Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance |  Memoir

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I wanted Hillbilly Elegy to explain to me why Appalachia voted for Trump.  I guess if I really want to know, I better read a non-fiction that attempts to answer that question.  Any recommendations?  Hillbilly Elegy gave me some insight with which to answer that question, but not much.  More on this below.

This is a tough blog to write!  Hillbilly Elegy is difficult to compartmentalize.  The book is a memoir by a man who grew up in Appalachia and eventually left.   He tells his personal story about being poor and white in Appalachia, and attempts to draw sociological conclusions from it.   His memoir is much larger than the analysis.  This disappointed me.  I wanted more of a researched, nuanced analysis.

The first half of the book is pure story.  I was rather amazed at the direct parallels to my own life.  JD writes a great deal about the physical and emotional connection among family in Appalachia.  My mom, in Detroit,  married the boy across the street.  Two of her sisters married two brothers from a few doors down.  There was a time when all of my family was concentrated in just a few blocks in Detroit.  And then came “white flight” to the suburbs and the next generation departed, leaving only my grandparents to die in the city.  While my mom was not quite as addicted as Vance’s mom (prescription drugs for my mom, not street drugs) and certainly did not go through boyfriends and husbands like Vance’s mom, still there were parallels in how these women related to and abandoned their children.  And I had to laugh at the section about Appalachia adults hating Japanese cars.  Well, being from Detroit, this was a common sentiment!

I later learned that many readers could not relate to this family dynamic at all.  It occurs to me that it is a common dynamic, perhaps, in the cities that were populated by early 1900’s immigrants … Italians, Poles, Serbs, Germans ... all looking for better work in America.  Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis ... all of these towns experienced some of what Appalachia did, though with less debilitation.

In the center of the book, pages 139 – 142, the author begins to hypothesize how Appalachia Democrats became Republicans.  It is an interesting, if very cursory, explanation.  Frankly, it is not very complimentary, making Appalachia sound reactive and resentful.  A bit later, around page 191, he talks about sentiment regarding President Obama and social changes of that era, and he presents the opinion of his people as though it is all made up; not grounded in any fact.

Near the end, Vance attempts to rescue his book (okay, I KNOW I am attributing to him something he would never attribute to himself!!) and he presents some useful and insightful arguments for what has occurred in this region of the country, and what can help.

My friend Deby found the author’s writing “annoying.”  I did too, though neither of us could put our finger on precisely why. My best explanation is that this is written like a “How I spent my summer vacation” essay.  It is chronological and rather immature in writing style.

That all being said, I actually think you should read this book.  I am completely confident you will not agree with all of my opinions, and that is what is interesting and where the learning is.  I am fascinated to hear what you think of this book. I know many of you have already read it. Please opine!

 

For my Blog Readers

After hearing from some of you that you don't see replies to your comments, I did some research. It is below.  If this doesn't help, I will contact my web designer and see if there is something else to be fixed!

 

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A Twist in Time

Julie McElwain  |  Fiction

I don’t understand how I can give Ms. McElwain’s first book, A Murder in Time. four hearts, and I can’t struggle my way through her second novel. It is like a movie sequel in which the sequel is simply a flop.  I have been working on this book for days, and I am only on page 94. I am abandoning it.  There seems to be nothing new and fresh in this novel.  The setting remains the same … FBI Agent Kendra Donovan is still caught in England in 1815 as an unwilling time traveler.  She is investigating a second murder now.  But except for the fact that a different society Lady has become our victim, nothing new seems to be happening.  Kendra remains befuddled by the norm differences and societal changes in 200 years.  She has the same manner of shocking people with her modern-day assertiveness.  She has the same sweet way of telling her benefactor, Duke Aldridge bits and pieces of life in the 21st century, while being fearful of saying too much so as not to change history.  There is the same sexual/romantic tension between her and Alec.

Nothing is engaging me.  I am moving on.

 

 

small great things

Jodi Picoult |  Fiction

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I became nauseous twice while reading this novel.  While there was little physical violence per se, reading about the inner thoughts of a white supremacist quite literally made me ill.  I considered quitting the second time this occurred, and then I read some reviews.  Eleanor Brown of the Washington Post describes small great things as “frank, uncomfortably introspective” and a book that will challenge readers. With that perspective and the encouragement of my friend Linda, I continued.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/small-great-things-is-the-most-important-novel-jodi-picoult-has-ever-written/2016/10/12/f18e0fdc-7eb4-11e6-8d13-d7c704ef9fd9_story.html?utm_term=.fa0c3dc900d3

This is the story of Ruth, an African-American highly experienced labor & delivery nurse, who is restricted from caring for a newborn per the request of the newborn’s parents, who are white supremacists.  But then an emergency occurs, the baby dies and Ruth is sued by the parents, charged with murder and negligent homicide.  The novel is based on a real situation that occurred in Flint, Michigan.

The story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Ruth, her white attorney Kennedy, and the father of the baby, Turk.  This novel will definitely challenge you to look at your own racism, not just in terms of hate, but also in terms of privilege. It is also a good story!  Picoult writes well ... I think an author who can make me nauseous just by relaying the thoughts of one of her characters has to have superb skills.

I gave small great things three hearts, however, because a) I cannot recommend this book to everyone; you have to be ready for it, and have the stomach for it; and b) I think it is a somewhat over-written.  I think the some elements of the conclusion were manufactured out of thin air and quite unnecessary and unbelievable. I would like to hear what you think about the ending – without any spoilers!  Particularly unreal to me is what happens to the couple, Brit and Turk.

If you read this, please post your opinion!  And have a bottle of Pepto Bismol nearby.

 

Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi | Fiction

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I started Homegoing on CD, while driving to Cannon Beach Oregon for a watercolor workshop at the ocean.  And I became a bit confused.  That evening, however, when I opened a print copy of the book and found an organization chart (no, that's not what it called.  Cripes, I have been working in the corporate world for way too long!)  Anyway, once I found the family tree, and backed up a little on what I had listened to, Homegoing began to fall into place and I found my rhythm with the book.

The author writes about a character in each of 9(?) generations, beginning on the Gold Coast of Africa in 1764 and through the 1990’s in Palo Alto.  The way she tells the story, you don't have the opportunity to follow one character.  It is on a timeline, not all at one point in time.  That is a bit frustrating.  Still, the depth of the story illustrates Gyasi’s ability to immerse her readers in Black family culture and the slave trade through the generations.  Her storytelling raises this novel to a full four hearts for me.  The only "character" who remains consistent through the generations is a black stone pendant that is handed down from generation to generation.  It is the stone that ties the story into one piece.

This novel is the Deschutes County community read for 2017, and I can see what inspired this choice. You receive an education as well as entertainment. I will be hearing the author speak on May 7, and will edit this post if I learn anything insightful to add!

 

Lab Girl

Hope Jahren|  Non-Fiction

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  • Wood is still our best material for building.  Nothing human-made is as strong, flexible and lightweight.
  • Leaves mature from tip to base.
  • Plants are the only things in the universe that create sugar from non-living organic matter.
  • Trees have conduits that move soil water up and other conduits that move sugar water down.
  • When plants freeze, they die.  Do you know how trees keep themselves from freezing?
  • If you consider a modest maple tree, about the height of a street lamp, and pull off every leaf in the summer, you'll have about 35 pounds of leaves, every ounce of which has been created from air and soil, using the sun as energy, and absorbing and evaporating 3000 gallons of water in just a few short spring months.  In these 35 pounds, you have enough sugar to make 3 pecan pies and enough cellulose to manufacture 300 sheets of printer paper.
  • Trees talk to each other to ward off disease.

If these factoids fascinate you, you will love Lab Girl.  Yes, it is officially Hope Jahren's autobiography, but fully 80% of her book is about her passion for plants, especially trees, and only the basic structure of her life is presented in typical autobiographic cadence.  And Jahren was trained as a writer before she became an geochemist, geobologist, and a professor.  Her profound ability to write makes this book a page turner.

Someone in my hiking group, Sole Sisters, (Leslie, I think)  recommended this book when I was running on about enjoying The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (see my blog review at sagecoach.com/dustyshelves.)  To spark your memory, Gilbert's main character is the moss woman.  

Lab Girl is a very interesting book if you have any affinity for the out of doors.  I recommend it.  Spring is the perfect time of the year to read this book!

 

The Mothers

Brit Bennett|  Fiction

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Huffington Post recently published a list, 10 New Books By Women Writers Of Color To Add To Your Must-Read List.  So, I decided to oblige.  I checked with my dear friend and reading buddy Mary and she had recently read and enjoyed The Mothers, so that’s where I began.

At first I thought The Mothers was simply a story about Nadia, a young woman in Southern California. The more I read, the richer this book became. And I was only a tiny bit biased by Nadia’s departure from California to go to college at my alma mater, the University of Michigan!

The three main characters are Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey, three black teenagers as the story begins.  Yes, there are many entanglements among these three people in their teenage years and later in life, as you might expect.  About halfway through, the intersections of these three lives become more complex and the book becomes more compelling. 

This is (yes, again!) another debut novel. I hope we see more from Ms. Bennett, who has insight and understanding of the complexities we can create between one another, and how these complexities impact our lives.  I trust her writing will become a bit tighter and more mature.

My only real criticism is that I believe the author does an inadequate job of flushing out her title, The Mothers.  The Mothers are the women elders in the church that is central to Luke’s, Nadia’s, and Aubrey’s lives, but we don’t really learn about the mothers until Chapter 12 of this 14-chapter novel.

The Mothers receives four hearts from me ... but it isn't a wild and enthusiastic four hearts.  Read this book if it sounds interesting to you.  It is not a “must read” however.  I’d give it a solid 3.6 hearts, if I weren’t so committed to my 4-heart rating (and if I had a clue how to make a .6 heart!)

 

Landfalls

Naomi J. Williams |  Fiction

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In 1785 the Boussole and the Astrolabe set sail from France under the leadership of Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse.   For three years the expedition of two frigates and 200 men attempt to circumnavigate the globe for science and for "the glory of France."  This inventive novel is based upon their journey.

Landfalls explores the indigenous peoples the expedition encounters, the science the savants on board attempt to learn, and the relationships of the men.  Though there is a structure ... each chapter tells about the adventure from a different point of view and from a different place upon the earth ... the author, Naomi J. Williams, weaves this structure together with a true story-teller's expertise.  It isn't even obvious that this is the structure she is following.  As a reader, you are simply swept along on the journey.

Once again, I must say, this is a remarkable first novel!  Williams richly develops her characters.  She avoids the caricatures we may have in our minds about long-ago sailors.  No one is brutal.  Drunkenness is not a major element of her story.  Instead, these are real men on a real journey trying to do real work.  I think one secret to her magic is how she incorporates the scientific curiosity of the sailors.  I love the arguments about the value (or not) of fresh water.  I am intrigued that sailing expeditions had ship's artists to capture plants, animals, land formations and people.  

Landfalls (an apt and descriptive title) is definitely worth your time.  Your imagination and your curiosity will be grateful.

 

The V-Word

Amber J. Keyser |  Non-Fiction

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I heard the author of The V-Word interviewed on NPR but didn't realize until I was well into this book that it is a teen book.  I found the 17 vignettes of how young women lost their virginity decidedly interesting.  Straight, gay, questioning, uncertain ... there is quite a range of stories.  The author defines assault, rape, unwanted or coerced sex as violence, not sex, and such stories are not included.  All the vignettes are about women choosing sex for the very first time.

Some stories made me smile; some made me cringe.  And I found my own story amidst the telling.  (Joe and I were both virgins so "trying to figure out how to insert tab A into slot B" took me back a few years and made me laugh!)

The last 60 pages of the 200-page book were useless to me ... the vignettes were complete, and this section was advice and perspective for young women.  Not something I needed!

Since my few blog readers are all friends, I will say, reading about sex was difficult at times.  Those of you who are widowed, or single, or simply have not had sex in a long time (and would like to!) be forewarned ... The V-Word will certainly make you think about such intimacies again!