Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

Snow Crash

Neal Stephenson  |  Fiction

1992, 569 pages

I must have been in some interesting space during the building of my 20-book “the library is closed for the pandemic and I can’t get any books until it reopens” time.  I have three “alternative universe” books currently in my pile.

I gave this one a really good try, 143 pages.  The two major characters, Hiro and Y.T., are quite interesting.  In Reality, Hiro delivers pizza and Y.T. skateboards by "pooning" on cars. Once I realized this book is about a possible time in the future, and I didn’t need to map it against current reality, I relaxed into the story.  It genre is referred to as "cyberpunk."

Still, I reached a point where I asked, “Why am I reading this?  I am not really enjoying it.  The plot is very thin.  If there is a message, it is probably hundreds of pages away.  And what am I learning as I watch avatars interact with each other?”

And so, sadly, I hung it up.

 

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The Overstory

Richard Powers | Fiction, 2018

502 pages

four-hearts

The writing is exquisite. The range of characters is diverse and fascinating.  The story line is ambitious, engaging, powerful, and thought-provoking.  Except when it’s not (more on that later).

We meet nine (?) characters whose lives, in some way and at some time, are made richer and fuller by a tree.  We learn how a tree(s) has shown up in their childhood, and the impact that tree has on their adult lives.  Eventually, even though they enter a variety of lifestyles and careers, their relationships with trees cause each of them to become a “tree-hugging” activist, working against the destruction of trees, especially old growth trees in Oregon and the Northwest.  This is where their lives, and our story, intersect.  You will learn about trees, about people, about the sacredness of our planet, about passion and commitment, sorrow and confusion, love and longing.

As with many very long books, there comes a time when the book overwhelms.  I think Powers veered off the path in a long section called “The Crown” where we follow our character’s Iives after the zenith of their time together as activists.  I would have liked about 50 pages edited out around page 400.  But, of course, eventually Powers gets back on track for the evocative conclusion.

I found the writing in this epic novel so mesmerizing, for 90% of the book, I decided to keep it at four hearts.  Yes, definitely try this novel on for size.

 

 

A Bad Day for Sunshine

Darynda Jones | Fiction, 2020

390 pages

three-hearts

Sunshine Vicram was elected sheriff of her hometown, Del Sol, New Mexico.  Which is pretty interesting, considering she wasn’t even a candidate, nor living there.  So she and her daughter move from Santa Fe to the “guesthouse” her parents built for her behind their home in Del Sol, and both embark upon reestablishing themselves in a town that has buckets full of memories, some very painful.

We follow Sunshine as she searches for a missing girl, a missing boy, and, in the background, for the identity of the man who abducted her when she was 17.  Okay, sounds morbid, eh?  But it is not. This is a fun detective novel, reminiscent of Nevada Barr.  Sunshine’s 14-year-old daughter Auri is a delightful, smart, major character, as in Sunshine’s BFF, Quincy.  And the connections between and among the people of Del Sol are intriguing, reminding me of the town of Three Pines (Louise Penny).

I found the book surprisingly slow to start, but it picks up. Hence the three hearts.  The last half is page-turning.

If Sunshine were a male main character, you would throw this book against the wall as offensive and misogynist.  You will find you need to decide if you can actually like a main character who ogles every good-looking man she sees, and keeps a running commentary in her mind about his face, chest, muscles, ass.  I enjoyed her hormone-driven fantasies, but don’t tell my friends.  My feminism may come into question(!)

 

The Impossible First

Colin O'Brady | Nonfiction, 2020

279 pages

four-hearts

For someone with a deep fear of the cold (I have Raynaud’s and a slight drop in my core temperature means numb hands, toes, and tongue) this was armchair reading at its brilliant best!  Colin O’Brady writes about his attempt to be the first person to cross Antarctica, unassisted and unaided.

I love first person accounts of epic adventures, such as Krakauer, Wells, Honnold, Strayed.  O’Brady’s is marvelous.  Well written, a page turner, and a powerful adventure sprinkled with some insights and memories.  If you like reading about courage, commitment, grit, fear, and accomplishment in the wilderness (along with a potent love story), you will surely enjoy The Impossible First. Great on a hot summer day!!

 

 

The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison| Fiction, 1970

216 pages

three-hearts

I watched the PBS special on Toni Morrison, which is excellent, and it inspired me to reread The Bluest Eye.  This is the story of Pecola Breedlove, a Black girl In America who has learned racial self-loathing at a very young age, and yearns for the pretty blue eyes that so many White girls have.  While sad and insightful, rereading it was not as powerful or profound as I anticipated.  If you have never read this first novel by Morrison, I do suggest it.  As with all her novels, she tells the stories of being Black from the perspective of being Black.  Black readers confirm they see themselves for the first time in literature when they read Toni Morrison.

 

 

The Housekeeper and the Professor

Yoko Ogawa | Fiction 2003

(English translation 2009), 180 pages

four-hearts

This is a poignant and endearing tale about the Professor who was in an accident 17 years ago.  He can remember things from before his accident, but since ... only exactly 80 minutes can he remember.  Though many housekeepers don’t last long working with this odd man, one housekeeper manages to forge a brilliant relationship.  The Housekeeper and her young son Root come to love this man.

The Professor is a mathematician, and though his short-term memory is gone, his mathematical brilliance remains fully intact.  A central theme to this book is the Professor sharing mathematical principles and problems with his caretakers.  It probably helps if you have a love for math like I do, or at least a willingness to enjoy its elegance.

Ogawa’s writing simply flows.  An example.  “I also like the way he wrote his numbers with his little stub of a pencil. The 4 was so round it looked like a knot of ribbon, and the 5 was leaning so far forward it seemed about to tip over.”  Pg 62

I highly recommend this beautiful book for a summer afternoon.

Little

Edward Carey| Historical fiction, 2018

433 pages

four-hearts

Absolutely delightful.  Mostly.  I found Carey’s writing to be very readable and engaging.  And throughout the book are drawings that truly inform the story. (You may not want to listen to this book, but see it visually …)

Anne Marie Grosholtz, soon to be nicknamed Little, was born in 1761 in Alsace, France.  As a very young girl, her parents died and she is apprenticed to Dr. Phillipe Curtius, who becomes her mentor and who raises her.  Curtius fashions body parts of wax, for use in the scientific and medical communities.  But soon, he has an idea to make wax heads, and together Marie and Curtius move to Paris into the home of Widow Picot and her son Edmond, The Monkey House, where they make heads of local personages and also murderers.

Most of the book is about her years as a child, a teenager, and a young adult growing her professional skills, but hated by the Widow Picot.  As news of her skill grows, Marie is called to the Palace of Versailles, where the royal family lives, and she befriends and teaches Princess Elizabeth.  She lives in a cupboard ... apparently typical of "lesser" people at that time n the Palace.

Delightful writing and a delightful story.  About two-thirds of the way in, the turbulent French Revolution throws everything into chaos, and Curtius and Little begin to fashion heads of men who were killed in the revolution.  Here is where the book becomes a little less delightful.  The author Carey explains the gore and the effects of the French Revolution, but gives no context ... no why, no understanding of the politics.  It took him 15 years to write this book.  I think he did so much research and knew so much that he lost sight of what his readers did and did not know.  The Revolution was not explained, and I found that confusing and lacking.

Many reviewers call this tale macabre.  I did not experience it as macabre so much as a story about creativity and innovation; about the development of a unique business proposition; and about bizarre relationships among very-well developed characters.  Carey’s characters are rich and deep.

Around the same time that the book begins to explore the Revolution, I went on the internet, seeking to understand some terms and some people and only then discovered that Little is historical fiction, loosely based on the life of Madame Tussaud.  I did not know that for most of the book!

I definitely think this book is worth your time.  I remain somewhat astounded by the characters and the times in which they live.  Little was recommended by my friend Mary who read it in her book club.

 

White Fragility

Robin DiAngelo| Nonfiction, 2018

192 pages

four-hearts

I think I am behind my friends and colleagues in reading this book.  It was on my list before the pandemic and before George Floyd, but I just read it now (in one Sunday afternoon).  Yes, I believe we all should read White Fragility.  You might not experience huge revelations, but it will definitely heighten your awareness about the white contexts in which we blindly live.  Because I know my perspective is biased as a white, I looked for reviews written by people of color.  One black reviewer said this book gave her hope.  Another said he thought this book should be required reading for all BIPOCs because it explains so much about the dominant context.

DiAngelo explains what she sees as systemic racism and makes a case for it being systemic white supremacist racism.  She sees white supremacy not as a fringe value, but something that is inherent in the system.

I really liked Chapter 10, which demonstrates fragility.  How, if you must give me feedback about something I have said or done that might be construed as racist or race-ignorant, you should do so with kindness, and the right tone, at the right time, only after we have built trust, privately, ensuring I am safe, having acknowledged my good intentions .... otherwise I might cry (sucking all the energy and emotion to me instead of you, who felt the impact of what I said). Or walk away.  Or get angry.  Or sulk.  Or disengage.  Chapters 9-12, more specifically about fragility rather than systemic racism, are quite powerful and informative.

A difficult sentence I highlighted from the Introduction:  I believe the white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.  I define white progressives as white people who think they are not racist, or are less racist, or are in the “choir”, or already “get it.”

While I think her psychological, sociological, and interpersonal views are well-substantiated, some of the more factual components of our history are not her strong points.  For example, DiAngelo says Affirmative Action never applied to private companies, only government agencies.  Untrue.  Private employers who do more than $50,000 business with the government, or who have more than 50 employees were required to develop Affirmative Action Plans.  Where is her editor at Beacon Press, and who is fact-checking?

So, in conclusion, yes I recommend this book for anyone who is curious about themselves and their role in systemic racism.  And it is neither a long nor a heavy. read.

 

These Women

Ivy Pochoda| Fiction, 2020

334 pages

three-hearts

First, I digress.  I wanted to say that this book is not good writing.  But suddenly I realized, what does that mean?  What is good writing?  What is bad writing?  How can I call a book good or bad writing?  What the heck do I know?

So, I did some research.  I found professors, authors, editors, publishers ... there is almost no agreement on what makes writing good.  I often notice at book club someone will say a book was well-written, and someone else will agree.  Now I wonder, what do they mean?

Here are six different lists of qualities of good writing ...

  1. Focus, development, unity, correctness, coherence
  2. Purpose, audience, clarity, unity, coherence
  3. Structure, ideas, correctness
  4. Voice, ideas, presentation, conventions, word choice, sentence fluency
  5. Bad writing is boring and defensive; good writing makes the reader vulnerable
  6. Good content, focus, precise language, good grammar

And here are some of the impacts of good writing ...

  • Touches the reader
  • Makes the reader richer
  • Makes the reader want more
  • Unveils the unexpected
  • Gives insight
  • Tells a story
  • Makes the reader feel less alone
  • Makes the reader ask for more
  • Does something with the reader’s feelings
  • Makes readers discover what they did not know

So, all of that does not help me assess what is “good” and what is “bad” writing.  It feels rather scattered and somewhat subjective.  I like writing to engage my mind and heart; interesting language; a sense of purpose; character depth (or depth of concept in nonfiction); ease; fast pace; a path to follow that builds on itself; correct grammar.  How do YOU define “good writing”?

Now, on to These Women. We meet characters in bleak and gritty South LA who seem on the surface somewhat disreputable ... prostitutes, workers on the fringes of the sex trade, such as a dancer, a performance artist who douses her naked self with blue paint, the owner of a fish shack, and mothers and fathers of these professional women.  And yet, they are all trying to survive in a violent and disrespectful world.  Not all of them do survive.

That is where Esmeralda Perry comes in. Essie is a demoted vice cop who sees the patterns and recognizes a serial killer is at work in their midst.  And then the mystery unfolds.

So, back to bad writing and good writing.  I found the first half of These Women did not have much unity, coherence, connection, or focus.  The characters, though deep and quirky, were presented individually, and were confusing.  Dead hummingbirds, a white middle-aged female stalker, and a iPhone photographer add spice to their stories.   Essie begins to tie the threads of their lives together, at the half-way point in this book, and then a story emerges.  The killer, by the way, is not a big surprise, but does have a fascinating psyche.

Yes, it is worth a read about a slice of life you may be as unfamiliar with as I am.  Just stay with the puzzlement of the first half.  Recommended on NPR.

And let us know how you define “good” writing, please!