Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

How to Set a Fire and Why

Jesse Ball  |  Fiction

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I grow weary of coming of age novels in which the protagonist loses both parents to not-quite-tear-jerking circumstances, and survives "in spite of it all.”  Lucia’s story, the main character in How to Start a Fire and Why, sounded so familiar, it bored me.

The publisher, however, spoke highly of her arsonist capabilities which, in my mind, made this novel sound intriguing.  (Am I really saying that?  I WANT to read about arson?)  The inside jacket states “Jesse Ball’s singular, blistering new novel tells the story of a teenage girl who has lost everything – and will burn anything.”

This is, well, a blistering lie!  (Spoiler alert coming if you want to read this thing…)  Lucia sets her first and only fire on page 281, exactly two pages before the end of the book.

What I did like about this novel is Ball’s quick and witty style.  With lots of white space, it is a very fast read.  Next time I want a fast read, however, I will pick up Time magazine and at least acquire some knowledge.

Healing After Loss

Martha Whitmore Hickman  |  Non-Fiction

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This is my go-to book on grief.  I read it every single day.  Organized by date, it has 365 pages, each with a quote, a viewpoint on the quote, and then an action or affirmation for consideration.  This lovely little book gives me a new perspective nearly every day, and puts my grief in helpful context, allowing me to shift just a bit how I am perceiving, analyzing or feeling.

Here is one quote I have asterisked, just to share a flavor of the book … “It isn’t for the moment you are stuck that you need courage, but for the long uphill climb back to sanity and faith and security.”  Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The author uses the term “loved one” so it is useful whether you have lost a spouse, parent, friend, child … whomever.  I absolutely recommend you buy a copy of this book for yourself or anyone you know who is in mourning.

 

 

 

On My Own

Diane Rehm  |  Non-Fiction

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A number of people recommended this book to me, and I can see why!  Diane Rehm, host of the Diane Rehm Show on NPR since 1979, writes about the death of her husband John, and what it is like being “on her own.”   I found her writing style to be easy, honest, and compelling.  Perhaps part of why I appreciate this book is because her situation parallels mine in many ways.  No, it is not her situation that parallels mine, it is her perspective.  She is a dynamic, engaged, intelligent woman struggling to reconstruct her life.  She and John were married 54 years!  Wow!

Many of her stories resonated with me, such as … putting on a dress (okay, I NEVER actually put on a dress) and then simply not going out to an engagement, because she had no energy to smile at people or talk with strangers.  Yesterday and today both I cancelled engagements for the same reason. 

Of course, she also helps me to see things differently!  For instance, she writes about moving to the center of the bed.  Really?  Never even occurred to me!

Ms. Rehm’s most compelling message is about how her husband chose to starve himself to death because he lived in a state where death with dignity was not possible.  At nearly 80 years old, Diane Rehm is working with Compassion and Choices (compassionandchoices.org) to broaden the availability of physician-assisted death.  It is inspiring to read about her passion and commitment!

This 161 page book is not exactly an easy read, but it is a quick one.  Her style is conversational.  I guess you might expect no less from a woman who hosted an enormously successful radio show for 35 years!

 

 

15th Affair

James Patterson  |  Fiction

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James Patterson has written 147 novels.   He has had 114 New York Times bestselling novels, and holds The New York Times record for most #1 New York Times bestsellers by a single author, a total of 67.  Wow.  Amazing.

The 15th Affair is the fifteenth book in the Women’s Murder Club series co-written with Maxine Paetro.  In this novel, Lindsay Boxer, the San Francisco police detective and main character, encounters a four-person murder in a downtown luxury hotel; an explosion that rocks the city, the country and the world; and a husband who goes missing.  The Women’s Murder Club has four members, and Lindsay uses her esteemed female colleagues to help her solve these mysteries. 

Patterson's writing is intriguing and suspenseful.  While this is not a book to read for your dissertation research (unless you happen to be working on a Doctorate in Mystery Literature and are studying Patterson!), it is good, solid, interesting, edge-of-your-seat mystery.  I liked it enough that I just requested from the library the first book in the Women’s Murder Club series, 1st to Die.

 

Before the Fall

Noah Hawley  |  Fiction

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What do you, blog readers, think about The New York Times Best Seller List?  Sometimes I find books on it that I love ... and often, well, it seems to appeal to a somewhat different sort of reader.  A reader who is, perhaps, more mainstream?  I can’t find a way to say this and maintain political correctness ... a reader who perhaps has not partaken of quite as much formal education?

Before the Fall is a disappointment from the NYT Best Seller List.  A private plane crashes into the ocean soon after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard.  The only survivors are Scott Burroughs, a struggling painter, and a four-year-old boy, JJ, who is now the heir to a media mogul’s family.

Hawley proceeds to weave into his novel the back stories of the 11 people, crew and passengers, who were on the plane.  And, of course, there are the media and law enforcement types who also weave quite amazing potential motivations and sinister plots into their musings and interviews.  But frankly, Hawley does not develop any character into a person you care about, except Scott Burroughs.  There are simply too many people in this novel, many of whom receive their own chapter, but not their own character.  I found I only cared about Scott and JJ, and whether or not Scott would fall prey to speculation that he must have sabotaged the plane, because he survived.

I am grateful to this book for one lesson – it helped me clarify what a “two heart” rating is.  A two heart rating means I tried to put the book down, but was curious enough about the end to skim the last third so I could find out what happened.  I was sufficiently unimpressed with the writing to maintain the effort to read sincerely.

If you read it and have a different opinion, please post your thoughts, as well as your perspectives on the NYT Best Seller List!

p.s. I am finishing ANOTHER book from the NYT list right now … this next one will likely receive a more favorable review.

 

 

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Roz Chast  |  Non-Fiction

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At various time in the last two weeks, I rated this book one heart, two hearts, three hearts and four hearts!  I finally settled on four hearts because frankly, I couldn’t put it down.

This was the first foray into graphic novels, for most of us in my book club, The Casting Crew.  And Roz Chast is a master!  The topic of the book is quite sobering … it chronicles the death of her parents, who are well into their nineties when they die. Chast’s writing, and even more, her AMAZING illustrations, really communicate with brutal honesty the funny, incisive and often painful experiences of these years.  You’ll witness laughter, rage, hysteria, love, despair, guilt, and roll-on-the-floor antics.  If you don’t recognize a bit of your mom or your dad or a grandparent or a friend’s parent in this tale, then you will likely recognize a bit of yourself.

While, yes, it was difficult to read at times when comments, stories or drawings cut too close to home, Chast inspired a profound conversation in book club about parents and our own thoughts about death.  You will choose olives and not red sweaters for her dad.  You’ll watch her mom eat a tuna sandwich at a striking time.  And, of course, you will fulfill the title over and over again, as her parents had NO intention of ever talking about anything like death, dying, illness, hospitals, leaving their apartment or, for heaven's sake, "Rest Home Prisons.”

I am excited to try another graphic novel.  If you haven’t ventured into the genre yet, these books are not Archie revisited.  The illustrations add so much depth to the story – when you can see the expressions on the faces of the characters, you experience their veracity in a way that words alone often fail to do.  A picture truly is worth 1000 words ... at least with Roz Chast’s talent.

 

Boar Island

Nevada Barr  |  Fiction

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I enjoy Nevada Barr and her mysteries about Anna Pigeon, a National Park Ranger.  I think it is my own fault, and not Nevada Barr's, that I give Boar Island only three hearts instead of four.  I am still recovering my ability to focus amidst my grief, and I found myself confused in the beginning of this book as Barr tells two stories that relate to one another, but do not overlap for quite a while.

Anna Pigeon encounters a new experience in Boar Island, the cyberbullying of Elizabeth, the 16-year-ol daughter of her friend Heath.  When Anna accepts a position as acting chief ranger at Acadia National Park, she, Heath and Elizabeth take the opportunity to temporarily move Elizabeth away from her cyberbully by traveling to Boar Island in Maine.  Except the cyberbully follows, and Anna finds herself immersed in an intriguing Maine murder.

On page 253, the murderer describes her own actions as absurd.  Well, yes, they are absurd!  And the absurdities begin to make sense when the two stories merge in powerful manner on page 293.  I flew through the last 180 pages of Boar Island, once the tales merged.  Interestingly, and rather Nevada Barr-esque, ALL of the major characters in Boar Island are women.

So, whether or not this book has a slow start (I don't fully trust my own assessment here) it certainly has a fast and engaging finish!

 

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie  |  Fiction

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sherman-alexie-23This is a young adult book, but it kept coming across my radar, so I decided to give it a try.  Besides, I devoured Harry Potter and those are young adult books!

Junior is a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.  Born with physical challenges, he is picked on by everyone.  But he decides to attend an all-white school outside the rez, and then is branded a traitor.  Can you tell this is a funny book?  Sherman Alexie is amazing!

Inspired by his own life and wit, this book addresses all of life’s saddest challenges –  from domestic abuse to alcoholism, racism to low expectations, poverty, death, fisticuffs, basketball and love – with humor and clarity.  This would be a great book for teaching a young adult about what life is really like – and is a great opportunity for us as adults to see the world through the ideas of a witty writer and cartoonist. 

Here is an example of how Alexie describes a difficult situation with quick cleverness:   Mr. P. grabbed me by the shoulders and leaned so close to me that I could smell his breath.  Onions and garlic and hamburger and shame and pain. (page 42)  Wow.  He says so much in one short sentence.

Junior finds a new friend at his new school, but learning to communicate with nerdy Gordy is a task onto itself:

"A metaphorical boner!" I shouted.  "What the heck is a metaphorical boner?"

Gordy laughed.

"When I say boner, I really mean joy," he said.

"Then why don't you say joy?  You didn't have to say boner.  Whenever I think about boners, I get confused."

"Boner is funnier.  And more joyful."

Gordy and I laughed.

Yes, I suggest this book.  It is a quick and interesting read and a succinct statement on the times in which we live, and the circumstances we shield ourselves from seeing.

 

The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion  |  Non-fiction

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In the weeks after Beryl’s death, some friends told me I must read this book, and some told me to steer clear of it.  Well, that was enough for me to accept the challenge and pick up the book.  It didn’t upset me, as some anticipated.  It sort of bored me.  In a nutshell, it is her story about her husband’s sudden death in the middle of their daughter’s protracted very serious illness.  Didion writes honestly about this difficult year in her life.

I found myself becoming impatient with the details of her daughter’s illness because I was, just 30 days after Beryl’s death, much more interested in how she handled her husband's death.  Of course much of the book was also about his heart attack and death ... but much of her experience I could not relate to. 

The gem for me in the book, however, is Chapter 17.   Early in this chapter she gives me a solid piece of wisdom to hang my hat on ... “Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” (page 189)

Big Magic

Creative Living Beyond Fear
Elizabeth Gilbert  | Non-fiction

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I decided to wait to write my blog on Big Magic until after book club, and I am really glad I did!  My perspectives and insights are now much broader.

Some members of book club, including one well-trained and highly competent artist, loved Big Magic.  They found it inspiring, intriguing, and useful.  One member was going to read it a third time!

Others of us found the content to be valuable; we took exception to Gilbert's writing. Much like our reaction to Eat, Pray, Love, we experienced the style of her writing as shallow or condescending --- different assessments from different ones of us.

I did appreciate her passion and commitment to the entire creative process... The ENTIRE process.... All the failed attempts, the trials and tribulations, as well as the occasional winning success.  I thought of my students at The Coaches Training Institute frequently, and how her words could inspire them in the early and difficult stages of building a business.  For example, she writes on page 118, “I started telling myself that I enjoyed every aspect of my work. I proclaimed that I enjoyed every single aspect of my creative endeavors – the agony and the ecstasy, the success and the failure, the joy and the embarrassment, the dry spells and the grind and the stumble and the confusion and the stupidity of it all.  I even dared to say this aloud.”

On the other hand, I thought Gilbert did a very poor job of translating her learning about creativity as a writer to other modalities, such as painting, performance art, music, or the creativity with which we do our work.  I find that to be the major shortcoming of this book.  The creative reader has to do all the translation themselves.

Gilbert tells a very intriguing story about her belief that ideas come to visit, and if you are ready, willing and able, you will be inspired by the idea and you get to develop it. And if you are not ready, the idea will go visit someone else, to take up its cause.  If you read nothing else, read her story about her new friendship with the writer Ann Patchett, pages 47-54.

All in all, while I will not rave about Big Magic nor Elizabeth Gilbert, I find this book to be worth reading.  You will likely glean at least a few new perspectives for yourself  ... And maybe, like Jan and Louise in book club, many of Gilbert’s words will inspire you.