Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles  |  Fiction 2016

I really want to like this book, but I keep falling asleep or getting distracted, or picking up my iPad to see if anyone emailed me in the last ten minutes.  I am 100 pages in, which represents a significant commitment, and I think I must close the book and return it to the library.

I keep thinking that I "should" like it, and if only I were a more mature reader who could revel in the rather heavy-handed writing style, I would be a better person.  There IS humor and some fascinating visual descriptions, but the theme .... a Count who is under house arrest in a hotel in Moscow in 1922 ... is boring.  The inner flap tells me he will meet some interesting people, but he hasn’t yet.

An interesting review was written by Bill Gates.  He said you do not have to be a Russophile to like this book.  I think maybe you do.

I am surprised, because my dental hygienist Julie and I consistently agree about books we like and don’t like. I hope she remains gentle with my mouth when she discovers I abandoned this recommendation from her.

 

 

The Rent Collector

Camron Wright | Fiction 2012

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This is a GREAT book.  I am moved and hopeful.

Sang Ly, her husband Ki Lim, and their ill young son, Nisay, live in a shack at the edge of Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in Cambodia.  They make their living sorting through the trash the trucks bring every day, finding valuable scraps to sell to sometimes unscrupulous buyers.  Yes, The Rent Collector reminds me of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers.  The Rent Collector, however, is above all, a book of hope.

While this is a novel of life and death at the dump, the story line is about Sang Ly and her discovery of literacy and literature.  It is as much a tale of the role of literature in our world as it is a tale of hardship, friendship, and love in the dump.

Here is a sample of the intelligent and visual writing by Camron Wright.  “I always tell Ki that it’s a dangerous thing sending me to work at the dump, not because I’ll get run over by a truck, burn my legs and feet, or fall into a pool of toxic sludge—though all these are possibilities.  It’s dangerous because my thoughts get away from themselves.  Mixed with emotion, they pile up like the garbage that surrounds me.  They stack layer upon layer, deeper and deeper, month after month—crushing, festering, smoldering.  One day something is certain to combust.”  (pg 25)

Mary—my good friend from high school—recommended this book to me.  Once again, Mary, you are spot on.  I will recommend The Rent Collector to my book club for 2021 because it is not only an excellent and enlightening read, but also because of what we can learn about literature.

Yes, blog readers, you might want to read this book.  I recommend it without hesitation.

The Life We Bury

Allen Eskens | Fiction 2014

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Joe Talbert is a college student with an English class assignment to interview a person and write their biography.  With no living relatives other than his dysfunctional mother and a younger brother who has autism, Joe goes looking for someone interesting to interview.  He finds Carl, a Vietnam-era war hero and an accused rapist and murderer who, after 30 years in prison, has been released to a care facility to die from cancer.  Soon Joe is embroiled in Carl’s story and, believing Carl to be innocent of the rape and murder, he embarks upon a search to find the actual perpetrator and clear Carl's record and reputation before he dies.

This novel is fast-paced and an interesting twist on a suspense novel.  Allen Eskers is a criminal defense attorney with an MFA in creative writing and writes excellent suspense.  My friend Charlene recommended Eskers to me.  She said he is one of her current favorite authors, and I can see why.  I have already put another Esker’s book on my library list.  Charlene recommended The Life We Bury to me, and I in turn recommend it to you.

 

How to Make Your Money Last

Jane Bryant Quinn| Nonfiction 2015

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Fortuitously, this book crossed my radar on the same day I took my very first payout from my retirement funds.  Yikes!  So, I decided to read it.  And I am grateful that I did.  I know Jane Bryant Quinn is the financial-advice-in-print wizard.  Somehow, this book felt right at this time.

The book is well-designed.  Quinn and her publisher provide excellent bold titles to every section, so you can pick and choose what to read.  I skipped the section on when to take your Social Security, because that decision I have already made.  I passed over the “implications if you are married” parts, because they are now irrelevant.

Yes, she does address preretirement planning, but she also writes a lot about post-retirement and how to plan your withdrawals and RMDs and re-balancing to ensure the greatest benefit.  Two strategies I am quite intrigued by now are immediate-pay annuities and taking a reverse mortgage as a credit line very early in retirement, but not tapping it for a few years.

You will find something of value in here, if you peruse based on your own age, circumstances, and needs. I recommend a pause to reflect on your finances, with How to Make Your Money Last.

 

One Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong | Fiction 2019

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On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a 20-something to his mother who cannot read.   This book is emotionally difficult to consume ... it tells a painful story of being Vietnamese immigrants in this country, of family violence, and of mental illness unrecognized and untreated.  Little Dog, the son, uncovers and shows us much about his mom and grandmother coming to America, with him in tow.  It tells a personal story of a family, and not so much about the American culture or the society in which they struggled.

Vuong’s writing is like a big open flower. He uses beautiful words.  You get the sense each and every word is chosen carefully.  It is obvious this author is a poet.  Here is a random example:  “Being sorry ... is worth every self-deprecating feeling the mouth allows.”  I loved reading his words.  He engages us deeply and powerfully in a bruised story.

The one fault I find in On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is the author’s digression into OxyContin.  This  large section (about 20% of the book) reads like a book within a book.  It was as though Vuong went on an OxyContin rage.  If he meant to connect it to the Vietnamese-in-America theme, I believe he failed.  His victim to the opioid epidemic was not Vietnamese.

I took the liberty of reading some of Vuong’s poetry.  His writing is stunning, and I look forward with anticipation to Vuong’s next novel.

Selected as one of the ten best books of 2019 by The Washington Post and by Book Riot.

 

The Starless Sea

Erin Morgenstern| Fiction 2019

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I really enjoyed this book, the second book by the author of the highly successful The Night Circus.

There is a story line, a plot of sorts, though it is loose.  Zachary Ezra Rawlins walks through a door and down into an entire world beneath the surface of the earth, having no idea that a new story has begun.  This inner-earth world is mostly about stories.  Everything and everyone is a story.  There are stories that are people, and stories that are books, and stories that are folded pieces of paper.  While we follow Zachary through his journey in this land of the Starless Sea, we also read many stories.  There are threads that tie these stories together, and there are symbols that appear in all of them.  Swords, keys, and bees are constant friends and mysteries in the stories, but also cats, rabbits, and owls.  And ribbons and lanterns.  And, above all, there are doors.  Doors that open.  Doors that are locked.  Doors that simply appear.  Doors that disappear.  Doors that are drawn.  Doors that are built. This world-beneath-our-world is Alice-in-Wonderland-esque.

To engage with The Starless Sea, you must be prepared to disengage with reality.  I don’t know quite what to call the essence of this book.  Fantasy?  Magic?  Imagination?  And I wonder how she wrote the book and kept it all together ... I imagine she has created a big map of this land that Zachary is exploring, with rooms, and hallways, and caverns, a sea, stairs, characters, and doors.

I haven’t a clue who among you will enjoy this adventure, and who will find it too much of a suspension of reality.  All I can say is I sincerely loved it and am delighted to have read it.

Novel of the week by The Week.

 

 

 

Uncanny Valley

Anna Wiener | Nonfiction 2020

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What a phenomenon!  This book was published on January 14 and immediately the author was interviewed on NPR; Uncanny Valley was named book of the week by The Week; the SF Chronicle did an article on her; the book was reviewed by the NY Times, the New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly.  And today is only Jan 22!

Uncanny Valley is written by the niece of a colleague, so right from the start, I was a little nervous.  I knew I would be completely honest in my blog posting, and I could only hope I wouldn’t find myself dissing this book or being brutal.

Never fear.

In the first chapter (or is it the second?  I must admit to some level of irritation with books that have no chapter numbers or names), Ms. Wiener was incredibly naive, and I became scared.  She never heard of eating snacks at work, of “ask forgiveness, not permission,” or of designing your own job.  “Oh no,” I thought, “some millennial writing about corporate America who has spent all of five days in it.”  Ahh, but that rapidly dissipated.  She proceeds to communicate a smart, bright, funny, refreshing, and illuminating view of Silicon Valley and her first jobs in very small startups filled with young men in hoodies and company-logo t-shirts, traveling around the office on One Wheels.

One reviewer remarked positively about her short sentences.  I, on the other hand, found myself actively watching for her long, complex, verbally staccato sentences, like this one,  “In the other direction was Valencia Street, a living diorama of late-stage gentrification:  third-wave-coffee shops selling paleo lattes, juice bars hawking turmeric shits, waifish Australians clutching branded paper bags from spartan boutiques.” (P 90). I adored these sentences!

In the second half, the section called “Scale” I thought her writing lost speed.  It was like hiking partway up a mountain and losing momentum.  The wondrous enjoyable hike becomes a bit of a slog.  What she writes about when she joins a new high tech company in “Scale” is more serious (the company was trying to recover from a gender discrimination lawsuit), but it also feels like the author became jaded and less enamored by the crazy creativity and weirdness she is writing about. She writes more seriously about misogyny, racism, and meritocracy.  It feels as though she is looking to solve a problem ... is Silicon Valley a problem?  ... but with no real definition of the problem or vision or parameters for a solution.

“Scale” pushed my rating from four hearts to three, I am sorry to say.  She will be speaking in Bend in a few days, and I will be interested to hear what she has to say about her energized colorful writing, and her duller, more frustrated(?) writing.  I am sure she doesn’t think of it that way, but I will be curious nonetheless to hear what she has to say about the second half.

 

Meg & Jo

Virginia Kantra | Fiction 2020

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I did some research and found the largest bookstore in the Miami airport, Books & Books.  They didn’t have either of two upcoming book club reads, so I had to punt.  I settled on this fun read, Meg & Jo.  Yes, it is a modern-day version of two of the Little Women.  It was fun to read, and Kantra provides more depth of characters than I was expecting.  This is about sisters Meg and Jo, in their late 20’s, navigating careers, relationships, and, of course, family.

I was glad I saw the movie Little Women over the holidays, or I would have missed ALL of the call-backs to the original book by Louisa May Alcott.  For example, here’s one I caught.  In Kundra’s version, instead of Amy burning Jo’s manuscript, she deletes a letter Jo is working on.  Modern twists and turns imbue this novel with a sense of realism and relevance.

The further I read, the more I appreciated how the author developed real characters for Meg and Jo.  Depth, intimacy, personality, sadness, introspection, and a lot of humor.  While it is not the East of Eden of 2020, I recommend Meg & Jo if you want a read that will entertain you, while you gaze outside at the snowy streets.  And I will keep my eyes open for her next novel, Beth & Amy (the other two sisters).

Women Rowing North

Mary Pipher  |  Nonfiction 2019

Washington Post “100 Books for the Ages” Age 76 (and various friends)

It just didn’t interest me very much to read about the challenges of women growing older, even when the author threw in a few ideas for solutions.  I don’t really want or need a self-help book at this juncture.  I look forward to hearing perspectives from those of you who love this book!!

 

 

The Dutch House

Ann Patchett | Fiction 2019

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The Dutch House is about siblings Danny and Maeve, as told by the younger Danny, over five decades of their relationship.  And it is about the quirky Pennsylvania mansion that defines their family relationships and, to some extent, their demise.

Maeve and Danny are close, loving, interwoven, and highly connected.  It is truly a beautiful partnership to behold.  With resilience, they maneuver their way through all the Dutch House throws at them:  parents, step-mom and step-sisters, death, love, careers, expectations, disappointments, successes...

I found this book to be interesting, but not astounding.  I give it three hearts ... it might tickle your fancy, but I make no promises.