Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

The Four Winds

Kristin Hannah

Fiction 2021 | 464 pages

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What I knew about The Dust Bowl could have filled a very small thimble.  This novel graphically teaches us an important piece of history about the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the mistreatment of US residents who went west to find work after their farms and ranches were destroyed by drought.  Hannah’s characters are gripping, rich, and deep.  Her ability to tell a tale is astounding.  We follow the life of Elsa and her two children, Loreda and Ant, thrust into unimaginable poverty and the desperate struggle to survive.  We witness the physical, emotional, financial, and familial devastation of the Dust Bowl. And we are viscerally educated about the rise of the farm-workers’ rights movement in the west.  I highly recommend.  This is a good summer read that is hard to put down.

July 2021

 

 

House of Rain

Craig Childs

Nonfiction 2006 | 496 pages

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Monochrome and polychrome pottery styles, doorways, kivas, cliff dwellings, home designs, turkey feathers, ancient roads and waterways … these and more give us clues about the cultural, societal, and geographic evolution of the vanished civilizations of the Southwest US and Mexico.  Craig Childs is the perfect author to tell us about them.  He is an extraordinary writer and an amazing researcher and explorer.  This book, recommended by many on my Great Old Broads raft trip on the San Juan River, tells history from a perspective that is unique, interesting, and informative. Childs tells the tale of multiple migrating cultures over many centuries, by traveling and writing about their apparent journeys. This is what is so remarkable about House of Rain.  Childs catalogs recent knowledge of the journeys of the Anasazi, Salado, the Puebloan people, and numerous other communities, through his own and other academics’ research, and he conveys this to us as he travels from the north … Utah and Colorado … to northwest Mexico, along the same routes the indigenous peoples traveled over hundreds of years.  If you visit Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde, you will see and learn about a place and a point in time. What Childs captures in House of Rain is the geographical movement of civilizations across many centuries, through prerecorded history.

This book is an excellent read, whether you are a connoisseur of the southwest ancient peoples, or know very little about their communities.   A small example of his vivid writing (page 197): “We found red pottery at nearly every site, rose petals lining the path.”

(A note to my Audible readers ….  Thom and I read this book together, and he listened to it on Audible, as read by the author.  It seems Childs is a superb writer; however, he is not a good orator.  Read House of Rain instead of listening, if you can.)

June 2021

 

 

The Island of Sea Women

Lisa See | Fiction, 2018

375 pages

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I just finished reading a somewhat interesting novel (a little bit of a slow read) based upon truth, about the haenyeo, the women who dive in Korea and lead the society and its matrifocal culture.  Two young girls become best friends, and we watch Mi-ja and Young-sook as they become baby divers, internationally traveling divers, wives, and mothers, through the considerable turmoil and chaos prior to and during WWII.  I found, by the way, the decline of their friendship rather implausible.  I cannot fathom how people can forgo forgiveness for 40, 50, 60 years. And I know I can be a Pollyanna sometimes.  You may find this quite plausible, given the pain they endured.

Just over half-way in, Lisa See begins to describe the atrocities that occur under the confusion and disregard of American invaders.  She describes in extremely graphic detail murder, rape, torture, and psychological trauma, and I became literally sick to my stomach.  I felt abandoned by this author.  I thought she took an Intensely hard left-hand turn and changed the tenor of her novel dramatically.  I was floored and upset.

My friend Marian tells me it was important for her to do this, to explain the contexts of WWII and the Korean War.  She is probably right, but I was quite shocked.  Now that you have been warned that this is going to happen, The Island of Sea Women is a strong novel, and one you may quite enjoy.

June 2021

 

 

As Long as Grass Grows

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Nonfiction, 2019 | 210 pages

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This is perhaps the most poorly written and boring book I have ever navigated.  She uses ridiculously obscure words when easy words would suffice.  Her sentences run on, with numerous clauses.  And there is very little feeling, virtually no emotional connection in her writing.  It is facts, pure and simple.

I wanted to learn something about the topic, “The indigenous fight for environmental justice” so, after many pages, I finally figured out how to read As Long as Grass Grows.  I simply read every word without attempting to comprehend the complexity of the sentences, knowing that some of the information would sink in.

Eventually, much of it did.  I DID learn by reading this book; have some ah-has; entertained some new perspectives; discovered some history I knew nothing about; have some new views about colonization, a word I am still attempting to truly understand.  And this is worthwhile.  However, I find history to be most valuable as context to assist us in addressing current situations and planning for and envisioning the future.  Gilio-Whitaker does not address present-day implications or possible actions until the 8th and final chapter; the last 15 pages of the book.

This was a huge disappointment for me.

While there is much to learn about the history of colonization of the indigenous peoples, this book does not stand alone.   If you read it, you will learn new perspectives on history, but you will be left powerless about what to do with your new knowledge.  Perhaps there is a broader, more action-oriented book on this topic.

June 2021

 

What Comes After

Joanne Tompkins

Fiction 2021 | 419 pages

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Two teenage boys die tragically.  Daniel is killed by his best friend Jonah, who later kills himself.  Two families are torn apart.  There is grief and shock in this small coastal town in Washington.  And then a teenage girl, house-less and pregnant, abandoned by her mother, emerges from the woods and is taken in by Daniel’s father, Isaac.  Yes, Evangeline knew these boys in the last two weeks of their lives.

This is Evangeline’s story.  How difficult it is to trust, to maybe accept love, to give compassion.  She is “fiery in hair and spirit” ... a red headed enigma.  And she is about to have a baby and, for the first time in months, perhaps a roof over her head. We experience Isaac’s grief, as well as the complicated grief of Jonah’s mother, Lorrie, and Jonah’s sister Nells.  We witness resiliency, confusion, sorrow, miscommunication, deep communication, love. Amazingly, we can see into the souls of the two adults, especially Isaac, as well as 16-year-old Evangeline.  There are also some very interesting minor stories, like Isaac’s best friend Peter, and the role of Quakers in the lives of the characters.

What Comes After is powerful and engrossing.  It is very emotion-centric.  Why I mean by that is we are privileged to observe the feelings and depth of the characters.  Nothing is shied away from.

This is Thompkins’ first novel, and it is astounding.  Well written, but also the most interesting plot I have read in a long time.  No surprise, I recommend What Comes After wholeheartedly and enthusiastically!

May 2021

 

Holding Fast

Karen James | Nonfiction,  2008

 225 pages

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Holding Fast is the gripping story of Kelly James, who dies after reaching the summit of Mt. Hood, a few days before Christmas 2006, as told by his wife Karen.  They were married just over six years.  Sitting on an airplane when I reached the pinnacle ... when rescuers found Kelly’s body ... I cried.  I cried again when she describes Christmas Eve alone.  She told her kids she was with friends.  She told her friends she was with her kids.  It was a time to truly begin the journey of grief.  My heart broke for her.

The tale of his death, of which we know little but supposition, is really the tale of the living; of what it’s like to experience eight days awaiting the fate of your husband and father who has lost contact in the icy storms of the Cascades.  Karen writes well (she has been a journalist with ABC, CBS, and NBC).  Her story is intimate, emotional, strong.

I knocked Holding Fast down to three hearts for two reasons.  First, the James family is very religious, and I lost a bit of patience with all the prayers and supplications.  More important, I thought Karen James was simply unconscionable and selfish by reporting, for the entire book, about her pain, with very few and rare words about the wives of the other two climbers who were lost with Kelly, Brian Hall and Nikko Cooke.  She writes a bit about this part of the tragedy on page 147.  It is as though these two men were not much more than precious climbing equipment that was also lost on the mountain.

Karen James writes a great deal about her grief, which may or may not speak to you.  And, as with any outdoor adventure and tragedy, the story touched my heart, and I believe it will touch yours.

May 2021

 

Front Desk

Kelly Yang

Fiction, 2018 | 287 pages

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Regular readers will know that once a year our local library system selects a book for a community read, and it is always delightful!  This year, they also selected a young adult community read, so I thought I would try it on for size.

Mia immigrated from China to Anaheim, California with her parents, just two years ago.  At 11, she is extremely precocious and smart, though not very street-wise in the ways of racism.   She and her parents run a hotel, under the direction of a mean-hearted employer.  Mia learns about the two roller coasters in our culture ... the one well-to-do people are on, and the parallel one that poor people are forced to. Mia wants to change her roller coaster!

While Front Desk does teach young adults about racism, judging, discrimination, self-confidence, assertiveness, love, and hate, I found it a bit too distant from reality.  Mia’s success at addressing some of the ways black, brown, and yellow people are treated in her diverse neighborhood is rather Pollyanna-ish.  For this reason, I find I do not choose to recommend this easy-to-read book.

May 2021

 

Hudson Bay Bound

Natalie Warren | Nonfiction,  2021

224 pages

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A fascinating book to enjoy while on my very first overnight rafting trip!  While experiencing four nights and five days on the San Juan River in Southern Utah, it was remarkable to read this true story of two women, Natalie and Ann, who make the 2000-mile journey from Minneapolis to the Hudson Bay in a Kevlar canoe. Their story is surprisingly interesting ... I was not certain that paddling for three months would encompass enough drama, but between weather, the people they met, snakes, hunger, what they learn about the land, their near disasters, the challenges to their relationship as best friends, and acquiring a canoe dog, Hudson Bay Bound kept my interest throughout.  It is not the best writing I have ever read, so likely will work best for those of you, like me, who have a penchant for true nature adventure stories.

May 2021

 

Just Us: An American Conversation

Claudia Rankine

Nonfiction 2020 | 342 pages

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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