Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

In Another Life

Julie Christine Johnson | Fiction

four-hearts

As In Another Life opens, our main character, Lia, has just arrived in Languedoc in southern France. It is 18 months since her husband Gabriel died.  As I read page one, it is 17 months since Beryl died.  I am astounded by the similarity of Lia's emotions and my own, and am immediately drawn into her character.  She has come to this land to stay in a friend's stone cottage.  She has come to consider the next steps in her life.  It hasn't even occurred to me to consider my next steps. It never even crossed my mind.  Well, I guess it has now!

But this blog post is not about me ... it is about this book.  On the front cover, a reviewer claims it is “evocative of Outlander.”  As a guzzler* of the Outlander series, this caught my attention.  The structure differs from Outlander.  Let me tell you a bit about the plot, to better explain the “time travel” aspect of In Another Life

Lia returns to Languedoc in part to continue work on her abandoned dissertation, which is about the Cathars, and in part to discover her life's "next steps."  In the thirteenth century, the Catholic Church incited a Crusade against the Cathars, a heretical religion according to the Catholic scholars of the time.  While in Languedoc, Lia’s inner historian is enlivened again and she learns a great deal about the powerful players from the year 1208 who facilitated or resisted the Crusade.  I think it is sufficient to say, without giving away too much of the story itself, that the Cathars believed in reincarnation.  So “time travel”  in this novel occurs as rich characters who were incarnated in 1208 interact with our modern day characters.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book!  I like the exploration, the mystery, the time travel, the depth of the characters, and the romance.  This is a book club book and I know at least one member of book club did not like this book.  Our conversation will be interesting!

*(Ha ha, I just learned the word tachyphagia - it means to eat rapidly or fast.  I thought “guzzle” was little more user-friendly!)

 

The Storyteller

Jodi Picoult | Fiction

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Intense.  This book begins light and easy.  Sage Singer is a baker; you can almost smell (but not quite taste!) the delicious breads and pastries she bakes every night.  One day an elderly man walks into the bakery and Sage and Josef strike up a conversation and then an unlikely friendship.  Nice so far, eh?

Josef asks Sage to help him die.  Now the story picks up a bit more heat.

And then we enter into the real meat of the seemingly credible novel … Josef’s tale about his experiences as a Nazi SS leader.  Eventually we also get Sage’s Grandma Minka’s story as a Holocaust survivor at Auschwitz.  Of course, Josef’s and Minka’s paths crossed all those many years ago.

Their tales are riveting.  In full Picoult style, it is hard to put this book down, even though the bulk of it is definitely intense.  Yes, absolutely, it is worth reading.

Footnote:  In March of this year, a Nazi SS Officer, 98 years old, was revealed, living in Minnesota.  Picoult's book is not far-fetched.

 

The Story Hour

Thrity Umrigar |  Fiction

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This is a story about the relationship between a young Indian woman, Lakshmi, who attempts to commit suicide, and her therapist, an African-American woman named Maggie.  Lakshmi is totally delightful.  She does not speak English well, but it takes you only a page or two to understand her. She uses words like “ascare” for scared and “courage” for encourage.  She doesn’t understand why “the husband” calls it a “coffee table” when thy only drink chai.  Throughout the book, we learn more and more about Lakshmi’s story, and how she came to be in the United States and the tragedies and joys of her complex life.  Fascinating.

On the other hand, Maggie has been drawn as a very shallow character.  She never does much of anything, and what we learn of her life is, well, rather immature and insensitive.  And so their friendship is a bit difficult to grasp.  A number of reviews I read were distraught that Maggie breaks the rules of therapy and befriends Lakshmi.  I, on the other hand, felt the other way.  I wanted her to eschew the rules and boundaries and really befriend Lakshmi, but she stays on the fence and emotionally distant.

I like a place of grounding in a book. If it is placed in Boston, I picture Boston. If it is Dubai or Atlanta, I will get out maps and be able to “see” the place.  I don’t know what Umrigar was thinking when she placed her characters in Cedarville.  That’s all we get to know.  I assumed that it was near New York, as the seasons began to change.  But then we learn that Maggie used to live in New York.  By the end of the book we discover that Cedarville is about 1000 miles from San Diego.  Huh?  At one point I googled Cedarville and discovered there was one in California and one in Ohio.  We learn in the first few pages that they are not in California.  So maybe it is Ohio. Until Maggie talks about the snow she sees on the mountains.  I felt, well, lost.

Read this book for Lakshmi and her Indian hertitage. Her story will stay with you and make you think.  Don’t read it as a tale of friendship between women; it would be a disappointing friendship for sure.

 

Ordinary Grace

William Kent Krueger | Fiction

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I remember one event clearly from the summer I was 13. I went to Bob-Lo Island, an amusement park on an island in the Detroit River, and met my first love, Randy.  What do YOU remember about the summer you were 13?  Well, this book is the summer Frank Drum was 13, and there is A LOT to remember!  Granted, it is a novel, so the author can imagine events in order to create richness of experience and memory.  And that he does!

Written from Frank’s perspective 40 years later, he tells a spellbinding story about the summer he was 13, during which accident, suicide, murder and deaths occurred.  Frank and his younger brother Jake live in a small town on the Minnesota River ... a town in which, in 1961, it was impossible not to know everybody's business, and all the interwoven goings-on.  This is a MUCH more interesting and intriguing story than my own first summer as a teenager.

Krueger also recalls and knits in the times so well.  An example: “She wore a pair of dungarees and a blue denim shirt over a white top and she’d bunched the shirttails around her waist and tied them in a loose knot in a way that I’d seen Judy Garland do in a movie about show people.” (page 238, large print edition).

Krueger isn’t a spectacular mystery writer.  I anticipated many of the events and “whodunits” before they actually happened.  But that didn’t really matter. The story held my interest.  This book actually kept me awake until midnight one night and 11:00 PM the next.  Very unusual for this early-to-bed-early-to-rise reader.

Put this one on your list and enjoy!!

 

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

Paul Bloom |  Non-Fiction

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On page 4 of this book I was convinced.  It was like that moment when I said, “I am no training to people’s weaknesses in the corporate world, but only to their strengths.”  I made a radical shift.  I am no longer interested in developing someone's (or my own) empathy.  I am interested in developing their compassion.

Briefly, Bloom’s contention is that that problem with empathy – with feeling another’s feelings – is the spotlight nature of it.  He talks about empathy as having decidedly unsatisfactory traits:  narrow focus, innumeracy, bias, and specificity.  His argument is that empathy can lead us in quite the wrong direction, especially in society.  Feeling empathy towards another individual is always just that – it is individual. So if I work to solve your problem, it may very well be at the expense of a more strategic solution for a broader group.  I cannot feel empathy for the broader group – but I can feel compassion for the strangers I don't know.

Plus, what good does it do me to feel your pain? (Yes, it might do me good to feel your joy; that point is well-taken!)  If I actually FEEL your pain, as an empath, I can become immobile. Here is a quote form Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki, researchers in this arena:  “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other:  rather, it is characterized by feelings  of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”  (page 138)

I heard Bloom interviewed on NPR and was eager to read this book.  It doesn’t take long to read – it is short and succinct (mostly).  Though I did have to wait a while for a copy to become available at the library!  If you are a coach, or a trainer, or a parent, or work in any way with the psychology, behaviors, or emotions of others, this is a must-read for you!

It fell from four hearts because the last two chapters seem like filler to me. I don’t know why they were included, unless Bloom's editor said that he needed more words!  If you read this book, I would especially like to hear your opinion on these last two chapters,  “Violence and Cruelty” and “Age of Reason.”

 

A Twist of the Knife

Becky Masterman |  Fiction

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Brigid Quinn is a 60-year old retired FBI agent, in a later-in-life marriage.  I like that she is 60!  She leaves her Tucson home to travel to Florida, where her father is dying in a hospital, and her relationship with her mother is as complex as ever.  AND, of course, she reconnects with her colleague Laura Coleman who is working to exonerate Marcus Creighton, a man on death row, just days before his execution for murdering his wife and children.  There are familiar, complicated family dynamics at play in this novel, as well as a juicy mystery to solve.  And Brigid Quinn is highly involved with both!

I like Masterman's writing. Here is an example of what I found interesting, page 98:  “Sebastian, Vero Beach’s lower-middle-class neighbor, nestled unapologetically, almost with a smirk, beside her wealthier enclave.”  “Unapologetically, almost with a smirk”?  I like this creativity, turn of a phrase, anthropomorphism!  Ms. Masterman's story moves fast and is engaging.  It is complex enough to keep you wondering.

Why not four hearts, then?  Well, it isn’t a must-read; it is a fun read! Despite its over-dramatic title, it draws you into relationships and circumstances.  If you are ready for a break from this year's reads about WW2, Appalachia, and grit, A Twist of the Knife will satisfy.

(BTW, this is another Nancy Pearl recommendation  ... I trust her a BIT more now!)

 

Slow Horses

Mick Herron |  Fiction

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(A reminder about two hearts:  “I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.”)

I really liked the premise of this mystery novel.  “Slow Horses” are British Intelligence Agents who screw up on a case, but stayed employed.  They are shipped off to a building called “Slough House.”  Of course, in this novel, they collectively do something right, redeeming themselves at least in part.

Unfortunately, IMHO, Herron simply does not deliver on this premise.  We do not enter the story of the book until page 94.  Up to that time, he gives us vignette after vignette of every Slow Horse currently housed at Slough House. There are too many of them to keep them straight – I wanted a table in the front of the book to help me keep track of who was who.  And so, of course, once the story actually begins belatedly, it is difficult to care about any one character.

Later on Herron spends about 100 pages gathering all the Slow Horses from their various haunts one long night, as the mystery is about to be solved.  BORING.

Finally, the conclusions are unclear.  You are left hanging – not hanging in a good sense; more like hanging because he seems to have forgotten to wrap things up with a number of characters.

This is a Nancy Pearl recommendation.  I am disappointed because I thought just maybe I had found another reviewer whose judgments were similar enough to me, that I could trust.

Yes, I finished it.  I can be a sucker for a mystery and I wanted to see how the mystery resolved itself.  But you may want to read a Connelly or a Grisham or a George or a Christie or a Reich or a Le Carre.

The Seed Collectors

Scarlett Thomas  |  Fiction

OK, I give up. I have been trying for four days and 80 pages to get into this book. I find the characters completely meaningless. Bryony, for example, is obsessed with her weight ... not obsessed with losing it, just obsessed with it; with feeding it; with how well her husband bakes; with what clothes she can wear.  Now I know the crux of the story is that when Oleander dies (who is the grandmother, sister, or friend of all the other characters in the book, and runs Namaste House, a retreat center for famous people like Paul McCartney), she leaves everyone a seed pod.  Apparently the seed may bring good fortune or bad; may be deadly or bring enlightenment.  That’s sounds like a rather intriguing plot!

Unfortunately, that event has not happened yet and I don’t frankly care if the characters reach nirvana or die. Or both. I am moving on.

 

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk

Ben Montgomery | Non-Fiction

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In the 1950s – in ALL of the 1950s – only 14 people completed hiking the 2050 mile Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine (or from Maine to Georgia!)  One of them was Emma Gatewood, known affectionately and more famously as Grandma Gatewood.  With 11 children and 23 grandchildren, at the age of 67, she was the first woman to solo hike the AT.  In 1964, she became the first person to hike the entire trail three times.  Go ahead, do the math!!

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is her story.  I know many of you are avid hikers, often on foot, sometimes via armchair.  In 2016, 1110 people completed the Trail, 29% of them women. As an avid reader of hiking books, and a four-year follower of Wired, as she travels around the world thru-hiking, I notice that today, hiking the AT is a very different experience from when Grandma did it.  Hikers today carry all their supplies in lightweight packs, spend most nights sleeping on the trail in tents and cooking their food. Interestingly, back in 1955, the Trail was so new and such a marvel, that Grandma Gatewood, while she did spend many nights sleeping under picnic tables, also spent many nights at the homes of people along the trail. She would knock on doors and ask them for shelter; something you wouldn't see today except in an emergency.

She was famous for wearing only “Keds” tennis shoes and carrying a small knapsack, with no sleeping bag, tent, or cook stove.  The author, Ben Montgomery, weaves in information about our culture at that time of Gatewood’s hike, and for the years immediately following, putting it in context for what hiking was like in the 50s, as well as the roles of women.  He worked with Gatewood’s diaries, her correspondence from the trail, her heirs, and also the numerous articles that were published about her once she was "discovered” on the trail.  And she is not Cheryl Strayed! Whether you loved or hated Wild, you will find Grandma Gatewood’s tale to be quite different and without the angst, errors, and inner turmoil of Strayed's hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Grandma Gatewood simply walks.

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is an easy and enjoyable read. It is also inspiring.  As I told a friend last night, it also makes me feel a bit languid ... I mean, I am not about to hike the Appalachian Trail. Nosiree!  And I am a few years younger than Grandma Gatewood.

My one criticism of this book – and it is not big enough criticism to lower my heart rating – is that Ben Montgomery clearly is a reporter (he is a staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times). As such, his writing is, I find, dispassionate.  After just completing Coming Into the Country by John McPhee, who clearly wants to pass on his passion and enthusiasm, Montgomery is rather emotion-less in his communication.

Nevertheless, you will be delighted to know this story better!  Emma Gatewood is an unsung hero of our modern day world!

Another Brooklyn

Jacqueline Woodson | Fiction

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This book is a Huffington Post recommendation. For the first few pages, I couldn’t understand why this quick, short book was recommended. It is a very fast read. I read it in an afternoon, lakeside, during which I also finished a watercolor painting and took a spin on the lake in my kayak.

It is the story of four girls who become friends on the chillingly dangerous streets of Brooklyn in the 1970s.  We learn in the afterward that the author herself grew up in this place, though her characters are all fiction.  The reader can feel that Woodson knows the place about which she writes; knows it intimately and personally.

The four young women tell themselves lies as they encounter disappearing mothers, madness, and not-so-innocent men and boys.  Another Brooklyn packs a hard punch.  It is memorable and satisfying. Take but a few hours, do yourself a favor, and read this award-winning pencil-thin book.