Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

Long Story Short

Margot Leitman | Nonfiction, 2015

290 pages

four-hearts

I haven’t had this much fun reading a book since Me Talk Pretty One Day.  I don’t know how it ended up in my hands.  It simply appeared near the end of the list of 20 books I put together during quarantine, when I couldn’t access my favorite hangout in town, the Eastside branch of the library.

But there it was, on my “to read” pile, and I wondered why I wanted to read this book about effective storytelling.  I didn’t fit any of the criteria she lists on page xxvii (why do authors label pages “xxvii”?  Doesn't life begin on page 1?) for who should read this book.  It is for people who make business presentations; are going on job interviews; want to tell stories onstage; are preparing to make a speech for a wedding or funeral; or who are dating. “Dating?” I asked with incredulity.  “What does this book have to do with dating?”  Then I realized that this book was going to help address one of my deeply held secrets about myself.  I am boring.

Be prepared to read the short book with pen and paper in hand.  There are many, many prompts, from ones I could easily answer ( _____ makes me cry.   _____ makes me so angry) to real mind-benders like “Tell a story about a time I was proven wrong.”  Wrong???

You will learn a lot about yourself, maybe create a juicy story, and have fun.  Leitman is decidedly entertaining. But be careful when buying or requesting this book.  There is a book with the same title that is ten-minute gospel stories for sharing with your children.  Unless of course, that actually is the story you want to tell.  “The time I bought a book that was the complete opposite of what I was looking for.”

p.s.  I couldn’t help but think of many of my friends as I read this book.  Leslie and Carol, who are simply enjoying writing.  Charlene, who is working on her memoir.  Jan, who revels in the form of 50-word stories.  Bev, who writes stories and plays.  And, above all, Joanne, who helps people tell their stories for a living.  (Joanne ... this is an essential book for you!  Yes, I will take my 45% cut.)

Have fun.  Create, write, and have lots of fun.

Time to do kitty litter now.  "Did I ever tell you about the time I was cleaning kitty litter and ....."

Trespassing Across America

Ken Ilgunas | Nonfiction memoir, 2016

267 pages

three-hearts

Longtime blog readers know I read a lot of books about trails, and the people who walk/hike them and write about their experiences.

Well, Trespassing Across America is about a long hike, too ... only there is no trail.  Ilgunas decided to walk the XL Pipeline from its beginning in Alberta to its terminus in Texas.  He walks prairies, ranchland, gravel roads, climbs an uncountable number of barbed wire fences, and simply uses his compass to walk south/southeast.  He is walking for adventure, and he is also walking to raise awareness of the pipeline.  And much of his walk is illegal.

Because he doesn’t wax eloquent about mountain peaks or other hiker’s trail names, and because there is only so much one can say about prairie land and cows, we also learn a lot about the history of the Great Prairie, oil, and environmentalism.  Ilgunas is not a staunch environmentalist as the book begins.  He is walking and listening to the people he meets in small towns and is open to all ideas and opinions and perspectives on the pipeline, climate change, and government in general.  At least until page 190, when he finally takes a stand.

My Canadian readers might particularly enjoy this book, as he doesn’t leave Canada until page 117, so we learn quite a bit about Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the tar sands.  And, intriguingly, he doesn’t see a “no trespassing” sign until he crosses the border into the US. Us US-types have an unusual relationship with the land we occupy and believe that we “own” and others should stay off.

This is a worthwhile, interesting, and educational read ...

 

 

 

Listening for Coyote

William Sullivan | Nonfiction memoir, 1988

238 pages

three-hearts

Over the next few years, it is my intention that my motor-home Udea and I visit many of Oregon’s parks that I have missed along the way.  So, I thought reading Listening for Coyote, which is William Sullivan’s journal as he walks from the westernmost point of Oregon to the easternmost point, would be a fine inspiration.  And that it is.

This book was published in 1988, the year Beryl and I made Oregon our adopted home.  So, fitting for my Oregonian beginnings as well. Of course, things looked different when Sullivan made this 1361-mile solo backpacking trip in 1985.  For example, dear Bendites, the Badlands Wilderness was not a reality then.  And growing marijuana was illegal and done under circumspect circumstances in the wilderness.

As with other Sullivan writings, he is clear, accurate (or as accurate as one can be in the wilderness), and remarkably observant.  This book is rich with tidbits like this, “This ancient Klamath shale is just the place to look for the fossil imprints of trilobites and sycamore leaves, since shale preserves fossils as neatly as wildflowers pressed in the pages of a dictionary.” (pg 68).

I give this book 3 hearts because if you are not an Oregonian and not a Sullivan fan, you might not appreciate it all that much.  But my local friends who enter the mountains with pages copied from one 100 Hikes book or another, may just revel in his experiences.  I did.

 

 

 

Caste

Isabel Wilkerson | Nonfiction, 2020

479 pages (includes 88 pages of notes, acknowledgements, a bibliography, and an index)

four-hearts

In a single word, powerful.  I am floored by this book.  Wilkerson presents a history of caste.  Not race, but caste ... a ”stubbornly fixed ranking of human value.” (pg 24). There are only three examples of caste systems in the modern world.  India, Nazi Germany, and the United States.  She compares and contrasts these systems, spending most of her time on the US institution of slavery as a prime component of caste in this country.

Of the many, many things I learned, here are three.

  1.  Slavery was in place in America for 12 generations.  I knew how many years in my head, but the impact of seeing it in generations is profound.
  2. The United States served as the model for the Third Reich’s Nuremberg Laws.  As they began to define the ideology, the early designers of the Nazi philosophy first looked to the US to understand how we were so effective at institutionalizing racism.
  3. The caste system provides offers an important explanation for the US 2016 elections.  Suicide rates rose among middle-class whites in the late 1990’s as labor unions were eroded, more people of color and women took middle-wage jobs, and there was a general sense of “dominant group status threat.”  Plus, a lower caste member rises to the highest station in the land in 2008. The bottom caste seemed to be rising, pushing upon the security of the castes above.

This is a hard book to read.  While Wilkerson uses a lot of metaphor, especially early in Caste, to engage the reader, it still is not a story in the way The Warmth of Other Suns was.  It is pure non-fiction. And the facts are extremely hard to take.

No question, I highly recommend this book to all of you.  It could be required reading for every single student or teacher of American History.  It is what “Patriotic education” should really be about … telling the truth.  It teaches an important story we never, ever learned in fifth grade.

 

The Neighbor

Lisa Gardner | Fiction, 2009

462 pages

three-hearts

I ran out of books!  Not wanting to drive to the library, I walked down to the bottom of my driveway, to the Little Library I put there on the corner (no surprise, I am sure), and grabbed this mystery to read.  It is pretty good!

Sandy Jones disappears one night.  Her four-year-old daughter Ree knows more than she is saying.  Her husband Jason is, of course, a suspect in her disappearance and possible murder.  Then again, the convicted sex offender who lives five doors away is also a suspect.  As is the man Sandy had a short affair with.  And then there is 13-year-old Ethan, who is in love with “Mrs. Sandra.”  What role does he play?

It is an interesting story, and the resolution is clever, I think.  This is one of a series of books written by Ms. Gardner about the Boston Police Department investigator, Sargent D.D. Warren.  I don’t think the author does a good job at all developing D.D.’s character.  The only thing we really learn about her is that she is, um, horny.

So, all in all, a fun and appealing read.  Not compelling enough to go chase down more Lisa Gardner books.  Read it for fun, but not for any great insight.  (As an aside, I think someone turned off their creative genius when they titled this book The Neighbor.  Seriously boring and not all that accurate.  I would have titled it Steel Doors.)

I now have ten (10!) books in my to-read pile.  What is next, I wonder?  It is a mystery even to me!

 

Epic Solitude

Katherine Keith | Nonfiction memoir, 2020

280 pages

three-hearts

Epic Solitude is a memoir by a woman who answers a call to find her purpose, her home, and her soul in the wilds of Alaska.  She and her husband build a long cabin miles from a road, in the deep wilderness of Alaska.  Alaska calls for so much strength, resiliency, sacrifice, hard work, self-knowledge, and the ability to stay warm ...  I cannot even begin to imagine it!  At one point, in the "Sheefish" chapter, Kat talks about her clothes, including boots that are three sizes too big, to get all her socks in, four tops, three pairs of long underwear, and mitts that are eight times her hand size so she can add so many layers.

Yes, she takes us on numerous dog-sled races across Alaska and into the Yukon Territory of Canada.  And these are fascinating!  And the book is much more than her physical adventures as a musher and an “iron-woman.”  It is about her development from a young girl and a very troubled teen/young woman, struggling with depression, bulimia, and cutting.  The first quarter of the book is hard to read at times, as Kat is really mentally unhealthy.  But stick with it .... she does heal herself and grows into an unimaginably strong woman who faces and conquers many hardships in her adult Iife.

My three hearts is because I was looking for a wilderness adventure, and this is more the story of her life, and how the wilderness saves her.  In truth, it is probably MORE than I anticipated.  With that knowledge, you can begin this book with a clearer expectation of what you are taking on, and perhaps enjoy it at a four-heart level.  I do recommend it, with that caveat.

 

The River

Peter Heller | Fiction, 2019

272 pages

four-hearts

This is the perfect book to read when you are housebound in hazardous smoke due to exploding wildfires.  Wynn and Jack, friends since freshman orientation at Dartmouth, are spending a couple of weeks in August canoeing the Maskwa River in Canada, which eventually empties itself into Hudson Bay.  Of course, it wouldn’t be a great story if all they were doing was fishing for brookies and picking blueberries.  Instead, they rescue a woman who has a concussion, a dislocated shoulder, is bloodied and bruised, and is in shock.  Is her husband the cause of these injuries?  As they begin to paddle her downstream, they are about ten days away from a Peawanuck village and safety.  Meanwhile, a crackling, smoky wildfire off the western bank grows closer and closer.

How they complement each other!  Jack has a hunter’s instinct and can see movement on land far away;  Wynn can read the water like a pro.  As fly-fishers, Jack casts easily with grace; Wynn studies and calculates before he casts, cutting the water into quadrants.   Wynn studies the arts at Dartmouth; Jack, engineering and math.  But they both have an insatiable love of books, poetry, fiction, and of course, expeditions.

The writing is superb, visceral, urgent, terse.  I couldn’t read it fast enough.  Especially for those of you who are engulfed in smoke right now, Chapter 16 is amazing.  It is when they are really IN the wildfire, and Heller writes about the brutal sounds of a wildfire.  Spellbinding.  I chose a quote that illustrates both his writing style and the intense love these two best friends have for each other, as Heller writes about paddling together.  “Wynn notices that after a while he barely had to utter ‘hut’ before Jack switched and the paddles swung up and forward in perfect synchrony and their four hands changed position on shaft and handle midair and the blades hit the water at exactly the same moment ...”  (chapter 11)

After finishing Nobody’s Fool, The River was a big breath of fresh air; a delightful and fast read.  I highly recommend it.  I want to thank Teresa for this recommendation ... AND for recommending Nobody’s Fool.  Interesting, no, that we can agree so strongly on one book, and disagree so strongly on the other?  I love that about books, and about friends!

 

Nobody’s Fool

Richard Russo |  Fiction, 1996

549 pages

two-hearts

Perversely, I finished it.  It was in large part because I was confined to the house with the Air Quality Index in the 500’s.  Thanks to the breath-stealing wildfire smoke, I finished it.  However, I didn’t enjoy it at all.

The novel's main character is Donald “Sully” Sullivan, who is stuck in bad luck, as an unemployed construction worker with an arthritic knee that has him on disability, with a truck that is dying, a long-time mistress he doesn’t know what to do about, friends and a lawyer who are not very bright, and an estranged son, Peter, whose marriage is falling apart.  And three odd grandsons. He does have an interesting relationship with his spry octogenarian landlady and eighth-grade teacher, Beryl Peoples (okay, I admit to a little bias in her favor due to her cool name).

Nobody’s Fool is mostly men expressing their caring for one another through negative humor.  Sully, as the protagonist, does manage to pull himself out of this way of communicating occasionally, especially with the women in his life and his grandson, and you cheer him on every time he does so.  Truthfully, I fell in love with Sully eventually.  He kept trying to be human.  In the end, however, there is no conclusion or obvious growth or resolution.

Sometimes I read reviews of books when I am partway in, if I am having difficulty either understanding the book or appreciating it.  I did that with Nobody’s Fool and learned that Publisher’s Weekly loved it; felt it was “biting wit and potent insight” about blue-collar people in a small New York town.  Kirkus was not so positive: “Russo's third <novel> is a slice of small-town life: thick slice, big cast, much bustle, but no story line, no climax, no epiphanies.”

I felt this compulsion to read this book, and I don’t know why.  I struggled throughout its 549 endless pages.  I know it is supposed to be funny (here I go again) but I did not find it funny to hear/read the interactions between not-very-smart men who often don’t understand a plethora of words or phrases, and who don’t get jokes, and who don’t know how to communicate, and who are decidedly not self-aware, and who are taken advantage of, and who devise their own wiles for surviving in a difficult world.  I just didn’t find these interactions laughable.  I found them tragic and difficult.  Somehow, I was engaged enough to keep reading, all the way to the very end, but I cannot recommend this book.

 

A Spark of Light

Jodi Picoult | Fiction, 2018

384  pages

four-hearts

Another Picoult masterpiece.  She certainly doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects.  A Spark of Light is about a single day at a women's health clinic that performs abortions.

We have wonderful characters in this book, such as Wren, who is at the clinic only to get contraception; her Aunt Bex who brings her; Joy, the woman who has an abortion this fateful day; Dr. Louie Ward, who performs abortions at the only remaining clinic in Mississippi where a woman can get an abortion; Janine, an anti-choice activist who is in the clinic under cover, trying to catch them on tape doing something wrong.  A few other essential characters grace the pages of this story.  Of course, there is George Goddard, the gunman who holds them all hostage, and Hugh, the police negotiator who is also Wren’s father.

The story of this fateful day, Hugh’s 40th birthday, is told backwards, hour by hour.  We see what happens at 5:00 pm, then 4:00 pm, then 3:00 pm.  It is an interesting design, I think.  Instead of being focused on how the story turns out, we focus on how it is these individuals came to be where they are on this day.  Effective, I think.

There was a time when I said “huh!” aloud, in the 1:00 pm section, when Dr. Ward muses,  “This woman lying feet away from him would probably be surprised to know that she was not the first pro-lifer to walk into the Center. He had personally performed abortions on at least a dozen.”

There is a formula to a Picoult book.  She takes a controversial ethical issue ... designer babies, high-school shootings, the death penalty, white supremacy, and, in this case, abortion, and she writes a novel with real people exploring both or all sides of the issue.  I always feel just a little embarrassed when I am reading a Picoult novel ... interesting books; they make me think; but they aren’t exactly literature.  Whatever the heck I mean by that.  They seem to be written for the NYT Bestseller list ...  Recall my posting (Nabakov’s Favorite Word is Mauve) about the NYT having “dumbed down” their target reading level to grade six from grade eight.

However, her books engage, educate, inform, and cause me to reconsider how much I think I “know” on a particular topic.  I undeniably recommend A Spark of Light.  Especially if you think you know a lot about pro-choice and pro-birth perspectives.

 

 

The Echo Maker

Richard Powers | Fiction, 2006

451  pages

four-hearts

Mark Schulter, 27, has Capgras.  Capgras is a psychological condition in which an individual believes someone they love and is important to them has been replaced by an imposter.  Mark flips his truck on an icy road in February in Kearney, Nebraska and nearly dies, during the annual migration of the sand cranes landing on the Platte River and heading north for the spring and summer. Soon, his body is healing but this psychological condition remains.  His sister, Karin, leaves her job the night of the accident to come care for him, and, yes, Mark believes Karin is an imposter ... a government agent who has been schooled in the ways and history of Karin and Mark, for reasons unknown.

We watch the sorrowful and frustrating story unfold, as Karin does all she can for Mark, who never trusts her and is sad and worried that his only sister has not come to care for him.

And then there is a note left by his bedside in the ICU.  Who left the note?  What do they know about how Mark flipped his truck?  Did someone run him off the road?  The note reads:   

I am No One

but Tonight on North Line Road

GOD led me to you

so You could Live

and bring back someone else 

So, there is also a mystery in addition to the dense relationship between brother, sister, caregivers, and lifelong friends in Kearney.

Also, there is a third major character, a neurologist, researcher, and best-selling author, who teaches at NYU School of Medicine, Dr. Gerald Weber.  Weber, who Mark calls “Shrinky,” comes to study Mark, and perhaps to help. Many of us of a certain age just might relate to Weber's musings and discomfort.  “Did I do enough in my career?  Was my writing and publishing good?  Did my research really inform anything?  Did I exploit people in the process?  How much of my work was just about my ego? Did my work matter? Can I actually do anything to help Mark?  Am I done now?  How do I know?”

I am becoming a Richard Powers fan.  As with The Overstory, he writes smart.  You don’t breeze through his books.  There are times when I have to stop and reread sentences or paragraphs, especially, in The Echo Maker, when Weber is lecturing to his class or on the book-promotion circuit.  Richard Powers is a physicist, which informs his writing in cerebral and intriguing ways.  I must admit, I did research to fully understand the ending.   I will be curious to learn if you understand the ending on your own!

I feel like, in reading this novel, I am reading something important; something that matters.  Simultaneously I am drawn into Powell’s well-developed and differentiated characters.  Yes, I fully recommend The Echo Maker.  Yes, I am going to read another Richard Powers.