Dusty Shelves Book Blog
Fiction 2016 | 304 pages
Luke, the pastor's son, impregnates one teenage woman, and eventually marries her best friend. These three characters form the foundation of The Mothers, while many of the older women in the Upper Room church (especially Luke’s mother) give their opinions and advice, gossip, and attempt to orchestrate the young people's lives.
It sounds like fun, as well as an in-depth coming-of-age story. Unfortunately, it disappoints. Somehow, I don't care much about Nadia, Aubrey, or Luke. There is something about these characters that feels unreal. Aubrey and Luke, with their purity rings, seem to be somewhat unthinking. Nadia is the most interesting of the characters .... she becomes pregnant, she leaves Southern California to attend the University of Michigan, she spends many years attempting to process her mother's violent suicide. And yet, I never find myself really cheering for her.
I think I may have unrealistic expectations, because I am so enamored by Bret’s later novel, The Vanishing Half. In this case, the debut novel by an author does not reflect her real skill, in my opinion.
Ted Haynes | Fiction, 2020
Erik Peterson is a very skilled skier. So, how did he end up dead in a tree well on Mt. Bachelor under four feet of snow? And who was that man with the Norwegian chullo hat who joined Erik, riding up the hill with him on the Red Chair lift, in February 1966?
The story expands, and murder becomes the conclusion, with no apparent motive. We soon learn of connections all over Bend, and also with Norway and WWII.
The mystery is engaging, though the denouement is perhaps more complicated than it need be. The characters are interesting, especially as we follow Erik’s daughter Lisbeth and her best friend Sally from the fateful day in 1996, when they were skiing with Mr. Peterson, through 50 years, until the mystery is finally solved.
However, the writing is rather amateurish. I don’t know quite how to explain my assessment ... it is just rather simplistic.
If you are a Bender, you may enjoy this book, as I did, for its considerable integration of Bend sites, from the mills, to Hosmer Lake, to Bend High, to Wall Street, which was, in earlier days, definitely NOT tony. If Bend is not a place you know and love, you might want to skip this novel. There are certainly better-written murder mysteries
That being said, Hayne’s newest book, The Mirror Pond Murders, just arrived for me at the library, and I am going to give him another try. I was entertained, certainly, by The Mt. Bachelor Murders.
Nonfiction 2021 | 239 pages
What a delightful story! Rick Bragg has written 11 books. The Speckled Beauty is his most recent.
This quick read is for true dog lovers. Speck is not a hero dog like Marley or Old Yeller or even Chet of Chet & Bernie fame.
Bragg’s rescue dog is truly a bad dog. The worse dog ever. He doesn’t obey any commands; he doesn’t leave farm or wild animals alone, instead either torturing or chasing them; he herds everything, even birds; he wanders; he fights; he won’t sleep indoors; he tears apart dog beds and towels and rubber balls; he snaps and growls. In short, you are likely to fall in love with him.
I was so surprised to glance at the spine of this book and discover it is nonfiction. Only truth could be this intriguing!
Thank you, Rene, for telling me about Rick Bragg's writing, and especially this dog book. If dogs touch your heart and speak to your soul, then I highly recommend The Speckled Beauty.
Fiction 2022 | 314 pages
Katie Barstow, a well-known actor when this novel is set, 1964, takes an entourage on a safari in Africa, to the Serengeti. The entourage includes her new husband David (this trip is part of their honeymoon!), her husband’s best friend and his wife (Billy and Margie), Katie’s best friend Carmen and her husband Felix, another actor (Terrance), her publicist (Reggie) and her agent (Peter). It appears to be the trip of a lifetime! And, for some, it is the last trip of their lifetime.
The novel is intriguing. The story line is clever and engaging. And violent. We know that the African Safari “turns deadly,” but, dear reader, don’t expect there to be one accident or murder or goring and then the tale plays on. We actually follow the entire entourage over a few days while they are in capture by a group of perhaps-Russian men, for reasons unknown. There is considerable violence and death.
The format consists of 31 short chapters, each from the perspective of one character from the entourage, or their safari guides. Each chapter moves the story forward AND tells us something about the character’s background and/or their relationship with other characters. So, bit by bit, the characters build and we acquire a strong sense of who they are … their strengths, dreams, histories, and foibles.
Somehow, Bohjalian writes these chapter flawlessly. Through the use of a centered dividing ellipse, he moves us from the present to the past and back again. I was, never once, confused about where we were in the timeline. I think that took real authorial skill on Bohjalian’s part.
So, my recommendation. Hmmm. It is good story, a powerful story, an engaging story. And you learn a great deal about the savanna and the current (1964) attitudes towards race, both in Africa and in the US. I am very violence-averse, and yet this novel did not send me running. The author built tension that held me until the very last page. If it appeals, yes, pick it up. I don’t think you will be disappointed.
Robyn Davidson | Nonfiction, 1980
(Republished to add to website. No content change from first posting).
Tracks presented me with a rough start. Section One, Alice Sprung, is about Robyn learning about camels, acquiring camels, and healing camels through incredibly graphic infections, contusions, anger, erratic behavior, and even one euthanasia with a gun, all in a racist and sexist culture I could not wrap my head around. I was a bit sick to my stomach, and Section One is 107 pages long.
But then we turn to Section Two, Shedding Burdens, and the story I was waiting for begins! The author, Robyn Davidson, finally leaves on her self-designed journey, to travel with four camels and one dog across 1700 miles of the hostile, unpopulated Western Australia outback ... an unparalleled and difficult journey.
Unfortunately, I just couldn't turn another page after page 170. Ms. Davidson writes well, but is depressing, whining, sullen. This book is way more about the Aboriginal vs White culture wars, the destruction of ways of life, and hostility, than it is about a physical outdoor challenge.
I am going to break my own rating rules and give it three hearts even though I didn't finish it because I believe Tracks will actually appeal to many of my readers. So, try it on if you like, and please leave your comments here!
For those of you who are also members of the "Solo Female Hikers and Adventurers" Facebook group, this is a "group read" for July.
Neel Patel | Fiction, 2021
Tell Me How to Be follows two characters—Renu and her son Akash. They come together, along with their son/brother Bijal, to pack up and sell the family home on the one-year anniversary of Renu’s husband’s death. We go inside Renu’s mind and then Akash’s and then Renu’s again. Back and forth. We know there is a possibility of reconciliation among the family members, but really the story is more about Renu’s internal journey and Akash’s journey of life thus far.
Part One, the first 100 pages or so, is the most challenging, I believe. Akash’s alcoholism is like a raw, rough, searing, burn every time we get to an Akash section. He is so self-destructive. Renu is easier, though her disappointment with being an Indian woman raising a family in American is palpable. In their individual sections, each is talking to someone else, and who that someone is, is not revealed for quite a while. Suffice it to say that, as they muse, they address former, long-lost loves. Renu’s secret is that she has been in love with a man from before, for their duration of her marriage. Akash’s secret is also that he has been in love with a man since his teenage years ... and he is in the closet.. He has admitted to no one in his family that he is gay.
I found the characters interesting (especially Renu) and the relationships sadly intriguing. I think this comment from a reviewer is quite enlightening: “Tell Me is a perfectly average novel about the Indian experience in the US, of racism, bullying, homophobia.” Yes, Patel seems to be a rather average writer; there is not much to complain about and not much to laud. If you like books about complex relationships and their resolution, this book is worth your time.
Nonfiction 2006 | 335 pages
"The least I owe these mountains is a body." Randy Morgenson, McClure Meadow, 1994
This is a truly remarkable book, well written and researched with significant depth. I have an affinity for reading real-life backcountry adventures and even tragedies, but Blehm rises to the top of the pile of authors. His research is so inspired, broad, deep, and detailed, that I feel as though I know Randy Morgenson personally. Or, at least, I sure wish I had.
Randy Morgenson was a back-country park ranger for 27 years in one of my own favorite parks ... Kings Canyon National Park. In 1996, he disappeared while on patrol, off trail, high in the Sierras. Randy was not just compelled by these mountains, he was obsessed. It is hard to imagine his life without his dedicated years of this often disrespected, sometimes thankless, decidedly low-paying job, protecting the people from the Park and the Park from the people.
His life story is complex, with strong ties to and learning from his wilderness-inspired parents (he grew up in Yosemite, for heaven's sake!) His marriage to Judi was filled with love and respect, and yet he leaves her every summer for five months at a time. His knowledge of the land and its inhabitants is unparalleled. And he is is blessed with writing and photography skills.
The SAR ... the Search and Rescue effort after Randy's disappearance ... is written by Blehm with extraordinary sensitivity. It doesn't have the melodrama nor the boring technology detail some SAR stories have, and yet it is the most emotional and intimate search story I have read ... because it is conducted by Randy's fellow rangers. This is no tourist they are searching for ... this is someone they have spent years with, call a friend, and love.
I cried on page 291.
If you have any affinity at all for nature, the outdoors, the National Parks, or a well-told true story of love, passion, sacrifice, and commitment, read The Last Season.
Fiction 2020 | 305 pages
Pardon me if this is too much information, but I am going to share a "hint" for reading this book. There are two timelines, but, IMHO, the author does not distinguish them very well in the beginning chapters. The primary timeline is the story of the twins Hamnet and Judith, 11 years old, their older sister Susanna, their mother, Agnes, and their father. The year is 1593.
The second timeline occurs 15 years earlier and revolves around Agnes meeting and marrying her husband, the Latin tutor and glover's son. Agnes's brother Bartholomew plays a major role, and there are other siblings and extended family members.
O'Farrell never names Agnes's husband, but in the last few pages we become clear that he is in fact William Shakespeare. Why she does not name him, I don't know ... it seems this sense of mystery is part of her style. This ambiguity is confusing and stilted. (If you hear that Hamnet is about Shakespeare writing Hamlet, as I did, take that with a grain of salt. That happens in the last 20 pages. Hamnet is, however, a story about what might have led up to that historic literary event.)
The primary story considers two families, Agnes's, and the family of the man she marries. The relationships are intricate and many. We gain deep insight into Agnes herself, who is the star of this tale, and the twins. We also achieve significant glimpses of her husband and of her powerful and strong brother, Bartholomew. A disappointment is how shallowly the author creates the character of the twins' older sister, Susanna.
Agnes, as well as her twins, Hamnet and Judith, have paranormal powers. Agnes can see the heart of a person, and glimpses of their future, by holding tight to their hand between the thumb and forefinger. Hamnet and Judith are so bonded from their time together sharing a uterus to the present day, that they can be confused, one for the other, and they are capable of assuming each other's emotions, sensibilities, desires, and yes, even their lives.
This is an engrossing and intellectually smart story, with a view of the times, the Black Plague, and the interesting twist of a little paranormal behavior. I recommend this Casting Crew June Book Club read. Thank you for suggesting it, Bev.
Alix E. Harrow | Fiction, 2020
Beatrice Belladonna (the oldest, and a librarian); Agnes Aramanth (street savvy and unintentionally pregnant); and James Juniper (wild and rural) Eastwood are sisters who have been raised by their grandmother in the art of witchery. The setting is 1893. When the Eastwood sisters find each other at a Suffragist rally in New Salem, after seven years apart, the forgotten words and ways of witchery re-emerge, many from re-examining nursery rhymes.
This is a tale of sisterhood, of women's power, of loyalty, of love, of unbreakable bonds, of the stark need of women to vote, of magic, of witchery. It is a story about what happens when women build community, share power and knowledge, learn and dream.
Our three main characters are developed fully and deeply, and the surrounding characters include a diversity in color and sexual orientation that adds a lovely modern flavor.
Unfortunately, I found it rather boring. It took me two weeks to read, because I never experienced it's alleged page-turning qualities. While prettily written, I would call it over-written. Too many spells enacted too many times. I am particularly disappointed by this because I loved Ms. Harris' first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January.
I am going to give this three hearts (although it leans towards two.). There are so many rave reviews, my opinion on The Once and Future Witches feels off-kilter, like maybe I missed something important or lovable. I am eager to hear what you think!
by Colson Whitehead
Fiction 2021, 336 pages
I had to restart twice because I couldn't seem to remember what was going on. 0n my third try, I made it to page 80. This story is about Freddie, who is nearly making ends meet as a legitimate furniture store owner, but who falls in with a crew of Harlem robbers to supplement his income, 1959-1964.
I keep falling asleep, finding the writing completely boring. I hope you enjoy Harlem Shuffle more than I did!
Fiction 2019 | 309 pages
"Tequila Leila" is murdered in November 1990, her body left in a garbage dumpster. She was 43 years old. After her heart and lungs stop, her mind stays alive for 10 minutes and 38 seconds. This story is what she recalls from her life in those 10 minutes and 38 seconds. Yes, there is scientific research that indicates this may actually be what happens when our heart and lungs shut down ... brain activity continues for another 10 minutes.
And how fascinating, what she vividly recalls from her life as a child in the province of Van, Turkey and then of her adult life in Istanbul. Time is fluid, and her memories are vividly clear. You know from the very beginning, when her mother is forced to turn her over to her husband’s first wife and be forever be known as Leila's "auntie," that life is not going to go smoothly for Leila.
Leila is brutalized but courageous. She is dealt unbelievably challenging blows but is resilient. She has every reason in the world to isolate herself from other people, but she has intimate friendships and a short, happy marriage.
Raped at six years old by her uncle, a relationship that goes on for years, life conspires to take her into the work of a prostitute. Istanbul is a nearly impossible city to survive in, much less thrive.
Smells and tastes are her access points to her life remembrances, which makes each memory vivid, tactile, and palpable. During her time in Istanbul, she is subjected to unspeakable patriarchal atrocities.
The story is brutal, bleak, and violent. Shafak's writing is poignant, descriptive, lucid, and may make you need to catch your breath. But also, Leila is such a real person with such an intriguing heart, Leila had me in awe. I did not see this in any review I read, but personally I found some very intelligent humor spread throughout the book, and certainly in the ending. In addition to her husband D/Ali (his name was Ali, but he aspired to be a painter like Dali), she had five incredibly close friends: Nostalgia Nalan, transgender; Sabotage Sinan, the Pharmacist’s son; Jameelah, a trafficked African woman who sees into people’s souls; Zaynab122, the religious one who is 122 cm (4 feet) tall; and Hollywood Humerya, the singer. These wonderful friends of Tequila Leila not only add immense warmth and humanity to 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World, but they also add just a bit of balance and lightness.
This book is brilliant. The plot is creative and inventive. The writing is outstanding. I am very intrigued to hear what my book club has to say when we discuss it next week. Recommend by Sara. And now, also recommended by me.
Every once in a while, I like to remind you what my four-point rating scale means. Right now, with all these new folks signing up and Dusty Shelves actually working again(!), this is a good time.
FOUR HEARTS: Like it a lot or loved it; I recommend it; put it on your list!
THREE HEARTS: Like it; I recommend, with some reservations.
TWO HEARTS: I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.
ONE HEART: I couldn’t get through it
Andrea, May 2022
Fiction 2020 | 448 pages
A page-turner! Every time I read a few sentences, I was challenged to put this book down.
On July 29, 1714, Addie LaRue is supposed to marry. Desperate to get out of the marriage and to control her own life, she makes a deal with the devil, Luc (yes, short for Lucifer). She trades her soul for immortality, but of course, the "deal" is not as simple as that. For the duration of her immortal life, she cannot be remembered. As soon as she walks away from a person she met, conversed with, shared a bed with, inspired, was healed by, learned from .... the other person can no longer remember her. At first blush, we can see how lonely this is; she is unable to establish relationships. What is not immediately apparent are the nuances. She cannot hold a job (who is this woman in my shop?) nor rent a place to live. She cannot leave a mark .... anything she writes or draws disappears within moments. And she cannot say her name.
The first 50, 100 or more years of her life, therefore, are difficult beyond heart-breaking. She learns to survive by selling her body, stealing clothes and food, encountering violence, occasionally finding shelter in abandoned derelict buildings.
V.E. Schwab's profound writing transports us back and forth between the first 300 years of Addie's life after the devil's curse, and the most recent two years, 2013-2014, in New York City. We vividly witness the industrial revolution, numerous wars including the two World Wars, changes in fashion and culture and work, the growth and expansion of technology and the world's population. There is a constancy in our sense of world history in this novel, experienced through the eyes of just one woman.
Sporadically, sometimes just a year apart, sometimes decades apart, Luc appears in Addie's life on July 29. Stubborn and steadfast, Addie refuses to turn over her soul to him, choosing to stay alive, no matter how tormenting the cost.
And then on March 12, 2014, she meets Henry at the bookstore where he works, The Last Word, and everything shifts.
Without hesitation, this book comes with my recommendation. I am eager to read your thoughts!
Fiction 2013 | 560 pages
Ursula Todd is born in England on a very snowy evening, February 10, 1910. Except she is strangled by her umbilical cord and dies.
Until the next time she is born.
Kate Atkinson takes us on many journeys of parallel and alternate lives, as Ursula is born again and again and lives out different lives, or, more precisely, encounters different life circumstances. Situations, chance meetings, and occurrences in her life shift in her reincarnations and, of course, impact how long her life lasts and how it plays out. She remains in her same nuclear family, the Todd family, with the same parents, siblings, and Aunt Lizzie ... all characters which are drawn irrevocably and clearly. You don't confuse Ursula's sister Pammy with Aunt Lizzie. The characters are strong and unique.
Atkinson does this without any kitsch. This isn't Groundhog Day. It is a serious and highly engaging exploration of chance events ... brother Maurice throwing a doll out the window in one life; a rape on a stair well in another; meeting Eva Braun when Eva was 17 in a third life. Ursula has a sense of deja vu, but not a strong recollection from life to life.
The vividness of the World Wars, in the lives where Ursula lives well into adulthood, is stark. Atkinson profoundly portrays what it was like to be bombed in London in the 1940s. Visceral, graphic, real. She similarly tells the story of women at these times, and also, we experience a good dose of successful and failed romance.
An excellent read ... I highly recommend it. It is very well-written and a fascinating story.
by Junot Díaz
Fiction 2007, 339 pages
I am giving up and moving on. This is the story of Oscar, and his sister Lola, and their mother Belicia. Oscar is an overweight geeky ghetto kid who has no social skills and longs to have a girlfriend. It moves from their lives in New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and back again. Except as the reader I never know which country we are in. The writing is lazy and leaves much to be desired, with sentences often missing verbs and no quotes on dialogue.
But the worst was the incessant use of Spanish words, phrases, and entire sentences, usually with no translation. Often, I could figure out the word or phrase from the context, but the effect of this jarring style was to continually knock me out of the story and into a place of attempting to interpret what Díaz was saying. And I have taken every Spanish course our local community college offers. If you want to get lost in a novel, this one does not suffice.
Long-time readers may recall that I was working my way through the Washington Post’s “Best Books from 1 to 100.” This is the book for a 20-year old. I appreciate Díaz's attempt to communicate what it is like to be an immigrant. I just think he failed, miserably.
Wanjikũ wa Ngũgĩ
Fiction 2021 | 198 pages
Many reviewers describe this book as surreal. It is an accurate word, I think. I like magic realism. I like shifting time from past to present in a novel. I like stories and parables.
However, I did not like this book. Mumbi spends summers with her Aunt Sara, listening to Sara tell stories. Sara lives in Hippoland. The setting is the imaginary East African nation of Victoriana. This book is really about storytelling ... the power of storytelling, the hope it can provide, the fear it instigates, the importance of history, whether true or fabled. The stories weave in and out of this present-day tale. Sometimes I did not know where I was in time. The stories are surprisingly bland. The moral is unclear.
The description on the book fly is inaccurate. It reads as though it was written for a book that was in the author's mind, but not the book she actually wrote. A minor point; there is inadequate copy editing. There are missing words, punctuation errors, and grammar errors. Not a lot; just enough to distract.
As a reminder, two hearts means " I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading."
I suggest you pick up a different book for your May reading.
Fiction 2011 | 129 pages
This is a novella, told in a mesmerizing, emotional, powerful way ... with no characters or plot. Huh?
The story of Japanese brides shipped to the US In the early 1900s, Buddha in the Attic is told in "first person singular," which can be hard to wrap your head around. Most of the sentences begin with "they" or "we" or "one of us" or "some of us." Here is a short, edited excerpt to demonstrate the writing style. It is from one of eight chapters. This chapter is titled "Babies."
"We gave birth under oak trees in the summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth besides wood stoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year .... We gave birth in Rialto by the light of a kerosene lantern on top of an old silk quilt we had brought over with us on our trunk from Japan ... We gave birth in towns where no doctor would see us, and we washed out the afterbirth ourselves ... We gave birth with the help of the fish-seller's wife ..."
Officially categorized as fiction, I might call it historical fiction or creative nonfiction. While no one person's story is told, the panoply of stories is remarkable.
This short book will touch your heart and easily teach you much about the dreams and challenges of being Japanese in America before and during WWll. It is a quick afternoon's read, and I do recommend it, for the lyrical style as well as the content, and the education.
Besides, who can resist a book whose opening line is, "On the boat we were mostly virgins."
Hilary Clinton & Louise Penny
Fiction 2021 | 512 pages
Hilary Clinton and Louise Penny team up to create this geopolitical thriller, State of Terror. As the novel opens, bombs explode on buses in London, Paris, and Frankfurt. Who is responsible, and will the United States be next? Ellen Adams, Secretary of State for the new president, Doug Williams is thrown into international relationships, intrigue, and negotiations in the Mideast, in an attempt to discover who is responsible for more than 100 deaths, why, and where there are bombs placed ... nuclear, it seems ... in the United States. There is no love lost between the President and Secretary of State, and she works incredibly hard and smart to eliminate the terror, gaining competence and respect in the process.
Blame falls to the to the ineptitude of the former President, Eric Dunn, who is not at all veiled as a reference to the United States' former president. He is presented as bombastic, mean, and an idiot, licking his wounds after he lost reelection, and playing golf in his Florida retreat. Even his closest associates called him “Eric the Dumb.”
The women reign in State of Terror. Not only is the Secretary of State a feminist, but her adviser and counselor is a lifelong friend, Betsy Jameson, and is a tribute to Clinton's actual lifelong friend, Betsy Ebeling. The media mogul is a woman, as is the person who receives an email with the first clue about the Frankfurt bomb.
While the plot is clearly Clintonesque, the character development, emotional sense, and relationship depths can be attributed to Louise Penny. Louise Penny fans will revel in a special treat in the latter pages, as the tiny Quebec town of Three Pines plays a role in the denouement.
I vacillated between giving this compelling mystery three hearts or four. I believe it is a bit overwritten, and the character list is long and can be difficult to follow, especially among the Mideast players. I finally landed on four hearts because, not only is the story intriguing, but there is a special feeling, aside from politics, in reading a collaboration by two famous women of our time. Yes, pick this up and enjoy the fun, the terror, the political intrigue, and the delicious characters.
Diane Wilson | Fiction, 2021
In its 19th year, the Deschutes County Public library is the largest community reading program in Oregon. Every year I read, enjoy, and discuss the current community read. This year's selection disappointed me a bit.
Rosalie Iron Wing, our primary character and narrator, grows up in the woods with her father, learning the stories of her Dakota people, the plants in the woods, and the stars. Many years later, after two decades married to a white man, she returns to the family cabin, a grieving widow and a mother, and begins to search for her family and her community. She comes from a family line of trauma, and the stories of Native children who were stolen and moved into boarding schools infiltrate Rosalie's family, neighbors, and this novel.
The narrative is multi-generational as Wilson weaves into Rosalie's life story, her friend's life, Gaby Makespeace; her great-great grandmother, Marie Blackbird; her great Aunt, Darlene; her deceased mother; and numerous other family characters, male and female, alive and dead. We learn important – and often untold – stories about the treatment of indigenous peoples on this continent.
The diction is wonderful. Strong, poetic, beautiful, interesting, descriptive words.
The message is important. It is to be read, contemplated, and understood.
However, I found the story boring. I do not quite know how to expound on my opinion ... the important message was told in a manner that did not capture my enthusiasm, my imagination, or my interest. It starts out slowly and tenses shift oddly.
The title, on the other hand is perfect, and hearkens back to what I think is the most interesting theme in The Seed Keeper ... learning the value of selecting, drying, storing, and keeping seeds from the food you grow. When there was a fire, a crisis, or as sudden departure, the first item that Rosalie's family took with them was the basket or box or bag of seeds. Seeds are the heirloom that ensures that people can feed themselves after their move, in the next few years, and from generation to generation. They represent, quite literally, the heritage of earlier generations.
I think many of my readers will enjoy this novel more than I did. Yes, I do recommend it.
Fiction 1992 | 406 pages
Some of you know this book, I am certain. Others may wonder why I am reviewing a 30-year-old out-of-print book. (And breaking all my rules by giving it eight hearts!) April 1, 2022 was the thirty-year anniversary of this murder mystery, written by my husband. Though I spent untold hours (and hours) editing this book, that was about 31 years ago and I did not, frankly, remember much if it. I thought I would honor the novel and the author by rereading it at this time.
Yes, I am biased. AND, this is darn good writing!
A psychopath is using bows and arrows to murder hikers in Pacific Crest National Park, inciting fear, terror, trepidation. Stan, the Park Superintendent, must search for the killer, knowing that it is highly likely it is one of his staff, a park ranger. He is joined by the FBI, bounty hunters, dog trackers, military personnel and others who are skilled with tracking and weapons, to uncover the murderer. Eventually, the park is closed to all tourists, but still the havoc occurs, and more people are killed.
While this sounds gruesome and horrifying, the author has a wry sense of humor, a surprising amount of knowledge about both National Parks and archery, an amazing Springer Spaniel named Cassie (the only true-to-life being in the book), and a fondness for falling in love. The Ranger, while a murder mystery at its core, will entice you into page-turning through the vivid descriptions of the wilderness, and the tenderness of relationships between and among many of the characters.
Yes, absolutely, read or reread this book! You won't be able to find a copy, in all likelihood. And this afternoon I just bought the last used copy I could find on the Internet. So, if you wish to enjoy this bit of fantasy (which is surprisingly imbued with many reminders of my own personal history), I will loan you a book. I have a few sacred copies in my home library.
I would be honored if you read this work by my deceased husband, Beryl Rullman, which I recommend highly.
Thank you, Thom, for your eagerness to read The Ranger, and for inspiring me to read it again.
Fiction 2021 | 576 pages
Amor Towles’ writing is once again, superb.
Emmet Watson, 18 years old and just released from a juvenile work farm in Salina, Kansas, returns to his Nebraska home, driven by the warden. There, he is reunited with his delightful and precocious brother, 8-year-old Billy, and faces the foreclosure of his family farm, as his unsuccessful father has just died from cancer. Going through their father’s belongings, Billy discovers a packet of postcards sent from their mother to the boys as she traveled west … this is news to both the boys! Billy and Emmet decide to travel the Lincoln Highway to San Fransisco to find their mother, who abandoned them years ago.
Except, once the warden drives away, much to everyone’s surprise, they learn that Wooly (a medicine-addicted young Northeastern boy from money) and Duchess (the son of a vaudevillian, with his own significant cadre of questionable judgements and reckonings), two of Emmett’s compatriots at the work farm, stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car and were now ready to travel wherever Emmett’s adventures were to take them.
But California is not in the picture. Indeed, not only do Emmett and Billy never make it there, they don’t even advance one westward mile. In fact, they travel about as far away from California as is possible in the continental United States, to New York City. But only after Emmett’s Studebaker is stolen, and relatives need to be found and visited, Billy meets Ulysses and Abacus Abernathe, and Duchess’ orphanage needs strawberry preserves, to name just a few of the side trips. “Detours beget detours” (NYT review).
Amazingly, we witness ten days and 600 pages of adventure, youth, and remarkable characters. The tone is mostly light, though some darkness shows up at the end.
The only aspect of this book I did not like is that the characters never ever manage to travel west on the Lincoln Highway!
Yes, I surely recommend this novel by a fine author.
Fiction 2021 | 278 pages
I am shocked to discover that there exist people who did not like this book! I think it is nothing short of brilliant. Theo Byrne is raising his neurodivergent, undiagnosed, nine-year-old son Robin, after his mother’s accidental death. This, all alone, is the making of a challenging story. But add to it, in true Powers’ sentiment, a dying planet, climate change, and species extinction, and you reach a deeper level of sorrow.
Theo is an Astrobiologist. His work is searching for other planets, perhaps planets that sprout life. He tells Robin numerous bedtime stories about made-up planets, where something unique is occurring In the ecology or with the inhabitants. These are great stories, fueled by a vivid imagination.
Meanwhile, Robbie becomes a patient in an experimental neurofeedback treatment program. He learns to use his mind to move a dot on a page, and then he and the artificial intelligence (AI) take off from there. Eventually the researchers invite Robbie to witness a similar treatment, done a few years earlier, with his mother, and Robbie begins to experience his mother Aly more clearly his life, including her knowledge, her values, her sensibilities, and her love. It is quite amazing what happens for him, and how he improves in managing his fear, anger, confusion, and neurodiverse behavior.
While the story line is intriguing and compelling, the real reason why I fell in love with this book is the writing. It simply is beautiful writing. Clear. Dynamic. Sensual even.
Read this. Do not hesitate to read it as soon as you can get your hands on a copy.
Fiction 2021 | 903pages
(TRYING FOR THE TENTH(?) TIME … PERHAPS, JUST PERHAPS, WE HAVE SOLVED THE WORD PRESS ISSUES. SORT OF.)
This is the ninth book in the luscious Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. I carried the 903-page 2.2 pound brick with me on airplanes and throughout my week at beaches and infinity pools at Puerto Morales. It was a constant, but heavy, companion! Drawing me into the American Revolution and entertaining me with the lives of the Frasers, MacKensies, and many (many!) other characters.
Unfortunately, I think Gabaldon has run out of things to say and stories to tell. Her tales of life on Fraser’s Ridge amidst the families … Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, and Quaker … who have come to build homes, feed their families in the 1770s, add many children to the growing generations, survive and even thrive in the western mountains of North Carolina; were engaging, interesting, and built upon the extremely well-developed characters of Claire, Jamie, Brianna, Roger, and numerous natural and adopted offspring. However, her stories of many men, negotiating their way through the politics, loyalties, and very confusing family lineage in the war, were often confounding and difficult to follow. And I found little tension in her story … little mystery to uncover. I seldom cared what might happen next.
For diehard Outlander fans, Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone, is a book to read out of loyalty and curiosity, but not out of a sense of “it is compelling, and I can’t put it down” commitment. So yes, continue the saga, and read it. For non-Outlander fans, you MUST go back to book one, Outlander, and start there! Yes, if you begin and become hooked, you have 8047 pages of reading ahead of you, and Gabaldon is writing book 10 of the series as I type! I do love the series, I just don’t feel this is her strongest work.
Sue Monk Kidd
Fiction 2020 | 432 pages
Writing this post feels like a sacred act. For centuries biblical scholars have debated whether or not Jesus married. The scholars have convened on “no” as the most likely answer. However, Sue Monk Kidd has wondered all of her life if perhaps there is another story to tell. She writes this novel from the perspective that Jesus did, in fact, take a wife. Her name is Ana, and this is her story. Fully immersed in the stories, fables, truths, realities, and parables that appear in the bible, Kidd adds a layer that will cause you to think, wonder, and enjoy the possibilities. This is a truly engaging piece of art!
We see Judas (Ana’s brother), Lazarus, Mary and Martha, John, who baptizes new Christ-followers, Herod, Pilate, John and Joseph, Jesus’ mother Mary, and more. All the context we would expect. And yet this additional perspective retells the story of Jesus on this earth in a new light, especially the years that bible does not address at all, Jesus between the ages of 12 of 30.
I am not a Christian, and so I wondered how I would engage with this tale. I found it delightful! First of all, it is a love story. A profound, beautiful, enduring love story. Second, is a magnificent statement on women at the time of Christ … an entire gender we hear little about in the bible. The women in this novel are surprisingly strong, delightfully self-knowledgeable, intriguingly active. Ana, of course, portrays a strong and powerful woman who finds her voice, her destiny, and her passion for writing. And her Aunt Yaltha, her mother-in-law Mary, her sister-in-law Pamphile, Chaya (Ana’s cousin) and numerous other women are not as we might picture them from reading the bible alone ... where they are often depicted as chattel, powerless, demure, hidden. So, in truth, this is also a feminist novel. Actually, it is an intriguing and useful accompaniment to the bible.
I highly recommend The Book of Longings and look forward to your comments.
by Amanda Gorman
Poetry 2021, 228 pages
I am sure this is a delightful collection of poems. From what I read, Gorman's poems are creative, relevant, easy to understand, stark, and beautiful ... I am simply an unpracticed poetry reader, so I struggled. Please blame my paltry single heart on my own deficiency. If you love poetry, you will enjoy this collection from the amazing Amanda Gorman, I am certain. (In case there is a bell ringing in your head, but you can't quite place the name, Amanda Gorman is the youngest [age 22] inaugural poet ever to grace the stage at a presidential swearing in. Joe Biden, 2021).
Fiction 2019 | 254 pages
Ingenious, original, clever, witty, and touching. Some reviewers say this book is about friendship. I say it is about love.
Lillian struggles in her life, working at the Save-A-Lot in Franklin Tennessee. She lives with her estranged mom, in the attic of the house she grew up in and has no friends. Except for Madison. Madison is an odd type of friend ... they knew each for a year at a girl's boarding school. Lillian was thrown out before the end of that first year, taking the fall for Madison for illicit drugs in their room. And now Madison, who stayed in touch through letters, is married to a Senator and living in a mansion. And she has a job for Lillian.
She asks Lillian to come to the mansion and take care of her husband’s 10-year-old twins, Roland and Bessie. They had been living with their mother, but that ended when their mother died, and now the Senator has to figure out what to do with them; how to integrate them into his life with Madison and their toddler son Timothy. Bessie and Roland will live with them for the summer, and Madison hires Lillian as a governess of sorts.
But these kids are not exactly normal. They spontaneously combust when they get angry, anxious, or scared. Yes, they literally burst into flames. It does not hurt them, but the fire is real enough and burns their clothes, and anything combustible in the area. Yes, an odd premise (hence, “original, clever.") Somehow, Kevin Wilson pulls it off. As a reader, I found I accepted the premise and became a cheerleader for Bessie, Roland, and Lillian. The tone is fun, irreverent at times, but also emotional and serious. I found the friendship between Lilian and Madison to be intriguing for sure. But the love that develops between Lillian and her two charges is the soul of this novel, I believe.
This is an easy read, and I do recommend it. The Casting Crew Book Club likes to read short, fun novels in February. Thanks to Louise for suggesting this one! Nothing to See Here is fun, engaging, and will shift your perspectives on power, politics, and how inconvenient children can be. The only criticism I have is the title. I can’t ever remember it. I would have preferred something along the lines of Fire Children or Fire Starter.
Nonfiction 2001 | 238 pages
I am lost. WHY are we reading this book in my Decolonization book club? It is a diatribe on everything that is not working. It begins with multiple chapters that point fingers at parents who lead dysfunctional families and do not teach their children how to love, and it goes downhill from there. I kept reading, seeking for when she might turn positive, and found a bit of redemption in the chapter on spirituality. I was hoping there might be more "new visions" (this book's erroneous subtitle) in the chapter on romance, but she begins “Romance” with the assertion that we all have not been "schooled" in love, and therefore don’t know how to do it. It isn't that hard, Ms. hooks. You open your heart and make a choice.
Plus, she quotes the Bible about 27 times more often than I am comfortable with.
A depressing book ... I can't come up with any reason to recommend it. She has written 39 (or so) books. I am not putting any on my reading list. This ranks near the top of my "books I struggled to finish because I sincerely disliked them" list.
Dave Eggers | Fiction, 2021
I think of satire as funny. And some reviewers found this book hilarious. Longtime Dusty Shelves blog readers know that I am not particularly adept at finding humor in the written word. And I found no humor at all in The Every. I was, well, "terrified" is perhaps too strong a word, but certainly "afraid" and "uncomfortable" fit. Perhaps it is all my years working in and consulting to technology organizations that led me to find the scenarios in Egger's latest to be too realistic, too possible, too earth-shattering, too controlling, too depressing.
Have you read The Circle? It isn't necessary to have read The Circle to understand The Every, but it does provide useful context. The Every is a gigantic monopolistic organization headquartered on Treasure Island, that has bought and engulfed The Circle, along with untold numbers of other businesses. It is a super e-commerce conglomerate. The Every controls 82% of e-commerce, which is 71% of all commerce at this novel’s unstated date in the future.
Delaney Wells, a former park ranger, gets herself hired at The Every, with the intention it taking it down. While she looks for ways to destroy it, she suggests technology products that she expects the company to find reprehensible, and instead, they embrace every single one. The Every believes everything is measurable and therefore trackable and therefore goal-able and not private. Early in the book, it is technology we know well, like our smart watches and cell phones, that not only give US useful Information about our health, well-being, finances, and steps, but that transmit ALL of it to databases to analyze it and set us up to exercise, sleep, and eat on a schedule that the devices control. But that is only the beginning. Soon, we are able to buy our clothes only through an Every-owned project that ensures each piece is environmentally sound. And then there is the project that tracks our personal carbon use. Next, the Every is providing live data when you talk on the phone (or your personal cam) with someone, assessing their facial expressions, body temperature, and so forth, that tells you how honest the other person is being. By the end of the book, every conversation in our homes Is being listened to and analyzed for certain words, phrases, or tones. If a flagged word, phrase, or tone is heard, the police are promptly sent to your home. This particular project is developed as a way to prevent child abuse. And the list of Every projects goes on and on and gets more and more invasive. Eventually the company comes to fully believe that people want neither freedom nor choice. And Delaney's attempts to destroy The Every ramp up.
I enjoyed reading The Every, though I do not think it rises to the level of The Circle. The Every is over-long, and the "projects" become the plot line, which isn't over-compelling. However, I am glad I read it. And things heat up about page 400, when Delaney decides it is time to initiate her destruction.
(For those of you who are readers from Bend, know that there is a one-sentence reference to our fair town on page 528.)
Here is the link to the meaning and types of satire. I found this quite interesting.
So, do I recommend It The Every? Well, if you haven't read Eggers and his technology-driven dystopian novels, I would recommend The Circle over this book. If you read and were moved by The Circle (a book I think about often), I recommend this. It takes every terrifying technology abuse one (or more) steps further.
Nonfiction 2021 | 297 pages
(My website encountered the “white screen of death.” In recovering my site, thank goodness, I lost only one post. So, here it is again ... my apologies if this or a similar version reaches you twice).
This may be the most difficult blog post I have written. It is a mixed review, for sure!
I am not a fan of Brené Brown. I find her assumption offensive: that people are broken, in need of help or assistance, even unhealthy. This, of course, is the opposite of a coach who works from the starting point and the basic assumption that people are already strong, wise, healthy, and effective in their lives. Plus, Ms. Brown has a love affair with the concept of shame. I am a surprised at how often "shame" comes up even in this book ... it is a frame she returns to constantly. And I find I disagree with her adamant claim about shame: “We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience it are those who lack the capacity for empathy and human connection.” (pg 136)
Nevertheless, I thought Atlas of the Heart sounded intriguing and interesting. And it is.
The further I read, the more respect I gained for this book. It isn't really an "atlas" in the sense of a map. It is more a dictionary or an encyclopedia. She writes two or three pages on each of 88 emotions, incorporating many research studies, stories, quotes, and art; making the descriptions of each emotion rich. And when she makes distinctions, such as between envy and jealousy, and among discouraged, resigned, frustrated, disappointed, and regretful ... she relates quite helpful differences.
Of course, I don't always agree with her definitions or distinctions. I think she has joy and happiness 180 degrees off; I would switch the definitions around. But wrong or right doesn’t matter much ... I appreciate her causing me to think and clarify for myself.
Since there is not a plot, nor a single unifying message, I struggle with deciphering how this book "fits" in my life. I came to this conclusion: it is a book to have on a table in the living room, or on a side counter in the kitchen. Any place you might wonder what emotion you are feeling or find yourself interested in a broader and deeper definition of an emotion, is where this book should live. I have already opened it to reread about a particular emotion, maybe five times, and sent copies of pages to clients.
The detractors: I wish she had written fewer stories from her own family and more stories of other people in the world in other circumstances. And I wish she had posed questions to ask the reader to ponder. Her writing style is quite didactic. Irritatingly, she refers to her prior published works so often in Atlas of the Heart, I wonder how much is new. It is a long commercial for her other published works.
Nevertheless, on final analysis, even with its flaws, I do think this beautiful book (be sure to read it in hard cover to get the full experience) is quite worth your while. Yes, I believe it is worthy of four heats. What do YOU think of it?
Thank you, Thom, for this lovely gift.
Paula Hawkins | Fiction, 2021
After a young man is found murdered in a houseboat in London, five women and one man, who have unique and complicated connections to him and to each other, and all of whom are juggling their own secrets, become embroiled in the search for the murderer. (And we know one of these characters will emerge as the guilty party!)
I was disappointed. I expected more from Paula Hawkins after A Girl on the Train. All of the significant female characters in this book are dysfunctional and some are psychopathic. I didn't like even one of them. I thought Hawkins did such a poor job of character development that I had to make a cheat sheet to differentiate characters, one from the other. Which was the one-night stand? Who stole which key? Who was related to whom? Goodreads reviewers have rated this book lower than any other book in my blog (I think), at 3.4 out of 5.0.
So, why three hearts? It is a compelling and interesting murder. Who-done-it readers may well enjoy the plot development, especially if you are better at keeping the characters straight than I am. The plot is its strength. The title works well, too.
So, try this on for size if you feel drawn to it, and let us know what you think!
Graphic Memoir, 2017 |328 pages
I am disappointed in this graphic memoir, which took Thi Bui years and years to write. It reads more as history than a memoir or an intimate story. It does not have the heart of the graphic memoir I recently read, They Called Us Enemy by George Takei. The Best We Could Do tells a special, unique, and complex story about the generations who preceded Thi and her siblings in Vietnam and the United States, and does not succeed at painting a broad-brush picture to help us better understand what it was like for other families emigrating from Vietnam after the fall of South Vietnam. That being said, I am glad I persisted to the end. The last third explains the concept of "boat people" and depicts the reality of the first few weeks after entering this country. I also enjoyed the graphics .... rendered completely in black, white, and orange.
Fiction 2021 | 320 pages
(re-post. I accidentally deleted this review!)
I had no idea what I was getting into when I opened to the first page of Klara and the Sun. A friend recommended it and I blindly set about reading it. From the cover, I thought it was going to be about geisha girls or some such. How surprised I was to discover it was about seeing the world through the eyes of an AF ... an Artificial Friend. Yes, Klara is a robot who is purchased to be Josie's AF, a young teenage girl with her share of family trauma, and an illness that may take her life.
I loved this book! What I so enjoyed is how Klara elegantly observes human behavior in order to learn what humans perceive and think ... but especially, what they feel and why they feel it. Ishiguro especially explores love, loneliness, and hope. He has created a simple mechanism for standing outside human consciousness and attempting to glean knowledge about what we feel and do, through the keen observation and insight of a robot.
I found Klara and the Sun not only easy to read, but delightful. I simply enjoyed being inside Klara's observational "brain." Some reviewers say Klara and the Sun offers an exploration of how Artificial Intelligence may show up in our lives in the future. I didn’t perceive that intention from Ishiguro. It read as a pure novel to me.
Now, for the grain of salt. The average review in Goodreads is a 3.81. This is a fairly low rating. As I perused the reviews, there were many five stars and many one stars. Another book that polarizes. So, what can I say? I hope you read it and desire to rate it "four hearts." But if your review is at the low end of the scale, I would love to hear that, too. Yes, clearly, I recommend this book.
Joyce Carol Oates
Fiction 2021 | 365 pages
Astonishing. I find this book astonishing. I SHOULD give it three hearts, because it is clearly not for everyone who reads my blog ... but I cannot begin to tell who will love this book and who will hate it. I inhaled it.
There is essentially no plot. It is the story of Michaela as her husband dies in the first section, "The Vigil" and after his death, "The Post-Mortem." Michaela and Gerard have traveled from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Santa Tierra, New Mexico, where Gerard, a distinguished academician, researcher, and professor at Harvard, accepts a guest position at the Santa Tierra Institute for Advanced Research. While in New Mexico, Gerard is suddenly taken seriously ill, and he dies a few weeks later in New Mexico.
We witness the vigil, his death, and the early stages of widowhood side by side with Michaela, far from home and yet unable to convey herself back to Cambridge. Reviewers describe this novel as "searing,” “disturbing,” “sad,” “chilling,” and “mesmerizing.”
What we read is an unadulterated view of intense, inexplicable, debilitating grief. We observe as Michaela experiences and expresses her grief, but also as she loses touch with reality, and has delusions and hallucinations. We see her physically and emotionally fall apart, unable to shower, sleeping in her clothes on top of the bed. She is buffeted by disturbing images of gods and "prank gods" associated with the ancient indigenous culture she is thrust into in this part of the country.
I experienced Oates' writing in this novel as some of the best I have ever read. Illustrative, powerful, it has a cadence and a turn of words that I found continually drew me on to the next sentence and the next chapter. I randomly opened to a page just now, and will share an example: “That bed – where had she seen that bed before? Something terrifying about that (empty, stripped) bed. Something terrifying about (re)entering this room and seeing that she was alone in this room. For the first time, alone in this room.” (page 148).
Of course, my post would be incomplete and inauthentic if I did not report on how it affects me personally, 5.5 years a widow myself. Yes, it draws me back into memories of Beryl and his dying. I found Michaela’s heart-wrenching descriptions of both sorrows and delusions to be totally believable. Her tale resonates deeply with me.
So, you must decide if you want to take on such a disturbing text as this. I recommend you do. I will love to hear from those you who read Breathe. I am carrying the aura and the tenor of this book with me still.
by Robert Jordan, Chuck Dixon, Chase Conley
Fiction 2011, 237 pages
The Eye of the World is the first book in The Wheel of Time, an epic fantasy series, also known as “high fantasy”, that is quite famous, well-acclaimed, and well-loved. I wasn’t certain I would be captivated by either the 16-book series or the Amazon Prime TV series of the same books, so I thought I would try my hand at the graphic novels.
I could not get through the first graphic novel. This type of fantasy is simply not my cup of tea.
Fiction, 2012 |377 pages
The Song of Achilles inspires me to wonder ... "Why do I read fiction?" At first blush: to learn something from a different perspective; to sink into characters and personalities that differ from my own; sometimes to activate my brain to solve a mystery; and finally, most important, to be entertained. This book does none of these. I suppose I am to care because it is a new, deeper telling of a part of the Greek Mythology that I read in high school. But that simply isn't enough for me.
I gave my earlier Madeline Miller book, Circe, four hearts: "This is a beautiful, intoxicating, and brilliant book, extremely well-written and a page-turner." I am rather surprised that The Song of Achilles did not captivate me in the same way.
I enjoyed the first third or so, about the relationship between the son of the god Thetis, Achilles, and the pure mortal Patroclus, princes both, as they grow from children to young men. Their love is solid and true, and yet saccharine and cliche. There is no tension either in their love, or the world’s acceptance of their relationship. It is six (nine?) years before Patroclus feels any anger towards Achilles. That is not quite like deep love to me.
Eventually they embark on a ship to fight against the city of Troy, and, along the way, we meet more famous gods, such as Apollo and Chiron, and mortals such as Agamemnon and Hector. The war with Troy drags on for ten years. Ten years of war? Oh goodness, put me to sleep. I found Miler’s writing to be rather bland and sometimes repetitive. This section is filled with pride, posturing, maiming, violent and bloody killing, and subjugation. And an occasional very kind deed, such as the saving of the young woman Briseis from the brutal Agamemnon.
One of the discussion questions asks about The Song of Achilles as a myth .... a story that is timeless. I will be very interested to hear what others see as the meaning or message in this myth.
I do not gleefully recommend this January Casting Crew Book Club choice!
Caroline Van Hemert
Nonfiction Memoir 2019 | 307 pages
What a truly remarkable story! Caroline and Pat travel 4000 miles from Bellingham in Washington State to Kotzebue, Alaska, completely under their own power ... hiking, paddling, and rowing. It takes them six months in 2012 as they chase Alaska's short summer weather. The astounding journey is one of wilderness, personal growth, adventure, memoir, and the cementing of a married couple's love. Of course, there are close calls and harrowing tales, but these are far surpassed by her exquisite descriptions of what they see and hear and acknowledge, often far, far from any civilization. Caroline Van Hemert is an extraordinary writer, and the pages fly by.
Caroline is an ornithologist, so we track an inordinate number of bird species on both their migration north and as they leave again to go south. The hard part about taking in her immeasurable knowledge is not being able to SEE the birds she describes so eloquently. I wanted this book to be a picture book! I was quite moved by their travels through one of my own favorite places on the planet, The Brooks Range. Of course, my short view, mostly from a prop plane, does not hold the smidgen of a candle to their crossing by foot and water. If you enjoy the outdoors, you will enjoy this book. It is so different from many other real-life adventure stories because the route is completely new and made up by Caroline and Pat. This is not another ascent of Annapurna, nor a story about traversing The Appalachian Trail. Not only is the writing unique, but so is the territory, their path, and their shared journey. I definitely recommend!
Thank you, Rynda!!
Nonfiction Graphic Memoir 2019 | 204 pages
You know George Takei. His popularity skyrocketed as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, and then as Commander Sulu, and finally Captain Sulu, on Star Trek. He is an actor, an author, and an activist. And he penned this graphic memoir. He tells the story of being interred in American concentration camps, shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
George was four when he was first relocated to a concentration camp with his parents, brother, and sister, along with 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in America, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, like George. Somehow, remarkably, even though he was very young, he remembers an extraordinary amount of the trauma he endured and manages to tell us his family’s story through the eyes of a naive, innocent, and confused young boy. He also brings us up to today, with various political and government actions since 1942.
I loved this memoir on two counts. First, it tells an intimate candid story of a big scar on our American identity that many of us only know in passing. You may learn some history. For example, I didn't know about the differing levels of cruelty among the ten camps, from Tule Lake in California to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas. Second, Takei tells his story with such a strong sense of reality, of what it was truly like to live behind barbed wire for nearly five years as a child. I really felt and saw and witnessed his tender heart.
This is a short read, and one I recommend to all people in America.
Fiction, 2020 |448 pages
It was a struggle to wend my way through this Louise Penny. Armand Gamache and his crew are in Paris, France, instead of the usual Three Pines. Armand’s elderly godfather, Stephen Horowitz, is run over by a van, as the extended Gamache family emerge from dinner at a restaurant. Who ran him over, and why? And who is the man found murdered a few hours later in Stephen’s lodging? And is the local chief of police, a longtime friend and colleague of Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache, really a partner in Armand’s investigation, or is he culpable in some way?
Sounds intriguing, no? But I was never drawn in and fully engaged. I was half-way through before I felt like I had a grasp on the cast of characters. And Penny had an obnoxious habit of changing venues numerous times in a chapter, often without any more delineation than an empty line. I do not recall this stylistic technique from the Three Pines novels I have read, but maybe I just didn’t notice. As a highly visual person, it was disconcerting to see the characters sitting in the Gamache sitting room, and then suddenly to be in Jean-Guy and Annie’s apartment.
And the story? Quite a surprise. It is fiat. No tension to draw me in. There was mystery certainly, but it seemed Penny was writing “about” it, rather than taking us there live. The denouement was unnecessarily complex, though the last ten pages or so were sweet. A disappointment overall.
Casey McQuinston | Fiction
2021, 422 pages
This is simply a weird experience. I thought One Last Stop sounded like a fun book to read. Time travel; two young women, Jane and August, who meet on the Q Train in New York and then both religiously keep the same commute so they might run into each other again; a budding lesbian romance; bizarre and interesting roommates for August (our main character). The dialogue is delicious. Actually, the delicious and witty conversations that occur among 20-somethings in NYC are rather unbelievable and stretch credibility.
Finally, after 100 pages, I decided to do a little research. Is this a YA book? It just seems so shallow and targets an immature audience. It is not Young Adult …. The target audience is 18-30. If I were 18-30 I think I would be insulted by the grade level of this book, its lack of depth, its simplicity. As someone who’s WAY older than 30, I have to shut it down now. I don’t recommend One Last Stop at all. Though your teenage child or grandchild might enjoy it.
Nonfiction 2020 | 238 pages
This is the true story of an amazing woman, Christine Feld Boskoff. Hailing from Appleton, Wisconsin, Chris became a legendary climber. She is still the only American woman to have summited six 8000-meter peaks, including Mount Everest, Shishapangma, Gasherbrum II, Cho Oyu, Lhotse and Broad Peak. Her love for climbing, her strength, and her leadership are astounding, while she eschewed publicity of any kind. The Edge of the Map is also a love story of Chris and her beloved climbing partners. First we meet her husband Keith Boskoff; and then we witness her profound romance with her Coloradan climbing partner, Charlie Fowler.
Johanna Garton presents Chris’s life eloquently. It turns out her mother, a journalist, completed ten years of research before she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and passed on her extensive notes to Johanna to finish the writing. Johanna herself conducted 75 interviews plus travel to important venues.
I thought it bogged down just a bit in the middle, as Chris made so MANY interesting and dangerous climbs, but my dogs had to wait patiently for their walk as I rapidly page-turned the engrossing last 80 pages.
If you are, like I am, enthralled by real outdoor adventure, you will fall In love with Chris Boskoff and Edge of the Map.
Fiction 2007 | 184 pages
I find The Reluctant Fundamentalist to be a beautifully written novel. Changez, a brilliant Pakistani from Lahore, is accepted Into Princeton, and later is recruited and works as a highly effective and interpersonally astute employee in an American corporation, headquartered in New York City. Success seems to follow him whenever he goes, until his world changes on September 11, 2001.
The venue for this tale is quite interesting. Changez is back home, living in Lahore, and he tells the story of his young adult life to an American whom he meets in a cafe, and who listens through a long afternoon and evening. Interwoven in this story is Changez’s love for Erica. Erica is an incredibly tragic figure, but their slowly building love relationship is fascinating.
I am quite enamored of this tragic story, which leaves threads unresolved. It is called by many a “short novel” though, at 40,000 words it is technically a novella, which I found oddly paralleled by the novel that Erica writes, which, yes, turns out to be a novella. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is thought-provoking and enlightening. I recommend it.
This is another book the mother and son duo read in The End of Your Life Book Club and so I must credit Will Schwalbe again with inspiring me.
Patricia Highsmith | Fiction, 1952
Therese Belivet is a young woman, attempting to begin her career on or off Broadway as an apprentice set designer. But for now, she is working the Christmas holidays in the toy department of the large department store, Frankenberg’s, when she meets Carol Aird, a slightly older woman seeking to buy a doll for her daughter.
The Price of Salt presents Therese’s story of her discovery of love, sensuality, and sexuality. The joy of this book is in its publication date. Surprisingly well-received, 1952 was a ground-breaking time to write about lesbian love. Patricia Highsmith, writing then as Claire Morgan, does foray into this as-yet-unfictionalized world. The tale may not resonate quite as much in 2021, as it is sexually tame and dated, but it is powerful and bold in its original publication period as well as today. And therefore, quite fascinating to read.
The circumstances of this book might appeal to you or not. Some say it is a lesbian cult classic (reminiscent, to me, of Thelma and Louise). The Price of Salt is a book the mother and son duo read in The End of Your Life Book Club and so I must credit Will Schwalbe with inspiring me. I truly enjoyed this novel.
John J. Prendergast
Nonfiction, 2019 |189 pages
When someone I care about buys a book for me that they have read, I pay attention. I figure they are either sending me a message (!) or sharing something that brought them joy. So, I read The Deep Heart slowly and intentionally this weekend.
I found Prendergast to be a particularly poor writer. He shares many random thoughts that never quite build to a conclusion. His thoughts are based on his own ideas and experiences, with no research and little corroborating evidence from other professionals. And his orientation is the medical model, that of a psychotherapist. He assumes we need to be fixed, that we are broken, traumatized, unhealthy in some way. He doesn’t leave much space for those who are not traumatized or have done significant personal work. This may be a useful and helpful orientation for some readers. However, I have been a coach for nearly 25 years. Coaches start from a very different foundation. We assume everyone is whole, complete, resourceful, creative, healthy, and simply want to add spice to their being, or plant new flowers to bloom, or enliven some aspect of their lives that may have deadened.
He claims most people don’t know if they have core limiting beliefs. Seriously? Have his clients been totally unaware of their hearts and emotions? Have they never been introspective or done any work on themselves? Yes, some of his perspectives made me stop and think. I particularly enjoyed his embedded meditations. I completed each one as I read. I love the sense of being held by an awareness, a presence of heart (chapter nine).
Deep Heart? It remains an elusive construct to me.
Thank you, Thom, for this gift. I love the spirituality that you have brought to our relationship. I suspect Prendergast offers insight and clarity. I would love to hear.
Fiction 2021 | 258 pages
A wolf biologist named Inti leads a rewilding project in Scotland to re-introduce wolves into the wilderness of the highlands. She are her silent twin sister Aggie move there from Alaska, bringing with them so much pain and trauma, the reader cannot helped but be deeply touched.
Of course, it is complicated. The local farmers and ranchers fear for their livestock. They hate and are compelled to kill the wolves. The animosity between Inti and the locals, who have been on this land for centuries, can be vicious and violent. And yet, the work Inti is doing is so needed.
A completely fascinating and complex character, Inti has Mirror-touch Synesthesia, a rare neurological condition. She experiences, she feels, what the other feels. If you stub your toe and she is looking at you, her toe hurts. If you are thrown from a horse, she feels the sharp pain in your arm and butt. If you are tenderly kissed, she experiences that in her lips. This is an unimaginable existence.
Once There Were wolves is extremely hard to read. Not that it is badly written. Actually, it is beautifully written, with fine turns of the phrase, deep character development, and compelling content, including mystery. McConaghy manages not to platitudinize, and yet addresses a vital environmental issue. It is difficult to read because it is dark, harrowing, depressing, debasing. Humans and animals are murdered, as is the soul and spirit of Aggie (and Inti?)
I am so moved by this book. Moved by how we humans have removed wolves and harmed the planet immensely. Moved by the deep love between two sisters that is nearly incomprehensible. Moved by the power and fortitude within us to kill when killing is necessary, and to love even when love is devastating.
As I state above, this is not an easy read. And yet it is a powerful, almost necessary read. I will watch closely for your comments. Please read this novel, which is overflowing with truth, and tell me what you think … and how you feel.
(I think it is Rynda I must thank for this suggestion; one of the Wise Owls, certainly.)
Sara Nisha Adams
Fiction 2021 | 373 pages
The Reading List is a magical and beautifully written novel. Another first-book success, IMHO! The story revolves around a reading list of eight books, which finds its way into many hands and cultures in diverse modern West London. It is a story about reading, and discovery, and taking risks, and imagination. The list impacts many different people, whose paths cross as the book list is somehow shared. The list often appears magically. We don’t know how it arrives in the back of a shoe cartel in the temple or blowing in the wind on a London street. But we see it weave its way to just the right people at just the right time.
The main characters are Mukesh and Aleisha. Mukesh is recently widowed with three grown daughters and three grandchildren. He has never read a novel; spends most of his time watching nature documentaries. Aleisha is a 17-year-old young woman who has taken a summer job at the local small library in their town of Wembley, outside London. These two become each other’s greatest support. Can you imagine?
The Reading List Is poignant, and very engaging. I read it in less than a weekend. It is organized by the books in the order the books are read. Many authors I have recently commented on could learn something about character development from this new writer, Sara Nisha Adams. I feel as though I know Mukesh, his granddaughter Priya, and Aleisha personally.
No question in my mind … get your eyes on this book as soon as possible!
Here is the reading list:
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Kite Runner
Life of Pi
Pride and Prejudice
A Suitable Boy
Will Schwalbe | Nonfiction, 2012
Tenderhearted. I searched Google for the right word … I think this comes the closest. Will Schwalbe casually asks his mother Mary Anne what she is reading, as they await one of her first appointments with her oncologist. Mary Anne has just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This mother and son had often talked about books, but now the circumstances presented themselves and the conversations became more important. More essential. They establish a two-person book club and read many books together, typically discussing them while Mary Anne receives her chemo treatments.
Does that sound maudlin? Well, it isn’t. It is a loving story of two people communicating over a shared passion. And Mary Anne is a fascinating person, having worked with refugees for most of her life and intent on securing funding for a library and mobile van libraries in Afghanistan before she dies.
You must love books to enjoy this book. I was concerned that the books they chose might be obscure, or all about cancer, death and dying. But they choose a wide range, from Stieg Larsson to Wallace Stegner to Karen Connelly to Kabat-Zinn. The way in which Schwalbe describes key messages and awareness from the books, and how he and his mom agree, disagree, and learn … you do not need to have read the books. I have read many, but certainly not all, of what they choose. AND you may be drawn to certain books, because of the conversations they have. Personally, I ordered from the library The Price of Salt (which they both read lightning fast), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (they fought about the ending), and Harold and the Purple Crayon. (And, about children’s books, I loved to hear them recount the family disputes about Tolkien vs CS Lewis.)
I can recommend this book to book lovers. There is not a strong “plot” …. you know that they will keep reading until Mary Ann dies … but you may find the inner workings of this “book club” as tender and as interesting as I did.
Nonfiction 2019 | 276 pages
Journalist Kate Murphy writes about listening in many venues. I was expecting her book to be about interpersonal listening, and it is, but she also addresses the wide range of listening and non-listening in our world, from news reporting to social media to political agendas to cell phones at the dinner table. She addresses the benefits of listening and the price we pay for not truly listening. She talks about intimacy, information, leadership, power. It is a broad and deep exploration into the art of listening. I appreciated, for example, her description of the shift response and the support response … a critical clarification in many relationships.
This is another book that will guide you to take what you need at this moment in your life. In a few places I choked up, as I saw mistakes I make in listening, and what it can cost. You may find similar moments. Unfortunately for me, this book arrived just as a very important relationship in my life was dissolving, guess why? In part, because we were unable to navigate the challenges of true, consistent, deep listening.
Murphy interviewed many as she researched this book, professors to politicians. I particularly enjoyed her comments about one of my favorite interviewers, Terry Gross on NPR, and how she has perfected the art of listening. (My absolute favorite interviewer is Dave Miller on Talk out Loud, at noon and 8 PM on Oregon Public Broadcasting radio. He, like Terry Gross, makes every interview sound like an intimate conversation, not a form of questions you might fill out in a doctor’s office).
Listening is not something we can mark off on a checklist as complete. Circumstances, relationships, the environment, the style and voice of the other, intellect, one’s ability to laugh, articulateness, silence, eye contact, family history, personal emotional and physical pain or health, use of language, distraction … there is a plethora of circumstances that effect listening. We, each of us, are always learning and (hopefully) refining our ability to listen, and the depth of our listening. Listening is where growth is.
I recommend this book, even if you think you don’t need it. It is an easy read, humorous at times, and thought-provoking. I promise you will “hear” something that speaks to you about your own listening, and be grateful for what you heard.
Thank you, Jen, for this wisdom over watercolor!
Fiction 2020 | 413 pages
Dawn was on a path to become an Egyptologist, until that career was swept away as she cared for her dying mom. With a radical shift to another part of her being, Dawn became a death doula instead, gracefully supporting individuals as they journey on their last path on earth.
We travel back and forth between her sudden return to Egypt, 15 years later, to explore and understand what she left behind: Egypt, the ancient tombs, the exploration, her dissertation, and Wyatt; and her present-day life with her husband Brian and daughter Meret. We also travel in time back and forth. I found the time travel easy to follow and not jarring. It is a nod to parallel universes. “What if...”
Dawn’s most important death doula client during the time of this book is Win, a lovely and brilliant woman who shares Dawn’s birthday exactly and is married to Felix. Win’s final request of Dawn is to help her write, and to deliver by hand, a letter to the man she loved before Felix. This is a tale about how past loves effect, impact, perhaps destroy, sabotage, or corrupt current loves. Win’s love for Thane and Dawn’s love for Wyatt wreak havoc in their hearts. The story is painfully close to home for me. Sobering. Sad. Full of grief. Perhaps too real.
Picoult tells us a LOT about Egyptology, the history of Egypt, the gods and burial practices and tombs and hieroglyphics. At first, I was a bit overwhelmed with how much knowledge she was imparting. But over time, her explanations began to settle in me, and I gained appreciation for their importance. Picoult also explains in considerable depth what a death doula is, a rather new profession she elucidates for her readers. Through Dawn’s eyes, we gain an appreciation for the role of the doula, and the intense commitment she makes to her dying clients.
I recommend this Casting Crew Book Club read suggested by our own death doula, Marian. Another hard-to-put-down Jodi Picoult.
S.A. Crosby | Fiction
2021, 319 pages
Sometimes you’re just not in the mood, you know. The murder was too brutal, the language too savage, the characters too dark. A review on NPR calls Razorblade Tears a “visceral full-body experience.” The story line … two gritty fathers attempt to discover the murderer of their two sons, who were married to each other … sounds compelling. I just don’t have the heart for this bleak of a novel right now.
Fiction 2021 | 384 pages
Avery Keene is a law clerk for the legendary Supreme Court Justice Howard Wynn, who, in a series of moves that surprised and floored most everyone in the know in Washington DC, he put himself into a coma and left directions appointing Avery as his guardian. And then this 26-year old brilliant woman begins to unravel the series of chess-relevant clues that Wynn left her, about why he was in a coma; about an international bio-genetics conspiracy; and about an engineered genetics-based drug intended to kill Muslims and which actually killed prisoners in tests, implicating Homeland Security and the U.S. President. This is a legal and political thriller, and thrilling it was!
A fast, compelling read, Ms. Keene and her small entourage of co-discoverers are well-developed characters. Abrams is a surprisingly potent novelist. Yes, this is the Stacey Abrams who is a political powerhouse in Georgia. This is not her first novel!
The series of clues were often convoluted and difficult to decipher. And confusing. But our main character makes sense if it all, understanding symbolism and metaphor, searching for facts and truth, and being exceptionally strong in character and compassion.
A great read (with an appropriate double-meaning title) on a beautiful autumn weekend. I recommend While Justice Sleeps.
Nonfiction 2012 | 419 pages (includes 101 pages of notes, etc.)
An astounding read! This book answers the simple but essential question: Why don't we all get along? Published in 2012, it does not address the Trump era specifically, but the knowledge and insight hold today. The confounding mystery of how good people can be SO divided as we are today in our political world is finally explained. What Haidt has to say is very revealing. We are divided by our different moral compasses ... moral foundations, he calls them. And none are bad. No one is foolish or idiotic. And, in fact, the right, which has a broader moral compass than the left (conservatives subscribe to more morals) is much better at navigating these differences than the left, who are more tightly focused on just a few moral principles.
In The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains why liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all have different understandings of right and wrong. (He also applies his works to the religious and non-religious.) We have different moral frameworks. He argues that moral judgments are emotional, not logical—they are based on stories that evolve in our lives, rather than reason. Consequently, liberals and conservatives lack a common language, and reason-based arguments about morality are ineffective, leading to political polarization.
The Righteous Mind builds this argument on three basic principles:
- Morality is more intuitive than rational.
- Morality is about more than fairness and harm.
- Morality “binds and blinds” us.
No surprise ... I read a few reviews, most of which are either five star or one star! You will love or hate this book. Whatever you think of his proposal, Haidt gives us a framework for looking at why we differ so much, and for, perhaps, being less judgmental about those who seem to reach some very different conclusions.
My only criticism of the book is that Haidt labels theories and ideas by the name of the professor or clinician who has researched and published. So, the theories bear names like “Kant, Shweder, and Durkheim.” For a lay person like myself, not familiar with these professorial researchers, I would have comprehended what he was saying if he labeled the theories descriptively and didn’t call them by the researcher’s name. I could not remember who said what about what.
For the first 100 pages or so, I was in the place of “Huh. I am smart, but I am not sure I understand what he is saying.” But I was definitely intrigued. And so I kept going, and he really did make sense of it all for me.
I think this book is REQUIRED reading, not just a recommendation. Many thanks to wonderful artist and watercolor teacher Suze Woolf (I have two of her paintings over my guest bed) for this inspired read. (https://www.suzewoolf-fineart.com/)
(p.s. I was delighted to learn how the terms "left" and "right" came about! See pg 277)
Nonfiction 2016 | 212 pages
What a surprise this book is! Yes, it is hilarious, especially in the early pages. And yes, you must become comfortable with the word “fuck” because you will read it or hear it A LOT. But what totally surprised me is how much wisdom Mark Manson shares. This short read is chock full of insights, fresh perspectives, and thought-provoking questions about how we choose our values and live our lives. I will not tell you what you will learn from The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, because it feels like Manson is speaking to us individually, one to one. You will learn from this book what you need to learn, assuming you are open to hearing his perspectives and wisdom. And he makes it quite easy to do just that, with short sentences and humor. I unequivocally recommend this read!
Nonfiction, 2020 | 585 pages
(80 pages are sources, bibliography, and the index)
ADDENDUM: I just returned from book club, where I gained a much better appreciation for this book. So, while my review and rating stay the same, I might suggest you take my two hearts with a grain of salt. The other women enjoyed The Splendid and the Vile and learned a lot ... and I learned more than I had realized!
I like the writing of Erik Larson, and this is another of his extremely well-researched and well-written books.
The story Larson tells is one year of Winston Churchill’s life, from the day he became Prime Minister during WWII, May 10, 1940, to May 10, 1941. Unfortunately, I found it boring. Not only is it about history, but it is about war (to me, unappealing at best; irksome at worse).
We read about Churchill the man, and the book is sprinkled, not very judiciously, with tidbits about his children and Churchill’s wife, Clementine. Mostly, however, we learn about Churchill’s relationships with his advisers, his strategy to engage the US, war strategy, the Blitz (important and comparatively interesting), fighters, bombers, incendiaries, explosions, war-time production, and massive destruction and death. (The epilogue, nevertheless, provides solid conclusions of the individual players.)
This is a book club read so I managed to complete it. I cannot recommend it, though. (My apologies, Marian).
Nonfiction, 2020 | 585 pages
(80 pages are sources, bibliography, and the index)
I like the writing of Erik Larson, and this is another of his extremely well-researched and well-written books.
The story Larson tells is one year of Winston Churchill’s life, from the day he became Prime Minister during WWII, May 10, 1940, to May 10, 1941. Unfortunately, I found it boring. Not only is it about history, but it is about war (to me, unappealing at best; irksome at worse).
We read about Churchill the man, and the book is sprinkled, not very judiciously, with tidbits about his children and Churchill’s wife, Clementine. Mostly, however, we learn about Churchill’s relationships with his advisers, his strategy to engage the US, war strategy, the Blitz (important and comparatively interesting), fighters, bombers, incendiaries, explosions, war-time production, and massive destruction and death. (The epilogue, nevertheless, provides solid conclusions of the individual players.)
This is a book club read so I managed to complete it. I cannot recommend it, though. (My apologies, Marian).
EL James | Fiction, 2011
On a whim, I reread Fifty Shades of Grey. This book is not for everyone, I know! I quite enjoy the eroticism, the explicit sex, the romance, and the naïve, sensual, and highly intelligent main character, Anastasia Steele. Yes, you know what it is about ... a young woman who is introduced to BDSM by the exceptionally rich and handsome Christian Grey.
While I find the eroticism delightful, there are two additional aspects of the book that make it enjoyable for me. First, the e-mail interchanges between Ana and Christian are remarkably clever. Read the titles and signatures of each email they send! Also, EL James’ ability to push me out of my safe and sheltered box, and explore an aspect of the world, of life, I will know only by reading about it. This edge-pushing makes me more tolerant of life choices I do not understand or would not choose for myself.
I cannot recommend this book, readers, one way or the other. You must decide for yourself. (BTW, no, I haven’t seen the movie. I generally don’t like to see a movie after I have read a book, because the book is always richer and more complex).
Nonfiction 2021 | 340 pages
It was August 1971 when I drove away from my parent’s home in suburban Detroit, maneuvering my Chevy Vega, which was packed to the hilt with clothes, records, books, pens, notebooks, and probably chocolate chip cookies, for the hour drive to Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan was my ticket into my real life. That same evening, I participated in a candlelight protest against the war in Vietnam. On the drive to A2, I discovered NPR for the very first time. 50 years later, almost to the day, NPR remains my primary source of news. I was so excited when susan, linda, nina, & cokie was published; a tribute to the founding mothers of NPR.
This book takes place almost exclusively in the 70s and before, as we learn about how these women broke into the broadcasting industry, the fascinating stories of their education, their lineage, and how they came together as colleagues. Inextricably woven with the creation, challenges, and growth of NPR, Napoli’s book also catalogs the development of public broadcasting in general and NPR specifically.
Delightful footnotes will lead you to audio and video clips from the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964; to the first All Things Considered theme song; to the first on-air original NPR broadcast, May 3, 1971, on the March on Washington Vietnam War protest; and ultimately to Cokie’s funeral mass.
I love this book and will be recommending it to my book club.
Zakiya Dalila Harris
Fiction, 2021 | 368 pages
I don’t appreciate it when an author writes a second story line and doesn’t ground it … keeps you guessing well into the second half of the book who s/he is writing about in the smaller story she is interweaving into the larger story. To me, this “clever” author trick makes me feel duped. I don’t know where to hang the information I am receiving from the sub-plot.
So, let’s go the main plot. Nella, a young Black woman, is an editorial assistant at Wagner, a major publishing house in New York City, and a second young Black woman, Hazel, is hired on. What happens in their relationship? Friends? Enemies? Are they out to help each other succeed or fail? Or, perhaps, does the relationship grow beyond the workplace, and effect their personal lives and fears? And why does Nella begin to receive anonymous notes, the first of which says “LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.”
Part mystery, part literature, part apparent tongue-in-cheek, especially about the care and styling of Black hair, Harris does a good job of developing Nella’s character. You can understand her, root for her, feel her pain and her challenges and her joys. Nella is the saving grace of this book, because otherwise it feels wooden and without depth.
I also felt talked down to. If you really have read nothing about being Black in this country (and are not yourself Black), especially since the murder of George Floyd, you may find Harris’ writing enlightening. If you HAVE been socially aware and conscious of injustice, you may find her descriptions of the experiences of these Black women to be a bit condescending. I did.
Spoiler alert: And ultimately, in the denouement, you will read that this book is actually about the betrayal of Black people by Black people. I cannot imagine who would find pleasure in reading this bizarre concoction. I cannot in good conscience recommend this book, whether you are white, Black, or a mystery reader. (Sorry, Scott Simon).
Joseph Selfie | Nonfiction, 2018
Reading The Physics of God, I learned that meditation moves our brains from alpha-waves to theta-waves, which activate imagination, creativity, planning, concentration, morals, manners, and the opportunity for transcendence; offering a much richer space than I realized possible in my meditation practice.
AND, The Physics of God raises a myriad of questions …. and confirmation of truths I find difficult to comprehend. At the core, there is considerable evidence that an object does not truly exist until it is perceived by consciousness.
In the 20th century, many physicists came to the conclusion that consciousness was the underlying foundation of reality, substantiated and coalesced as the "intelligent-observer paradox". Intelligent Consciousness creates matter. This, of course, is very challenging to truly grasp. This is an argument for a God of some sort …. a Divine Intelligent Consciousness. Read this short, clear book to gain a deeper level of understanding than I can begin to explore here.
And, still, I am left with a sense of “so what?” How does this knowledge impact my life, or those around me? It is interesting, yes. And to what end? What insight? What manifestation? Selbie argues that only science and religion together explain “Reality.” I would love to hear your thoughts and questions after you have read this decidedly mind-expanding and thought-provoking book.
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Nonfiction 2015 | 408 pages
How sweet! I love the idea that anything alive is a being and not an “it.” A chair is an “it” … an apple is a “who.”
Braiding Sweetgrass is unlike any book I have read. Using the natural world as a vehicle for educating us about indigenous culture and history AND about how to protect, preserve, respect, and love the natural world in which we live, Kimmerer is an extraordinary teacher.
I was astounded at what I learned. Just a sampling: The Three Sisters … corn rises, beans weave themselves around the corn, and squash grows across the ground, protecting the soil. When these three are grown together, the yield is always higher than when they are grown separately. She uses this relationship to teach us about collaboration and cooperation.
And, lichen, a complex life form that is a symbiotic partnership of two separate organisms, fungus and alga, demonstrates the vitality of even the most simple life forms on our planet.
We learn about cedars, pecans, salmon, sweetgrass, maple syrup, asters, goldenrod, lilies, salamanders, Windigo, and much more on this simultaneously broad and deep exploration of the natural world. And she does it all with a writing style that is engaging and full of life. I particularly enjoyed the stories she tells of her students on field trips (Dr. Kimmerer is a professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry) during which young people get their hands dirty and learn native ways and vital ecological and environmental lessons.
Kimmerer’s philosophical stand is she wants us to take only what we need, and do so with respect and gratitude. She shows us over and over again how the indigenous people harvested only a percentage of plants, which assured their regeneration, protecting and growing the resources. She teaches us to actively protect and deeply respect our planet.
Braiding Sweetgrass is important to our education. It is best read slowly, a chapter here, two chapters there. Her messages need time to sink in. I recommend this book highly.
(Though this book decidedly earns four hearts, I will admit I struggled to conquer its length. Because I could not get my hands on a paper copy in a timely manner, I listened to an audiobook. I do not much care for audiobooks, so that probably was why I struggled. It is 16 hours and 44 minutes).
Nonfiction Biography, 2021 | 320 pages
I certainly have earned my wings as a Feminist. About 50 years ago and ever since. However, some of you might want to banish them (or me!) when you read this post.
I struggled to finish this book (though I enjoyed her use of the language). I simply could not believe the truth of this biography, and I checked numerous times to confirm it was a biography and not fiction.
Febos talks about the difficulties and trauma associated with developing breasts and hips before her contemporaries, and how she was treated, what she was subjected to, and challenges to her own evolving sense of self. She writes about events that occurred when she was 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14, as well as events as a young woman. Now, I know I do not have the best memory. But the manner in which she replays these stories … with extreme detail, emotional understanding and maturity that could not have possibly existed at 12, intellectual understanding that I believe can only come with considerable time … caused me to doubt her veracity. I did not believe her stories. I DO believe these stories exist; I DO believe she could have presented them as examples of experiences, if she was quoting a woman or girl who was just a few years from the experiences, but as biographical truth, I could not convince myself.
Further, and this makes me angry, later in the book she discusses “empty” consent versus “affirmative" consent versus “enthusiastic” consent. Her very small sample of interviews confirms in her mind that every young woman has given empty consent to sexual experiences she did not want. I believe she lets women off the hook and, more damaging, seems to make it “okay” for young women to use empty consent because everyone does it or did it. (In simple words, “empty” consent means allowing a boy or man to do what he wants to your body rather than expressing your wishes, setting boundaries, saying no, angering the male, or, god forbid, embarrassing him). To me, this is irresponsible, and likely the opposite of what she was writing to accomplish.
Finally, I do not have a prudish bone on my body. I enjoy reading (and more!) about sex. Girlhood, however is about sex, sex, and more sex. Though this enticed me early in, I became quite tired of it.
I do not recommend Girlhood.
Nonfiction 2021 | 428pages
The picture in my mind is a mature tree, tall and strong, with many branches, limbs, twigs. That's what The Third Pole brings to mind. The trunk of the tree is the main story line … the search for the body of Sandy Irvine on Mt Everest, and for his Kodak camera. Brits Sandy Irvine and Gregory Mallory have held the distinction of being the first to summit Mt Everest, in 1924. Except, we don’t know for certain. They died on the mountain. Did they die on their way back down after summiting, or did they die on their way up? This is the story of the author and a group of supporters who embark on a journey to find the answer. And it is a fascinating journey!
So, back to the tree. The main line of the story could have been told in about half as many pages. But Synnott adds an enormous amount of context — about many of the deaths on Everest; about the politics of the Chinese who claim to have been the first and are very protective of information and access; about the evolution of mountaineering clothing; about the many nationalities represented among the ranks of porters, climbing sherpas, cooks, guides and other support roles; the history of Everest climbs; the weather, etc. etc. He dives into these contexts artfully. I find the branches and twigs to be quite informative, though I occasionally longed for a return to the main story, with just a bit more focus.
One of the components of the search for Irvine that I particularly enjoyed was the team’s use of drones, for the first time at such an altitude, to gather footage for a National Geographic special. There were political challenges to overcome, as well as interesting technical hurdles. I have not yet watched Lost on Everest.
Yes, I recommend this long but engaging read. Thank you Mary (?) for this suggestion.
July 2021, read while camping on the Oregon coast
Matt Haig | Fiction, 2020
Nora Seed, depressed and suicidal, is stuck between life and death, in a place called the Midnight Library. In the Midnight Library she selects books, with the assistance of her former school librarian, Mrs. Elm. There are an infinite number of books Nora can select, and each takes her to a different life. One decision away from her “root life” or one choice or a series of choices creates a plethora of lives. We see Nora actually marry Dan, whom she left at the altar; not give up on an Olympic swimming career; stay with the highly successful band The Labyrinth and become a superstar; actually accept the coffee date with Ash; become a glaciologist in the Arctic; teach philosophy at Cambridge University. She explores what she sees as “better” lives, guided by her own personal “Book Of Regrets.” In the end, of course, it isn’t the circumstances of her alternative lives that are essential … it is her perspective.
This is a clever story line I think, with its bits of magic. So I keep asking myself why I am giving it three hearts instead of four? I believe it comes down to Nora. I don’t really like Nora. She is shallow and I cannot find her redeeming or endearing qualities. I want a richer, deeper character. More introspection, more angst perhaps, more joy. I recommend Midnight Library with hesitation.
Amanda Blake | Nonfiction, 2018
Because of some jaw-dropping experiences in which I discovered that my body held wise answers to puzzling situations in my life, I began to seek a person or book to help me notice and read more clearly the wisdom of my body sensations. I have to say, I don’t think such a resource exists. Your Body is Your Brain came highly recommended, and it did not match my request. However, I was able to glean a modicum of answers to the question I am pondering. Particularly useful is chapter three, “Embodied Self-Awareness.” Also, the author’s many case studies about how individuals were unaware of their bodies gives clues about how to be more attuned. Most of the book, however, addresses how to use your body, not how to read your body. Amanda Blake excels at this. She takes a magnifying glass to leadership and writes about how your body can help you with courage, compassion, credibility, composure, confidence, collaboration, and other important characteristics. If you are interested in that topic, you may find this book delightful and insightful.
Fiction 2021 | 464 pages
What I knew about The Dust Bowl could have filled a very small thimble. This novel graphically teaches us an important piece of history about the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the mistreatment of US residents who went west to find work after their farms and ranches were destroyed by drought. Hannah’s characters are gripping, rich, and deep. Her ability to tell a tale is astounding. We follow the life of Elsa and her two children, Loreda and Ant, thrust into unimaginable poverty and the desperate struggle to survive. We witness the physical, emotional, financial, and familial devastation of the Dust Bowl. And we are viscerally educated about the rise of the farm-workers’ rights movement in the west. I highly recommend. This is a good summer read that is hard to put down.
Leslie Marmon Silko | Nonfiction Memoir
2010, 319 pages
I didn’t like her voice. So self-centered, I could not find anything to grab on to. I have a BIG pile of books awaiting me, so I will move forward.
Nonfiction 2006 | 496 pages
Monochrome and polychrome pottery styles, doorways, kivas, cliff dwellings, home designs, turkey feathers, ancient roads and waterways … these and more give us clues about the cultural, societal, and geographic evolution of the vanished civilizations of the Southwest US and Mexico. Craig Childs is the perfect author to tell us about them. He is an extraordinary writer and an amazing researcher and explorer. This book, recommended by many on my Great Old Broads raft trip on the San Juan River, tells history from a perspective that is unique, interesting, and informative. Childs tells the tale of multiple migrating cultures over many centuries, by traveling and writing about their apparent journeys. This is what is so remarkable about House of Rain. Childs catalogs recent knowledge of the journeys of the Anasazi, Salado, the Puebloan people, and numerous other communities, through his own and other academics’ research, and he conveys this to us as he travels from the north … Utah and Colorado … to northwest Mexico, along the same routes the indigenous peoples traveled over hundreds of years. If you visit Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde, you will see and learn about a place and a point in time. What Childs captures in House of Rain is the geographical movement of civilizations across many centuries, through prerecorded history.
This book is an excellent read, whether you are a connoisseur of the southwest ancient peoples, or know very little about their communities. A small example of his vivid writing (page 197): “We found red pottery at nearly every site, rose petals lining the path.”
(A note to my Audible readers …. Thom and I read this book together, and he listened to it on Audible, as read by the author. It seems Childs is a superb writer; however, he is not a good orator. Read House of Rain instead of listening, if you can.)
Lisa See | Fiction, 2018
I just finished reading a somewhat interesting novel (a little bit of a slow read) based upon truth, about the haenyeo, the women who dive in Korea and lead the society and its matrifocal culture. Two young girls become best friends, and we watch Mi-ja and Young-sook as they become baby divers, internationally traveling divers, wives, and mothers, through the considerable turmoil and chaos prior to and during WWII. I found, by the way, the decline of their friendship rather implausible. I cannot fathom how people can forgo forgiveness for 40, 50, 60 years. And I know I can be a Pollyanna sometimes. You may find this quite plausible, given the pain they endured.
Just over half-way in, Lisa See begins to describe the atrocities that occur under the confusion and disregard of American invaders. She describes in extremely graphic detail murder, rape, torture, and psychological trauma, and I became literally sick to my stomach. I felt abandoned by this author. I thought she took an Intensely hard left-hand turn and changed the tenor of her novel dramatically. I was floored and upset.
My friend Marian tells me it was important for her to do this, to explain the contexts of WWII and the Korean War. She is probably right, but I was quite shocked. Now that you have been warned that this is going to happen, The Island of Sea Women is a strong novel, and one you may quite enjoy.
Nonfiction, 2019 | 210 pages
This is perhaps the most poorly written and boring book I have ever navigated. She uses ridiculously obscure words when easy words would suffice. Her sentences run on, with numerous clauses. And there is very little feeling, virtually no emotional connection in her writing. It is facts, pure and simple.
I wanted to learn something about the topic, “The indigenous fight for environmental justice” so, after many pages, I finally figured out how to read As Long as Grass Grows. I simply read every word without attempting to comprehend the complexity of the sentences, knowing that some of the information would sink in.
Eventually, much of it did. I DID learn by reading this book; have some ah-has; entertained some new perspectives; discovered some history I knew nothing about; have some new views about colonization, a word I am still attempting to truly understand. And this is worthwhile. However, I find history to be most valuable as context to assist us in addressing current situations and planning for and envisioning the future. Gilio-Whitaker does not address present-day implications or possible actions until the 8th and final chapter; the last 15 pages of the book.
This was a huge disappointment for me.
While there is much to learn about the history of colonization of the indigenous peoples, this book does not stand alone. If you read it, you will learn new perspectives on history, but you will be left powerless about what to do with your new knowledge. Perhaps there is a broader, more action-oriented book on this topic.
Fiction 2021 | 419 pages
Two teenage boys die tragically. Daniel is killed by his best friend Jonah, who later kills himself. Two families are torn apart. There is grief and shock in this small coastal town in Washington. And then a teenage girl, house-less and pregnant, abandoned by her mother, emerges from the woods and is taken in by Daniel’s father, Isaac. Yes, Evangeline knew these boys in the last two weeks of their lives.
This is Evangeline’s story. How difficult it is to trust, to maybe accept love, to give compassion. She is “fiery in hair and spirit” ... a red headed enigma. And she is about to have a baby and, for the first time in months, perhaps a roof over her head. We experience Isaac’s grief, as well as the complicated grief of Jonah’s mother, Lorrie, and Jonah’s sister Nells. We witness resiliency, confusion, sorrow, miscommunication, deep communication, love. Amazingly, we can see into the souls of the two adults, especially Isaac, as well as 16-year-old Evangeline. There are also some very interesting minor stories, like Isaac’s best friend Peter, and the role of Quakers in the lives of the characters.
What Comes After is powerful and engrossing. It is very emotion-centric. Why I mean by that is we are privileged to observe the feelings and depth of the characters. Nothing is shied away from.
This is Thompkins’ first novel, and it is astounding. Well written, but also the most interesting plot I have read in a long time. No surprise, I recommend What Comes After wholeheartedly and enthusiastically!
Karen James | Nonfiction, 2008
Holding Fast is the gripping story of Kelly James, who dies after reaching the summit of Mt. Hood, a few days before Christmas 2006, as told by his wife Karen. They were married just over six years. Sitting on an airplane when I reached the pinnacle ... when rescuers found Kelly’s body ... I cried. I cried again when she describes Christmas Eve alone. She told her kids she was with friends. She told her friends she was with her kids. It was a time to truly begin the journey of grief. My heart broke for her.
The tale of his death, of which we know little but supposition, is really the tale of the living; of what it’s like to experience eight days awaiting the fate of your husband and father who has lost contact in the icy storms of the Cascades. Karen writes well (she has been a journalist with ABC, CBS, and NBC). Her story is intimate, emotional, strong.
I knocked Holding Fast down to three hearts for two reasons. First, the James family is very religious, and I lost a bit of patience with all the prayers and supplications. More important, I thought Karen James was simply unconscionable and selfish by reporting, for the entire book, about her pain, with very few and rare words about the wives of the other two climbers who were lost with Kelly, Brian Hall and Nikko Cooke. She writes a bit about this part of the tragedy on page 147. It is as though these two men were not much more than precious climbing equipment that was also lost on the mountain.
Karen James writes a great deal about her grief, which may or may not speak to you. And, as with any outdoor adventure and tragedy, the story touched my heart, and I believe it will touch yours.
Fiction, 2018 | 287 pages
Regular readers will know that once a year our local library system selects a book for a community read, and it is always delightful! This year, they also selected a young adult community read, so I thought I would try it on for size.
Mia immigrated from China to Anaheim, California with her parents, just two years ago. At 11, she is extremely precocious and smart, though not very street-wise in the ways of racism. She and her parents run a hotel, under the direction of a mean-hearted employer. Mia learns about the two roller coasters in our culture ... the one well-to-do people are on, and the parallel one that poor people are forced to. Mia wants to change her roller coaster!
While Front Desk does teach young adults about racism, judging, discrimination, self-confidence, assertiveness, love, and hate, I found it a bit too distant from reality. Mia’s success at addressing some of the ways black, brown, and yellow people are treated in her diverse neighborhood is rather Pollyanna-ish. For this reason, I find I do not choose to recommend this easy-to-read book.
Natalie Warren | Nonfiction, 2021
A fascinating book to enjoy while on my very first overnight rafting trip! While experiencing four nights and five days on the San Juan River in Southern Utah, it was remarkable to read this true story of two women, Natalie and Ann, who make the 2000-mile journey from Minneapolis to the Hudson Bay in a Kevlar canoe. Their story is surprisingly interesting ... I was not certain that paddling for three months would encompass enough drama, but between weather, the people they met, snakes, hunger, what they learn about the land, their near disasters, the challenges to their relationship as best friends, and acquiring a canoe dog, Hudson Bay Bound kept my interest throughout. It is not the best writing I have ever read, so likely will work best for those of you, like me, who have a penchant for true nature adventure stories.
Nonfiction 2020 | 342 pages
I had a small pile of books sitting next to me, for the purpose of deciding what to read next. I picked up Just Us and before I knew it, I was on page 55. This is a nonfiction book, but it does not have the statistics and history and analysis and “shoulds” associated with a lot of nonfiction writing. There is no explicit call to action, though there are calls to introspection throughout. It is prose, imbued with a mix of poetry, essays, quotes, white space, a Twitter post or two, and photos, presented on high quality slick paper (Just Us weighs in at two pounds.)
Claudia Rankine, a black woman and a professor of poetry at Yale, attempts to engage strangers and other people she meets at the airport, the theater, interviews, and dinner parties, in the question of “what is it to be white?” If you seek intimate and authentically honest encounters as she explores this and similar questions, you will enjoy this book as much as I did. It is facile, yet meaningful, reading. Some of the images and words will stay with you. If you want an easy entree into the topic that is consuming many thoughtful readers’ reading lists these days ... racial injustice, racial experience, white privilege (or you want to introduce someone else to this topic) this is your book!
(Hmmm. There is an extraordinarily long section near the end of the book [37 pages] on blondness, and dyeing one’s hair blond. If you read this book, I am curious to read your reactions to this topic.)
I fully recommend, and will explore her prior books. This is actually the third book in a trilogy, the first two being Don’t Let Me be Lonely and Citizen, written over 16 years.
Connie Schultz | Fiction, 2020
The Daughters of Erietown is a tale of resilient women in Erietown, Ohio, on Lake Erie. Spanning 1957 to 1994, we see the generations unfold alongside growing feminism and radically changing roles for women in the world. Ellie, our main character, has dreams of nursing school and of marrying Brick McGinty. Her second dream comes true, but not quite the way she expected, when she and Brick became pregnant in her senior year of high school. Her daughter Sam is born ... another major character, who we witness growing into womanhood.
Brick, of course, is a significant player in the book. In more ways than one. He is not quite all that Ellie had dreamed of.
Schultz’s character development is very strong. After a while, we really come to know Ellie and Sam, and can anticipate their reactions to circumstances and situations. The story is also strong and pulls us along. We are compelled to witness what choices Ellie and Sam make, as well as those of Brick and Sam’s brother Reilly.
So, why only three hearts? Remember that three hearts represent, “I recommend with some reservations.” I would call The Daughters of Erietown a romantic novel. Not intending to be sexist here, I suspect it will appeal more to women readers than men, as the only significant male character is flawed. And frankly, he is not very interesting. This novel is an appealing dive into the lives of a mid-20th century family in middle America. I recommend it, but with caution.
Eley Williams | Fiction
2020, 270 pages
Voluminous use of highly cerebral words, over-written to the max, and boring, in my very humble opinion. I am moving on, with no regrets.
Laila Lalami| Fiction, 2019
The Other Americans begins when a Moroccan immigrant named Driss Guerraoui is killed by a hit and run driver one evening while leaving his diner, near California’s Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park. Driss’s American born daughter Nora opens the book by telling the story of the death of her father, as she enters as the main character.
After Nora’s initial recounting of the news, Lalami introduces her other narrators. There are nine in all, including Jeremy, an old school friend of Nora’s, who is white; Efrain, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who witnessed the hit and run; Maryam, Driss’s Moroccan wife; Salma, Nora’s overachieving sister; and Coleman, the black woman detective working Driss’s case.
This is a mystery, a love story, a family saga, and a commentary on American culture. The Other Americans is our community read this month, presented by the county library. This is the 18th year our county has enjoyed a community read, called “A Novel Idea.” The book was chosen by both my book clubs to read this month, and so my expectations were high. And dashed.
Moroccan-born Laila Lalami introduces so many cultural components, including xenophobia, undocumented immigration, race, opioid abuse, PTSD from the war in Iraq, family expectations, and more, that she does not cover any of them with particular depth, clarity, or expertise. I felt she did an especially poor job of writing about race and culture. She mentions these elements only casually, and without an exploration of either her character’s internal experience, or much depth in the relationships among the characters.
That being said, her development of Nora’s character is very strong, and the mystery storyline (who DID kill Driss, and was it an accident or murder?) make the tale readable and engaging. But it was neither the social commentary nor the learning I was hoping for.
Fiction 2015 | 406 pages
If it were winter, I would recommend this book for a long, cold, winter weekend. It is a novel that you just want to lose yourself in. A cup of hot chocolate at your side, you will eagerly turn the next page. Rich with story, character development, and depth, an improbable tale weaves together centuries of art, Naziism and Jews, culinary delight, and the beginnings of love.
The Improbability of Love is not what you likely imagine right now ... it is actually the title of an 18th century oil masterpiece. The painting is fictional; the painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau, is not.
Annie McDee, a struggling chef, buys this painting at a junk shop for a man she met at a speed-dating event. He stands her up and the painting becomes hers. Annie’s alcoholic mother Evie has an intuition that this painting is important and urges Annie to research it. Thus begins a tale of London’s outrageous art scene, with dealers, museum curators, art auction houses, authenticators, art authors, restorers, socialites, and a delightful gay “fixer.” We follow all these characters through the discovery of the real provenance of this dirty and smudged lost painting.
The most delightful chapters are those written by the painting itself, as it informs us about how it feels about all these shenanigans, as well as a bit about all the walls it has hung on over the centuries.
Yes, there are a few discontinuities in Ms. Rothschild’s writing, but not enough to upset. This is Rothschild’s first novel, though she has written non-fiction in the art scene. The book integrates passion, power, violence, loyalty, intrigue, mystery, love. And yes, you can read it in the spring in your back yard as the daffodils begin to bloom, just as well as on a wintry eve. I recommend you do so.
Thank you, Claire, for a gratifying recommendation.
Poetry 2013 | 121 pages
Someone I dearly love gave me this book of poetry by the infamous Mary Oliver. I read it. And then I read it again. It is a book about a woman and her dogs. But, of course, it is also much more than that. Here are two favorite stanzas:
- You may not agree, you may not care, but
- If you are holding this book you should know
- That of all the sights I love in this world —
- And there are plenty — very near the top of
- The list is this one: dogs without leashes. (pg 5)
- A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
- Smells of the world, but you know, watching her,
- That you know
- Almost nothing. (Pg 27)
Yes, take 15 minutes to read this book, if you love dogs. Or freedom. Or life.
Bridgett M. Davis
Biography 2019 | 308 pages
I cannot disentangle my (suburban) Detroit upbringing from my assessment of this book as a biography, as a tale to be told. So, please recognize my bias when I tell you I love this book! You never know when someone writes a memoir or autobiography or biography ... even if the story is wonderful, is the author? Both work exceedingly well in The World According to Fannie Davis.
Davis writes about her mother Fannie, who ran an entrepreneurial and illegal numbers business (a community-based precursor to state lotteries; more on that when you read this book) in Detroit, from the 60’s to the early 90’s, keeping her family firmly in the black middle class of the Midwest, and avoiding poverty. There were illegal numbers being run in many cities in the Midwest and East, so her memories also make a statement about what it was like to be black in big-city America, in the 60’s and 70’s especially. This is the story of family, but also it is an education on race, survival, thriving, secrets, and consciousness. In Detroit in particular, this story includes the unionization of black workers in the automobile industry, racial unrest, white flight, police brutality, community love and connection, discrimination, riots, family loyalty, graft and corruption, the mafia, JL Hudson and Maurice Salad, and, nearest and dearest to my heart, the rise and pervasive influence of Motown.
I didn’t cry at the end, but I did have a lump in my throat. This biography is intimate and draws you right in. I will remember this book for a while, I think. If you read it (which I suggest!) I will be interested to share this story with you and to read or hear your reactions.
Mary (another Detroit woman), thank you for suggesting this fine biography.
Nonfiction Memoir 2020 | 101 pages
At the tender age of twenty-five, Kimiko is diagnosed with breast cancer. This graphic memoir explores what she encounters as a mixed-race, young, queer woman, but I found its real value in how she explores life after treatment. If you have had cancer, or know someone who has, this beautifully illustrated novel will offer insight into what happens for months and perhpas years after treatment is complete. It will take you about 30 minutes to read and is absolutely worth your time.
Fiction, 2009 | 303 pages
Well, I made it all the way through. And that’s about the biggest praise I can muster. Bad writing, in my opinion, with very shallow characters; even the main character, Ruth Galloway. Too many men characters for some bizarre reason, and I couldn’t keep them straight. The ending of this mystery was good, however ... written in a manner to make my heart pound.
Ruth Galloway is an archeologist who lives alone on a saltmarsh in England and becomes embroiled in amateur sleuthing when some children are lost and presumed murdered. There are 14 Ruth Galloway mysteries, so someone likes Griffiths’ writing. I personally am going to forgo 13 of them. Sorry, Jan D.
Fiction 2020 | 352 pages
“Brilliant, stunning, eloquent, gorgeous, thought-provoking, intricate, moving.” These are just some of the words reviewers have written, and for good reason. The Vanishing Half is a novel about identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, born in 1952, in a minuscule Louisiana town that prides itself on breeding light-skinned Black people, some of whom are light enough to pass for White. And Stella does, separating herself from her twin and her family for 25 years. They each have a daughter ... Jude, who is so black they call her “blue black” and Kennedy, a blond violet-eyed beauty. The daughters’ lives eventually intersect and, of course, all their lives are irrevocably altered.
The story is exceptional and difficult to put down. I was often reading pages this last week at 3:30 in the morning. The writing is simply superb. Brit Bennett was listed by Time magazine on March 8 as one of the next “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
There is no hesitation on my part. Read this four-heart book as soon as you can get your hands on it ... there is already a long wait for it at your library!
Nonfiction autobiography, 2014
I am disappointed in this book. It is the story of author Jaqueline Woodson’s life, told in poetic form. It feels to me forced and artificial. “Now, for interest, this time I am going to write my autobiography in poetry.” It is contrived. What we lose is a coherent emotional story. What we lose is artful writing with images and compelling turns of phrase .... which I would expect from true poetry. A waste of effort on both the author’s and the reader’s part.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele
Nonfiction memoir 2018 | 257 pages
At first, I wasn’t all that thrilled about reading When They Call You a Terrorist. I am not sure what I expected. Some sanitized ... or perhaps glorified ... biography of the woman who first posted #BlackLivesMatter ... that is what I thought I was about to read. But it is not. It is her personal memoir. It is the story of Kahn-Cullors' childhood and her youth, growing up poor and Black in LA County, with her two brothers and one sister, raised by a mother who works three jobs, and still does not rise about the poverty level. It is the story of her two fathers. It is the story of unjust prison sentences and unrecognized and untreated mental illness. It is the story of immeasurable discrimination, violence, assumptions, injustice, and more. It is the tale of lives gone awry, with no possible redemption. Her narrative is personal; her writing is easy to read; but the content of her story is profoundly disturbing. Reading this memoir left me with a single question .... how could she NOT start the Black Lives Matter movement? With her intelligence, wisdom, compassion, passion, and history, it is inexorable.
Yes, read this book and learn about a woman whose name we should all know, but don’t. Which, in itself, is part of her story.
Fiction, 2020 | 461 pages
The Murmur of Bees is a gorgeous story. When you are ready to lose yourself in a novel that is artistically written, with deep and complex characters, find yourself a copy of The Murmur of Bees.
Set in the small town of Linares in Mexico, south of Monterey, the story begins when Nana Reja discovers an infant, abandoned under a bridge, disfigured (harelip?) and covered with bees who do not harm him. He is named Simonopio. He goes to live with the Morales family, landowners who take him in and raise him as their own. We follow the Morales family though many decades, deaths, and, in the first half, the great plague of 1917/1918.
The tale is narrated by Simonopio’s younger brother, Francisco, who is born when Simonopio is 12. The bind between these two brothers is intense and unbreakable during their early years, though Simonopio cannot speak except in his own self-formed language. And there is magic. Magic that is imbued with wisdom, wanderlust, safety, communication, adventure, prediction of the future. Simonopio is intimately linked with bees, in their mutually beneficial relationship. It is with the bees, following the bees, learning from the bees, being protected by the bees, that he develops into a man.
The first of Segovia’s novels to be translated from Spanish into English, it is well worth your time, sitting on the couch with a cup of tea. I recommend it highly. Thank you, Carolyn, for this luscious read.
Nonfiction, 2020 | 273 pages
This is the most profound, most devastating book I have read. The author, a Jewish female journalist, uses various guises, disguises, names, personalities, and personas, to enter the “dark web of white supremacy.”
I cannot begin to truly understand all I read. First, I thought anti-Semitism was only a part of the white supremacist agenda. It is not. It is at the center, the core. The first few chapters explain much more, but in a few words, “What underpins this fixation — the intellectual foundation of the white-supremacist movement — is a stalwart belief in the omnipresence of the cunning, world-controlling, whiteness-diluting Jew ... the Jew is most dangerous because of his adjacency to whiteness, and a desire to destroy it, with crafty malice, from within.” (pg 24/25).
You will read about race violence and race war, and about a dating site designed only for white supremacist men and women. You will learn about an eleven-year-old imbued with racial hatred; about the role and agenda for intentional violence in our country; and about mind-numbing conspiracy theories.
The chapter on incels completely alarmed me. “Incels” are men who are “involuntarily celibate.” The misogyny, hatred, self- and other-loathing is shocking. Incels on Incels.co and braincel actively encourage a suicidal poster (pg 115) to complete his agenda. The author, who was not allowed to post as a woman, created a young 21-year-old angry white male, Tommy O’Hara, in order to dialogue with incels. This chapter especially, and the entire book, are not for the faint of heart.
Lavin’s writing is inconsistent. Some chapters are engaging and move the reader deeper into the material. Other chapters seem to rely on context to such a great extent, that the point of the chapter, and subsequent learning, is lost. The difference is when she writes of events where she is an intimate and involved player, and when she writes about topics from an intellectual distance. The former is quite engaging. The latter is important, though more difficult to absorb.
I must recommend this disturbing book. It is important, distressing, terrifying. Truthfully, I believe we all need to know of that which Lavin writes.
Fiction, 1959 | 326 pages
Many argue that The Sirens of Titan is Vonnegut's greatest work. It is dark and funny; classic and counter-culture; warm and cold; satirical; melancholic; bizarrely imagined; philosophical. I loved it! But that must be taken with a grain of salt. I am a huge Vonnegut fan. I first read this book in 1971, when I took an English course on Kurt Vonnegut at the University of Michigan. Yes, that was 50 years ago!
The plot? Hmmm. The main character is Malachi Constant, the richest man in America, who has his memory wiped when he is recruited into the Army of Mars that is planning an invasion of Earth. Tying the story together is Winston Niles Rumfoord, who, in his private spaceship with his dog, Kazak, accidentally flies into an uncharted chronosynclastic infundibulum, which scatters his particles through space and time, giving him the ability to see the future, and to appear at set intervals on various planets. We follow Constant’s life through meaningless wealth in America, his time on Mars and Mercury, and finally on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. We also meet a Tralfamadorian, invented here in The Sirens of Titan, and which reappears in Slaughterhouse Five. Tralfamadore is the planet where all beings live in all times simultaneously.
Vonnegut makes me wonder what I am missing, what he infers, what the hidden meanings and suggestions are, what is truth, what is satire. I never know the answers to these philosophical questions, but thank goodness his writing is so damn engaging! How can you fault The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent? Or a world with UWTB .... the Universal Will to Become, i.e., that which makes universes out of nothingness at both macro levels and mundane day-to-day levels.
Along with his 14 novels, three short-story collections, five plays, and five nonfiction books, Vonnegut was revered, studied, interviewed, loved, and always prolific. He penned much about writing, including his brilliant “8 Basics of Creative Writing.” My favorite is number 4: “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.”
This is our February read in my Casting Crew Book Club. I am fascinated to hear what less biased Vonnegut fans have to say about The Sirens of Titan. Yes, I absolutely recommend it, along with anything else by this writing genius.
Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, editors
Fiction, 2015 | 296 pages
The two editors of Octavia’s Brood invited social justice activists who had never written before, many of whom are marginalized, to write a science fiction short story; to dream and imagine a different vision, a different way of being. The stories do not necessarily present a better scenario, but an altered reality. A few of the 22 authors are journalists and have writing experience, though not in speculative/visionary fiction. At the end of the last century, speculative fiction by black authors enjoyed a surge of interest. (Check out Dark Matter). But this work goes further, inviting writing from many walks of life, circumstances, and cultures. (Yes, the book is dedicated to and inspired by the writing of Octavia Butler, especially Lilith’s Brood.)
I am not much of a short story enthusiast. Some of the stories in Octavia’s Brood are badly written, some are well written. Some are interesting, others a little more boring. Some are profoundly clear, several are more cloudy and even confusing. However, this anthology does not read like a collection of short stories. It seems congruent to me, a unified yet diverse voice of marginalized peoples. The stories don’t overlap in any way, and yet together they feel like a “whole.” They present a rainbow of experiences, perspectives, pain, pretend, magic, possibilities, imagination.
In my Decolonization book club, we discussed the stories and then took 15 minutes to write one of our own. That was a fantastic creative experience, to write and then read each member’s tales. (Our prompt was to write a story as though one institution we know today is gone).
I found this book fascinating. I highly recommend it for immersing yourself into a new reading experience.
(I have a copy of the book, by the way, if you want it.)
Jane Smiley | Fiction
1995, 414 pages
204 pages in, and I just must quit. I really tried. The characters in this novel about a fictional Midwest University are universally forgettable. I mean, I forget who is who in-between chapters. I keep looking for a list of characters and their roles, and there is not one. There are too many to keep straight, and there is NO plot of any interest at all. Of course, it goes without saying that I have not laughed at this ”humorous” novel once. Some of the relationships are interesting for a chapter or two, especially when there is a sexual connection. I really tried. My apologies, Teresa. Too many days and my entire weekend slogging through this book have left me vacuous. I must find something engaging to read. Now!
Christy Lefteri | Fiction, 2019
Nuri and his cousin Mustafa are beekeepers in Aleppo, Syria, along with Nuri’s wife Afra, who is an artist. All is idyllic and calm, until war arrives, the hives are destroyed, and they must flee for their safety and to begin a new life in a new land.
Lefteri’s writing is captivating. A somewhat random example, “Afra’s soul was as wide as the fields and deserts and sky and sea and river that she painted, and as mysterious. There was always more to know, to understand, and, as much as I knew, it wasn’t enough, I wanted more.” (Pg 21)
What I liked is how deeply we become familiar with Nuri’s heart and soul. What astonished me is how the realities we make up can be so clearly intertwined with the realities that are in the world we inhabit. What confused me is how Lefteri intersperses Nuri’s and Afra’s challenging journey to England with their arrival in England. The time frame shifts were not smooth for me; they were jarring. I wish she had made the shifts clearer with chapter titles or some such.
This is politically insensitive of me, but I am simply tired of stories about people facing incredibly difficult challenges to move themselves from one place to another, whether as refugees or slaves. I need new plots; I have become somewhat bored by their stories.
A Chinese concept I learned, that resonates, and that will stay with me from this book is that of (pg 303) “Yuanfen, the mysterious force that causes two lives to cross paths ...”
Ta-Nehisi Coates| Fiction, 2019
The writing is eloquent; the story of the Underground and of Conduction and The Task is fascinating. You will know the main character deeply, Hiram Walker, when you finish The Water Dancer. Based on a true tale of slavery and the urge for freedom, I wonder how much is fiction and how much is true. The dramatic story is infused with magic; I am so curious about the author’s intention!
Just over half-way in, I think Coates loses his footing. The book becomes more about the institution of the Underground Railway. Even though we see everything through Hiram’s eyes, I feel less connected to him for a significant number of chapters. Plus, I find the growing cast of characters a bit confusing. Ultimately, we wind up back in Walker’s character with strength and power to wrap up the conclusion.
Tough decision .... three hearts or four? I decided on four because of the writing, the story, and the character development (not only Walker, but some other characters as well). Perhaps my getting lost was just me .... I choose to give Coates the benefit of the doubt. This is Coates first novel, though he has written non-fiction. Have you read anything by him?
James Nestor | Nonfiction, 2020
This is an interesting book, presenting some potentially useful ideas and posing interesting questions. It also infuses a history of yoga and meditation practices, which were originally developed as breath practices. However, the book seriously lacks in real medical double-blind studies, and is over-reliant on the author’s and others’ anecdotal evidence.
As I progressed, Breath moved from four hearts for its interesting hypotheses, to three hearts for its complete lack of statistical evidence, to two hearts as the techniques for “better breathing” grew more and more bizarre. Like giving a woman 35% carbon dioxide through an inhaler bag to spark her fear, because she had never felt fear and kept putting herself in danger.
Among the more useful health/breathing considerations, if you do only one thing, learn to breathe in for 5.5 seconds and breathe out for 5.5 seconds, for a total of 5.5 breaths per minute. Here is a simple tool to help. https://www.google.com/search?q=breathing+exercise
So, read if you are interested, but not if you are looking for sound medical advice.
Mikki Kendall| Nonfiction, 2020
Deenie was a roommate senior year in college. She introduced me to the concept of feminism. Being one of a handful of women in the Business School at the University of Michigan, I immediately glommed on to what she was teaching me. That was 46 years ago.
Hood Feminism is like a long consciousness-raising session on feminism, elaborating on all the ways we (White & privileged) feminists have ignored the full scope of women in the world, and have let women down. I love what Kendall says in her interview with Trevor Noah (yes, surely worth the 7:10 commitment...) https://youtu.be/D4DaBn4uHi4 “If we are going to do feminism for all women, we have to make sure that the poorest women have everything they need to survive.”
In Hood Feminism, Kendall addresses a myriad of topics, including, but not limited to, hunger, murder, housing, gun violence, reproductive justice, poverty, parenting, education, patriarchy, allies, fears, and fierceness.
If you consider yourself a feminist, and/or simply are committed to social justice, this is a book you must read. It will expand your perspective significantly. At least, it did mine.
Ben Ehreneich | Nonfiction
2020, 325 pages
I am sad to write three low-hearts reviews in a row, but that is what the pages have offered me.
Desert Notebooks is a very distinctive book. The author interweaves science, creation myths, ancient history, Greek mythology, Native American traditional stories, and present-day experiences of the desert to explore the nature of time and the existential crisis of climate change.
Huh? What is she saying? I cannot be much clearer. It is challenging to explain this book.
There are moments of lucidity and clarity when the author returns to the present day and makes sense of the ancient tales he just retold. But those moments happen every dozen(?) pages or so. And I am tiring of reading different interpretations of Lilith. I have given this a respectable try ... 88 pages. And I am going to abandon it now.
(BTW, my next two books appear as auspicious as my last three, so you can expect Dusty Shelves to end the year with a dearth of hearts. Sigh.)
Tania Israel | Nonfiction
2020, 175 pages
Oh, I am so disappointed. I was hoping this book would tell me how to find people to engage in dialogue with, beyond my liberal/progressive bubble. Instead, it teaches how to be in dialogue ... how to listen, to talk, to manage emotions, and to understand others. Absolutely useful and important skills! Just not what I was seeking. All that is useful to me is a list of three resources in the “additional resources” section at the end.
Adrian Tomine | Biographical, 2020
Longtime Dusty Shelves readers know my fatal flaw. I don’t often find the written word funny. A few reviewer's comments on this book: “painfully honest and often hilarious” and “deeply aware, darkly funny ...”
I did not find a single pane of this graphic novel funny. I just found it depressing. And sad. Amen. The end. No recommendation from me!
NYT 100 Best Books of 2020. (Again, NYT disappoints).
Megha Majumdar | Fiction, 2020
I wouldn’t quite deem A Burning “electrifying” or “all-consuming,” words used by some reviewers. I would call it a good story. Good, but not great.
This is the tale of three people in modern day India: Jivan, a young Muslin woman, is falsely accused of a horrific crime and thrown in jail; PT Sir, a gym teacher at the local school seems to lose touch with his moral compass, bit by bit, page by page; Lovely, a hijra, is an appealing and endearing young woman(?), an impoverished beggar, who aspires to be an actress, and around whom the emotional story evolves.
Majumdar’s character development, in this, her debut novel, is astounding. These three figures are unique, strong, and distinguishable in their differences and depth. I very much enjoyed getting to know each of them.
As I mentioned in my opening statement, I did like the story and learning about the injustices ever-present in India; I simply did not find it a page-turner. It is a rather quick read, and I recommend it. I look forward to your comments and thoughts and reactions, especially from those of you who may love this book dearly...
Roman Dial | Nonfiction, 2020
This book is a sleeper, in my opinion; at least for those of who revel in true outdoor adventures. It was recommended by my library in their “Armchair Travel” newsletter. And it deserves greater visibility.
Cody Roman Dial disappears in the back-country of Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica, known as “the most biologically intense place on earth.” This park is so wild, it is illegal to enter it without a guide. Yes, our heroes break the law. This is the story, written by his father, of a father’s search for his son, filled with adventure and mystery, after Cody misses his “out date,” July 15, 2014.
But first, for almost half of the book, we watch Roman Dial and his wife Peggy raise Cody and his younger sister Jazz. Ice climbing, pack rafting, obsessed with animals and flora, adventure finders, mountain climbing, camping, skiing, hiking long distances are just some of what the Dial family explores together. There is such a huge, shared love for the natural world, it will take your breath away.
This is a slow read, to be savored. I became lost in the physical descriptions of places the Dials traveled that bear no resemblance to the United States geography I know well. Borneo, the northwest corner of Australia, Gunung Palung, Guatemala, Mexico, Tasmania, Bhutan, and many locales such as the Brooks Range, Usibelli, and Umnak Island in their home state of Alaska. I was enthralled with the descriptions of animals and plants I could not even picture, they were so different from what we encounter locally.
Dial is not an author ... he tells a realistic and beautiful story. This isn’t the best writing I have read, and perhaps his penchant for descriptions may derail a reader or two. As a non-scientist, however, I found none of his writing above my head or off-putting. Simply, it was fascinating.
Do I rate this three hearts or four? I would only go with three because I know not all my blog readers are as enamored of wilderness adventures as I am. However, that would do The Adventurer’s Son a disservice. I will stay with a solid four hearts and recommend this book with enthusiasm.
Tommy Orange | Fiction, 2019
There There astounded me. It rearranges what you might think about Urban Native Americans and their lives, identities or lack of identities, passions, families, loves. Twelve independent people make their way to a powwow in the town where they all live, Oakland, California. They have vastly different reasons for being there, and different expectations. And yet in so many ways, their lives overlap.
Orange’s character development is magnificent. I feel as though I know some of these characters intimately ... and yet, I know them not at all, for their experiences are so counter to my experiences.
“You were white, you were brown, you were red, you were dust.” I don’t fully understand this statement, and yet, it feels quite important. I was surprised to learn about how different people saw themselves, as more or less Indian, depending in large part on how their parents/caregivers viewed being Native. Some wanted it hidden, discouraged, ignored. Some wanted it understood and embraced. Some didn’t care one way or the other. All dealt with their Indianness. “Indianing” by the way, is a word that Orange coined – (defined in my own words ) as taking on attributes or culture or attitudes or clothes or gestures to appear Indian, for yourself or for others. How “much” are you Indian?
Interestingly, while most of the profiles are written in first person, some are third, and a few even in second person. Fascinating mix. I wonder how he decided? When you read this, pay special attention to the “prologue” and the “interlude.” They inform the story significantly.
Another superb debut novel. There There is a book I could read again. I do hope you read and enjoy it. And please write your thoughts here.
Ruth Reichl | Nonfiction Memoir, 2019
LA Times food critic Ruth Reichl catapults into the opulent, gastronomically eloquent, ostentatious world of billionaires, Gourmet magazine and its owner, Condé Nast.
It is astounding to read of her experiences entering this whole new world and working to find her place. And then, as the book progresses, we are witnesses as she shakes up the staid Gourmet magazine and it becomes more radical and more relevant. This is a respite from the last few books I read, which were ponderous and serious (Me and White Supremacy and An Indigenous Peoples’ Guide to American History). Save Me the Plums is light and easy to read.
However, its gift is also its demise. It is too light. Reichl, surprisingly for a memoir author, is not transparent or reflective. She tells us what occurs, but she doesn’t tell us how she feels about it or what she is thinking. One example is when she receives pressure in this new New York world of hers, to buy a $6500 dress. She eventually decides, which we learn about, but we don’t read of her internal conflict, or her values, or her feelings, or even her decision-making process. She is either a poor writer or a shallow writer, and I am inclined toward the latter because her descriptions of food and their tastes and textures are positively mouth-wateringly yummy. Her lack of real authenticity and depth moved this book from four hearts to three for me.
She also repeats a perspective that has shown up in a few books I have read recently. Authors sometimes enter the corporate world and write about it as if they are the first to discover and reveal the machinations of big business. What she writes of is neither new nor news. It is boring if you have spent 40 years of your career interacting with big corporations, and I find the surprise and fascination of these authors to be naïve.
Read Save Me the Plums for the fun, the grandiosity, and the almost tactile delight of exploring new foods. But don’t read it for insight into a food celebrity or you will be disappointed.
From “Booked in Bend” book club list for 2020.