Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

Just Us: An American Conversation

Claudia Rankine

Nonfiction 2020 | 342 pages

four-hearts

I had a small pile of books sitting next to me, for the purpose of deciding what to read next.  I picked up Just Us and before I knew it, I was on page 55.  This is a nonfiction book, but it does not have the statistics and history and analysis and “shoulds” associated with a lot of nonfiction writing.  There is no explicit call to action, though there are calls to introspection throughout.  It is prose, imbued with a mix of poetry, essays, quotes, white space, a Twitter post or two, and photos, presented on high quality slick paper (Just Us weighs in at two pounds.)

Claudia Rankine, a black woman and a professor of poetry at Yale, attempts to engage strangers and other people she meets at the airport, the theater, interviews, and dinner parties, in the question of “what is it to be white?”  If you seek intimate and authentically honest encounters as she explores this and similar questions, you will enjoy this book as much as I did.  It is facile, yet meaningful, reading.  Some of the images and words will stay with you.  If you want an easy entree into the topic that is consuming many thoughtful readers’ reading lists these days ... racial injustice, racial experience, white privilege (or you want to introduce someone else to this topic) this is your book!

(Hmmm.  There is an extraordinarily long section near the end of the book [37 pages] on blondness, and dyeing one’s hair blond.  If you read this book, I am curious to read your reactions to this topic.)

I fully recommend, and will explore her prior books.  This is actually the third book in a trilogy, the first two being Don’t Let Me be Lonely and Citizen, written over 16 years.

April 2021

 

The Daughters of Erietown

Connie Schultz | Fiction,  2020

466 pages

three-hearts

The Daughters of Erietown is a tale of resilient women in Erietown, Ohio, on Lake Erie.  Spanning 1957 to 1994, we see the generations unfold alongside growing feminism and radically changing roles for women in the world.  Ellie, our main character, has dreams of nursing school and of marrying Brick McGinty.  Her second dream comes true, but not quite the way she expected, when she and Brick became pregnant in her senior year of high school.  Her daughter Sam is born ... another major character, who we witness growing into womanhood.

Brick, of course, is a significant player in the book.  In more ways than one. He is not quite all that Ellie had dreamed of.

Schultz’s character development is very strong.  After a while, we really come to know Ellie and Sam, and can anticipate their reactions to circumstances and situations.  The story is also strong and pulls us along.  We are compelled to witness what choices Ellie and Sam make, as well as those of Brick and Sam’s brother Reilly.

So, why only three hearts?  Remember that three hearts represent, “I recommend with some reservations.”  I would call The Daughters of Erietown a romantic novel.  Not intending to be sexist here, I suspect it will appeal more to women readers than men, as the only significant male character is flawed.  And frankly, he is not very interesting. This novel is an appealing dive into the lives of a mid-20th century family in middle America.  I recommend it, but with caution.

April 2021

The Other Americans

Laila Lalami| Fiction,  2019

301 pages

three-hearts

The Other Americans begins when a Moroccan immigrant named Driss Guerraoui is killed by a hit and run driver one evening while leaving his diner, near California’s Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park.  Driss’s American born daughter Nora opens the book by telling the story of the death of her father, as she enters as the main character.

After Nora’s initial recounting of the news, Lalami introduces her other narrators.  There are nine in all, including Jeremy, an old school friend of Nora’s, who is white; Efrain, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who witnessed the hit and run; Maryam, Driss’s Moroccan wife; Salma, Nora’s overachieving sister; and Coleman, the black woman detective working Driss’s case.

This is a mystery, a love story, a family saga, and a commentary on American culture.  The Other Americans is our community read this month, presented by the county library.  This is the 18th year our county has enjoyed a community read, called “A Novel Idea.”  The book was chosen by both my book clubs to read this month, and so my expectations were high.  And dashed.

Moroccan-born Laila Lalami introduces so many cultural components, including xenophobia, undocumented immigration, race, opioid abuse, PTSD from the war in Iraq, family expectations, and more, that she does not cover any of them with particular depth, clarity, or expertise.  I felt she did an especially poor job of writing about race and culture.  She mentions these elements only casually, and without an exploration of either her character’s internal experience, or much depth in the relationships among the characters.

That being said, her development of Nora’s character is very strong, and the mystery storyline (who DID kill Driss, and was it an accident or murder?) make the tale readable and engaging.  But it was neither the social commentary nor the learning I was hoping for.

April 2021

The Improbability of Love

Hannah Rothschild

Fiction  2015 | 406 pages

four-hearts

If it were winter, I would recommend this book for a long, cold, winter weekend.  It is a novel that you just want to lose yourself in. A cup of hot chocolate at your side, you will eagerly turn the next page.  Rich with story, character development, and depth, an improbable tale weaves together centuries of art, Naziism and Jews, culinary delight, and the beginnings of love.

The Improbability of Love is not what you likely imagine right now ... it is actually the title of an 18th century oil masterpiece. The painting is fictional; the painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau, is not.

Annie McDee, a struggling chef, buys this painting at a junk shop for a man she met at a speed-dating event.  He stands her up and the painting becomes hers.  Annie’s alcoholic mother Evie has an intuition that this painting is important and urges Annie to research it.  Thus begins a tale of London’s outrageous art scene, with dealers, museum curators, art auction houses, authenticators, art authors, restorers, socialites, and a delightful gay “fixer.” We follow all these characters through the discovery of the real provenance of this dirty and smudged lost painting.

The most delightful chapters are those written by the painting itself, as it informs us about how it feels about all these shenanigans, as well as a bit about all the walls it has hung on over the centuries.

Yes, there are a few discontinuities in Ms. Rothschild’s writing, but not enough to upset.  This is Rothschild’s first novel, though she has written non-fiction in the art scene. The book integrates passion, power, violence, loyalty, intrigue, mystery, love.  And yes, you can read it in the spring in your back yard as the daffodils begin to bloom, just as well as on a wintry eve. I recommend you do so.

Thank you, Claire, for a gratifying recommendation.

April 2021

 

Dog Songs

Mary Oliver

Poetry 2013 | 121 pages

four-hearts

Someone I dearly love gave me this book of poetry by the infamous Mary Oliver.  I read it.  And then I read it again.  It is a book about a woman and her dogs.  But, of course, it is also much more than that.  Here are two favorite stanzas:

  • You may not agree, you may not care, but
  • If you are holding this book you should know
  • That of all the sights I love in this world —
  • And there are plenty — very near the top of
  • The list is this one: dogs without leashes.  (pg 5)

AND

  • A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
  • Smells of the world, but you know, watching her,
  • That you know
  • Almost nothing. (Pg 27)

Yes, take 15 minutes to read this book, if you love dogs.  Or freedom.  Or life.

March, 2021

 

 

The World According to Fannie Davis

Bridgett M. Davis

Biography 2019 | 308 pages

four-hearts

I cannot disentangle my (suburban) Detroit upbringing from my assessment of this book as a biography, as a tale to be told.  So, please recognize my bias when I tell you I love this book!  You never know when someone writes a memoir or autobiography or biography ... even if the story is wonderful, is the author?  Both work exceedingly well in The World According to Fannie Davis.

Davis writes about her mother Fannie, who ran an entrepreneurial and illegal numbers business (a community-based precursor to state lotteries; more on that when you read this book) in Detroit, from the 60’s to the early 90’s, keeping her family firmly in the black middle class of the Midwest, and avoiding poverty.  There were illegal numbers being run in many cities in the Midwest and East, so her memories also make a statement about what it was like to be black in big-city America, in the 60’s and 70’s especially. This is the story of family, but also it is an education on race, survival, thriving, secrets, and consciousness.  In Detroit in particular, this story includes the unionization of black workers in the automobile industry, racial unrest, white flight, police brutality, community love and connection, discrimination, riots, family loyalty, graft and corruption, the mafia, JL Hudson and Maurice Salad, and, nearest and dearest to my heart, the rise and pervasive influence of Motown.

I didn’t cry at the end, but I did have a lump in my throat.  This biography is intimate and draws you right in.  I will remember this book for a while, I think.  If you read it (which I suggest!) I will be interested to share this story with you and to read or hear your reactions.

Mary (another Detroit woman), thank you for suggesting this fine biography.

March 2021

 

Kimiko Does Cancer

Kimiko Tobimatsu

Nonfiction Memoir 2020 | 101 pages

four-hearts

At the tender age of twenty-five, Kimiko is diagnosed with breast cancer.  This graphic memoir explores what she encounters as a mixed-race, young, queer woman, but I found its real value in how she explores life after treatment.  If you have had cancer, or know someone who has, this beautifully illustrated novel will offer insight into what happens for months and perhpas years after treatment is complete.  It will take you about 30 minutes to read and is absolutely worth your time.

March 2021

 

 

 

The Crossing Places

Elly Griffiths

Fiction, 2009 | 303 pages

two-hearts

Well, I made it all the way through.  And that’s about the biggest praise I can muster.  Bad writing, in my opinion, with very shallow characters; even the main character, Ruth Galloway.  Too many men characters for some bizarre reason, and I couldn’t keep them straight.  The ending of this mystery was good, however ... written in a manner to make my heart pound.

Ruth Galloway is an archeologist who lives alone on a saltmarsh in England and becomes embroiled in amateur sleuthing when some children are lost and presumed murdered.  There are 14 Ruth Galloway mysteries, so someone likes Griffiths’ writing.  I personally am going to forgo 13 of them.  Sorry, Jan D.

March, 2021

 

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett

Fiction 2020 | 352 pages

four-hearts

“Brilliant, stunning, eloquent, gorgeous, thought-provoking, intricate, moving.”  These are just some of the words reviewers have written, and for good reason.  The Vanishing Half is a novel about identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, born in 1952, in a minuscule Louisiana town that prides itself on breeding light-skinned Black people, some of whom are light enough to pass for White.  And Stella does, separating herself from her twin and her family for 25 years.  They each have a daughter ... Jude, who is so black they call her “blue black” and Kennedy, a blond violet-eyed beauty.  The daughters’ lives eventually intersect and, of course, all their lives are irrevocably altered.

The story is exceptional and difficult to put down. I was often reading pages this last week at 3:30 in the morning.  The writing is simply superb. Brit Bennett was listed by Time magazine on March 8 as one of the next “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

There is no hesitation on my part.  Read this four-heart book as soon as you can get your hands on it ... there is already a long wait for it at your library!

March 2021