Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

Exit West

Moshin Hamid |  Fiction

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I cannot categorize this book. Is it a love story?  Sort of, but not really.  Is it a dystopian novel?  At times, but not overall.  Is it magic?  Well, yes, magic does play a part.

We don't know the setting of Exit West.  It may be a city in the author's home country of Pakistan, but it could just as easily be in Syria or Libya or other countries.  What we know for certain as the novel opens is that it is “a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace, or at least, not yet openly at war.”  It is a city where “Islam prevails, but sex, ‘shrooms and smartphones are also prolific.”  (Time.com)

In the beginning, Saeed and Nadia meet in a class and fall in love in these turbulent times. And then the war invades their city, their lives, and their love.  How might they escape through one of the magical doors to safety?  Yes, there are magical doors. At first I thought the “door” was simply a metaphor, but it is not.  You find and pay an agent, a mule of sorts, and he leads you to a hidden magical door.  You walk though this door, and you are in another part of the world.  Saeed and Nadia inhabit a number of cities in the world in this concise novel, as they try to make their way to a place of home and of safety.

The dystopian part of this novel is this:  in every city they travel to, war has broken out between the natives, called “nativists” and the immigrants/refugees.  And in every city, immigrants are beginning to take over, though nativists are violently resisting them.  I think this novel is very timely and for this reason alone, we all should read it.

Exit West is short, well-written and a novel that will make you think.  I recommend it without hesitation.  And I look forward to reading what you think of it …

My Absolute Darling

Gabriel Tallent |  Fiction

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Wow.  I heard My Absolute Darling was quite disturbing, as  it portrays the mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of 14-year-old Turtle by her father Martin, a survivalist.  Well, yes, it is disturbing.  Their relationship is central to the novel, and, as she loves him dearly and knows no other relationship norms, it is not a pleasurable relationship to explore.

However, I think the plot is actually not about abuse, but about how Turtle carves an identity for herself in spite of her horrendous circumstances.  She is stunningly courageous and brutally honest with herself.

Tallent's voice is astounding. His writing draws you in.  I had trouble putting this book down.  His use of language is beautiful, especially as he displays his extensive and fascinating knowledge about Mendocino flora and fauna, where the novel is set.  His apparent familiarity with guns is chilling.  I had to Google "Sig Sauer."  What I don’t know about guns can fill a novel this long.

This is a difficult read ... if you are looking for a pleasurable beach novel, choose the last book I blogged about, The Things We Keep.  If you want a compelling read that touches your heart and soul and will stay with you, read My Absolute Darling

I think a sentence from Stephen King’s review on the back cover captures this novel very well.  “This book is ugly, beautiful, horrifying, and uplifting.”

The Things We Keep

Sally Hepworth |  Fiction

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Do you know the Kincaid Grade Level Analysis?  It is a way to analyze your writing, to ensure that it is clear and easy to read.  Some good copywriters will tell you to keep your copy in the Grade 4-7 range (which means it can be read by 9-12 year olds), and even white papers and tutorials below 9 (9 Grade level can be read by the average 14 year old).  This is good advice for the choice of words, the sentence and paragraph structure, and so forth.

I want to talk about the content, however.  I believe there is a similar “grading” – at least, there is in my mind.  But it refers more to intellectual content than to the style of writing and choice of words.  Romance novels, for example, even though they may have sexual content, are written in a very simple style – and can appeal to people with quite a range of intelligence.  Political and historical and scientific tomes may represent the other end of the scale, requiring high levels of intelligence, concentration, analysis, and focus to read and absorb the information.  (Do you know of a scale that actually measures these differences?)

Anyway, my point is The Things We Keep falls a little too low on the “intellectual” scale for my liking.  This is the story of Anna who, at age 38, has been diagnosed with “young-onset Alzheimer’s.”  In a residential facility, she falls in love with Luke, the only other young person in the care facility.  Eve is another major character.  She is hired as the cook and cleaner in the care facility. And has her own set of secrets and difficult circumstances.  She works to keep Anna and Luke together when others feel the relationship is not safe.

The story is an easy read, and an entertaining one.  I simply had hoped for more.  I had hoped to get a better understanding of early-onset Alzheimer’s, and the disease’s progress and impact.  But instead I read a story … a nice story, an interesting story, a story that I was drawn in to and wanted to resolve … but I wanted more.  I wanted to learn more, to have the tale be, well, more “intellectual.”

This is a beach read.  That’s the best way to describe it.  It is light reading ... lighter than you might expect from such a difficult subject.  Unfortunately, there are no beaches here in the high desert!!

list.

Midwives

Chris Bohjalian  |  Fiction

I so enjoyed Chris Bohjalian's novel, The Flight Attendant (blog post in May 2018), I was quite looking forward to reading another book by him.  After struggling with Midwives for nearly a week, and falling asleep reading it, and forcing myself to open it and read the next chapter, I am admitting defeat.  I find it slow, boring, and without any pizazz or energy.

The plot sounds intriguing and strong ... a midwife, on an icy Vermont night, takes desperate measures to save an infant's life by performing an emergency caesarean on what she believes is the dead mother.  But, was the mother really dead?  Therein lies the appealing plot.

Too bad the writing wasn’t as appealing.  I’m off to something else.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood |  Fiction

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At first, I was chastising myself for not reading this 1986 classic sooner.  And then I arrived at page 93, Chapter 16, when the Commander and the Handmaid have sex and I discovered that image had been carved by a wood burner into my memory.  I realized I had read The Handmaid's Tale before.  But I recalled little and was inspired to continue reading it again.

Briefly, the story — there has been a cultural and social revolution resulting in civil wars and a totalitarian society in Gilead. This is a dystopian novel of what happens to the women, especially, when roles are proscribed and freedoms removed and families broken up, and tolerance disavowed.

No surprise, Atwood’s writing is exquisite and powerful.  Our narrator, one such Handmaid, whose primary job is to bear a child for her Commander and his Wife, weaves the story of her past into the telling of her present life.  As with any dystopian novel, it caused me to wonder ... could we fall victim to such a regime; such a cultural shift?  And to what extent have we already, without realizing it?

If you haven’t read this, you owe it to yourself.  If you've read it decades ago, consider rereading.

And my burning question is ... have you seen the television series?  How is it?  Should I track it down?

 

Thunderstruck

Erik Larson |  Nonfiction

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Thunderstruck, the interwoven stories of Guglielmo Marconi, credited with the invention of the wireless, and Hawley Crippen, a physician, perhaps eventual murderer, isn't Dead Wake or Devil in the White City.  I was disappointed that the narrative lacked a strong sense of mystery and urgency. Thunderstruck read more like history than narrative non-fiction, to me.  At times it was dry and repetitive.  I began to skim the sections where Marconi is testing his wireless, after about the 15th or so iteration of such tests.  One reviewer said Larsen “was exhaustive without being excessive.”  I beg to differ.  I thought Larsen included too much detail about Marconi, his company, his competition, and his endless wireless tests.

That being said, I never once considered putting it down.  Larson's storytelling is good.  He excels at creating a whole picture of his characters ... not just what they accomplished, but their personalities, their foibles, their strengths, their loves, their obsessions.  I think he just included a bit too much in this tale.

The last 20% of Thunderstruck, the chase for the fugitives, was the page-turner part!  I do think Larson's editor should have insisted on a clearer distinction as the chapters shift in time.  The Crippen story occurs mostly ten years ahead of the Marconi story until they at last intersect. 

So, do I recommend Thunderstruck?  Yes, with some reservation.  Read Thunderstruck if you particularly like Larson, or you are intrigued by the development of modern-day communication devices, or you particularly like the social and technological leaps and bounds society encounters at the turn of the prior century. Otherwise, I don't suggest this book leapfrog to the top of your list.

The Power of Meow

David Michie |  Fiction

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This is the third book in David Michie's trilogy about Buddhism through the eyes of the cat adopted by the Dali Lama.  (No, you didn’t miss the second one – turns out my library didn’t have it. I just requested it.) His Holiness’s Cat (HHC), aka Rinpoche, Little Sister, Snow Lion and other names, is delightful!  Smart, articulate, able to read and understand human conversation, she allows us to see Buddhism through her innocent and curious eyes.  These short novels are really fun!  If I were to subtitle this book, it would be, The Power of Meow; In Which HHC Learns to Meditate. 

HHC never reveals the name of celebrities who meet with the Dalai Lama, but in this book, we meet the CEO of an American social-media company, the name of which rhymes with “litter.”  Ha ha ha.

These are quick, enjoyable, fun and enlightening reads!  However, read The Dalai Lama’s Cat first, the initial book in the trilogy, so you learn how HHC came to be the meowing voice of Buddhism principles.

The Flight Attendant

Chris Bohjalian |  Fiction

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Cassie is a flight attendant with enough seniority to work the plum international routes.  She also, to use her own words, “binge drinks” and has “binge sex.”  One might in Dubai; she partakes of both of her chosen activities and wakes up next to Alex Sokolov, his blood pooled on the bed and his throat quite emphatically slit.  Did she do it in a blackout?  If not, who did?  And why?  And why was she still alive?  Cassie leaves the scene, wiping away all traces of herself.  Thus begins a tale of intrigue, mystery, and suspense.

This is an airplane book.  If you want to pass the time, fully engaged in a mystery novel, and not hearing your flight attendant or the passenger in the seat next to you, this is an excellent book to engross yourself in.  It will pull you right along as you try to solve the mysteries along with Cassie, the FBI, and other indeterminate players.

Bohjalian has written 20 books.  His voice is clear and it seems he can tell a sharp, creative story.  I think I will try more of this author; I just requested an earlier work, Midwives, from the library.

Call Me By Your Name

André Aciman |  Fiction

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It is unusual for me to read a book after seeing the movie … I prefer to do it the other way around.  Then, since the movie is never as rich as the book, I can add scenes as I watch the movie.  But something compelled me me to read this novel after seeing the movie.  As much as I enjoyed the beautiful cinematography of Call Me By Your Name, the excellent acting, and the grip of the love story, I felt that the movie was more about what occurred than about the emotions of the two main characters, Elio and Oliver.  I hoped the book would shed some light.

From the very first page, I was not disappointed.  I found myself wanting to watch the movie again with this book in hand … the movie did such a beautiful and profound job of communicating the external story, and the original novel did an exquisite job of communicating the internal landscape.

Elio, the only child of a literature professor and his wife, spends summers with his parents in a home in a small village in Italy.  Every year Elio’s dad invites a student, a protégé of sorts, to spend the summer with them, doing paperwork and correspondence, as well as research and study.  The setting, the weather, the town – all are idyllic.

This summer Elio is 17, and the guest student is 24-year-old Oliver.  This book is the story of their love ... the long slow path to its consummation, and the intensity of its passion and intellect.

This is one of the most sensual books I have ever read.  Aciman is a master.  It is also beautifully written, with lovely words and phrasing.

If you have seen the movie and liked it, I think you will enjoy this book as I have.  If you have not seen the movie, I don’t know how well the novel will land.  The story line is simple and rather slow.  I just can’t tell if it would be a good read or not.  If you read it, let us know!

 

 

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Matthew Dicks |  Fiction

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I LOVE this book!  It is sweet and delightful and a pleasure to read.  (Thank you, Janey!)

Max is an unusual 8 year old boy.  He likes to be by himself.  He has poor social skills.  He needs a schedule, and commitment to it.  He doesn't like change.  And sometimes he gets “stuck.”  But he does have an imaginary friend, Budo.  This delightful story is all about Max's imaginary friend.  And the fun part is, it is written by Budo himself!

Budo is invisible to everyone but Max and he can go wherever he wants, which makes him a great storyteller!   We learn what it is like to be imaginary.  Budo can be seen by other imaginary friends, like Graham and Puppy and Teeny and Oswald.  But all imaginary friends are just what their makers imagine.  Budo can walk through closed doors, because that’s how Max imagined him.  But he can’t sleep, because Max didn’t think of that.  Some imaginary friends can fly.  Some, like Puppy, are not very smart.  Budo, of course, is very smart!

Imaginary friends live until their makers forget about them.  Many of them “disappear” the first few days of kindergarten, as their makers begin to interact with, well, real kids.   But some live on much longer.

Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a child?  Someone you could talk with, play with, or seek wisdom from?  Please tell us about him/her!  I didn't.  However, I do have an imaginary friend now.  His name is Beryl.