Dusty Shelves Book Blog
Margaret Atwood | Fiction
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?
Erik Larson | Nonfiction
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.
David Michie | Fiction
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.
Chris Bohjalian | Fiction
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.
André Aciman | Fiction
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!
Matthew Dicks | Fiction
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.
Kristin Hannah | Fiction
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.
Ruth Ware| Fiction
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.
Deborah Harkness | Fiction
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.
Rakesh Satyal | Fiction
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.
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!
Joshua Hammer | Fiction
Love the title; can’t abide the book. I only read enough to feel I could legitimately put it down.
Helen Macdonald | Nonfiction
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
Phil Knight | Memoir
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
Amanda Coplin | Fiction
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!)
Alan Alda | Non-Fiction
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.
Celeste Ng | Fiction
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.
Tom Hanks | Fiction
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!
Alex Honnold with David Roberts | Nonfiction/Biography/Sports
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.
Stephen Mack Jones | Fiction
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.
David Michie | Fiction
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.
Deborah Harkness | Fiction
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.
Marcy Dermansky | Fiction
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.)
Rachel Kadish | Fiction
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.
Nevada Barr | Fiction
Last Thursday I found myself in-between books, and I wasn't going to the library until Friday. So I put the grab on this Nevada Barr, which had been sitting on the credenza for about a year. What a nice respite for the Christmas weekend! Anna Pigeon at one of my favorite National Parks, Big Bend. Love her character ... and love that each Barr mystery takes place in a different National Park.
Timothy Snyder | Nonfiction
This tiny book is big on making one think. It is only 126 small pages. The author, Timothy Snyder, is a Professor of History at Yale University and has written numerous historical books. On Tyranny is 20 lessons. In each lesson, 1-9 pages long, he writes of a historical event — tyrannical events primarily from WWII — and then ties it to a similar behavior, cultural element, or effect under our current administration. Sometimes he caused me to gasp with the starkness of the similarities.
This is not a book to be read cover to cover in one sitting. To allow and encourage its full impact, read one lesson at a time and let that lesson percolate for a few hours or days. Think it over, muse on it, wonder about it, and notice how the parallels resonate (or not) with you.
My one regret in reading this book is that I read it alone. Snyder's lessons call to be read and discussed. It feels like On Tyranny is meant to be read with your life partner or your business partner or your book group or with friends. It compels the reader to chew ... and you will want to hear the views of others in your life who you respect. Truth be told, I didn’t comprehend all of it either, and it would be helpful to hear other’s understandings and interpretations.
For $7.99 US, On Tyranny could be that one last stocking stuffer for the thoughtful person on your list.
John Green | Fiction
This isn't The Fault in Our Stars. It isn't even on the same shelf. I was looking forward to this next young adult novel by John Green, but was quite disappointed. I find it interesting that all the commentary on the back cover of Turtles All the Way Down is about The Fault in Our Stars.
The main character in Turtles is Aza, a high school junior with mental health challenges. She has “invasives” ... spirals, she also calls them. These are obsessive thoughts, mostly about microbes and C. Diff (clostridium difficile infection) and bacteria and other ways our bodies can be infected. These spirals, obsessive and ever-tightening, make relationships, school, and life itself difficult for Aza. For this reader, they were simply boring and depressing. I found no redeeming qualities in this story, and I read it all the way through.
If it is already on your reading list, my suggestion is to cross it off. But, of course, if you have read it, I/we would love to hear your opinions, especially if they differ from mine!
Dan Brown | Fiction
If you still need a Christmas gift for someone on your list, this is it! I inhaled Origin.
Edmond Kirsh, a 40-year-old billionaire, futurist, and technology genius is unveiling a discovery that will fundamentally change beliefs about human creation and existence. His dear friend Robert Langdon will be attending the elaborate, creative, dazzling presentation at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa Spain, along with several hundred other guests. Langdon is a brilliant Harvard professor of symbology and iconology. But then, chaos ensues and Langdon finds himself with the elegant museum director Ambra Vidal, as together they search for the password to unlock Kirsh's presentation.
This IS Dan Brown, so there is religion, anti-religion, history, and symbology throughout this fast-paced thriller. I enjoyed it immensely. Some of the resolutions were not complete surprises, but still, I was enthralled to learn of Kirsh's stunning discovery as well as to solve the inherent mystery in this tale.
I am wondering how you maintain the list of books you want to read. I was chatting with my local librarian about this topic this morning when I dropped off some books. She'd just heard an idea: put the names of all of them in a jar and when you need a book, draw one out at a random. Interesting thought! She keeps her list in her library account, which has a digital place where you can put in lists and organize them, but that is now 20 pages long, so she can't manage it anymore. I have a typed list that I keep adding to. I organize them by recommendation source or topically ... for example, I have lists of recommendations from my reading pals Mary and Rene; and I have a list I call ":adventures" which are true stories of wilderness adventures. And now I have a bunch of published lists stapled to the back of that printed list. But my sub-categories are insufficient, and, more important, new books keep trumping (45-ing???) books that have been on the list a while.
So, share your process, please! I/we would love to hear new ideas, especially ones that work for you!
Atul Gawande | Nonfiction
Oh my, this is a sobering book to read. It is about how we care and don't care for our elderly and dying community members. This isn't a data-rich book, it is a narrative well told my Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. He uses patients and their true stories to educate us, with anecdotes about the late-life journeys of his patients and his family. He has also conducted considerable research on the topic of caring for our elderly.
You will learn the interesting history of how assisted living came about as a counter to nursing homes. And you will learn why. You will gain insight into the motivations of oncologists, other physicians, caregivers and family members who paint overly optimistic pictures ... in service of the search for one more miracle. And you will come to understand some of what is necessary for people who age to continue to have meaningful and purposeful lives.
While I am very glad I read this book, I gave it three hearts because I can’t recommend it for everyone ... I have to recommend it with reservation. And the reservation is, pick this up if you are ready to explore this important but difficult subject. If you care for or about someone who is significantly ill, or if you want to decide for yourself with greater clarity what actions should and should not be considered as your time grows short, this is a book worth reading. You will receive a heartfelt education.
Josephine Tey | Fiction
Mary, my friend from high school, and I like to read a book together once a year or so. She recently sent a list published on September 15 by PBS News Hour titled, “13 Fall Books That Will Make You Think.” We picked this novel from that list. It was right below What Happened by Hilary Rodham Clinton. Imagine our surprise to open our library copies and discover this book was written in 1949!
The Franchise Affair is a British crime novel, which apparently breaks the rules of British crime novels (no, I don’t know what the rules are!) Josephine Tey (real name, Elizabeth MacKintosh) wrote 24 novels and plays, some under her pseudonym, Gordon Daviot. In this novel Betty Kane, 15, accuses two older women, mother and daughter, who live together in an old mansion called The Franchise, of kidnapping her, keeping her for a month, and beating her. A local attorney in their small British town is hired to protect and vindicate Marion Sharpe and her mother.
Mary: While dated in writing style and very British in tone, some of the themes are very current, in particular the media's influence on society. Based loosely on a well-known case that took place in England in the 1800's, I liked the story and how the author developed it. Tey fleshed out the characters well, even some of the minor ones like Aunt Lin.
While I did find the writing style dated, I appreciated Tey's method of illustration or "turn of a phrase". I believe there is a literary term for it but darned if I remember it from high school English classes. Here are a few examples from later in the book when I thought to make note of them.
When Robert encountered Betty's mother in the courtroom, he realized that despite his warm feelings toward her "....the game had been laid out on the squares now and they were chequers of different colour."
" 'She can never again take a step on to green grass without wondering if it is a bog.' " Marion reflecting on Betty's adoptive mother.
Andrea: Like Mary, I really enjoyed the “turn of the phrase.” I found the writing style intelligent and interesting. I thought the story had depth. It barely resembles much of our modern-day crime fiction, which can be so formulaic. I found this novella an easy and entertaining read, and I wanted to know how the alleged crime resolved itself. I would like to read more of Josephine Tey, except, there are so many books on my list, I may not get to another of hers for a long time. You may want to try her on for size!
Mark Sullivan | Literary Nonfiction, Creative Nonfiction, Biographical and Historical Fiction …. WHATEVER!!!!
Pino Lella, at seventeen years old, led Italian Jews across the snow-capped Alps to safety in Switzerland., wearing hiking boots and skis. And then he became a spy for the Allies in the resistance. This is his story – 23 months of his life from June 1943 to May 1945. And it is an amazing story! Some 140,000 Allied soldiers and 60,000 Italians died during Nazi occupation of Italy, but very little has been written about this part of history. Historians call Italy “the Forgotten Front.”
Mark Sullivan spent over a decade researching Pino’s story. He was able to speak with Pino, but very few others, about events that took place 70 years ago. He has put together a very compelling read. It is interesting, emotional, eye-opening, sad, and inspiring.
I did some research on this genre. Ever since I read Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, I have been in love with what is most often called “narrative nonfiction.” (Narrative nonfiction, also known as creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction, is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives.) Mark Sullivan tells us in the preface that he believes Beneath a Scarlet Sky is best called a “novel of biographical and historical fiction.” What we know is that the absolute backbone of this story is true, and has never been documented before. Sullivan filled in the holes with fiction. It feels as though the holes were few and far between.
Beneath a Scarlett Sky is moving and very well written. It will draw you in as you read the opening pages and keep you transfixed. It boggles my mind to read about the courage and brilliance of a 17 and 18-year old young man. Oh yes, Pino also falls in love with Anna, a beautiful widow six years his senior, so you get some romance amidst the horror of war, too. Yes, be sure this is on your Holiday List as a gift, and to read!
Colin Woodard | Non-Fiction
In my blog on Hillbilly Elegy, I asked for recommendations on a book that better explains our current regional voting patterns and two of you suggested American Nations. This is a very worthwhile read.
American Nations traces the 11 ethoregional “nations” that actually compose our continent, from 1600 to 2010. (American Nations was published in 2011). Woodard writes the history of our country and our continent through the lens of these nations, which were colonized by different peoples, and have different values and often vastly different views on religion, race, the role of government, appropriate self-governance, diversity, social issues and the environment. And more! It is fascinating to read history told this way. It amazes me we ever came together as a “United” Sates.
This is not an easy read. I typically could read only one or two chapters at a time. And since, as long-term leaders of Dusty Shelves know, I am not a fan of history, it took discipline and commitment to read this book. And retention? I would say I have retained 5% maybe.
While American Nations does not address the current administration and how we were surprised last November 8, it does give us over 300 years of context for the decision we made as a country last year. Woodard is good, too, throughout his telling of history, at identifying what aspects are still alive today and still drive decisions and attitudes in the 21st century; so there is a frequent link to the present.
American Nations is important and educational and yes, I highly recommend it. I am including the map of the 11 Nations here … I hope you will be able to see it!
Lucia Berlin | Fiction
When I was in graduate school at the University of Utah, situated at the edge of Salt Lake City and in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, I was a runner. Some days, when there was too much snow on the ground, I would run around the elevated track in the gym at the U. Yes, I accomplished my exercise, but it wasn't like running four or five miles among the foothills or up and down the streets with beautiful old homes and neighborhoods that told a story. Short stories make me feel like running the track; I am not getting anywhere.
I made it through about 150 pages; quite a few of the 43 stories in this book, until I just became too tired of Berlin’s style, the story with the abrupt end. She weaves together some interesting tidbits, Studs-Terkel-like, mixes in some humor, and then puts a surprise at the end. The rhythm of her writing began to put me to sleep. It was the same formula in every story.
During my process of trying to “like" Berlin's book, I researched why some of us are challenged by short stories. I found this delightful article! I have read and enjoyed two of the recommended short story complications: the one by Alice Munro, and the short stories of one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House.
Diane Chamberlain | Fiction
You could make a shawl to wear on your shoulders if you wove together all the secrets in the MacPhearson family. When Riley MacPhearson returns home after her father's death to manage his estate, she discovers and uncovers lies and secrets surrounding her older sister's suicide, more than 20 years earlier. These emerging lies and secrets are the backbone of Chamberlain's novel, The Silent Sister.
This is a “lose yourself in the story” kind of novel. At one point, about two-thirds of the way through, I had to tell myself to turn off the light and get some sleep. It is a well-crafted tale, and you will find yourself eager to discover the resolution of the mysteries.
My friend Rene recommended this book to me. Thank you, Rene. This was a good book as the days shorten and turn cold and I find more time to read with my dogs snuggled up against me.
Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant | Non-Fiction
Everybody urged me to read Option B. After reading Sheryl Sandberg's Facebook post and hearing her interviewed 4(5?) times (what a marketing campaign for this book!) I was pretty sure I didn’t want to. Nevertheless, I put myself on the wait list at the library and, months later, the book was mine. (Sheryl, the COO of Facebook, writes Option B after the sudden death of her husband Dave on May 1, 2015). Fortunately, it is a short read. I read it the day before, the excruciating day of, and the day after, the 18-month anniversary of Beryl's death.
Chapters 2 and 10 had some words of interest. I love in Chapter 2 how she talks about “Non-Question-Asking Friends.” Yes, with capital letters! I fear I know some of these, family as well as friends. And, of course, there's the other side of the coin, the friends who engage and are gifts and surprises in my life. I had to draw away from some, and draw towards others. Chapter 10, the last chapter, is about love and laughter, and I found some words of wisdom here.
Actually, any time Sheryl wrote from her heart about her relationship with her husband Dave, their children, and her grief, the writing spoke to me and resonated with me. The real problem is the role of the second author, Adam Grant. It is way too big. Grant teaches in U-Penn's Positive Psychology program. I have studied Positive Psychology, and I know many of it's studies, attributes, attitudes, and actions. I became real sick of Sandberg and Grant telling me about Positive Psychology interventions: how to improve my self-compassion and self-confidence; how I should keep a journal of contributions I make every day, not gratitude; how to take back joy; how to be more positive, etc. Most of Option B read like a self-help book for ending grief and I resented it. There was also a lot of filler about people and situations such as after-action reviews at Quantico, Rwanda, and Charleston. Huh?
Sandberg's greatest contribution to the field of grief is for the people who love grievers to stop asking “how are you?” and to ask instead, “how are you today?”
I can't seem to recommend this book to anyone, neither those who are grieving nor those who offer support.
Oh boy, tonight I can begin a new book! I am relieved!
I heard a poignant review about this movie on NPR, and simply decided to go see it the next day. The timing of the release of this movie is quite fortuitous, with the disastrous wildfire season this summer and fall on the West Coast.
Only the Brave is based upon the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, many of whom lost their lives fighting a fire outside Prescott, Arizona in 2013. Directed by Joseph Kosinski and starring Josh Brolin and others, the story is told without over-dramatization. It is, to quote various reviewers, "deeply emotional," "satisfying" and "devastating." This is one of those movies where the credits start rolling and no one moves from their seats.
I am quite thankful I saw it. It feels important in this day and time when so many men and women put their lives on the line to fight wildfires. It honors wildfire fighters. I also had a lighter personal interest in choosing to see it. Prescott was our runner-up when Beryl and I chose to return to Bend, and I was hoping for some fine shots of Prescott and the surrounding wildernesses. I was not disappointed.
This weekend, grab a bag of popcorn and make a journey to your local theater. Oh yes, you will need a tissue also.
Michael D. Lemonick | Biography
Lonni Sue Johnson is an artist, musician and pilot when she contracts an encephalitis infection which destroys her hippocampus, the locus of memory in the brain. You might even recognize some of her covers for The New Yorker magazine.
I didn’t know I was interested in memory until I read this book. You will read what neuroscientists are learning about the functioning of our extremely complex brains. It’s pretty fascinating. I also did not fully appreciate profound amnesia. Yes, you don’t remember the past, but you also are unable to form new memories, which means every day and every person is always brand new to you. Wow. Lonni Sue is a very positive and happy person, which makes reading her story surprisingly uplifting.
As I write more blogs, I come to appreciate more about the writing process and authors. Lemonick’s work has been for Scientific American and National Geographic, and he has written more than 50 science articles for Time. You will learn more science than you might expect in this biography, and less human interest. I would have liked more heart ... more about Lonni Sue and her life. Lemonick does a good job of this, just not great. He is a scientist before a humanist.
That being said, if your interest is at all piqued, I recommend The Perpetual Now. This science is presented in lay terms, and tied together well. I also put Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on my Netflix list as a result of reading this book. Have you seen this movie? The Perpetual Now is a Real Simple recommendation.
Julie Christine Johnson | Fiction
As In Another Life opens, our main character, Lia, has just arrived in Languedoc in southern France. It is 18 months since her husband Gabriel died. As I read page one, it is 17 months since Beryl died. I am astounded by the similarity of Lia's emotions and my own, and am immediately drawn into her character. She has come to this land to stay in a friend's stone cottage. She has come to consider the next steps in her life. It hasn't even occurred to me to consider my next steps. It never even crossed my mind. Well, I guess it has now!
But this blog post is not about me ... it is about this book. On the front cover, a reviewer claims it is “evocative of Outlander.” As a guzzler* of the Outlander series, this caught my attention. The structure differs from Outlander. Let me tell you a bit about the plot, to better explain the “time travel” aspect of In Another Life.
Lia returns to Languedoc in part to continue work on her abandoned dissertation, which is about the Cathars, and in part to discover her life's "next steps." In the thirteenth century, the Catholic Church incited a Crusade against the Cathars, a heretical religion according to the Catholic scholars of the time. While in Languedoc, Lia’s inner historian is enlivened again and she learns a great deal about the powerful players from the year 1208 who facilitated or resisted the Crusade. I think it is sufficient to say, without giving away too much of the story itself, that the Cathars believed in reincarnation. So “time travel” in this novel occurs as rich characters who were incarnated in 1208 interact with our modern day characters.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book! I like the exploration, the mystery, the time travel, the depth of the characters, and the romance. This is a book club book and I know at least one member of book club did not like this book. Our conversation will be interesting!
*(Ha ha, I just learned the word tachyphagia - it means to eat rapidly or fast. I thought “guzzle” was little more user-friendly!)
Jodi Picoult | Fiction
Intense. This book begins light and easy. Sage Singer is a baker; you can almost smell (but not quite taste!) the delicious breads and pastries she bakes every night. One day an elderly man walks into the bakery and Sage and Josef strike up a conversation and then an unlikely friendship. Nice so far, eh?
Josef asks Sage to help him die. Now the story picks up a bit more heat.
And then we enter into the real meat of the seemingly credible novel … Josef’s tale about his experiences as a Nazi SS leader. Eventually we also get Sage’s Grandma Minka’s story as a Holocaust survivor at Auschwitz. Of course, Josef’s and Minka’s paths crossed all those many years ago.
Their tales are riveting. In full Picoult style, it is hard to put this book down, even though the bulk of it is definitely intense. Yes, absolutely, it is worth reading.
Footnote: In March of this year, a Nazi SS Officer, 98 years old, was revealed, living in Minnesota. Picoult's book is not far-fetched.
Thrity Umrigar | Fiction
This is a story about the relationship between a young Indian woman, Lakshmi, who attempts to commit suicide, and her therapist, an African-American woman named Maggie. Lakshmi is totally delightful. She does not speak English well, but it takes you only a page or two to understand her. She uses words like “ascare” for scared and “courage” for encourage. She doesn’t understand why “the husband” calls it a “coffee table” when thy only drink chai. Throughout the book, we learn more and more about Lakshmi’s story, and how she came to be in the United States and the tragedies and joys of her complex life. Fascinating.
On the other hand, Maggie has been drawn as a very shallow character. She never does much of anything, and what we learn of her life is, well, rather immature and insensitive. And so their friendship is a bit difficult to grasp. A number of reviews I read were distraught that Maggie breaks the rules of therapy and befriends Lakshmi. I, on the other hand, felt the other way. I wanted her to eschew the rules and boundaries and really befriend Lakshmi, but she stays on the fence and emotionally distant.
I like a place of grounding in a book. If it is placed in Boston, I picture Boston. If it is Dubai or Atlanta, I will get out maps and be able to “see” the place. I don’t know what Umrigar was thinking when she placed her characters in Cedarville. That’s all we get to know. I assumed that it was near New York, as the seasons began to change. But then we learn that Maggie used to live in New York. By the end of the book we discover that Cedarville is about 1000 miles from San Diego. Huh? At one point I googled Cedarville and discovered there was one in California and one in Ohio. We learn in the first few pages that they are not in California. So maybe it is Ohio. Until Maggie talks about the snow she sees on the mountains. I felt, well, lost.
Read this book for Lakshmi and her Indian hertitage. Her story will stay with you and make you think. Don’t read it as a tale of friendship between women; it would be a disappointing friendship for sure.
William Kent Krueger | Fiction
I remember one event clearly from the summer I was 13. I went to Bob-Lo Island, an amusement park on an island in the Detroit River, and met my first love, Randy. What do YOU remember about the summer you were 13? Well, this book is the summer Frank Drum was 13, and there is A LOT to remember! Granted, it is a novel, so the author can imagine events in order to create richness of experience and memory. And that he does!
Written from Frank’s perspective 40 years later, he tells a spellbinding story about the summer he was 13, during which accident, suicide, murder and deaths occurred. Frank and his younger brother Jake live in a small town on the Minnesota River ... a town in which, in 1961, it was impossible not to know everybody's business, and all the interwoven goings-on. This is a MUCH more interesting and intriguing story than my own first summer as a teenager.
Krueger also recalls and knits in the times so well. An example: “She wore a pair of dungarees and a blue denim shirt over a white top and she’d bunched the shirttails around her waist and tied them in a loose knot in a way that I’d seen Judy Garland do in a movie about show people.” (page 238, large print edition).
Krueger isn’t a spectacular mystery writer. I anticipated many of the events and “whodunits” before they actually happened. But that didn’t really matter. The story held my interest. This book actually kept me awake until midnight one night and 11:00 PM the next. Very unusual for this early-to-bed-early-to-rise reader.
Put this one on your list and enjoy!!
Paul Bloom | Non-Fiction
On page 4 of this book I was convinced. It was like that moment when I said, “I am no training to people’s weaknesses in the corporate world, but only to their strengths.” I made a radical shift. I am no longer interested in developing someone's (or my own) empathy. I am interested in developing their compassion.
Briefly, Bloom’s contention is that that problem with empathy – with feeling another’s feelings – is the spotlight nature of it. He talks about empathy as having decidedly unsatisfactory traits: narrow focus, innumeracy, bias, and specificity. His argument is that empathy can lead us in quite the wrong direction, especially in society. Feeling empathy towards another individual is always just that – it is individual. So if I work to solve your problem, it may very well be at the expense of a more strategic solution for a broader group. I cannot feel empathy for the broader group – but I can feel compassion for the strangers I don't know.
Plus, what good does it do me to feel your pain? (Yes, it might do me good to feel your joy; that point is well-taken!) If I actually FEEL your pain, as an empath, I can become immobile. Here is a quote form Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki, researchers in this arena: “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.” (page 138)
I heard Bloom interviewed on NPR and was eager to read this book. It doesn’t take long to read – it is short and succinct (mostly). Though I did have to wait a while for a copy to become available at the library! If you are a coach, or a trainer, or a parent, or work in any way with the psychology, behaviors, or emotions of others, this is a must-read for you!
It fell from four hearts because the last two chapters seem like filler to me. I don’t know why they were included, unless Bloom's editor said that he needed more words! If you read this book, I would especially like to hear your opinion on these last two chapters, “Violence and Cruelty” and “Age of Reason.”
Becky Masterman | Fiction
Brigid Quinn is a 60-year old retired FBI agent, in a later-in-life marriage. I like that she is 60! She leaves her Tucson home to travel to Florida, where her father is dying in a hospital, and her relationship with her mother is as complex as ever. AND, of course, she reconnects with her colleague Laura Coleman who is working to exonerate Marcus Creighton, a man on death row, just days before his execution for murdering his wife and children. There are familiar, complicated family dynamics at play in this novel, as well as a juicy mystery to solve. And Brigid Quinn is highly involved with both!
I like Masterman's writing. Here is an example of what I found interesting, page 98: “Sebastian, Vero Beach’s lower-middle-class neighbor, nestled unapologetically, almost with a smirk, beside her wealthier enclave.” “Unapologetically, almost with a smirk”? I like this creativity, turn of a phrase, anthropomorphism! Ms. Masterman's story moves fast and is engaging. It is complex enough to keep you wondering.
Why not four hearts, then? Well, it isn’t a must-read; it is a fun read! Despite its over-dramatic title, it draws you into relationships and circumstances. If you are ready for a break from this year's reads about WW2, Appalachia, and grit, A Twist of the Knife will satisfy.
(BTW, this is another Nancy Pearl recommendation ... I trust her a BIT more now!)
Mick Herron | Fiction
(A reminder about two hearts: “I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.”)
I really liked the premise of this mystery novel. “Slow Horses” are British Intelligence Agents who screw up on a case, but stayed employed. They are shipped off to a building called “Slough House.” Of course, in this novel, they collectively do something right, redeeming themselves at least in part.
Unfortunately, IMHO, Herron simply does not deliver on this premise. We do not enter the story of the book until page 94. Up to that time, he gives us vignette after vignette of every Slow Horse currently housed at Slough House. There are too many of them to keep them straight – I wanted a table in the front of the book to help me keep track of who was who. And so, of course, once the story actually begins belatedly, it is difficult to care about any one character.
Later on Herron spends about 100 pages gathering all the Slow Horses from their various haunts one long night, as the mystery is about to be solved. BORING.
Finally, the conclusions are unclear. You are left hanging – not hanging in a good sense; more like hanging because he seems to have forgotten to wrap things up with a number of characters.
This is a Nancy Pearl recommendation. I am disappointed because I thought just maybe I had found another reviewer whose judgments were similar enough to me, that I could trust.
Yes, I finished it. I can be a sucker for a mystery and I wanted to see how the mystery resolved itself. But you may want to read a Connelly or a Grisham or a George or a Christie or a Reich or a Le Carre.
Scarlett Thomas | Fiction
OK, I give up. I have been trying for four days and 80 pages to get into this book. I find the characters completely meaningless. Bryony, for example, is obsessed with her weight ... not obsessed with losing it, just obsessed with it; with feeding it; with how well her husband bakes; with what clothes she can wear. Now I know the crux of the story is that when Oleander dies (who is the grandmother, sister, or friend of all the other characters in the book, and runs Namaste House, a retreat center for famous people like Paul McCartney), she leaves everyone a seed pod. Apparently the seed may bring good fortune or bad; may be deadly or bring enlightenment. That’s sounds like a rather intriguing plot!
Unfortunately, that event has not happened yet and I don’t frankly care if the characters reach nirvana or die. Or both. I am moving on.
Ben Montgomery | Non-Fiction
In the 1950s – in ALL of the 1950s – only 14 people completed hiking the 2050 mile Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine (or from Maine to Georgia!) One of them was Emma Gatewood, known affectionately and more famously as Grandma Gatewood. With 11 children and 23 grandchildren, at the age of 67, she was the first woman to solo hike the AT. In 1964, she became the first person to hike the entire trail three times. Go ahead, do the math!!
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is her story. I know many of you are avid hikers, often on foot, sometimes via armchair. In 2016, 1110 people completed the Trail, 29% of them women. As an avid reader of hiking books, and a four-year follower of Wired, as she travels around the world thru-hiking, I notice that today, hiking the AT is a very different experience from when Grandma did it. Hikers today carry all their supplies in lightweight packs, spend most nights sleeping on the trail in tents and cooking their food. Interestingly, back in 1955, the Trail was so new and such a marvel, that Grandma Gatewood, while she did spend many nights sleeping under picnic tables, also spent many nights at the homes of people along the trail. She would knock on doors and ask them for shelter; something you wouldn't see today except in an emergency.
She was famous for wearing only “Keds” tennis shoes and carrying a small knapsack, with no sleeping bag, tent, or cook stove. The author, Ben Montgomery, weaves in information about our culture at that time of Gatewood’s hike, and for the years immediately following, putting it in context for what hiking was like in the 50s, as well as the roles of women. He worked with Gatewood’s diaries, her correspondence from the trail, her heirs, and also the numerous articles that were published about her once she was "discovered” on the trail. And she is not Cheryl Strayed! Whether you loved or hated Wild, you will find Grandma Gatewood’s tale to be quite different and without the angst, errors, and inner turmoil of Strayed's hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Grandma Gatewood simply walks.
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is an easy and enjoyable read. It is also inspiring. As I told a friend last night, it also makes me feel a bit languid ... I mean, I am not about to hike the Appalachian Trail. Nosiree! And I am a few years younger than Grandma Gatewood.
My one criticism of this book – and it is not big enough criticism to lower my heart rating – is that Ben Montgomery clearly is a reporter (he is a staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times). As such, his writing is, I find, dispassionate. After just completing Coming Into the Country by John McPhee, who clearly wants to pass on his passion and enthusiasm, Montgomery is rather emotion-less in his communication.
Nevertheless, you will be delighted to know this story better! Emma Gatewood is an unsung hero of our modern day world!
Jacqueline Woodson | Fiction
This book is a Huffington Post recommendation. For the first few pages, I couldn’t understand why this quick, short book was recommended. It is a very fast read. I read it in an afternoon, lakeside, during which I also finished a watercolor painting and took a spin on the lake in my kayak.
It is the story of four girls who become friends on the chillingly dangerous streets of Brooklyn in the 1970s. We learn in the afterward that the author herself grew up in this place, though her characters are all fiction. The reader can feel that Woodson knows the place about which she writes; knows it intimately and personally.
The four young women tell themselves lies as they encounter disappearing mothers, madness, and not-so-innocent men and boys. Another Brooklyn packs a hard punch. It is memorable and satisfying. Take but a few hours, do yourself a favor, and read this award-winning pencil-thin book.
John McPhee | Non-Fiction
I was delighted by this book from the very first page. McPhee’s writing is like having a conversation over coffee. It is easy, engaging, curious, unhurried.
Before I opened this book, I thought I had made a mistake. Other travelers give you books to read before you travel somewhere. I received an extensive list from Off the Beaten Path for my tip to Alaska (which I didn’t even find until the day before I left.) Anyway, I digress. I began this book after I returned from Alaska, and I loved that I had seen a number of the places McPhee writes about. I wasn't totally dependent on my flawed imagination. I could truly picture what he saw. Of course, McPhee shares a common Alaskan comment, “I’ve flown it but not walked it.” That is very true for me and my “seeing” of the spaces and places.
This book is actually three separate stories, woven together by McPhee and his experiences in Alaska. In the first, “The Encircled River,” he travels down a Brooks Range river with a cadre of men from various government agencies – the Federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game, for example. I loved this true wilderness story. It spoke to the only fantasy I left Alaska with; to maybe, someday, float a river in the spectacular Brooks Range.
The second book is about urban Alaska – a minuscule but important part of the state. In “What They Were Hunting For,” we go on an air-and-land search for new state capital, after a 1972 initiative passes the voters. The difficult-to-access town of Juneau was (and is) the state capital. In the initiative, the capital could not be Anchorage nor Fairbanks, or within 30 miles of either city. Eventually the Capital Selection Committee selects Willow as the new capital, and we see the lands they explored on their way to that decision. (Funds never were allocated for completion of this capital and it remains Juneau.)
Finally, the last book, “Coming into the Country” is more than half of the total read, in which McPhee tells story after story about the people who choose to live a subsistence life in the very remote back-country Alaska interior. These are fascinating, sometimes sad, and often inspiring stories. (Reminded me of the style of a favorite author, Studs Terkel). McPhee also portrays and explains the considerable challenges encountered over time among and between the values of the Alaskan white people, Indians, Eskimos, and the Federal government. I find myself using these stories today to speak to topics of risk, adventure, values, principles, self-sufficiency, life and death.
Coming into the Country deserves four hearts. It is a strong read. I have not read other John McPhee, but I understand all of his books are a force to be reckoned with and good way to while away winter hours. A part of me wanted to give this book three hearts, but I realized this was my failure, not the failure of the author. Coming into the Country was published in 1976/77. McPhee incorporates many interesting statistics, such as the price of milk, the number of people living in Eagle, the journey and cost to bring a large CAT machine into the back-country, and the percentage distribution of lands that are federal, state and private. These statistics are all very dated – they are more than 40 years old – and I found myself constantly wondering “What is it today?” Unfortunately – no, fortunately – I read Coming into the Country while camping at Little Crater campground and had no internet service to distract me with the answers to these questions!
Enjoy this book! And please let us know what other John McPhee’s you have read. What did you like or dislike?
Dominic Smith | Fiction
I really like the story line of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. Sara de Vos is a not-very-prolific painter in Amsterdam in 1631, and the first woman master painter in the Guild of St. Luke. Centuries later, 1957, Ellie Shipley is a struggling art student in New York City, when she paints a Sara de Vos forgery. Of course, her single moral failure haunts her all her life, and comes to roost in Sidney in the year 2000. Here is her nadir, against the allegory of an old painting: “For two days she has had the sensation of seeing her own life under an X-ray – the hairline fractures and warped layers that distort the topmost image. She sees her private history, the personal epochs and eras in foreign cities, with a clean, clinical detachment. They have all led to the cracks on the surface and it is time to take responsibility for those flaws. Last night, she drafted two letters of resignation, one to the museum and one to the university.” (Page unknown ... it is page 371 in the large-print edition)
It took me a while to become engaged in this book, in part because of the jumps in time. Although each chapter is clearly marked, I still had a bit of trouble wrapping my head around who, where and when. As the novel begins, there are four settings: two in New York in 1957; Sydney in 2000; and Amsterdam, 1635.
The other challenge is becoming accustomed to Mr. Smith's writing. I find it rather flowery and hard to grasp. Some of you might quite enjoy his writing! Here is an example of what kept me at a distance from the novel for the first half (page 155, large print edition): “Tulp is a man on the ascent; as a city anatomist he is said to have personally signed the fitness reports of the first settlers in New Netherland. With mayoral aspirations, he regularly publishes essays in the newspaper about apothecary reform and the plague and the circulatory powers of human blood.”
Eventually, however the story takes over and the language moves into the shadows. All in all, if the topic sounds interesting, yes, read this clever tale.
Velma Wallis | Fiction
This writing is the retelling of an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters in the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska. In this legend, two old women are abandoned by their tribe in a brutal winter. Yes, in the legend, they survive and thrive.
I believe legends like these are interesting in their telling AND also communicate messages for parallel circumstances. As I read this legend, I found myself reflecting on how I contain elements of both of these women ... the courage and fortitude of one; the fear and sadness of the other. I find it a useful and inspiring tale for myself while I continue to process my grief and try to create a life for myself.
I highly recommend this book. It is very short – small in size and only 127 pages long. I bought it in the Fairbanks airport, and would like to give it away to whomever of my blog readers feels drawn to it ... just let me know.
Anita Shreve | Fiction
This is the book that compelled me to clarify my four-heart rating system. It is a perfect two hearts: “I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.”
This is a novel based upon the ferocious 1947 fire that broke out all along the coast of Maine (yes, fires have a significant place in recent blog postings!) It tells the made-up tale of Grace Holland, a 24-year old woman whose house burns down and her challenges as she is left with two toddlers to protect and support.
Unfortunately, it is too saccharin for my tastes. I don’t believe Ms. Shreve manages to convey almost any of the angst, anger, and pain such a disaster would instigate. Grace’s resolutions come too easily and are not believable.
Shreve’s writing style is, however, absorbing. This novel is fast-paced, a quick and easy read. I DO recommend it if, given that it is late July, you are looking for a rather mindless beach read. It is perfect for that! If you have more important, more satisfying books on your reading list, then defer this one and move on.
Pamela Royes | Memoir
In the early 1970’s Pamela Royes, discouraged with college, was trying to find her path. She makes her way to the Hells Canyon area of eastern Oregon ... a remote and wild wilderness … and proceeds to blossom into a strong and capable woman, living in the back country, learning to survive on a horse, in a tent, sometimes herding sheep. She falls in love with an austere place and a Vietnam veteran, Skip. Together they carve a home out of the wilderness.
I liked the story; I liked Pam's resilience; I liked her realism; I admire her courage. This is NOT something I had the tenacity to do (Pam and I are almost the same age), even though there were times I dreamt of it.
Her writing is not always perfect, and there are a few small inconsistencies, but if you like to read about the wilderness, growing into adulthood, or the journey of strong women, you’ll like this read.
We will be discussing at book club this week. Perhaps I will have some additional comments then.
Timothy Egan | Non-Fiction
On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, the national forests of Washington, Idaho and Montana raged with forest fire. I love reading outdoor adventures, from climbing Annapurna to trekking the Continental Divide Trail to fighting wild fires. However, I hate reading history.
This book, which tells the story of the Big Burn within the context of Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester Gifford Pinchot was too much history and not enough adventure for me. I couldn’t get through it. (Sorry, Rene!)
In thinking about The Stars are Fire (blog posting is on its way!) I was struggling between two hearts and three hearts and decided it would behoove the Dusty Shelves Book Blog if I defined the hearts system a BIT more clearly. Given that it is really a compilation of scales, and rarely all one rating or another, here’s my best attempt to explain what my hearts mean:
Like it a lot or loved it; I recommend it; put it on your list!
Like it; I recommend, with some reservations.
I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.
I couldn’t get through it.
Stephen King | Fiction
A friend sent an article that posed a challenge … to read something you don’t normally read. Now, I SUPPOSE that meant I should read a book about the history of the relationship between North Korea and South Korea, or maybe a tome on the rise of the drug cartels in South America. But no! The first thing that popped into my mind was to read a genre I had assiduously avoided ... a horror novel by Stephen King. And so I picked the one King himself describes as “the most frightening book I’ve ever written.” I was curious to see why this author is so popular.
Well, okay, I am now done with horror again. Not because it was so scary, but because it was boring! King writes to a general audience, and so he does not provide a lot of depth or subtlety or complexity. I like his use of short quick sentences, however. I found them engaging and fast-moving.
This story line in this book is what you might imagine – bury your pet it this place and it will come back to life, though typically meaner and scarier and more evil than it was before it died. Of course, the characters in this book begin to see applicability for humans as well.
About half-way through I really wanted to put the book down, but I decided to complete my commitment to myself. What I learned about this style of writing is that while there are hints of horror to come, really there is a lot of plot and storyline that needs to happen before the horror can have any emotional impact. The horror in this book all happened in the last 50 or so pages (it’s a 400-page book).
So, don’t waste your time. And, in the future, I promise to consider carefully what challenges I accept.
Eowyn Ivey | Fiction
This novel is based on an actual 1885 expedition by Lieutenant Henry T. Allen.
Eowyn Ivey’s character, Colonel Allen Forrester, travels up the Wolverine River with a small band of men (and soon, one woman and one dog) into the vast untamed Alaska Territory. There are three simultaneous story lines. Forrester’s journals create the main story line. He writes of the Alaska expedition, complete with cold, ice, encounters with native peoples, near starvation -- all the challenges you would expect. His wife Sophie, a feminist who has been left behind in Oregon, also keeps a journal, which makes the second story line. The third story emerges from the delightful current day letters between one of Forrester’s descendants, Walt, and a museum curator, Josh, in Alaska. In addition, there are period photographs, drawings and diagrams sprinkled throughout the book.
I wondered what magical realism might appear, given Ivey’s predilection towards it in her first novel, The Snow Child. And there is a rich theme of magic in To the Bright Edge of the World that shows up in the Old Man, a raven, the woman Nat’aaggi, and various events, which would prove to be spoilers if I told you about them!
My friend Mary suggested this novel as a preparatory read before I travel to Alaska later this month. An excellent choice! It isn’t dry history, but it did imbue me with a sense of the vastness and the hardships of Alaska, brought alive by Ivey’s fine imagination.
If you read it, please weigh in on who you think is the author of the infrequent journal entries that begin with latitude, longitude and the weather (page 84 and 207 are but two examples of these.) One person I know thinks these writings belong to Pruitt, one of the men on the expedition. I think it is the Old Man and the raven, who I believe are one and the same. Or are they reports from Nat’aaggi? Who do YOU think it is?
Lawrence Hill | Fiction
The book is the perfect follow-up novel after reading Homegoing and learning about the slave trade, and appreciating The Underground Railway about slavery and the fight for freedom. Someone Knows My Name is another fictionalized book about slavery, but in this novel, the slave truly does gain her freedom. Her journey from Africa to South Carolina to New York to Nova Scotia to Africa to London is a truly remarkable story.
Solidly based in history, Aminata Diallo is stolen from her African village in 1756 when she is eleven. She endures many hardships, cruelties, and humiliations. However, this novel explores her journey towards freedom, with its myriad of experiences -- disappointments, setbacks, mistrust, trust, and occasional compassion. Aminata becomes the author of the Book of Negroes, a record of 3000 black women, men, and children who served the British during the Revolutionary War, in exchange for freedom and transport to Nova Scotia from New York and other places in the east. (You can see The Book of Negroes in the National Archives of the United States, Canada, or England).
I loved this book! It is well written, compelling, and fascinating. It is about 500 pages, so it takes a while, but it is one of those long books that you don’t want to end ... every chapter reveals something new and intriguing. Three times I checked to confirm that Someone Knows My Name was written by a man. I am always in awe when I feel a male author can truly represent the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of a woman, and Lawrence Hill does that unerringly. And then to reach the end and discover that he is a Canadian, born and raised in Toronto – I was even more impressed. While he wrote about slavery in the not-yet-united-states, I suspect he was inspired by the role Nova Scotia played in the salvation of these slaves.
I fully recommend Someone Knows My Name. And I am very grateful to Jan D, from the Casting Crew book club, who suggested in this book as a 2016 read, and when we rejected it, fought for it again in 2017. She was right all along!
Yes, I'm traveling outside my own box here and reviewing a movie, Wonder Woman, viewed yesterday with my friend Deby. There's a lot of hype about this movie, especially from, about and for women. And hype it is.
I enjoyed the first two-thirds or so. I thought the story of Wonder Woman's roots in the community of Amazons, and the visual imagery in this portion were both quite beautiful. I also quite enjoyed her transition to London, and her wonder (no pun intended) at this world of men, poverty, filth, cars, fashion and general malaise.
But then Wonder Woman saves the world. And again. And again. There was too much violence for me in the last third and, more important, the fighting sequences became boring. I was anxious for it to be over. There is a bit of a twist, but I saw it coming, so even that little surprise fell flat for me. My chair was squeaking in the theater, so I was trying to be really quiet and sit perfectly still and it was HARD.
So, IMHO, see it, but don't expect to walk out awed. Or inspired to save the world.
Paulette Jiles | Fiction
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a “runner” after the Civil War. He travels throughout north Texas giving readings to people from worldwide newspapers, for 10 cents a listener. He eschews Texas newspapers, because they excite his audiences and wreak havoc and fistfights among his listeners due to the divisive post-war politics in Texas. One day he agrees to deliver Johanna, previously stolen by an Indian tribe, to her aunt and uncle in south Texas. This is the tale of their journey.
This short book (I read it flying home from Dallas) is sweet, but predictable. There are few surprises and, other than the intrigue of learning about the profession of a runner, I found it not all that compelling. It's a nice book for a plane ride, but not something to put on your “must read” list. I think, too, this book did not have an editor! Before you are too far into this book, you will read that Johanna’s hair is colored honey, biscuit, taffy and ocher. And then taffy again. I have no idea why the author is obsessed with describing Johanna's hair. (Late in the book, Jiles uses a clear word to clarify her hair color. I won't tell you what that word is … it would be a spoiler, in a book that requires few spoiler alerts). Likewise, Ms. Jiles more than once describes the moon as “rolling backwards.” It is irritating that no one seemed to read and edit this book for repetition.
If you want a sweet little read, go for it. Otherwise, there are many juicier books calling to you and me!
Sheila Nevins | Biography/Memoir
You Don’t Look Your Age is a collection of short stories and poetry, loosely yet clearly woven together, about the life of Sheila Nevins. Sheila Nevins is the President of HBO Documentary Films and has made over 1000(!) documentaries. She has been credited with the “rebirthing” of documentaries.
Not typically a short story reader, I found my own self on these pages. As a woman entering business in a similar time frame (she is 14 years older than me, but had a later start in the professional world), I related to many, though not all, of her stories about work, men, friendship and personal growth. The decade of the 60’s, the decade that Ms. Nevins and I did not share, DID make a difference for the role of women in the workforce. However, friendships and the trials of womanhood seem to remain much the same.
The very last story particularly resonated with me, as she writes about her mother’s struggle with an inherited disease, Raynaud’s phenomenon. This is a disease I was diagnosed with 45 years ago, inherited from my own mother.
I like Nevins’ style – she writes interesting and important stories from her life, but not in a boring chronology. She emotes -- at times funny, at times sad, at times angry. This is a quick and easy read, though once or twice emotionally painful. I give it three hearts because of the short story format – not my personal favorite. Such a successful woman, I find she almost seems to take herself too lightly. Otherwise, it is a four heart memoir.
Sarah Waters | Fiction
It was 1862 in London when Sue Tinders, orphaned at birth, comes to live with Mrs. Sucksby and her “family” of fingersmiths – petty thieves, all. By the time Sue turns 17, she finds herself in the midst of an elaborate conspiratorial plot. The plot evolves to reveal truth and falsehood, loyalty and disloyalty, love in many forms, betrayal, exploitation, manipulation … well, the list goes on!
I loved this book! Because it was difficult to get my hands on, and it was a book club read, I had five days to read this 600-page book cover to cover. It wasn’t hard. Water’s writing creates a page-turner, attested to by most members of the Casting Crew Book Club.
Here is but one example of her evocative and visual writing (page 114): “Besides, the days at Briar were so very regular, it was quite like some great mechanical show, you could not change it. The house bell woke us up in the mornings and after that we all went moving on our ways from room to room, on our set courses, until the bell rang us back into our beds at night. There might as well have been grooves laid for us in the floorboards; we might have glided on sticks. There might have been a great handle set into the side of the house, and a great hand winding it …”
Sarah Waters is a fine storyteller. This book will stay with you and haunt you for a while. There are twists, turns and inevitable conclusions. I highly recommend this book, especially for a summer read; it is engrossing and unique. Personally, I am going to explore Sarah Waters’ five prior novels. I have already requested Tipping the Velvet at the library.
In thinking about The Stars are Fire (blog posting is on its way!) I was struggling between two hearts and three hearts and decided it would behoove the Dusty Shelves Book Blog if I defined the hearts system a BIT more clearly. Given that it is really a complication of scales, and rarely all one rating or another, here’s my best attempt to explain what my hearts mean:
Like it a lot or loved it; I recommend it; put it on your list!
Like it; I recommend, with some reservations.
I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.
I couldn’t get through it
J.D. Vance | Memoir
I wanted Hillbilly Elegy to explain to me why Appalachia voted for Trump. I guess if I really want to know, I better read a non-fiction that attempts to answer that question. Any recommendations? Hillbilly Elegy gave me some insight with which to answer that question, but not much. More on this below.
This is a tough blog to write! Hillbilly Elegy is difficult to compartmentalize. The book is a memoir by a man who grew up in Appalachia and eventually left. He tells his personal story about being poor and white in Appalachia, and attempts to draw sociological conclusions from it. His memoir is much larger than the analysis. This disappointed me. I wanted more of a researched, nuanced analysis.
The first half of the book is pure story. I was rather amazed at the direct parallels to my own life. JD writes a great deal about the physical and emotional connection among family in Appalachia. My mom, in Detroit, married the boy across the street. Two of her sisters married two brothers from a few doors down. There was a time when all of my family was concentrated in just a few blocks in Detroit. And then came “white flight” to the suburbs and the next generation departed, leaving only my grandparents to die in the city. While my mom was not quite as addicted as Vance’s mom (prescription drugs for my mom, not street drugs) and certainly did not go through boyfriends and husbands like Vance’s mom, still there were parallels in how these women related to and abandoned their children. And I had to laugh at the section about Appalachia adults hating Japanese cars. Well, being from Detroit, this was a common sentiment!
I later learned that many readers could not relate to this family dynamic at all. It occurs to me that it is a common dynamic, perhaps, in the cities that were populated by early 1900’s immigrants … Italians, Poles, Serbs, Germans ... all looking for better work in America. Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis ... all of these towns experienced some of what Appalachia did, though with less debilitation.
In the center of the book, pages 139 – 142, the author begins to hypothesize how Appalachia Democrats became Republicans. It is an interesting, if very cursory, explanation. Frankly, it is not very complimentary, making Appalachia sound reactive and resentful. A bit later, around page 191, he talks about sentiment regarding President Obama and social changes of that era, and he presents the opinion of his people as though it is all made up; not grounded in any fact.
Near the end, Vance attempts to rescue his book (okay, I KNOW I am attributing to him something he would never attribute to himself!!) and he presents some useful and insightful arguments for what has occurred in this region of the country, and what can help.
My friend Deby found the author’s writing “annoying.” I did too, though neither of us could put our finger on precisely why. My best explanation is that this is written like a “How I spent my summer vacation” essay. It is chronological and rather immature in writing style.
That all being said, I actually think you should read this book. I am completely confident you will not agree with all of my opinions, and that is what is interesting and where the learning is. I am fascinated to hear what you think of this book. I know many of you have already read it. Please opine!
After hearing from some of you that you don't see replies to your comments, I did some research. It is below. If this doesn't help, I will contact my web designer and see if there is something else to be fixed!
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Julie McElwain | Fiction
I don’t understand how I can give Ms. McElwain’s first book, A Murder in Time. four hearts, and I can’t struggle my way through her second novel. It is like a movie sequel in which the sequel is simply a flop. I have been working on this book for days, and I am only on page 94. I am abandoning it. There seems to be nothing new and fresh in this novel. The setting remains the same … FBI Agent Kendra Donovan is still caught in England in 1815 as an unwilling time traveler. She is investigating a second murder now. But except for the fact that a different society Lady has become our victim, nothing new seems to be happening. Kendra remains befuddled by the norm differences and societal changes in 200 years. She has the same manner of shocking people with her modern-day assertiveness. She has the same sweet way of telling her benefactor, Duke Aldridge bits and pieces of life in the 21st century, while being fearful of saying too much so as not to change history. There is the same sexual/romantic tension between her and Alec.
Nothing is engaging me. I am moving on.
Jodi Picoult | Fiction
I became nauseous twice while reading this novel. While there was little physical violence per se, reading about the inner thoughts of a white supremacist quite literally made me ill. I considered quitting the second time this occurred, and then I read some reviews. Eleanor Brown of the Washington Post describes small great things as “frank, uncomfortably introspective” and a book that will challenge readers. With that perspective and the encouragement of my friend Linda, I continued. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/small-great-things-is-the-most-important-novel-jodi-picoult-has-ever-written/2016/10/12/f18e0fdc-7eb4-11e6-8d13-d7c704ef9fd9_story.html?utm_term=.fa0c3dc900d3
This is the story of Ruth, an African-American highly experienced labor & delivery nurse, who is restricted from caring for a newborn per the request of the newborn’s parents, who are white supremacists. But then an emergency occurs, the baby dies and Ruth is sued by the parents, charged with murder and negligent homicide. The novel is based on a real situation that occurred in Flint, Michigan.
The story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Ruth, her white attorney Kennedy, and the father of the baby, Turk. This novel will definitely challenge you to look at your own racism, not just in terms of hate, but also in terms of privilege. It is also a good story! Picoult writes well ... I think an author who can make me nauseous just by relaying the thoughts of one of her characters has to have superb skills.
I gave small great things three hearts, however, because a) I cannot recommend this book to everyone; you have to be ready for it, and have the stomach for it; and b) I think it is a somewhat over-written. I think the some elements of the conclusion were manufactured out of thin air and quite unnecessary and unbelievable. I would like to hear what you think about the ending – without any spoilers! Particularly unreal to me is what happens to the couple, Brit and Turk.
If you read this, please post your opinion! And have a bottle of Pepto Bismol nearby.
Yaa Gyasi | Fiction
I started Homegoing on CD, while driving to Cannon Beach Oregon for a watercolor workshop at the ocean. And I became a bit confused. That evening, however, when I opened a print copy of the book and found an organization chart (no, that's not what it called. Cripes, I have been working in the corporate world for way too long!) Anyway, once I found the family tree, and backed up a little on what I had listened to, Homegoing began to fall into place and I found my rhythm with the book.
The author writes about a character in each of 9(?) generations, beginning on the Gold Coast of Africa in 1764 and through the 1990’s in Palo Alto. The way she tells the story, you don't have the opportunity to follow one character. It is on a timeline, not all at one point in time. That is a bit frustrating. Still, the depth of the story illustrates Gyasi’s ability to immerse her readers in Black family culture and the slave trade through the generations. Her storytelling raises this novel to a full four hearts for me. The only "character" who remains consistent through the generations is a black stone pendant that is handed down from generation to generation. It is the stone that ties the story into one piece.
This novel is the Deschutes County community read for 2017, and I can see what inspired this choice. You receive an education as well as entertainment. I will be hearing the author speak on May 7, and will edit this post if I learn anything insightful to add!
Hope Jahren| Non-Fiction
- Wood is still our best material for building. Nothing human-made is as strong, flexible and lightweight.
- Leaves mature from tip to base.
- Plants are the only things in the universe that create sugar from non-living organic matter.
- Trees have conduits that move soil water up and other conduits that move sugar water down.
- When plants freeze, they die. Do you know how trees keep themselves from freezing?
- If you consider a modest maple tree, about the height of a street lamp, and pull off every leaf in the summer, you'll have about 35 pounds of leaves, every ounce of which has been created from air and soil, using the sun as energy, and absorbing and evaporating 3000 gallons of water in just a few short spring months. In these 35 pounds, you have enough sugar to make 3 pecan pies and enough cellulose to manufacture 300 sheets of printer paper.
- Trees talk to each other to ward off disease.
If these factoids fascinate you, you will love Lab Girl. Yes, it is officially Hope Jahren's autobiography, but fully 80% of her book is about her passion for plants, especially trees, and only the basic structure of her life is presented in typical autobiographic cadence. And Jahren was trained as a writer before she became an geochemist, geobologist, and a professor. Her profound ability to write makes this book a page turner.
Someone in my hiking group, Sole Sisters, (Leslie, I think) recommended this book when I was running on about enjoying The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (see my blog review at sagecoach.com/dustyshelves.) To spark your memory, Gilbert's main character is the moss woman.
Lab Girl is a very interesting book if you have any affinity for the out of doors. I recommend it. Spring is the perfect time of the year to read this book!
Brit Bennett| Fiction
Huffington Post recently published a list, 10 New Books By Women Writers Of Color To Add To Your Must-Read List. So, I decided to oblige. I checked with my dear friend and reading buddy Mary and she had recently read and enjoyed The Mothers, so that’s where I began.
At first I thought The Mothers was simply a story about Nadia, a young woman in Southern California. The more I read, the richer this book became. And I was only a tiny bit biased by Nadia’s departure from California to go to college at my alma mater, the University of Michigan!
The three main characters are Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey, three black teenagers as the story begins. Yes, there are many entanglements among these three people in their teenage years and later in life, as you might expect. About halfway through, the intersections of these three lives become more complex and the book becomes more compelling.
This is (yes, again!) another debut novel. I hope we see more from Ms. Bennett, who has insight and understanding of the complexities we can create between one another, and how these complexities impact our lives. I trust her writing will become a bit tighter and more mature.
My only real criticism is that I believe the author does an inadequate job of flushing out her title, The Mothers. The Mothers are the women elders in the church that is central to Luke’s, Nadia’s, and Aubrey’s lives, but we don’t really learn about the mothers until Chapter 12 of this 14-chapter novel.
The Mothers receives four hearts from me ... but it isn't a wild and enthusiastic four hearts. Read this book if it sounds interesting to you. It is not a “must read” however. I’d give it a solid 3.6 hearts, if I weren’t so committed to my 4-heart rating (and if I had a clue how to make a .6 heart!)
Naomi J. Williams | Fiction
In 1785 the Boussole and the Astrolabe set sail from France under the leadership of Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse. For three years the expedition of two frigates and 200 men attempt to circumnavigate the globe for science and for "the glory of France." This inventive novel is based upon their journey.
Landfalls explores the indigenous peoples the expedition encounters, the science the savants on board attempt to learn, and the relationships of the men. Though there is a structure ... each chapter tells about the adventure from a different point of view and from a different place upon the earth ... the author, Naomi J. Williams, weaves this structure together with a true story-teller's expertise. It isn't even obvious that this is the structure she is following. As a reader, you are simply swept along on the journey.
Once again, I must say, this is a remarkable first novel! Williams richly develops her characters. She avoids the caricatures we may have in our minds about long-ago sailors. No one is brutal. Drunkenness is not a major element of her story. Instead, these are real men on a real journey trying to do real work. I think one secret to her magic is how she incorporates the scientific curiosity of the sailors. I love the arguments about the value (or not) of fresh water. I am intrigued that sailing expeditions had ship's artists to capture plants, animals, land formations and people.
Landfalls (an apt and descriptive title) is definitely worth your time. Your imagination and your curiosity will be grateful.
Amber J. Keyser | Non-Fiction
I heard the author of The V-Word interviewed on NPR but didn't realize until I was well into this book that it is a teen book. I found the 17 vignettes of how young women lost their virginity decidedly interesting. Straight, gay, questioning, uncertain ... there is quite a range of stories. The author defines assault, rape, unwanted or coerced sex as violence, not sex, and such stories are not included. All the vignettes are about women choosing sex for the very first time.
Some stories made me smile; some made me cringe. And I found my own story amidst the telling. (Joe and I were both virgins so "trying to figure out how to insert tab A into slot B" took me back a few years and made me laugh!)
The last 60 pages of the 200-page book were useless to me ... the vignettes were complete, and this section was advice and perspective for young women. Not something I needed!
Since my few blog readers are all friends, I will say, reading about sex was difficult at times. Those of you who are widowed, or single, or simply have not had sex in a long time (and would like to!) be forewarned ... The V-Word will certainly make you think about such intimacies again!
Lee Child | Fiction
This was a fun read, in-between more serious books! Someone is buying something worth $100 million, in two-decades-ago US dollars. What could be bought, sold and transported on the black market for 100 very large bills? Jack Reacher, of course, is put on the job to find the item, the seller and the buyer. Eventually, he uncovers the item and the seller in Hamburg, neither of which make their way to the buyer, and the world is safe again. Intrigue, fast-paced, not overly violent ... Jack Reacher novels are a nice respite.
Now, I splay out my possible reads on the kitchen island and make a decision where to turn my attention next. Oh boy!
Sherry Thomas | Fiction
I’m confused. This book, which I finished primarily so I could write a blog post, simply confused me. I was half-way through before I figured out what was going on. Was I dense? Or did the plot really not reveal itself until half-way in? Charlotte Holmes assumes the name of Sherlock Holmes and searches for the culprits in three murders. It IS on the back of the book – I guess I should have known earlier that Charlotte was operating a ruse, under the name of Sherlock Holmes, but I didn't seem to connect to this information until nearly halfway in. And then, with three murders and multiple suspects, I continued to be confused. And when it ended and all was revealed? Well, suffice it to say, I was still confused.
So, you may ask, why not one heart? Because I finished it. I loved Charlotte's character — she is a renegade; she fights the morals of her time; she meets some delightful people along her journey. Especially Mrs. Watson (I assume that her name was appropriately tongue-in-cheek!) However, I don’t think I will pick up another Sherry Thomas soon. I have way too many books on my “must be read” list.
Genevieve Valentine | Fiction
I can’t quite say why I enjoyed this book so much. The story is not that compelling (more on that below) but the writing is just delightful. Valentine has a style that is easy to read and enjoy.
The story centers on Jo, the eldest of 12 sisters who live in the upper floors of a Fifth Avenue townhome in the 1920s. Their mother died after giving birth to #12, and the girls now live with their controlling and extremely distant father, who is profoundly disappointed that his wife never gave him a son. Actually, their father has abandoned the sisters in all ways except to provide food and housing. As a matter of fact – hard to believe – a number of the sisters have never met their father. Jo is usually the go-between. When he wants to communicate something, he sends one of the house servants up to ask Jo to come to his study.
Jo teaches her eleven sisters to dance and for eight fairy-tale years they sneak out at midnight to explore the speakeasies of New York City, where they dance to their hearts' content, never giving their names to anyone.
The sisters call Jo “The General.” An apt name for their substitute mother! I wonder if Jo is in some way reminiscent of Jo in Little Women. (I did my compulsory read of Little Women as a young girl, but the book I read over and over again every summer that still sits on my shelf today, is Little Men. I wonder what this presages about my life and career?)
An example of Genevieve Valentine's delightful writing is how she names the two sets of twins in the family, Hattie & Mattie and Rose & Lily. An oddity is her considerable overuse of parentheses. I never quite understood why so many of her sentences are in parentheses.
I gave this novel three hearts instead of four because it isn’t a “must read.” I wouldn’t talk about it on a hiking trail with my friends and proclaim, “You must read this!” It is an interesting and enjoyable short book. I reserve the right to add to this post after we discuss The Girls at the Kingfisher Club at book club this week! For a snowy weekend by the fireplace, I recommend this read!
Liane Moriarty | Fiction
I give up. I have wasted two weekends on this book, hoping the characters become less vapid and a plot actually develops. I have made it all the way to page 198, almost half-way, and this morning I awoke with clarity. It is time to move on. Oprah called it “Gripping.” The Washington Post, “Powerful.” Family Circle called it “Mesmerizing.” I guess that should have aroused my suspicion.
If you read this and liked it, I would LOVE to hear about it!
Marie Semple | Fiction
This book is NOT about Bernadette’s physical disappearance (see my rant below.) However, it is about her emotional, intellectual and mental disappearance from her life. Bernadette is an incredibly interesting character … she presents as somewhat daft ... but then again, she presents as very rational. Can someone be “somewhat” daft? (Heck if I know; I’m a coach, not a psychiatrist!) As she lives her life as a mom and a wife and neighbor, living in a house that is literally being taken over by blackberry vines, you wonder how she can be called sane. But then you observe her relationship with her husband, her reasons for using a virtual assistant, her astonishing past, and her arguments with her neighbor and with her daughter’s school administrators and you unabashedly cheer her on! To fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to designers, she's a revolutionary anomaly of an architect; and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
This is an odd book ... the story is primarily contained in notes the characters write each other ... usually not e-mails and not faxes, but “notes.” The author doesn’t explain how these “notes” get delivered. Odd, yes, but once you become accustomed to the style, quite engaging
This was the January read for our book club, The Casting Crew. (Nicole Kidman won the spot of Bernadette!) I can't remember the last time we discussed a book for so long. For the nine women sitting around Pam's dining room table, there was resonance with the character of Bernadette, as well as many laugh-out-loud moments while reading.
Yes, pick this novel up, get yourself accustomed to the odd and playful style, and enjoy.
Rant: I have been reading book reviews much more since I started the Dusty Shelves book blog, sometimes before I read the book, sometimes after. I need to start paying attention to the reviewers' names and see if I can find a few I like and trust (sort of like the old days with movies and Siskel and Ebert. Any suggestions, blog readers??) I have noticed that so many reviewers zero in on an event in a book that they find particularly enticing and then write about that, pretending that the exciting event they picked out is what the book is about, thereby tantalizing you by this event. (Actually, publishers and their jacket notes are even more to blame than reviewers!) Did you read any of the reviews claiming Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a mystery about Bernadette's (physical) disappearance? Well, it isn’t! Bernadette doesn't disappear until page 213; more than 2/3rds through the book. This event-focused review does the author and the book a disservice, I believe.
Colson Whitehead | Fiction
Wow. I mentioned after my last blog (Bullseye by James Patterson), that I was going to choose a more meaningful book, and I certainly fulfilled that intent! This is a haunting, devastating, and decidedly meaningful novel.
The Underground Railroad begins on a vicious Georgia plantation, where escape is on the minds of all. The early pages are very difficult to read; not that it gets easier later. I was shocked and stunned to learn about the brutality among slaves, not only just perpetrated by slave-owners upon slaves.
The author tells us Cora’s story, who flees the plantation where she was born, risking everything in pursuit of freedom, much the way her mother, Mabel, did years before. Colson Whitehead consistently conveys the fear, humiliation, and loss of dignity of a slave attempting to be free. Cora finds herself swept into the great secret undertaking that is the underground railroad. And here is where the novel astonishes. Whitehead has taken the historical metaphor of an “underground railroad” and made it real, complete with stations (some magnificent, some just dirt), stations agents who risk their lives to inform runaway slaves about the hidden entrances, and trains with no regular schedules. It is a magical metaphor.
This beautifully written book was on President Obama’s reading list for 2016. Amazing. Will our next president suggest such a read to us?
The ending(s) – plural because there are a few – are poignant and powerful.
This book should be required reading for us all. Do not expect to be thrilled by it. Expect to be evocatively and deeply moved.
James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge | Fiction
I have to give it two hearts because I must assign it, "don't bother to read." This is not a Patterson I recommend. I wonder if it is the influence of the second author, Michael Ledwidge? Bullseye (which is stupidly named and would be way more clever, though not as broadly appealing, if it was named Matryoshkas from a conversation in Chapter 76 about the situation facing the main characters being like nested Russian Dolls.)
There are too many characters and their development is too shallow. This is the ninth book featuring Detective Michael Bennett, but the first one I have read, and the authors forgot to give us the two sentence explanation of who Michael is. He seems to be a single dad with ten children in Catholic school, a girlfriend/nanny named Mary Catherine (can't get much more Catholic than that!) and a priest named Seamus who hangs around the house for some reason. But we don't get any explanation about why Detective Bennett is in these particular life circumstances. Is he divorced? Widowed? Promiscuous? Did he somehow acquire an orphanage? There is one clue almost 300 pages in.
This book was written in 2016, and Vladimir Putin is suspected of being behind the attempt on the life of the President of the United States (Bullseye's plot). Too close for comfort? There are not one, but two married couples in this book who are co-assassins. Is this a new language of love? One of the couples is quite endearing!
If you want something mindless to entertain you on an airplane, you might choose this. But otherwise, don't waste your precious time sitting by the fire with this book in hand during this, one of the worst winters in years on the North American continent.
I am going to read something more meaningful now. And feed the fire. (It is 7 degrees F [-14 C] as I type).
Fredrik Backman | Fiction
I wonder why people in my life who love me keep suggesting books about death, such as On My Own and Saturday Night Widows and movies such as Always and Heaven Can Wait. I don’t quite understand – are they supposed to normalize my experience? Make me feel as though I am not alone? Do they figure I will find these pieces interesting, now that I have an experience along the same lines? I don’t know. I know they are well-meaning. But mostly I find them incredibly sad and nearly impossible to read or watch.
A Man Called Ove is the notable exception. While it did incite my tears a number of times, I also laughed and found myself with a warmed heart. It is difficult for me to describe A Man Called Ove. Basically, it is about a man’s experience after his wife dies. But that is such an understatement. It is much cleverer than that. First of all, we all thought Beryl was a curmudgeon. He talked about writing a blog he was going to call “The Curmudgeon’s Rant.” In fact, he tried out a few on his family members! Well, it seems he was a baby-curmudgeon-in-training. Ove is the REAL curmudgeon! You will laugh at how curmudgeonly he is! (How can that be funny?) He is such an interesting character, you will want to discover what makes him tick. Without giving the plot away completely, I will say the book often reminded me of my favorite all-time movie, Harold and Maude. But with very different intentions.
I think it takes real talent to write in a way that makes the reader laugh or giggle. Fredrick Backman is that talented. Oh yes, also, I want to share a few of his colorful sentences: "She laughed and laughed and laughed until the vowels were rolling across the walls and floors.” (pp 288/9) And this one: “Jimmy is perspiring like a bit of pork left on a sauna stove.” (pp 236) HUH? I don’t understand either of these sentences, but how visual they are and what fun to roll them around my mind!
Despite the underlying sadness of the story line, this is a warm, comical, interesting - even fascinating - book. Enjoy!
Julie McElwain | Fiction
My friends Lois and Paul were on the Queen Mary 2 on their way from South Hampton, England to New York, over Thanksgiving weekend. Paul was perusing the library when he ran into this book, A Murder in Time. "Lo," he said, "I think this one is for you." An FBI agent, Kendra Donovan, accidentally enters a wormhole and finds herself transported back 200 years, to 1815, to the Aldrich Castle in England. There, it seems, her skills are invaluable, if somewhat misunderstood, as she investigates and ultimately discovers the identity of a brutal serial killer.
Since Lois and I are great fans of the Outlander series, she knew I would enjoy this book as well. The copy I read was NOT from the Queen Mary 2 ... it was a local Deschutes County Library borrow.
I loved this book! Engaging, great characters, interesting tidbits about nineteenth century England morays, values and social structures, and clear fast-paced writing all collude to make this a great read. This is McElwain's first novel. She is employed as the editor of a magazine on "daytime dramas." But don't get the wrong idea! This book is way more about mystery than romance.
The only criticism I have is this. You know how mystery writers bury a clue or two so that when the murderer is revealed, it all makes sense? Well, the author's clue was too obvious and too easy to spot. Even though I knew before the end who the "unsub" was, i was still fascinated to see how it unfolds.
Enjoy this riveting read!
p.s. I just this moment learned McElwain's second novel, A Twist in Time, will be released on April 4. Oh boy!
Ruth Ware | Fiction
The Woman in Cabin 10 is a fun read; I read it easily over a weekend. An Agatha Christie-esque-style novel … “How can the woman in cabin 10 be murdered? There IS no woman in cabin 10!”
Lo Blacklock has landed the assignment of a lifetime. A travel journalist, she will be reporting on the maiden voyage of the private exclusive sailing of the Aurora. Yes, the Aurora, which has only ten cabins for guests, sails to Norway from London for a luxury viewing of the Aurora Borealis. But Lo’s visit to the Northern Lights begins quite unpleasantly, as she witnesses the woman in cabin 10 being thrown overboard. But all guest and staff are accounted for and there is no one staying in cabin 10. What did Lo actually witness?
The mystery is fun as it unravels and sweeps the reader in. Lo, however, takes some getting used to. She drinks too much. Constantly. It takes a bit to warm up to Ms. Ware’s main character. Eventually, though, I became intrigued with the mystery and suspense and, of course, the surprising resolution. Also, I personally would hesitate to hire the two editors mentioned in the Acknowledgments. The Misses Alison and Alison seem as enamored as Ruth Ware of Lo “gritting her teeth,” which she does, I swear, 10 or 12 times. Perhaps another expression could be used occasionally to portray her angst?
In summary, for a light and easy read over the holidays or on the beach, I recommend this tale!
Susie Steiner | Fiction
Edith Hind is a beautiful graduate student at Cambridge University. When this tale begins, she has been missing for 24 hours – her door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon Bradshaw is a well-respected member of the Cambridgeshire police force, who lands the Edith Hind case.
Thus begins a standard crime novel, yes? But Steiner does not follow the path of many crime fiction writers. Manon is a not the perfect detective. While she yearns for love in her life, and attempts to find it through the Internet, we soon learn she is quite a flawed character … not the perfect detective that sometimes appears in crime fiction.
The characters in this novel are all rich and complex ... Edith’s parents, Edith’s boyfriend Will, her girlfriend Helena, Manon’s partner Davy, and even the crime boss who is befriended by the missing woman. We watch the characters change throughout the search for Edith ... some of them grow, some of them disassemble.
At first, I was a little frustrated by the British idioms, such as “knees-up” and “the lounge.” And I never fully understood all the acronyms used by the police: DS, DI, DC, CCTV and MIT. But after a bit, I just smiled and enjoyed the twists and turns on the English language that I know as an American. I look forward to Ms. Steiner's next nove; I wonder if Manon will be a major character? This was a fine book to read while snow fell outside and, warm and cozy, I fed the fire.
Ann Patchett | Fiction
Frivolous is the word that popped into my mind about mid-way through Commonwealth, and I will stay with it. Patchett writes about a typical blended family, with the various parents and step-whatever's, and the functional and dysfunctional aspects of the six children in the blend. And nothing interesting ever happens! Yes, Albie, the youngest kid, is fed Benadryl (disguised as Tic-Tacs) to quiet him down. Yes, Cal, the oldest boy, dies from a bee sting. Yes, Franny takes up with a famous author, Leon Posen, for five years. This is the exciting stuff. Yawn!
Reviewers are most intrigued about the relationship between Franny of the blended family and the 30-years-her-senior Leon Posen. There may have been some meat there, but Patchett spends little time in the relationship. The greatest possibility for intrigue is the book that Posen writes, which is very clearly the story of Franny and her family. This book, also called Commonwealth, sells to a movie house. When the movie comes out, there is understandable angst among the family members depicted. But only three characters actually go see the movie, and they walk out part-way through. A perfect metaphor for Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. Even the movie is not compelling enough for the main characters to finish.
R.J. Palacio | Fiction
“I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.”
I am a little late getting on the Wonder bandwagon (thank you to Mary's book club for putting this book on their reading list!) Wonder is a warm and delightful read. Yes, it is a teen book, but, as with many juvenile books, it certainly has a message for adults. The message I received from reading this first novel by R.J. Palacio, is to remember to be kind. “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” (Wayne Dyer.)
August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a genetic craniofacial deformity that prevented him from attending a mainstream school, until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, his first foray into a real school. Auggie is just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face.
This book touches on diversity, acceptance, appearance, kindness, love, and bullying. While I truly enjoyed the chapters written from Auggie’s perspective, his sister Via’s section talks about what it is like to have a sibling who is the center of family attention and worry. And the Julian section – the last section – blew me away. Julian is the bully who never really accepts Auggie. His story is rather amazing. The marketing on this book quips, “You can never tell a book by its cover,” a reference to the heart and soul that Auggie presents beneath his deformed face. But that is also true about Julian, Via, and others. I guess it is true for all of us.
My favorite quote is Auggie’s favorite: “Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives because we all overcometh the world.” (August Pullman)
There is a lot of buzz about this book online. The author has started this anti-bullying website: http://choosekind.tumblr.com/, and if you poke around, you will find many other activities, including how schools are integrating this book into their curriculum.
What a marvelous first novel for Palacio!
Elizabeth Brundage | Fiction
Imagine you are about to make a sandwich with your favorite bread ... sourdough? 16 grain? Brioche? Wonder bread? Whatever your choice, is it luscious! Then imagine that you smear peanut butter and grape jelly (nah, no one uses grape jelly anymore, do they?) make that strawberry preserves, on the two pieces of bread, in just the right quantity. Now, add a second layer of PB&P. Now add a third layer of PB&P. You now have a lovely sandwich with so much goo in the middle that your mouth gets stuck trying to chew it.
That’s what The Doctor’s Wife is like. The two pierces of bread are the meat (sorry for the reverse pun) of the story. They are about Michael Knowles, an OB-GYN doctor who is passionately committed to providing safe abortions as part of his work. In the beginning, and in the end, the story is compelling. It is about his kidnapping by Lydia, a member of a radicalized right-to-life organization. These pages are spell-binding; true mystery genre.
But the middle – the long and drawn out middle is about the affair between Michael’s wife Annie and Lydia’s husband Simon. It’s a little bit like a romance novel plopped into the center of a crime novel.
Now romance isn’t all bad. There are intriguing and interesting pieces in the center of this book. And it is important for the complex relationships among these four characters to be visible for us to see all the angles. Lydia and Simon especially have a somewhat astounding relationship.
With that preamble, I think you may enjoy The Doctor’s Wife. I did. I simply thought the author overdid one story line, to the detriment of the other.
James Patterson & Maxine Paetro | Fiction
Yes, I know, I have been on a James Patterson kick. And yes, Beryl really liked him, so it makes sense I am exploring this most prolific of writers! Woman of God is not a murder mystery … it is one of his “stand-alone” books.
I loved the main character, Brigid Fitzgerald. She is a young physician who selflessly works and heals in the war-torn Sudanese desert. Her faith and her personal values are tested and challenged over and over, as well as her physical safety.
The prologue is twenty years in the future. The books itself begins in the current day and takes us along on Brigid’s journey over the next 20 years. She leaves Sudan and returns to her home base in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And then, through a series of events and relationships, she becomes a founder and very visible woman in an expanded alternative to the Catholic Church, JMJ. JMJ is a church that is inclusive and compassionate; a church that eventually, near the end, inspires the Pope to invite Brigid to meet with him at the Vatican in a private Papal Audience.
Patterson’s and Paetro’s writing style is engaging and effortless to read. Almost every chapter is a mere 2.5 pages. It is easy to read a bit, put it down, stir your dinner, and then pick it up again. Please enjoy this interesting read! It will make you think.
Steve Chandler & Rich Litvin | Non-Fiction
(for a limited audience) I LOVED this book. I just devoured it last week. It isn’t relevant to me … I don’t need any more clients. But I thought of all of you who coach, with every single page I read. I was fortunate enough to have somehow come by some of these concepts early in my business 20 years ago. However, there were many great ideas I never heard before – I and wish I had known then.
Read it. Really. I believe you will find something very valuable. (And it is an easy read, with lots of white space!
p.s. Do not bother wasting the 30 seconds it takes to read The 30-Second Guide to Coaching Your Inner Critic by Susan Mackenty Brady. Sometimes your return really does match what you invest.
M.J. Carter | Fiction
This is one of the most boring books I have read. Throughout, I was reminded of our Improv Director, Rhonda, who often declares, “Don’t tell us what happened … show us!” M.J. Carter writes of endless meetings and endless dialogue in her novel. There is very little action, though if you make it to page 250, finally something does happen! Then there’s 70 pages of action, intrigue, and breath-holding passages before Carter descends once again into incessant meetings and dialogue. I read the entire book because it was a Book Club book, and I prefer to engage in our conversations. If I were on my own, I would have taken this book back to the library pronto!
I fear the author fell victim to the shortcomings of first-person narration. From a blog on the “Most Common Writing Mistakes” I was able to glean some confirmation for what I suspected was the underlying snag in this book: “The first-person narrator, more than any other type of narrator, is inclined to lapse into self-centered telling, in which he overpowers the story, at the expense of the other characters and even the plot itself. ... <Two of the challenges of writing in the first person are> … Telling thoughts instead of showing; and inserting lengthy narrative at the expense of action and dialogue.” I believe M.J. Carter trapped herself into the worst specimens of first-person narration.
Back-cover reviewers used words like “rip-roaring” and “gripping.” I THINK the publisher swapped in reviews from some other book! Find something else to read as the leaves turn color and fall from the trees.
James Patterson | Fiction
I am not going to post about each of the 15 books (so far?) in this series. Suffice it to say, they are fun reads, if you like mysteries, intrigue, solving thorny problems, and smart women! Excellent for long plane rides. The miles fly by (no pun intended. Ouch.) I suspect these are also good beach reads, but it has been so many years since I lived near a beach, I can't attest to that as fact.
I am wending my way through the series. #3 is on my book pile right now. Enjoy!
Samuel Western | Fiction
“Ward sets down Gwen’s shotgun, picks up his own, and opens the driver side door. As he reaches in to place the shotgun on the gun rack, he touches the trigger of the unfired barrel. The birdshot goes through the rear window and directly into the back of Gwen’s head.”
In Chapter 1 of Canyons, Ward accidentally kills his girlfriend, Gwen, twin sister of Eric, who witnesses this horrific event at Ladderback Ranch in Idaho. This novel is about Ward and Eric 25 years later, when together they confront the demons and furies they have held on to for the intervening years.
Sam Western is a friend of my book club member Katie W., and so I began this book feeling like I was doing a favor for someone ... reading the book of a friend of a friend. Ha! I was immediately drawn in and stayed engaged throughout this short – though not easy – read. Western tells a compelling story about two self-destructive former friends. The author must have a big heart himself to be able to write about the inner thoughts and feelings of these two men.
Aside from the fact that Western has an odd tendency to not use the article “a” when it is called for, this is a beautifully written book. I hope he writes another novel soon!
Emma Cline | Fiction
The Girls tells an intriguing story of a cult, a commune of sorts, in Northern California in the late 1960’s. Evie Boyd is a bored and drifting 14-year-old, who is captivated by the group after she encounters “the girls” in a park near her home: “I noticed their hair first, long and uncombed. Then their jewelry catching the sun. The three of them were far enough away that I saw only the periphery of their features, but it didn’t matter — I knew they were different from everyone else in the park.” Evie is mesmerized and is soon drawn in by Suzanne and the charismatic leader of the group. Russell.
It is a story of the vulnerability and naiveté of teenagers, especially at this time in our country where drugs, freedom, and frayed long granny skirts were rampant.
Unfortunately for the story, it is clear this is Ms. Cline’s first novel. Her story is compelling; her writing is not. For some unknown reason, she tells the story from the viewpoint of Evie as a grown woman, decades later. This trick of the writing trade adds not an ounce of interest. Fortunately, she only returns to modern-day Evie three or four times, but each time is a jarring waste of effort. Second, the author does not yet have the skill to build suspense. You know there will be murders. This is mentioned early in the book, and then again around page 200 for a few pages, and then she abandons it again until page 312. There is way too much time in-between these hints of what is to come to create a sense of anticipation in her writing. I imagine a friend of hers reading the draft and saying, "You need to plant a seed of the murders earlier in the book," and Ms. Cline randomly obliges her friend.
Finally, and most difficult of all, the book is overwritten. An example on page 200: “I got up once to get Suzanne a glass of water, and there was a domestic gentleness in the act. I wanted to meet a need, put water in her mouth. Suzanne smiled up at me as she drank, gulping so fast I could see her throat ripple.” The last sentence – even the last two sentences – added not an iota to the story. The author has many filler sentences like this. I can just imagine Ms. Cline writing out her story in a rush of ideas and creativity, and then painstakingly working her way through her tale, word by word, inserting words like “rupture” for “path” and substituting “yoke” for “yank.”
I hope in her next novel she writes from her imagination, and leaves it at that, without trying hard to add “interesting” words. Her prose, then, will mature and perhaps captivate us, as the ranch captivated Evie.
Elizabeth Gilbert | Fiction
A sincere thank you goes out to friends who convinced me to give Elizabeth Gilbert one more try! I found The Signature of All Things interesting, compelling, intriguing and rich. This is the story of Alma, born in 1800 to Henry Whittaker, the richest man in Philadelphia. The novel portrays her entire life, from birth to death. Alma becomes a brilliant and talented botanist with, as was the norm for young women of this time, no formal education. We are privileged to witness this remarkable woman, who, with her independence her passion, her brain and her conversational skills, is way ahead of what we might expect for a well-heeled woman of the 19th century.
Gilbert takes us into Alma’s thoughts, fears and dreams. We also are witness to how fine scientific minds view the world, and to the growth of all arms of science in this period. The setting for this interesting novel is not only Philadelphia – Alma does travel as well, and we witness some other parts of the world through her eyes.
I was lukewarm on Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic (see my blog post on the latter). I found Gilbert to be stuck in her own frame of reference and not very good at making her revelations applicable to other readers in these non-fiction books. But her fiction – wow! I definitely recommend this tale for a captivating read.
Jack Thorne (NOT J.K. Rowling!) | Fiction
When I was in third grade I wrote a play. My lovely third-grade teacher (Mrs. Cahill if memory serves??) was kind enough to let me direct and perform the play. It was a great way to develop a baby budding writer! Since that day, I have had an affinity for play scripts. Even today, I will occasionally pick one up to read and enjoy. So, as you may imagine, I was excited to get my hands on a copy of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
And how disappointing! The children in the play are progeny of Harry and Ginny, and Hermione and Ron, and Draco Malfoy. It was intriguing to observe the next generation of wizards developing in the shadow of their famous parents. Unfortunately, that is just what the author, Jack Thorne, relies upon – how these children fare in comparison to their enticing ancestors. As a matter of fact, in the main story line, the children travel back to a time when all the adults were young and at Hogwarts. How un-creative! Thorne could not even develop a NEW adventure for young Albus and Scorpius to explore and be challenged by. It was boring! There was nothing new, no new magic, no new intrigue, virtually no creativity. Sad.
The other error Thorne makes, in my opinion, is to tell the story of the five adults simultaneously. So there is an inter-weaving of the adults, and their insecurities and proclivities, with the children’s adventures. And it wasn’t a clever interweaving. The tales about the adults simply dragged down any energy that Thorne created about the children.
I miss J.K. Rowling immensely in this story.
Téa Obreht | Fiction
She deserves four hearts; I am certain of it. Ms. Obreht's novel, however, is intricate and complex, and I must read it a second time before giving her her due. (Be forewarned, Casting Crew Book Club; I will be suggesting The Tiger’s Wife as a 2017 read!)
The Tiger’s Wife is a beautiful, mesmerizing tale. She tells of a doctor and the death of her beloved grandfather, set in an unnamed Balkan state mending from war. But it is more than this. It is a compelling mix of reality and myth, of history and fairy tale. She also tells of the encounters with the “deathless man.” Michiro Kakutani of the New York Times writes, “…she demonstrates an uncommon ability to move seamlessly between the gritty realm of the real and the more primary-colored world of the fable.”
As delightful as the story itself, it is also important to note that this is Téa Obreht’s debut novel. And she is “twenty something.” I was unable to keep track of the artful wording and phrasing she creates on every single page. So, instead of writing down pages to share, I decided just to open to a random page while writing my review, guaranteeing myself I would find a superb example. Let’s try. Okay, page 91. “His thirst insane, the tiger lapped up pools from the leaky fountain where the flower women filled their buckets and then put his nose into the face of a sleeping child who had been left, wrapped in blankets, under the pancake stand.” How can anyone write with such beauty, clarity and eloquence?
Read this book! And please, leave a comment!
Jesse Ball | Fiction
I grow weary of coming of age novels in which the protagonist loses both parents to not-quite-tear-jerking circumstances, and survives "in spite of it all.” Lucia’s story, the main character in How to Start a Fire and Why, sounded so familiar, it bored me.
The publisher, however, spoke highly of her arsonist capabilities which, in my mind, made this novel sound intriguing. (Am I really saying that? I WANT to read about arson?) The inside jacket states “Jesse Ball’s singular, blistering new novel tells the story of a teenage girl who has lost everything – and will burn anything.”
This is, well, a blistering lie! (Spoiler alert coming if you want to read this thing…) Lucia sets her first and only fire on page 281, exactly two pages before the end of the book.
What I did like about this novel is Ball’s quick and witty style. With lots of white space, it is a very fast read. Next time I want a fast read, however, I will pick up Time magazine and at least acquire some knowledge.
Martha Whitmore Hickman | Non-Fiction
This is my go-to book on grief. I read it every single day. Organized by date, it has 365 pages, each with a quote, a viewpoint on the quote, and then an action or affirmation for consideration. This lovely little book gives me a new perspective nearly every day, and puts my grief in helpful context, allowing me to shift just a bit how I am perceiving, analyzing or feeling.
Here is one quote I have asterisked, just to share a flavor of the book … “It isn’t for the moment you are stuck that you need courage, but for the long uphill climb back to sanity and faith and security.” Anne Morrow Lindbergh
The author uses the term “loved one” so it is useful whether you have lost a spouse, parent, friend, child … whomever. I absolutely recommend you buy a copy of this book for yourself or anyone you know who is in mourning.
Diane Rehm | Non-Fiction
A number of people recommended this book to me, and I can see why! Diane Rehm, host of the Diane Rehm Show on NPR since 1979, writes about the death of her husband John, and what it is like being “on her own.” I found her writing style to be easy, honest, and compelling. Perhaps part of why I appreciate this book is because her situation parallels mine in many ways. No, it is not her situation that parallels mine, it is her perspective. She is a dynamic, engaged, intelligent woman struggling to reconstruct her life. She and John were married 54 years! Wow!
Many of her stories resonated with me, such as … putting on a dress (okay, I NEVER actually put on a dress) and then simply not going out to an engagement, because she had no energy to smile at people or talk with strangers. Yesterday and today both I cancelled engagements for the same reason.
Of course, she also helps me to see things differently! For instance, she writes about moving to the center of the bed. Really? Never even occurred to me!
Ms. Rehm’s most compelling message is about how her husband chose to starve himself to death because he lived in a state where death with dignity was not possible. At nearly 80 years old, Diane Rehm is working with Compassion and Choices (compassionandchoices.org) to broaden the availability of physician-assisted death. It is inspiring to read about her passion and commitment!
This 161 page book is not exactly an easy read, but it is a quick one. Her style is conversational. I guess you might expect no less from a woman who hosted an enormously successful radio show for 35 years!
James Patterson | Fiction
James Patterson has written 147 novels. He has had 114 New York Times bestselling novels, and holds The New York Times record for most #1 New York Times bestsellers by a single author, a total of 67. Wow. Amazing.
The 15th Affair is the fifteenth book in the Women’s Murder Club series co-written with Maxine Paetro. In this novel, Lindsay Boxer, the San Francisco police detective and main character, encounters a four-person murder in a downtown luxury hotel; an explosion that rocks the city, the country and the world; and a husband who goes missing. The Women’s Murder Club has four members, and Lindsay uses her esteemed female colleagues to help her solve these mysteries.
Patterson's writing is intriguing and suspenseful. While this is not a book to read for your dissertation research (unless you happen to be working on a Doctorate in Mystery Literature and are studying Patterson!), it is good, solid, interesting, edge-of-your-seat mystery. I liked it enough that I just requested from the library the first book in the Women’s Murder Club series, 1st to Die.
Noah Hawley | Fiction
What do you, blog readers, think about The New York Times Best Seller List? Sometimes I find books on it that I love ... and often, well, it seems to appeal to a somewhat different sort of reader. A reader who is, perhaps, more mainstream? I can’t find a way to say this and maintain political correctness ... a reader who perhaps has not partaken of quite as much formal education?
Before the Fall is a disappointment from the NYT Best Seller List. A private plane crashes into the ocean soon after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs, a struggling painter, and a four-year-old boy, JJ, who is now the heir to a media mogul’s family.
Hawley proceeds to weave into his novel the back stories of the 11 people, crew and passengers, who were on the plane. And, of course, there are the media and law enforcement types who also weave quite amazing potential motivations and sinister plots into their musings and interviews. But frankly, Hawley does not develop any character into a person you care about, except Scott Burroughs. There are simply too many people in this novel, many of whom receive their own chapter, but not their own character. I found I only cared about Scott and JJ, and whether or not Scott would fall prey to speculation that he must have sabotaged the plane, because he survived.
I am grateful to this book for one lesson – it helped me clarify what a “two heart” rating is. A two heart rating means I tried to put the book down, but was curious enough about the end to skim the last third so I could find out what happened. I was sufficiently unimpressed with the writing to maintain the effort to read sincerely.
If you read it and have a different opinion, please post your thoughts, as well as your perspectives on the NYT Best Seller List!
p.s. I am finishing ANOTHER book from the NYT list right now … this next one will likely receive a more favorable review.