Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

The Orchardist

Amanda Coplin |  Fiction


In many of my recent blog posts, I complain about shallow characters.  Not in The Orchardist!  You will know these characters so well, you will be able to predict their actions.  I don’t know for certain if that is good or bad, but these characters are rich and interesting!

At the turn of the twentieth century, William Talmadge tends apples and apricots in his orchard in rural Washington State.  One day, two young, scared, pregnant women appear on his land and, without speaking, Talmadge, Jane, and Della build a relationship. Of course, their lives are changed forever. And the story progresses from there, through the next 20 years.

This is 1900 in the Pacific Northwest.  Before roads, before a lot of civilization as we know it.  People live hardscrabble lives off the land.  I am again amazed that this is a first novel.  Coplin’s writing renders depth into a small and (often) picturesque slice of life.  Much as the characters in this novel are fiercely independent, so is Coplin, in her style.  I found myself particularly intrigued by her use of chapters.  When they need to be a paragraph long, they are.  When they need to be pages and pages, they are.  I also smiled at the names she uses.  Talmadge is always Talmadge, to everyone.  I had to check the inside flap of the book to see if Talmadge was his first name.  And his friend Caroline Middey is always Caroline Middey.  Every single reference, every time she appears, she is Caroline Middey.

I don’t want to give the story away, but it is not a roses and lavender story.  These folks, though incredibly successful at growing fruit, have hard social and interpersonal challenges.  There is birth and death and violence and love and loyalty and betrayal.  And always, apricots and apples and yummy food!

The Orchardist is a long book; it slows in places and speeds up in places.  But it is the type of book you will read in front of the fireplace (or your modern-day version) evening after evening, for a few days.  And you will think about these characters in-between your reading.  Yes, I am still elevating and warming my ankle, so this was a PERFECT book for my current adventure!

Thank you to my friend Melinda for suggesting this book to me (and us!)


If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

Alan Alda |  Non-Fiction


When a client is reading a book and finds it important enough to bring up in a coaching session, I take that to heart and read the book with my client; in this case, my client Chuck inspired me to read If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on my Face? by Alan Alda.

It's by Alan Alda, for heaven's sake.  Yes, you expect it to be funny.  And it is.  You expect him to talk about MASH, and he does, but only once. This isn't a “use your 'I' statements and paraphrase what you think you just heard” type of communication book.  No, this book is about real communication, and our responsibility as the speaker for all the communication that occurs or doesn’t occur.

What blew me out of the water is how much this book is about improvisational theater.  I have a passion for improv.  I have been learning and performing improv for five years and two months.  And Alda believes that improv is the single best training ground for how to communicate.  It's fascinating and inspiring!  He reframes the power of improv for me.

He talks throughout the book about empathy, which he defines as “having an instantaneous, primal awareness of another's inner state” and Theory of Mind, which is about understanding what is going on in another person's mind.  These are the critical components of communication: being aware of emotions and thoughts in the other.

This book is delightful to read. Now granted, I was sitting at home with an elevated sprained ankle while I read it, but it took me just over a day.  Yes, you will communicate differently after you read If I Understood You .....  And you will enjoy learning!

p.s.  a disclaimer.  In my posting on Against Empathy, I wrote about how rational Paul Bloom’s argument is for "compassion" and against "empathy."  But he defined empathy as feeling another's feelings.  I think Alda's definition of being aware of another's feelings is a very different and much more useful use of the word.

Read Alda’s book.  Have fun.  Maybe you (and I) will even communicate better.  Then again, maybe not.  Either way, I will watch the look on your face.


Little Fires Everywhere

Celeste Ng |  Fiction


Little Fires Everywhere has a slow start; a shallow teenage beginning. I kept thinking it was a Young Adult book, though it isn't listed as such on the book itself.  So I did some research.  Sure enough, Ng’s first book, Everything I Never Told You, won young adult awards.  Little Fires Everywhere has been called a Young Adult genre book by Goodreads and other book-list publishers.  One reviewer called it “an adult book for young adults.”

In Chapter 9, however, 1/3rd of the way through, something happens.  A mother who abandoned her baby finds her with adoptive parents, and wants her baby back.  This story-line takes off like fireworks skittering across the yard.  The sense of shallow teenage-ness departs, and a heart wrenching story emerges with nuances and missed signals in relationships and situations.

However, it isn't enough to rescue this book. The crises are unrealistic and mostly unbelievable, including a fire that is never really explained, an abortion that doesn't ring true, and life-styles that are simply fictionalized.  The relationships are filled with lies and withheld truths, making them ultimately baseless.  The characters are one-dimensional. All told, I don’t recommend you add this book to your list.  It is neither profound nor believable.

I can’t figure out why Little Fires Everywhere is a book club read.  I will be interested to see what my book club members have to say.  If I gain any different perspectives, I will share them here.





Uncommon Type

Tom Hanks |  Fiction


I would not likely pick up a random book of short stories, as many of you know by now if you have been reading Dusty Shelves for a while.  But I heard about these short stories by Tom Hanks, just after seeing The Post, and I thought it was worth a try.  As you may know, Hanks collects typewriters.  In this collection of his writings (geesh, how many talents can one person have?) a typewriter plays a role.  Sometimes it is a small and insignificant role; sometimes a central and vital role.

I thoroughly enjoyed the short stories of Uncommon Type, and Hanks book comes with my full recommendation.  I kept picturing his quirky and somewhat crooked smile as I turned the page and began a new story.  His tales have a light quality, and he develops his characters well in just a few pages.  I liked the way his endings did not always wrap things up with big red bow.

If you are not a Tom Hanks fan, (which I assume must be possible!) you may not appreciate this book as much as I did.  I can’t quite separate the stories from the author.  I hope you enjoy!



Alone on the Wall

Alex Honnold with David Roberts |  Nonfiction/Biography/Sports


I am a sucker for books about real-life and (sometime disastrous) hiking and climbing adventures.  A true arm-chair aficionado, I immerse myself into these adventures on K2, in Montana, in the Sierra Nevada, or in the back deserts of Southern Utah.  From the safety of my back deck, I experience and enjoy fascinating stories and adrenaline rushes.

Alone on the Wall is the most technical of these books that I have read.  You have to be interested in understanding a bit about the difference between a 5.12c and a 5.13a climbing route.  But if you are, you will enjoy the completely true stories of seven free solo climbs completed by the now 30-year-old and legendary Alex Honnold.  Free soloing is climbing alone without a rope, a partner, or hardware such as pitons, nuts or cams for aid in climbing or for protection.

Alone on the Wall is a mix of excerpts from Alex’s journal as well as commentary and research by his co-author David Roberts.  This book inspired me to watch various videos of Alex’s climbs, and his 60 Minutes interview, as I read about his absolutely astonishing climbs.  This book is not for everyone, but if you enjoy outdoor physical adventures, you will appreciate this one.  Even if you don't like these stories, glance at a copy of the book and check out the photos in the centerfold.  They will take your breath away.


August Snow

Stephen Mack Jones |  Fiction


August Snow was a delightful surprise in its early pages.  It is a novel about a Detroit cop who loses his job because he whistle-blows corruption, then receives a 12-million dollar settlement, travels the world for a year, returns to his former home in Mexicantown In Detroit, and proceeds to privately investigate a murder.

The delight was in Jones’ treatment of Detroit ... the interesting and often beautiful architecture, the varied and diverse food, the many generous residents, the disenfranchised poor and Black, the desperate and determined community struggle for revival.  It was fascinating to read for a native-Detroiter, and I think it would be intriguing for non-Michiganders as well.

While August Snow (the man) has some utterly delightful relationships (yes, Snow's persona reminded me of Robert Parker's Spenser), unfortunately I found the physicality too violent and gruesome for my tastes, so the last bits, where August is confronting, fighting, and killing the bad guys, turned this novel from 4 hearts to 3 for me.

Now, here is an important question for all of you who were NOT born and raised in Detroit.  Did you, in your growing up, go out for Maurice Salads, or is this a Detroit phenomenon?  Snow waxes eloquently about this dish and I was salivating, remembering those day-long trips to JL Hudson department store in downtown Detroit, typically with my mom, where the high point of the day was the lunch break for Maurice Salad.


The Dalai Lama’s Cat

David Michie |  Fiction


A starving and weak kitten is rescued from the streets of New Delhi by none other than the Dalai Lama.  This is her story ... the cat with many names, but known throughout the monastery and the neighborhood most adoringly as HHC, His Holiness's Cat.

Seeing the Dalai Lama and his Buddhist teachings through the eyes of a kitten who is most concerned with the quality of the duck l'orange and whether or not the monks love Kye Kye, a dog they are fostering, more than her, is quite delightful!  HHC understands all conversations, knows who the famous visitors are, and is endlessly intrigued by the goings-on of the monastery.  It is fun to see this all through the eyes of a beloved cat.

You don't have to read far into this book to realize it isn't really a novel about a cat.  It is actually a presentation of some of the most important Buddhist wisdom through the author's use of a very smart cat.  I felt a bit duped by the front cover which clearly calls The Dalai Lama's Cat a novel.  It is, in my mind, creative nonfiction. Nevertheless, I am happy to have this gentle introduction to Buddhism.  This book appeared under my Christmas tree at the Tree Already Trimmed book swap, but the note inside did not indicate who left it there.

It's an easy and enjoyable read ... IF you want an easy entry into Buddhism.


A Discovery of Witches

Deborah Harkness |  Fiction


My friend Lois recommended this book to me, and she has never once led me astray.  I loved this book, however I cannot recommend it to every one of my blog readers unhesitatingly ... you will have to choose on your own.  It is a fantasy, featuring witches, vampires, daemons, and humans.  It begins slowly, in my opinion, as we come to know our two main characters, Diana and Matthew, who are professors working and researching at Oxford.   One-third of the way through this 600-page read, I could hardly put it down.

A Discovery of Witches is about vampires, witches, daemons and humans at one level.  At another level, especially in the early context-setting pages,  it is an allegory of brown people, black people, white people, gay people, Muslims, Jews, Democrats, and Republicans and how we manage to live together – or not – with our diverse cultures, values, norms, rules, beliefs, and covenants.  Early in the book we learn that humans become nervous whenever the other creatures gather together in any sort of a group or crowd.  Sounds quite familiar.

This is decidedly not about vampires biting unwilling humans in the back alleys of New Orleans.  Never happens once.  It is actually about the discovery and manifestation of our individual and shared inner strengths and powers (whether we be witch or vampire!).

I realized on page 515 why Lois recommended this book to me; I can see what is looming in the second book of this All Souls trilogy by Harkness, which I will read!

And yes, there is a powerful love story that sparks both magic and war.


The Red Car

Marcy Dermansky |  Fiction


This is an absurd book.  I will venture to call it dumb.  It has a story-line that is not believable, a primary character I didn’t like and didn't care about, and a red car that is possessed.  Don’t even consider it. 

(Yes, I finished it.  I kept hoping.  This is a Huffington Post recommendation.  Hmmm, causes me to look askance at their recommendations.)




The Weight of Ink

Rachel Kadish |  Fiction


I liked this book a lot.  I didn't love it.  I loved it at first; a richly woven story told in beautiful language.  I described it to my friend Jan as a “cup-of-tea-by-the-fireplace” book; a 600-page book to be read with intention and attention.

And then (you can blame my modern-day distracted brain) I began to find it too dense.  The weight of the ink on the page grew heavy.  When we were in the modern days with PhD candidate Aaron Levy and the challenging Helen Watts, Professor of Jewish History, with whom he was working,  time passed quickly, as our two scholars read pages from the trove they found, called a Genizah.  As we  learned more of the 17th century backstory of the female scribe Ester and Mary, for whom she was a companion, and the rabbi for whom she scribed, Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, the stories at times became rather dense with Jewish history and knowledge. I slowed a bit and my interest waned. I found myself using my iPad often to look up words such as Spinoza, Sabbatean, jib and virginal (the noun).

But I took a deep breath, woke up from the intermittent naps I took while reading The Weight of Ink, and kept going.  The last 150 or so pages re-engaged me.  So, like many long books, I experienced a dip in the middle.  However, on total, I am giving this book four hearts.  I think it is definitely worth the read.  This is a book club book, and I am quite looking forward to our discussion in late January, as there is much to explore.

You may be considerably more knowledgeable than I am about Jewish history and the plague in London in the 17th century, but I learned a great deal from this novel.  It is, dare I say it, a feminist novel, as it is very much about the intellectual development of a woman in a time when women didn’t have many options.

So, with only minor hesitation, I recommend The Weight of Ink when you are ready to immerse yourself in a long read.  By the way, while long, it is not complex with characters.  Kadish manages to not inundate her tale with a multitude of characters.  There are, let me count, about a dozen significant characters, so you have ample opportunity to get inside their heads and hearts.