Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

Uncanny Valley

Anna Wiener | Nonfiction 2020


What a phenomenon!  This book was published on January 14 and immediately the author was interviewed on NPR; Uncanny Valley was named book of the week by The Week; the SF Chronicle did an article on her; the book was reviewed by the NY Times, the New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly.  And today is only Jan 22!

Uncanny Valley is written by the niece of a colleague, so right from the start, I was a little nervous.  I knew I would be completely honest in my blog posting, and I could only hope I wouldn’t find myself dissing this book or being brutal.

Never fear.

In the first chapter (or is it the second?  I must admit to some level of irritation with books that have no chapter numbers or names), Ms. Wiener was incredibly naive, and I became scared.  She never heard of eating snacks at work, of “ask forgiveness, not permission,” or of designing your own job.  “Oh no,” I thought, “some millennial writing about corporate America who has spent all of five days in it.”  Ahh, but that rapidly dissipated.  She proceeds to communicate a smart, bright, funny, refreshing, and illuminating view of Silicon Valley and her first jobs in very small startups filled with young men in hoodies and company-logo t-shirts, traveling around the office on One Wheels.

One reviewer remarked positively about her short sentences.  I, on the other hand, found myself actively watching for her long, complex, verbally staccato sentences, like this one,  “In the other direction was Valencia Street, a living diorama of late-stage gentrification:  third-wave-coffee shops selling paleo lattes, juice bars hawking turmeric shits, waifish Australians clutching branded paper bags from spartan boutiques.” (P 90). I adored these sentences!

In the second half, the section called “Scale” I thought her writing lost speed.  It was like hiking partway up a mountain and losing momentum.  The wondrous enjoyable hike becomes a bit of a slog.  What she writes about when she joins a new high tech company in “Scale” is more serious (the company was trying to recover from a gender discrimination lawsuit), but it also feels like the author became jaded and less enamored by the crazy creativity and weirdness she is writing about. She writes more seriously about misogyny, racism, and meritocracy.  It feels as though she is looking to solve a problem ... is Silicon Valley a problem?  ... but with no real definition of the problem or vision or parameters for a solution.

“Scale” pushed my rating from four hearts to three, I am sorry to say.  She will be speaking in Bend in a few days, and I will be interested to hear what she has to say about her energized colorful writing, and her duller, more frustrated(?) writing.  I am sure she doesn’t think of it that way, but I will be curious nonetheless to hear what she has to say about the second half.


Meg & Jo

Virginia Kantra | Fiction 2020


I did some research and found the largest bookstore in the Miami airport, Books & Books.  They didn’t have either of two upcoming book club reads, so I had to punt.  I settled on this fun read, Meg & Jo.  Yes, it is a modern-day version of two of the Little Women.  It was fun to read, and Kantra provides more depth of characters than I was expecting.  This is about sisters Meg and Jo, in their late 20’s, navigating careers, relationships, and, of course, family.

I was glad I saw the movie Little Women over the holidays, or I would have missed ALL of the call-backs to the original book by Louisa May Alcott.  For example, here’s one I caught.  In Kundra’s version, instead of Amy burning Jo’s manuscript, she deletes a letter Jo is working on.  Modern twists and turns imbue this novel with a sense of realism and relevance.

The further I read, the more I appreciated how the author developed real characters for Meg and Jo.  Depth, intimacy, personality, sadness, introspection, and a lot of humor.  While it is not the East of Eden of 2020, I recommend Meg & Jo if you want a read that will entertain you, while you gaze outside at the snowy streets.  And I will keep my eyes open for her next novel, Beth & Amy (the other two sisters).

Women Rowing North

Mary Pipher  |  Nonfiction 2019

Washington Post “100 Books for the Ages” Age 76 (and various friends)

It just didn’t interest me very much to read about the challenges of women growing older, even when the author threw in a few ideas for solutions.  I don’t really want or need a self-help book at this juncture.  I look forward to hearing perspectives from those of you who love this book!!



The Dutch House

Ann Patchett | Fiction 2019


The Dutch House is about siblings Danny and Maeve, as told by the younger Danny, over five decades of their relationship.  And it is about the quirky Pennsylvania mansion that defines their family relationships and, to some extent, their demise.

Maeve and Danny are close, loving, interwoven, and highly connected.  It is truly a beautiful partnership to behold.  With resilience, they maneuver their way through all the Dutch House throws at them:  parents, step-mom and step-sisters, death, love, careers, expectations, disappointments, successes...

I found this book to be interesting, but not astounding.  I give it three hearts ... it might tickle your fancy, but I make no promises.



The Hazel Wood

Melissa Albert | Fiction 2018


Alice Crewe Proserpine is seventeen and lives with her mother Ella as nomads, moving from place to place around the country for all her life.  She never understood why there was constant upheaval, and why she lived in studio apartments, or converted barns, or someone’s couch, or other unsavory places until one day, suddenly, her mom would move them on.

And then Alice’s grandmother Althea dies, who has lived in an old beat up mansion called Hazel Wood.  Alice learns that Althea has a cult of fans who latched on to the one book Althea wrote.  But the book, Tales from the Hinterland, is impossible to find.  It is as though it is destroying itself. Alice has been searching for it for most of her young life.

One day Ella disappears, and Alice takes off to find Hazel Wood, the one place her mother told her never to go.  The adventure begins, as Alice enters Hinterland, the dark fairy tale land.

I found Hazel Wood on a list from Book Riot.  The list was “ten books you might enjoy if you loved The Night Circus.”  Well, I loved The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern) and I picked one that sounded like an enjoyable mix of reality and fantasy.  I enjoyed Hazel Wood, though I didn’t fall in love with it.  I particularly liked the first half, where the real world and the fantasy world were interspersed, and we traveled from one to the other.  Around page 200, just over halfway in, Alice bridges the gap to the fairy tale world and we are there for most of the rest of the book, until the resolution at the end.  I didn’t care for the Hinterland story quite as much as the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality as told in the first half.

You might like this, if occasional magic is your thing.  Albert is a good writer.  Her pace is quick and sharp.  She has a predilection for metaphors that sometimes don’t make sense to me, but that is a small complaint.


The Topeka School

Melissa Albert  |  Fiction 2019

Time liked it and so did the Washington Post.  I will have to take a pass on this one.  I made it to page 80, but couldn’t bear another moment.  To me, I read a compilation of words from a profession presented as ridiculously ego-maniacal .... psychiatry and analysis; psychiatrists, psychologists, and analysands. Characters were defined not by their qualities or values or even behaviors, but by what they said in analysis and how they described their dreams and their emotional outbursts.  There is still no plot at 30% in.  I am moving on.

Did you read this and enjoy it?  I’d love to hear!




Min Jin Lee | Fiction 2017


Pachinko follows one Korean family through two World Wars, and their life in Japan as it evolves, away from their beloved homeland.  It is not a story of a particularly tragic family, or a wealthy or powerful family.  It is just a family.  A poor family who lost their home in Korea during WW2 and made a life for themselves. You will follow this family through four generations and 80 years, and they will touch your heart, as well as teach you something about our world history.  They endure catastrophe, tragedy, poverty, discrimination, and they manifest wisdom, joy, passion, laughter, and a powerful sense of self.

The word is difficult to find … but we will settle on “saga.”  Pachinko is a 500-page tale of this small family and is an eminently readable saga.  You will come to love the characters and cheer for their triumphs.  I quite like this quote by award-winning author Darin Strauss, “Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a great book, a passionate story, a novel of magisterial sweep.”

I do recommend this book.  It is simply a good story.  Yes, it is long; I read it over the first half of the Christmas break.  A nice time to read such a tale, while it is cold outside.



The Language of Flowers

Vanessa Diffenbaugh | Fiction 2011


I often read a book with a desire to move through it, to soak it up, and move on to the next interesting tale.  But this book, The Language of Flowers, I wanted to savor. The writing, the story, and the exploration of flowers and their meanings all created a delicacy to enjoy slowly.

Victoria is a foster child, experiencing the worst of the foster system, traveling from a group home to a private home to a group home over and over.  Then, at age eight she meets a possible new mother, Elizabeth.  Theirs is a fast and deep bond.  But the fates work against this relationship.  While at its apex, Victoria learns from Elizabeth all about flowers – how to tend, harvest, and arrange them, and above all, the meaning of each flower.  She is a fast learner and this learning is the most fulfillment she has experienced in her young life.

But circumstances interfere and Victoria leaves Elizabeth’s house to finish out her final youthful years in a group home until she is “emancipated” on her 18th birthday.  With no skills and no family, Victoria becomes homeless, until Renata, a florist, discovers how brilliant Victoria is with flowers.  Of course, Victoria has no reason to trust anyone. She doesn’t even know what trust is, much less love.

The book follows two journeys, one when Victoria is eight and living with Elizabeth, and the other when she is 18 and out on her own.  And flowers and their meaning are at the center of both journeys.

This is a beautiful book, another debut novel.  It is finely crafted and hard to put down, even though it wants to be relished.  I highly recommend it.


The Girl Who Lived Twice

David Lagerkrantz | Fiction 2019


Lagercrantz took over the Dragon Tattoo series with Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist after Stieg Larsson died in 2004, so you may very well already be familiar with the primary characters in The Girl Who Lived Twice, Lisbeth and Mikael.

I believe Lagercrantz does quite a good job of carrying forward the Larsson legacy.  That’s a hard task!  The Girl Who Lived Twice is fast-paced, interesting, a mystery and thriller.  I enjoyed it, especially the author’s ability to move the story forward at a good pace.

There are two plots that interweave.  One is Lisbeth’s hate for and revenge for her sister, who Lisbeth THINKS she wants to kill.  The other is Mikael’s search for the identity of, and the story behind, a homeless man who dies on the streets, but has a colorful Everest history!  The Washington Post couldn’t resist this statement in the opening line of their 08/23/2019 review, “Salander irons an abusive husband's dress shirt with him in it.”  Piques one's interest at least!

However, Lagercrantz has too many characters and not quite enough of Lisbeth and Mikael.   He put a character list at the beginning of the book, but unfortunately, only included major characters.  It is not the major characters that the reader has trouble keeping track of!  So, I was confused at times.  Hence, three hearts.