Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

The River

Peter Heller | Fiction, 2019

272 pages


This is the perfect book to read when you are housebound in hazardous smoke due to exploding wildfires.  Wynn and Jack, friends since freshman orientation at Dartmouth, are spending a couple of weeks in August canoeing the Maskwa River in Canada, which eventually empties itself into Hudson Bay.  Of course, it wouldn’t be a great story if all they were doing was fishing for brookies and picking blueberries.  Instead, they rescue a woman who has a concussion, a dislocated shoulder, is bloodied and bruised, and is in shock.  Is her husband the cause of these injuries?  As they begin to paddle her downstream, they are about ten days away from a Peawanuck village and safety.  Meanwhile, a crackling, smoky wildfire off the western bank grows closer and closer.

How they complement each other!  Jack has a hunter’s instinct and can see movement on land far away;  Wynn can read the water like a pro.  As fly-fishers, Jack casts easily with grace; Wynn studies and calculates before he casts, cutting the water into quadrants.   Wynn studies the arts at Dartmouth; Jack, engineering and math.  But they both have an insatiable love of books, poetry, fiction, and of course, expeditions.

The writing is superb, visceral, urgent, terse.  I couldn’t read it fast enough.  Especially for those of you who are engulfed in smoke right now, Chapter 16 is amazing.  It is when they are really IN the wildfire, and Heller writes about the brutal sounds of a wildfire.  Spellbinding.  I chose a quote that illustrates both his writing style and the intense love these two best friends have for each other, as Heller writes about paddling together.  “Wynn notices that after a while he barely had to utter ‘hut’ before Jack switched and the paddles swung up and forward in perfect synchrony and their four hands changed position on shaft and handle midair and the blades hit the water at exactly the same moment ...”  (chapter 11)

After finishing Nobody’s Fool, The River was a big breath of fresh air; a delightful and fast read.  I highly recommend it.  I want to thank Teresa for this recommendation ... AND for recommending Nobody’s Fool.  Interesting, no, that we can agree so strongly on one book, and disagree so strongly on the other?  I love that about books, and about friends!


Nobody’s Fool

Richard Russo |  Fiction, 1996

549 pages


Perversely, I finished it.  It was in large part because I was confined to the house with the Air Quality Index in the 500’s.  Thanks to the breath-stealing wildfire smoke, I finished it.  However, I didn’t enjoy it at all.

The novel's main character is Donald “Sully” Sullivan, who is stuck in bad luck, as an unemployed construction worker with an arthritic knee that has him on disability, with a truck that is dying, a long-time mistress he doesn’t know what to do about, friends and a lawyer who are not very bright, and an estranged son, Peter, whose marriage is falling apart.  And three odd grandsons. He does have an interesting relationship with his spry octogenarian landlady and eighth-grade teacher, Beryl Peoples (okay, I admit to a little bias in her favor due to her cool name).

Nobody’s Fool is mostly men expressing their caring for one another through negative humor.  Sully, as the protagonist, does manage to pull himself out of this way of communicating occasionally, especially with the women in his life and his grandson, and you cheer him on every time he does so.  Truthfully, I fell in love with Sully eventually.  He kept trying to be human.  In the end, however, there is no conclusion or obvious growth or resolution.

Sometimes I read reviews of books when I am partway in, if I am having difficulty either understanding the book or appreciating it.  I did that with Nobody’s Fool and learned that Publisher’s Weekly loved it; felt it was “biting wit and potent insight” about blue-collar people in a small New York town.  Kirkus was not so positive: “Russo's third <novel> is a slice of small-town life: thick slice, big cast, much bustle, but no story line, no climax, no epiphanies.”

I felt this compulsion to read this book, and I don’t know why.  I struggled throughout its 549 endless pages.  I know it is supposed to be funny (here I go again) but I did not find it funny to hear/read the interactions between not-very-smart men who often don’t understand a plethora of words or phrases, and who don’t get jokes, and who don’t know how to communicate, and who are decidedly not self-aware, and who are taken advantage of, and who devise their own wiles for surviving in a difficult world.  I just didn’t find these interactions laughable.  I found them tragic and difficult.  Somehow, I was engaged enough to keep reading, all the way to the very end, but I cannot recommend this book.


A Spark of Light

Jodi Picoult | Fiction, 2018

384  pages


Another Picoult masterpiece.  She certainly doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects.  A Spark of Light is about a single day at a women's health clinic that performs abortions.

We have wonderful characters in this book, such as Wren, who is at the clinic only to get contraception; her Aunt Bex who brings her; Joy, the woman who has an abortion this fateful day; Dr. Louie Ward, who performs abortions at the only remaining clinic in Mississippi where a woman can get an abortion; Janine, an anti-choice activist who is in the clinic under cover, trying to catch them on tape doing something wrong.  A few other essential characters grace the pages of this story.  Of course, there is George Goddard, the gunman who holds them all hostage, and Hugh, the police negotiator who is also Wren’s father.

The story of this fateful day, Hugh’s 40th birthday, is told backwards, hour by hour.  We see what happens at 5:00 pm, then 4:00 pm, then 3:00 pm.  It is an interesting design, I think.  Instead of being focused on how the story turns out, we focus on how it is these individuals came to be where they are on this day.  Effective, I think.

There was a time when I said “huh!” aloud, in the 1:00 pm section, when Dr. Ward muses,  “This woman lying feet away from him would probably be surprised to know that she was not the first pro-lifer to walk into the Center. He had personally performed abortions on at least a dozen.”

There is a formula to a Picoult book.  She takes a controversial ethical issue ... designer babies, high-school shootings, the death penalty, white supremacy, and, in this case, abortion, and she writes a novel with real people exploring both or all sides of the issue.  I always feel just a little embarrassed when I am reading a Picoult novel ... interesting books; they make me think; but they aren’t exactly literature.  Whatever the heck I mean by that.  They seem to be written for the NYT Bestseller list ...  Recall my posting (Nabakov’s Favorite Word is Mauve) about the NYT having “dumbed down” their target reading level to grade six from grade eight.

However, her books engage, educate, inform, and cause me to reconsider how much I think I “know” on a particular topic.  I undeniably recommend A Spark of Light.  Especially if you think you know a lot about pro-choice and pro-birth perspectives.



The Echo Maker

Richard Powers | Fiction, 2006

451  pages


Mark Schulter, 27, has Capgras.  Capgras is a psychological condition in which an individual believes someone they love and is important to them has been replaced by an imposter.  Mark flips his truck on an icy road in February in Kearney, Nebraska and nearly dies, during the annual migration of the sand cranes landing on the Platte River and heading north for the spring and summer. Soon, his body is healing but this psychological condition remains.  His sister, Karin, leaves her job the night of the accident to come care for him, and, yes, Mark believes Karin is an imposter ... a government agent who has been schooled in the ways and history of Karin and Mark, for reasons unknown.

We watch the sorrowful and frustrating story unfold, as Karin does all she can for Mark, who never trusts her and is sad and worried that his only sister has not come to care for him.

And then there is a note left by his bedside in the ICU.  Who left the note?  What do they know about how Mark flipped his truck?  Did someone run him off the road?  The note reads:   

I am No One

but Tonight on North Line Road

GOD led me to you

so You could Live

and bring back someone else 

So, there is also a mystery in addition to the dense relationship between brother, sister, caregivers, and lifelong friends in Kearney.

Also, there is a third major character, a neurologist, researcher, and best-selling author, who teaches at NYU School of Medicine, Dr. Gerald Weber.  Weber, who Mark calls “Shrinky,” comes to study Mark, and perhaps to help. Many of us of a certain age just might relate to Weber's musings and discomfort.  “Did I do enough in my career?  Was my writing and publishing good?  Did my research really inform anything?  Did I exploit people in the process?  How much of my work was just about my ego? Did my work matter? Can I actually do anything to help Mark?  Am I done now?  How do I know?”

I am becoming a Richard Powers fan.  As with The Overstory, he writes smart.  You don’t breeze through his books.  There are times when I have to stop and reread sentences or paragraphs, especially, in The Echo Maker, when Weber is lecturing to his class or on the book-promotion circuit.  Richard Powers is a physicist, which informs his writing in cerebral and intriguing ways.  I must admit, I did research to fully understand the ending.   I will be curious to learn if you understand the ending on your own!

I feel like, in reading this novel, I am reading something important; something that matters.  Simultaneously I am drawn into Powell’s well-developed and differentiated characters.  Yes, I fully recommend The Echo Maker.  Yes, I am going to read another Richard Powers.


29 Gifts

Cami Walker | Nonfiction, 2009

226 pages


The author, Cami Walker, is diagnosed with MS just three weeks after her wedding to Mark.  Two years later she is profoundly Ill, in debilitating pain, and struggling with many tragic symptoms of MS.  After a move from San Francisco to Los Angeles, she begins to acquire new support, Western medical doctors as well as numerous Eastern and alternative practitioners.  Her doctors decide, jointly with Cami and Mark, to take her off all but one of the 15 or 20 prescriptions she is on, and detox during an eight-day stay in a psychiatric wing.  This is not the first time Cami has had to detox.

Along the way, her spiritual mentor and friend Mbali suggested she try 29 days of mindful giving.  A gift a day ... the value is inconsequential ...  it must be given with gratitude, from a place of abundance and not scarcity, mindfully, and from the heart.  This is the story of Cami’s 29 days on this enlightening, healing, joyful journey.

No surprise, I found this book inspiring.  I am intrigued by the idea of 29 days of gift-giving! Though I don’t know how to accomplish it during these days of seeing few people and not baking or otherwise touching objects to give away.  I am camping right now, but when I have internet access again, I am going to and seeing what I can learn about how people embark on this journey during a pandemic.  September 1 sounds like a good day to begin!  This books was on some “how to feel better” list during Covid.  I think it is worthwhile, though may not appeal to everyone.


Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel | Fiction, 2014

333 pages


This is a dystopian novel like no other.  It will fill you with hope, gratitude for the world around us, and an appreciation for the relationships in your life.

Station Eleven moves back and forth between the current days, 20 years after civilization ends, and the weeks and months just before 99.9% of the world’s population dies of the Georgian Flu.  Once infected with the Georgian Flu, people become sick within hours and die in one to two days.  The flu arrives in Toronto the same night the famous actor, Arthur Leander, succumbs to a heart attack while performing King Lear at the Elgin theater.

And the stage is set for us to follow the characters who miraculously survive.

Survivors settle in small peaceful bands in abandoned towns near Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, in what was once Michigan. The Traveling Symphony is such a band, but it moves from town to town, playing classical music and performing Shakespeare.

This page-turner of a novel is haunting and melancholy, while simultaneously being captivating, tender, encouraging, and evocative.  Emily St. John Mandel is a superb and elegant writer.

I absolutely recommend!  Thank you, Carolyn for loaning me this memorable book.



Writers & Lovers: A Novel

Lily King | Fiction, 2020

320 pages


Casey is 31.  She is working as a waitress and has spent six years writing a novel.  $72,000 in debt, she is living in a former potting shed in the Back Bay region of Boston.  This is her story.  Dating while being a writer is challenging – some writers won’t date other writers.  Some share a passion and an ego.  Casey has wonderful friends, male and female, who serve as supportive mirrors as she works to get her life together.  Some reviewers call Writers & Lovers a coming-of-age novel.  Coming of age at 31???  Well, actually, yes.

At first, I found the book and the writing trivial.  It was so light, and so shallow to read about a young woman and her challenges with becoming an adult, finding a relationship, meaning, purpose, and success.  And then I began to be pulled in.  Her romances hooked me (Silas or Oscar?), and her challenges with writing were so very real.  As the book progressed, I became more interested in her and more committed to discovering what she discovers.  If you have any Boston in your background, you will find King’s descriptions of Boston and Cambridge delightful, as Casey travels by bicycle, so we see the river, the people, the squares, with a sense of photographic intimacy.

In addition to writing and dating, a major theme in this book is Casey’s grief over the recent death of her mother.  Four of my friends/colleagues have lost their moms in the last year, and I have watched each work through their grief, with awe and intrigue.  Like Casey, each experienced varying levels of sorrow, loneliness, anger, gratitude, maybe fear, and love.  I have found their grief insightful and have learned from them.  My mother died 41 years ago.  I have yet to shed a tear or feel any sorrow over her death.  Casey’s grief in this book is palatable, understandable, and educational, and for that I am grateful.  I am a better person for having read this novel, with a better understanding of the possibilities for relationship between mother and daughter..

All told, I recommend Writers & Lovers: A Novel.  It isn’t Herman Melville or even David Sedaris (though there is considerable humor in Writers & Lovers) but it is a book to enjoy.  It will bring you hope.


The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin | Fiction, 2015

471 pages


This was my second “alternative universe” read in the last few weeks, and I am quite glad I chose this one.  I wasn’t looking for a science fiction or fantasy book when I happened upon The Fifth Season, I was looking for a fiction novel written by a Black woman, as part of my ongoing learning this season.  And I found a distinct one, for certain.  This is the first book in The Broken Earth trilogy. Jemisin earned a Hugo award for all three books in her series.  She is the first writer ever to win a Hugo three years in a row.

On the continent, The Stillness, there are five seasons:  spring, summer, fall, winter, and death.  The people of The Stillness are always preparing for the fifth season which can last from months to more than a century.  The main characters, sort of, are Syenite, Essun, and Damaya; strong and powerful women.

One of the elements of science fiction writing I don’t like is the endless war between factions.  This was a relief from that tendency.  There isn’t a battle, per se, in The Fifth Season, until right at the end.  The people in this fantasy world, living on a fantasy continent, have powers.  There are seven powers in all.  The powers become like races, in that they distinguish and have their hierarchy of supremacy, one over the other.  I began to get a sense how N.K. Jemisin’s race informed the essence of this tale.  She speaks herself to this, here:

Here is what one reviewer had to say, which I found after I finished the novel (Celline, NYX Book Reviews).  ”A common thread throughout the novel is a commentary on race and Othering. To give a quick summary, theories around Othering try to explain how groups of people can be made to seem inhuman, not one of us, the Other. Throughout history, racial difference has often been used to treat groups of people horribly, a rhetoric employed to justify acts up to and including genocides. In The Fifth Season the racial Other is displaced unto the magical/powerful Other. It is not skin colour that sets people in this world apart (what we now would see as blackness or a mid-African phenotype is a point of beauty) but what they can do. While the characters face terrible injustices because of their capabilities, the reader feels that their powers are actually amazing and should be cherished.”

Reviewers who had criticism of this book didn’t like that the characters were not well-developed or very likeable. Somehow, that didn’t seem relevant to me.  It didn’t feel like it was about the characters so much as it was about the society.

Part way through I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, and so I Googled some words: rogga, orogene, sessapinae.  Imagine my delight to find that an author can make up her own words in her own book and with enough fame, Google and Wikipedia will define these words.  How cool!  Of course, when I arrived at the end of the book, I discovered there was a glossary of all her invented words.  Oh.

I recommend this.  It is a very odd read for me, and it will be for some of you also.  The genre is officially “Science Fantasy.”  I found the writing interesting, the tempo fast and engaging, the “not-knowing what is going on” a relief for my brain. I intend to read book two in the trilogy.


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.



The Overstory

Richard Powers | Fiction, 2018

502 pages


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.