Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

Tracks

Robyn Davidson | Nonfiction, 1980

270 pages

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(Republished to add to website.  No content change from first posting).

Tracks presented me with a rough start. Section One, Alice Sprung, is about Robyn learning about camels, acquiring camels, and healing camels through incredibly graphic infections, contusions, anger, erratic behavior, and even one euthanasia with a gun, all in a racist and sexist culture I could not wrap my head around.  I was a bit sick to my stomach, and Section One is 107 pages long.

But then we turn to Section Two, Shedding Burdens, and the story I was waiting for begins!  The author, Robyn Davidson, finally leaves on her self-designed journey, to travel with four camels and one dog across 1700 miles of the hostile, unpopulated Western Australia outback ... an unparalleled and difficult journey.

Unfortunately, I just couldn't turn another page after page 170.  Ms. Davidson writes well, but is depressing, whining, sullen.  This book is way more about the Aboriginal vs White culture wars, the destruction of ways of life, and hostility, than it is about a physical outdoor challenge.

I am going to break my own rating rules and give it three hearts even though I didn't finish it because I believe Tracks will actually appeal to many of my readers.  So, try it on if you like, and please leave your comments here!

For those of you who are also members of the "Solo Female Hikers and Adventurers" Facebook group, this is a "group read" for July.

June 2022

Tell Me How to Be

Neel Patel | Fiction, 2021

324 pages

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Tell Me How to Be follows two characters—Renu and her son Akash. They come together, along with their son/brother Bijal, to pack up and sell the family home on the one-year anniversary of Renu’s husband’s death.  We go inside Renu’s mind and then Akash’s and then Renu’s again. Back and forth.  We know there is a possibility of reconciliation among the family members, but really the story is more about Renu’s internal journey and Akash’s journey of life thus far.

Part One, the first 100 pages or so, is the most challenging, I believe.  Akash’s alcoholism is like a raw, rough, searing, burn every time we get to an Akash section.  He is so self-destructive.  Renu is easier, though her disappointment with being an Indian woman raising a family in American is palpable.  In their individual sections, each is talking to someone else, and who that someone is, is not revealed for quite a while.  Suffice it to say that, as they muse, they address former, long-lost loves. Renu’s secret is that she has been in love with a man from before, for their duration of her marriage.  Akash’s secret is also that he has been in love with a man since his teenage years ... and he is in the closet..  He has admitted to no one in his family that he is gay.

I found the characters interesting (especially Renu) and the relationships sadly intriguing.  I think this comment from a reviewer is quite enlightening:  “Tell Me is a perfectly average novel about the Indian experience in the US, of racism, bullying, homo­phobia.”   Yes, Patel seems to be a rather average writer; there is not much to complain about and not much to laud.  If you like books about complex relationships and their resolution, this book is worth your time.

July 2022

The Last Season

Erich Blehm

Nonfiction 2006 | 335 pages

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"The least I owe these mountains is a body."  Randy Morgenson, McClure Meadow, 1994

This is a truly remarkable book, well written and researched with significant depth.  I have an affinity for reading real-life backcountry adventures and even tragedies, but Blehm rises to the top of the pile of authors.  His research is so inspired, broad, deep, and detailed, that I feel as though I know Randy Morgenson personally.  Or, at least, I sure wish I had.

Randy Morgenson was a back-country park ranger for 27 years in one of my own favorite parks ... Kings Canyon National Park.  In 1996, he disappeared while on patrol, off trail, high in the Sierras. Randy was not just compelled by these mountains, he was obsessed.  It is hard to imagine his life without his dedicated years of this often disrespected, sometimes thankless, decidedly low-paying job, protecting the people from the Park and the Park from the people.

His life story is complex, with strong ties to and learning from his wilderness-inspired parents (he grew up in Yosemite, for heaven's sake!) His marriage to Judi was filled with love and respect, and yet he leaves her every summer for five months at a time.  His knowledge of the land and its inhabitants is unparalleled. And he is is blessed with writing and photography skills.

The SAR ... the Search and Rescue effort after Randy's disappearance ... is written by Blehm with extraordinary sensitivity.  It doesn't have the melodrama nor the boring technology detail some SAR stories have, and yet it is the most emotional and intimate search story I have read ... because it is conducted by Randy's fellow rangers.  This is no tourist they are searching for ... this is someone they have spent years with, call a friend, and love.

I cried on page 291.

If you have any affinity at all for nature, the outdoors, the National Parks, or a well-told true story of love, passion, sacrifice, and commitment, read The Last Season.

July 2022

 

Hamnet

Maggie O'Farrell

Fiction 2020 | 305 pages

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Pardon me if this is too much information, but I am going to share a "hint" for reading this book.  There are two timelines, but, IMHO, the author does not distinguish them very well in the beginning chapters.  The primary timeline is the story of the twins Hamnet and Judith, 11 years old, their older sister Susanna, their mother, Agnes, and their father.  The year is 1593.

The second timeline occurs 15 years earlier and revolves around Agnes meeting and marrying her husband, the Latin tutor and glover's son.  Agnes's brother Bartholomew plays a major role, and there are other siblings and extended family members.

O'Farrell never names Agnes's husband, but in the last few pages we become clear that he is in fact William Shakespeare.  Why she does not name him, I don't know ... it seems this sense of mystery is part of her style.  This ambiguity is confusing and stilted. (If you hear that Hamnet is about Shakespeare writing Hamlet, as I did, take that with a grain of salt.  That happens in the last 20 pages.  Hamnet is, however, a story about what might have led up to that historic literary event.)

The primary story considers two families, Agnes's, and the family of the man she marries. The relationships are intricate and many.  We gain deep insight into Agnes herself, who is the star of this tale, and the twins.  We also achieve significant glimpses of her husband and of her powerful and strong brother, Bartholomew.  A disappointment is how shallowly the author creates the character of the twins' older sister, Susanna.

Agnes, as well as her twins, Hamnet and Judith, have paranormal powers. Agnes can see the heart of a person, and glimpses of their future, by holding tight to their hand between the thumb and forefinger. Hamnet and Judith are so bonded from their time together sharing a uterus to the present day, that they can be confused, one for the other, and they are capable of assuming each other's emotions, sensibilities, desires, and yes, even their lives.

This is an engrossing and intellectually smart story, with a view of the times, the Black Plague, and the interesting twist of a little paranormal behavior.  I recommend this Casting Crew June Book Club read.  Thank you for suggesting it, Bev.

June, 2022

The Once and Future Witches

Alix E. Harrow | Fiction, 2020

516 pages

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Beatrice Belladonna (the oldest, and a librarian); Agnes Aramanth (street savvy and unintentionally pregnant); and James Juniper (wild and rural) Eastwood are sisters who have been raised by their grandmother in the art of witchery.  The setting is 1893.  When the Eastwood sisters find each other at a Suffragist rally in New Salem, after seven years apart, the forgotten words and ways of witchery re-emerge, many from re-examining nursery rhymes.

This is a tale of sisterhood, of women's power, of loyalty, of love, of unbreakable bonds, of the stark need of women to vote, of magic, of witchery.  It is a story about what happens when women build community, share power and knowledge, learn and dream.

Our three main characters are developed fully and deeply, and the surrounding characters include a diversity in color and sexual orientation that adds a lovely modern flavor.

Unfortunately, I found it rather boring.  It took me two weeks to read, because I never experienced it's alleged page-turning qualities.  While prettily written, I would call it over-written.  Too many spells enacted too many times.  I am particularly disappointed by this because I loved Ms. Harris' first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

https://sagecoach.com/the-ten-thousand-doors-of-january/

I am going to give this three hearts (although it leans towards two.). There are so many rave reviews, my opinion on The Once and Future Witches feels off-kilter, like maybe I missed something important or lovable.  I am eager to hear what you think!

June 2022

 

 

Harlem Shuffle

by Colson Whitehead

Fiction 2021, 336 pages

I had to restart twice because I couldn't seem to remember what was going on. 0n my third try, I made it to page 80. This story is about Freddie, who is nearly making ends meet as a legitimate furniture store owner, but who falls in with a crew of Harlem robbers to supplement his income, 1959-1964.

I keep falling asleep, finding the writing completely boring.  I hope you enjoy Harlem Shuffle more than I did!

May 2022

 

 

 

10 Minutes and 30 Seconds in this Strange World

Ekif Shafak

Fiction 2019 | 309 pages

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"Tequila Leila" is murdered in November 1990, her body left in a garbage dumpster.  She was 43 years old.  After her heart and lungs stop, her mind stays alive for 10 minutes and 38 seconds.  This story is what she recalls from her life in those 10 minutes and 38 seconds. Yes, there is scientific research that indicates this may actually be what happens when our heart and lungs shut down ... brain activity continues for another 10 minutes.

And how fascinating, what she vividly recalls from her life as a child in the province of Van, Turkey and then of her adult life in Istanbul.  Time is fluid, and her memories are vividly clear.  You know from the very beginning, when her mother is forced to turn her over to her husband’s first wife and be forever be known as Leila's "auntie," that life is not going to go smoothly for Leila.

Leila is brutalized but courageous.  She is dealt unbelievably challenging blows but is resilient.  She has every reason in the world to isolate herself from other people, but she has intimate friendships and a short, happy marriage.

Raped at six years old by her uncle, a relationship that goes on for years, life conspires to take her into the work of a prostitute.  Istanbul is a nearly impossible city to survive in, much less thrive.

Smells and tastes are her access points to her life remembrances, which makes each memory vivid, tactile, and palpable. During her time in Istanbul, she is subjected to unspeakable patriarchal atrocities.

The story is brutal, bleak, and violent. Shafak's writing is poignant, descriptive, lucid, and may make you need to catch your breath.  But also, Leila is such a real person with such an intriguing heart, Leila had me in awe.  I did not see this in any review I read, but personally I found some very intelligent humor spread throughout the book, and certainly in the ending.  In addition to her husband D/Ali (his name was Ali, but he aspired to be a painter like Dali), she had five incredibly close friends:   Nostalgia Nalan, transgender; Sabotage Sinan, the Pharmacist’s son; Jameelah, a trafficked African woman who sees into people’s souls;  Zaynab122, the religious one who is 122 cm (4 feet) tall; and Hollywood Humerya, the singer.  These wonderful friends of Tequila Leila not only add immense warmth and humanity to 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World, but they also add just a bit of balance and lightness.

This book is brilliant.  The plot is creative and inventive.  The writing is outstanding.  I am very intrigued to hear what my book club has to say when we discuss it next week.  Recommend by Sara.  And now, also recommended by me.

May 2022

What do the hearts mean?

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Every once in a while, I like to remind you what my four-point rating scale means.  Right now, with all these new folks signing up and Dusty Shelves actually working again(!), this is a good time.

FOUR HEARTS: Like it a lot or loved it; I recommend it; put it on your list!

THREE HEARTS: Like it; I recommend, with some reservations.

TWO HEARTS:  I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.

ONE HEART:  I couldn’t get through it

Andrea, May 2022

 

 

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

V.E. Schwab

Fiction 2020 | 448 pages

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A page-turner!  Every time I read a few sentences, I was challenged to put this book down.

On July 29, 1714, Addie LaRue is supposed to marry.  Desperate to get out of the marriage and to control her own life, she makes a deal with the devil, Luc (yes, short for Lucifer).  She trades her soul for immortality, but of course, the "deal" is not as simple as that.  For the duration of her immortal life, she cannot be remembered.  As soon as she walks away from a person she met, conversed with, shared a bed with, inspired, was healed by, learned from .... the other person can no longer remember her.  At first blush, we can see how lonely this is; she is unable to establish relationships.  What is not immediately apparent are the nuances.  She cannot hold a job (who is this woman in my shop?) nor rent a place to live.  She cannot leave a mark .... anything she writes or draws disappears within moments.  And she cannot say her name.

The first 50, 100 or more years of her life, therefore, are difficult beyond heart-breaking.  She learns to survive by selling her body, stealing clothes and food, encountering violence, occasionally finding shelter in abandoned derelict buildings.

V.E. Schwab's profound writing transports us back and forth between the first 300 years of Addie's life after the devil's curse, and the most recent two years, 2013-2014, in New York City.  We vividly witness the industrial revolution, numerous wars including the two World Wars, changes in fashion and culture and work, the growth and expansion of technology and the world's population.  There is a constancy in our sense of world history in this novel, experienced through the eyes of just one woman.

Sporadically, sometimes just a year apart, sometimes decades apart, Luc appears in Addie's life on July 29.  Stubborn and steadfast, Addie refuses to turn over her soul to him, choosing to stay alive, no matter how tormenting the cost.

And then on March 12, 2014, she meets Henry at the bookstore where he works, The Last Word, and everything shifts.

Without hesitation, this book comes with my recommendation.  I am eager to read your thoughts!

May 2022

 

 

Life After Life

Kate Atkinson

Fiction 2013 | 560 pages

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Ursula Todd is born in England on a very snowy evening, February 10, 1910. Except she is strangled by her umbilical cord and dies.

Until the next time she is born.

Kate Atkinson takes us on many journeys of parallel and alternate lives, as Ursula is born again and again and lives out different lives, or, more precisely, encounters different life circumstances.  Situations, chance meetings, and occurrences in her life shift in her reincarnations and, of course, impact how long her life lasts and how it plays out.  She remains in her same nuclear family, the Todd family, with the same parents, siblings, and Aunt Lizzie ... all characters which are drawn irrevocably and clearly.  You don't confuse Ursula's sister Pammy with Aunt Lizzie.  The characters are strong and unique.

Atkinson does this without any kitsch.  This isn't Groundhog Day.  It is a serious and highly engaging exploration of chance events ... brother Maurice throwing a doll out the window in one life; a rape on a stair well in another; meeting Eva Braun when Eva was 17 in a third life.  Ursula has a sense of deja vu, but not a strong recollection from life to life.

The vividness of the World Wars, in the lives where Ursula lives well into adulthood, is stark.  Atkinson profoundly portrays what it was like to be bombed in London in the 1940s.  Visceral, graphic, real.  She similarly tells the story of women at these times, and also, we experience a good dose of successful and failed romance.

An excellent read ... I highly recommend it.  It is very well-written and a fascinating story.

May 2022