Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

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!

 

 

Night School

Lee Child  |  Fiction

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This was a fun read, in-between more serious books!  Someone is buying something worth $100 million, in two-decades-ago US dollars.  What could be bought, sold and transported on the black market for 100 very large bills?  Jack Reacher, of course, is put on the job to find the item, the seller and the buyer.  Eventually, he uncovers the item and the seller in Hamburg, neither of which make their way to the buyer, and the world is safe again.  Intrigue, fast-paced, not overly violent ...  Jack Reacher novels are a nice respite.

Now, I splay out my possible reads on the kitchen island and make a decision where to turn my attention next.  Oh boy!

 

A Study in Scarlet Women

Sherry Thomas  |  Fiction

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I’m confused. This book, which I finished primarily so I could write a blog post, simply confused me. I was half-way through before I figured out what was going on.  Was I dense?  Or did the plot really not reveal itself until half-way in?  Charlotte Holmes assumes the name of Sherlock Holmes and searches for the culprits in three murders.  It IS on the back of the book – I guess I should have known earlier that Charlotte was operating a ruse, under the name of Sherlock Holmes, but I didn't seem to connect to this information until nearly halfway in.  And then, with three murders and multiple suspects, I continued to be confused. And when it ended and all was revealed?  Well, suffice it to say, I was still confused.

So, you may ask, why not one heart?  Because I finished it.  I loved Charlotte's character — she is a renegade; she fights the morals of her time; she meets some delightful people along her journey.  Especially Mrs. Watson (I assume that her name was appropriately tongue-in-cheek!)  However, I don’t think I will pick up another Sherry Thomas soon.  I have way too many books on my “must be read” list.

 

 

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

Genevieve Valentine  |  Fiction

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I can’t quite say why I enjoyed this book so much.  The story is not that compelling (more on that below) but the writing is just delightful.  Valentine has a style that is easy to read and enjoy.

The story centers on Jo, the eldest of 12 sisters who live in the upper floors of a Fifth Avenue townhome in the 1920s. Their mother died after giving birth to #12, and the girls now live with their controlling and extremely distant father, who is profoundly disappointed that his wife never gave him a son.  Actually, their father has abandoned the sisters in all ways except to provide food and housing. As a matter of fact – hard to believe – a number of the sisters have never met their father.  Jo is usually the go-between. When he wants to communicate something, he sends one of the house servants up to ask Jo to come to his study.

Jo teaches her eleven sisters to dance and for eight fairy-tale years they sneak out at midnight to explore the speakeasies of New York City, where they dance to their hearts' content, never giving their names to anyone.

The sisters call Jo “The General.”  An apt name for their substitute mother!  I wonder if Jo is in some way reminiscent of Jo in Little Women.  (I did my compulsory read of Little Women as a young girl, but the book I read over and over again every summer that still sits on my shelf today, is Little Men.  I wonder what this presages about my life and career?)

An example of Genevieve Valentine's delightful writing is how she names the two sets of twins in the family, Hattie & Mattie and Rose & Lily.  An oddity is her considerable overuse of parentheses.  I never quite understood why so many of her sentences are in parentheses.

I gave this novel three hearts instead of four because it isn’t a “must read.”  I wouldn’t talk about it on a hiking trail with my friends and proclaim, “You must read this!”  It is an interesting and enjoyable short book.  I reserve the right to add to this post after we discuss The Girls at the Kingfisher Club at book club this week!  For a snowy weekend by the fireplace, I recommend this read!

 

Truly Madly Guilty

Liane Moriarty  |  Fiction

I give up.  I have wasted two weekends on this book, hoping the characters become less vapid and a plot actually develops.  I have made it all the way to page 198, almost half-way, and this morning I awoke with clarity.  It is time to move on.  Oprah called it “Gripping.”  The Washington Post, “Powerful.”  Family Circle called it “Mesmerizing.”  I guess that should have aroused my suspicion.

If you read this and liked it, I would LOVE to hear about it!

 

 

 

 

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Marie Semple |  Fiction

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This book is NOT about Bernadette’s physical disappearance (see my rant below.) However, it is about her emotional, intellectual and mental disappearance from her life.  Bernadette is an incredibly interesting character … she presents as somewhat daft ... but then again, she presents as very rational.  Can someone be “somewhat” daft? (Heck if I know; I’m a coach, not a psychiatrist!) As she lives her life as a mom and a wife and neighbor, living in a house that is literally being taken over by blackberry vines, you wonder how she can be called sane. But then you observe her relationship with her husband, her reasons for using a virtual assistant, her astonishing past, and her arguments with her neighbor and with her daughter’s school administrators and you unabashedly cheer her on!  To fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to designers, she's a revolutionary anomaly of an architect; and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

This is an odd book ... the story is primarily contained in notes the characters write each other ... usually not e-mails and not faxes, but “notes.” The author doesn’t explain how these “notes” get delivered.  Odd, yes, but once you become accustomed to the style, quite engaging

This was the January read for our book club, The Casting Crew.  (Nicole Kidman won the spot of Bernadette!)  I can't remember the last time we discussed a book for so long.  For the nine women sitting around Pam's dining room table, there was resonance with the character of Bernadette, as well as many laugh-out-loud moments while reading.

Yes, pick this novel up, get yourself accustomed to the odd and playful style, and enjoy.

Rant:  I have been reading book reviews much more since I started the Dusty Shelves book blog, sometimes before I read the book, sometimes after.  I need to start paying attention to the reviewers' names and see if I can find a few I like and trust (sort of like the old days with movies and Siskel and Ebert.  Any suggestions, blog readers??)  I have noticed that so many reviewers zero in on an event in a book that they find particularly enticing and then write about that, pretending that the exciting event they picked out is what the book is about, thereby tantalizing you by this event.  (Actually, publishers and their jacket notes are even more to blame than reviewers!)  Did you read any of the reviews claiming Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a mystery about Bernadette's (physical) disappearance?  Well, it isn’t!  Bernadette doesn't disappear until page 213; more than 2/3rds through the book.  This event-focused review does the author and the book a disservice, I believe.

 

The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead |  Fiction

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Wow.  I mentioned after my last blog (Bullseye by James Patterson), that I was going to choose a more meaningful book, and I certainly fulfilled that intent!  This is a haunting, devastating, and decidedly meaningful novel.

The Underground Railroad begins on a vicious Georgia plantation, where escape is on the minds of all.  The early pages are very difficult to read; not that it gets easier later. I was shocked and stunned to learn about the brutality among slaves, not only just perpetrated by slave-owners upon slaves.   

The author tells us Cora’s story, who flees the plantation where she was born, risking everything in pursuit of freedom, much the way her mother, Mabel, did years before.  Colson Whitehead consistently conveys the fear, humiliation, and loss of dignity of a slave attempting to be free. Cora finds herself swept into the great secret undertaking that is the underground railroad.  And here is where the novel astonishes.  Whitehead has taken the historical metaphor of an “underground railroad” and made it real, complete with stations (some magnificent, some just dirt), stations agents who risk their lives to inform runaway slaves about the hidden entrances, and trains with no regular schedules. It is a magical metaphor.

This beautifully written book was on President Obama’s reading list for 2016. Amazing.  Will our next president suggest such a read to us?

The ending(s) – plural because there are a few – are poignant and powerful.

This book should be required reading for us all.  Do not expect to be thrilled by it.  Expect to be evocatively and deeply moved.