Dusty Shelves Book Blog
Nonfiction, 2020 | 585 pages
(80 pages are sources, bibliography, and the index)
I like the writing of Erik Larson, and this is another of his extremely well-researched and well-written books.
The story Larson tells is one year of Winston Churchill’s life, from the day he became Prime Minister during WWII, May 10, 1940, to May 10, 1941. Unfortunately, I found it boring. Not only is it about history, but it is about war (to me, unappealing at best; irksome at worse).
We read about Churchill the man, and the book is sprinkled, not very judiciously, with tidbits about his children and Churchill’s wife, Clementine. Mostly, however, we learn about Churchill’s relationships with his advisers, his strategy to engage the US, war strategy, the Blitz (important and comparatively interesting), fighters, bombers, incendiaries, explosions, war-time production, and massive destruction and death. (The epilogue, nevertheless, provides solid conclusions of the individual players.)
This is a book club read so I managed to complete it. I cannot recommend it, though. (My apologies, Marian).
EL James | Fiction, 2011
On a whim, I reread Fifty Shades of Grey. This book is not for everyone, I know! I quite enjoy the eroticism, the explicit sex, the romance, and the naïve, sensual, and highly intelligent main character, Anastasia Steele. Yes, you know what it is about ... a young woman who is introduced to BDSM by the exceptionally rich and handsome Christian Grey.
While I find the eroticism delightful, there are two additional aspects of the book that make it enjoyable for me. First, the e-mail interchanges between Ana and Christian are remarkably clever. Read the titles and signatures of each email they send! Also, EL James’ ability to push me out of my safe and sheltered box, and explore an aspect of the world, of life, I will know only by reading about it. This edge-pushing makes me more tolerant of life choices I do not understand or would not choose for myself.
I cannot recommend this book, readers, one way or the other. You must decide for yourself. (BTW, no, I haven’t seen the movie. I generally don’t like to see a movie after I have read a book, because the book is always richer and more complex).
Nonfiction 2021 | 340 pages
It was August 1971 when I drove away from my parent’s home in suburban Detroit, maneuvering my Chevy Vega, which was packed to the hilt with clothes, records, books, pens, notebooks, and probably chocolate chip cookies, for the hour drive to Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan was my ticket into my real life. That same evening, I participated in a candlelight protest against the war in Vietnam. On the drive to A2, I discovered NPR for the very first time. 50 years later, almost to the day, NPR remains my primary source of news. I was so excited when susan, linda, nina, & cokie was published; a tribute to the founding mothers of NPR.
This book takes place almost exclusively in the 70s and before, as we learn about how these women broke into the broadcasting industry, the fascinating stories of their education, their lineage, and how they came together as colleagues. Inextricably woven with the creation, challenges, and growth of NPR, Napoli’s book also catalogs the development of public broadcasting in general and NPR specifically.
Delightful footnotes will lead you to audio and video clips from the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964; to the first All Things Considered theme song; to the first on-air original NPR broadcast, May 3, 1971, on the March on Washington Vietnam War protest; and ultimately to Cokie’s funeral mass.
I love this book and will be recommending it to my book club.
Zakiya Dalila Harris
Fiction, 2021 | 368 pages
I don’t appreciate it when an author writes a second story line and doesn’t ground it … keeps you guessing well into the second half of the book who s/he is writing about in the smaller story she is interweaving into the larger story. To me, this “clever” author trick makes me feel duped. I don’t know where to hang the information I am receiving from the sub-plot.
So, let’s go the main plot. Nella, a young Black woman, is an editorial assistant at Wagner, a major publishing house in New York City, and a second young Black woman, Hazel, is hired on. What happens in their relationship? Friends? Enemies? Are they out to help each other succeed or fail? Or, perhaps, does the relationship grow beyond the workplace, and effect their personal lives and fears? And why does Nella begin to receive anonymous notes, the first of which says “LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.”
Part mystery, part literature, part apparent tongue-in-cheek, especially about the care and styling of Black hair, Harris does a good job of developing Nella’s character. You can understand her, root for her, feel her pain and her challenges and her joys. Nella is the saving grace of this book, because otherwise it feels wooden and without depth.
I also felt talked down to. If you really have read nothing about being Black in this country (and are not yourself Black), especially since the murder of George Floyd, you may find Harris’ writing enlightening. If you HAVE been socially aware and conscious of injustice, you may find her descriptions of the experiences of these Black women to be a bit condescending. I did.
Spoiler alert: And ultimately, in the denouement, you will read that this book is actually about the betrayal of Black people by Black people. I cannot imagine who would find pleasure in reading this bizarre concoction. I cannot in good conscience recommend this book, whether you are white, Black, or a mystery reader. (Sorry, Scott Simon).
Joseph Selfie | Nonfiction, 2018
Reading The Physics of God, I learned that meditation moves our brains from alpha-waves to theta-waves, which activate imagination, creativity, planning, concentration, morals, manners, and the opportunity for transcendence; offering a much richer space than I realized possible in my meditation practice.
AND, The Physics of God raises a myriad of questions …. and confirmation of truths I find difficult to comprehend. At the core, there is considerable evidence that an object does not truly exist until it is perceived by consciousness.
In the 20th century, many physicists came to the conclusion that consciousness was the underlying foundation of reality, substantiated and coalesced as the "intelligent-observer paradox". Intelligent Consciousness creates matter. This, of course, is very challenging to truly grasp. This is an argument for a God of some sort …. a Divine Intelligent Consciousness. Read this short, clear book to gain a deeper level of understanding than I can begin to explore here.
And, still, I am left with a sense of “so what?” How does this knowledge impact my life, or those around me? It is interesting, yes. And to what end? What insight? What manifestation? Selbie argues that only science and religion together explain “Reality.” I would love to hear your thoughts and questions after you have read this decidedly mind-expanding and thought-provoking book.
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Nonfiction 2015 | 408 pages
How sweet! I love the idea that anything alive is a being and not an “it.” A chair is an “it” … an apple is a “who.”
Braiding Sweetgrass is unlike any book I have read. Using the natural world as a vehicle for educating us about indigenous culture and history AND about how to protect, preserve, respect, and love the natural world in which we live, Kimmerer is an extraordinary teacher.
I was astounded at what I learned. Just a sampling: The Three Sisters … corn rises, beans weave themselves around the corn, and squash grows across the ground, protecting the soil. When these three are grown together, the yield is always higher than when they are grown separately. She uses this relationship to teach us about collaboration and cooperation.
And, lichen, a complex life form that is a symbiotic partnership of two separate organisms, fungus and alga, demonstrates the vitality of even the most simple life forms on our planet.
We learn about cedars, pecans, salmon, sweetgrass, maple syrup, asters, goldenrod, lilies, salamanders, Windigo, and much more on this simultaneously broad and deep exploration of the natural world. And she does it all with a writing style that is engaging and full of life. I particularly enjoyed the stories she tells of her students on field trips (Dr. Kimmerer is a professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry) during which young people get their hands dirty and learn native ways and vital ecological and environmental lessons.
Kimmerer’s philosophical stand is she wants us to take only what we need, and do so with respect and gratitude. She shows us over and over again how the indigenous people harvested only a percentage of plants, which assured their regeneration, protecting and growing the resources. She teaches us to actively protect and deeply respect our planet.
Braiding Sweetgrass is important to our education. It is best read slowly, a chapter here, two chapters there. Her messages need time to sink in. I recommend this book highly.
(Though this book decidedly earns four hearts, I will admit I struggled to conquer its length. Because I could not get my hands on a paper copy in a timely manner, I listened to an audiobook. I do not much care for audiobooks, so that probably was why I struggled. It is 16 hours and 44 minutes).
Nonfiction Biography, 2021 | 320 pages
I certainly have earned my wings as a Feminist. About 50 years ago and ever since. However, some of you might want to banish them (or me!) when you read this post.
I struggled to finish this book (though I enjoyed her use of the language). I simply could not believe the truth of this biography, and I checked numerous times to confirm it was a biography and not fiction.
Febos talks about the difficulties and trauma associated with developing breasts and hips before her contemporaries, and how she was treated, what she was subjected to, and challenges to her own evolving sense of self. She writes about events that occurred when she was 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14, as well as events as a young woman. Now, I know I do not have the best memory. But the manner in which she replays these stories … with extreme detail, emotional understanding and maturity that could not have possibly existed at 12, intellectual understanding that I believe can only come with considerable time … caused me to doubt her veracity. I did not believe her stories. I DO believe these stories exist; I DO believe she could have presented them as examples of experiences, if she was quoting a woman or girl who was just a few years from the experiences, but as biographical truth, I could not convince myself.
Further, and this makes me angry, later in the book she discusses “empty” consent versus “affirmative" consent versus “enthusiastic” consent. Her very small sample of interviews confirms in her mind that every young woman has given empty consent to sexual experiences she did not want. I believe she lets women off the hook and, more damaging, seems to make it “okay” for young women to use empty consent because everyone does it or did it. (In simple words, “empty” consent means allowing a boy or man to do what he wants to your body rather than expressing your wishes, setting boundaries, saying no, angering the male, or, god forbid, embarrassing him). To me, this is irresponsible, and likely the opposite of what she was writing to accomplish.
Finally, I do not have a prudish bone on my body. I enjoy reading (and more!) about sex. Girlhood, however is about sex, sex, and more sex. Though this enticed me early in, I became quite tired of it.
I do not recommend Girlhood.
Nonfiction 2021 | 428pages
The picture in my mind is a mature tree, tall and strong, with many branches, limbs, twigs. That's what The Third Pole brings to mind. The trunk of the tree is the main story line … the search for the body of Sandy Irvine on Mt Everest, and for his Kodak camera. Brits Sandy Irvine and Gregory Mallory have held the distinction of being the first to summit Mt Everest, in 1924. Except, we don’t know for certain. They died on the mountain. Did they die on their way back down after summiting, or did they die on their way up? This is the story of the author and a group of supporters who embark on a journey to find the answer. And it is a fascinating journey!
So, back to the tree. The main line of the story could have been told in about half as many pages. But Synnott adds an enormous amount of context — about many of the deaths on Everest; about the politics of the Chinese who claim to have been the first and are very protective of information and access; about the evolution of mountaineering clothing; about the many nationalities represented among the ranks of porters, climbing sherpas, cooks, guides and other support roles; the history of Everest climbs; the weather, etc. etc. He dives into these contexts artfully. I find the branches and twigs to be quite informative, though I occasionally longed for a return to the main story, with just a bit more focus.
One of the components of the search for Irvine that I particularly enjoyed was the team’s use of drones, for the first time at such an altitude, to gather footage for a National Geographic special. There were political challenges to overcome, as well as interesting technical hurdles. I have not yet watched Lost on Everest.
Yes, I recommend this long but engaging read. Thank you Mary (?) for this suggestion.
July 2021, read while camping on the Oregon coast
Matt Haig | Fiction, 2020
Nora Seed, depressed and suicidal, is stuck between life and death, in a place called the Midnight Library. In the Midnight Library she selects books, with the assistance of her former school librarian, Mrs. Elm. There are an infinite number of books Nora can select, and each takes her to a different life. One decision away from her “root life” or one choice or a series of choices creates a plethora of lives. We see Nora actually marry Dan, whom she left at the altar; not give up on an Olympic swimming career; stay with the highly successful band The Labyrinth and become a superstar; actually accept the coffee date with Ash; become a glaciologist in the Arctic; teach philosophy at Cambridge University. She explores what she sees as “better” lives, guided by her own personal “Book Of Regrets.” In the end, of course, it isn’t the circumstances of her alternative lives that are essential … it is her perspective.
This is a clever story line I think, with its bits of magic. So I keep asking myself why I am giving it three hearts instead of four? I believe it comes down to Nora. I don’t really like Nora. She is shallow and I cannot find her redeeming or endearing qualities. I want a richer, deeper character. More introspection, more angst perhaps, more joy. I recommend Midnight Library with hesitation.
Amanda Blake | Nonfiction, 2018
Because of some jaw-dropping experiences in which I discovered that my body held wise answers to puzzling situations in my life, I began to seek a person or book to help me notice and read more clearly the wisdom of my body sensations. I have to say, I don’t think such a resource exists. Your Body is Your Brain came highly recommended, and it did not match my request. However, I was able to glean a modicum of answers to the question I am pondering. Particularly useful is chapter three, “Embodied Self-Awareness.” Also, the author’s many case studies about how individuals were unaware of their bodies gives clues about how to be more attuned. Most of the book, however, addresses how to use your body, not how to read your body. Amanda Blake excels at this. She takes a magnifying glass to leadership and writes about how your body can help you with courage, compassion, credibility, composure, confidence, collaboration, and other important characteristics. If you are interested in that topic, you may find this book delightful and insightful.
Fiction 2021 | 464 pages
What I knew about The Dust Bowl could have filled a very small thimble. This novel graphically teaches us an important piece of history about the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the mistreatment of US residents who went west to find work after their farms and ranches were destroyed by drought. Hannah’s characters are gripping, rich, and deep. Her ability to tell a tale is astounding. We follow the life of Elsa and her two children, Loreda and Ant, thrust into unimaginable poverty and the desperate struggle to survive. We witness the physical, emotional, financial, and familial devastation of the Dust Bowl. And we are viscerally educated about the rise of the farm-workers’ rights movement in the west. I highly recommend. This is a good summer read that is hard to put down.
Leslie Marmon Silko | Nonfiction Memoir
2010, 319 pages
I didn’t like her voice. So self-centered, I could not find anything to grab on to. I have a BIG pile of books awaiting me, so I will move forward.
Nonfiction 2006 | 496 pages
Monochrome and polychrome pottery styles, doorways, kivas, cliff dwellings, home designs, turkey feathers, ancient roads and waterways … these and more give us clues about the cultural, societal, and geographic evolution of the vanished civilizations of the Southwest US and Mexico. Craig Childs is the perfect author to tell us about them. He is an extraordinary writer and an amazing researcher and explorer. This book, recommended by many on my Great Old Broads raft trip on the San Juan River, tells history from a perspective that is unique, interesting, and informative. Childs tells the tale of multiple migrating cultures over many centuries, by traveling and writing about their apparent journeys. This is what is so remarkable about House of Rain. Childs catalogs recent knowledge of the journeys of the Anasazi, Salado, the Puebloan people, and numerous other communities, through his own and other academics’ research, and he conveys this to us as he travels from the north … Utah and Colorado … to northwest Mexico, along the same routes the indigenous peoples traveled over hundreds of years. If you visit Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde, you will see and learn about a place and a point in time. What Childs captures in House of Rain is the geographical movement of civilizations across many centuries, through prerecorded history.
This book is an excellent read, whether you are a connoisseur of the southwest ancient peoples, or know very little about their communities. A small example of his vivid writing (page 197): “We found red pottery at nearly every site, rose petals lining the path.”
(A note to my Audible readers …. Thom and I read this book together, and he listened to it on Audible, as read by the author. It seems Childs is a superb writer; however, he is not a good orator. Read House of Rain instead of listening, if you can.)
Lisa See | Fiction, 2018
I just finished reading a somewhat interesting novel (a little bit of a slow read) based upon truth, about the haenyeo, the women who dive in Korea and lead the society and its matrifocal culture. Two young girls become best friends, and we watch Mi-ja and Young-sook as they become baby divers, internationally traveling divers, wives, and mothers, through the considerable turmoil and chaos prior to and during WWII. I found, by the way, the decline of their friendship rather implausible. I cannot fathom how people can forgo forgiveness for 40, 50, 60 years. And I know I can be a Pollyanna sometimes. You may find this quite plausible, given the pain they endured.
Just over half-way in, Lisa See begins to describe the atrocities that occur under the confusion and disregard of American invaders. She describes in extremely graphic detail murder, rape, torture, and psychological trauma, and I became literally sick to my stomach. I felt abandoned by this author. I thought she took an Intensely hard left-hand turn and changed the tenor of her novel dramatically. I was floored and upset.
My friend Marian tells me it was important for her to do this, to explain the contexts of WWII and the Korean War. She is probably right, but I was quite shocked. Now that you have been warned that this is going to happen, The Island of Sea Women is a strong novel, and one you may quite enjoy.
Nonfiction, 2019 | 210 pages
This is perhaps the most poorly written and boring book I have ever navigated. She uses ridiculously obscure words when easy words would suffice. Her sentences run on, with numerous clauses. And there is very little feeling, virtually no emotional connection in her writing. It is facts, pure and simple.
I wanted to learn something about the topic, “The indigenous fight for environmental justice” so, after many pages, I finally figured out how to read As Long as Grass Grows. I simply read every word without attempting to comprehend the complexity of the sentences, knowing that some of the information would sink in.
Eventually, much of it did. I DID learn by reading this book; have some ah-has; entertained some new perspectives; discovered some history I knew nothing about; have some new views about colonization, a word I am still attempting to truly understand. And this is worthwhile. However, I find history to be most valuable as context to assist us in addressing current situations and planning for and envisioning the future. Gilio-Whitaker does not address present-day implications or possible actions until the 8th and final chapter; the last 15 pages of the book.
This was a huge disappointment for me.
While there is much to learn about the history of colonization of the indigenous peoples, this book does not stand alone. If you read it, you will learn new perspectives on history, but you will be left powerless about what to do with your new knowledge. Perhaps there is a broader, more action-oriented book on this topic.
Fiction 2021 | 419 pages
Two teenage boys die tragically. Daniel is killed by his best friend Jonah, who later kills himself. Two families are torn apart. There is grief and shock in this small coastal town in Washington. And then a teenage girl, house-less and pregnant, abandoned by her mother, emerges from the woods and is taken in by Daniel’s father, Isaac. Yes, Evangeline knew these boys in the last two weeks of their lives.
This is Evangeline’s story. How difficult it is to trust, to maybe accept love, to give compassion. She is “fiery in hair and spirit” ... a red headed enigma. And she is about to have a baby and, for the first time in months, perhaps a roof over her head. We experience Isaac’s grief, as well as the complicated grief of Jonah’s mother, Lorrie, and Jonah’s sister Nells. We witness resiliency, confusion, sorrow, miscommunication, deep communication, love. Amazingly, we can see into the souls of the two adults, especially Isaac, as well as 16-year-old Evangeline. There are also some very interesting minor stories, like Isaac’s best friend Peter, and the role of Quakers in the lives of the characters.
What Comes After is powerful and engrossing. It is very emotion-centric. Why I mean by that is we are privileged to observe the feelings and depth of the characters. Nothing is shied away from.
This is Thompkins’ first novel, and it is astounding. Well written, but also the most interesting plot I have read in a long time. No surprise, I recommend What Comes After wholeheartedly and enthusiastically!
Karen James | Nonfiction, 2008
Holding Fast is the gripping story of Kelly James, who dies after reaching the summit of Mt. Hood, a few days before Christmas 2006, as told by his wife Karen. They were married just over six years. Sitting on an airplane when I reached the pinnacle ... when rescuers found Kelly’s body ... I cried. I cried again when she describes Christmas Eve alone. She told her kids she was with friends. She told her friends she was with her kids. It was a time to truly begin the journey of grief. My heart broke for her.
The tale of his death, of which we know little but supposition, is really the tale of the living; of what it’s like to experience eight days awaiting the fate of your husband and father who has lost contact in the icy storms of the Cascades. Karen writes well (she has been a journalist with ABC, CBS, and NBC). Her story is intimate, emotional, strong.
I knocked Holding Fast down to three hearts for two reasons. First, the James family is very religious, and I lost a bit of patience with all the prayers and supplications. More important, I thought Karen James was simply unconscionable and selfish by reporting, for the entire book, about her pain, with very few and rare words about the wives of the other two climbers who were lost with Kelly, Brian Hall and Nikko Cooke. She writes a bit about this part of the tragedy on page 147. It is as though these two men were not much more than precious climbing equipment that was also lost on the mountain.
Karen James writes a great deal about her grief, which may or may not speak to you. And, as with any outdoor adventure and tragedy, the story touched my heart, and I believe it will touch yours.
Fiction, 2018 | 287 pages
Regular readers will know that once a year our local library system selects a book for a community read, and it is always delightful! This year, they also selected a young adult community read, so I thought I would try it on for size.
Mia immigrated from China to Anaheim, California with her parents, just two years ago. At 11, she is extremely precocious and smart, though not very street-wise in the ways of racism. She and her parents run a hotel, under the direction of a mean-hearted employer. Mia learns about the two roller coasters in our culture ... the one well-to-do people are on, and the parallel one that poor people are forced to. Mia wants to change her roller coaster!
While Front Desk does teach young adults about racism, judging, discrimination, self-confidence, assertiveness, love, and hate, I found it a bit too distant from reality. Mia’s success at addressing some of the ways black, brown, and yellow people are treated in her diverse neighborhood is rather Pollyanna-ish. For this reason, I find I do not choose to recommend this easy-to-read book.
Natalie Warren | Nonfiction, 2021
A fascinating book to enjoy while on my very first overnight rafting trip! While experiencing four nights and five days on the San Juan River in Southern Utah, it was remarkable to read this true story of two women, Natalie and Ann, who make the 2000-mile journey from Minneapolis to the Hudson Bay in a Kevlar canoe. Their story is surprisingly interesting ... I was not certain that paddling for three months would encompass enough drama, but between weather, the people they met, snakes, hunger, what they learn about the land, their near disasters, the challenges to their relationship as best friends, and acquiring a canoe dog, Hudson Bay Bound kept my interest throughout. It is not the best writing I have ever read, so likely will work best for those of you, like me, who have a penchant for true nature adventure stories.
Nonfiction 2020 | 342 pages
I had a small pile of books sitting next to me, for the purpose of deciding what to read next. I picked up Just Us and before I knew it, I was on page 55. This is a nonfiction book, but it does not have the statistics and history and analysis and “shoulds” associated with a lot of nonfiction writing. There is no explicit call to action, though there are calls to introspection throughout. It is prose, imbued with a mix of poetry, essays, quotes, white space, a Twitter post or two, and photos, presented on high quality slick paper (Just Us weighs in at two pounds.)
Claudia Rankine, a black woman and a professor of poetry at Yale, attempts to engage strangers and other people she meets at the airport, the theater, interviews, and dinner parties, in the question of “what is it to be white?” If you seek intimate and authentically honest encounters as she explores this and similar questions, you will enjoy this book as much as I did. It is facile, yet meaningful, reading. Some of the images and words will stay with you. If you want an easy entree into the topic that is consuming many thoughtful readers’ reading lists these days ... racial injustice, racial experience, white privilege (or you want to introduce someone else to this topic) this is your book!
(Hmmm. There is an extraordinarily long section near the end of the book [37 pages] on blondness, and dyeing one’s hair blond. If you read this book, I am curious to read your reactions to this topic.)
I fully recommend, and will explore her prior books. This is actually the third book in a trilogy, the first two being Don’t Let Me be Lonely and Citizen, written over 16 years.
Connie Schultz | Fiction, 2020
The Daughters of Erietown is a tale of resilient women in Erietown, Ohio, on Lake Erie. Spanning 1957 to 1994, we see the generations unfold alongside growing feminism and radically changing roles for women in the world. Ellie, our main character, has dreams of nursing school and of marrying Brick McGinty. Her second dream comes true, but not quite the way she expected, when she and Brick became pregnant in her senior year of high school. Her daughter Sam is born ... another major character, who we witness growing into womanhood.
Brick, of course, is a significant player in the book. In more ways than one. He is not quite all that Ellie had dreamed of.
Schultz’s character development is very strong. After a while, we really come to know Ellie and Sam, and can anticipate their reactions to circumstances and situations. The story is also strong and pulls us along. We are compelled to witness what choices Ellie and Sam make, as well as those of Brick and Sam’s brother Reilly.
So, why only three hearts? Remember that three hearts represent, “I recommend with some reservations.” I would call The Daughters of Erietown a romantic novel. Not intending to be sexist here, I suspect it will appeal more to women readers than men, as the only significant male character is flawed. And frankly, he is not very interesting. This novel is an appealing dive into the lives of a mid-20th century family in middle America. I recommend it, but with caution.
Eley Williams | Fiction
2020, 270 pages
Voluminous use of highly cerebral words, over-written to the max, and boring, in my very humble opinion. I am moving on, with no regrets.
Laila Lalami| Fiction, 2019
The Other Americans begins when a Moroccan immigrant named Driss Guerraoui is killed by a hit and run driver one evening while leaving his diner, near California’s Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park. Driss’s American born daughter Nora opens the book by telling the story of the death of her father, as she enters as the main character.
After Nora’s initial recounting of the news, Lalami introduces her other narrators. There are nine in all, including Jeremy, an old school friend of Nora’s, who is white; Efrain, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who witnessed the hit and run; Maryam, Driss’s Moroccan wife; Salma, Nora’s overachieving sister; and Coleman, the black woman detective working Driss’s case.
This is a mystery, a love story, a family saga, and a commentary on American culture. The Other Americans is our community read this month, presented by the county library. This is the 18th year our county has enjoyed a community read, called “A Novel Idea.” The book was chosen by both my book clubs to read this month, and so my expectations were high. And dashed.
Moroccan-born Laila Lalami introduces so many cultural components, including xenophobia, undocumented immigration, race, opioid abuse, PTSD from the war in Iraq, family expectations, and more, that she does not cover any of them with particular depth, clarity, or expertise. I felt she did an especially poor job of writing about race and culture. She mentions these elements only casually, and without an exploration of either her character’s internal experience, or much depth in the relationships among the characters.
That being said, her development of Nora’s character is very strong, and the mystery storyline (who DID kill Driss, and was it an accident or murder?) make the tale readable and engaging. But it was neither the social commentary nor the learning I was hoping for.
Fiction 2015 | 406 pages
If it were winter, I would recommend this book for a long, cold, winter weekend. It is a novel that you just want to lose yourself in. A cup of hot chocolate at your side, you will eagerly turn the next page. Rich with story, character development, and depth, an improbable tale weaves together centuries of art, Naziism and Jews, culinary delight, and the beginnings of love.
The Improbability of Love is not what you likely imagine right now ... it is actually the title of an 18th century oil masterpiece. The painting is fictional; the painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau, is not.
Annie McDee, a struggling chef, buys this painting at a junk shop for a man she met at a speed-dating event. He stands her up and the painting becomes hers. Annie’s alcoholic mother Evie has an intuition that this painting is important and urges Annie to research it. Thus begins a tale of London’s outrageous art scene, with dealers, museum curators, art auction houses, authenticators, art authors, restorers, socialites, and a delightful gay “fixer.” We follow all these characters through the discovery of the real provenance of this dirty and smudged lost painting.
The most delightful chapters are those written by the painting itself, as it informs us about how it feels about all these shenanigans, as well as a bit about all the walls it has hung on over the centuries.
Yes, there are a few discontinuities in Ms. Rothschild’s writing, but not enough to upset. This is Rothschild’s first novel, though she has written non-fiction in the art scene. The book integrates passion, power, violence, loyalty, intrigue, mystery, love. And yes, you can read it in the spring in your back yard as the daffodils begin to bloom, just as well as on a wintry eve. I recommend you do so.
Thank you, Claire, for a gratifying recommendation.
Poetry 2013 | 121 pages
Someone I dearly love gave me this book of poetry by the infamous Mary Oliver. I read it. And then I read it again. It is a book about a woman and her dogs. But, of course, it is also much more than that. Here are two favorite stanzas:
- You may not agree, you may not care, but
- If you are holding this book you should know
- That of all the sights I love in this world —
- And there are plenty — very near the top of
- The list is this one: dogs without leashes. (pg 5)
- A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
- Smells of the world, but you know, watching her,
- That you know
- Almost nothing. (Pg 27)
Yes, take 15 minutes to read this book, if you love dogs. Or freedom. Or life.
Bridgett M. Davis
Biography 2019 | 308 pages
I cannot disentangle my (suburban) Detroit upbringing from my assessment of this book as a biography, as a tale to be told. So, please recognize my bias when I tell you I love this book! You never know when someone writes a memoir or autobiography or biography ... even if the story is wonderful, is the author? Both work exceedingly well in The World According to Fannie Davis.
Davis writes about her mother Fannie, who ran an entrepreneurial and illegal numbers business (a community-based precursor to state lotteries; more on that when you read this book) in Detroit, from the 60’s to the early 90’s, keeping her family firmly in the black middle class of the Midwest, and avoiding poverty. There were illegal numbers being run in many cities in the Midwest and East, so her memories also make a statement about what it was like to be black in big-city America, in the 60’s and 70’s especially. This is the story of family, but also it is an education on race, survival, thriving, secrets, and consciousness. In Detroit in particular, this story includes the unionization of black workers in the automobile industry, racial unrest, white flight, police brutality, community love and connection, discrimination, riots, family loyalty, graft and corruption, the mafia, JL Hudson and Maurice Salad, and, nearest and dearest to my heart, the rise and pervasive influence of Motown.
I didn’t cry at the end, but I did have a lump in my throat. This biography is intimate and draws you right in. I will remember this book for a while, I think. If you read it (which I suggest!) I will be interested to share this story with you and to read or hear your reactions.
Mary (another Detroit woman), thank you for suggesting this fine biography.
Nonfiction Memoir 2020 | 101 pages
At the tender age of twenty-five, Kimiko is diagnosed with breast cancer. This graphic memoir explores what she encounters as a mixed-race, young, queer woman, but I found its real value in how she explores life after treatment. If you have had cancer, or know someone who has, this beautifully illustrated novel will offer insight into what happens for months and perhpas years after treatment is complete. It will take you about 30 minutes to read and is absolutely worth your time.
Fiction, 2009 | 303 pages
Well, I made it all the way through. And that’s about the biggest praise I can muster. Bad writing, in my opinion, with very shallow characters; even the main character, Ruth Galloway. Too many men characters for some bizarre reason, and I couldn’t keep them straight. The ending of this mystery was good, however ... written in a manner to make my heart pound.
Ruth Galloway is an archeologist who lives alone on a saltmarsh in England and becomes embroiled in amateur sleuthing when some children are lost and presumed murdered. There are 14 Ruth Galloway mysteries, so someone likes Griffiths’ writing. I personally am going to forgo 13 of them. Sorry, Jan D.
Fiction 2020 | 352 pages
“Brilliant, stunning, eloquent, gorgeous, thought-provoking, intricate, moving.” These are just some of the words reviewers have written, and for good reason. The Vanishing Half is a novel about identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, born in 1952, in a minuscule Louisiana town that prides itself on breeding light-skinned Black people, some of whom are light enough to pass for White. And Stella does, separating herself from her twin and her family for 25 years. They each have a daughter ... Jude, who is so black they call her “blue black” and Kennedy, a blond violet-eyed beauty. The daughters’ lives eventually intersect and, of course, all their lives are irrevocably altered.
The story is exceptional and difficult to put down. I was often reading pages this last week at 3:30 in the morning. The writing is simply superb. Brit Bennett was listed by Time magazine on March 8 as one of the next “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
There is no hesitation on my part. Read this four-heart book as soon as you can get your hands on it ... there is already a long wait for it at your library!
Nonfiction autobiography, 2014
I am disappointed in this book. It is the story of author Jaqueline Woodson’s life, told in poetic form. It feels to me forced and artificial. “Now, for interest, this time I am going to write my autobiography in poetry.” It is contrived. What we lose is a coherent emotional story. What we lose is artful writing with images and compelling turns of phrase .... which I would expect from true poetry. A waste of effort on both the author’s and the reader’s part.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele
Nonfiction memoir 2018 | 257 pages
At first, I wasn’t all that thrilled about reading When They Call You a Terrorist. I am not sure what I expected. Some sanitized ... or perhaps glorified ... biography of the woman who first posted #BlackLivesMatter ... that is what I thought I was about to read. But it is not. It is her personal memoir. It is the story of Kahn-Cullors' childhood and her youth, growing up poor and Black in LA County, with her two brothers and one sister, raised by a mother who works three jobs, and still does not rise about the poverty level. It is the story of her two fathers. It is the story of unjust prison sentences and unrecognized and untreated mental illness. It is the story of immeasurable discrimination, violence, assumptions, injustice, and more. It is the tale of lives gone awry, with no possible redemption. Her narrative is personal; her writing is easy to read; but the content of her story is profoundly disturbing. Reading this memoir left me with a single question .... how could she NOT start the Black Lives Matter movement? With her intelligence, wisdom, compassion, passion, and history, it is inexorable.
Yes, read this book and learn about a woman whose name we should all know, but don’t. Which, in itself, is part of her story.
Fiction, 2020 | 461 pages
The Murmur of Bees is a gorgeous story. When you are ready to lose yourself in a novel that is artistically written, with deep and complex characters, find yourself a copy of The Murmur of Bees.
Set in the small town of Linares in Mexico, south of Monterey, the story begins when Nana Reja discovers an infant, abandoned under a bridge, disfigured (harelip?) and covered with bees who do not harm him. He is named Simonopio. He goes to live with the Morales family, landowners who take him in and raise him as their own. We follow the Morales family though many decades, deaths, and, in the first half, the great plague of 1917/1918.
The tale is narrated by Simonopio’s younger brother, Francisco, who is born when Simonopio is 12. The bind between these two brothers is intense and unbreakable during their early years, though Simonopio cannot speak except in his own self-formed language. And there is magic. Magic that is imbued with wisdom, wanderlust, safety, communication, adventure, prediction of the future. Simonopio is intimately linked with bees, in their mutually beneficial relationship. It is with the bees, following the bees, learning from the bees, being protected by the bees, that he develops into a man.
The first of Segovia’s novels to be translated from Spanish into English, it is well worth your time, sitting on the couch with a cup of tea. I recommend it highly. Thank you, Carolyn, for this luscious read.
Nonfiction, 2020 | 273 pages
This is the most profound, most devastating book I have read. The author, a Jewish female journalist, uses various guises, disguises, names, personalities, and personas, to enter the “dark web of white supremacy.”
I cannot begin to truly understand all I read. First, I thought anti-Semitism was only a part of the white supremacist agenda. It is not. It is at the center, the core. The first few chapters explain much more, but in a few words, “What underpins this fixation — the intellectual foundation of the white-supremacist movement — is a stalwart belief in the omnipresence of the cunning, world-controlling, whiteness-diluting Jew ... the Jew is most dangerous because of his adjacency to whiteness, and a desire to destroy it, with crafty malice, from within.” (pg 24/25).
You will read about race violence and race war, and about a dating site designed only for white supremacist men and women. You will learn about an eleven-year-old imbued with racial hatred; about the role and agenda for intentional violence in our country; and about mind-numbing conspiracy theories.
The chapter on incels completely alarmed me. “Incels” are men who are “involuntarily celibate.” The misogyny, hatred, self- and other-loathing is shocking. Incels on Incels.co and braincel actively encourage a suicidal poster (pg 115) to complete his agenda. The author, who was not allowed to post as a woman, created a young 21-year-old angry white male, Tommy O’Hara, in order to dialogue with incels. This chapter especially, and the entire book, are not for the faint of heart.
Lavin’s writing is inconsistent. Some chapters are engaging and move the reader deeper into the material. Other chapters seem to rely on context to such a great extent, that the point of the chapter, and subsequent learning, is lost. The difference is when she writes of events where she is an intimate and involved player, and when she writes about topics from an intellectual distance. The former is quite engaging. The latter is important, though more difficult to absorb.
I must recommend this disturbing book. It is important, distressing, terrifying. Truthfully, I believe we all need to know of that which Lavin writes.
Fiction, 1959 | 326 pages
Many argue that The Sirens of Titan is Vonnegut's greatest work. It is dark and funny; classic and counter-culture; warm and cold; satirical; melancholic; bizarrely imagined; philosophical. I loved it! But that must be taken with a grain of salt. I am a huge Vonnegut fan. I first read this book in 1971, when I took an English course on Kurt Vonnegut at the University of Michigan. Yes, that was 50 years ago!
The plot? Hmmm. The main character is Malachi Constant, the richest man in America, who has his memory wiped when he is recruited into the Army of Mars that is planning an invasion of Earth. Tying the story together is Winston Niles Rumfoord, who, in his private spaceship with his dog, Kazak, accidentally flies into an uncharted chronosynclastic infundibulum, which scatters his particles through space and time, giving him the ability to see the future, and to appear at set intervals on various planets. We follow Constant’s life through meaningless wealth in America, his time on Mars and Mercury, and finally on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. We also meet a Tralfamadorian, invented here in The Sirens of Titan, and which reappears in Slaughterhouse Five. Tralfamadore is the planet where all beings live in all times simultaneously.
Vonnegut makes me wonder what I am missing, what he infers, what the hidden meanings and suggestions are, what is truth, what is satire. I never know the answers to these philosophical questions, but thank goodness his writing is so damn engaging! How can you fault The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent? Or a world with UWTB .... the Universal Will to Become, i.e., that which makes universes out of nothingness at both macro levels and mundane day-to-day levels.
Along with his 14 novels, three short-story collections, five plays, and five nonfiction books, Vonnegut was revered, studied, interviewed, loved, and always prolific. He penned much about writing, including his brilliant “8 Basics of Creative Writing.” My favorite is number 4: “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.”
This is our February read in my Casting Crew Book Club. I am fascinated to hear what less biased Vonnegut fans have to say about The Sirens of Titan. Yes, I absolutely recommend it, along with anything else by this writing genius.
Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, editors
Fiction, 2015 | 296 pages
The two editors of Octavia’s Brood invited social justice activists who had never written before, many of whom are marginalized, to write a science fiction short story; to dream and imagine a different vision, a different way of being. The stories do not necessarily present a better scenario, but an altered reality. A few of the 22 authors are journalists and have writing experience, though not in speculative/visionary fiction. At the end of the last century, speculative fiction by black authors enjoyed a surge of interest. (Check out Dark Matter). But this work goes further, inviting writing from many walks of life, circumstances, and cultures. (Yes, the book is dedicated to and inspired by the writing of Octavia Butler, especially Lilith’s Brood.)
I am not much of a short story enthusiast. Some of the stories in Octavia’s Brood are badly written, some are well written. Some are interesting, others a little more boring. Some are profoundly clear, several are more cloudy and even confusing. However, this anthology does not read like a collection of short stories. It seems congruent to me, a unified yet diverse voice of marginalized peoples. The stories don’t overlap in any way, and yet together they feel like a “whole.” They present a rainbow of experiences, perspectives, pain, pretend, magic, possibilities, imagination.
In my Decolonization book club, we discussed the stories and then took 15 minutes to write one of our own. That was a fantastic creative experience, to write and then read each member’s tales. (Our prompt was to write a story as though one institution we know today is gone).
I found this book fascinating. I highly recommend it for immersing yourself into a new reading experience.
(I have a copy of the book, by the way, if you want it.)
Jane Smiley | Fiction
1995, 414 pages
204 pages in, and I just must quit. I really tried. The characters in this novel about a fictional Midwest University are universally forgettable. I mean, I forget who is who in-between chapters. I keep looking for a list of characters and their roles, and there is not one. There are too many to keep straight, and there is NO plot of any interest at all. Of course, it goes without saying that I have not laughed at this ”humorous” novel once. Some of the relationships are interesting for a chapter or two, especially when there is a sexual connection. I really tried. My apologies, Teresa. Too many days and my entire weekend slogging through this book have left me vacuous. I must find something engaging to read. Now!
Christy Lefteri | Fiction, 2019
Nuri and his cousin Mustafa are beekeepers in Aleppo, Syria, along with Nuri’s wife Afra, who is an artist. All is idyllic and calm, until war arrives, the hives are destroyed, and they must flee for their safety and to begin a new life in a new land.
Lefteri’s writing is captivating. A somewhat random example, “Afra’s soul was as wide as the fields and deserts and sky and sea and river that she painted, and as mysterious. There was always more to know, to understand, and, as much as I knew, it wasn’t enough, I wanted more.” (Pg 21)
What I liked is how deeply we become familiar with Nuri’s heart and soul. What astonished me is how the realities we make up can be so clearly intertwined with the realities that are in the world we inhabit. What confused me is how Lefteri intersperses Nuri’s and Afra’s challenging journey to England with their arrival in England. The time frame shifts were not smooth for me; they were jarring. I wish she had made the shifts clearer with chapter titles or some such.
This is politically insensitive of me, but I am simply tired of stories about people facing incredibly difficult challenges to move themselves from one place to another, whether as refugees or slaves. I need new plots; I have become somewhat bored by their stories.
A Chinese concept I learned, that resonates, and that will stay with me from this book is that of (pg 303) “Yuanfen, the mysterious force that causes two lives to cross paths ...”
Ta-Nehisi Coates| Fiction, 2019
The writing is eloquent; the story of the Underground and of Conduction and The Task is fascinating. You will know the main character deeply, Hiram Walker, when you finish The Water Dancer. Based on a true tale of slavery and the urge for freedom, I wonder how much is fiction and how much is true. The dramatic story is infused with magic; I am so curious about the author’s intention!
Just over half-way in, I think Coates loses his footing. The book becomes more about the institution of the Underground Railway. Even though we see everything through Hiram’s eyes, I feel less connected to him for a significant number of chapters. Plus, I find the growing cast of characters a bit confusing. Ultimately, we wind up back in Walker’s character with strength and power to wrap up the conclusion.
Tough decision .... three hearts or four? I decided on four because of the writing, the story, and the character development (not only Walker, but some other characters as well). Perhaps my getting lost was just me .... I choose to give Coates the benefit of the doubt. This is Coates first novel, though he has written non-fiction. Have you read anything by him?
James Nestor | Nonfiction, 2020
This is an interesting book, presenting some potentially useful ideas and posing interesting questions. It also infuses a history of yoga and meditation practices, which were originally developed as breath practices. However, the book seriously lacks in real medical double-blind studies, and is over-reliant on the author’s and others’ anecdotal evidence.
As I progressed, Breath moved from four hearts for its interesting hypotheses, to three hearts for its complete lack of statistical evidence, to two hearts as the techniques for “better breathing” grew more and more bizarre. Like giving a woman 35% carbon dioxide through an inhaler bag to spark her fear, because she had never felt fear and kept putting herself in danger.
Among the more useful health/breathing considerations, if you do only one thing, learn to breathe in for 5.5 seconds and breathe out for 5.5 seconds, for a total of 5.5 breaths per minute. Here is a simple tool to help. https://www.google.com/search?q=breathing+exercise
So, read if you are interested, but not if you are looking for sound medical advice.
Mikki Kendall| Nonfiction, 2020
Deenie was a roommate senior year in college. She introduced me to the concept of feminism. Being one of a handful of women in the Business School at the University of Michigan, I immediately glommed on to what she was teaching me. That was 46 years ago.
Hood Feminism is like a long consciousness-raising session on feminism, elaborating on all the ways we (White & privileged) feminists have ignored the full scope of women in the world, and have let women down. I love what Kendall says in her interview with Trevor Noah (yes, surely worth the 7:10 commitment...) https://youtu.be/D4DaBn4uHi4 “If we are going to do feminism for all women, we have to make sure that the poorest women have everything they need to survive.”
In Hood Feminism, Kendall addresses a myriad of topics, including, but not limited to, hunger, murder, housing, gun violence, reproductive justice, poverty, parenting, education, patriarchy, allies, fears, and fierceness.
If you consider yourself a feminist, and/or simply are committed to social justice, this is a book you must read. It will expand your perspective significantly. At least, it did mine.
Ben Ehreneich | Nonfiction
2020, 325 pages
I am sad to write three low-hearts reviews in a row, but that is what the pages have offered me.
Desert Notebooks is a very distinctive book. The author interweaves science, creation myths, ancient history, Greek mythology, Native American traditional stories, and present-day experiences of the desert to explore the nature of time and the existential crisis of climate change.
Huh? What is she saying? I cannot be much clearer. It is challenging to explain this book.
There are moments of lucidity and clarity when the author returns to the present day and makes sense of the ancient tales he just retold. But those moments happen every dozen(?) pages or so. And I am tiring of reading different interpretations of Lilith. I have given this a respectable try ... 88 pages. And I am going to abandon it now.
(BTW, my next two books appear as auspicious as my last three, so you can expect Dusty Shelves to end the year with a dearth of hearts. Sigh.)
Tania Israel | Nonfiction
2020, 175 pages
Oh, I am so disappointed. I was hoping this book would tell me how to find people to engage in dialogue with, beyond my liberal/progressive bubble. Instead, it teaches how to be in dialogue ... how to listen, to talk, to manage emotions, and to understand others. Absolutely useful and important skills! Just not what I was seeking. All that is useful to me is a list of three resources in the “additional resources” section at the end.
Adrian Tomine | Biographical, 2020
Longtime Dusty Shelves readers know my fatal flaw. I don’t often find the written word funny. A few reviewer's comments on this book: “painfully honest and often hilarious” and “deeply aware, darkly funny ...”
I did not find a single pane of this graphic novel funny. I just found it depressing. And sad. Amen. The end. No recommendation from me!
NYT 100 Best Books of 2020. (Again, NYT disappoints).
Megha Majumdar | Fiction, 2020
I wouldn’t quite deem A Burning “electrifying” or “all-consuming,” words used by some reviewers. I would call it a good story. Good, but not great.
This is the tale of three people in modern day India: Jivan, a young Muslin woman, is falsely accused of a horrific crime and thrown in jail; PT Sir, a gym teacher at the local school seems to lose touch with his moral compass, bit by bit, page by page; Lovely, a hijra, is an appealing and endearing young woman(?), an impoverished beggar, who aspires to be an actress, and around whom the emotional story evolves.
Majumdar’s character development, in this, her debut novel, is astounding. These three figures are unique, strong, and distinguishable in their differences and depth. I very much enjoyed getting to know each of them.
As I mentioned in my opening statement, I did like the story and learning about the injustices ever-present in India; I simply did not find it a page-turner. It is a rather quick read, and I recommend it. I look forward to your comments and thoughts and reactions, especially from those of you who may love this book dearly...
Roman Dial | Nonfiction, 2020
This book is a sleeper, in my opinion; at least for those of who revel in true outdoor adventures. It was recommended by my library in their “Armchair Travel” newsletter. And it deserves greater visibility.
Cody Roman Dial disappears in the back-country of Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica, known as “the most biologically intense place on earth.” This park is so wild, it is illegal to enter it without a guide. Yes, our heroes break the law. This is the story, written by his father, of a father’s search for his son, filled with adventure and mystery, after Cody misses his “out date,” July 15, 2014.
But first, for almost half of the book, we watch Roman Dial and his wife Peggy raise Cody and his younger sister Jazz. Ice climbing, pack rafting, obsessed with animals and flora, adventure finders, mountain climbing, camping, skiing, hiking long distances are just some of what the Dial family explores together. There is such a huge, shared love for the natural world, it will take your breath away.
This is a slow read, to be savored. I became lost in the physical descriptions of places the Dials traveled that bear no resemblance to the United States geography I know well. Borneo, the northwest corner of Australia, Gunung Palung, Guatemala, Mexico, Tasmania, Bhutan, and many locales such as the Brooks Range, Usibelli, and Umnak Island in their home state of Alaska. I was enthralled with the descriptions of animals and plants I could not even picture, they were so different from what we encounter locally.
Dial is not an author ... he tells a realistic and beautiful story. This isn’t the best writing I have read, and perhaps his penchant for descriptions may derail a reader or two. As a non-scientist, however, I found none of his writing above my head or off-putting. Simply, it was fascinating.
Do I rate this three hearts or four? I would only go with three because I know not all my blog readers are as enamored of wilderness adventures as I am. However, that would do The Adventurer’s Son a disservice. I will stay with a solid four hearts and recommend this book with enthusiasm.
Tommy Orange | Fiction, 2019
There There astounded me. It rearranges what you might think about Urban Native Americans and their lives, identities or lack of identities, passions, families, loves. Twelve independent people make their way to a powwow in the town where they all live, Oakland, California. They have vastly different reasons for being there, and different expectations. And yet in so many ways, their lives overlap.
Orange’s character development is magnificent. I feel as though I know some of these characters intimately ... and yet, I know them not at all, for their experiences are so counter to my experiences.
“You were white, you were brown, you were red, you were dust.” I don’t fully understand this statement, and yet, it feels quite important. I was surprised to learn about how different people saw themselves, as more or less Indian, depending in large part on how their parents/caregivers viewed being Native. Some wanted it hidden, discouraged, ignored. Some wanted it understood and embraced. Some didn’t care one way or the other. All dealt with their Indianness. “Indianing” by the way, is a word that Orange coined – (defined in my own words ) as taking on attributes or culture or attitudes or clothes or gestures to appear Indian, for yourself or for others. How “much” are you Indian?
Interestingly, while most of the profiles are written in first person, some are third, and a few even in second person. Fascinating mix. I wonder how he decided? When you read this, pay special attention to the “prologue” and the “interlude.” They inform the story significantly.
Another superb debut novel. There There is a book I could read again. I do hope you read and enjoy it. And please write your thoughts here.
Ruth Reichl | Nonfiction Memoir, 2019
LA Times food critic Ruth Reichl catapults into the opulent, gastronomically eloquent, ostentatious world of billionaires, Gourmet magazine and its owner, Condé Nast.
It is astounding to read of her experiences entering this whole new world and working to find her place. And then, as the book progresses, we are witnesses as she shakes up the staid Gourmet magazine and it becomes more radical and more relevant. This is a respite from the last few books I read, which were ponderous and serious (Me and White Supremacy and An Indigenous Peoples’ Guide to American History). Save Me the Plums is light and easy to read.
However, its gift is also its demise. It is too light. Reichl, surprisingly for a memoir author, is not transparent or reflective. She tells us what occurs, but she doesn’t tell us how she feels about it or what she is thinking. One example is when she receives pressure in this new New York world of hers, to buy a $6500 dress. She eventually decides, which we learn about, but we don’t read of her internal conflict, or her values, or her feelings, or even her decision-making process. She is either a poor writer or a shallow writer, and I am inclined toward the latter because her descriptions of food and their tastes and textures are positively mouth-wateringly yummy. Her lack of real authenticity and depth moved this book from four hearts to three for me.
She also repeats a perspective that has shown up in a few books I have read recently. Authors sometimes enter the corporate world and write about it as if they are the first to discover and reveal the machinations of big business. What she writes of is neither new nor news. It is boring if you have spent 40 years of your career interacting with big corporations, and I find the surprise and fascination of these authors to be naïve.
Read Save Me the Plums for the fun, the grandiosity, and the almost tactile delight of exploring new foods. But don’t read it for insight into a food celebrity or you will be disappointed.
From “Booked in Bend” book club list for 2020.
Layla F. Saad | Nonfiction, 2020
For 28 days, addressing 28 topics associated with white supremacy, such as power, relationships, and white silence, Me and White Supremacy follows this pattern: “What is <topic>? “How does it show up?” and “Why do you need to look at it?” Then she presents “Reflection time journal prompts” intended to guide you through the 28 days of this workbook, keeping a journal as you proceed.
At first I was very frustrated with this book. For the first few days, the introspective questions she asked were too obvious; too simple. They were about behaviors or attitudes I left behind in college. I wanted juicier, more insightful questions that would make me ponder and think and reflect and re-examine my attitudes and actions.
Be careful what you ask for. As I progressed in the book, the questions did get tougher and inspire more self-examination. About day 19, everything shifted for me. Chapter 19 is about “optical allyship.” In my own words, “optical allyship” is about saying the right things, and believing the right things, but not ever doing the very hard work to break the systems of power that oppress. It is to be visible as an ally, but only in tone, voice, attitude, and not action.
I realized that I have been more than an optical ally to the LGBTQ+ community. I have marched. I have worked to change corporate policies and practices. I collected signatures in freezing temperatures for a ballot measure to create marriage equality in Oregon. I have coached leaders in the LGBTQ+ movement. I have had numerous meaningful conversations. And I have examined my own sexual orientation and its relationship to being in community with others. Now, I am not intending to say this is sufficient work nor am I lauding what bits I have done. My point is, as haven’t done anything, taken any significant action, to be proud of in support of BIPOC. I have been merely an optical ally. Wow.
I have seen a model of resources for White people that identifies six stages of growth and development of White privilege consciousness. This book is recommended in stage three. The next book on my list for this topic is How to be an Anti-Racist, which is a stage four resource.
What can I say? Of course I recommend this book, at least to my White readers. Know that it will take you a while to read and journal your way through this small book. You can scroll through my blog to see some other books on this topic, but there are many, many more resources than what I have read. I have been inspired since the events of this summer ... I hope some of you are, too. There is work to be done. Please let us know here on Dusty Shelves what you discover!
Hala Alyan | Fiction, 2017
I must give Salt Houses four hearts. I can’t be critical of it; it has many good reviews. My life was in chaos in the last ten days or so, between work, volunteering, and relationships. I could not focus on this book, and so I just pushed my way through, because I wanted to finish it for my Decolonization book club. Whenever I did connect with it, however, I found the relationships and the characters multidimensional, complex, and real. Spanning March 1963 to 2014, it is the moving story of a single family, living In Nablus and uprooted by the Six-Day War in 1967. Eventually, parts of the family live in Kuwait, Boston, Paris, Beirut, Amman, and Jaffa. It is criminal that the publisher did not include a map in this book. It would have helped readers to better understand the implications of the moves they chose to make or were forced to make. However, I am grateful for the family tree. Along with the Yacoub family’s reactions to war and unsettled lands, we witness the rise of feminism and the influence of American culture as we read about the generations. The author refers to herself as Palestinian-American.
Have you read Salt Houses? What comments do you have?
Larry Watson | Fiction, 1993
“From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a season of images more vivid and lasting than any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them …” This is the opening of Montana 1948. But don’t begin to think that this novel is about a 12-year old boy in Montana and his coming of age by fishing and kicking a ball around in the street during a long summer. No, his story is exceedingly more powerful. This is David’s tale of what happens when, at a very impressionable age, he is confronted with unthinkable crimes, tragedy, grief, loyalty, love, and angst in his protected world of rural white people and American Indians, living side by side, and recovering from the trials of WW2.
Watson’s writing is simple, clear, and captivating. Prepare yourself ... this short book will entice you to read cover-to-cover in one sitting.
Once again, my friend Teresa knows exactly what books to loan me. Thank you, Teresa.
Sigrid Nunez | Fiction, 2020
From the back cover: “A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life. Some, like the old friend she goes to visit at a cancer clinic, are people she knows well; others are total strangers. In each of them, she finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and have an audience to their experiences.”
Nunez demonstrates how to listen and for that alone I am very grateful for this book. The back cover is accurate, but insufficient. The story actually is driven mostly by her relationship with the friend who has cancer and who asks her to help her die. It sounds like a grim tale, but it is not. How much they laugh in the final days!
I was amazed to read the author’s and her characters’ feelings about death, cancer, untold stories, kittens, and overpopulation. She shared some of my own feelings ... some I thought only I had ever felt!
This book kept crossing my radar screen. An NPR review, Time magazine, other references to it. I was surprised to learn it was a novel; I thought it was nonfiction. What You are Going Through is short and will give you pause. I quite liked it and I just requested at the library her earlier book, The Friend.
Richard Powers | Fiction, 1996
Eddie treats every encounter with his four children as a learning opportunity. At breakfast, there is a line from Shakespeare. At dinner we contemplate what happened at Dachau. And, of course, one evening there is the presentation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma ... intended to play with the brains of all the Hobson family members. Actually, many of his statements and queries have to do with game theory. His behavior has created a generation of thinkers, but his offspring at times talk in the same riddles and well-turned phrases Eddie does. One night he says to his eldest, Artie, “calamine.” It is up to Artie to figure out what his father is saying. And the Hobson family, consisting of Eddie Sr., his wife, two sons and two daughters, is not only bright, but also humorous. The family car, a Pinto, is named Mr. Nader.
And Eddie is ill. He vomits, passes out, becomes non-lucid. And then he bounces back. He has been this way for 30+ years and refuses to see a doctor. His children, now age 18 to 30(?) are worried about him. But he finally decides to go to the VA hospital ... the only institution he can maybe trust.
The love of these grown children for their father is astounding. They keep circling back to the family home, despite their busy lives, especially when Eddie Sr. seems particularly ill.
This is my third Richard Powers, and my least favorite of the three. A profoundly excellent writer, this Powers novel is cerebral, and can be a challenge to read. At times, amazingly engrossing, interesting, and insightful. At other times, simply confusing in pure Hobson-talk and Hobson-recollection. And at first, I enjoyed the Walt Disney flashbacks. But later, they became too much.
I recommend this book if you are in the mood for something articulate, intelligent, thought-provoking. Or if you are simply on a path to explore this legendary author. One reviewer on Goodreads was reading or rereading one of Powers’ 12 novels every month for a year. This is not a beach read. There will be times you will pause and reread a section, musing. If you do choose to read this, please help me understand the ending.
(p.s. I just ran across an article about this book and Family Systems Theory. The article did explain the ending to me, but now I wonder ... how did I miss this during my reading? And, what else did I miss? Huh.)
Geraldine Brooks | Fiction, 2002
360 souls live in this isolated village in England in 1665. By the time of “Leaf-Fall” 1966, two thirds have died from the Plague. This novel is based upon Eyam, a town in England where the Plague did hit and consumed many residents. Brooks builds a novel from a woman who is mentioned only briefly in the actual historical accounts, a maid to the Rector. Anna, our main character, is that maid.
An odd time to read a book about the Plague? Actually, it made me realize how fortunate we are. The Plague erupts in boils that burst. People generally live only about 24 hours once they contract the disease, and very few survive.
I thought this book was beautifully written. I love Brooks’ command of the English language, and her ability to contextualize it to 17th century England. Anna is extraordinarily well-developed as a character. I couldn’t help but love her. And other main characters are also rich and full.
Anna works not only as a maid to the Rector Michael and his wife Elinor, but soon is caring for the sick throughout her village and, once the local midwife is taken by the Plague, learns to midwife as well. Yes, there are times the Plague is graphically portrayed. Appropriately, I think. An interesting title for the year of the Plague, no? Year of Wonders. It tells you something about the author's orientation toward the Plague and how she tells the story.
Some reviewers did not like the ending. I won’t create a spoiler here, but I seldom question an author’s ending. They end it to tell the story as they see fit. I thought the ending made perfect sense.
This is a book that engages and will draw you in, because her writing is so rich. I recommend it fully.
Thank you, Mary, for sharing this read with me/us.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz | Nonfiction, 2019
I have joined another book club, “Decolonize this Book Club” sponsored by Embrace Bend. It has a very specific objective. We gather to read and discuss voices and stories of BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color), 2SLGBTQIA+ folks, disabled folks, Jews and Muslims, Palestinians, migrants and refugees. Here is a link: https://www.embracebend.com/decolonize-this-book-club
The “young people” version of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People is not as dense as the adult version, for sure. I had both in my possession for a while, so I compared a couple of chapters. However, the essence is well represented in the version for the youth. Plus, they added photographs, maps, etc. and best of all, activities such as: discovering how many indigenous words there are for “corn” (62), and common words that came from indigenous languages (I will let you find those on your own.) And seeing how many of the 573 sovereign nations in the U.S. you can name in three minutes (I was really bad at that).
I didn’t have this context in my brain: White supremacy as a concept has existed at least since the Crusades.
I didn’t know this: Colonists scalped and collected bounties for scalps. I thought it was only the Indigenous people who scalped. Boy, was that incomplete information.
I think the title of this book is a bit misleading. A more accurate title in my opinion would be A History of the United States’ Treatment of Indigenous Peoples. The “eye,” the “view,” in this book is from the perspective of the colonists and the United States, i.e, what actions they took that are not reported in our typical American History classes. What it doesn’t show us (and this may not be possible) is the view of a Cree, a Cherokee, a Ute, a Sioux, a Klamath, etc. What was it like to be peacefully raising your children, growing corn, eating bison, participating in spiritual ceremonies, and have your village invaded and burned down, your land taken, your children killed?
This is another book every American should read. I became sick and tired of studying account after account of colonists burning, killing, driving off, ignoring treaties, dehumanizing, slaughtering animals ... No wonder Trump signed an executive order to establish the “1776 Commission” and whitewash our history. Between this book and Caste, we learn some (much? most?) of our history is simply abhorrent.
William Sullivan | Fiction, 2012
William Sullivan CAN write fiction! I have read and perused numerous William Sullivan books, all non-fiction (see my recent review of Listening for Coyote), but this is the first fiction of his I have read. And yes, he is multi-talented. He can write trail descriptions, nonfiction, and fiction.
In this tale, we discover there are two D.B. Coopers ... the Good Cooper and the Bad Cooper. Portland police lieutenant Neil Ferguson leads the search for both of them. Sullivan has well-developed characters, with breadth and depth, and his take is interesting and somehow, credible, more than 40 years after D.B. Cooper hijacked a plane and parachuted out with $200,000 somewhere over the Pacific Northwest.
I finally decided to go with three hearts because I think The Case of D.B. Cooper’s Parachute is somewhat over-written. I think it could have been tighter, more condensed, a few characters lighter. If you are a Portlandian, or a frequent Portland visitor (I am not), you may particularly enjoy this mystery which, except for a brief foray to Russia, takes place almost exclusively amidst the landmarks and alleyways of Portland.
Margot Leitman | Nonfiction, 2015
I haven’t had this much fun reading a book since Me Talk Pretty One Day. I don’t know how it ended up in my hands. It simply appeared near the end of the list of 20 books I put together during quarantine, when I couldn’t access my favorite hangout in town, the Eastside branch of the library.
But there it was, on my “to read” pile, and I wondered why I wanted to read this book about effective storytelling. I didn’t fit any of the criteria she lists on page xxvii (why do authors label pages “xxvii”? Doesn't life begin on page 1?) for who should read this book. It is for people who make business presentations; are going on job interviews; want to tell stories onstage; are preparing to make a speech for a wedding or funeral; or who are dating. “Dating?” I asked with incredulity. “What does this book have to do with dating?” Then I realized that this book was going to help address one of my deeply held secrets about myself. I am boring.
Be prepared to read the short book with pen and paper in hand. There are many, many prompts, from ones I could easily answer ( _____ makes me cry. _____ makes me so angry) to real mind-benders like “Tell a story about a time I was proven wrong.” Wrong???
You will learn a lot about yourself, maybe create a juicy story, and have fun. Leitman is decidedly entertaining. But be careful when buying or requesting this book. There is a book with the same title that is ten-minute gospel stories for sharing with your children. Unless of course, that actually is the story you want to tell. “The time I bought a book that was the complete opposite of what I was looking for.”
p.s. I couldn’t help but think of many of my friends as I read this book. Leslie and Carol, who are simply enjoying writing. Charlene, who is working on her memoir. Jan, who revels in the form of 50-word stories. Bev, who writes stories and plays. And, above all, Joanne, who helps people tell their stories for a living. (Joanne ... this is an essential book for you! Yes, I will take my 45% cut.)
Have fun. Create, write, and have lots of fun.
Time to do kitty litter now. "Did I ever tell you about the time I was cleaning kitty litter and ....."
Ken Ilgunas | Nonfiction memoir, 2016
Longtime blog readers know I read a lot of books about trails, and the people who walk/hike them and write about their experiences.
Well, Trespassing Across America is about a long hike, too ... only there is no trail. Ilgunas decided to walk the XL Pipeline from its beginning in Alberta to its terminus in Texas. He walks prairies, ranchland, gravel roads, climbs an uncountable number of barbed wire fences, and simply uses his compass to walk south/southeast. He is walking for adventure, and he is also walking to raise awareness of the pipeline. And much of his walk is illegal.
Because he doesn’t wax eloquent about mountain peaks or other hiker’s trail names, and because there is only so much one can say about prairie land and cows, we also learn a lot about the history of the Great Prairie, oil, and environmentalism. Ilgunas is not a staunch environmentalist as the book begins. He is walking and listening to the people he meets in small towns and is open to all ideas and opinions and perspectives on the pipeline, climate change, and government in general. At least until page 190, when he finally takes a stand.
My Canadian readers might particularly enjoy this book, as he doesn’t leave Canada until page 117, so we learn quite a bit about Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the tar sands. And, intriguingly, he doesn’t see a “no trespassing” sign until he crosses the border into the US. Us US-types have an unusual relationship with the land we occupy and believe that we “own” and others should stay off.
This is a worthwhile, interesting, and educational read ...
William Sullivan | Nonfiction memoir, 1988
Over the next few years, it is my intention that my motor-home Udea and I visit many of Oregon’s parks that I have missed along the way. So, I thought reading Listening for Coyote, which is William Sullivan’s journal as he walks from the westernmost point of Oregon to the easternmost point, would be a fine inspiration. And that it is.
This book was published in 1988, the year Beryl and I made Oregon our adopted home. So, fitting for my Oregonian beginnings as well. Of course, things looked different when Sullivan made this 1361-mile solo backpacking trip in 1985. For example, dear Bendites, the Badlands Wilderness was not a reality then. And growing marijuana was illegal and done under circumspect circumstances in the wilderness.
As with other Sullivan writings, he is clear, accurate (or as accurate as one can be in the wilderness), and remarkably observant. This book is rich with tidbits like this, “This ancient Klamath shale is just the place to look for the fossil imprints of trilobites and sycamore leaves, since shale preserves fossils as neatly as wildflowers pressed in the pages of a dictionary.” (pg 68).
I give this book 3 hearts because if you are not an Oregonian and not a Sullivan fan, you might not appreciate it all that much. But my local friends who enter the mountains with pages copied from one 100 Hikes book or another, may just revel in his experiences. I did.
Isabel Wilkerson | Nonfiction, 2020
479 pages (includes 88 pages of notes, acknowledgements, a bibliography, and an index)
In a single word, powerful. I am floored by this book. Wilkerson presents a history of caste. Not race, but caste ... a ”stubbornly fixed ranking of human value.” (pg 24). There are only three examples of caste systems in the modern world. India, Nazi Germany, and the United States. She compares and contrasts these systems, spending most of her time on the US institution of slavery as a prime component of caste in this country.
Of the many, many things I learned, here are three.
- Slavery was in place in America for 12 generations. I knew how many years in my head, but the impact of seeing it in generations is profound.
- The United States served as the model for the Third Reich’s Nuremberg Laws. As they began to define the ideology, the early designers of the Nazi philosophy first looked to the US to understand how we were so effective at institutionalizing racism.
- The caste system provides offers an important explanation for the US 2016 elections. Suicide rates rose among middle-class whites in the late 1990’s as labor unions were eroded, more people of color and women took middle-wage jobs, and there was a general sense of “dominant group status threat.” Plus, a lower caste member rises to the highest station in the land in 2008. The bottom caste seemed to be rising, pushing upon the security of the castes above.
This is a hard book to read. While Wilkerson uses a lot of metaphor, especially early in Caste, to engage the reader, it still is not a story in the way The Warmth of Other Suns was. It is pure non-fiction. And the facts are extremely hard to take.
No question, I highly recommend this book to all of you. It could be required reading for every single student or teacher of American History. It is what “Patriotic education” should really be about … telling the truth. It teaches an important story we never, ever learned in fifth grade.
Lisa Gardner | Fiction, 2009
I ran out of books! Not wanting to drive to the library, I walked down to the bottom of my driveway, to the Little Library I put there on the corner (no surprise, I am sure), and grabbed this mystery to read. It is pretty good!
Sandy Jones disappears one night. Her four-year-old daughter Ree knows more than she is saying. Her husband Jason is, of course, a suspect in her disappearance and possible murder. Then again, the convicted sex offender who lives five doors away is also a suspect. As is the man Sandy had a short affair with. And then there is 13-year-old Ethan, who is in love with “Mrs. Sandra.” What role does he play?
It is an interesting story, and the resolution is clever, I think. This is one of a series of books written by Ms. Gardner about the Boston Police Department investigator, Sargent D.D. Warren. I don’t think the author does a good job at all developing D.D.’s character. The only thing we really learn about her is that she is, um, horny.
So, all in all, a fun and appealing read. Not compelling enough to go chase down more Lisa Gardner books. Read it for fun, but not for any great insight. (As an aside, I think someone turned off their creative genius when they titled this book The Neighbor. Seriously boring and not all that accurate. I would have titled it Steel Doors.)
I now have ten (10!) books in my to-read pile. What is next, I wonder? It is a mystery even to me!
Katherine Keith | Nonfiction memoir, 2020
Epic Solitude is a memoir by a woman who answers a call to find her purpose, her home, and her soul in the wilds of Alaska. She and her husband build a long cabin miles from a road, in the deep wilderness of Alaska. Alaska calls for so much strength, resiliency, sacrifice, hard work, self-knowledge, and the ability to stay warm ... I cannot even begin to imagine it! At one point, in the "Sheefish" chapter, Kat talks about her clothes, including boots that are three sizes too big, to get all her socks in, four tops, three pairs of long underwear, and mitts that are eight times her hand size so she can add so many layers.
Yes, she takes us on numerous dog-sled races across Alaska and into the Yukon Territory of Canada. And these are fascinating! And the book is much more than her physical adventures as a musher and an “iron-woman.” It is about her development from a young girl and a very troubled teen/young woman, struggling with depression, bulimia, and cutting. The first quarter of the book is hard to read at times, as Kat is really mentally unhealthy. But stick with it .... she does heal herself and grows into an unimaginably strong woman who faces and conquers many hardships in her adult Iife.
My three hearts is because I was looking for a wilderness adventure, and this is more the story of her life, and how the wilderness saves her. In truth, it is probably MORE than I anticipated. With that knowledge, you can begin this book with a clearer expectation of what you are taking on, and perhaps enjoy it at a four-heart level. I do recommend it, with that caveat.
Peter Heller | Fiction, 2019
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!
Richard Russo | Fiction, 1996
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.
Jodi Picoult | Fiction, 2018
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.
Richard Powers | Fiction, 2006
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.
Cami Walker | Nonfiction, 2009
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 www.29gifts.org 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.
Emily St. John Mandel | Fiction, 2014
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.
Lily King | Fiction, 2020
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.
N.K. Jemisin | Fiction, 2015
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: http://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/creating-races/
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.
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.
Richard Powers | Fiction, 2018
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.
Darynda Jones | Fiction, 2020
Sunshine Vicram was elected sheriff of her hometown, Del Sol, New Mexico. Which is pretty interesting, considering she wasn’t even a candidate, nor living there. So she and her daughter move from Santa Fe to the “guesthouse” her parents built for her behind their home in Del Sol, and both embark upon reestablishing themselves in a town that has buckets full of memories, some very painful.
We follow Sunshine as she searches for a missing girl, a missing boy, and, in the background, for the identity of the man who abducted her when she was 17. Okay, sounds morbid, eh? But it is not. This is a fun detective novel, reminiscent of Nevada Barr. Sunshine’s 14-year-old daughter Auri is a delightful, smart, major character, as in Sunshine’s BFF, Quincy. And the connections between and among the people of Del Sol are intriguing, reminding me of the town of Three Pines (Louise Penny).
I found the book surprisingly slow to start, but it picks up. Hence the three hearts. The last half is page-turning.
If Sunshine were a male main character, you would throw this book against the wall as offensive and misogynist. You will find you need to decide if you can actually like a main character who ogles every good-looking man she sees, and keeps a running commentary in her mind about his face, chest, muscles, ass. I enjoyed her hormone-driven fantasies, but don’t tell my friends. My feminism may come into question(!)
Colin O'Brady | Nonfiction, 2020
For someone with a deep fear of the cold (I have Raynaud’s and a slight drop in my core temperature means numb hands, toes, and tongue) this was armchair reading at its brilliant best! Colin O’Brady writes about his attempt to be the first person to cross Antarctica, unassisted and unaided.
I love first person accounts of epic adventures, such as Krakauer, Wells, Honnold, Strayed. O’Brady’s is marvelous. Well written, a page turner, and a powerful adventure sprinkled with some insights and memories. If you like reading about courage, commitment, grit, fear, and accomplishment in the wilderness (along with a potent love story), you will surely enjoy The Impossible First. Great on a hot summer day!!
Jason B. Rosenthal | Fiction Memoir
2020, 239 pages
Too saccharine for me. And Rosenthal can’t write.
This is the story of a widower whose wife published an article titled “You May Want to Marry my Husband” ten days before she died.
Toni Morrison| Fiction, 1970
I watched the PBS special on Toni Morrison, which is excellent, and it inspired me to reread The Bluest Eye. This is the story of Pecola Breedlove, a Black girl In America who has learned racial self-loathing at a very young age, and yearns for the pretty blue eyes that so many White girls have. While sad and insightful, rereading it was not as powerful or profound as I anticipated. If you have never read this first novel by Morrison, I do suggest it. As with all her novels, she tells the stories of being Black from the perspective of being Black. Black readers confirm they see themselves for the first time in literature when they read Toni Morrison.
Yoko Ogawa | Fiction 2003
(English translation 2009), 180 pages
This is a poignant and endearing tale about the Professor who was in an accident 17 years ago. He can remember things from before his accident, but since ... only exactly 80 minutes can he remember. Though many housekeepers don’t last long working with this odd man, one housekeeper manages to forge a brilliant relationship. The Housekeeper and her young son Root come to love this man.
The Professor is a mathematician, and though his short-term memory is gone, his mathematical brilliance remains fully intact. A central theme to this book is the Professor sharing mathematical principles and problems with his caretakers. It probably helps if you have a love for math like I do, or at least a willingness to enjoy its elegance.
Ogawa’s writing simply flows. An example. “I also like the way he wrote his numbers with his little stub of a pencil. The 4 was so round it looked like a knot of ribbon, and the 5 was leaning so far forward it seemed about to tip over.” Pg 62
I highly recommend this beautiful book for a summer afternoon.
Edward Carey| Historical fiction, 2018
Absolutely delightful. Mostly. I found Carey’s writing to be very readable and engaging. And throughout the book are drawings that truly inform the story. (You may not want to listen to this book, but see it visually …)
Anne Marie Grosholtz, soon to be nicknamed Little, was born in 1761 in Alsace, France. As a very young girl, her parents died and she is apprenticed to Dr. Phillipe Curtius, who becomes her mentor and who raises her. Curtius fashions body parts of wax, for use in the scientific and medical communities. But soon, he has an idea to make wax heads, and together Marie and Curtius move to Paris into the home of Widow Picot and her son Edmond, The Monkey House, where they make heads of local personages and also murderers.
Most of the book is about her years as a child, a teenager, and a young adult growing her professional skills, but hated by the Widow Picot. As news of her skill grows, Marie is called to the Palace of Versailles, where the royal family lives, and she befriends and teaches Princess Elizabeth. She lives in a cupboard ... apparently typical of "lesser" people at that time n the Palace.
Delightful writing and a delightful story. About two-thirds of the way in, the turbulent French Revolution throws everything into chaos, and Curtius and Little begin to fashion heads of men who were killed in the revolution. Here is where the book becomes a little less delightful. The author Carey explains the gore and the effects of the French Revolution, but gives no context ... no why, no understanding of the politics. It took him 15 years to write this book. I think he did so much research and knew so much that he lost sight of what his readers did and did not know. The Revolution was not explained, and I found that confusing and lacking.
Many reviewers call this tale macabre. I did not experience it as macabre so much as a story about creativity and innovation; about the development of a unique business proposition; and about bizarre relationships among very-well developed characters. Carey’s characters are rich and deep.
Around the same time that the book begins to explore the Revolution, I went on the internet, seeking to understand some terms and some people and only then discovered that Little is historical fiction, loosely based on the life of Madame Tussaud. I did not know that for most of the book!
I definitely think this book is worth your time. I remain somewhat astounded by the characters and the times in which they live. Little was recommended by my friend Mary who read it in her book club.
Robin DiAngelo| Nonfiction, 2018
I think I am behind my friends and colleagues in reading this book. It was on my list before the pandemic and before George Floyd, but I just read it now (in one Sunday afternoon). Yes, I believe we all should read White Fragility. You might not experience huge revelations, but it will definitely heighten your awareness about the white contexts in which we blindly live. Because I know my perspective is biased as a white, I looked for reviews written by people of color. One black reviewer said this book gave her hope. Another said he thought this book should be required reading for all BIPOCs because it explains so much about the dominant context.
DiAngelo explains what she sees as systemic racism and makes a case for it being systemic white supremacist racism. She sees white supremacy not as a fringe value, but something that is inherent in the system.
I really liked Chapter 10, which demonstrates fragility. How, if you must give me feedback about something I have said or done that might be construed as racist or race-ignorant, you should do so with kindness, and the right tone, at the right time, only after we have built trust, privately, ensuring I am safe, having acknowledged my good intentions .... otherwise I might cry (sucking all the energy and emotion to me instead of you, who felt the impact of what I said). Or walk away. Or get angry. Or sulk. Or disengage. Chapters 9-12, more specifically about fragility rather than systemic racism, are quite powerful and informative.
A difficult sentence I highlighted from the Introduction: I believe the white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define white progressives as white people who think they are not racist, or are less racist, or are in the “choir”, or already “get it.”
While I think her psychological, sociological, and interpersonal views are well-substantiated, some of the more factual components of our history are not her strong points. For example, DiAngelo says Affirmative Action never applied to private companies, only government agencies. Untrue. Private employers who do more than $50,000 business with the government, or who have more than 50 employees were required to develop Affirmative Action Plans. Where is her editor at Beacon Press, and who is fact-checking?
So, in conclusion, yes I recommend this book for anyone who is curious about themselves and their role in systemic racism. And it is neither a long nor a heavy. read.
Ivy Pochoda| Fiction, 2020
First, I digress. I wanted to say that this book is not good writing. But suddenly I realized, what does that mean? What is good writing? What is bad writing? How can I call a book good or bad writing? What the heck do I know?
So, I did some research. I found professors, authors, editors, publishers ... there is almost no agreement on what makes writing good. I often notice at book club someone will say a book was well-written, and someone else will agree. Now I wonder, what do they mean?
Here are six different lists of qualities of good writing ...
- Focus, development, unity, correctness, coherence
- Purpose, audience, clarity, unity, coherence
- Structure, ideas, correctness
- Voice, ideas, presentation, conventions, word choice, sentence fluency
- Bad writing is boring and defensive; good writing makes the reader vulnerable
- Good content, focus, precise language, good grammar
And here are some of the impacts of good writing ...
- Touches the reader
- Makes the reader richer
- Makes the reader want more
- Unveils the unexpected
- Gives insight
- Tells a story
- Makes the reader feel less alone
- Makes the reader ask for more
- Does something with the reader’s feelings
- Makes readers discover what they did not know
So, all of that does not help me assess what is “good” and what is “bad” writing. It feels rather scattered and somewhat subjective. I like writing to engage my mind and heart; interesting language; a sense of purpose; character depth (or depth of concept in nonfiction); ease; fast pace; a path to follow that builds on itself; correct grammar. How do YOU define “good writing”?
Now, on to These Women. We meet characters in bleak and gritty South LA who seem on the surface somewhat disreputable ... prostitutes, workers on the fringes of the sex trade, such as a dancer, a performance artist who douses her naked self with blue paint, the owner of a fish shack, and mothers and fathers of these professional women. And yet, they are all trying to survive in a violent and disrespectful world. Not all of them do survive.
That is where Esmeralda Perry comes in. Essie is a demoted vice cop who sees the patterns and recognizes a serial killer is at work in their midst. And then the mystery unfolds.
So, back to bad writing and good writing. I found the first half of These Women did not have much unity, coherence, connection, or focus. The characters, though deep and quirky, were presented individually, and were confusing. Dead hummingbirds, a white middle-aged female stalker, and a iPhone photographer add spice to their stories. Essie begins to tie the threads of their lives together, at the half-way point in this book, and then a story emerges. The killer, by the way, is not a big surprise, but does have a fascinating psyche.
Yes, it is worth a read about a slice of life you may be as unfamiliar with as I am. Just stay with the puzzlement of the first half. Recommended on NPR.
And let us know how you define “good” writing, please!
Trevor Noah | Nonfiction Memoir 2016/2019
I LOVE this book! If you want to read about a difficult subject, be sure you read it as written by a comedian. Born a Crime is Trever Noah’s memoir about growing up in South Africa during, and shortly after the end of, apartheid. With a black mother and a white father, Trevor was born mixed-race. It was illegal to be mixed-race, hence he was “born a crime.”
I read this book the Fourth of July weekend. It is absorbing. Noah tells such a good story, and you will learn much about the numerous and varied racial groups in South Africa, and the completely illicit distribution of power. It sounds depressing, doesn’t it? But not the way Noah writes it, through the eyes and actions of a child, teenager, and young adult. Noah is now the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, lives in New York City, and his book is truly educational and remarkable. I highly recommend it.
Two interesting facts. There is an adult version and a young adult version. Apparently there is little difference, except swear words like “shit“ are replaced with more socially acceptable words like “poop.” And my friends tell me the audio book, with Trevor Noah reading, is excellent.
Mary Lawson| Fiction, 2002
Crow Lake is described as a “slow-burning” novel. Set in rural northern Ontario, the story reflects the flat hardship of the terrain. Kate, her older brothers Matt and Luke, and her baby sister Bo are orphaned ... and survive together, alone, with the help of their local community. Twenty years later, the poignancy of their stories, and the ways they supported and abandoned one another in their tightly woven familial bonds, continue to impact their lives.
I enjoyed this story, though I won’t give it a wholehearted endorsement. It is a quiet story that will bring to mind your relationships with your siblings, if you have any. I was particularly enamored by the setting, as most of my family lives in Ontario. A personal favorite interaction, which may not bring a smile to your face unless you are Ontario-savvy, is this:
I said, “Haven’t you ever been up north?”
He pondered. “Barrie. I’ve been to Barrie.”
“Barrie! Good God, Daniel! Barrie’s not north!
Jenny Offill | Fiction, 2020
Recommended by my colleague and friend Dan, I don’t seem to understand this little book. Lizzie is a librarian in a University library. She helps her drug-addicted brother cope and maybe recover; she fantasizes about the end of the world and prepares for her “doomstead;” she clearly loves her son Eli and her husband Ben. Some reviewers say she is an amateur therapist, but I see no evidence of that in the book. She asks an insightful question sometimes. That’s all. There are many interesting sentences and paragraphs but no discernible plot. Reviews are mostly 5’s and 1’s ... not a lot of middle road. I will look forward to reading about what you liked about this book, Dan, and anyone else who read it and liked it.
Jennifer Finney Boylan | Nonfiction Memoir 2020
I thought Good Boy: My Life in a Seven Dogs was one of those sappy books where a dog and its owner fall inextricably in love and then at the end the dog dies and the reader weeps. Actually, I was hoping it was one of those books.
It isn’t. Instead it is exactly what it claims to be ... “my life.” It is a memoir of the author’s life, age 11 to age 60-ish. Dogs play an important role, but they are not the central characters. When the book begins, the author is James. When the book ends, the author is Jennifer. Remarkably, she spends nearly 30 years as James before she transitions.
This book is not the least bit preachy or political. It is simply an honest heartfelt story of one person’s life. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this person’s life, other than the obvious truth, and the fact that he and she had some of the most misbehaved and undisciplined dogs I have ever read about. Interestingly, this is at least the fourth memoir Boylan has written about her life (and her 16th book). She apparently tells her story though a variety of lenses, including parenting from both genders.
I enjoyed Good Boy very much. I don’t know how it would read if you have read any of her other memoirs, but this being my first, I found her writing style light, sometimes humorous, (especially about her crazy dogs), vulnerable, very self-aware, and insightful. I both learned and was entertained.
Beverly Daniel Tatum| Nonfiction, 1997/2017
Oh my, I thought I was in real trouble when I started reading this book. The first many pages were statistics and I kept falling asleep. Most of these statistics I already knew, but more important, they were boring to read. I finally wised up on page 44 of the 73(really?) page prologue to the new edition and flipped to the book itself.
I breathed a great sigh of relief. Here was the psychologist, the educator, the writer, the woman with a sociological perspective who wrote about people. Now I could engage with what she was saying. Beginning with differentiating between (individual) prejudice and (systemic) racism, Tatum sheds light on many nuances of racism, from how do you explain slavery to a four-year-old and an analysis of the voices in The Lion King to racial identity, Affirmative Action, and White Supremacy.
In the end, I went back and finished the prologue. The only reason to read the prologue first is if you are uncertain systemic racism exists and you need to be informed and convinced before you would care to read the book itself. Otherwise, save it for last.
I don’t want to recommend this book specifically. There is a plethora of books to read on this topic of racism, activism, identity, history. A library full. And I suspect you will find what I found. On a topic I feel I know something about, there is much, much, much more for me to learn. I don't care what you read. But if you do choose to read something, inspired perhaps by the murder of George Floyd and protests in most every town in our country and beyond, please tell us about it here.
Alix E. Harrow | Fiction 2019
I read a lot. I guess that is obvious if you are reading my blog. Sometimes, oftentimes, I will get into a book and then want to rush through to see what the next magic is in that pile from the library. When I find a book that invites me to slow down and savor every word, well, I simply fall in love. Such is my experience with The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I read it slowly, one chapter at a time. I didn’t want to rush.
January is a girl and young woman living in the early part of the 1900’s, who has a special connection to doors. She learns that doors are portals to “elsewhere.” Her father is off chasing artifacts around the world, while January is raised by a benevolent benefactor. But, of course, all is not as it seems.
This is another debut novel that delights. What is it about debut novels? There is something so fresh ... a new voice, a new intention. I usually have the sense that debut novelists choose every word and write every sentence very carefully.
I happened upon this book through one of those “if you liked that book, you will like this book...” references, with “that book” being The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. The Ten Thousand Doors of January has less magic than Morgenstern’s books do, so I know that Harrow’s realism will appeal to some of my blog readers. I became a bit confused about what was happening around pages 250-300, but recovered by the end, and I sincerely recommend.
Sally Rooney | Fiction, 2018
This is the story of Marianne and Connell. We witness four years of their lives in Ireland, from school through university. They move in and out of each other’s lives, always good friends, sometimes lovers, sometimes not seeing each other for months. But yet, they understand each other. Deeply. In school, Connell was popular and well liked and everyone ignored Marianne. In University, the tables turned and Marianne came into her own, while Connell struggled with shyness and uncertainty. Both, by the way, are brilliant, which perhaps explains much of their attraction to one another.
I sometimes complain about lack of character development, and so I must give credit where credit is due. Sally Rooney has created two immensely rich and well-developed characters, both with flaws, both with gifts. The story is frustrating, as they cannot land on what relationship they want with each other. Sort of like a new jazz improv band that hasn’t figured things out yet. When they come together and play in unison, the music is good. Not yet great, but good. But when they spin off and do their own thing, nothing really clicks, everything is imperfect and out of sync.
My memory of my discovery of this book is indelible. It was March 15 and my friend Carol and I were in Dudley’s bookstore downtown for a cup of tea. We were sitting far apart and didn’t hug and yes, the next day Oregon went into lockdown. On this, my last excursion into the world for a long time, Normal People was propped open on a shelf with a recommendation from a Dudley’s staff member.
I didn’t know how I was going to rate this book until the last page. I give it three hearts. It comes with my recommendation, with a bit of hesitation. It is well-written and an interesting read, but is ultimately unsatisfying in some way. Oftentimes relationships do not fall into easy, explicable molds. This is true for Marianne and Connell. Normal People will make you think.
Chanel Miller | Nonfiction 2019
On January 17, 2015, Chanel Miller (known to the public as Emily Doe) was sexually assaulted outside a fraternity house at Stanford University. This is the true story of the next four years of her life, as told by Chanel.
Wow. I have not been sexually assaulted. I thought I knew intellectually what it was probably like to be living with this experience. What I didn’t know could fill a book. Literally. This book is powerful, educational, and a page-turner. It is an amazing crafting of a memoir. Chanel’s mom, a Chinese immigrant, tells her at one point, “Good and bad things come from the universe holding hands. Wait for the good to come.” (P 138). This statement foretells a long, difficult journey.
Miller’s victim statement was read aloud in the US House of Representatives. Miller was interviewed on 60 Minutes, and Know My Name graced the NYT best seller list, Washington Post’s Top Ten Books of 2019, and “best-selling books” in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
The story is not easy to read, truth be told. And her story must be read. It is important, compelling, and engaging. One reviewer called it “Unapologetically large.” I highly recommend Know My Name.
Mark Kurlansky | Fiction, 2006
A Review in two words: discombobulated and boring. I finished it only because it is a book club read. I kept telling myself I “should” enjoy this more. The title, The Big Oyster, is a play on the nickname, The Big Apple, which is a dead giveaway about the topic of this book. While I adore oysters, Kurlansky’s book is really the story of the history of New York, which is among the more boring topics I can think of.
A number of professional reviewers gave it high ratings. But I also like to peruse Goodreads, which is filled with reviews by regular people, not book reviewers. The Big Oyster has a pretty low overall rating on Goodreads, at 3.9. The readers who liked it became fascinated by the topic and were pulled in.
The one, two, and three star reviews on Goodreads were very similar to my assessment. Unfocused, with digressions stemming off from other digressions. This is more a history of New York through the lens of the oyster, than the story of the oyster itself, which would have been shorter, more pointed, less wandering. And IMHO, less boring.
The moments I DID like were the oyster recipes. Here is a bit from one of the oldest recipes in the book, from an anonymous writer, mid-1600’s. (Page 68). “Shelle oystyrs into a pott and the sewe therwith. Put thereto fayre watyr; perboyle hem. Take hem up; put hem yn fayre watyr. Peke hem clene. Blaunch ...”
Clearly, I cannot recommend this book. However, if you are fascinated by the history of New York City, you might love this book, for it tells the history in quite a unique manner.
Laura Lee Hope | Fiction 1913
Laura Lee Hope is the pseudonym for a group of authors who wrote The Bobsey Twins, The Outdoor Girls, and five other multi-book series for children. When my Aunt Helen died in 2009, I found a box of The Outdoor Girls in her basement. She had 19 of the 23-book series, published between 1913 and 1933. She signed them “Helen Sigetich” and often included a date, 1926 in the first one, or her address, 6550 McGraw. I bought three more to fill in the gaps, but have not yet put my hands on the rare 23rd volume, The Outdoor Girls in Desert Valley.
I read three of them over the last few days, to see what these century-old stories were like. I am impressed with the number of adventures the girls find themselves in, from discovering a lost $500 bill with a note attached, to finding the truth about the white ghost with chains on Elm island. The authors use big words like obdurate and auspicious, and, even as a mature adult in another century, I did not feel talked down to.
It was fun to explore this series of books, set in a time when telephones were not yet in every home, much less any other technology.
I am most curious to know if any of you read this series while a young person? I read The Hardy Boys religiously, and an occasional Nancy Drew, but never anything by Laura Lee Hope. What do you remember?
Nicholson Baker | Nonfiction, 1986 & 2010
It was funny! Yes, this is not a guest blogger! I, Andrea, found this book funny. It is allegedly the story of one escalator ride up to the Mezzanine where our narrator works, but of course that in and of itself would not create a book. So, instead, he goes back to his past, his childhood, to relay stories about the most mundane things. He begins by exploring the CVS bag in his hand, which has shoelaces inside and takes him back to learning to tie his laces. We move on to explore a multitude of items and actions, including, but not limited to, glass milk bottles and the brilliant discovery of coated cardboard with a little V that you make at the top; learning how to turn a t-shirt right side out; the grooves of LP records, and the grooves made by ice skates; how to put on deodorant when you are all dressed; Lorna Doones in the vending machine; the evolution of drinking straws, etc., etc.
We first learn his name when someone greets him as he is peeing at a urinal in chapter 10. It is Howie. Howie is OCD, analytical, and/or has an amazing memory for the little, intricate, repeatable stuff of life. This is all about the little stuff of life.
The Mezzanine has many footnotes, which were quite enjoyable, except a bit hard to navigate in an ebook. Because there was no plot, but only rambling observations, the book became a little tedious for me. Still, Baker is quite a clever writer. And I did laugh often!
Book # 20 during stay-at-home.
Emily St. John Mandel | Fiction, 2020
As The Glass Hotel opens, we meet Paul. We follow Paul from Toronto to a very small town (Caiette) on the very tip of Vancouver Island BC, and back again. And then the time changes. What year are we in? Mandel switches locations, time, and, most important, characters, in a manner that is scratch-my-head confusing. About page 100, I was ready to give up. But I persisted.
For a significant portion of the book, (maybe one-third?) we follow Vincent, Paul’s half-sister. Vincent is the most interesting character in The Glass Hotel. Or, more precisely, she finds herself in the most interesting circumstances. She leaves The Glass Hotel in Caiette, where she works as a bartender, with its wealthy owner, Jonathan Alkaitis, to go to New York and enter the “kingdom of money.” She and Jonathon pretend they are married for three years, until Alkaitis receives a 170-year prison term for designing and managing a Ponzi scheme. Later, Vincent decides to be a cook on a cargo ship.
Her circumstances are interesting, but I don’t think Mandel does a good job of developing characters. Her work with Vincent is the best, but I don’t know much about Vincent’s personality or her feelings or her inner thoughts. We only see her actions. And Alkaitis is just a caricature of a sweet rich guy running a Ponzi scheme.
It feels like Mandel’s book is making a statement, rather than writing a story. However, I am at a loss. The intention of the book in unclear to me, though some reviewers say it points to the capriciousness of life, and so is particularly appropriate for these times.
It wasn’t boring or particularly hard to get through. I just found it rather vapid. I can’t recommend it, I must admit. Though, as always, I look forward to hearing from those of you who loved it!
From The Atlantic, Ruth Franklin: The Glass Hotel is a jigsaw puzzle missing its box. At the book’s start, what exactly it is about or even who the major figures are is unclear…
Raynor Winn | Nonfiction 2018
I love reading journeys of people who walk long trails, whether one of the big three here in the US, in Canada, the Gobi desert, or the Via Francigena. But this is a different kind of long trail journey. There was no hiking with bricks in the backpack to get ready, no planning, no packages of food sent to stops along the way, no farewell party.
Ray and her husband Moth, in their 50s, decide to travel the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path in England when they lose the home and farm they had restored and where they raised their two children, due to a failed investment with Moth’s best friend. They used up all their savings fighting for their home for three years, but ultimately lost the battle. Suddenly, they were penniless and homeless. But four days before that fateful day when the bailiffs arrive to take their home, they had worse news. Moth was diagnosed with a debilitating and terminal disease.
This is their true story as they embark upon a journey to figure out what is next in their lives. And it isn’t a pretty journey. They are neither physically nor psychologically prepared, and they had only the mere basics of backpacking supplies, purchased from eBay. But they had grit. Boy, they had grit.
The Salt Path shifted again my view of homelessness. To a person (almost) the people they meet physically back away the moment Moth or Ray tells them they are homeless. As though it is catching. As though they must be drug addicts or lazy, or as one man says, “tramps.”
I thought Ray Winn’s words were a little long at times, as happens when someone writes their own story. But they were also beautiful, descriptive, artful even, especially as she describes in vivid detail the land, the birds, and the people they meet.
On page 268 I gasped aloud when a small monumental thing happens. I was moved by this book. It will stay with me for a while. It is a story of challenge, devastation, hope, deep love, truth and, of course, grit. Thank you to my wonderful friend Mary for, once again, recommending a real winner.
Lisa Wingate | Fiction 2017
I just reread this book in preparation for book club. (Earlier review below). Loved it the second time through. Book # 16 during stay-at-home.
The Tennessee Children’s Home Society operated a black market adoption agency in the first half of the 20th century, often kidnapping indigent children, glorifying and misrepresenting their pasts, and selling them for a huge profit to wealthy and often famous adoptive parents. This much is known to be true.
Before We Were Yours tells the fictional, though representative, story of five children who lived on the riverboat Arcadia and were kidnapped from their home in 1939 by the Tennessee Children's Home Society. Rill Foss, 12, is the eldest child. And, it tells the story of modern day lawyer Avery Stafford, the daughter of a US Senator, who discovers there may be some hidden secrets in her well-to-do and politically successful family.
This is an extremely well-told story that will hold your attention in the alternating chapters about Rill and Avery. It is sad yet ultimately hopeful. I recommend Before We Were Yours enthusiastically.
JK Rowling | Fiction
I have been rereading Harry Potter. Delightful in this time of seriousness and sadness and challenges. It feeds my soul.
I reread the first four and will now take a break and enjoy some other written adventures before embarking on the last three long books. Maybe the next time we are staying at home again (this summer, this fall?) I will reread Outlander for more good escapism!
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. 1997, 309 pages.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. 1998, 341 pages.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban. 1999, 435 pages.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 2000, 754 pages.
Jane Harper | Fiction 2018
I read the four-page prologue to Jane Harper’s novel The Lost Man and, though I was sitting in my reading chair with my dogs at my feet, I was transported to the Australian Outback. I was slightly disoriented; her writing was so powerful, I was there, in the Outback.
Brothers Nathan and Bub Bright meet each other at the fence line separating their cattle ranches in the Outback of Australia, to find their third brother Cameron dead at the stockman’s grave. What was he doing out here, his Range Rover nine kilometers away, in a land where you can barely be outside your car during the heat of Christmas week and survive? How did he die? Why did he leave his car? Was it suicide? Something more nefarious?
The scale of the land and the scale of the story both impressed me. It takes four hours to drive from one end of Cameron’s land to the other, and Nathan’s land, not as large, abuts it. It is a very lonely place with dirt tracks for roads. The driveway to the family home where Cameron lives with his wife, two children, his mother, a longtime manager, and his younger brother Bub, is 29 km, 12 miles long.
The narrative is about family dynamics and the discovery of what happened to Cameron, but there is so much more in the story than Cameron’s ill-fated journey. Harper explores love, loyalty, family abuse, and the unique art of living isolated in very rough land, hours away from others.
One reviewer’s words: “part family drama, part indelible ode to the Outback.” I can’t help but recommend this book. Yes, I am enamored by the Australian Outback, which made it doubly pleasurable for me to read. Yes, there is mystery. Yes, it is a gripping story with wonderful rich characters. Yes, it is worth your time.
Louise Penny | Fiction 2007
As with my other two Louise Penny reviews, Still Life and A Fatal Grace, I enjoy the village of Three Pines near Montreal and it’s delightful residents, and Armand Gamache, the Chief Inspector who shows up for every murder; but I don't find her stories quite compelling enough. They are sweet mysteries. Again, I will use the word “gentle.” If you are a Penny fan, and I know some of you are, The Cruelest Month is as good as Penny delivers ... you will enjoy. There is an important denouement in this book.
This is my 11th book completed in the time of quarantine. I am looking forward to picking #12. I still have my (dwindling) pile of unread books stacked with their spines against the wall, so this afternoon I will pick at random my next read!
Lest you think I am just whiling away my shelter-at-home reading hours consuming delightful novels, I thought I would share the three non-fiction books I have read so far.
Reverse Mortgages by Wade Pfau, 2018, 142 pages
I have been considering a reverse mortgage for years. But now, with my retirement accounts down 16%, I am getting serious. I have been educating myself and found a really good resource that is not written by a mortgage broker or loan officer. Wade Pfau is a PhD, Professor of Retirement at the American College of Financial Services. His book debunks many of the myths associated with reverse mortgages and explains them in (mostly) lay-person language. The money available to us in retirement consists of our retirement portfolio + social security + pensions + home equity. Home equity has a large role in this equation for many of us, and need not be ignored. I am now definitely taking steps to initiate a reverse mortgage. This book is useful for any US homeowner.
Watercolor Without Boundaries, by Kathryn Holman, 2010, 176 pages
This is my second Holman watercolor book, and I must admit I like her style. Watercolor Without Boundaries is dense, with a lot of technique in it. The second half includes quite a bit about adding collage papers, etc., which I am not ready for yet, but I have a plethora of painting ideas to try from her lovely work! Only a few of my readers will find this book appealing.
Chess for Dummies by James Eade, 2016, 391 pages
I am really glad Marian and Lois and I decided to learn chess at Chess.com, as the lessons are visual, instructional, and interactive. Chess for Dummies, however, is great to have as a reinforcement and a reference, when you forget what a pin, a fork, and a skewer are. Only for those very few of you who have “learn chess” on your bucket list.
I own all three of these books, so if you want to borrow one, please let me know!
Anne Griffin | Fiction 2019
This is our Deschutes County community read for 2020. As always, the selection committee did a fine job. This is the 17th year we have had a community read, and I haven’t missed one. When All is Said is a short book, and a very sweet read. I cried at the end of the first chapter, and again at the end of the last. I think it is quite a testimonial to the author to have imbued such caring in me, the reader, that after just one chapter, I am emotionally affected.
This is Maurice’s story. 84 years old, each of the five middle chapters in When All is Said is a toast to someone very important in his life. Through these toasts, we learn his history and the history of his family. The toasts are to: his older brother Tony; the baby he and Sadie lost, Molly; his sister-in-law Noreen; his son Kevin; and, of course, his recently deceased wife, Sadie.
His life, which is in Ireland, is not all that extraordinary or unusual, yet Griffin tells it with such grace and sensitivity, it is moving. A beautiful and insightful book about grief, love, legacy, and joy.
This is another astounding debut novel. I wonder what will be next from Anne Griffin. She was supposed to present here in Bend in early May, flying over from Ireland. I know that will not happen now. I look forward to seeing what we substitute. I hope there is a video or a Zoom with her.
Madeline Miller | Fiction 2018
Circe is born to Helios and Perse as an odd child. She seems a god without power, without beauty, without much to make her attractive to her family or the sea of nymphs and gods who surround her as she grows up. But she discovers she is a witch and learns to love mortals who love her back. To resolve a feud, Helios and the great god Zeus create a pact, and a part of that pact is Circe is banished to the isle of Aiaia, where she is to live alone, amidst lions and pigs and laurels and flowers. It is here she really hones her occult skill of casting spells.
Of course, she is exiled, but that doesn’t mean she cannot have visitors. She crosses paths with many of mythology’s greats ... the Minotaur, Daedalus, Icarus, Hermes, Athena, and a central figure of this period of her life, wild, wise, and violent Odysseus.
This is a beautiful, intoxicating, and brilliant book, extremely well-written and a page-turner. Miller is an exquisite author. My only regret is that my book club did not select this book last year; it was recommended by Linda. Absolutely, Circe is a meaningful and powerful mythological read, and a tale of women's power. I recommend it highly.
Book #5 of the quarantine time.
Colin Cotterill | Fiction 2019
Dr. Siri Paiboun is the National Coroner of Laos, retired. In this book, set in 1980, Dr. Paiboun and his wife Daeng are first threatened through a note attached to the tail of their dog Ugly. It is written in English, so it takes a few days for them to find a translator. Suffice it to say, Siri, and everyone he knows and loves, could lose their lives to someone seeking violent revenge in the next two weeks.
But who wants him dead? To search for the answer, we travel back to Paris in 1932, Saigon in 1956, and Hanoi in 1972, though we spend most of our time in Vientiane, Laos, where Siri lives. Life goes on as usual. He and Daeng run a noodle shop, and Siri’s best friend Civilai, as well as the chief of police and other important characters, all work to find the revenge-seeker.
I like Cotterill’s writing! His story is good, well-paced and interesting, and his writing is captivating. I actually laughed a few times, and this isn’t designed as a funny book ... it is designed as a mystery. Here is one of my favorite examples of Cotterill’s writing, “It’s called brainstorming,” said Siri. “You just say things for no apparent reason until you accidentally stumble upon a truth. It’s like politics.” (pg. 153)
So, why three hearts instead of four? My fault, really. I didn’t realize this was the 14th book in a series! There isn’t enough character development or context for me to really understand the nuances of the relationships, their history, and the town. If you are interested in exploring the Siri Paiboun series, you might want to start with the first book, The Coroner’s Lunch, written in 2004.