Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

The Murmur of Bees

Sophia Segovia

Fiction, 2020 | 461 pages

four-hearts

The Murmur of Bees is a gorgeous story.  When you are ready to lose yourself in a novel that is artistically written, with deep and complex characters, find yourself a copy of The Murmur of Bees.

Set in the small town of Linares in Mexico, south of Monterey, the story begins when Nana Reja discovers an infant, abandoned under a bridge, disfigured (harelip?) and covered with bees who do not harm him.  He is named Simonopio.  He goes to live with the Morales family, landowners who take him in and raise him as their own. We follow the Morales family though many decades, deaths, and, in the first half, the great plague of 1917/1918.

The tale is narrated by Simonopio’s younger brother, Francisco, who is born when Simonopio is 12.  The bind between these two brothers is intense and unbreakable during their early years, though Simonopio cannot speak except in his own self-formed language.  And there is magic.  Magic that is imbued with wisdom, wanderlust, safety, communication, adventure, prediction of the future.  Simonopio is intimately linked with bees, in their mutually beneficial relationship.  It is with the bees, following the bees, learning from the bees, being protected by the bees, that he develops into a man.

The first of Segovia’s novels to be translated from Spanish into English, it is well worth your time, sitting on the couch with a cup of tea.  I recommend it highly.  Thank you, Carolyn, for this luscious read.

March 2021

 

 

 

Culture Warlords

Talia Lavin

Nonfiction, 2020 | 273 pages

four-hearts

This is the most profound, most devastating book I have read.  The author, a Jewish female journalist,  uses various guises, disguises, names, personalities, and personas, to enter the “dark web of white supremacy.”

I cannot begin to truly understand all I read.  First, I thought anti-Semitism was only a part of the white supremacist agenda.  It is not.  It is at the center, the core. The first few chapters explain much more, but in a few words, “What underpins this fixation — the intellectual foundation of the white-supremacist movement — is a stalwart belief in the omnipresence of the cunning, world-controlling, whiteness-diluting Jew ... the Jew is most dangerous because of his adjacency to whiteness, and a desire to destroy it, with crafty malice, from within.”  (pg 24/25).

You will read about race violence and race war, and about a dating site designed only for white supremacist men and women.  You will learn about an eleven-year-old imbued with racial hatred; about the role and agenda for intentional violence in our country; and about mind-numbing conspiracy theories.

The chapter on incels completely alarmed me.  “Incels” are men who are “involuntarily celibate.”  The misogyny, hatred, self- and other-loathing is shocking.  Incels on Incels.co and braincel actively encourage a suicidal poster (pg 115) to complete his agenda.  The author, who was not allowed to post as a woman, created a young 21-year-old angry white male, Tommy O’Hara, in order to dialogue with incels.  This chapter especially, and the entire book, are not for the faint of heart.

Lavin’s writing is inconsistent.  Some chapters are engaging and move the reader deeper into the material.  Other chapters seem to rely on context to such a great extent, that the point of the chapter, and subsequent learning, is lost.  The difference is when she writes of events where she is an intimate and involved player, and when she writes about topics from an intellectual distance.  The former is quite engaging.  The latter is important, though more difficult to absorb.

I must recommend this disturbing book.  It is important, distressing, terrifying.  Truthfully, I believe we all need to know of that which Lavin writes.

02/21

 

 

The Sirens of Titan

Kurt Vonnegut

Fiction, 1959 | 326 pages

four-hearts

Many argue that The Sirens of Titan is Vonnegut's greatest work.  It is dark and funny; classic and counter-culture; warm and cold; satirical; melancholic; bizarrely imagined; philosophical.   I loved it!  But that must be taken with a grain of salt.  I am a huge Vonnegut fan.  I first read this book in 1971, when I took an English course on Kurt Vonnegut at the University of Michigan.  Yes, that was 50 years ago!

The plot?  Hmmm.  The main character is Malachi Constant, the richest man in America, who has his memory wiped when he is recruited into the Army of Mars that is planning an invasion of Earth. Tying the story together is Winston Niles Rumfoord, who, in his private spaceship with his dog, Kazak, accidentally flies into an uncharted chronosynclastic infundibulum, which scatters his particles through space and time, giving him the ability to see the future, and to appear at set intervals on various planets.  We follow Constant’s life through meaningless wealth in America, his time on Mars and Mercury, and finally on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.  We also meet a Tralfamadorian, invented here in The Sirens of Titan, and which reappears in Slaughterhouse Five.  Tralfamadore is the planet where all beings live in all times simultaneously.

Vonnegut makes me wonder what I am missing, what he infers, what the hidden meanings and suggestions are, what is truth, what is satire.  I never know the answers to these philosophical questions, but thank goodness his writing is so damn engaging!  How can you fault The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent?  Or a world with UWTB .... the Universal Will to Become, i.e., that which makes universes out of nothingness at both macro levels and mundane day-to-day levels.

Along with his 14 novels, three short-story collections, five plays, and five nonfiction books, Vonnegut was revered, studied, interviewed, loved, and always prolific.  He penned much about writing, including his brilliant “8 Basics of Creative Writing.”  My favorite is number 4: “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.”

This is our February read in my Casting Crew Book Club.  I am fascinated to hear what less biased Vonnegut fans have to say about The Sirens of Titan.  Yes, I absolutely recommend it, along with anything else by this writing genius.

02/21

 

 

Octavia’s Brood

Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, editors

Fiction, 2015 | 296 pages

four-hearts

The two editors of Octavia’s Brood invited social justice activists who had never written before, many of whom are marginalized, to write a science fiction short story; to dream and imagine a different vision, a different way of being.  The stories do not necessarily present a better scenario, but an altered reality. A few of the 22 authors are journalists and have writing experience, though not in speculative/visionary fiction.  At the end of the last century, speculative fiction by black authors enjoyed a surge of interest.  (Check out Dark Matter).  But this work goes further, inviting writing from many walks of life, circumstances, and cultures.  (Yes, the book is dedicated to and inspired by the writing of Octavia Butler, especially Lilith’s Brood.)

I am not much of a short story enthusiast.  Some of the stories in Octavia’s Brood are badly written, some are well written.  Some are interesting, others a little more boring.  Some are profoundly clear, several are more cloudy and even confusing.  However, this anthology does not read like a collection of short stories.  It seems congruent to me, a unified yet diverse voice of marginalized peoples.  The stories don’t overlap in any way, and yet together they feel like a “whole.”  They present a rainbow of experiences, perspectives, pain, pretend, magic, possibilities, imagination.

In my Decolonization book club, we discussed the stories and then took 15 minutes to write one of our own.  That was a fantastic creative experience, to write and then read each member’s tales. (Our prompt was to write a story as though one institution we know today is gone).

I found this book fascinating.  I highly recommend it for immersing yourself into a new reading experience.

(I have a copy of the book, by the way, if you want it.)

02/21

 

 

Moo

Jane Smiley  |  Fiction

1995, 414 pages

204 pages in, and I just must quit.  I really tried.  The characters in this novel about a fictional Midwest University are universally forgettable.  I mean, I forget who is who in-between chapters.  I keep looking for a list of characters and their roles, and there is not one.  There are too many to keep straight, and there is NO plot of any interest at all.  Of course, it goes without saying that I have not laughed at this ”humorous” novel once. Some of the relationships are interesting for a chapter or two, especially when there is a sexual connection.  I really tried.  My apologies, Teresa.  Too many days and my entire weekend slogging through this book have left me vacuous.  I must find something engaging to read. Now!

Posted 2/21

 

 

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The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Christy Lefteri | Fiction,  2019

313 pages

three-hearts

Nuri and his cousin Mustafa are beekeepers in Aleppo, Syria, along with Nuri’s wife Afra, who is an artist.  All is idyllic and calm, until war arrives, the hives are destroyed, and they must flee for their safety and to begin a new life in a new land.

Lefteri’s writing is captivating. A somewhat random example, “Afra’s soul was as wide as the fields and deserts and sky and sea and river that she painted, and as mysterious.  There was always more to know, to understand, and, as much as I knew, it wasn’t enough, I wanted more.”  (Pg 21)

What I liked is how deeply we become familiar with Nuri’s heart and soul.  What astonished me is how the realities we make up can be so clearly intertwined with the realities that are in the world we inhabit.  What confused me is how Lefteri intersperses Nuri’s and Afra’s challenging journey to England with their arrival in England.  The time frame shifts were not smooth for me; they were jarring.  I wish she had made the shifts clearer with chapter titles or some such.

This is politically insensitive of me, but I am simply tired of stories about people facing incredibly difficult challenges to move themselves from one place to another, whether as refugees or slaves.  I need new plots; I have become somewhat bored by their stories.

A Chinese concept I learned, that resonates, and that will stay with me from this book is that of (pg 303) “Yuanfen, the mysterious force that causes two lives to cross paths ...”

01/21

 

The Water Dancer

Ta-Nehisi Coates| Fiction, 2019

416 pages

four-hearts

The writing is eloquent; the story of the Underground and of Conduction and The Task is fascinating.  You will know the main character deeply, Hiram Walker, when you finish The Water Dancer.  Based on a true tale of slavery and the urge for freedom, I wonder how much is fiction and how much is true.  The dramatic story is infused with magic; I am so curious about the author’s intention!

Just over half-way in, I think Coates loses his footing.  The book becomes more about the institution of the Underground Railway.  Even though we see everything through Hiram’s eyes, I feel less connected to him for a significant number of chapters. Plus, I find the growing cast of characters a bit confusing.   Ultimately, we wind up back in Walker’s character with strength and power to wrap up the conclusion.

Tough decision .... three hearts or four?  I decided on four because of the writing, the story, and the character development (not only Walker, but some other characters as well). Perhaps my getting lost was just me .... I choose to give Coates the benefit of the doubt.  This is Coates first novel, though he has written non-fiction. Have you read anything by him?

 

Breath

James Nestor |  Nonfiction, 2020

280 pages

two-hearts

This is an interesting book, presenting some potentially useful ideas and posing interesting questions.  It also infuses a history of yoga and meditation practices, which were originally developed as breath practices.  However, the book seriously lacks in real medical double-blind studies, and is over-reliant on the author’s and others’ anecdotal evidence.

As I progressed, Breath moved from four hearts for its interesting hypotheses, to three hearts for its complete lack of statistical evidence, to two hearts as the techniques for “better breathing” grew more and more bizarre.  Like giving a woman 35% carbon dioxide through an inhaler bag to spark her fear, because she had never felt fear and kept putting herself in danger.

Among the more useful health/breathing considerations, if you do only one thing, learn to breathe in for 5.5 seconds and breathe out for 5.5 seconds, for a total of 5.5 breaths per minute.  Here is a simple tool to help.  https://www.google.com/search?q=breathing+exercise

So, read if you are interested, but not if you are looking for sound medical advice.

01/21

 

Hood Feminism

Mikki Kendall| Nonfiction, 2020

288pages

four-hearts

Deenie was a roommate senior year in college.  She introduced me to the concept of feminism.  Being one of a handful of women in the Business School at the University of Michigan, I immediately glommed on to what she was teaching me.  That was 46 years ago.

Hood Feminism is like a long consciousness-raising session on feminism, elaborating on all the ways we (White & privileged) feminists have ignored the full scope of women in the world, and have let women down.  I love what Kendall says in her interview with Trevor Noah (yes, surely worth the 7:10 commitment...) https://youtu.be/D4DaBn4uHi4  “If we are going to do feminism for all women, we have to make sure that the poorest women have everything they need to survive.”

In Hood Feminism, Kendall addresses a myriad of topics, including, but not limited to, hunger, murder, housing, gun violence, reproductive justice, poverty, parenting, education, patriarchy, allies, fears, and fierceness.

If you consider yourself a feminist, and/or simply are committed to social justice, this is a book you must read.  It will expand your perspective significantly.  At least, it did mine.

 

Desert Notebooks

Ben Ehreneich  |  Nonfiction

2020, 325 pages

I am sad to write three low-hearts reviews in a row, but that is what the pages have offered me.

Desert Notebooks is a very distinctive book.  The author interweaves science, creation myths, ancient history, Greek mythology, Native American traditional stories, and present-day experiences of the desert to explore the nature of time and the existential crisis of climate change.

Huh?  What is she saying?  I cannot be much clearer.  It is challenging to explain this book.

There are moments of lucidity and clarity when the author returns to the present day and makes sense of the ancient tales he just retold.  But those moments happen every dozen(?) pages or so.  And I am tiring of reading different interpretations of Lilith.  I have given this a respectable try ... 88 pages.  And I am going to abandon it now.

(BTW, my next two books appear as auspicious as my last three, so you can expect Dusty Shelves to end the year with a dearth of hearts. Sigh.)

Posted 12/20

 

 

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