Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

The Friend

Sigrid Nunez

Fiction, 2018

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Wow, this is a great book!  I find myself gravitating towards the word “mature.”  It is a story of wisdom, honesty, friendship, love, loyalty, grief.

An unnamed narrator guides us in every chapter.  None of the major characters have a name except for the 180-pound Great Dane, Apollo. The unnamed voice is grieving her friend, both of whom were/are writers and teachers of writing.  This book is about literature and life at its core, not about a dog.  The Friend is beautifully written from the view of the narrator, talking to her friend after his death.  The narrator relays to us conversations she and her friend had, and then, more and more, as the chapters progress, she is talking to her friend in the present. The Friend is imbued with well-researched and appropriate quotes and stories from real authors, such as these: “Dogs are the best mourners in the world, as everyone knows.”  (Joy Williams) and Rilke, who writes of love as “…two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other.”

Yes, Apollo plays a very important role in the tale, as he is abandoned by “Wife Three” to the narrator.  Apollo and the narrator combine to form a whole; a whole experience of grief, as Apollo is mourning as much as the narrator.  They become therapy dog and therapy human to each other. However, The Friend is not sentimental, nor mushy, nor predictable.

Thank you, Teresa, for this excellent recommendation.  Don’t miss this one, blog readers!

Unsheltered

Barbara Kingsolver |  Fiction, 2018

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I shelved this book in my suitcase, flying home from Baltimore.  I became bored and frustrated.  And then I decided to wait to write my blog posting until after book club.  Hearing my friends’ view of Unsheltered, I picked it up again and finished the last 150 pages.  It still is not my favorite book, for certain, and Kingsolver’s writing leaves me rather chilly.

Unsheltered follows two families living in the same house at two separate time periods in Vineland, New Jersey. The novel alternates between the 21st- and 19th-century stories, using the last words of one chapter as the title of the next one.  In both situations, the house is falling apart.  Willa and Iano are our modern-day couple, with extended family members living with them, holding a range of political and social allegiances.  Thatcher and Rose are the 19th century couple, also with several extended family members living with them.  This novel was written recently enough that we meet “The Bullhorn” who quips that “he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him.”

My book club members discussed the many metaphors, as well as the intentional analogies between the two families attempting to live in a falling-down house, 140 years apart.  There are many, as Kingsolver gives us lectures on Darwinism, the beginning thoughts of evolution, climate change, recycling, the workings and failings of the financial systems, the roles of the educational system and religion, politics, racism, parenting, love, grief, inequality, and women wearing trousers (!) to name a few!

I can’t put my hand on what I don’t care for in Kingsolver’s novel. The parallel stories are interesting (most reviewers and Casting Crew Book Club members preferred Thatcher and Rose’s time period, the 19th century. ) Her characters are a bit cliché, especially given their strong political allegiances, but I don’t find them too shallow for the work she was writing ... the quantity and diversity of views were interesting in and of themselves. I didn’t need to know the intellectual or emotional source of their viewpoints. One reviewer describes Kingsolver as a “political novelist” who “has only the shallowest understanding of political reality.”  I understand that review, but I wasn’t reading her for her political commentary.  Sometimes, the “cliché-ness” was fun!

I guess I just found Unsheltered tedious.  I became bored.  Maybe it was just the travails of airport and airplane air.  Finishing Unsheltered allowed me to upgrade my rating from one heart to two hearts reaching up tentatively towards three.  It is worth a perusal to see if you like it; I think many of my readers would.  My book club did.

 

Past Tense

Lee Child | Fiction

2018

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Another mindless but enjoyable Jack Reacher novel; a quick and engaging read.  Reacher plans to travel across the country, from Maine to California, but becomes distracted as he passes the town where his father was born.  He stops, detours and, to no reader's surprise, finds a whole lot of trouble as he meets interesting people in New England towns.

At the same time, a young Canadian couple begins to make their way towards New York City when their car breaks down at a lonely and remote small hotel.

Of course, these stories intertwine, and bizarre mysteries reveal themselves. Reacher tries to untangle his family tree at the same time the Boston Mafia begins searching for him.

I’d like to remember to pass on the next Lee Child novel.  His writing is engrossing; his stories are creative; his ideas are novel; but once again the violence of the climactic moments leaves me a bit disturbed.

 

Still Life

Louise Penny | Fiction

2005

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Three Pines is a remote village south of Montreal.  It is a tiny and peaceful hamlet, where everyone knows everyone.  Early one Sunday morning during hunting season, an important elderly community member, Jane Neal, is found dead in the woods, with a lethal wound from an arrow.

We meet Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team of investigators who eventually solve the mystery of Jane’s death, and of her secret artwork.  Thus begins Louise Penny’s thirteen Armand Gamache mystery novels.

I found this book fun and delightful.  Suggested by my friend Janet, it kept me company all the way from Baltimore to home, when I just couldn’t bear to open Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver again (more on that in a future blog post).  I enjoyed Louise Penny’s ability to draw characters quickly and succinctly, and to explore both their inner and outer relationships.  Her storytelling, however, didn’t quite compel me.  It was a little slow, a little gentle.

That being said, I have decided to read book #2 in the series before I commit to read, or not read, all 13.  More to follow after I read A Fatal Grace.

Charlie Parker Played Be Bop

Chris Raschka, 1997

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Washington Post “100 Books for the Ages” Age 4 *

I liked it!  I read it three times.  Of course, it is only 95 words.  It truly is best read aloud, even if you are just reading for yourself.  I don’t really understand what a four-year-old would like, so here are some words from some reviews.

“The brief text sings and swings and skips along, practically of its own volition, while the pictures add humor and just the right amount of jazziness ... " The Horn Book

“... Regardless of whether they’ve heard of jazz or Charlie Parker, young readers will bop to the pulsating beat of this sassy picture book.  [A] read-aloud that’s hard to resist.  And that’s no jive.”  Publishers Weekly

* https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/entertainment/books/100-books-for-the-ages/?utm_term=.3d716c18b4d4

 

Black is the Body

Emily Bernard

Nonfiction, 2019

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Black is the Body is a captivating book written by a Black woman who chooses to live in Vermont.

What intrigues me about Bernard’s writing is what is not there.  She is not the least bit preachy.  I never feel like she is trying to make me understand the Blackness of her reality.  Instead, she tells us stories, about her twin daughters, about her family and her White husband, about her profession, about Vermont, and because she is who she is, there are, of course, racial and cultural implications in the stories she tells.  I feel she does an excellent job of enlightening us about her life and highlighting how she experiences life situations through the intimate and unavoidable lens of her race.

Yes, definitely four hearts.

Thank you, Claire, for this thoughtful recommendation. I began reading it on your birthday, in honor of you.

 

A Wolf Called Wander

Roseanne Parry

Fiction, 2019

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What a delightful book this is!  Wander is also known as Swift, and Journey, and yes, in the environmental world, as OR-7.  We follow Wander from the early days in his den with his pack-mates Sharp, Warm, Pounce, and Wag, through breathtaking adventures once he is forced to leave his home pack.  His solo journey takes him from the Northeast corner of Oregon, to the Southwest corner, the Rogue.

The novel is based on the real wolf OR-7 who was tagged with a collar at a young age.  While we don’t know if all of Wander’s encounters and challenges and adventures actually occurred, we do know the path he took (he traveled close to my home on the outskirts of Bend).  Oregonians who have followed the journey of OR-7 over the last ten years will particularly relish this tale.  It all seems so believable.  And whether you are familiar with OR-7 or not, you will learn fascinating wolf behavior, with little effort on your part.

A Wolf Called Wander is age-rated at 9+.  As a book for middle-schoolers, it is a simple and quick read for adults, but Parry’s descriptions and the illustrations by Mónica Armiño will draw you right in.  They are vivid and will stay with you.

Yes, I give this book a full recommendation.  Be sure to read a copy with the illustrations.

 

The Intuitionist

Colson Whitehead |  Fiction, 1999

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This is an odd book, with an odd plot. An elevator crashes in a new municipal building; Lila Mae Watson was the last elevator inspector to visit this building.   A battle ensues between the Empiricist elevator inspectors (who believe in structural details and mechanics) and the Intuitionists (who rely on instinct and intuition to inspect their assigned elevators) in the Department of Elevator Inspectors.  Theoretical Elevators, Volumes 1 and 2, are the textbooks for the Intuitionists at the Institute for Vertical Transport.  Lila Mae is an avowed Intuitionist, graduated first in her class of course from the institute, and is the first and only female Black elevator inspector in the department.

Is this tongue-in-cheek?  Well, yes.  Is it fantasy?  Yes.  Is the book about race?  That, too.  And it is also a mystery as Lila Mae attempts to unravel what happened with the crashed elevator.  To me, if was simply confusing, odd, weird. 

Yes, you know this author.  He wrote the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning The Underground Railroad (see my review on 01/16/17).  I so enjoyed Railroad, I thought I would read something else by Whitehead, and I chose his first novel.  IMHO, what a long way this author has come from 1999 to 2016.  Positive reviewers use words like quirky, absurd, brainy, and bizarre about The Intuitionist.  I found it overwritten, as first novels often are.  I had wished I was reading a digital copy so I could check the meaning of his words.  In one few-page section where I wrote down words that seemed over the top to me, he used scofflaw, mithridatic, and longevous.

If you have read The Intuitionist, I would love to see your comments.  If not, check the “staff recommendations” shelf at your local library for your next read.  Don't bother with this.

Lost & Found

Jacqueline Sheehan|  Fiction

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Beryl and I, when on a road trip together, particularly enjoyed stopping in small, dusty, used-book stores in little tiny towns that had only a used-book store and a bakery.  I realized I had not done this since he died.  I had road time on my 14-day Alaska trip, and I made a stop.

I was looking for a particular book, which the shop didn’t have, so I perused the tables and saw Lost & Found on display.  I expected it to be a sweet little read, and, well, it was.  It was a NY Times bestseller, but not a literary giant.  It is about a woman, Rocky, whose husband dies suddenly, and Lloyd, the injured dog she adopts who helps her heal. It is also imbued with a mystery, archery, a woman with synesthesia, a teenager with anorexia, and a former-minister-turned-public-works-director, all living year-round on tiny Peak’s Island, Maine.

The first time we really hear Lloyd’s perspective, the big black Lab, is about half-way in.  He is watching Rocky sleep.  Rocky thought she was waking Lloyd at 4:50 AM every morning, "the hour of the distressed."  This paragraph simply blew me away.

“He fell through the waking and let himself wash away, perilously so.  There, there she was, rushing through houses, opening any door, searching.  A wave of acrid smoke caught him, with a flavor of desperation.  She would be willing to do anything to find the one she hunted.  Here is what he needed to know, she tracked a dead one.  Now he understood.  This was where she spent her nights.  Only sickness will result from this journey of hers.  He followed her all night, not needing to hide himself because she had eyes for nothing but her precious dead one.  He left her weeping in the dust and could finally stay no more.  He pulled himself out of the dream, back to his furred body, next to her in bed.  He rose from the bed, walked to her side and whined in alarm until she opened her eyes.” (pg 125)

 

My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante | Fiction

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As I contemplated writing this blog, I kept picturing a graph with ups and downs from a center line ... most like an ECG or EKG.  Ferrante’s writing is hard to describe, but to me, she moves her story forward, developing one of her characters in Naples in the late 1950’s, then diving deeply into that character and his or her relationships or traits, then surfacing again back to the story line.  I found her writing quite intriguing in its breadth and depth.  I liked the depth she explored, and that I could breathe in-between periods of intensity.

This is the first book of a four-book series, in which she introduces us to the early days of the relationship between two lifelong friends, Lila and Lenù.  The entire book spans just about two years in their early teens, when morals and norms and expectations and families were very different from today.

As much as I enjoyed this novel, I choose to give it three hearts because the subject matter may not appeal to everyone.  Personally, I intend to read the second book in the series, and soon!