Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

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.

 

Coming into the Country

John McPhee | Non-Fiction

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I was delighted by this book from the very first page.  McPhee’s writing is like having a conversation over coffee. It is easy, engaging, curious, unhurried.

Before I opened this book, I thought I had made a mistake.  Other travelers give you books to read before you travel somewhere.  I received an extensive list from Off the Beaten Path for my tip to Alaska (which I didn’t even find until the day before I left.)  Anyway, I digress.  I began this book after I returned from Alaska, and I loved that I had seen a number of the places McPhee writes about.  I wasn't totally dependent on my flawed imagination.  I could truly picture what he saw.  Of course, McPhee shares a common Alaskan comment, “I’ve flown it but not walked it.”  That is very true for me and my “seeing” of the spaces and places.

This book is actually three separate stories, woven together by McPhee and his experiences in Alaska.  In the first, “The Encircled River,” he travels down a Brooks Range river with a cadre of men from various government agencies – the Federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game, for example.  I loved this true wilderness story.  It spoke to the only fantasy I left Alaska with; to maybe, someday, float a river in the spectacular Brooks Range.

The second book is about urban Alaska – a minuscule but important part of the state.  In “What They Were Hunting For,” we go on an air-and-land search for new state capital, after a 1972 initiative passes the voters.  The difficult-to-access town of Juneau was (and is) the state capital.  In the initiative, the capital could not be Anchorage nor Fairbanks, or within 30 miles of either city.  Eventually the Capital Selection Committee selects Willow as the new capital, and we see the lands they explored on their way to that decision.  (Funds never were allocated for completion of this capital and it remains Juneau.)

Finally, the last book, “Coming into the Country” is more than half of the total read, in which McPhee tells story after story about the people who choose to live a subsistence life in the very remote back-country Alaska interior.  These are fascinating, sometimes sad, and often inspiring stories.  (Reminded me of the style of a favorite author, Studs Terkel).  McPhee also portrays and explains the considerable challenges encountered over time among and between the values of the Alaskan white people, Indians, Eskimos, and the Federal government. I find myself using these stories today to speak to topics of risk, adventure, values, principles, self-sufficiency, life and death.

Coming into the Country deserves four hearts.  It is a strong read.  I have not read other John McPhee, but I understand all of his books are a force to be reckoned with and good way to while away winter hours.  A part of me wanted to give this book three hearts, but I realized this was my failure, not the failure of the author.  Coming into the Country was published in 1976/77.  McPhee incorporates many interesting statistics, such as the price of milk, the number of people living in Eagle, the journey and cost to bring a large CAT machine into the back-country, and the percentage distribution of lands that are federal, state and private. These statistics are all very dated – they are more than 40 years old – and I found myself constantly wondering “What is it today?”  Unfortunately – no, fortunately – I read Coming into the Country while camping at Little Crater campground and had no internet service to distract me with the answers to these questions!

Enjoy this book!  And please let us know what other John McPhee’s you have read.  What did you like or dislike?

 

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Dominic Smith |  Fiction

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I really like the story line of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.  Sara de Vos is a not-very-prolific painter in Amsterdam in 1631, and the first woman master painter in the Guild of St. Luke. Centuries later, 1957, Ellie Shipley is a struggling art student in New York City, when she paints a Sara de Vos forgery.  Of course, her single moral failure haunts her all her life, and comes to roost in Sidney in the year 2000.  Here is her nadir, against the allegory of an old painting:   “For two days she has had the sensation of seeing her own life under an X-ray – the hairline fractures and warped layers that distort the topmost image. She sees her private history, the personal epochs and eras in foreign cities, with a clean, clinical detachment.  They have all led to the cracks on the surface and it is time to take responsibility for those flaws.  Last night, she drafted two letters of resignation, one to the museum and one to the university.”  (Page unknown ... it is page 371 in the large-print edition)

It took me a while to become engaged in this book, in part because of the jumps in time. Although each chapter is clearly marked, I still had a bit of trouble wrapping my head around who, where and when. As the novel begins, there are four settings: two in New York in 1957; Sydney in 2000; and Amsterdam, 1635.

The other challenge is becoming accustomed to Mr. Smith's writing. I find it rather flowery and hard to grasp.  Some of you might quite enjoy his writing!   Here is an example of what kept me at a distance from the novel for the first half (page 155, large print edition):  “Tulp is a man on the ascent; as a city anatomist he is said to have personally signed the fitness reports of the first settlers in New Netherland.  With mayoral aspirations, he regularly publishes essays in the newspaper about apothecary reform and the plague and the circulatory powers of human blood.”

Eventually, however the story takes over and the language moves into the shadows.  All in all, if the topic sounds interesting, yes, read this clever tale.

 

Two Old Women

Velma Wallis | Fiction

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This writing is the retelling of an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters in the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska.  In this legend, two old women are abandoned by their tribe in a brutal winter.  Yes, in the legend, they survive and thrive.

I believe legends like these are interesting in their telling AND also communicate messages for parallel circumstances.  As I read this legend, I found myself reflecting on how I contain elements of both of these women ... the courage and fortitude of one; the fear and sadness of the other.  I find it a useful and inspiring tale for myself while I continue to process my grief and try to create a life for myself.

I highly recommend this book. It is very short – small in size and only 127 pages long.  I bought it in the Fairbanks airport, and would like to give it away to whomever of my blog readers feels drawn to it ... just let me know.

 

The Stars are Fire

Anita Shreve |  Fiction

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This is the book that compelled me to clarify my four-heart rating system.  It is a perfect two hearts:  “I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.”

This is a novel based upon the ferocious 1947 fire that broke out all along the coast of Maine (yes, fires have a significant place in recent blog postings!) It tells the made-up tale of Grace Holland, a 24-year old woman whose house burns down and her challenges as she is left with two toddlers to protect and support.

Unfortunately, it is too saccharin for my tastes.  I don’t believe Ms. Shreve manages to convey almost any of the angst, anger, and pain such a disaster would instigate.  Grace’s resolutions come too easily and are not believable.

Shreve’s writing style is, however, absorbing.  This novel is fast-paced, a quick and easy read.  I DO recommend it if, given that it is late July, you are looking for a rather mindless beach read.  It is perfect for that!  If you have more important, more satisfying books on your reading list, then defer this one and move on.

Temperance Creek

Pamela Royes |  Memoir

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In the early 1970’s Pamela Royes, discouraged with college, was trying to find her path. She makes her way to the Hells Canyon area of eastern Oregon ... a remote and wild wilderness … and proceeds to blossom into a strong and capable woman, living in the back country, learning to survive on a horse, in a tent, sometimes herding sheep.  She falls in love with an austere place and a Vietnam veteran, Skip.  Together they carve a home out of the wilderness.

I liked the story; I liked Pam's resilience; I liked her realism; I admire her courage.  This is NOT something I had the tenacity to do (Pam and I are almost the same age), even though there were times I dreamt of it.

Her writing is not always perfect, and there are a few small inconsistencies, but if you like to read about the wilderness, growing into adulthood, or the journey of strong women, you’ll like this read.

We will be discussing at book club this week.  Perhaps I will have some additional comments then.

 

The Big Burn

Timothy Egan  |  Non-Fiction

On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, the national forests of Washington, Idaho and Montana raged with forest fire.  I love reading outdoor adventures, from climbing Annapurna to trekking the Continental Divide Trail to fighting wild fires.  However, I hate reading history.

This book, which tells the story of the Big Burn within the context of Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester Gifford Pinchot was too much history and not enough adventure for me.  I couldn’t get through it.  (Sorry, Rene!)

 

What do the Hearts mean?

In thinking about The Stars are Fire (blog posting is on its way!) I was struggling between two hearts and three hearts and decided it would behoove the Dusty Shelves Book Blog if I defined the hearts system a BIT more clearly.  Given that it is really a compilation of scales, and rarely all one rating or another, here’s my best attempt to explain what my hearts mean:

four-heartsLike it a lot or loved it; I recommend it; put it on your list!

three-heartsLike it; I recommend, with some reservations.

two-heartsI don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.

one-heartI couldn’t get through it.