Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

Me and White Supremacy

Layla F. Saad | Nonfiction, 2020

256 pages


For 28 days, addressing 28 topics associated with white supremacy, such as power, relationships, and white silence, Me and White Supremacy follows this pattern: “What is <topic>? “How does it show up?” and “Why do you need to look at it?” Then she presents “Reflection time journal prompts” intended to guide you through the 28 days of this workbook, keeping a journal as you proceed.

At first I was very frustrated with this book.  For the first few days, the introspective questions she asked were too obvious; too simple.  They were about behaviors or attitudes I left behind in college. I wanted juicier, more insightful questions that would make me ponder and think and reflect and re-examine my attitudes and actions.

Be careful what you ask for.  As I progressed in the book, the questions did get tougher and inspire more self-examination.  About day 19, everything shifted for me. Chapter 19 is about “optical allyship.”  In my own words, “optical allyship” is about saying the right things, and believing the right things, but not ever doing the very hard work to break the systems of power that oppress.  It is to be visible as an ally, but only in tone, voice, attitude, and not action.

I realized that I have been more than an optical ally to the LGBTQ+ community.  I have marched.  I have worked to change corporate policies and practices.  I collected signatures in freezing temperatures for a ballot measure to create marriage equality in Oregon.  I have coached leaders in the LGBTQ+ movement.  I have had numerous meaningful conversations.  And I have examined my own sexual orientation and its relationship to being in community with others.  Now, I am not intending to say this is sufficient work nor am I lauding what bits I have done. My point is, as haven’t done anything, taken any significant action, to be proud of in support of BIPOC.  I have been merely an optical ally.  Wow.

I have seen a model of resources for White people that identifies six stages of growth and development of White privilege consciousness.  This book is recommended in stage three.  The next book on my list for this topic is How to be an Anti-Racist, which is a stage four resource.

What can I say?  Of course I recommend this book, at least to my White readers.  Know that it will take you a while to read and journal your way through this small book.  You can scroll through my blog to see some other books on this topic, but there are many, many more resources than what I have read.  I have been inspired since the events of this summer ... I hope some of you are, too. There is work to be done.   Please let us know here on Dusty Shelves what you discover!



Salt Houses

Hala Alyan | Fiction, 2017

310 pages


I must give Salt Houses four hearts.  I can’t be critical of it; it has many good reviews.  My life was in chaos in the last ten days or so, between work, volunteering, and relationships.  I could not focus on this book, and so I just pushed my way through, because I wanted to finish it for my Decolonization book club.  Whenever I did connect with it, however, I found the relationships and the characters multidimensional, complex, and real.   Spanning March 1963 to 2014, it is the moving story of a single family, living In Nablus and uprooted by the Six-Day War in 1967. Eventually, parts of the family live in Kuwait, Boston, Paris, Beirut, Amman, and Jaffa.  It is criminal that the publisher did not include a map in this book.  It would have helped readers to better understand the implications of the moves they chose to make or were forced to make.  However, I am grateful for the family tree.  Along with the Yacoub family’s reactions to war and unsettled lands, we witness the rise of feminism and the influence of American culture as we read about the generations.  The author refers to herself as Palestinian-American.

Have you read Salt Houses?  What comments do you have?


Montana 1948

Larry Watson | Fiction, 1993

175 pages


“From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a season of images more vivid and lasting than any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them …”  This is the opening of Montana 1948.  But don’t begin to think that this novel is about a 12-year old boy in Montana and his coming of age by fishing and kicking a ball around in the street during a long summer. No, his story is exceedingly more powerful.  This is David’s tale of what happens when, at a very impressionable age, he is confronted with unthinkable crimes, tragedy, grief, loyalty, love, and angst in his protected world of rural white people and American Indians, living side by side, and recovering from the trials of WW2.

Watson’s writing is simple, clear, and captivating.  Prepare yourself ... this short book will entice you to read cover-to-cover in one sitting.

Once again, my friend Teresa knows exactly what books to loan me.  Thank you, Teresa.



What You are Going Through

Sigrid Nunez | Fiction, 2020

224 pages


From the back cover: “A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life.  Some, like the old friend she goes to visit at a cancer clinic, are people she knows well; others are total strangers.  In each of them, she finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and have an audience to their experiences.”

Nunez demonstrates how to listen and for that alone I am very grateful for this book.  The back cover is accurate, but insufficient.  The story actually is driven mostly by her relationship with the friend who has cancer and who asks her to help her die.  It sounds like a grim tale, but it is not.  How much they laugh in the final days!

I was amazed to read the author’s and her characters’ feelings about death, cancer, untold stories, kittens, and overpopulation.  She shared some of my own feelings ... some I thought only I had ever felt!

This book kept crossing my radar screen.  An NPR review, Time magazine, other references to it. I was surprised to learn it was a novel; I thought it was nonfiction. What You are Going Through is short and will give you pause.  I quite liked it and I just requested at the library her earlier book, The Friend.


Prisoner’s Dilemma

Richard Powers | Fiction,  1996

348 pages


Eddie treats every encounter with his four children as a learning opportunity.  At breakfast, there is a line from Shakespeare.  At dinner we contemplate what happened at Dachau.  And, of course, one evening there is the presentation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma ... intended to play with the brains of all the Hobson family members.  Actually, many of his statements and queries have to do with game theory.  His behavior has created a generation of thinkers, but his offspring at times talk in the same riddles and well-turned phrases Eddie does. One night he says to his eldest, Artie, “calamine.”  It is up to Artie to figure out what his father is saying. And the Hobson family, consisting of Eddie Sr., his wife, two sons and two daughters, is not only bright, but also humorous. The family car, a Pinto, is named Mr. Nader.

And Eddie is ill. He vomits, passes out, becomes non-lucid.  And then he bounces back.  He has been this way for 30+ years and refuses to see a doctor. His children, now age 18 to 30(?) are worried about him.  But he finally decides to go to the VA hospital ... the only institution he can maybe trust.

The love of these grown children for their father is astounding.  They keep circling back to the family home, despite their busy lives, especially when Eddie Sr. seems particularly ill.

This is my third Richard Powers, and my least favorite of the three. A profoundly excellent writer, this Powers novel is cerebral, and can be a challenge to read. At times, amazingly engrossing, interesting, and insightful. At other times, simply confusing in pure Hobson-talk and Hobson-recollection.  And at first, I enjoyed the Walt Disney flashbacks.  But later, they became too much.

I recommend this book if you are in the mood for something articulate, intelligent, thought-provoking.  Or if you are simply on a path to explore this legendary author.  One reviewer on Goodreads was reading or rereading one of Powers’ 12 novels every month for a year.  This is not a beach read.  There will be times you will pause and reread a section, musing.  If you do choose to read this, please help me understand the ending.

(p.s. I just ran across an article about this book and Family Systems Theory.  The article did explain the ending to me, but now I wonder ... how did I miss this during my reading?  And, what else did I miss?  Huh.)


Year of Wonders

Geraldine Brooks | Fiction, 2002

352 pages


360 souls live in this isolated village in England in 1665.  By the time of “Leaf-Fall” 1966, two thirds have died from the Plague.  This novel is based upon Eyam, a town in England where the Plague did hit and consumed many residents.  Brooks builds a novel from a woman who is mentioned only briefly in the actual historical accounts, a maid to the Rector.  Anna, our main character, is that maid.

An odd time to read a book about the Plague?  Actually, it made me realize how fortunate we are. The Plague erupts in boils that burst.  People generally live only about 24 hours once they contract the disease, and very few survive.

I thought this book was beautifully written.  I love Brooks’ command of the English language, and her ability to contextualize it to 17th century England.  Anna is extraordinarily well-developed as a character.  I couldn’t help but love her.  And other main characters are also rich and full.

Anna works not only as a maid to the Rector Michael and his wife Elinor, but soon is caring for the sick throughout her village and, once the local midwife is taken by the Plague, learns to midwife as well.  Yes, there are times the Plague is graphically portrayed.  Appropriately, I think.  An interesting title for the year of the Plague, no?  Year of Wonders.  It tells you something about the author's orientation toward the Plague and how she tells the story.

Some reviewers did not like the ending.  I won’t create a spoiler here, but I seldom question an author’s ending.  They end it to tell the story as they see fit.  I thought the ending made perfect sense.

This is a book that engages and will draw you in, because her writing is so rich.  I recommend it fully.

Thank you, Mary, for sharing this read with me/us.


An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz | Nonfiction,  2019

270 pages


I have joined another book club, “Decolonize this Book Club” sponsored by Embrace Bend.  It has a very specific objective.  We gather to read and discuss voices and stories of BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color), 2SLGBTQIA+ folks, disabled folks, Jews and Muslims, Palestinians, migrants and refugees. Here is a link:

The “young people” version of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People is not as dense as the adult version, for sure.  I had both in my possession for a while, so I compared a couple of chapters.  However, the essence is well represented in the version for the youth.  Plus, they added photographs, maps, etc.  and best of all, activities such as: discovering how many indigenous words there are for “corn” (62), and common words that came from indigenous languages (I will let you find those on your own.)  And seeing how many of the 573 sovereign nations in the U.S. you can name in three minutes (I was really bad at that).

I didn’t have this context in my brain: White supremacy as a concept has existed at least since the Crusades.

I didn’t know this:  Colonists scalped and collected bounties for scalps. I thought it was only the Indigenous people who scalped.  Boy, was that incomplete information.

I think the title of this book is a bit misleading.  A more accurate title in my opinion would be A History of the United States’ Treatment of Indigenous Peoples.  The “eye,” the “view,” in this book is from the perspective of the colonists and the United States, i.e, what actions they took that are not reported in our typical American History classes.  What it doesn’t show us (and this may not be possible) is the view of a Cree, a Cherokee, a Ute, a Sioux, a Klamath, etc.  What was it like to be peacefully raising your children, growing corn, eating bison, participating in spiritual ceremonies, and have your village invaded and burned down, your land taken, your children killed?

This is another book every American should read.  I became sick and tired of studying account after account of colonists burning, killing, driving off, ignoring treaties, dehumanizing, slaughtering animals ...  No wonder Trump signed an executive order to establish the “1776 Commission” and whitewash our history.  Between this book and Caste, we learn some (much?  most?) of our history is simply abhorrent.


The Case of D.B. Cooper’s Parachute

William Sullivan | Fiction,  2012

411 pages


William Sullivan CAN write fiction! I have read and perused numerous William Sullivan books, all non-fiction (see my recent review of Listening for Coyote), but this is the first fiction of his I have read.  And yes, he is multi-talented.  He can write trail descriptions, nonfiction, and fiction.

In this tale, we discover there are two D.B. Coopers ... the Good Cooper and the Bad Cooper.  Portland police lieutenant Neil Ferguson leads the search for both of them.  Sullivan has well-developed characters, with breadth and depth, and his take is interesting and somehow, credible, more than 40 years after D.B. Cooper hijacked a plane and parachuted out with $200,000 somewhere over the Pacific Northwest.

I finally decided to go with three hearts because I think The Case of D.B. Cooper’s Parachute is somewhat over-written.  I think it could have been tighter, more condensed, a few characters lighter.  If you are a Portlandian, or a frequent Portland visitor (I am not), you may particularly enjoy this mystery which, except for a brief foray to Russia, takes place almost exclusively amidst the landmarks and alleyways of Portland.

Long Story Short

Margot Leitman | Nonfiction, 2015

290 pages


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


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 ...