Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Steven Galloway |  Fiction

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For four years beginning April 1992,  the city of Sarajevo was under siege from the Bosnian Serb Army.  Shelling and shooting at the civilians of the city from the surrounding hills, the criminal army averaged 329 shells per day, and killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians.

One day, 22 people are killed while waiting in line for a loaf of bread.  The cellist decides to play his cello at the spot of the massacre at 4 pm for 22 days.  We each have our gift to give.

This is not the story of the siege.  It is a novel about four people who lived through this time, the cellist, a counter-sniper, the man trying to get to the bakery, and the man on a journey to fill his family’s water bottles.  The walkers move in and out of the line of possible sniper fire as they travel what remains of the streets of their beloved city.

This is one one the best books I’ve read.  It is profound, startling, gripping, beautiful.  We encounter the humanity of these characters, and truly feel their fear, their desire to find grace and meaning, their passionate urge to remain human.  

It is well written, short, and with gorgeous visual images.  I highly recommend it.  

Gratitude to Rene for reading and recommending this book while we were in the Galapagos.

 

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

Margareta Magnusson | Nonfiction

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Okay, don't freak by the title ... yes, it is about how to clear your clutter before you die.  Recommended in The Little Book of Hygge (see blog from 12/24/2018), it is  another little book about wisdom from the Swedes.  Magnusson writes about sorting through your things, so someone else doesn't have the burden of it.  She recommends you begin when you are 65, knowing it will take a few years to get it done.   This short sweet book also provides you with hints and perspectives if you are downsizing or simply wanting to de-clutter.

I was attracted to this book in part because of Hygge, but also because I reached a time when I was finally ready to clean Beryl’s office, 2.5 years after he died.  This task eluded me and seemed insurmountable.  I invited a friend over and accomplished it in an afternoon, for which I am glad.

Read this book if it grabs your fancy.  You’ll read it in a day, and perhaps clean out one thing from your home.

American Marriage

Tayari Jones |  Fiction

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An American Marriage is, to me, a love story about a man who is wrongly convicted for rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison, and the impact this has on his family, especially his marriage.  This is not a story of a trial nor a story of prison.  It is a deep and smart look at relationships.  

Before the conviction, Celestial and Roy were an educated, upwardly mobile couple.  All  of the characters in this book are African American and, while it is a tale of marriage, it is also a tale of injustice, discrimination, innocence, and simply being black in today’s world.

Jones conveys quite convincingly the profound emotional and interpersonal difficulties of her characters.  Each chapter is written in the voice of one of the characters, which creates an intimacy for the reader with each person.

Well written and surprisingly easy to read, it is quite worth your time.

How Green Was My Valley

Richard Llewellyn |  Fiction

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How Green Was My Valley is a 1939 novel about the Morgans, a respectable Welsh mining family of the South Wales Valleys, through the eyes of one of the sons, Huw Morgan. Huw, and his five brothers and three sisters, grow up in a mining community, and face the challenges of an unregulated and unsafe industry.

I quite enjoyed this book, not only for the story of the mines and the mining culture and community, but also for Llewellyn’s ability to portray the inner qualities, thoughts, values, and feelings of the most important characters, the Morgan children and parents.  It tells a rich story of who the Morgans were, at that particular time and place.  The author also uses beautiful language about the land as well as the people, in an interesting mix of Welsh phraseology translated into English.

It is fun to read a classic novel in book club, as we do once a year.  How Green Was My Valley is long, but it tells a good story and also communicates much in about life and language of life in Wales nearly a century ago. It is definitely worth a read or a re-read.

The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen |   Fiction

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I struggled to finish this book, and perused the last 150 pages.  Though the author has some wonderful wry humor, I did not care for his story-telling and his character development.  Every time I opened this  book, I literally saw the main character, an unnamed half-French half-Vietnamese protagonist, as a piece of tissue paper.  He was so thin and flimsy, you could see right though him and he had no there, there.  I found him shallow, especially given the nature of the story he was trying to tell, and not a bit likeable.  My eye surgeon, Dr. Alul, saw me reading this book in her office on Monday and she said “Do you like it?  It is pretty depressing.  I had a really hard time getting through it.”  I found that interesting.  I had not thought of it as depressing, but I guess it really is.  And I am not enjoying “depressing” right now.  After that conversation, I hit the last 100 pages and, though there is some redemption, the further you read, the more profoundly depressing the tale.

This is a fictionalized story of the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam war, and the refugees who make it to America. We follow our main character, who is a Captain in the military and a spy, as he attempts to acclimate to America, or, perhaps more precisely, to not acclimate to America.  We read of the struggles of the refugees, the culture clashes, the challenges, and a bit of their successes.

I found it very hard to believe that a Vietnamese refugee would arrive in America and want to (page 231) “Reconcile, return, rebuild.”   I am perhaps quite naïve about the refugee experience, so I did a bit of research.  Yes, I am still VERY naïve about the refugee experience, but here are some facts I gathered:

Two million Vietnamese left their country after the fall of Saigon.  120,000 of them came to the United States.  Of the 120,000 who came here, 1500, (1.25%) chose to “reconcile, return, rebuild” and returned to Vietnam.  Of those, most were held in “reeducation camps” where they experienced prison conditions, forced ideological change, brutality, violence, humiliation and, for many, death.

I cannot recommend this despondent book, however, if you read it, I will be very pleased to read some other views!

The Immortalists

Chloe Benjamin |  Fiction

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Wow. The Immortalists escorted me from South America, through Central America, into North America, on my return from Ecuador, with nary a pause.  As the book book begins in 1969, four New York siblings, Simon (7), Klara (9), Daniel (11), and Varya (13) visit a fortune teller and learn the dates of their deaths.  The Immortalists tells the stories of each of their lives, and, yes, their deaths.

I could not put this book down.  I loved it!  Riveting.  Who recommended this book to me?  Whoever you are, I will trust your judgment forever.

Enjoy!

(Yes, I traveled for days to get to and from The Galapagos.  Hence, four blog posts at once!)

The Little Book of Hygge

Meik Wiking |  Nonfiction

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This is a fun little book.  Written by a Happiness Researcher, The Little Book of Hygge attempts to explain why Denmark continues to score at or near the top of happiness surveys.  And the answer is a uniquely Danish concept called Hygge.

Hygge is rather difficult to explain, but it is an attitude, a sense of peace, comfort, security, of being with the people we love.

What is easier to explain is what contributes to Hygge; how it comes about; what creates the wonderful feeling of Hygge.  There are a range of things.  The Hygge manifesto consists of turning down the lights and lighting candles, presence, pleasure, gratitude, harmony, equality, comfort, truce, togetherness, and shelter.

And there are many ways to bring about Hygge, such as lighting candles, cooking simple foods together, sweets, a fireplace, wool socks, making a nook in your home for tea and quiet.

You’ll likely gain some new ideas for creating Hygge in YOUR life. Personally, I am intrigued by the idea of a monthly board game night.  And, of course, warm, sweet rolls fresh from the oven.

Enjoy!

 

Dr. Futurity

Phillip K. Dick |  Science Fiction

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A friend of mine, Ralph, brought this book to water aerobics, because he knew I was a fan of time travel books.  And Dr. Futurity is a time travel book, about a physician who inadvertently finds himself hundreds of years in the future, in a society where death is zealously embraced, and saving lives is illegal.

While there is time travel at the core of this book, it really is science fiction, a genre of fiction in which the stories often tell about science and technology of the future.  Fantastical technological situations, objects, and advances occur.  I am reminded that I am not a fan of science fiction.  I am much more intrigued by the shifts and complexities of people’s relationships in time travel novels.

So, I cannot recommend this book, however I am fascinated to hear if you are a science fiction fan and a consumer of Phillip K. Dick novels and what you enjoy about them.  I would love to hear what else you might recommend by him.  With 44 books, it is hard to choose, should I decide to.  Please let us know!

Motor City Burning

Bill Morris | Fiction

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This book delighted me to the tips of my toes.  It is fast-paced, well-constructed, sufficiently well written (it is a mystery, not a literary tome, and it puts on no airs to pretend it is what it isn’t.)  The story line is unusual; it's not a formulaic who-done-it.  No, it flows in a more complex and interesting way.

You will follow the life of Willie Bledsoe, who moves to Detroit from Alabama, after his time in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Snick.  You’ll experience the Detroit race riots of 1967, along with the killing of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, all decorated like a Christmas tree with stories and scenes of the blossoming Detroit Tigers in 1967 and 1968.

Motor City Burning is a solid four hearts for me, but I am giving it three because I believe not all of my blog readers will resonate with every page in the way I did.  First of all, you have to be old enough to be alive and aware of the race riots in the 60’s, and have a sense of the profound turmoil the country was in.  Second, I was enamored by all the Detroit landmarks that set the stage for Motor City Burning.  If you aren’t from Detroit, or have no interest in the Midwest during this time of racial unrest, you may not have the same experience as I.  Those objections being met, read this novel for the picture it vividly draws and the story it tells.

Thank you Mark M for this recommendation.

The Library Book

Susan Orlean|  Nonfiction

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The Library Book tells the story of the unprecedented fire in the Los Angeles Public Library on April 29, 1986, in which more than a million books were lost or damaged. This is the story of the fire, and, to a lesser degree, the suspected arsonist.  Susan Orlean is an excellent writer; she does considerable in-depth research, and places herself right into the scenes and the characters.  I really like the way she weaves small informative details that make her story interesting with big important facts, translating the information to a human scale, like this from her long paragraph of what books were lost, on pages 33 and 34.  “…A first edition of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book from 1896.  Twelve thousand cookbooks, including six books of popcorn recipes.”

While Orlean’s book is structurally about the LA Public Library, she also continually draws parallels with other libraries in the country and the world.  You get a sense of how libraries developed and thrived over the last 140 years or so. You will cheer the librarians on for their visions, as they transform libraries from book-loaning spaces to integral and central parts of the communities they serve.

At the beginning of each chapter, she lists four books and their call numbers which relate to the content in the chapter.  This is a fun resource ... it not only gives you a preview of the chapter, but it also may entice you to go pick another book off the shelf.  Like this, from Chapter 7, The Art of Condolence:  What to Write, What to Say, What to Do at a Time of Loss (1991) by Leonard M. Zunin, 177.9 Z95.  This for a chapter in which she quotes some of the condolence letters sent to the LA Library from other libraries after the huge fire….

So, why three hearts instead of four?  This was another sandwich book for me.  I love the beginning and the end; the relevance and the knowledge I gained.  However, in the middle, she spends longs pages – too long for me – on the history of the Los Angeles Public Library and its challenges, leadership, funding issues.  I became a bit bored with the LA-focus.  In sum, yes, I recommend this interesting book, with my only hesitation being the lengthy history section. 

Finally, I want to share this tidbit, from page 93.  “In Senegal. The polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.”  Provocative, yes?