Dusty Shelves Book Blog

 

Tin Man

Sarah Winman | Fiction 2017

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Ellis and Annie and Michael are in love with each another.  It is a nearly perfect love.  Tragic, yes, but also full of soul, depth, authenticity, tenderness, laughter, play, learning, exploration, and intensity.

If I were an English Professor, I would assign this book as a study of character and relationship development.  Ellis and Michael are particularly strong souls, whom we discover so much about.  Winman has done an extraordinary job of delving into the hearts and souls of these two men, and providing us with a window.  Though the location and the timing, recent decades in Oxford, add much context and beauty to the tale, they are not central to the story line.  In some ways, this could be three people anywhere.

The reviews on this are all-or-nothing.  People love this book or hate it and are bored to tears.  People think Winman did a superb job with character development, or a truly lousy job.

I wish this was a book club because I would like talk about the roles that were played by sunflowers, swimming, mothers, and floorboards.  My friend Rene recommend this short novel.  I will be eager to hear if you love it or hate it ...

 

A Single Thread

Tracy Chevalier | Fiction 2019

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The broderers did exist and did create embroidery for Winchester Cathedral.  Louisa Pesel was renowned for her designs and she has a history of accomplishments before leading the project to embroider for the cathedral.  Interestingly, embroidery was taught to men in WWI as a form of occupational therapy, to help them deal with their physical and mental trauma.

From the very first page I anticipated that this would be a novel that was finely written with much attention to detail.  And I was not wrong.  Chevalier (this is her 11th novel) is a master of character development and scenery description.  She places you right in context, in her main character’s heart and mind.  She is perhaps most famous for The Girl with a Pearl Earring.  

The time is 1932.  Violet Speedwell, 38, lost her brother and her fiancé in World War I.  She is now one of the “surplus women” of her time.  Too old to marry, not likely to have children, “spinsters” in the awfullest sense of that word.

But Violet strikes out on her own, leaving her hyper-critical mother behind.  Moving to Winchester from Southampton, she takes a room in a boarding house, is a typist for an insurance company, and soon discovers the broderers, who are embroidering kneelers and cushions for Winchester Cathedral.  She demonstrates her talent and becomes one of them.  Of course, this action opens her to become self-sufficient (if quite poor), develop friendships, learn about the art of bell ringing, and perhaps even to fall in love.

This is a story of the times after WWI in England, of friendship, of the strict roles men and women held at this time, of maturing into one’s own person, and of the beauty of needlepoint.  Though the topic might seem rather odd to some readers, its uniqueness is part of its charm, and I am giving it a full four hearts.

Recommend by numerous publications as one of the best books of 2019 including The Week, Time, Real Simple, Goodreads, and Overdrive.

 

Metropolitan Stories

Christine Coulson  |  Fiction 2019

It is my fault this book is receiving one heart.  I seem to have misheard or misunderstood the interview I listened to on NPR.  The author is a 25-year veteran of the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  As I understood from the interview, this short book was filled with vignettes written by the pieces of art in the Met.  It sounded as though the pieces of art were going to speak and tell a story.  In the first chapter, this is what happens.  A 1749 chair crafted for the Duchess of Parma is eager to attract a modern-day child to her lap, to drool and wiggle.  She cheers this little guy on!  But mom reaches out in the nick of time and grabs the little boy before he is able to put his rump or even his fingers on the chair.  The chair was sad.  Ingenious!

In the second chapter, the Director of the Museum is looking for a Muse to bring to a meeting.  The curators of numerous exhibitions bring more than a hundred art pieces to the Director’s office.  The Three Graces, naked, headless, and inextricably linked together, are sent back.  “They shuffled out clumsily. The stuttering step of the conjoined, silent in their headless disappointment.”  (pg 16) Zeus’s nine daughters disagree over whether the Director is “a real creep” or “hot” or “a total god.” (pg 17)  Broken and naked women muttering among themselves arrive from the Romans and Greeks section, and the Director simply stares.

These chapters were absolutely delightful!

And then, they were done.  I made it through 2/3rds of the book, but Coulson left her artwork behind and told stories of some of the 2200 members of the Met staff.  Unfortunately, since she spent 25 years there, she must have assumed these stories were unique and bizarre and interesting, but you could tell the exact same stories (in a different physical setting) about the high technology and hospital organizations I have worked in.  Not interesting.

Maybe she is inspired by her own Muse and creates other stories from works of art by the end of the book, but I perused to the end and didn’t see any more.  She certainly seems to have the ability to do so.

I SO wish she had written what I though she had written, rather than what she actually wrote!

 

Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home

Heather Anderson | Nonfiction 2019

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Heather Anderson was the fifth person overall and the first woman to hike the Triple Crown (the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail) in one year.   She holds the women’s Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Appalachian Trail, and the FKT on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), having bested the male holder of that title by four days.  She is humble and not much interested in publicity.  She tried marriage and a job for a while, but they just didn’t take.

This is the autobiographical story of her 60-day record breaking PCT hike. This is no Wild.  Heather, whose trail name is Anish, is clearly a highly experienced hiker. Since 2003, she has hiked over 30,000 miles ... longer than the equator.  Thirst tells her story on the PCT, a solo hiker who does things her way (she hikes in sundresses!) for an average of 42 miles a day.  Aptly titled, she began in the desert at the south terminus on June 8 .... the hot dry desert.  This is a serious hiker’s journey.   As she is traveling alone, she is also quite introspective.  I found her philosophizing to be insightful and timely, though her self-esteem could use some reinforcement.  If you like wilderness adventures, you will eat this one up. (Or should I say, “drink” it up.)

Heard on OPB.

Never Have I Ever

Joshilyn Jackson | Fiction 2019

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The story opens at a neighborhood book club.  Suddenly the woman renting the Air B&B down the street, Angelica Roux, knocks on the door and decides she is going to join.  Pouring excessive amounts of alcohol for all who are in attendance (none of which does she contribute), powerful Roux takes over the book club, eventually getting the drunk women to play an adult version of “Never Have I Ever” and revealing secrets about themselves they would not reveal to anyone.

I thought at first, this was going to be rather silly.  But it doesn’t take long to figure out that Roux is one very evil person, with her eyes set on blackmail.  As the tale progresses, it actually becomes a thriller, with Roux manipulating our major character, Amy Whey, through her painful past that Amy has held secret, even from her beloved husband, Davis.  Amy can neither give her what she wants – cash – nor reveal the sins of her past.  So she must figure out how to out-maneuver Roux.  And Amy has no experience at such detective work and maneuvering.

Roux's son Luca and Amy's daughter Maddy form another subplot, and scuba diving plays a major role in this drama from Pensacola, Florida.  This book was recommended by Time magazine in an article called “Summer Thrills.”  It is worth your time.  About half-way through, you may be turning pages as fast as I did.

 

Evvie Drake Starts Over

Linda Holmes | Fiction 2019

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As Evvie is packing her car with her one blue suitcase on the day she has chosen to leave her husband, the phone rings.  Tim, Evvie’s husband, has been killed in an auto accident.  Evvie’s relationship with grief is, no surprise, rather confused and convoluted!

This is the story of her life after Tim’s death – not at all maudlin or sad.  She decides to rent out the apartment in her house, and rents it to Dean, a former major league baseball pitcher who has the “yips.”  He suddenly is no longer able to pitch and he gets fired from the Yankees.

Reviewers used words like “pleasant” and “smart” and “sweet.”  These are rather accurate.  This is a pleasant and uplifting novel.  Holmes does a good job of exploring the friendships in the novel … Evvie with her best friend Andy; Andy with Dean – they have been friends since grade school; and, of course, the new relationship, Evvie and Dean.

Read this for fun, not for a big message!

 

 

Sourdough

Robin Sloan |  Fiction, 2017

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I found Sourdough to be foolish and a waste of time.  Lois Clary is a programmer of robotic arms for a high technology company in San Francisco.  Her favorite take-out restaurant shutters its doors because its owners have lost their green cards, and they will onto Lois, “their number one eater,” their sourdough starter.  Lois proceeds to bake sourdough bread (perfect every time ... has Sloan ever baked at all?) and, of course, this action is life- and career-changing.  I don’t think Sourdough has anywhere near the depth, interest, and charm of Sloan’s earlier novel,  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

 

The Testaments

Margaret Atwood | Fiction

2019

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It is 15 years after the events recorded in The Handmaid’s Tale and not all is well in Gilead!  This is the story of the demise of Gilead, as told through the eyes of three women who lived it.

Two were young women.  One grew up in Gilead as the daughter of an important Commander; the other grew up in Canada, a small distance from the borders of Gilead, protesting and marching against the horrors of Gilead that we learned about in The Handmaid’s Tale.  The third woman is older – Aunt Lydia – probably the most powerful woman within the Gilead culture.  The stories of these three characters come together in ways that are touching and difficult.

Atwood is a superb writer!  Her sharp commentary and clear visuals will keep you engaged in this page-turner.  How does Gilead come to its demise?  The Testaments is suspenseful and, being dystopian, also psychologically scary at times.  Atwood attempts to explain the inner workings of women (and a sub-culture) we may find difficult to understand, not being members of the oppressive Gilead society.

This is a fine sequel to The Handmaids Tale and I surely recommend it.

 

Once Upon a River

Bonnie Jo Campbell |  Fiction, 2011

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Washington Post “100 Books for the Ages” Age 17

It has been a long time since I was 17, and I don’t know a 17-year old, but I am struggling to understand why Once Upon A River was chosen by the Washington Post as the most important book for a 17-year old to read.  Our hero, Margo, is 15 when the story begins.  She is raped twice in the first 100 pages and is obsessed with guns, killing any male deer that happen by her home and cabin on the Stark River in Michigan. Reviewers laud her journey, her bravery, her coming-of-age when she leaves her family home and ventures out onto the river in her rowboat.  However, she never travels more than 30 miles upstream on the river, only to places she has been before. She finds a roof for her head in two cabins that belong to her cousins, and she is overly reliant on men, living first with Brian and then Michael.  And then taking succor from XXX (yes, that is all we learn of his name) and Smoke, during her not-very-adventurous trip downstream.  And there are no women characters except for a few cameos, the mom who abandons her, and the angry and worried nieces of Smoke. This is no story I want a teenager to read and take wisdom from.

As an adult, it is an okay-interesting tale, but with so many books calling out to you from your dusty shelves, like mine, I would forgo this one.

 

Find Your Artistic Voice

Lisa Congdon

Nonfiction, 2019

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I loved this book!  I was searching for books on my finding my artistic style, when I ran across this gem in the St. Louis Art Museum.  The first insight I learned from Ms. Congdon is that “style” is only one piece of the picture.  Style is the look and feel of your work.  Skill is the second component; and subject matter is the third.  Media -- the substance and tools you use to give expression to your voice -- and consistency are the final two components of voice.

Your story, history, experiences, passions, culture, values, truths, dreams, fears, race, gender, identity ... all of these and more contribute to your “Voice.”  What struck me in reading her perspective on Voice is that it isn’t just relevant to artists.  It seems finding your Voice as an entrepreneur, as a community member, as a career person is vital.

As I read this book I recalled the first piece of art I ever bought.  It was a pen and ink drawing sold at the Summer Festival in Ann Arbor, circa 1973. This memory contributes useful images to my own Voice.

This may not resonate with you, but if it does, pick up this little gem.  It has lots of artistic illustrations in it, no surprise!

 

The Reckoning

John Grisham

Fiction, 2018

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I expect great courtroom scenes from Grisham, but what surprised me is how powerful his war descriptions are in this book.  Our major character and murderer (we learn this in Chapter 1), Pete Banning, kills the local pastor in his office in broad daylight and never for a moment denies that he did so, AND never explains his motives.  In section one, "The Murder," we follow Pete’s imprisonment and trial.

Section two, "The Boneyard," provides us with a devastating back story of Pete in the Philippines during WWll, fighting as a soldier, and then as a POW in extremely brutal circumstances, and then as a guerilla.

In "The Betrayal," the third section, the story is satisfactorily completed.

This is a rich Grisham and yes, I recommend it.

 

 

Before We Were Yours

Lisa Wingate | Fiction

2017

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(I have been traveling, can you tell?  Three reviews at once!)

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.

Careful What You Wish For

Hallie Ephron | Fiction

2019

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It calls itself a “suspense” novel, but it is light reading.  At first, I was concerned it was rather juvenile ... fits perfectly in the “written for grade 6” NYT list.  It IS rather juvenile, easy to read and enjoy.  About half-way in, we get to the murder and the plot thickens considerably.  At this point, it becomes more intriguing and more “who done it?”

The plot is original.  The main character, Emily, has just opened a professional organizing business, Freeze-Frame Clutter Kickers. One weekend, she and her business partner Becca acquire two new clients, Mrs. Murphy, who just discovered her recently deceased husband had a storage unit she knew nothing about, and Quinn Newell, a woman suddenly desperate to remove all of her belongings from her husband’s house.  It turns out neither of these clients are quite what they seem; not at all.  And a murder ensues.

I want to recommend Careful as beach reading, but it is October.  It will do fine for a rainy autumn weekend, along with a cup of tea, when you don’t want to tax your brain.

Recommended by Jamie Lee Curtis in Time magazine

 

 

Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders | Fiction

2017

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I was intimated by Lincoln in the Bardo from the first I heard of it.  Over 100 characters.  But then my friend and college roommate Janet (Janet is an Abe Lincoln aficionado.  She even belongs to a Lincoln book club.  At which she met the author George Saunders) shared the secret with me ... listen to the audiobook.  Audiobooks typically have one, sometimes two readers, but Lincoln in the Bardo made publishing history. There are 166 voices in the audiobook.  All professionals.

I feel like I am writing a review of a play.  Listening to all those voices drew a surprisingly vibrant picture of the Bardo; it doesn’t feel like a book to me.

The Bardo is the place souls go when they disconnect from their bodies after death, but before they are reincarnated again.  The tale begins with the (historically accurate) death of Lincoln’s son Willie, at the age of 13, from typhoid fever.  The thread that runs through the book is Willie’s experience in the Bardo ... his first full day.

I wondered if a greater knowledge of history was important, but two of the major characters, Hans Vollman (voice by Nick Offerman) and Roger Bevins III (voice by David Sedaris) appear to be fictional characters.  We meet many other characters (another 160 or so!) in the Bardo.  It is a rather disheartening place, where souls bring all the good and bad of their lives in the “previous place” to be examined and often judged harshly.  But we keep returning to Willie and his father Abe, tying the story together.

There are wonderful interludes in which the narrator reads from a vast array of historical books and papers on whatever subject us at hand ... from the color of Abe’s eyes to Willie’s funeral.  No two historical records seem to agree on much of anything!

I could have rated this book 2, 3, or 4 hearts, at various times in the listening.  Truthfully, I don’t quite understand it.  I wonder why Saunders found it so important to have so much sex and swearing,  but he did.  I do not know if there is a message, or even a plot.  Yet, it is quite a vivid experience to read/listen to it.  A week later, I keep thinking about it.

Go ahead, give Lincoln in the Bardo a try, and, do, for heaven’s sake, comment here!

Recommended by Sara in book club and reconfirmed by Janet.

 

Ayesha at Last

Uzma Jalaluddin

Fiction, 2018

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Debut novels tickle me.  Sometimes I want to shake the authors and tell them what few tidbits I might have on character development or grammar usage.  And sometimes I simply delight in a new perspective, a new story, a new voice.  Ayesha at Last is a delightful new voice.

The setting is a Toronto, which immediately captured my heart.  The major characters, Ayesha, Khalid, and Hafsa are young 20-something Muslims trying to make their way in the modern world.  Given their religion and traditional families, everything is called into question, from love, to arranged marriages, to women at work, to relationships with mothers.

Immature Hafsa is plotting to receive 100 marriage proposals ... a personal goal. But other people in her life can get hurt by such a strategy.  Her cousin Ayesha, older and more mature, working as a teacher, is much more sensible and knows she doesn’t want someone else choosing a husband or a career for her.  She gets herself drawn into a false identity, which stretches the credibility of Jalaluddin’s story a bit, but helps us to see Ayesha’s complexity and loyalty to family. Finally, Khalid, smart, conservative, educated, well-employed, judgmental, and awkward is also authentic, honest, and handsome — a worthy love interest!

Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed Ayesha at Last and it comes with my full recommendation.  The back cover says it is “A modern-day Muslim Pride and Prejudice. Huh.

 

The Friend

Sigrid Nunez

Fiction, 2018

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

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

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

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

Unsheltered

Barbara Kingsolver |  Fiction, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

 

Past Tense

Lee Child | Fiction

2018

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

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

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

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

 

Still Life

Louise Penny | Fiction

2005

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

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

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

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

Charlie Parker Played Be Bop

Chris Raschka, 1997

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

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

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

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

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

 

Black is the Body

Emily Bernard

Nonfiction, 2019

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

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

Yes, definitely four hearts.

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

 

A Wolf Called Wander

Roseanne Parry

Fiction, 2019

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

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

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

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

 

The Intuitionist

Colson Whitehead |  Fiction, 1999

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

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

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

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

Lost & Found

Jacqueline Sheehan|  Fiction

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

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

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

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

 

My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante | Fiction

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

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

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

The Truths We Hold

Kamala Harris |  Nonfiction

No Rating

Racial – Restorative – Environmental – Reproductive – Economic – Healthcare – Gender – Social - Poetic

Those are the words I heard or read in the five days after declaring my intention to explore and rediscover the word “justice.”  Justice in my mind has become so ubiquitous that I’m not sure what it means anymore.  And it is a word applicable to every societal ill we can imagine.  Appropriate?  Perhaps.

On declaring my intention to re-educate myself about justice, an important concept to me, I asked my colleagues to recommend reading.  Two suggested this book. I decided not to rate Harris’s published work because I wasn’t reading it as a book, I was reading it as a research project.  I also wasn’t reading it to understand Kamala Harris’ policies or platforms in her attempt on the White House.  I read The Truths We Hold with a very focused lens: to learn what ‘justice” means to her. And I received an excellent education.

Harris was born breathing justice.  It was a part of her childhood, as she learned from and observed her mother; a passion of her adolescence; the source of her teenage and adult activism.  She has had jobs in the arena of legal justice, but even this taps on so many of the items listed above.  And below.

Aspects of justice she addresses in her book (I probably missed some)

  • Criminal justice 
  • Bail system justice 
  • Marriage equality justice
  • Hate crimes justice
  • Black lives matter
  • Human trafficking 
  • Transgender justice
  • Children’s justice
  • Justice for Dreamers
  • Labor justice
  • Women’s justice
  • Economic justice
  • Climate change justice
  • Water justice 
  • Health care justice
  • Education justice
  • Immigration justice
  • Mental health justice
  • Public health policy
  • Access to addiction treatment 
  • Environmental justice
  • Election infrastructure justice
  • Drought/fire/flood/pandemic justice  
  • Refugee justice

Wow.

 

Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve

Ben Blatt |  Nonfiction

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If you LOVE reading fiction and can manage simple arithmetic comparisons, such as 32% vs 78%, you just may love Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve as much as I did.  Blatt does arithmetic comparisons among 1500+ books by famous and successful authors, to answer such questions as:

  • Did Hemingway really use fewer “ly” adverbs than other authors?  And who uses them the most?
  • Do male and female authors use different words?  (we do)
  • Is there an underlying “signature” for an author that can identify who wrote the book, whether written alone or as a co-author?
  • What are our favorite authors’ favorite words (and oh, by the way, how do they differ for British and American authors)?  I am going to run a test on my blog posts for my “favorite” words.

The fascinating and illuminating patterns he reveals will inform your reading and your writing.  

Blatt also offers data-based evidence to support my occasional rant about the New York Times Bestseller list.  When considering the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test, the median grade for books on the NYT list in the 1960’s was 8.0.  In the 2010’s, it has dropped to 6.0.  Our most popular books are filled with simpler sentences and have been “dumbed down.” This isn’t all bad, of course.  It makes books accessible to more readers.  AND there is a price we pay for less challenging reading.

I adore this book. (“Adore” is probably a word used more by female authors, I would venture).  I highly recommend it.

p.s.  My most used words are relevant to the topic.  I used “read” 397 times.  I used “write or writer or writing” 118 times.  Beyond that, more content related words I use frequently: “fun” or “funny(36); “style”(28); “engaging”(14); “warm 11); “profound”(10).

The Color of Law

Mark Gimenez |  Fiction

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What fun to read a page-turning legal thriller by an author I have not read before!  Scott Fenney is the lawyer, earning $750,000 per year and all the perks at a prestigious Dallas law firm, when a Judge assigns him a pro-bono federal murder case.  Fenney is thrust into the moral dilemma of his life, between his law career to date, and doing some actual good in the world.

Senator Mack McCall is a presidential hopeful, about to announce his intentions, when his son Clark is murdered, allegedly by heroin-addicted hooker Shawanda Jones, whom he picks up for a night of drugs and sex.  Significant pressure is exerted on Scott Fenney by the political machine that does not want Clark’s sordid past to be introduced in the trial.  Most of the novel is about Scott’s battle within himself, way before he battles in the courtroom.

This is an easy enjoyable read.  Gimenez isn’t a perfect writer, IMHO.  He rather obsesses with the dilemma Scott is facing, and I found him repetitive in his description of the internal challenges Scott is facing as he loses all the structures that have come to define his life.  I wanted more depth and less repetition.  That being said, this was not enough to reduce my rating of four hearts.  It is still an engaging read, and I would like to try this author on a different novel.  He has published 14 and this was his first.

Thank you, brother David, for the new author suggestion!

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Mildred D. Taylor |  Fiction

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Washington Post “100 Books for the Ages” Age 12

The Washington Post put together a very interesting list … 100 of the best books, one for every age.  I have already read 29 of them (assuming you count the Outlander series, age 66, as one book!)  I have selected 11 more to read.  So, over the next few months, I will weave these books in.  The link for the list is below, and I would love to hear what you select to read from the list!!

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

I quite liked Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry for many chapters.  The time is 1933, deep in the depression; the main character is Cassie, a fourth-grade black girl living with her two younger brothers, one older bother, mom, dad, and Big Mama in Mississippi on cotton-growing land they bought.  They are poor, black, and living at a very difficult time in our country.  I really appreciated Cassie’s innocence and what you could see right from the start was going to be big learning for her … painful, difficult, important learning.  In her naivete, she wants to know why the white kids have a bus to take them to and from their school, but the black kids all have to walk to their school.  She is curious about the bus, but it never even occurs to her to raise the question, why are there two schools?  I really liked seeing the world through her eyes, and I thought the author did this well.  I was ready for four hearts and a recommendation that this was a book we all should read … to be reminded again.

But then the author threw in a whole cadre of adult relationships, difficulties, racism, and lynching.  I could not keep track of these white and black families … the Wallaces, The Simmes, the Avery family, Mr. Granger, Mr. Jamison, Mr. Harrison.  I couldn’t keep straight who was who, I am uncertain that a 12-year-old could.  Then again, maybe they would do a better job than me.

More than anything, I felt sadness at the loss of voice, of perspective.  While Taylor kept returning to Cassie and her thoughts, feelings, and reactions in the situations that presented themselves, I felt we lost Cassie’s voice, and for that I was disappointed.

Aging: An Apprenticeship

Nancy Narboe, Editor |  Nonfiction

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This is a book of essays, 56 in all, about aging.  It starts with “Nearing 50” and ends with “The 90s and Beyond.”  It is an interesting collection.  This is NOT a book about “How to have a New Career in Retirement” or “Managing Your Money so that the Last Check Bounces” or “What to Do When You Become Obsessed with Reading the Obituary Column” or “Foods to Keep You Alive ‘til 95.”  There’s no advice.  Instead, we read writers, famous writers, accomplished writers, writing about their perspectives on growing older.  Sometimes they are quite funny.  And sometimes they are sad.  But always they are provocative.

Here is a sampling of some that I liked, or have cool titles:

  • On Interruptions by Sarah Ruhl
  • Lessness by Lance Olsen
  • Women Over Fifty - The Invisible Generation by Hilary Mantel
  • Passing Fifty by Mark Greene
  • Beyond Chagrin by David Bradley
  • On Not Wanting Things by Jane Miller (in which she discuses non wanting to shop for clothes anymore, much to the disdain of her four granddaughters)
  • Passing for Young-ish by Christian M Lyons 
  • On Throwing Out My Journals by Jane Bernstein (just the title alone makes my heart skip a beat)
  • Where Have All the Old Ladies Gone by Molly Giles 

Some of the places we visit to look at our age

  • A crazy bike ride down Ninth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan  
  • Grandmother’s house in Japan
  • A small university town with a roadrunner
  • Two-inch hail and a tornado in the Black Hills of South Dakota  

And, of course, I will read anything by Ursula K. LeGuin.  And Ram Dass has an essay in here.  Gloria Steinem, too.

If you are growing older and are “Nearing 50” or beyond, you will find something to like in this book.  You won’t like every single essay.  I didn’t.  But it has much fine writing to keep your attention.  Most of the essays are three pages long; some are as long as seven pages, so if you don’t like a particular writer’s voice, you won’t have to commit to him/her for very long. I look forward to our book club discussion, where we are all beyond “Nearing 50.”  Thanks, Linda, for an evocative suggestion.

Comics for Choice

O.K . Fox, Hazel Newlevant, & Whit Taylor, Co-editors | Nonfiction

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I was quite excited to read this anthology of abortion stories, written and drawn by 60 contributors and artists and compiled into a “graphic novel” format.  It disappointed a bit because I was hoping for more personal stories about women and their choices.  In the beginning of the book especially, there were more educational and historic stories rather than personal stories, but the personal individual stories are more frequent in the second half.  Also, for some unknown reason, many of the stories about laws are about Texas laws.  I don’t know why.  I have reread the editors’ notes twice now, looking for an explanation of this, but it seems the editors didn't notice!

That being said, I recommend this quick read.  I learned a lot about a topic I know something about.  Have you heard of Jane?  I had not. Fascinating.  Do you know about the drug combination of Mifepristone and Misoprostol?  Important.  I will say that this book inspired me to donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds before I gave myself permission to write my blog posting.  That says a lot for the power of the book.

I bought a used copy of Comics for Choice.  The single copy my library had has “gone missing.” I wonder what happened to it.  Did a pro-choice person keep it and give it away to a friend?  Or was it an anti-choice person who wanted it removed from the shelves, and therefore stole it?  Either way, I would love to give my copy to one of you who wants to read it.  If you like it, you can pass it on.  Be the first to request it!  It will make you think.

 

Little Bee

Chris Cleave |  Fiction

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I could tell you that Little Bee is about a Nigerian refugee who is put in a detention center in London, detained for two years, and then released and finds the only two people she knows in London.  That would be accurate and you would yawn and stop reading this blog post.  So instead I will tell you that Little Bee is a colorful story about a young Nigerian woman who escapes horrific violence and makes her way to England, where she is housed is a sub-standard detention center (does this sound familiar so far?) Through a fluke, she and three other young women are spewed out into the outskirts of London without any papers, illegal and scared.  Little Bee finds her way to the home of the only people she knows in London, Andrew and Sarah.  She met Andrew and Sarah when they were “vacationing” in Nigeria.

Sarah and Little Bee form a profound, complex, and complicated relationship (reminded me of the Netflix show, Dead to Me), which is necessary for both to heal and perhaps to be saved ... if that is possible.  While the characters are fiction, the context of the story, the violence in Nigeria and why it has occurred, and the detention center crises, are very real.

I will say at one point, at about page 100 in the 270-page book, I was ready to scream if the author Chris Cleave made one more reference to “what happened in Africa” without telling me what happened in Africa.  But he did so, immediately.  

I found Cleave’s writing to be energetic and clear.  I recommend it.  Thank you, Mary for this interesting suggestion.

Walking to Listen

Andrew Forsthoefel | Nonfiction

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Walking to Listen is the story of 23-year-old Andrew who, after graduating from Middlebury College,  walks across the country to listen to everyday people and their stories, on a quest to discover guidance about how to live his life.  Thousands shared their story with him.

With that much information, I was expecting writing akin to one of my favorite books of all time, Working, by Studs Terkel.  Well, of course, that was not Forsthoefel’s book.  He only spends about 10% of the book giving his readers direct quotes from the people he met.  The rest is about him ... his journey, and his thoughts and feelings and reactions to those he meets.

At the beginning, I was put off by this.  First, by my dashed expectations that Walking to Listen was going to be another Working; and second, by my lack of desire to read the self-absorbed angst of a young man whose brain has not fully developed yet.  For these reasons, Walking to Listen earned three hearts.

Still, the story of Andrew’s travels was interesting.  He walks from his mother’s home in Pennsylvania, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and then west to Half Moon Bay on the Pacific coast of California.  The people he meets are the salt of the earth.  The further he walks, the wiser he seems to become (which was, I guess, the whole point of his journey!)  I read the final chapter with tears streaming down my face, I was so moved.

So, if this type of story appeals to you, by all means read it.  I think it isn’t for everyone but I, for one, am glad to have come along for this walk.

Martin Marten

Brian Doyle|  Fiction

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I searched in my brain for a long time for the right word to use to describe this book.  Then, in a review, I found it.  Magic. To see through the eyes of Martin the Marten, and Louis the Elk, and Dave the 14-year-old boy, and his younger sister Maria, and Miss Moss and Moon – what a gift!

All these creatures and, literally, millions of other sentient beings, live on Wy’east,  high in the mountain.  You and I know this mountain as Mt. Hood in Oregon, but Doyle never mentions the name Hood; he calls it by the ancient Multnomah name.

We mostly follow Dave in the years he is 14 and 15, and Martin from his birth to his nearly-full-grown 3-foot-long body at 17 months.  Their paths run parallel, with an occasional intersection – a tribute to the relationships humans can have with other animals.  But this isn’t a mushy “Dave and Martin” story.  The way Doyle explains their relationship is, frankly, quite believable.  Even if it is still magical!  The story of the small community of Zigzag is completely interwoven with the story of the mountain and its myriad other communities. 

Doyle’s style is filled with intriguing visual images and playful words and delicious lists.  His writing style is more than half the fun of reading Martin Marten.  Doyle draws us in, sometimes quite directly.  There are moments when he speaks to us, his readers, and he often refers to the page we are reading as part of a book. 

This is a book to read, savor, and read again.  It is a joyous celebration of life.  Tell your friends.

(Thank you Marian for this fine selection for book club.)

Crashing Through

Robert Kurson|  Nonfiction

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What, another Robert Kurson?  Yes!  Crashing Through was written between Shadow Divers and Rocketmen.  Though not as popular as either of these bestsellers, I just may have liked Crashing Through best of all!  It doesn’t struggle with a massive amount of technical data, like Rocketmen does, nor is it a mystery awaiting revelation, like Shadow Divers.  It is simply a story about one man.  A story that wants to be told and to be read.

At three years old, Mike May is blinded by an explosion.  43 years later he discovers that he may be a candidate to have his vision restored.  He has developed an amazingly full and rich life as an adventurous, courageous, and very curious blind person.  What will happen to his life if he can suddenly see again?  It is a momentous decision.  The first third of the book is about him making the decision to pursue the surgery that would change his life.  I really appreciated the care Kurson takes in presenting May’s thoughts and decision-making processes.

May does decide to go through with a highly risky procedure.  Then we get to witness what happens when he sees his world for the first time in 43 years, but with underdeveloped, inadequate, and insufficient vision.  I found it fascinating to be inside his brain, which Kurson communicates so very well.  

Just one little oddity that bugged me.  Kurson refers to Mike by his last name, May.  Many, many times he talks about Mike May and his wife Jennifer, and he always refers to them as “Jennifer and May” or “May and Jennifer.”  I found this quirk jarring; I don’t know why he didn’t call him “Mike”.  Writer's prerogative, I guess!

This was a faster read than the other two Kurson books I have read, and well worth your time.  It is an insight into the human spirit.

Nine Perfect Strangers

Liane Moriarty |  Fiction

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From the sublime to the absurd.

Moriarty introduces us to nine people who sign up for ten days at a remote health spa.  I had visions of Agatha Christie.  Unfortunately, her character development is nil.  The nine characters, along with three staff, are transparent stereotypes of potentially real people.  There is no depth to these characters … I never developed much of an interest in most of them.  Had she been able to create complex, real characters, I think the book would have had promise.  But she didn’t.

And then the plot takes a bizarre turn.  This was the one time where the book was  interesting.  It was so absurd, I wanted to know what each of the nine thin characters experienced.  That lasted a few chapters.  I think she needed this absurd twist because her characters were so shallow.  I mean, nine of them – 12, really – and she couldn’t find enough to say about them and their interactions without a bizarre twist?  It seemed to me to be something a highschooler would do in writing class.

I read the whole thing.  I was entertained by it in a bizarre sort of way. It was just so, um, light.  But I cannot think of a single person I would recommend this book to, so I had to go with two hearts.  I hope my next choice of books to read is better!

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

John LeCarré |  Fiction

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 My credibility as a blogger may be called into question with this post.  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold spent 34 weeks on The NY Times bestseller list, and most everyone knows the title, at least.  But I didn’t get it.  Literally.  The first time I understood the story line at all was at the beginning of Chapter 20, “Tribunal” on page 167.  The entire book is only 225 pages.  I felt no tension, couldn’t figure out who the bad guys and good guys were, and there was no spying in the entire book.

My friend Jan W is on a journey to read all of John LeCarré’s books.  I haven't read him, but Jan’s commitment inspired me to try him on for size.  It will be a while before I venture into another LeCarré.

I have read everything by Robert Parker (which is why two of my cats are named Spenser and Hawk), and, when much younger, J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut.  Have you intentionally read everything published by a particular author?  If so, who?

 

Where the Crawdads Sing

Delia Owens |  Fiction

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Three out of the last five books I read were non-fiction, and I claim to be primarily a fiction reader, so it was terrific to be deposited into the arms of a wonderful novel.  I felt like I was lying in a big pile of pillows whenever I read a few chapters from Crawdads.

This is the story of Kya, “The Marsh Girl” who grew up completely alone in the marshland of North Carolina.  When her tale begins, it is 1952, Kya is six, and for a few chapters she has family around her.  And then no more.  We live with her for 18 years, through 1970, and participate in her remarkable development as a marsh specialist, having attended school for only one day.  In 1969, this isolated young woman who has no friends and no standing at all in the nearby community, except as an anomaly to be feared, is accused of murder.

This is a great read!  I am quite enamored.  I must eat a bit of crow, however, for my criticism in other blog posts of The New York Times Bestseller List. During my reading of Where the Crawdads Sing, it was in the top spot on The NY Times list. 

The End of Night

Paul Bogard |  Nonfiction

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“Seriously?” I thought.  “A 325-page book about darkness?”  Well, yes.  325 pages and great inspiration for reading more!

Bogard is searching for night, for true darkness, throughout the world.  We learn what we have lost, what we have left of nighttime darkness, and what is achievable if we focus on the possibilities to regain the night, especially through managing our light pollution.  He begins at Las Vegas’s Luxor Beam, the brightest spot on the planet, and takes us to many, many places where the stars are actually visible.  We visit neighborhoods in Paris lit by gas lamps; we watch the bats emerge from under the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin; we are educated about bird mortality at the CN Tower in Toronto; we visit the island of Sark (the first “International Dark Sky Island”) in the English Channel; and we travel with him to numerous other places in the world.

I finished this book much more educated about the importance of dark skies, and much more inspired to work for them now, before it is too late.

The End of Night inspired me to go outside at my own home, last night, at 10 PM and again at 2 AM.  One of the selling points of this house, when we bought it 19 years ago, was that you could see a full night sky.  (I live far from town, on five acres, in the midst of other 5- and 10-acre properties.)  I wondered how much had changed in the ensuing years.  It was a cloudless night and, without even trying, I happened to pick the night of the new moon, so I was in perfect position for viewing!  Yes, light pollution has encroached somewhat in these 19 years, as Bend grew from 14,000 to 90,000 people.  Last night I saw Cassiopeia, Leo, Orion, Cepheus, the Big and Little Dipper, and, at the 2 AM sighting, literally thousands of stars.  But as I gazed west, toward Bend, the stars became fainter and fainter behind the orange glow of a town.  While I could see stars at the southern and eastern horizons, there were none to see in the low west sky.  What can you see from your backyard?

Bogard numbers his chapters backwards.  You will enjoy discovering why!  This book, recommend by Jan B. for our book club, it definitely worth a read, and is surprisingly interesting and engaging.  You will become very aware of your own sky, as well as the skies in the places you visit.

Seventh Heaven

Alice Hoffman | Fiction

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What is this book about?  The reviews and the back cover imply that it is about Nora, a newly-divorced woman who moves into a rundown house with her two sons.  She is a major character, but it really isn’t all about her and the influence she has on her neighborhood.  Really, it is about the teenagers and children and moms and dads who inhabit Nora’s neighborhood.

It is New York, Long Island, 1959.  The houses in Nora’s neighborhood are identical.  So identical, in fact, that it takes people almost a year to stop pulling into the wrong driveway or walking up the wrong front walk.  But, of course, the people inside are not identical, even if at first blush they all seem to be cut with the same cookie cutter .... one for the husbands, one for the wives, another for the children.

Hoffman’s writing is smooth and engaging.  She draws you right into her story, and into the lives of these ordinary people.  I like the LA Times Book Review quote on the back cover.  “...it gives one new respect for tender suburban dreams.”  An apt description, I think.

Not being clear what the book is about, or really finding its meaning or purpose, is what knocked it down to three hearts for me.  It is, however, a quick read, and you might find deeper meaning than I did.

Finally, I haven’t a clue why this book is titled Seventh Heaven.  I don't remember the phrase every coming up, and I think it is a diminutive title for the book.  I would have titled it Identical.

 

Rocket Men

Robert Kurson |  Nonfiction

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Rocket Men is another fine non-fiction book by Robert Kurson.  I didn’t like it quite as much as I enjoyed Shadow Divers (reviewed 8/19/2018), by the same author, perhaps because of the mystery that was inherent in the story of an unknown sunken vessel, but Kurson’s writing and research were just as intelligent in Rocket Men.  He tells the story of Apollo 8 ... the first manned spaceship to orbit the moon.  He has such breadth and depth in his writing! Reading Rocket Men, you learn about the three astronauts; their personalities, passions, dreams, values, wives, and families.  You will learn about NASA and the scientific, technological, and political challenges endured by this agency to achieve the Apollo 8 mission in just a few months, arriving at its moon orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968.  Interwoven with the space story is the state of the country in 1968, a year of great unrest, race riots, the murders of King and Kennedy, the fractious nature of the war in Vietnam, the clashes between hippies and old-time values, and the heating up Cold War, aggravated by the race with Russia for the moon.

Rocket Men is our community’s read this year.  Everywhere you go, people are carrying copies of the book and reading it and talking about it.  I will hear the author present in just a few days.  I heartily recommend Rocket Men and Kurson’s other works.  I am awaiting his latest, Crashing Through:  The Extraordinary True Story of the Man Who Dared to See, to become available at my library.

(Yes, I know I have been quiet for two months.  I am back now!)

The Dry

Jane Harper | Fiction

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It has been 20 years since Federal Agent Aaron Falk has been to his home town, the drought-stricken Kiewarra, five hours from Melbourne.  But when his childhood friend Luke dies, and Luke's wife and son are murdered, Falk returns, compelled by a note from Luke’s father that reads, “Luke lied.  You lied.  Be at the funeral.”

There is a strong story line and quite well-developed characters in this debut novel. It is a very good read, when you want a mystery in-between other book journeys you are on. The plot is complex and, yes, I think the resolution is a surprise.

I gave it three hearts because I found it a bit slow.  Despite what some other reviewers write, I did not find this novel a page turner.  Good story, good writing, but It was easy for me to put it down on the table.  

If you like mysteries, or Australia, or debut novels, you will likely enjoy The Dry.

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Steven Galloway |  Fiction

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For four years beginning April 1992,  the city of Sarajevo was under siege from the Bosnian Serb Army.  Shelling and shooting at the civilians of the city from the surrounding hills, the criminal army averaged 329 shells per day, and killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians.

One day, 22 people are killed while waiting in line for a loaf of bread.  The cellist decides to play his cello at the spot of the massacre at 4 pm for 22 days.  We each have our gift to give.

This is not the story of the siege.  It is a novel about four people who lived through this time, the cellist, a counter-sniper, the man trying to get to the bakery, and the man on a journey to fill his family’s water bottles.  The walkers move in and out of the line of possible sniper fire as they travel what remains of the streets of their beloved city.

This is one one the best books I’ve read.  It is profound, startling, gripping, beautiful.  We encounter the humanity of these characters, and truly feel their fear, their desire to find grace and meaning, their passionate urge to remain human.  

It is well written, short, and with gorgeous visual images.  I highly recommend it.  

Gratitude to Rene for reading and recommending this book while we were in the Galapagos.

 

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

Margareta Magnusson | Nonfiction

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Okay, don't freak by the title ... yes, it is about how to clear your clutter before you die.  Recommended in The Little Book of Hygge (see blog from 12/24/2018), it is  another little book about wisdom from the Swedes.  Magnusson writes about sorting through your things, so someone else doesn't have the burden of it.  She recommends you begin when you are 65, knowing it will take a few years to get it done.   This short sweet book also provides you with hints and perspectives if you are downsizing or simply wanting to de-clutter.

I was attracted to this book in part because of Hygge, but also because I reached a time when I was finally ready to clean Beryl’s office, 2.5 years after he died.  This task eluded me and seemed insurmountable.  I invited a friend over and accomplished it in an afternoon, for which I am glad.

Read this book if it grabs your fancy.  You’ll read it in a day, and perhaps clean out one thing from your home.

American Marriage

Tayari Jones |  Fiction

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An American Marriage is, to me, a love story about a man who is wrongly convicted for rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison, and the impact this has on his family, especially his marriage.  This is not a story of a trial nor a story of prison.  It is a deep and smart look at relationships.  

Before the conviction, Celestial and Roy were an educated, upwardly mobile couple.  All  of the characters in this book are African American and, while it is a tale of marriage, it is also a tale of injustice, discrimination, innocence, and simply being black in today’s world.

Jones conveys quite convincingly the profound emotional and interpersonal difficulties of her characters.  Each chapter is written in the voice of one of the characters, which creates an intimacy for the reader with each person.

Well written and surprisingly easy to read, it is quite worth your time.

How Green Was My Valley

Richard Llewellyn |  Fiction

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How Green Was My Valley is a 1939 novel about the Morgans, a respectable Welsh mining family of the South Wales Valleys, through the eyes of one of the sons, Huw Morgan. Huw, and his five brothers and three sisters, grow up in a mining community, and face the challenges of an unregulated and unsafe industry.

I quite enjoyed this book, not only for the story of the mines and the mining culture and community, but also for Llewellyn’s ability to portray the inner qualities, thoughts, values, and feelings of the most important characters, the Morgan children and parents.  It tells a rich story of who the Morgans were, at that particular time and place.  The author also uses beautiful language about the land as well as the people, in an interesting mix of Welsh phraseology translated into English.

It is fun to read a classic novel in book club, as we do once a year.  How Green Was My Valley is long, but it tells a good story and also communicates much in about life and language of life in Wales nearly a century ago. It is definitely worth a read or a re-read.

The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen |   Fiction

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I struggled to finish this book, and perused the last 150 pages.  Though the author has some wonderful wry humor, I did not care for his story-telling and his character development.  Every time I opened this  book, I literally saw the main character, an unnamed half-French half-Vietnamese protagonist, as a piece of tissue paper.  He was so thin and flimsy, you could see right though him and he had no there, there.  I found him shallow, especially given the nature of the story he was trying to tell, and not a bit likeable.  My eye surgeon, Dr. Alul, saw me reading this book in her office on Monday and she said “Do you like it?  It is pretty depressing.  I had a really hard time getting through it.”  I found that interesting.  I had not thought of it as depressing, but I guess it really is.  And I am not enjoying “depressing” right now.  After that conversation, I hit the last 100 pages and, though there is some redemption, the further you read, the more profoundly depressing the tale.

This is a fictionalized story of the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam war, and the refugees who make it to America. We follow our main character, who is a Captain in the military and a spy, as he attempts to acclimate to America, or, perhaps more precisely, to not acclimate to America.  We read of the struggles of the refugees, the culture clashes, the challenges, and a bit of their successes.

I found it very hard to believe that a Vietnamese refugee would arrive in America and want to (page 231) “Reconcile, return, rebuild.”   I am perhaps quite naïve about the refugee experience, so I did a bit of research.  Yes, I am still VERY naïve about the refugee experience, but here are some facts I gathered:

Two million Vietnamese left their country after the fall of Saigon.  120,000 of them came to the United States.  Of the 120,000 who came here, 1500, (1.25%) chose to “reconcile, return, rebuild” and returned to Vietnam.  Of those, most were held in “reeducation camps” where they experienced prison conditions, forced ideological change, brutality, violence, humiliation and, for many, death.

I cannot recommend this despondent book, however, if you read it, I will be very pleased to read some other views!

The Immortalists

Chloe Benjamin |  Fiction

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Wow. The Immortalists escorted me from South America, through Central America, into North America, on my return from Ecuador, with nary a pause.  As the book book begins in 1969, four New York siblings, Simon (7), Klara (9), Daniel (11), and Varya (13) visit a fortune teller and learn the dates of their deaths.  The Immortalists tells the stories of each of their lives, and, yes, their deaths.

I could not put this book down.  I loved it!  Riveting.  Who recommended this book to me?  Whoever you are, I will trust your judgment forever.

Enjoy!

(Yes, I traveled for days to get to and from The Galapagos.  Hence, four blog posts at once!)

The Little Book of Hygge

Meik Wiking |  Nonfiction

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This is a fun little book.  Written by a Happiness Researcher, The Little Book of Hygge attempts to explain why Denmark continues to score at or near the top of happiness surveys.  And the answer is a uniquely Danish concept called Hygge.

Hygge is rather difficult to explain, but it is an attitude, a sense of peace, comfort, security, of being with the people we love.

What is easier to explain is what contributes to Hygge; how it comes about; what creates the wonderful feeling of Hygge.  There are a range of things.  The Hygge manifesto consists of turning down the lights and lighting candles, presence, pleasure, gratitude, harmony, equality, comfort, truce, togetherness, and shelter.

And there are many ways to bring about Hygge, such as lighting candles, cooking simple foods together, sweets, a fireplace, wool socks, making a nook in your home for tea and quiet.

You’ll likely gain some new ideas for creating Hygge in YOUR life. Personally, I am intrigued by the idea of a monthly board game night.  And, of course, warm, sweet rolls fresh from the oven.

Enjoy!

 

Dr. Futurity

Phillip K. Dick |  Science Fiction

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A friend of mine, Ralph, brought this book to water aerobics, because he knew I was a fan of time travel books.  And Dr. Futurity is a time travel book, about a physician who inadvertently finds himself hundreds of years in the future, in a society where death is zealously embraced, and saving lives is illegal.

While there is time travel at the core of this book, it really is science fiction, a genre of fiction in which the stories often tell about science and technology of the future.  Fantastical technological situations, objects, and advances occur.  I am reminded that I am not a fan of science fiction.  I am much more intrigued by the shifts and complexities of people’s relationships in time travel novels.

So, I cannot recommend this book, however I am fascinated to hear if you are a science fiction fan and a consumer of Phillip K. Dick novels and what you enjoy about them.  I would love to hear what else you might recommend by him.  With 44 books, it is hard to choose, should I decide to.  Please let us know!

Motor City Burning

Bill Morris | Fiction

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This book delighted me to the tips of my toes.  It is fast-paced, well-constructed, sufficiently well written (it is a mystery, not a literary tome, and it puts on no airs to pretend it is what it isn’t.)  The story line is unusual; it's not a formulaic who-done-it.  No, it flows in a more complex and interesting way.

You will follow the life of Willie Bledsoe, who moves to Detroit from Alabama, after his time in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Snick.  You’ll experience the Detroit race riots of 1967, along with the killing of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, all decorated like a Christmas tree with stories and scenes of the blossoming Detroit Tigers in 1967 and 1968.

Motor City Burning is a solid four hearts for me, but I am giving it three because I believe not all of my blog readers will resonate with every page in the way I did.  First of all, you have to be old enough to be alive and aware of the race riots in the 60’s, and have a sense of the profound turmoil the country was in.  Second, I was enamored by all the Detroit landmarks that set the stage for Motor City Burning.  If you aren’t from Detroit, or have no interest in the Midwest during this time of racial unrest, you may not have the same experience as I.  Those objections being met, read this novel for the picture it vividly draws and the story it tells.

Thank you Mark M for this recommendation.

The Library Book

Susan Orlean|  Nonfiction

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The Library Book tells the story of the unprecedented fire in the Los Angeles Public Library on April 29, 1986, in which more than a million books were lost or damaged. This is the story of the fire, and, to a lesser degree, the suspected arsonist.  Susan Orlean is an excellent writer; she does considerable in-depth research, and places herself right into the scenes and the characters.  I really like the way she weaves small informative details that make her story interesting with big important facts, translating the information to a human scale, like this from her long paragraph of what books were lost, on pages 33 and 34.  “…A first edition of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book from 1896.  Twelve thousand cookbooks, including six books of popcorn recipes.”

While Orlean’s book is structurally about the LA Public Library, she also continually draws parallels with other libraries in the country and the world.  You get a sense of how libraries developed and thrived over the last 140 years or so. You will cheer the librarians on for their visions, as they transform libraries from book-loaning spaces to integral and central parts of the communities they serve.

At the beginning of each chapter, she lists four books and their call numbers which relate to the content in the chapter.  This is a fun resource ... it not only gives you a preview of the chapter, but it also may entice you to go pick another book off the shelf.  Like this, from Chapter 7, The Art of Condolence:  What to Write, What to Say, What to Do at a Time of Loss (1991) by Leonard M. Zunin, 177.9 Z95.  This for a chapter in which she quotes some of the condolence letters sent to the LA Library from other libraries after the huge fire….

So, why three hearts instead of four?  This was another sandwich book for me.  I love the beginning and the end; the relevance and the knowledge I gained.  However, in the middle, she spends longs pages – too long for me – on the history of the Los Angeles Public Library and its challenges, leadership, funding issues.  I became a bit bored with the LA-focus.  In sum, yes, I recommend this interesting book, with my only hesitation being the lengthy history section. 

Finally, I want to share this tidbit, from page 93.  “In Senegal. The polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.”  Provocative, yes?

Priestdaddy

Patricia Lockwood  |  Nonfiction/Biography

Nancy Pearl, librarian, critic, commentator, and author, is credited with inventing the Rule of 50, plus it's addendum.  The rule states that if there are no firecrackers by page 50, put the book down.  The addendum is that for every year you are over 50, subtract one page.  So for me, as of a few weeks ago, I can now stop at 35 pages.

I made it to 42.  I found every single sentence in Priestdaddy to be overwritten.  Like this (page 38):  “Great mermaids flowed through the streets: southerners.”  And this, page 25, “He had the small, neat, unjudgmental ears of a teddy bear.”  Huh?  Unjudgmental ears? 

Then I read the reviews on the back that declare this book to be hilarious and I knew my fatal flaw had kicked in.  I had not even smiled once, much less laughed.

So, my apologies to my friend who recommended this book, and who shall remain nameless so as not to sully her fine reputation (I love you still, friend C).  And I am moving on.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan |  Fiction

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I was charmed by this book.  Yes, as some reviewers point out, it is a techie's dream book, at the intersection of books, extreme technology, and knowledge.  And more  than that, it is simply a delightful story.

Clay Jannon takes a job working graveyard shift at Mr.Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore, where only a few books are ever sold.  What really happens occurs in the tall vertical stacks in the back, where assorted characters drop off obscure books and pick up others, that Clay wraps in brown paper.  These books are not sold; they are simply exchanged.  For a while, Clay obeys the rules and never looks inside these books.   Clay’s job, besides climbing the ladder to find the requested book, is to record in the log who took the book, what they were wearing that night, their emotional state, how they smelled, and their words.

Of course, one day Clay looks inside and discovers symbols ... not text at all.  And with the help of a Googler, Kat, and various designers, techies, and artists, he begins to discover and unravel the secrets of the Unbroken Spine, a centuries old movement(?), sect (?), cult(?).

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a fable and a fantasy, imbued with amazing real technology, a delightful read, and just plain fun.  

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

Jonathon Evison |  Fiction

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This is just a bit of a reluctant four hearts, but still closer to 4 than 3!  Benjamin Benjamin has just trained as a caregiver, and begins working with Trevor, a young man with Muscular Dystrophy.  No surprise, their relationship is challenging, but a strong bond does grow.  There are two interwoven story lines.  This first is the tale of Ben and Trev.  Eventually they embark on a road trip, which is where the fun and adventure really begins!  Interspersed with this plot is Ben’s back story, and how he lost his wife and two children.  At first, I was frustrated at not knowing the back story before I knew the present-day story but then I realized that was the intent of the author, to weave the two tales simultaneously.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is interesting, more of a light read than a heavy read, though there are relationship challenges that will leave you sad.  I am not quite sure why I am giving this a “reluctant” four hearts.  There is something about Evison’s style that didn’t land with me, and I don’t know what it is.  But overall, yes, I recommend The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, and will be pleased to hear what you all think of it.  This is a book club read, so I will enjoy hearing what the Casting Crew has to say!

 

11/22/63

Steven King |  Fiction

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Jake Epping, a reluctant time traveler, travels to September 9, 1958, multiple times to prevent the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Of course, the butterfly effect causes changes in the present-day world (2011) and the past is “obdurate” and not wanting to change.  As a result, Jake must come back home a few times and then return to the “Land of Ago.”

I loved this book!  It is King at his best non-horror writing. I learned quite a bit about the Kennedy assassination and the days and months leading up to it.  He must have done significant research to create this tale.  It is a book for which occasionally you will grab your phone and Google a historical figure or place, to learn more about context.

Be warned, 11/22/63 is LONG.  My copy was 1031 pages. The paperbark is 849.  As with all long books, there were a few pages in the middle where I began to tire, but I knew that was more about me than the writing.  I definitely recommend 11/22/63.

 

11/22/63

Steven King |  Fiction

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Jake Epping, a reluctant time traveler, travels to September 9, 1958, multiple times to prevent the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Of course, the butterfly effect causes changes in the present-day world (2011) and the past is “obdurate” and not wanting to change.  As a result, Jake must come back home a few times and then return to the “Land of Ago.”

I loved this book!  It is King at his best non-horror writing. I learned quite a bit about the Kennedy assassination and the days and months leading up to it.  He must have done significant research to create this tale.  It is a book for which occasionally you will grab your phone and Google a historical figure or place, to learn more about context.

Be warned, 11/22/63 is LONG.  My copy was 1031 pages. The paperbark is 849.  As with all long books, there were a few pages in the middle where I began to tire, but I knew that was more about me than the writing.  I definitely recommend 11/22/63.

 

This House of Sky

Ivan Doig |  Nonfiction/Memoir

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Doig is a stunning, beautiful writer!  Here’s one example from page 16; you can find such examples on most every page.  “School struck me as the kind of job where you weren’t allowed to do anything; I had free time in my head by the dayfull, and spent it all in being lonesome for ranch life and its grownups and its times of aloneness.”

This House of Sky is Doig’s story of growing up in Western Montana.  On June 27, 1945, Ivan turns six and his mother takes her last breath.  He writes, years later, of his life, his father’s life, and a way of life that has gone out of existence … of sheepherders, almost nomads, and small ranchers high in the Montana mountains.  It was a rough time of subsistence and cold, cold snow.

But three hearts?  Yes, I fear it is so.  I realized upon completing this book that a sense of place, and where we grew up, stays with us forever.  Eventually, I became a bit bored with the story.  And I suspect that is because I grew up in Detroit and not in the West.  I am eager to discuss This House of Sky at book club this week, because I expect the native Westerners, of which we have many in our book club, will love this book more than I did.  I do, however recommend it.  Try it on for size.  Even if you are mixed in your experience, you will learn about a time in our country not too long ago, and you will discover an evocative and deep writer.

The President is Missing

Bill Clinton & James Patterson |  Fiction

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Ah, I breathe a sigh of relief after the last James Patterson I read (see my review on Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas)  This is James Patterson back at his best.  Just enough complexity and intrigue; a page turner near the end; relationships that have soul and heart; a vivid plot; a noticeable number of strong women characters; the stark reality that may come from having an ex-President as your co-author.

The President is Missing (wishful thinking?) is about a potential crisis of epic proportions.  It takes great creativity to imagine this crisis ... clever and scary, beyond a doubt.  And President Jon Duncan is the only person who can prevent the crisis.  Hold your breath!

My only criticism is slight ... I believe the book is mis-titled.  It gives the impression that the President has been kidnapped and cannot be located.  That is not the story line.  The plot is richer and more interesting than a kidnapping.  I might have titled it Dark Ages.  Let us know what your title is, after you read The President is Missing, which I DO recommend!

Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You

Claire Leslie Walker & Charles E. Roth |  Nonfiction

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Earlier this summer I was inspired by an article in our local paper about a man who creates and teaches Nature Journaling.  I began to think that keeping a nature journal might be a good way to be more present on my hikes, and less focused on accumulating miles and elevation.  And so, I researched the topic.  And yes, I now have a journal, pens, and watercolor pencils that I take with me when I hike alone.  I am beginning to expand the use of this journal to non-hiking times.  Here are four books that further inspired me:

The Naturalist Notebook: from a week on the Noatak River.  I discovered this book at the National Park Service visitor center in Bettles, Alaska.  Kristin Link, the author, created a watercolor journal of her time in the Brooks Range.  This is a beautiful book, very inspiring.  The only way to buy this book is to track down her website, which I did.

A Life in Hand:  Creating the Illuminated Journal by Hannah Hinchman has some great exercises to get you started, and to free up your voice.  She also has a good section on supplies.

How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook by Susan Leigh Tomlinson is a pretty book, with some good ideas, but for my taste, an over-emphasis on drawing.

Keeping a Nature Journal:  Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You  is, for my purposes, the cream of the crop.  This lovely book expands beyond nature drawing and brings in much of what I was personally looking for … ideas on how to use your journal, to slow down, as a spiritual practice, how to see and be present with the world around you, in the natural world and not. They have chapters on seasonal journaling as well as information about journaling with kids, varying your layouts, different ideas for keeping your journal fresh and new. And it is a gorgeous book, with many black & white and color journal examples.  If you buy only one book, this is the one to purchase.

I bought all four of these books, so if you would like to borrow any, just let me know.

Dog On It

Spencer Quinn |  Fiction

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I was with my college friends Janet and Mark in August. Together, we visited Isle Royale and Voyageur‘s National Parks.   But perhaps the best times were playing pinochle in the evenings ... ah, reminiscent of Ann Arbor evenings.

But I digress from my intentions.   While we were traveling together, Janet and Mark recommended that I try on some Spencer Quinn novels, his Chet and Bernie mysteries.  And so I did.  Dog On It was a nice respite between heavier books.  This is a book you can read in a few evenings.                                                                                                                       

Bernie is a Private I.  Chet, his sidekick, is a “K-9 Trained Dog”.  The story is told from Chet's point of view.  So if you don't like dogs, or never lived with a dog, leave this book on the shelf and instead search for funny cat videos on YouTube.  But if you know and love dogs, you may very well appreciate Chet's perspective on humanity, and what we do, and how we smell, and what is confusing about working with us.  In this novel, Chet and Bernie search for Madison, a missing 15-year-old.

Dog On It is definitely light reading.  I actually laughed out loud a few times.  If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know I don't think the written word is capable of being funny, except sometimes it is.  I am still cracking up at this, from page 42:  A silence.  And then — yes: She barked.  A bark that sent a message, a she-message of the most exciting kind.  I barked back. She barked.  I barked.  She barked.  And then: Yip! Yip! Yip.  Iggy was back. He barked.  She barked.  I barked.  He barked.  She —

Anyway, as I say, if you’ve never lived with a dog that won’t be funny.  It may not be funny to you if you DO.  Nevertheless,  Dog On It is the first of 8 Chet & Bernie books and I will read more!

The Book of Life

Deborah Harkness |  Fiction

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This is the third and final book in the All Souls Trilogy. I sped through this book; it entertained me completely.  One friend said she found it dark – well, yes, quite a few souls are killed to free up the new generation.  One friend didn’t like the ending – I found it satisfying myself.

What I most like about Harkness’ deep writing is her ability to make me laugh every once in a while.  I still giggle now recalling Chapter 10 when the witches could not get Fleetwood Mac to stop playing everywhere.  “I hate Rumours!” exclaims witch Sarah.  I think it would behoove Harkness’ style if she found a way to insert just a tiny bit more humor.  She goes deep into relationships; this book has a lot of action (my criticism of the second book, Shadow of Night, was the lack of action); and she builds a creative story line.  If I smiled once or twice more, I feel it would relieve some of the tension of the conflicts.

I definitely recommend The Book of Life, but start at the beginning with the first book,  A Discovery of Witches.

Clock Dance

Anne Tyler |  Fiction

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We read about the defining moments of Willa's life, each a decade or two apart, but the bulk of the story occurs after Willa receives a confusing phone call and ends up traveling across the country to care for a woman who has been shot in her leg and her daughter, neither of whom Willa knows.

The story is somewhat entertaining.  The character development, and the characters themselves, are shallow and weak.  I had hoped the ending would redeem the book.  It didn’t.

You can find something better to read.

Tip of the Iceberg

Mark Adams |  Nonfiction

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I think this is probably a pretty good book.  I was disadvantaged by reading Tip of the Iceberg on my tours of Cuyahoga and Shenandoah National Parks, because my reading opportunities tended to be short and often distracted. Every time I found a reasonable period of time to read, however, I grew enamored of this book.

Mark Adams takes off in modern times (2016, 2017?) to retrace an 1899 voyage to the wilds of Alaska.  Traveling 3000 miles, Adams makes the stops the earlier voyage made, and compares his journey to the journey of the Elder.  The Elder was a steamship converted by the railroad magnate Edward R. Harriman to a “floating university” and was populated by some of America’s best scientists, biologists, archeologists, specialists in flora, fauna, geology, climate and the well-known glacier specialist, John Muir.

Adams tells a story of the changes in the culture and economies of Alaska over the 100-plus years, but also the natural history, ecological shifts, and climate change.  The contrasts are interesting.  Sometimes, not much has changed; sometimes he sees a very different world.  I particularly loved the chapter in which he and Teddy Roosevelt visit Alaska together, and he shows the President a few of the wonders of Alaska.

Tip of the Iceberg will entice you, if you have any interest at all in this wild and remote wilderness state.

By the way, some of mentioned you don't see replies to your posted reply.  I always reply to your posts!  Next time you make a comment, be sure you have the option checked to see all replies... that way, we can share our perspectives and knowledge!!

Only Child

Rhiannon Navin| Fiction

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Writing Only Child took considerable courage, I believe.  This is Navin’s first novel (she has two previous nonfiction books) and it is written from the perspective of Zach, a six-year-old first grader who survives a school shooting.  Nineteen of Zach's fellow schoolmates and teachers die in the shooting, however, including one very close to Zach, so be is hardly unharmed.

We learn about Zach's feelings, his assumptions, what (and how) he discovers about the shooting, the support he receives and doesn't receive from the adults in his life. Most compelling  is how he works with his feelings.  A self-proclaimed “very good artist,” Zach becomes overwhelmed with the complexity of feelings he has, and how unrelated feelings pile upon one another.  He colors pieces of paper different hues to represent different emotions and, in this way, he is able to separate, manage and integrate his emotions.  Well done!

The entire novel is written in Zach's six-year-old voice.  While that is interesting and draws the reader in, it also left me wanting.  I wish the novel had interspersed Zach chapters with chapters by his father, who doesn't have a clue what Zach is experiencing; or his mother, who is more emotionally connected to Zach, but loses him in her obsessive search for justice; or Charlie, the father of the shooter.  I would like to know what was in their emotional library and how and why they made some of the decisions they made.  And I would have liked a break from the logic, words, and perspectives of a six-year-old.

Voice fatigue aside, what I find at best disappointing and at worst unconscionable and irresponsible is that Navin apparently does no research for this novel.  She doesn't talk with a single child survivor.  She doesn't interview a crisis counselor.  She doesn't speak with school administrators.  She readily and proudly admits in interviews and on her website that her “focus group” comprises her own three young children.

The story is an interesting and quick read.  I was going to take it on a plane with me this Sunday, but I finished it already!  The lack of research, however, makes me hesitant to believe I have read something that is based in truth, real information, or accurate perception and insight.

The Dalai Lama’s Cat and the Art of Purring

David Michie |  Fiction

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This is the second book in David Michie's trilogy about Buddhism through the eyes of the cat adopted by the Dali Lama.  His Holiness’s Cat (HHC), aka Rinpoche, Little Sister, Snow Lion, Mousie Tung, Swami (a new name she acquires in this book), is delightful!  Smart, articulate, able to read and understand human conversation, she allows us to see Buddhism through her innocent eyes.  These short novels are really fun!  The voice of HHC is pure delight.  She knows it is impossible not to love her.  She knows she is gorgeous.  And she is the most intellectually curious and humble cat.

The Art of Purring came to my shelf at a particularly good time.  This book is about happiness; how to acquire it; how to stay with it; how to choose it; how to BE it, and, of course, its relationship to purring. I began reading The Art of Purring after returning from a delightful trip with my college roommate Janet and her husband Mark, to Isle Royale and Voyageurs National Parks.  The trip was perfect, but upon my return I found myself thrust into a sad grieving funk with days of crying and loneliness.  Michie’s book arrived in my life not only when I needed it, but also when I was quite motivated to read it.  For this, I am grateful.

This trilogy is quick, enjoyable, fun and enlightening!  I heartily and highly recommend it  Thank you, Julia!

Shadow Divers

Robert Kurson |  Nonfiction

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In 1991 two divers discovered the remains of a U-boat deep in the Atlantic off the New Jersey coast.  But this was a U-boat that could not be there.  No American, German or British records indicated a sunken or lost U-boat anywhere in the vicinity.  As the mystery unfolded, I learned a great deal about deep diving to explore wrecks, U-boats, World War II action off the U.S. coast, and especially about the values and uncompromising integrity of the men who discovered, researched, and dove this wreck, not all of whom survived.

Shadow Divers is dense and rich with knowledge and mystery.  This is not a book you will read in an evening.  It takes thinking to read this true narrative.  You will follow six years of diving and research to positively identify the U-boat’s number and crew, 1991-1997. It is, however, quite a fascinating and satisfying read, and I highly recommend it.  The story is compelling, the characters are complex and real, the writing is engaging.  I cried reading the Epilogue. 

The New Yorker describes Kurson’s writing as “adrenalized prose.”  I will recommend this book to the "Casting Crew Book Club" as a 2019 read, and I recommend it to you.

Thank you, Dan, for this magnificent addition to my reading list.

Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas

James Patterson |  Fiction

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This love story is sweet.  Actually, it slides over into saccharin.  it's just too sweet, too simple and shallow, for me.  Matt and Katie are in love ... until one day Matt just leaves.  A few days later he drops off on her front porch a journal for Katie to read. Through this journal, written by his former wife Suzanne, to their son Nicholas, we learn all about Matt's life before Katie; all the experiences he couldn’t tell her and could barely tell himself.  This is Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas.

If you want to distract yourself for an afternoon and an evening sitting by a campfire, go ahead and read it.  If you want to engage your brain in something stimulating, pick another book.

This cannot REALLY be the same James Patterson, can it?  Yes, it is one and the same.  I guess he has a split personality.  Don’t bother with this one.

 

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Douglas Preston |  Nonfiction

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I am impressed when an author catches my attention on a topic I had no apparent interest in.  Douglas Preston does this in The Lost City of the Monkey God.  This is the story of the first modern exploration of Ciudad Blanca – the White City –  deep in the jungle of Honduras. No humans had been to this site in memory or recorded history.  But there was reason to believe the site existed. Preston was a part of the expedition, as the resident author.  I learned the history of the exploration and colorful details of the challenges and discoveries the team made, when they did in fact uncover the Lost City of the Monkey God.

And then, half-way through, the story-line changes.  After the team members return to their regular lives, an entire new catastrophe occurs, and we are drawn in to the health and medical implications of the team members who spent time in this extremely remote jungle, surrounded by unfamiliar insects and larger animals.

I love Preston’s vivid voice.  A random example, page 178:  "The river took a ninety-degree turn at a place of heartbreaking loveliness, with thick strands of flowers giving way to a lush meadow and a beach. The river flowed in a singing curve over round stones and spilled in a waterfall over a ridge of basalt.”

Preston has written six other nonfiction books, five novels, and 24 books with Lee Child (of Jack Reacher fame).  I would definitely read another Douglas Preston if I could figure out which one to read next!  (Do any of you have a suggestion?) and am pleased to have read this one.

Thanks, Jan, for this fine recommendation for book club!

Educated

Tara Westover |  Nonfiction/Memoir

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Hmmm, Educated is difficult to rate.  It hovers between three and two hearts, but I have settled on three.    This is the true story of Tara Westover, raised Mormon by her survivalist father and mother, never sent to school, forced to work dangerous jobs in her father’s scrap and junkyard business.  It is the story of her survival under a mean but loving patriarch.

I found her narrative at times riveting, especially once she leaves the family home and begins to pursue her education at BYU, and at times boring.  Her writing is inconsistent.  I think she is not a very good writer and includes too many details of her life.  Then again, with six siblings living in their family home in Idaho, the stories, the catastrophes, the violence, and the relationships are numerous and complex.

The abuse she endured was not like my recent reads, My Absolute Darling and The Great Alone.  There is no sexual abuse.  More, there is religious abuse.  Educated portrays very well the Mormon doctrine of the power of men, and the servitude of women.  I don’t think most of the Westover family ever sees the gross error of these doctrines.

So, do I recommend it?  Yes, I guess, but not wholeheartedly.  I think you will just have to try it on for size!

 

Theft by Finding

David Sedaris |  Nonfiction

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David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day and numerous others) decided to revisit his diaries, which he began in 1977.  Though the first few years were handwritten, when he printed off the digital diaries, he had 8 inches of paper to wade through!  Wow!  He decided to edit selected passages from his diaries into two books.  Theft by Finding is the first volume, 1977 through 2002.  The second volume (I cannot find the title) will cover 2003 – 2017.

I knew Sedaris had a rough start, but this book is depressing.  Drugs, poverty, and violence are much of the tale he tells.  I actually think he may have been better off if he didn’t self-edit his own diaries to create these books.  He seems obsessed with people who are differently abled ... in wheelchairs, sight-impaired, have acne scars, or who are mentally unstable.  He has an extraordinary number of stories about being approached for a cigarette or money by very angry people, and a whole trove of times he was assaulted on the streets of New York for appearing gay.

He has a proclivity for telling his life story with these depressing episodes.  About halfway though, he begins to mature, have success, and find love.  But the sum total of his relaying to us his experience of meeting Hugh is two short sentences, something like, “I met this cute guy, “ and “I think I am falling in love.”  I would have been much more engaged in this book if he were able to share more of his internal emotional experiences, and less of how he found abuse in the world.

Two-thirds of the way through (I kept reading because I AM interested in his long-term love with Hugh, and his success as a comedic and serious writer, and I wanted to read some of these entries), I realized this book was probably supposed to be funny sometimes.  Now, it is a character flaw on my part, I know.  I seldom find the written word funny.  You could read aloud to me from an amusing book and I would laugh.  But when I read the same words on paper, I don’t find them funny.  I laughed only once when reading Theft by Finding.

Theft by Finding depressed me, disappointed me, and was often confusing.  Actually, I suspect his second volume will be better, because his life will be less dire, but I don’t have the stomach for another Sedaris right now.  I even removed his newest book, Calypso, from my library list.  Sorry to say.

 

Truth or Dare

Jayne Ann Krentz |  Fiction

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I was camping for five days, so, yes, in addition to hiking, kayaking, and watercolor, I read two books.  Another blog post will follow this one!

Truth or Dare by Krentz is a fun read.  It’s a mystery, not a heavy read, but with interesting characters, especially the women.  Zoe and Ethan are recently married, and almost just as recently, acquainted!  It seems they just met in a prior Krentz novel, and married within a few weeks.

He is a private investigator; she an interior designer with strong psychic abilities.  They both bring difficult checkered pasts to this new relationship.  Other characters include Arcadia, who Zoe met when they both resided in a mental hospital (from which they escaped); Harry, Arcadia’s new love; and Bonnie, Ethan’s sister.

The writing is warm and engaging.  There are many threads woven into this narrative, and I was pleased Krentz followed them all, leaving no loose ends, but still causing me to want for more.

Truth or Dare lay on my side kitchen table, where books from friends accumulate.  I don’t know who gave me this one, but she/he has good taste! Krentz has written over 50 books.  I’ll definitely try another in a similar mystery genre (she also writes romance).

Exit West

Moshin Hamid |  Fiction

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I cannot categorize this book. Is it a love story?  Sort of, but not really.  Is it a dystopian novel?  At times, but not overall.  Is it magic?  Well, yes, magic does play a part.

We don't know the setting of Exit West.  It may be a city in the author's home country of Pakistan, but it could just as easily be in Syria or Libya or other countries.  What we know for certain as the novel opens is that it is “a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace, or at least, not yet openly at war.”  It is a city where “Islam prevails, but sex, ‘shrooms and smartphones are also prolific.”  (Time.com)

In the beginning, Saeed and Nadia meet in a class and fall in love in these turbulent times. And then the war invades their city, their lives, and their love.  How might they escape through one of the magical doors to safety?  Yes, there are magical doors. At first I thought the “door” was simply a metaphor, but it is not.  You find and pay an agent, a mule of sorts, and he leads you to a hidden magical door.  You walk though this door, and you are in another part of the world.  Saeed and Nadia inhabit a number of cities in the world in this concise novel, as they try to make their way to a place of home and of safety.

The dystopian part of this novel is this:  in every city they travel to, war has broken out between the natives, called “nativists” and the immigrants/refugees.  And in every city, immigrants are beginning to take over, though nativists are violently resisting them.  I think this novel is very timely and for this reason alone, we all should read it.

Exit West is short, well-written and a novel that will make you think.  I recommend it without hesitation.  And I look forward to reading what you think of it …

My Absolute Darling

Gabriel Tallent |  Fiction

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Wow.  I heard My Absolute Darling was quite disturbing, as  it portrays the mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of 14-year-old Turtle by her father Martin, a survivalist.  Well, yes, it is disturbing.  Their relationship is central to the novel, and, as she loves him dearly and knows no other relationship norms, it is not a pleasurable relationship to explore.

However, I think the plot is actually not about abuse, but about how Turtle carves an identity for herself in spite of her horrendous circumstances.  She is stunningly courageous and brutally honest with herself.

Tallent's voice is astounding. His writing draws you in.  I had trouble putting this book down.  His use of language is beautiful, especially as he displays his extensive and fascinating knowledge about Mendocino flora and fauna, where the novel is set.  His apparent familiarity with guns is chilling.  I had to Google "Sig Sauer."  What I don’t know about guns can fill a novel this long.

This is a difficult read ... if you are looking for a pleasurable beach novel, choose the last book I blogged about, The Things We Keep.  If you want a compelling read that touches your heart and soul and will stay with you, read My Absolute Darling

I think a sentence from Stephen King’s review on the back cover captures this novel very well.  “This book is ugly, beautiful, horrifying, and uplifting.”

The Things We Keep

Sally Hepworth |  Fiction

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Do you know the Kincaid Grade Level Analysis?  It is a way to analyze your writing, to ensure that it is clear and easy to read.  Some good copywriters will tell you to keep your copy in the Grade 4-7 range (which means it can be read by 9-12 year olds), and even white papers and tutorials below 9 (9 Grade level can be read by the average 14 year old).  This is good advice for the choice of words, the sentence and paragraph structure, and so forth.

I want to talk about the content, however.  I believe there is a similar “grading” – at least, there is in my mind.  But it refers more to intellectual content than to the style of writing and choice of words.  Romance novels, for example, even though they may have sexual content, are written in a very simple style – and can appeal to people with quite a range of intelligence.  Political and historical and scientific tomes may represent the other end of the scale, requiring high levels of intelligence, concentration, analysis, and focus to read and absorb the information.  (Do you know of a scale that actually measures these differences?)

Anyway, my point is The Things We Keep falls a little too low on the “intellectual” scale for my liking.  This is the story of Anna who, at age 38, has been diagnosed with “young-onset Alzheimer’s.”  In a residential facility, she falls in love with Luke, the only other young person in the care facility.  Eve is another major character.  She is hired as the cook and cleaner in the care facility. And has her own set of secrets and difficult circumstances.  She works to keep Anna and Luke together when others feel the relationship is not safe.

The story is an easy read, and an entertaining one.  I simply had hoped for more.  I had hoped to get a better understanding of early-onset Alzheimer’s, and the disease’s progress and impact.  But instead I read a story … a nice story, an interesting story, a story that I was drawn in to and wanted to resolve … but I wanted more.  I wanted to learn more, to have the tale be, well, more “intellectual.”

This is a beach read.  That’s the best way to describe it.  It is light reading ... lighter than you might expect from such a difficult subject.  Unfortunately, there are no beaches here in the high desert!!

list.

Midwives

Chris Bohjalian  |  Fiction

I so enjoyed Chris Bohjalian's novel, The Flight Attendant (blog post in May 2018), I was quite looking forward to reading another book by him.  After struggling with Midwives for nearly a week, and falling asleep reading it, and forcing myself to open it and read the next chapter, I am admitting defeat.  I find it slow, boring, and without any pizazz or energy.

The plot sounds intriguing and strong ... a midwife, on an icy Vermont night, takes desperate measures to save an infant's life by performing an emergency caesarean on what she believes is the dead mother.  But, was the mother really dead?  Therein lies the appealing plot.

Too bad the writing wasn’t as appealing.  I’m off to something else.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood |  Fiction

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At first, I was chastising myself for not reading this 1986 classic sooner.  And then I arrived at page 93, Chapter 16, when the Commander and the Handmaid have sex and I discovered that image had been carved by a wood burner into my memory.  I realized I had read The Handmaid's Tale before.  But I recalled little and was inspired to continue reading it again.

Briefly, the story — there has been a cultural and social revolution resulting in civil wars and a totalitarian society in Gilead. This is a dystopian novel of what happens to the women, especially, when roles are proscribed and freedoms removed and families broken up, and tolerance disavowed.

No surprise, Atwood’s writing is exquisite and powerful.  Our narrator, one such Handmaid, whose primary job is to bear a child for her Commander and his Wife, weaves the story of her past into the telling of her present life.  As with any dystopian novel, it caused me to wonder ... could we fall victim to such a regime; such a cultural shift?  And to what extent have we already, without realizing it?

If you haven’t read this, you owe it to yourself.  If you've read it decades ago, consider rereading.

And my burning question is ... have you seen the television series?  How is it?  Should I track it down?

 

Thunderstruck

Erik Larson |  Nonfiction

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Thunderstruck, the interwoven stories of Guglielmo Marconi, credited with the invention of the wireless, and Hawley Crippen, a physician, perhaps eventual murderer, isn't Dead Wake or Devil in the White City.  I was disappointed that the narrative lacked a strong sense of mystery and urgency. Thunderstruck read more like history than narrative non-fiction, to me.  At times it was dry and repetitive.  I began to skim the sections where Marconi is testing his wireless, after about the 15th or so iteration of such tests.  One reviewer said Larsen “was exhaustive without being excessive.”  I beg to differ.  I thought Larsen included too much detail about Marconi, his company, his competition, and his endless wireless tests.

That being said, I never once considered putting it down.  Larson's storytelling is good.  He excels at creating a whole picture of his characters ... not just what they accomplished, but their personalities, their foibles, their strengths, their loves, their obsessions.  I think he just included a bit too much in this tale.

The last 20% of Thunderstruck, the chase for the fugitives, was the page-turner part!  I do think Larson's editor should have insisted on a clearer distinction as the chapters shift in time.  The Crippen story occurs mostly ten years ahead of the Marconi story until they at last intersect. 

So, do I recommend Thunderstruck?  Yes, with some reservation.  Read Thunderstruck if you particularly like Larson, or you are intrigued by the development of modern-day communication devices, or you particularly like the social and technological leaps and bounds society encounters at the turn of the prior century. Otherwise, I don't suggest this book leapfrog to the top of your list.

The Power of Meow

David Michie |  Fiction

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This is the third book in David Michie's trilogy about Buddhism through the eyes of the cat adopted by the Dali Lama.  (No, you didn’t miss the second one – turns out my library didn’t have it. I just requested it.) His Holiness’s Cat (HHC), aka Rinpoche, Little Sister, Snow Lion and other names, is delightful!  Smart, articulate, able to read and understand human conversation, she allows us to see Buddhism through her innocent and curious eyes.  These short novels are really fun!  If I were to subtitle this book, it would be, The Power of Meow; In Which HHC Learns to Meditate. 

HHC never reveals the name of celebrities who meet with the Dalai Lama, but in this book, we meet the CEO of an American social-media company, the name of which rhymes with “litter.”  Ha ha ha.

These are quick, enjoyable, fun and enlightening reads!  However, read The Dalai Lama’s Cat first, the initial book in the trilogy, so you learn how HHC came to be the meowing voice of Buddhism principles.

The Flight Attendant

Chris Bohjalian |  Fiction

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Cassie is a flight attendant with enough seniority to work the plum international routes.  She also, to use her own words, “binge drinks” and has “binge sex.”  One might in Dubai; she partakes of both of her chosen activities and wakes up next to Alex Sokolov, his blood pooled on the bed and his throat quite emphatically slit.  Did she do it in a blackout?  If not, who did?  And why?  And why was she still alive?  Cassie leaves the scene, wiping away all traces of herself.  Thus begins a tale of intrigue, mystery, and suspense.

This is an airplane book.  If you want to pass the time, fully engaged in a mystery novel, and not hearing your flight attendant or the passenger in the seat next to you, this is an excellent book to engross yourself in.  It will pull you right along as you try to solve the mysteries along with Cassie, the FBI, and other indeterminate players.

Bohjalian has written 20 books.  His voice is clear and it seems he can tell a sharp, creative story.  I think I will try more of this author; I just requested an earlier work, Midwives, from the library.

Call Me By Your Name

André Aciman |  Fiction

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It is unusual for me to read a book after seeing the movie … I prefer to do it the other way around.  Then, since the movie is never as rich as the book, I can add scenes as I watch the movie.  But something compelled me me to read this novel after seeing the movie.  As much as I enjoyed the beautiful cinematography of Call Me By Your Name, the excellent acting, and the grip of the love story, I felt that the movie was more about what occurred than about the emotions of the two main characters, Elio and Oliver.  I hoped the book would shed some light.

From the very first page, I was not disappointed.  I found myself wanting to watch the movie again with this book in hand … the movie did such a beautiful and profound job of communicating the external story, and the original novel did an exquisite job of communicating the internal landscape.

Elio, the only child of a literature professor and his wife, spends summers with his parents in a home in a small village in Italy.  Every year Elio’s dad invites a student, a protégé of sorts, to spend the summer with them, doing paperwork and correspondence, as well as research and study.  The setting, the weather, the town – all are idyllic.

This summer Elio is 17, and the guest student is 24-year-old Oliver.  This book is the story of their love ... the long slow path to its consummation, and the intensity of its passion and intellect.

This is one of the most sensual books I have ever read.  Aciman is a master.  It is also beautifully written, with lovely words and phrasing.

If you have seen the movie and liked it, I think you will enjoy this book as I have.  If you have not seen the movie, I don’t know how well the novel will land.  The story line is simple and rather slow.  I just can’t tell if it would be a good read or not.  If you read it, let us know!

 

 

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Matthew Dicks |  Fiction

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I LOVE this book!  It is sweet and delightful and a pleasure to read.  (Thank you, Janey!)

Max is an unusual 8 year old boy.  He likes to be by himself.  He has poor social skills.  He needs a schedule, and commitment to it.  He doesn't like change.  And sometimes he gets “stuck.”  But he does have an imaginary friend, Budo.  This delightful story is all about Max's imaginary friend.  And the fun part is, it is written by Budo himself!

Budo is invisible to everyone but Max and he can go wherever he wants, which makes him a great storyteller!   We learn what it is like to be imaginary.  Budo can be seen by other imaginary friends, like Graham and Puppy and Teeny and Oswald.  But all imaginary friends are just what their makers imagine.  Budo can walk through closed doors, because that’s how Max imagined him.  But he can’t sleep, because Max didn’t think of that.  Some imaginary friends can fly.  Some, like Puppy, are not very smart.  Budo, of course, is very smart!

Imaginary friends live until their makers forget about them.  Many of them “disappear” the first few days of kindergarten, as their makers begin to interact with, well, real kids.   But some live on much longer.

Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a child?  Someone you could talk with, play with, or seek wisdom from?  Please tell us about him/her!  I didn't.  However, I do have an imaginary friend now.  His name is Beryl.

 

The Great Alone

Kristin Hannah |  Fiction

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I don’t know Kristin Hannah’s work well, but it seems she has a real gift for breathing life into her characters.  The Great Alone is haunting and complex.  

This novel takes place mostly in 1974 and 1978, with a resolution and completion in 1986.  Ernt Allbright has returned a changed man from serving in Vietnam, and he suffers nightmares, anger, and violence.  He can’t find his way back to the man he was before, even with the unfailing love of his wife Cora and daughter Leni.  After losing jobs and relocating his family many times, he finally decides to move them to a wild and remote corner of Alaska.  This is the Alaska that is fiercely independent, where people are isolated and all their energy goes to survival in a wild, beautiful, unrelenting, frozen land.

Leni is the protagonist in The Great Alone.  She is 13 when the novel begins, and this is her story about learning to love and survive in Alaska.  She struggles to reach womanhood, when her primary task is to attempt to protect her mother from her father, which she fails at over and over again.  There are other wonderful characters in the community in which the Allbrights carve a home.  The local wealthy guy, Tom; Large Marge; and Mad Earl ... whose names give you clues to their personalities!  And then there is Matthew.  But I'll leave you to discover these people on your own.

Before I began this book, and every single time I picked it up to read it, I had to take a deep breath (which is easier said than done since my bout with pneumonia) and steel myself, because there was a chance that Ernt was going to beat his wife Cora.  There's a lot of domestic violence in the middle third of this book.  Be prepared.

Hannah's depiction of the three main characters is what makes this novel, despite it's sad premise, compelling and difficult to put down.  Their intense and difficult love for each another, and how they fall in love with the challenges of surviving in stunning Alaska, will keep you glued to the page, and staying up later than you intend to.  Take a breath and be transported to a wild place of incomparable beauty and pain.

 

The Lying Game

Ruth Ware|  Fiction

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Like the best seller, The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware has written another intriguing mystery novel.  I am struck by the complexity and intricacy of the stories she tells ... she’s just not like many mystery writers where the plot is:  “Someone is killed.  Who did it?”

Four dear friends, Kate, our narrator Isa, Fatima, and Thea, who attended a boarding school together when they were 15, reunite 17 years later, when a body is found in a tidal estuary near London, just a short distance from Kate's home.  Three of them receive the text from Kate they hoped they never would receive.  It says simply, “I need you.”  And thus begins the disentangling of what really happened 17 years ago among these four inseparable friends.

Absolutely, read it.  It's for fun, for intrigue, for wondering what the real story is and trying to figure it out, and for resolution.

 

 

 

Shadow of Night

Deborah Harkness |  Fiction

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This is the second book in a trilogy by Harkness.  The first one is called A Discovery of Witches.  (See my blog posting on 01/23/2018).  I liked this second book a lot; was never bored, and it entertained me through all 592 pages.  It was the perfect read while recovering from unexpected surgery.

This second book is also a fantasy, featuring witches, vampires, daemons, and humans.  It is set in 1590, as Matthew (a vampire) and Diana (a witch) have time-traveled back in time to find a witch to help Diana learn her skills as a witch, and to search for the all-important book, Ashmole 782.

I rated it three hearts instead of four because it is all about relationships – and there isn’t much action.  The relationships are fascinating, interesting, and teach us a lot about Elizabethan London.  However, I think it may a bit slow for Outlander fans, with its pattern of relationship – crisis – relationship – crisis.

Matthew and Diana grow together and it is fun to meet their extended families.  (Well, mostly Matthew’s, since we are in the 16th century!)   I think if you like book 1, you will like book 2.  I intend to read Book 3, The Book of Life, when it is warm and sunny on my back deck this summer.

 

No One Can Pronounce My Name

Rakesh Satyal |  Fiction

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This is the Deschutes County Library 2018 community read.  And so I really WANT to give it four hearts, but it doesn't quite slide into that category for me.  No One Can Pronounce My Name is the story of Indian-Americans living in Cleveland.  Some lived in India earlier in their lives; some were born here, all identified as Indian.  This was their story about how they maintain their culture (my mouth often watered as many social events were held around homemade pakoras and samosas); how they integrate; how they assimilate; how they befriend one another; how they deal with traditions and values and norms both American and Indian; what they gain and lose when they do assimilate.

It is not a heavy read … you will laugh and cry sometimes.  The main characters are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. They are gay, straight and questioning.  They desperately want friendships and intimacy, and don’t always find the vehicles to create meaningful relationships.  Their jobs and passions differ, and the overlap of the circumstances of their lives happen by coincidence, a chance, sharing a workplace or a moment in a bar with an unlikely other.

I learned something about the challenges of building a new social structure.  I chose three stars because I found the writing confusing at times and that made it a little less engaging than I had hoped.

If you live in Deschutes County, read this and go the workshops that are sponsored by the library and hit Bend High to hear the author speak.  If you are not local, yes, I still recommend it, just not with my full heart and enthusiasm.  It’s worth a peruse as you make your own decision.

 

 

A Separation

Katie Kitamura  |  Fiction

I made it half through this novel before I tossed it on the return pile. I think it is absurdly written.  Written in first person, our main character travels to a small town in Greece to find her estranged husband, who seems to have disappeared.  I could not wrap myself around her decisions and action.  In a very remote village, in this hotel, there are two desk clerks, one driver, one manager and only rarely, a guest.  I cannot come to terms with why she didn't tell these people she was concerned and looking for him.  His belongings were still in a room, which the hotel staff cleaned out for another guest.  So they also knew he was missing but she never asked anyone ... when did you see him last?  Did he say where he was going?  Had he gone to this place or that place?

Her actions were perhaps consistent in one way, even though they didn't make sense to me.    The main character has no name; an apt match for a woman with no emotions, no emotional depth at all.  I really didn't like her.

Then, a bit before I hung the book up, she spends something like 8 pages explaining to us a conversation between two of the staff members.  It was spoken in Greek, of which, she doesn't speak a word.  So she speculated from gestures, tones and facial expressions.  I found this egotistical, ungrounded and boring.

Something meaningful happens at the beginning of chapter 7, but I read that chapter and still quit.

Forget this one!

 

 

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Joshua Hammer  |  Fiction

Love the title; can’t abide the book.  I only read enough to feel I could legitimately put it down.

 

 

H is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald |  Nonfiction

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What a surprise!  I thought H is for Hawk was a novel.  I don’t know what my brain was thinking … that it was a posthumous replacement of H is for Homicide by Sue Grafton?  It was a shock to discover this is nonfiction, and it really IS about training a hawk, a goshawk.  I would never have picked this book off the library shelf if I knew these salient points.  What I DID know is numerous people recommended it to me.  And so I read it.

And I loved it.  Helen Macdonald is a superb writer, I believe, to write about a hawk – a topic I had NO interest in – with such sensitivity, insight, suspense, humor, vulnerability, awareness, and knowledge!  At one point she spends an entire page explaining different hawk hoods.  Seriously?  Whatever she didn’t know already, she researched very well.

This tale of her training her goshawk parallels T.H. White’s 1951 nonfiction book, The Goshawk.  A constant theme is to compare and contrast what White is doing with his goshawk, with Helen’s decisions in modern-day England about her own.  Yes, that is the same T.H. White who wrote The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone. 

Helen’s father dies early in the book, and I realize that my friends recommended H is for Hawk because of how Macdonald interweaves her grief into the tale of her goshawk.  Every 20 or 30 pages she talks about what is occurring with her grief, the memorial service, being with her mom, etc., and observes what she is learning and what parallels there are.  It is a very non-sappy approach to grief, and I think one readers can understand readily.  I am most profoundly impacted by a quote she shares from poet Marianne Moore:  “The cure for loneliness is solitude.”  Makes me think.

Yes, read it.  Perhaps it will surprise you as it did me.  Perhaps you will learn something about yourself, as I did.  Perhaps you will decide to train a goshawk

 

 

Shoe Dog

Phil Knight |  Memoir

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Shoe Dog is fun!  It certainly doesn’t read like an autobiography of a mucky-muck corporate exec, Founder, CEO. And yet, it is!  I love the way Knight laughs at himself, shares his faux pas and mistakes, his weirdness, his worries.  As a professional coach of entrepreneurs I was intrigued by his lack of articulated vision.  He talks about a “crazy Idea” but isn’t very clear. We eventually learn that it is buying shoes from Japan and selling them here.  But how fun to watch his crazy ideas evolve over the years.

Knight faces untold challenges.  He begins with $50 from his father in 1963 by selling shoes out of his Plymouth Valiant, and grossing $8000.  His memoir is humbling, seemingly unfiltered, refreshingly naïve.  He doesn’t do much of anything by the books.  I don’t know HOW he remembers most of these events from 1964, 65, and beyond, but he seems able to pull threads from his past and watch them reawaken.

Three hearts vs four was a tough decision for this book.  While I really enjoyed the tale Knight weaves for us and his engaging style, I became a little bored with his financial difficulties.  And not so much even bored with those, but I actually wanted to know more.  Every time he spoke about design challenges, or marketing challenges, or his social ineptness, I found myself leaning forward.  I wanted more on the breadth of his business – more about his retail philosophy, more about the athletes he signed, more about his organization structure and how he grew and inspired his employee base.  Knight gives us one sentence –  one lousy sentence – when he changes the name of his business from Blue Ribbon to Nike, after seven years.  I bet there was a bit of angst over that momentous decision!  Shoe Dog may also be a bit more interesting to us Oregonians than to mere mortals(!)  It is an Oregon story, down to its roots.

Of the reviews I read, I like Bill Gate’s best:

“A refreshingly honest reminder of what the path to business success really looks like. It’s a messy, perilous, and chaotic journey riddled with mistakes, endless struggles, and sacrifice. Here Knight opens up in a way few CEOs are willing to do. I don’t think Knight sets out to teach the reader anything. Instead, he accomplishes something better. He tells his story as honestly as he can. It’s an amazing tale.”—Bill Gates, one of his favorite books of 2016

 

The Orchardist

Amanda Coplin |  Fiction

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In many of my recent blog posts, I complain about shallow characters.  Not in The Orchardist!  You will know these characters so well, you will be able to predict their actions.  I don’t know for certain if that is good or bad, but these characters are rich and interesting!

At the turn of the twentieth century, William Talmadge tends apples and apricots in his orchard in rural Washington State.  One day, two young, scared, pregnant women appear on his land and, without speaking, Talmadge, Jane, and Della build a relationship. Of course, their lives are changed forever. And the story progresses from there, through the next 20 years.

This is 1900 in the Pacific Northwest.  Before roads, before a lot of civilization as we know it.  People live hardscrabble lives off the land.  I am again amazed that this is a first novel.  Coplin’s writing renders depth into a small and (often) picturesque slice of life.  Much as the characters in this novel are fiercely independent, so is Coplin, in her style.  I found myself particularly intrigued by her use of chapters.  When they need to be a paragraph long, they are.  When they need to be pages and pages, they are.  I also smiled at the names she uses.  Talmadge is always Talmadge, to everyone.  I had to check the inside flap of the book to see if Talmadge was his first name.  And his friend Caroline Middey is always Caroline Middey.  Every single reference, every time she appears, she is Caroline Middey.

I don’t want to give the story away, but it is not a roses and lavender story.  These folks, though incredibly successful at growing fruit, have hard social and interpersonal challenges.  There is birth and death and violence and love and loyalty and betrayal.  And always, apricots and apples and yummy food!

The Orchardist is a long book; it slows in places and speeds up in places.  But it is the type of book you will read in front of the fireplace (or your modern-day version) evening after evening, for a few days.  And you will think about these characters in-between your reading.  Yes, I am still elevating and warming my ankle, so this was a PERFECT book for my current adventure!

Thank you to my friend Melinda for suggesting this book to me (and us!)

 

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

Alan Alda |  Non-Fiction

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When a client is reading a book and finds it important enough to bring up in a coaching session, I take that to heart and read the book with my client; in this case, my client Chuck inspired me to read If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on my Face? by Alan Alda.

It's by Alan Alda, for heaven's sake.  Yes, you expect it to be funny.  And it is.  You expect him to talk about MASH, and he does, but only once. This isn't a “use your 'I' statements and paraphrase what you think you just heard” type of communication book.  No, this book is about real communication, and our responsibility as the speaker for all the communication that occurs or doesn’t occur.

What blew me out of the water is how much this book is about improvisational theater.  I have a passion for improv.  I have been learning and performing improv for five years and two months.  And Alda believes that improv is the single best training ground for how to communicate.  It's fascinating and inspiring!  He reframes the power of improv for me.

He talks throughout the book about empathy, which he defines as “having an instantaneous, primal awareness of another's inner state” and Theory of Mind, which is about understanding what is going on in another person's mind.  These are the critical components of communication: being aware of emotions and thoughts in the other.

This book is delightful to read. Now granted, I was sitting at home with an elevated sprained ankle while I read it, but it took me just over a day.  Yes, you will communicate differently after you read If I Understood You .....  And you will enjoy learning!

p.s.  a disclaimer.  In my posting on Against Empathy, I wrote about how rational Paul Bloom’s argument is for "compassion" and against "empathy."  But he defined empathy as feeling another's feelings.  I think Alda's definition of being aware of another's feelings is a very different and much more useful use of the word.

Read Alda’s book.  Have fun.  Maybe you (and I) will even communicate better.  Then again, maybe not.  Either way, I will watch the look on your face.

 

Little Fires Everywhere

Celeste Ng |  Fiction

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Little Fires Everywhere has a slow start; a shallow teenage beginning. I kept thinking it was a Young Adult book, though it isn't listed as such on the book itself.  So I did some research.  Sure enough, Ng’s first book, Everything I Never Told You, won young adult awards.  Little Fires Everywhere has been called a Young Adult genre book by Goodreads and other book-list publishers.  One reviewer called it “an adult book for young adults.”

In Chapter 9, however, 1/3rd of the way through, something happens.  A mother who abandoned her baby finds her with adoptive parents, and wants her baby back.  This story-line takes off like fireworks skittering across the yard.  The sense of shallow teenage-ness departs, and a heart wrenching story emerges with nuances and missed signals in relationships and situations.

However, it isn't enough to rescue this book. The crises are unrealistic and mostly unbelievable, including a fire that is never really explained, an abortion that doesn't ring true, and life-styles that are simply fictionalized.  The relationships are filled with lies and withheld truths, making them ultimately baseless.  The characters are one-dimensional. All told, I don’t recommend you add this book to your list.  It is neither profound nor believable.

I can’t figure out why Little Fires Everywhere is a book club read.  I will be interested to see what my book club members have to say.  If I gain any different perspectives, I will share them here.

 

 

 

 

Uncommon Type

Tom Hanks |  Fiction

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I would not likely pick up a random book of short stories, as many of you know by now if you have been reading Dusty Shelves for a while.  But I heard about these short stories by Tom Hanks, just after seeing The Post, and I thought it was worth a try.  As you may know, Hanks collects typewriters.  In this collection of his writings (geesh, how many talents can one person have?) a typewriter plays a role.  Sometimes it is a small and insignificant role; sometimes a central and vital role.

I thoroughly enjoyed the short stories of Uncommon Type, and Hanks book comes with my full recommendation.  I kept picturing his quirky and somewhat crooked smile as I turned the page and began a new story.  His tales have a light quality, and he develops his characters well in just a few pages.  I liked the way his endings did not always wrap things up with big red bow.

If you are not a Tom Hanks fan, (which I assume must be possible!) you may not appreciate this book as much as I did.  I can’t quite separate the stories from the author.  I hope you enjoy!

 

 

Alone on the Wall

Alex Honnold with David Roberts |  Nonfiction/Biography/Sports

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I am a sucker for books about real-life and (sometime disastrous) hiking and climbing adventures.  A true arm-chair aficionado, I immerse myself into these adventures on K2, in Montana, in the Sierra Nevada, or in the back deserts of Southern Utah.  From the safety of my back deck, I experience and enjoy fascinating stories and adrenaline rushes.

Alone on the Wall is the most technical of these books that I have read.  You have to be interested in understanding a bit about the difference between a 5.12c and a 5.13a climbing route.  But if you are, you will enjoy the completely true stories of seven free solo climbs completed by the now 30-year-old and legendary Alex Honnold.  Free soloing is climbing alone without a rope, a partner, or hardware such as pitons, nuts or cams for aid in climbing or for protection.

Alone on the Wall is a mix of excerpts from Alex’s journal as well as commentary and research by his co-author David Roberts.  This book inspired me to watch various videos of Alex’s climbs, and his 60 Minutes interview, as I read about his absolutely astonishing climbs.  This book is not for everyone, but if you enjoy outdoor physical adventures, you will appreciate this one.  Even if you don't like these stories, glance at a copy of the book and check out the photos in the centerfold.  They will take your breath away.

 

August Snow

Stephen Mack Jones |  Fiction

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August Snow was a delightful surprise in its early pages.  It is a novel about a Detroit cop who loses his job because he whistle-blows corruption, then receives a 12-million dollar settlement, travels the world for a year, returns to his former home in Mexicantown In Detroit, and proceeds to privately investigate a murder.

The delight was in Jones’ treatment of Detroit ... the interesting and often beautiful architecture, the varied and diverse food, the many generous residents, the disenfranchised poor and Black, the desperate and determined community struggle for revival.  It was fascinating to read for a native-Detroiter, and I think it would be intriguing for non-Michiganders as well.

While August Snow (the man) has some utterly delightful relationships (yes, Snow's persona reminded me of Robert Parker's Spenser), unfortunately I found the physicality too violent and gruesome for my tastes, so the last bits, where August is confronting, fighting, and killing the bad guys, turned this novel from 4 hearts to 3 for me.

Now, here is an important question for all of you who were NOT born and raised in Detroit.  Did you, in your growing up, go out for Maurice Salads, or is this a Detroit phenomenon?  Snow waxes eloquently about this dish and I was salivating, remembering those day-long trips to JL Hudson department store in downtown Detroit, typically with my mom, where the high point of the day was the lunch break for Maurice Salad.

 

The Dalai Lama’s Cat

David Michie |  Fiction

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A starving and weak kitten is rescued from the streets of New Delhi by none other than the Dalai Lama.  This is her story ... the cat with many names, but known throughout the monastery and the neighborhood most adoringly as HHC, His Holiness's Cat.

Seeing the Dalai Lama and his Buddhist teachings through the eyes of a kitten who is most concerned with the quality of the duck l'orange and whether or not the monks love Kye Kye, a dog they are fostering, more than her, is quite delightful!  HHC understands all conversations, knows who the famous visitors are, and is endlessly intrigued by the goings-on of the monastery.  It is fun to see this all through the eyes of a beloved cat.

You don't have to read far into this book to realize it isn't really a novel about a cat.  It is actually a presentation of some of the most important Buddhist wisdom through the author's use of a very smart cat.  I felt a bit duped by the front cover which clearly calls The Dalai Lama's Cat a novel.  It is, in my mind, creative nonfiction. Nevertheless, I am happy to have this gentle introduction to Buddhism.  This book appeared under my Christmas tree at the Tree Already Trimmed book swap, but the note inside did not indicate who left it there.

It's an easy and enjoyable read ... IF you want an easy entry into Buddhism.

 

A Discovery of Witches

Deborah Harkness |  Fiction

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My friend Lois recommended this book to me, and she has never once led me astray.  I loved this book, however I cannot recommend it to every one of my blog readers unhesitatingly ... you will have to choose on your own.  It is a fantasy, featuring witches, vampires, daemons, and humans.  It begins slowly, in my opinion, as we come to know our two main characters, Diana and Matthew, who are professors working and researching at Oxford.   One-third of the way through this 600-page read, I could hardly put it down.

A Discovery of Witches is about vampires, witches, daemons and humans at one level.  At another level, especially in the early context-setting pages,  it is an allegory of brown people, black people, white people, gay people, Muslims, Jews, Democrats, and Republicans and how we manage to live together – or not – with our diverse cultures, values, norms, rules, beliefs, and covenants.  Early in the book we learn that humans become nervous whenever the other creatures gather together in any sort of a group or crowd.  Sounds quite familiar.

This is decidedly not about vampires biting unwilling humans in the back alleys of New Orleans.  Never happens once.  It is actually about the discovery and manifestation of our individual and shared inner strengths and powers (whether we be witch or vampire!).

I realized on page 515 why Lois recommended this book to me; I can see what is looming in the second book of this All Souls trilogy by Harkness, which I will read!

And yes, there is a powerful love story that sparks both magic and war.

 

The Red Car

Marcy Dermansky |  Fiction

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This is an absurd book.  I will venture to call it dumb.  It has a story-line that is not believable, a primary character I didn’t like and didn't care about, and a red car that is possessed.  Don’t even consider it. 

(Yes, I finished it.  I kept hoping.  This is a Huffington Post recommendation.  Hmmm, causes me to look askance at their recommendations.)

 

 

 

The Weight of Ink

Rachel Kadish |  Fiction

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I liked this book a lot.  I didn't love it.  I loved it at first; a richly woven story told in beautiful language.  I described it to my friend Jan as a “cup-of-tea-by-the-fireplace” book; a 600-page book to be read with intention and attention.

And then (you can blame my modern-day distracted brain) I began to find it too dense.  The weight of the ink on the page grew heavy.  When we were in the modern days with PhD candidate Aaron Levy and the challenging Helen Watts, Professor of Jewish History, with whom he was working,  time passed quickly, as our two scholars read pages from the trove they found, called a Genizah.  As we  learned more of the 17th century backstory of the female scribe Ester and Mary, for whom she was a companion, and the rabbi for whom she scribed, Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, the stories at times became rather dense with Jewish history and knowledge. I slowed a bit and my interest waned. I found myself using my iPad often to look up words such as Spinoza, Sabbatean, jib and virginal (the noun).

But I took a deep breath, woke up from the intermittent naps I took while reading The Weight of Ink, and kept going.  The last 150 or so pages re-engaged me.  So, like many long books, I experienced a dip in the middle.  However, on total, I am giving this book four hearts.  I think it is definitely worth the read.  This is a book club book, and I am quite looking forward to our discussion in late January, as there is much to explore.

You may be considerably more knowledgeable than I am about Jewish history and the plague in London in the 17th century, but I learned a great deal from this novel.  It is, dare I say it, a feminist novel, as it is very much about the intellectual development of a woman in a time when women didn’t have many options.

So, with only minor hesitation, I recommend The Weight of Ink when you are ready to immerse yourself in a long read.  By the way, while long, it is not complex with characters.  Kadish manages to not inundate her tale with a multitude of characters.  There are, let me count, about a dozen significant characters, so you have ample opportunity to get inside their heads and hearts.

 

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