Dusty Shelves Book Blog
Patricia Lockwood | Nonfiction/Biography
Nancy Pearl, librarian, critic, commentator, and author, is credited with inventing the Rule of 50, plus it's addendum. The rule states that if there are no firecrackers by page 50, put the book down. The addendum is that for every year you are over 50, subtract one page. So for me, as of a few weeks ago, I can now stop at 35 pages.
I made it to 42. I found every single sentence in Priestdaddy to be overwritten. Like this (page 38): “Great mermaids flowed through the streets: southerners.” And this, page 25, “He had the small, neat, unjudgmental ears of a teddy bear.” Huh? Unjudgmental ears?
Then I read the reviews on the back that declare this book to be hilarious and I knew my fatal flaw had kicked in. I had not even smiled once, much less laughed.
So, my apologies to my friend who recommended this book, and who shall remain nameless so as not to sully her fine reputation (I love you still, friend C). And I am moving on.
Robin Sloan | Fiction
I was charmed by this book. Yes, as some reviewers point out, it is a techie's dream book, at the intersection of books, extreme technology, and knowledge. And more than that, it is simply a delightful story.
Clay Jannon takes a job working graveyard shift at Mr.Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore, where only a few books are ever sold. What really happens occurs in the tall vertical stacks in the back, where assorted characters drop off obscure books and pick up others, that Clay wraps in brown paper. These books are not sold; they are simply exchanged. For a while, Clay obeys the rules and never looks inside these books. Clay’s job, besides climbing the ladder to find the requested book, is to record in the log who took the book, what they were wearing that night, their emotional state, how they smelled, and their words.
Of course, one day Clay looks inside and discovers symbols ... not text at all. And with the help of a Googler, Kat, and various designers, techies, and artists, he begins to discover and unravel the secrets of the Unbroken Spine, a centuries old movement(?), sect (?), cult(?).
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a fable and a fantasy, imbued with amazing real technology, a delightful read, and just plain fun.
Jonathon Evison | Fiction
This is just a bit of a reluctant four hearts, but still closer to 4 than 3! Benjamin Benjamin has just trained as a caregiver, and begins working with Trevor, a young man with Muscular Dystrophy. No surprise, their relationship is challenging, but a strong bond does grow. There are two interwoven story lines. This first is the tale of Ben and Trev. Eventually they embark on a road trip, which is where the fun and adventure really begins! Interspersed with this plot is Ben’s back story, and how he lost his wife and two children. At first, I was frustrated at not knowing the back story before I knew the present-day story but then I realized that was the intent of the author, to weave the two tales simultaneously.
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is interesting, more of a light read than a heavy read, though there are relationship challenges that will leave you sad. I am not quite sure why I am giving this a “reluctant” four hearts. There is something about Evison’s style that didn’t land with me, and I don’t know what it is. But overall, yes, I recommend The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, and will be pleased to hear what you all think of it. This is a book club read, so I will enjoy hearing what the Casting Crew has to say!
Steven King | Fiction
Jake Epping, a reluctant time traveler, travels to September 9, 1958, multiple times to prevent the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Of course, the butterfly effect causes changes in the present-day world (2011) and the past is “obdurate” and not wanting to change. As a result, Jake must come back home a few times and then return to the “Land of Ago.”
I loved this book! It is King at his best non-horror writing. I learned quite a bit about the Kennedy assassination and the days and months leading up to it. He must have done significant research to create this tale. It is a book for which occasionally you will grab your phone and Google a historical figure or place, to learn more about context.
Be warned, 11/22/63 is LONG. My copy was 1031 pages. The paperbark is 849. As with all long books, there were a few pages in the middle where I began to tire, but I knew that was more about me than the writing. I definitely recommend 11/22/63.
Steven King | Fiction
Jake Epping, a reluctant time traveler, travels to September 9, 1958, multiple times to prevent the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Of course, the butterfly effect causes changes in the present-day world (2011) and the past is “obdurate” and not wanting to change. As a result, Jake must come back home a few times and then return to the “Land of Ago.”
I loved this book! It is King at his best non-horror writing. I learned quite a bit about the Kennedy assassination and the days and months leading up to it. He must have done significant research to create this tale. It is a book for which occasionally you will grab your phone and Google a historical figure or place, to learn more about context.
Be warned, 11/22/63 is LONG. My copy was 1031 pages. The paperbark is 849. As with all long books, there were a few pages in the middle where I began to tire, but I knew that was more about me than the writing. I definitely recommend 11/22/63.
Ivan Doig | Nonfiction/Memoir
Doig is a stunning, beautiful writer! Here’s one example from page 16; you can find such examples on most every page. “School struck me as the kind of job where you weren’t allowed to do anything; I had free time in my head by the dayfull, and spent it all in being lonesome for ranch life and its grownups and its times of aloneness.”
This House of Sky is Doig’s story of growing up in Western Montana. On June 27, 1945, Ivan turns six and his mother takes her last breath. He writes, years later, of his life, his father’s life, and a way of life that has gone out of existence … of sheepherders, almost nomads, and small ranchers high in the Montana mountains. It was a rough time of subsistence and cold, cold snow.
But three hearts? Yes, I fear it is so. I realized upon completing this book that a sense of place, and where we grew up, stays with us forever. Eventually, I became a bit bored with the story. And I suspect that is because I grew up in Detroit and not in the West. I am eager to discuss This House of Sky at book club this week, because I expect the native Westerners, of which we have many in our book club, will love this book more than I did. I do, however recommend it. Try it on for size. Even if you are mixed in your experience, you will learn about a time in our country not too long ago, and you will discover an evocative and deep writer.
Bill Clinton & James Patterson | Fiction
Ah, I breathe a sigh of relief after the last James Patterson I read (see my review on Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas) This is James Patterson back at his best. Just enough complexity and intrigue; a page turner near the end; relationships that have soul and heart; a vivid plot; a noticeable number of strong women characters; the stark reality that may come from having an ex-President as your co-author.
The President is Missing (wishful thinking?) is about a potential crisis of epic proportions. It takes great creativity to imagine this crisis ... clever and scary, beyond a doubt. And President Jon Duncan is the only person who can prevent the crisis. Hold your breath!
My only criticism is slight ... I believe the book is mis-titled. It gives the impression that the President has been kidnapped and cannot be located. That is not the story line. The plot is richer and more interesting than a kidnapping. I might have titled it Dark Ages. Let us know what your title is, after you read The President is Missing, which I DO recommend!
Claire Leslie Walker & Charles E. Roth | Nonfiction
Earlier this summer I was inspired by an article in our local paper about a man who creates and teaches Nature Journaling. I began to think that keeping a nature journal might be a good way to be more present on my hikes, and less focused on accumulating miles and elevation. And so, I researched the topic. And yes, I now have a journal, pens, and watercolor pencils that I take with me when I hike alone. I am beginning to expand the use of this journal to non-hiking times. Here are four books that further inspired me:
The Naturalist Notebook: from a week on the Noatak River. I discovered this book at the National Park Service visitor center in Bettles, Alaska. Kristin Link, the author, created a watercolor journal of her time in the Brooks Range. This is a beautiful book, very inspiring. The only way to buy this book is to track down her website, which I did.
A Life in Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal by Hannah Hinchman has some great exercises to get you started, and to free up your voice. She also has a good section on supplies.
How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook by Susan Leigh Tomlinson is a pretty book, with some good ideas, but for my taste, an over-emphasis on drawing.
Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You is, for my purposes, the cream of the crop. This lovely book expands beyond nature drawing and brings in much of what I was personally looking for … ideas on how to use your journal, to slow down, as a spiritual practice, how to see and be present with the world around you, in the natural world and not. They have chapters on seasonal journaling as well as information about journaling with kids, varying your layouts, different ideas for keeping your journal fresh and new. And it is a gorgeous book, with many black & white and color journal examples. If you buy only one book, this is the one to purchase.
I bought all four of these books, so if you would like to borrow any, just let me know.
Spencer Quinn | Fiction
I was with my college friends Janet and Mark in August. Together, we visited Isle Royale and Voyageur‘s National Parks. But perhaps the best times were playing pinochle in the evenings ... ah, reminiscent of Ann Arbor evenings.
But I digress from my intentions. While we were traveling together, Janet and Mark recommended that I try on some Spencer Quinn novels, his Chet and Bernie mysteries. And so I did. Dog On It was a nice respite between heavier books. This is a book you can read in a few evenings.
Bernie is a Private I. Chet, his sidekick, is a “K-9 Trained Dog”. The story is told from Chet's point of view. So if you don't like dogs, or never lived with a dog, leave this book on the shelf and instead search for funny cat videos on YouTube. But if you know and love dogs, you may very well appreciate Chet's perspective on humanity, and what we do, and how we smell, and what is confusing about working with us. In this novel, Chet and Bernie search for Madison, a missing 15-year-old.
Dog On It is definitely light reading. I actually laughed out loud a few times. If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know I don't think the written word is capable of being funny, except sometimes it is. I am still cracking up at this, from page 42: A silence. And then — yes: She barked. A bark that sent a message, a she-message of the most exciting kind. I barked back. She barked. I barked. She barked. And then: Yip! Yip! Yip. Iggy was back. He barked. She barked. I barked. He barked. She —
Anyway, as I say, if you’ve never lived with a dog that won’t be funny. It may not be funny to you if you DO. Nevertheless, Dog On It is the first of 8 Chet & Bernie books and I will read more!
Deborah Harkness | Fiction
This is the third and final book in the All Souls Trilogy. I sped through this book; it entertained me completely. One friend said she found it dark – well, yes, quite a few souls are killed to free up the new generation. One friend didn’t like the ending – I found it satisfying myself.
What I most like about Harkness’ deep writing is her ability to make me laugh every once in a while. I still giggle now recalling Chapter 10 when the witches could not get Fleetwood Mac to stop playing everywhere. “I hate Rumours!” exclaims witch Sarah. I think it would behoove Harkness’ style if she found a way to insert just a tiny bit more humor. She goes deep into relationships; this book has a lot of action (my criticism of the second book, Shadow of Night, was the lack of action); and she builds a creative story line. If I smiled once or twice more, I feel it would relieve some of the tension of the conflicts.
I definitely recommend The Book of Life, but start at the beginning with the first book, A Discovery of Witches.
Anne Tyler | Fiction
We read about the defining moments of Willa's life, each a decade or two apart, but the bulk of the story occurs after Willa receives a confusing phone call and ends up traveling across the country to care for a woman who has been shot in her leg and her daughter, neither of whom Willa knows.
The story is somewhat entertaining. The character development, and the characters themselves, are shallow and weak. I had hoped the ending would redeem the book. It didn’t.
You can find something better to read.
Mark Adams | Nonfiction
I think this is probably a pretty good book. I was disadvantaged by reading Tip of the Iceberg on my tours of Cuyahoga and Shenandoah National Parks, because my reading opportunities tended to be short and often distracted. Every time I found a reasonable period of time to read, however, I grew enamored of this book.
Mark Adams takes off in modern times (2016, 2017?) to retrace an 1899 voyage to the wilds of Alaska. Traveling 3000 miles, Adams makes the stops the earlier voyage made, and compares his journey to the journey of the Elder. The Elder was a steamship converted by the railroad magnate Edward R. Harriman to a “floating university” and was populated by some of America’s best scientists, biologists, archeologists, specialists in flora, fauna, geology, climate and the well-known glacier specialist, John Muir.
Adams tells a story of the changes in the culture and economies of Alaska over the 100-plus years, but also the natural history, ecological shifts, and climate change. The contrasts are interesting. Sometimes, not much has changed; sometimes he sees a very different world. I particularly loved the chapter in which he and Teddy Roosevelt visit Alaska together, and he shows the President a few of the wonders of Alaska.
Tip of the Iceberg will entice you, if you have any interest at all in this wild and remote wilderness state.
By the way, some of mentioned you don't see replies to your posted reply. I always reply to your posts! Next time you make a comment, be sure you have the option checked to see all replies... that way, we can share our perspectives and knowledge!!
Rhiannon Navin| Fiction
Writing Only Child took considerable courage, I believe. This is Navin’s first novel (she has two previous nonfiction books) and it is written from the perspective of Zach, a six-year-old first grader who survives a school shooting. Nineteen of Zach's fellow schoolmates and teachers die in the shooting, however, including one very close to Zach, so be is hardly unharmed.
We learn about Zach's feelings, his assumptions, what (and how) he discovers about the shooting, the support he receives and doesn't receive from the adults in his life. Most compelling is how he works with his feelings. A self-proclaimed “very good artist,” Zach becomes overwhelmed with the complexity of feelings he has, and how unrelated feelings pile upon one another. He colors pieces of paper different hues to represent different emotions and, in this way, he is able to separate, manage and integrate his emotions. Well done!
The entire novel is written in Zach's six-year-old voice. While that is interesting and draws the reader in, it also left me wanting. I wish the novel had interspersed Zach chapters with chapters by his father, who doesn't have a clue what Zach is experiencing; or his mother, who is more emotionally connected to Zach, but loses him in her obsessive search for justice; or Charlie, the father of the shooter. I would like to know what was in their emotional library and how and why they made some of the decisions they made. And I would have liked a break from the logic, words, and perspectives of a six-year-old.
Voice fatigue aside, what I find at best disappointing and at worst unconscionable and irresponsible is that Navin apparently does no research for this novel. She doesn't talk with a single child survivor. She doesn't interview a crisis counselor. She doesn't speak with school administrators. She readily and proudly admits in interviews and on her website that her “focus group” comprises her own three young children.
The story is an interesting and quick read. I was going to take it on a plane with me this Sunday, but I finished it already! The lack of research, however, makes me hesitant to believe I have read something that is based in truth, real information, or accurate perception and insight.
David Michie | Fiction
This is the second book in David Michie's trilogy about Buddhism through the eyes of the cat adopted by the Dali Lama. His Holiness’s Cat (HHC), aka Rinpoche, Little Sister, Snow Lion, Mousie Tung, Swami (a new name she acquires in this book), is delightful! Smart, articulate, able to read and understand human conversation, she allows us to see Buddhism through her innocent eyes. These short novels are really fun! The voice of HHC is pure delight. She knows it is impossible not to love her. She knows she is gorgeous. And she is the most intellectually curious and humble cat.
The Art of Purring came to my shelf at a particularly good time. This book is about happiness; how to acquire it; how to stay with it; how to choose it; how to BE it, and, of course, its relationship to purring. I began reading The Art of Purring after returning from a delightful trip with my college roommate Janet and her husband Mark, to Isle Royale and Voyageurs National Parks. The trip was perfect, but upon my return I found myself thrust into a sad grieving funk with days of crying and loneliness. Michie’s book arrived in my life not only when I needed it, but also when I was quite motivated to read it. For this, I am grateful.
This trilogy is quick, enjoyable, fun and enlightening! I heartily and highly recommend it Thank you, Julia!
Robert Kurson | Nonfiction
In 1991 two divers discovered the remains of a U-boat deep in the Atlantic off the New Jersey coast. But this was a U-boat that could not be there. No American, German or British records indicated a sunken or lost U-boat anywhere in the vicinity. As the mystery unfolded, I learned a great deal about deep diving to explore wrecks, U-boats, World War II action off the U.S. coast, and especially about the values and uncompromising integrity of the men who discovered, researched, and dove this wreck, not all of whom survived.
Shadow Divers is dense and rich with knowledge and mystery. This is not a book you will read in an evening. It takes thinking to read this true narrative. You will follow six years of diving and research to positively identify the U-boat’s number and crew, 1991-1997. It is, however, quite a fascinating and satisfying read, and I highly recommend it. The story is compelling, the characters are complex and real, the writing is engaging. I cried reading the Epilogue.
The New Yorker describes Kurson’s writing as “adrenalized prose.” I will recommend this book to the "Casting Crew Book Club" as a 2019 read, and I recommend it to you.
Thank you, Dan, for this magnificent addition to my reading list.
James Patterson | Fiction
This love story is sweet. Actually, it slides over into saccharin. it's just too sweet, too simple and shallow, for me. Matt and Katie are in love ... until one day Matt just leaves. A few days later he drops off on her front porch a journal for Katie to read. Through this journal, written by his former wife Suzanne, to their son Nicholas, we learn all about Matt's life before Katie; all the experiences he couldn’t tell her and could barely tell himself. This is Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas.
If you want to distract yourself for an afternoon and an evening sitting by a campfire, go ahead and read it. If you want to engage your brain in something stimulating, pick another book.
This cannot REALLY be the same James Patterson, can it? Yes, it is one and the same. I guess he has a split personality. Don’t bother with this one.
Douglas Preston | Nonfiction
I am impressed when an author catches my attention on a topic I had no apparent interest in. Douglas Preston does this in The Lost City of the Monkey God. This is the story of the first modern exploration of Ciudad Blanca – the White City – deep in the jungle of Honduras. No humans had been to this site in memory or recorded history. But there was reason to believe the site existed. Preston was a part of the expedition, as the resident author. I learned the history of the exploration and colorful details of the challenges and discoveries the team made, when they did in fact uncover the Lost City of the Monkey God.
And then, half-way through, the story-line changes. After the team members return to their regular lives, an entire new catastrophe occurs, and we are drawn in to the health and medical implications of the team members who spent time in this extremely remote jungle, surrounded by unfamiliar insects and larger animals.
I love Preston’s vivid voice. A random example, page 178: "The river took a ninety-degree turn at a place of heartbreaking loveliness, with thick strands of flowers giving way to a lush meadow and a beach. The river flowed in a singing curve over round stones and spilled in a waterfall over a ridge of basalt.”
Preston has written six other nonfiction books, five novels, and 24 books with Lee Child (of Jack Reacher fame). I would definitely read another Douglas Preston if I could figure out which one to read next! (Do any of you have a suggestion?) and am pleased to have read this one.
Thanks, Jan, for this fine recommendation for book club!
Tara Westover | Nonfiction/Memoir
Hmmm, Educated is difficult to rate. It hovers between three and two hearts, but I have settled on three. This is the true story of Tara Westover, raised Mormon by her survivalist father and mother, never sent to school, forced to work dangerous jobs in her father’s scrap and junkyard business. It is the story of her survival under a mean but loving patriarch.
I found her narrative at times riveting, especially once she leaves the family home and begins to pursue her education at BYU, and at times boring. Her writing is inconsistent. I think she is not a very good writer and includes too many details of her life. Then again, with six siblings living in their family home in Idaho, the stories, the catastrophes, the violence, and the relationships are numerous and complex.
The abuse she endured was not like my recent reads, My Absolute Darling and The Great Alone. There is no sexual abuse. More, there is religious abuse. Educated portrays very well the Mormon doctrine of the power of men, and the servitude of women. I don’t think most of the Westover family ever sees the gross error of these doctrines.
So, do I recommend it? Yes, I guess, but not wholeheartedly. I think you will just have to try it on for size!
David Sedaris | Nonfiction
David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day and numerous others) decided to revisit his diaries, which he began in 1977. Though the first few years were handwritten, when he printed off the digital diaries, he had 8 inches of paper to wade through! Wow! He decided to edit selected passages from his diaries into two books. Theft by Finding is the first volume, 1977 through 2002. The second volume (I cannot find the title) will cover 2003 – 2017.
I knew Sedaris had a rough start, but this book is depressing. Drugs, poverty, and violence are much of the tale he tells. I actually think he may have been better off if he didn’t self-edit his own diaries to create these books. He seems obsessed with people who are differently abled ... in wheelchairs, sight-impaired, have acne scars, or who are mentally unstable. He has an extraordinary number of stories about being approached for a cigarette or money by very angry people, and a whole trove of times he was assaulted on the streets of New York for appearing gay.
He has a proclivity for telling his life story with these depressing episodes. About halfway though, he begins to mature, have success, and find love. But the sum total of his relaying to us his experience of meeting Hugh is two short sentences, something like, “I met this cute guy, “ and “I think I am falling in love.” I would have been much more engaged in this book if he were able to share more of his internal emotional experiences, and less of how he found abuse in the world.
Two-thirds of the way through (I kept reading because I AM interested in his long-term love with Hugh, and his success as a comedic and serious writer, and I wanted to read some of these entries), I realized this book was probably supposed to be funny sometimes. Now, it is a character flaw on my part, I know. I seldom find the written word funny. You could read aloud to me from an amusing book and I would laugh. But when I read the same words on paper, I don’t find them funny. I laughed only once when reading Theft by Finding.
Theft by Finding depressed me, disappointed me, and was often confusing. Actually, I suspect his second volume will be better, because his life will be less dire, but I don’t have the stomach for another Sedaris right now. I even removed his newest book, Calypso, from my library list. Sorry to say.
Jayne Ann Krentz | Fiction
I was camping for five days, so, yes, in addition to hiking, kayaking, and watercolor, I read two books. Another blog post will follow this one!
Truth or Dare by Krentz is a fun read. It’s a mystery, not a heavy read, but with interesting characters, especially the women. Zoe and Ethan are recently married, and almost just as recently, acquainted! It seems they just met in a prior Krentz novel, and married within a few weeks.
He is a private investigator; she an interior designer with strong psychic abilities. They both bring difficult checkered pasts to this new relationship. Other characters include Arcadia, who Zoe met when they both resided in a mental hospital (from which they escaped); Harry, Arcadia’s new love; and Bonnie, Ethan’s sister.
The writing is warm and engaging. There are many threads woven into this narrative, and I was pleased Krentz followed them all, leaving no loose ends, but still causing me to want for more.
Truth or Dare lay on my side kitchen table, where books from friends accumulate. I don’t know who gave me this one, but she/he has good taste! Krentz has written over 50 books. I’ll definitely try another in a similar mystery genre (she also writes romance).
Moshin Hamid | Fiction
I cannot categorize this book. Is it a love story? Sort of, but not really. Is it a dystopian novel? At times, but not overall. Is it magic? Well, yes, magic does play a part.
We don't know the setting of Exit West. It may be a city in the author's home country of Pakistan, but it could just as easily be in Syria or Libya or other countries. What we know for certain as the novel opens is that it is “a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace, or at least, not yet openly at war.” It is a city where “Islam prevails, but sex, ‘shrooms and smartphones are also prolific.” (Time.com)
In the beginning, Saeed and Nadia meet in a class and fall in love in these turbulent times. And then the war invades their city, their lives, and their love. How might they escape through one of the magical doors to safety? Yes, there are magical doors. At first I thought the “door” was simply a metaphor, but it is not. You find and pay an agent, a mule of sorts, and he leads you to a hidden magical door. You walk though this door, and you are in another part of the world. Saeed and Nadia inhabit a number of cities in the world in this concise novel, as they try to make their way to a place of home and of safety.
The dystopian part of this novel is this: in every city they travel to, war has broken out between the natives, called “nativists” and the immigrants/refugees. And in every city, immigrants are beginning to take over, though nativists are violently resisting them. I think this novel is very timely and for this reason alone, we all should read it.
Exit West is short, well-written and a novel that will make you think. I recommend it without hesitation. And I look forward to reading what you think of it …
Gabriel Tallent | Fiction
Wow. I heard My Absolute Darling was quite disturbing, as it portrays the mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of 14-year-old Turtle by her father Martin, a survivalist. Well, yes, it is disturbing. Their relationship is central to the novel, and, as she loves him dearly and knows no other relationship norms, it is not a pleasurable relationship to explore.
However, I think the plot is actually not about abuse, but about how Turtle carves an identity for herself in spite of her horrendous circumstances. She is stunningly courageous and brutally honest with herself.
Tallent's voice is astounding. His writing draws you in. I had trouble putting this book down. His use of language is beautiful, especially as he displays his extensive and fascinating knowledge about Mendocino flora and fauna, where the novel is set. His apparent familiarity with guns is chilling. I had to Google "Sig Sauer." What I don’t know about guns can fill a novel this long.
This is a difficult read ... if you are looking for a pleasurable beach novel, choose the last book I blogged about, The Things We Keep. If you want a compelling read that touches your heart and soul and will stay with you, read My Absolute Darling.
I think a sentence from Stephen King’s review on the back cover captures this novel very well. “This book is ugly, beautiful, horrifying, and uplifting.”
Sally Hepworth | Fiction
Do you know the Kincaid Grade Level Analysis? It is a way to analyze your writing, to ensure that it is clear and easy to read. Some good copywriters will tell you to keep your copy in the Grade 4-7 range (which means it can be read by 9-12 year olds), and even white papers and tutorials below 9 (9 Grade level can be read by the average 14 year old). This is good advice for the choice of words, the sentence and paragraph structure, and so forth.
I want to talk about the content, however. I believe there is a similar “grading” – at least, there is in my mind. But it refers more to intellectual content than to the style of writing and choice of words. Romance novels, for example, even though they may have sexual content, are written in a very simple style – and can appeal to people with quite a range of intelligence. Political and historical and scientific tomes may represent the other end of the scale, requiring high levels of intelligence, concentration, analysis, and focus to read and absorb the information. (Do you know of a scale that actually measures these differences?)
Anyway, my point is The Things We Keep falls a little too low on the “intellectual” scale for my liking. This is the story of Anna who, at age 38, has been diagnosed with “young-onset Alzheimer’s.” In a residential facility, she falls in love with Luke, the only other young person in the care facility. Eve is another major character. She is hired as the cook and cleaner in the care facility. And has her own set of secrets and difficult circumstances. She works to keep Anna and Luke together when others feel the relationship is not safe.
The story is an easy read, and an entertaining one. I simply had hoped for more. I had hoped to get a better understanding of early-onset Alzheimer’s, and the disease’s progress and impact. But instead I read a story … a nice story, an interesting story, a story that I was drawn in to and wanted to resolve … but I wanted more. I wanted to learn more, to have the tale be, well, more “intellectual.”
This is a beach read. That’s the best way to describe it. It is light reading ... lighter than you might expect from such a difficult subject. Unfortunately, there are no beaches here in the high desert!!
Chris Bohjalian | Fiction
I so enjoyed Chris Bohjalian's novel, The Flight Attendant (blog post in May 2018), I was quite looking forward to reading another book by him. After struggling with Midwives for nearly a week, and falling asleep reading it, and forcing myself to open it and read the next chapter, I am admitting defeat. I find it slow, boring, and without any pizazz or energy.
The plot sounds intriguing and strong ... a midwife, on an icy Vermont night, takes desperate measures to save an infant's life by performing an emergency caesarean on what she believes is the dead mother. But, was the mother really dead? Therein lies the appealing plot.
Too bad the writing wasn’t as appealing. I’m off to something else.
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!