Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

Only the Brave



I heard a poignant review about this movie on NPR, and simply decided to go see it the next day.  The timing of the release of this movie is quite fortuitous, with the disastrous wildfire season this summer and fall on the West Coast.

Only the Brave is based upon the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, many of whom lost their lives fighting a fire outside Prescott, Arizona in 2013.  Directed by Joseph Kosinski and starring Josh Brolin and others, the story is told without over-dramatization.  It is, to quote various reviewers, "deeply emotional," "satisfying" and "devastating."  This is one of those movies where the credits start rolling and no one moves from their seats.

I am quite thankful I saw it.  It feels important in this day and time when so many men and women put their lives on the line to fight wildfires.  It honors wildfire fighters.  I also had a lighter personal interest in choosing to see it.  Prescott was our runner-up when Beryl and I chose to return to Bend, and I was hoping for some fine shots of Prescott and the surrounding wildernesses.  I was not disappointed.

This weekend, grab a bag of popcorn and make a journey to your local theater.  Oh yes, you will need a tissue also.


The Perpetual Now

 Michael D. Lemonick |  Biography


Lonni Sue Johnson is an artist, musician and pilot when she contracts an encephalitis infection which destroys her hippocampus, the locus of memory in the brain.  You might even recognize some of her covers for The New Yorker magazine.

I didn’t know I was interested in memory until I read this book.  You will read what neuroscientists are learning about the functioning of our extremely complex brains.  It’s pretty fascinating.  I also did not fully appreciate profound amnesia.  Yes, you don’t remember the past, but you also are unable to form new memories, which means every day and every person is always brand new to you.  Wow.  Lonni Sue is a very positive and happy person, which makes reading her story surprisingly uplifting.

As I write more blogs, I come to appreciate more about the writing process and authors.  Lemonick’s work has been for Scientific American and National Geographic, and he has written more than 50 science articles for Time.  You will learn more science than you might expect in this biography, and less human interest.  I would have liked more heart ... more about Lonni Sue and her life.  Lemonick does a good job of this, just not great.  He is a scientist before a humanist.

That being said, if your interest is at all piqued, I recommend The Perpetual Now.  This science is presented in lay terms, and tied together well.  I also put Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on my Netflix list as a result of reading this book.  Have you seen this movie?  The Perpetual Now is a Real Simple recommendation.


In Another Life

Julie Christine Johnson | Fiction


As In Another Life opens, our main character, Lia, has just arrived in Languedoc in southern France. It is 18 months since her husband Gabriel died.  As I read page one, it is 17 months since Beryl died.  I am astounded by the similarity of Lia's emotions and my own, and am immediately drawn into her character.  She has come to this land to stay in a friend's stone cottage.  She has come to consider the next steps in her life.  It hasn't even occurred to me to consider my next steps. It never even crossed my mind.  Well, I guess it has now!

But this blog post is not about me ... it is about this book.  On the front cover, a reviewer claims it is “evocative of Outlander.”  As a guzzler* of the Outlander series, this caught my attention.  The structure differs from Outlander.  Let me tell you a bit about the plot, to better explain the “time travel” aspect of In Another Life

Lia returns to Languedoc in part to continue work on her abandoned dissertation, which is about the Cathars, and in part to discover her life's "next steps."  In the thirteenth century, the Catholic Church incited a Crusade against the Cathars, a heretical religion according to the Catholic scholars of the time.  While in Languedoc, Lia’s inner historian is enlivened again and she learns a great deal about the powerful players from the year 1208 who facilitated or resisted the Crusade.  I think it is sufficient to say, without giving away too much of the story itself, that the Cathars believed in reincarnation.  So “time travel”  in this novel occurs as rich characters who were incarnated in 1208 interact with our modern day characters.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book!  I like the exploration, the mystery, the time travel, the depth of the characters, and the romance.  This is a book club book and I know at least one member of book club did not like this book.  Our conversation will be interesting!

*(Ha ha, I just learned the word tachyphagia - it means to eat rapidly or fast.  I thought “guzzle” was little more user-friendly!)


The Storyteller

Jodi Picoult | Fiction


Intense.  This book begins light and easy.  Sage Singer is a baker; you can almost smell (but not quite taste!) the delicious breads and pastries she bakes every night.  One day an elderly man walks into the bakery and Sage and Josef strike up a conversation and then an unlikely friendship.  Nice so far, eh?

Josef asks Sage to help him die.  Now the story picks up a bit more heat.

And then we enter into the real meat of the seemingly credible novel … Josef’s tale about his experiences as a Nazi SS leader.  Eventually we also get Sage’s Grandma Minka’s story as a Holocaust survivor at Auschwitz.  Of course, Josef’s and Minka’s paths crossed all those many years ago.

Their tales are riveting.  In full Picoult style, it is hard to put this book down, even though the bulk of it is definitely intense.  Yes, absolutely, it is worth reading.

Footnote:  In March of this year, a Nazi SS Officer, 98 years old, was revealed, living in Minnesota.  Picoult's book is not far-fetched.


The Story Hour

Thrity Umrigar |  Fiction


This is a story about the relationship between a young Indian woman, Lakshmi, who attempts to commit suicide, and her therapist, an African-American woman named Maggie.  Lakshmi is totally delightful.  She does not speak English well, but it takes you only a page or two to understand her. She uses words like “ascare” for scared and “courage” for encourage.  She doesn’t understand why “the husband” calls it a “coffee table” when thy only drink chai.  Throughout the book, we learn more and more about Lakshmi’s story, and how she came to be in the United States and the tragedies and joys of her complex life.  Fascinating.

On the other hand, Maggie has been drawn as a very shallow character.  She never does much of anything, and what we learn of her life is, well, rather immature and insensitive.  And so their friendship is a bit difficult to grasp.  A number of reviews I read were distraught that Maggie breaks the rules of therapy and befriends Lakshmi.  I, on the other hand, felt the other way.  I wanted her to eschew the rules and boundaries and really befriend Lakshmi, but she stays on the fence and emotionally distant.

I like a place of grounding in a book. If it is placed in Boston, I picture Boston. If it is Dubai or Atlanta, I will get out maps and be able to “see” the place.  I don’t know what Umrigar was thinking when she placed her characters in Cedarville.  That’s all we get to know.  I assumed that it was near New York, as the seasons began to change.  But then we learn that Maggie used to live in New York.  By the end of the book we discover that Cedarville is about 1000 miles from San Diego.  Huh?  At one point I googled Cedarville and discovered there was one in California and one in Ohio.  We learn in the first few pages that they are not in California.  So maybe it is Ohio. Until Maggie talks about the snow she sees on the mountains.  I felt, well, lost.

Read this book for Lakshmi and her Indian hertitage. Her story will stay with you and make you think.  Don’t read it as a tale of friendship between women; it would be a disappointing friendship for sure.


Ordinary Grace

William Kent Krueger | Fiction


I remember one event clearly from the summer I was 13. I went to Bob-Lo Island, an amusement park on an island in the Detroit River, and met my first love, Randy.  What do YOU remember about the summer you were 13?  Well, this book is the summer Frank Drum was 13, and there is A LOT to remember!  Granted, it is a novel, so the author can imagine events in order to create richness of experience and memory.  And that he does!

Written from Frank’s perspective 40 years later, he tells a spellbinding story about the summer he was 13, during which accident, suicide, murder and deaths occurred.  Frank and his younger brother Jake live in a small town on the Minnesota River ... a town in which, in 1961, it was impossible not to know everybody's business, and all the interwoven goings-on.  This is a MUCH more interesting and intriguing story than my own first summer as a teenager.

Krueger also recalls and knits in the times so well.  An example: “She wore a pair of dungarees and a blue denim shirt over a white top and she’d bunched the shirttails around her waist and tied them in a loose knot in a way that I’d seen Judy Garland do in a movie about show people.” (page 238, large print edition).

Krueger isn’t a spectacular mystery writer.  I anticipated many of the events and “whodunits” before they actually happened.  But that didn’t really matter. The story held my interest.  This book actually kept me awake until midnight one night and 11:00 PM the next.  Very unusual for this early-to-bed-early-to-rise reader.

Put this one on your list and enjoy!!


Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

Paul Bloom |  Non-Fiction


On page 4 of this book I was convinced.  It was like that moment when I said, “I am no training to people’s weaknesses in the corporate world, but only to their strengths.”  I made a radical shift.  I am no longer interested in developing someone's (or my own) empathy.  I am interested in developing their compassion.

Briefly, Bloom’s contention is that that problem with empathy – with feeling another’s feelings – is the spotlight nature of it.  He talks about empathy as having decidedly unsatisfactory traits:  narrow focus, innumeracy, bias, and specificity.  His argument is that empathy can lead us in quite the wrong direction, especially in society.  Feeling empathy towards another individual is always just that – it is individual. So if I work to solve your problem, it may very well be at the expense of a more strategic solution for a broader group.  I cannot feel empathy for the broader group – but I can feel compassion for the strangers I don't know.

Plus, what good does it do me to feel your pain? (Yes, it might do me good to feel your joy; that point is well-taken!)  If I actually FEEL your pain, as an empath, I can become immobile. Here is a quote form Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki, researchers in this arena:  “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other:  rather, it is characterized by feelings  of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”  (page 138)

I heard Bloom interviewed on NPR and was eager to read this book.  It doesn’t take long to read – it is short and succinct (mostly).  Though I did have to wait a while for a copy to become available at the library!  If you are a coach, or a trainer, or a parent, or work in any way with the psychology, behaviors, or emotions of others, this is a must-read for you!

It fell from four hearts because the last two chapters seem like filler to me. I don’t know why they were included, unless Bloom's editor said that he needed more words!  If you read this book, I would especially like to hear your opinion on these last two chapters,  “Violence and Cruelty” and “Age of Reason.”


A Twist of the Knife

Becky Masterman |  Fiction


Brigid Quinn is a 60-year old retired FBI agent, in a later-in-life marriage.  I like that she is 60!  She leaves her Tucson home to travel to Florida, where her father is dying in a hospital, and her relationship with her mother is as complex as ever.  AND, of course, she reconnects with her colleague Laura Coleman who is working to exonerate Marcus Creighton, a man on death row, just days before his execution for murdering his wife and children.  There are familiar, complicated family dynamics at play in this novel, as well as a juicy mystery to solve.  And Brigid Quinn is highly involved with both!

I like Masterman's writing. Here is an example of what I found interesting, page 98:  “Sebastian, Vero Beach’s lower-middle-class neighbor, nestled unapologetically, almost with a smirk, beside her wealthier enclave.”  “Unapologetically, almost with a smirk”?  I like this creativity, turn of a phrase, anthropomorphism!  Ms. Masterman's story moves fast and is engaging.  It is complex enough to keep you wondering.

Why not four hearts, then?  Well, it isn’t a must-read; it is a fun read! Despite its over-dramatic title, it draws you into relationships and circumstances.  If you are ready for a break from this year's reads about WW2, Appalachia, and grit, A Twist of the Knife will satisfy.

(BTW, this is another Nancy Pearl recommendation  ... I trust her a BIT more now!)


Slow Horses

Mick Herron |  Fiction


(A reminder about two hearts:  “I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.”)

I really liked the premise of this mystery novel.  “Slow Horses” are British Intelligence Agents who screw up on a case, but stayed employed.  They are shipped off to a building called “Slough House.”  Of course, in this novel, they collectively do something right, redeeming themselves at least in part.

Unfortunately, IMHO, Herron simply does not deliver on this premise.  We do not enter the story of the book until page 94.  Up to that time, he gives us vignette after vignette of every Slow Horse currently housed at Slough House. There are too many of them to keep them straight – I wanted a table in the front of the book to help me keep track of who was who.  And so, of course, once the story actually begins belatedly, it is difficult to care about any one character.

Later on Herron spends about 100 pages gathering all the Slow Horses from their various haunts one long night, as the mystery is about to be solved.  BORING.

Finally, the conclusions are unclear.  You are left hanging – not hanging in a good sense; more like hanging because he seems to have forgotten to wrap things up with a number of characters.

This is a Nancy Pearl recommendation.  I am disappointed because I thought just maybe I had found another reviewer whose judgments were similar enough to me, that I could trust.

Yes, I finished it.  I can be a sucker for a mystery and I wanted to see how the mystery resolved itself.  But you may want to read a Connelly or a Grisham or a George or a Christie or a Reich or a Le Carre.

The Seed Collectors

Scarlett Thomas  |  Fiction

OK, I give up. I have been trying for four days and 80 pages to get into this book. I find the characters completely meaningless. Bryony, for example, is obsessed with her weight ... not obsessed with losing it, just obsessed with it; with feeding it; with how well her husband bakes; with what clothes she can wear.  Now I know the crux of the story is that when Oleander dies (who is the grandmother, sister, or friend of all the other characters in the book, and runs Namaste House, a retreat center for famous people like Paul McCartney), she leaves everyone a seed pod.  Apparently the seed may bring good fortune or bad; may be deadly or bring enlightenment.  That’s sounds like a rather intriguing plot!

Unfortunately, that event has not happened yet and I don’t frankly care if the characters reach nirvana or die. Or both. I am moving on.