – in the background three of these people don’t really want,  and likely will not be,  getting assistance from the church.  Furthermore, except for Edwin only Norman might find it acceptable – because it could possibly save him some money or provide a safety net.

Their mortality haunts them as they read articles in the newspaper or see incidents in their lives.  Norman especially is concerned about “falling through the net of the welfare state,”  being found “dead by starvation,”  or even being unable to open a can of food.  He buys fresh and doesn’t stockpile like Marsha.

(SEE NOTES for more specific plot points –  spoilers there though)

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The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Amazing book, way better than its title!  Think Marra’s prior novel,  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and mix it up with Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell) and you’re close.   This is the story of a small, outrageously polluted, town in northernmost Siberia, Kirvosk, and some of the people who lived and died there from 1937 on.  Some of them died in the days of censorship and paranoia under Stalin,  others died when they were sent to the Chechen wars of 1995 and 2000.  Still others died in the meantime or later.   It’s also a story of love, forgiveness, courage, cowardliness, dreams, criminality and did I say love?  That’s okay,  I’ll say it again.

The Tsar of Love and Techno 
by Anthony Marra
2015/ 352 pages
Read by:  Mark Bramhall,  Beata Pozniak, Rustam Kasymov  – 10h 46m
ating:   9.5 / contemporary literary fiction
(read and listened)

The parts about Chechnya and the theme of love in times of serious horrors are reminiscent of Marra’s prior work.  The structure is from Mitchell.

The front cover is perfect. That’s a cassette tape in the center with the word “Stories” written on it.  When a cassette tape is full of  various things, usually different musical pieces,  which a user has put on there it’s called a mixtape.   The structure of The Tsar of Love and Techno is like a mixtape in that it starts with the pieces on Side A.  then there is an Intermission or a bridge – (the time when we take it out maybe?)  – a separation and coming together piece  – and then comes Side B which has more pieces.  – Marra has used the terms Side A and Side B instead of the common “Part I” and “Part II”   But it works brilliantly because a very important part of the story is the creation of a mixtape by one of the characters.

I’d definitely give the book a subtitle of “: A Novel”  rather than “Stories”  although it’s not until later on in the book,  maybe after the “Intermission,” the stories (chapters?)  are only loosely connected.   I read fairly carefully and was able to put most of it together,  but this is one of those books which cries out for a second reading.

The book opens with a 1st person censor/artist in Leningrad erasing the photos of those people who are considered “enemies” of the Stalinist regime – enemies of “the people.”   Their photos are taken out of group shots and individually.   That’s 1937.

Then it switches to the community of Kirovsk, in the very northernmost tip of Siberia where the grandchildren of the old labor camp community and it’s in second person focusing on the granddaughter of a famous but censored ballerina.

For summaries and photos see NOTES:

The tone is gently ironic overall,   and sometimes it’s  just plain funny, but still,  there’s always a very grim underlying reality of Stalin’s regime, the war in Chechnya, the fall of Communism and its aftermath,  the pollution of the north.   And, as in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, it’s also full of love amongst the horrors – or the memory of horrors and current horrors,  and how the horrors haunt the lives of the main characters. And how they love anyway.

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Shaker by Scott Frank

Not overwhelmed here – there’s a good story and Frank has spent plenty of time on the characters and plot twists but it sometimes seems that the backstories on the major characters slow the main story down quite a lot – a tad too much maybe.  But it all comes together because by the time the story winds up you really have the scoop on everyone and almost don’t know who to root for.


by Scott Frank
2015 / 353 pages
read by Dion Graham – 10h 29m
rating:  B+  / crime


The story opens during a major earthquake with serious aftershocks  hitting the Los Angeles area.  Roy Cooper, a hitman for some operation,  has just flown in from New York to take care of a piece of business – kill a man who is interfering in some way with his employer’s doings.  He gets there,  does the job in a very professional manner and then, due in part to the earthquake,  can’t find the car on his way out of the apartment complex.   Instead he runs into a little group of very young gangster types.  These are the 14-year olds – the ones who are out to kill for the thrill.    And the jogger Roy saw just moments before is now down on the ground with a gun to his head.  The gangsters shoot the jogger and after Roy slaps the Science, the leader.  So Science escapes but it’s with Roy’s special gun.

As it turns out the jogger victim is a highly respected special assistant to the mayor and the gun snatched by Science is an antique.  Roy the hitman lands in the hospital and he’s seen as the hero by a media frenzy which includes video extensive footage.   This doesn’t look good to Roy’s employers back in Brooklyn and it seems that although his mother didn’t want him,  now everybody does.

There are lots of characters,  but most of them are bit players to the majors.    Detective Kelly McGuire,  a drunk and outspoken critic of the department,  is taken off her disciplinary desk duty to chase down McGuire and the gangsters.  Half Latina she knows the neighborhoods and the bigger players.  And there’s Albert Burdin, the Canadian boss,  and Science the up-and-coming hit man.   Roy has to get some scores settled and get out of LA.

Interspersed with the story of Roy and his pursuers is the tale of Roy’s formative years,  his little family,  his incarceration at the age of 11,  the group at the Farm – he learns a lot over his lifetime.

But Frank is also trying to cover the entrapment of the ghetto – some of the younger kids show promise but there’s no way to make anything of it and so a cycle continues to breed poverty and guns.

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