Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

The Big Oyster

Mark Kurlansky |  Fiction, 2006

307 pages

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A Review in two words: discombobulated and boring.   I finished it only because it is a book club read.  I kept telling myself I “should” enjoy this more.  The title, The Big Oyster, is a play on the nickname, The Big Apple, which is a dead giveaway about the topic of this book.  While I adore oysters, Kurlansky’s book is really the story of the history of New York, which is among the more boring topics I can think of.

A number of professional reviewers gave it high ratings. But I also like to peruse Goodreads, which is filled with reviews by regular people, not book reviewers.  The Big Oyster has a pretty low overall rating on Goodreads, at 3.9.   The readers who liked it became fascinated by the topic and were pulled in.

The one, two, and three star reviews on Goodreads were very similar to my assessment.  Unfocused, with digressions stemming off from other digressions. This is more a history of New York through the lens of the oyster, than the story of the oyster itself, which would have been shorter, more pointed, less wandering. And IMHO, less boring.

The moments I DID like were the oyster recipes.  Here is a bit from one of the oldest recipes in the book, from an anonymous writer, mid-1600’s.  (Page 68).  “Shelle oystyrs into a pott and the sewe therwith.  Put thereto fayre watyr; perboyle hem.  Take hem up; put hem yn fayre watyr.  Peke hem clene.  Blaunch ...”

Clearly, I cannot recommend this book.  However, if you are fascinated by the history of New York City, you might love this book, for it tells the history in quite a unique manner.

 

The Outdoor Girls

Laura Lee Hope | Fiction 1913

212 pages

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Laura Lee Hope is the pseudonym for a group of authors who wrote The Bobsey Twins, The Outdoor Girls, and five other multi-book series for children. When my Aunt Helen died in 2009, I found a box of The Outdoor Girls in her basement. She had 19 of the 23-book series, published between 1913 and 1933.  She signed them “Helen Sigetich” and often included a date, 1926 in the first one, or her address, 6550 McGraw.  I bought three more to fill in the gaps, but have not yet put my hands on the rare 23rd volume, The Outdoor Girls in Desert Valley.

I read three of them over the last few days, to see what these century-old stories were like.  I am impressed with the number of adventures the girls find themselves in, from discovering a lost $500 bill with a note attached, to finding the truth about the white ghost with chains on Elm island. The authors use big words like obdurate and auspicious, and, even as a mature adult in another century, I did not feel talked down to.

It was fun to explore this series of books, set in a time when telephones were not yet in every home, much less any other technology.

I am most curious to know if any of you read this series while a young person?  I read The Hardy Boys religiously, and an occasional Nancy Drew, but never anything by Laura Lee Hope.  What do you remember?

 

The Mezzanine

Nicholson Baker | Nonfiction, 1986 & 2010

142 pages

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It was funny!  Yes, this is not a guest blogger!  I, Andrea, found this book funny.  It is allegedly the story of one escalator ride up to the Mezzanine where our narrator works, but of course that in and of itself would not create a book.  So, instead, he goes back to his past, his childhood, to relay stories about the most mundane things.  He begins by exploring the CVS bag in his hand, which has shoelaces inside and takes him back to learning to tie his laces.  We move on to explore a multitude of items and actions, including, but not limited to, glass milk bottles and the brilliant discovery of coated cardboard with a little V that you make at the top; learning how to turn a t-shirt right side out; the grooves of LP records, and the grooves made by ice skates; how to put on deodorant when you are all dressed; Lorna Doones in the vending machine; the evolution of drinking straws, etc., etc.

We first learn his name when someone greets him as he is peeing at a urinal in chapter 10.  It is Howie.  Howie is OCD, analytical, and/or has an amazing memory for the little, intricate, repeatable stuff of life.  This is all about the little stuff of life.

The Mezzanine has many footnotes, which were quite enjoyable, except a bit hard to navigate in an ebook. Because there was no plot, but only rambling observations, the book became a little tedious for me.   Still, Baker is quite a clever writer.  And I did laugh often!

Book # 20 during stay-at-home.

 

The Glass Hotel

Emily St. John Mandel |  Fiction, 2020

320 pages

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As The Glass Hotel opens, we meet Paul.  We follow Paul from Toronto to a very small town (Caiette) on the very tip of Vancouver Island BC, and back again.  And then the time changes.  What year are we in?  Mandel switches locations, time, and, most important, characters, in a manner that is scratch-my-head confusing.  About page 100, I was ready to give up.  But I persisted.

For a significant portion of the book, (maybe one-third?) we follow Vincent, Paul’s half-sister. Vincent is the most interesting character in The Glass Hotel.  Or, more precisely, she finds herself in the most interesting circumstances.  She leaves The Glass Hotel in Caiette, where she works as a bartender, with its wealthy owner, Jonathan Alkaitis, to go to New York and enter the “kingdom of money.” She and Jonathon pretend they are married for three years, until Alkaitis receives a 170-year prison term for designing and managing a Ponzi scheme.  Later, Vincent decides to be a cook on a cargo ship.

Her circumstances are interesting, but I don’t think Mandel does a good job of developing characters.  Her work with Vincent is the best, but I don’t know much about Vincent’s personality or her feelings or her inner thoughts.  We only see her actions.  And Alkaitis is just a caricature of a sweet rich guy running a Ponzi scheme.

It feels like Mandel’s book is making a statement, rather than writing a story.  However, I am at a loss. The intention of the book in unclear to me, though some reviewers say it points to the capriciousness of life, and so is particularly appropriate for these times.

It wasn’t boring or particularly hard to get through.  I just found it rather vapid.  I can’t recommend it, I must admit. Though, as always, I look forward to hearing from those of you who loved it!

From The Atlantic, Ruth Franklin:   The Glass Hotel is a jigsaw puzzle missing its box. At the book’s start, what exactly it is about or even who the major figures are is unclear…

 

The Salt Path

Raynor Winn | Nonfiction 2018

270 pages

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I love reading journeys of people who walk long trails, whether one of the big three here in the US, in Canada, the Gobi desert, or the Via Francigena.  But this is a different kind of long trail journey.  There was no hiking with bricks in the backpack to get ready, no planning, no packages of food sent to stops along the way, no farewell party.

Ray and her husband Moth, in their 50s, decide to travel the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path in England when they lose the home and farm they had restored and where they raised their two children, due to a failed investment with Moth’s best friend. They used up all their savings fighting for their home for three years, but ultimately lost the battle.  Suddenly, they were penniless and homeless.  But four days before that fateful day when the bailiffs arrive to take their home, they had worse news.  Moth was diagnosed with a debilitating and terminal disease.

This is their true story as they embark upon a journey to figure out what is next in their lives.  And it isn’t a pretty journey.  They are neither physically nor psychologically prepared, and they had only the mere basics of backpacking supplies, purchased from eBay.  But they had grit.  Boy, they had grit.

The Salt Path shifted again my view of homelessness.  To a person (almost) the people they meet physically back away the moment Moth or Ray tells them they are homeless.  As though it is catching.  As though they must be drug addicts or lazy, or as one man says, “tramps.”

I thought Ray Winn’s words were a little long at times, as happens when someone writes their own story.  But they were also beautiful, descriptive, artful even, especially as she describes in vivid detail the land, the birds, and the people they meet.

On page 268 I gasped aloud when a small monumental thing happens.  I was moved by this book.  It will stay with me for a while.  It is a story of challenge, devastation, hope, deep love, truth and, of course, grit.  Thank you to my wonderful friend Mary for, once again, recommending a real winner.

 

Befiore We Were Yours – reread

Lisa Wingate | Fiction 2017

352  pages

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I just reread this book in preparation for book club.  (Earlier review below).  Loved it the second time through.  Book # 16 during stay-at-home.

Earlier review:

The Tennessee Children’s Home Society operated a black market adoption agency in the first half of the 20th century, often kidnapping indigent children, glorifying and misrepresenting their pasts, and selling them for a huge profit to wealthy and often famous adoptive parents.  This much is known to be true.

Before We Were Yours tells the fictional, though representative, story of five children who lived on the riverboat Arcadia and were kidnapped from their home in 1939 by the Tennessee Children's Home Society.  Rill Foss, 12, is the eldest child.  And, it tells the story of modern day lawyer Avery Stafford, the daughter of a US Senator, who discovers there may be some hidden secrets in her well-to-do and politically successful family.

This is an extremely well-told story that will hold your attention in the alternating chapters about Rill and Avery. It is sad yet ultimately hopeful.  I recommend Before We Were Yours enthusiastically.

Harry Potter

JK Rowling | Fiction

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I have been rereading Harry Potter.  Delightful in this time of seriousness and sadness and challenges.  It feeds my soul.

I reread the first four and will now take a break and enjoy some other written adventures before embarking on the last three long books.  Maybe the next time we are staying at home again (this summer, this fall?) I will reread Outlander for more good escapism!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  1997, 309 pages.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  1998, 341 pages.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban.  1999, 435 pages.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  2000, 754 pages.

 

The Lost Man

Jane Harper | Fiction 2018

352  pages

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I read the four-page prologue to Jane Harper’s novel The Lost Man and, though I was sitting in my reading chair with my dogs at my feet, I was transported to the Australian Outback.  I was slightly disoriented; her writing was so powerful, I was there, in the Outback.

Brothers Nathan and Bub Bright meet each other at the fence line separating their cattle ranches in the Outback of Australia, to find their third brother Cameron dead at the stockman’s grave.  What was he doing out here, his Range Rover nine kilometers away, in a land where you can barely be outside your car during the heat of Christmas week and survive?  How did he die?  Why did he leave his car?  Was it suicide?  Something more nefarious?

The scale of the land and the scale of the story both impressed me.  It takes four hours to drive from one end of Cameron’s land to the other, and Nathan’s land, not as large, abuts it.  It is a very lonely place with dirt tracks for roads.  The driveway to the family home where Cameron lives with his wife, two children, his mother, a longtime manager, and his younger brother Bub, is 29 km, 12 miles long.

The narrative is about family dynamics and the discovery of what happened to Cameron, but there is so much more in the story than Cameron’s ill-fated journey.  Harper explores love, loyalty, family abuse, and the unique art of living isolated in very rough land, hours away from others.

One reviewer’s words: “part family drama, part indelible ode to the Outback.”  I can’t help but recommend this book. Yes, I am enamored by the Australian Outback, which made it doubly pleasurable for me to read.  Yes, there is mystery.  Yes, it is a gripping story with wonderful rich characters.  Yes, it is worth your time.

 

 

The Cruelest Month

Louise Penny | Fiction 2007

311 pages

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As with my other two Louise Penny reviews, Still Life and A Fatal Grace, I enjoy the village of Three Pines near Montreal and it’s delightful residents, and Armand Gamache, the Chief Inspector who shows up for every murder; but I don't find her stories quite compelling enough.  They are sweet mysteries.  Again, I will use the word “gentle.”  If you are a Penny fan, and I know some of you are, The Cruelest Month is as good as Penny delivers ... you will enjoy.  There is an important denouement in this book.

This is my 11th book completed in the time of quarantine.  I am looking forward to picking #12.  I still have my (dwindling) pile of unread books stacked with their spines against the wall, so this afternoon I will pick at random my next read!

 

 

 

Nonfiction in the Time of Pandemic

Lest you think I am just whiling away my shelter-at-home reading hours consuming delightful novels, I thought I would share the three non-fiction books I have read so far.

Reverse Mortgages by Wade Pfau, 2018, 142 pages

I have been considering a reverse mortgage for years.  But now, with my retirement accounts down 16%, I am getting serious.   I have been educating myself and found a really good resource that is not written by a mortgage broker or loan officer.  Wade Pfau is a PhD, Professor of Retirement at the American College of Financial Services. His book debunks many of the myths associated with reverse mortgages and explains them in (mostly) lay-person language. The money available to us in retirement consists of our retirement portfolio + social security + pensions + home equity.  Home equity has a large role in this equation for many of us, and need not be ignored. I am now definitely taking steps to initiate a reverse mortgage.  This book is useful for any US homeowner.

Watercolor Without Boundaries, by Kathryn Holman, 2010, 176 pages

This is my second Holman watercolor book, and I must admit I like her style.  Watercolor Without Boundaries is dense, with a lot of technique in it.  The second half includes quite a bit about adding collage papers, etc., which I am not ready for yet, but I have a plethora of painting ideas to try from her lovely work!  Only a few of my readers will find this book appealing.

Chess for Dummies by James Eade, 2016, 391 pages

I am really glad Marian and Lois and I decided to learn chess at Chess.com, as the lessons are visual, instructional, and interactive.  Chess for Dummies, however, is great to have as a reinforcement and a reference, when you forget what a pin, a fork, and a skewer are.  Only for those very few of you who have “learn chess” on your bucket list.

I own all three of these books, so if you want to borrow one, please let me know!