Dusty Shelves Book Blog

 

A Bad Day for Sunshine

Darynda Jones | Fiction, 2020

390 pages

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Sunshine Vicram was elected sheriff of her hometown, Del Sol, New Mexico.  Which is pretty interesting, considering she wasn’t even a candidate, nor living there.  So she and her daughter move from Santa Fe to the “guesthouse” her parents built for her behind their home in Del Sol, and both embark upon reestablishing themselves in a town that has buckets full of memories, some very painful.

We follow Sunshine as she searches for a missing girl, a missing boy, and, in the background, for the identity of the man who abducted her when she was 17.  Okay, sounds morbid, eh?  But it is not. This is a fun detective novel, reminiscent of Nevada Barr.  Sunshine’s 14-year-old daughter Auri is a delightful, smart, major character, as in Sunshine’s BFF, Quincy.  And the connections between and among the people of Del Sol are intriguing, reminding me of the town of Three Pines (Louise Penny).

I found the book surprisingly slow to start, but it picks up. Hence the three hearts.  The last half is page-turning.

If Sunshine were a male main character, you would throw this book against the wall as offensive and misogynist.  You will find you need to decide if you can actually like a main character who ogles every good-looking man she sees, and keeps a running commentary in her mind about his face, chest, muscles, ass.  I enjoyed her hormone-driven fantasies, but don’t tell my friends.  My feminism may come into question(!)

 

The Impossible First

Colin O'Brady | Nonfiction, 2020

279 pages

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For someone with a deep fear of the cold (I have Raynaud’s and a slight drop in my core temperature means numb hands, toes, and tongue) this was armchair reading at its brilliant best!  Colin O’Brady writes about his attempt to be the first person to cross Antarctica, unassisted and unaided.

I love first person accounts of epic adventures, such as Krakauer, Wells, Honnold, Strayed.  O’Brady’s is marvelous.  Well written, a page turner, and a powerful adventure sprinkled with some insights and memories.  If you like reading about courage, commitment, grit, fear, and accomplishment in the wilderness (along with a potent love story), you will surely enjoy The Impossible First. Great on a hot summer day!!

 

 

My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me

Jason B. Rosenthal  |  Fiction Memoir

2020, 239 pages

Too saccharine for me.  And Rosenthal can’t write.

This is the story of a widower whose wife published an article titled “You May Want to Marry my Husband” ten days before she died.

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The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison| Fiction, 1970

216 pages

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I watched the PBS special on Toni Morrison, which is excellent, and it inspired me to reread The Bluest Eye.  This is the story of Pecola Breedlove, a Black girl In America who has learned racial self-loathing at a very young age, and yearns for the pretty blue eyes that so many White girls have.  While sad and insightful, rereading it was not as powerful or profound as I anticipated.  If you have never read this first novel by Morrison, I do suggest it.  As with all her novels, she tells the stories of being Black from the perspective of being Black.  Black readers confirm they see themselves for the first time in literature when they read Toni Morrison.

 

 

The Housekeeper and the Professor

Yoko Ogawa | Fiction 2003

(English translation 2009), 180 pages

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This is a poignant and endearing tale about the Professor who was in an accident 17 years ago.  He can remember things from before his accident, but since ... only exactly 80 minutes can he remember.  Though many housekeepers don’t last long working with this odd man, one housekeeper manages to forge a brilliant relationship.  The Housekeeper and her young son Root come to love this man.

The Professor is a mathematician, and though his short-term memory is gone, his mathematical brilliance remains fully intact.  A central theme to this book is the Professor sharing mathematical principles and problems with his caretakers.  It probably helps if you have a love for math like I do, or at least a willingness to enjoy its elegance.

Ogawa’s writing simply flows.  An example.  “I also like the way he wrote his numbers with his little stub of a pencil. The 4 was so round it looked like a knot of ribbon, and the 5 was leaning so far forward it seemed about to tip over.”  Pg 62

I highly recommend this beautiful book for a summer afternoon.

Little

Edward Carey| Historical fiction, 2018

433 pages

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Absolutely delightful.  Mostly.  I found Carey’s writing to be very readable and engaging.  And throughout the book are drawings that truly inform the story. (You may not want to listen to this book, but see it visually …)

Anne Marie Grosholtz, soon to be nicknamed Little, was born in 1761 in Alsace, France.  As a very young girl, her parents died and she is apprenticed to Dr. Phillipe Curtius, who becomes her mentor and who raises her.  Curtius fashions body parts of wax, for use in the scientific and medical communities.  But soon, he has an idea to make wax heads, and together Marie and Curtius move to Paris into the home of Widow Picot and her son Edmond, The Monkey House, where they make heads of local personages and also murderers.

Most of the book is about her years as a child, a teenager, and a young adult growing her professional skills, but hated by the Widow Picot.  As news of her skill grows, Marie is called to the Palace of Versailles, where the royal family lives, and she befriends and teaches Princess Elizabeth.  She lives in a cupboard ... apparently typical of "lesser" people at that time n the Palace.

Delightful writing and a delightful story.  About two-thirds of the way in, the turbulent French Revolution throws everything into chaos, and Curtius and Little begin to fashion heads of men who were killed in the revolution.  Here is where the book becomes a little less delightful.  The author Carey explains the gore and the effects of the French Revolution, but gives no context ... no why, no understanding of the politics.  It took him 15 years to write this book.  I think he did so much research and knew so much that he lost sight of what his readers did and did not know.  The Revolution was not explained, and I found that confusing and lacking.

Many reviewers call this tale macabre.  I did not experience it as macabre so much as a story about creativity and innovation; about the development of a unique business proposition; and about bizarre relationships among very-well developed characters.  Carey’s characters are rich and deep.

Around the same time that the book begins to explore the Revolution, I went on the internet, seeking to understand some terms and some people and only then discovered that Little is historical fiction, loosely based on the life of Madame Tussaud.  I did not know that for most of the book!

I definitely think this book is worth your time.  I remain somewhat astounded by the characters and the times in which they live.  Little was recommended by my friend Mary who read it in her book club.

 

White Fragility

Robin DiAngelo| Nonfiction, 2018

192 pages

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I think I am behind my friends and colleagues in reading this book.  It was on my list before the pandemic and before George Floyd, but I just read it now (in one Sunday afternoon).  Yes, I believe we all should read White Fragility.  You might not experience huge revelations, but it will definitely heighten your awareness about the white contexts in which we blindly live.  Because I know my perspective is biased as a white, I looked for reviews written by people of color.  One black reviewer said this book gave her hope.  Another said he thought this book should be required reading for all BIPOCs because it explains so much about the dominant context.

DiAngelo explains what she sees as systemic racism and makes a case for it being systemic white supremacist racism.  She sees white supremacy not as a fringe value, but something that is inherent in the system.

I really liked Chapter 10, which demonstrates fragility.  How, if you must give me feedback about something I have said or done that might be construed as racist or race-ignorant, you should do so with kindness, and the right tone, at the right time, only after we have built trust, privately, ensuring I am safe, having acknowledged my good intentions .... otherwise I might cry (sucking all the energy and emotion to me instead of you, who felt the impact of what I said). Or walk away.  Or get angry.  Or sulk.  Or disengage.  Chapters 9-12, more specifically about fragility rather than systemic racism, are quite powerful and informative.

A difficult sentence I highlighted from the Introduction:  I believe the white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.  I define white progressives as white people who think they are not racist, or are less racist, or are in the “choir”, or already “get it.”

While I think her psychological, sociological, and interpersonal views are well-substantiated, some of the more factual components of our history are not her strong points.  For example, DiAngelo says Affirmative Action never applied to private companies, only government agencies.  Untrue.  Private employers who do more than $50,000 business with the government, or who have more than 50 employees were required to develop Affirmative Action Plans.  Where is her editor at Beacon Press, and who is fact-checking?

So, in conclusion, yes I recommend this book for anyone who is curious about themselves and their role in systemic racism.  And it is neither a long nor a heavy. read.

 

These Women

Ivy Pochoda| Fiction, 2020

334 pages

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First, I digress.  I wanted to say that this book is not good writing.  But suddenly I realized, what does that mean?  What is good writing?  What is bad writing?  How can I call a book good or bad writing?  What the heck do I know?

So, I did some research.  I found professors, authors, editors, publishers ... there is almost no agreement on what makes writing good.  I often notice at book club someone will say a book was well-written, and someone else will agree.  Now I wonder, what do they mean?

Here are six different lists of qualities of good writing ...

  1. Focus, development, unity, correctness, coherence
  2. Purpose, audience, clarity, unity, coherence
  3. Structure, ideas, correctness
  4. Voice, ideas, presentation, conventions, word choice, sentence fluency
  5. Bad writing is boring and defensive; good writing makes the reader vulnerable
  6. Good content, focus, precise language, good grammar

And here are some of the impacts of good writing ...

  • Touches the reader
  • Makes the reader richer
  • Makes the reader want more
  • Unveils the unexpected
  • Gives insight
  • Tells a story
  • Makes the reader feel less alone
  • Makes the reader ask for more
  • Does something with the reader’s feelings
  • Makes readers discover what they did not know

So, all of that does not help me assess what is “good” and what is “bad” writing.  It feels rather scattered and somewhat subjective.  I like writing to engage my mind and heart; interesting language; a sense of purpose; character depth (or depth of concept in nonfiction); ease; fast pace; a path to follow that builds on itself; correct grammar.  How do YOU define “good writing”?

Now, on to These Women. We meet characters in bleak and gritty South LA who seem on the surface somewhat disreputable ... prostitutes, workers on the fringes of the sex trade, such as a dancer, a performance artist who douses her naked self with blue paint, the owner of a fish shack, and mothers and fathers of these professional women.  And yet, they are all trying to survive in a violent and disrespectful world.  Not all of them do survive.

That is where Esmeralda Perry comes in. Essie is a demoted vice cop who sees the patterns and recognizes a serial killer is at work in their midst.  And then the mystery unfolds.

So, back to bad writing and good writing.  I found the first half of These Women did not have much unity, coherence, connection, or focus.  The characters, though deep and quirky, were presented individually, and were confusing.  Dead hummingbirds, a white middle-aged female stalker, and a iPhone photographer add spice to their stories.   Essie begins to tie the threads of their lives together, at the half-way point in this book, and then a story emerges.  The killer, by the way, is not a big surprise, but does have a fascinating psyche.

Yes, it is worth a read about a slice of life you may be as unfamiliar with as I am.  Just stay with the puzzlement of the first half.  Recommended on NPR.

And let us know how you define “good” writing, please!

 

Born a Crime

Trevor Noah | Nonfiction Memoir 2016/2019

293  pages

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I LOVE this book!  If you want to read about a difficult subject, be sure you read it as written by a comedian.  Born a Crime is Trever Noah’s memoir about growing up in South Africa during, and shortly after the end of, apartheid.  With a black mother and a white father, Trevor was born mixed-race. It was illegal to be mixed-race, hence he was “born a crime.”

I read this book the Fourth of July weekend.  It is absorbing.  Noah tells such a good story, and you will learn much about the numerous and varied racial groups in South Africa, and the completely illicit distribution of power.  It sounds depressing, doesn’t it?  But not the way Noah writes it, through the eyes and actions of a child, teenager, and young adult.  Noah is now the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, lives in New York City, and his book is truly educational and remarkable.  I highly recommend it.

Two interesting facts.  There is an adult version and a young adult version.  Apparently there is little difference, except swear words like “shit“ are replaced with more socially  acceptable words like “poop.”  And my friends tell me the audio book, with Trevor Noah reading, is excellent.

 

 

 

Crow Lake

Mary Lawson| Fiction, 2002

295 pages

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Crow Lake is described as a “slow-burning” novel.  Set in rural northern Ontario, the story reflects the flat hardship of the terrain.  Kate, her older brothers Matt and Luke, and her baby sister Bo are orphaned ... and survive together, alone, with the help of their local community.  Twenty years later, the poignancy of their stories, and the ways they supported and abandoned one another in their tightly woven familial bonds, continue to impact their lives.

I enjoyed this story, though I won’t give it a wholehearted endorsement.  It is a quiet story that will bring to mind your relationships with your siblings, if you have any.  I was particularly enamored by the setting, as most of my family lives in Ontario.  A personal favorite interaction, which may not bring a smile to your face unless you are Ontario-savvy, is this:

I said, “Haven’t you ever been up north?”

He pondered.  “Barrie.  I’ve been to Barrie.”

“Barrie!  Good God, Daniel!  Barrie’s not north!

Pg 38

 

Weather

Jenny Offill |  Fiction, 2020

204?/225? pages

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Recommended by my colleague and friend Dan, I don’t seem to understand this little book.  Lizzie is a librarian in a University library.  She helps her drug-addicted brother cope and maybe recover; she fantasizes about the end of the world and prepares for her “doomstead;” she clearly loves her son Eli and her husband Ben.   Some reviewers say she is an amateur therapist, but I see no evidence of that in the book.  She asks an insightful question sometimes.  That’s all.  There are many interesting sentences and paragraphs but no discernible plot.  Reviews are mostly 5’s and 1’s ... not a lot of middle road.  I will look forward to reading about what you liked about this book, Dan, and anyone else who read it and liked it.

 

 

Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs

Jennifer Finney Boylan | Nonfiction Memoir 2020

249 pages

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I thought Good Boy: My Life in a Seven Dogs was one of those sappy books where a dog and its owner fall inextricably in love and then at the end the dog dies and the reader weeps.  Actually, I was hoping it was one of those books.

It isn’t.  Instead it is exactly what it claims to be ... “my life.”  It is a memoir of the author’s life, age 11 to age 60-ish.  Dogs play an important role, but they are not the central characters. When the book begins, the author is James.  When the book ends, the author is Jennifer.  Remarkably, she spends nearly 30 years as James before she transitions.

This book is not the least bit preachy or political.  It is simply an honest heartfelt story of one person’s life.  There is nothing particularly remarkable about this person’s life, other than the obvious truth, and the fact that he and she had some of the most misbehaved and undisciplined dogs I have ever read about.  Interestingly, this is at least the fourth memoir Boylan has written about her life (and her 16th book).  She apparently tells her story though a variety of lenses, including parenting from both genders.

I enjoyed Good Boy very much.  I don’t know how it would read if you have read any of her other memoirs, but this being my first, I found her writing style light, sometimes humorous, (especially about her crazy dogs), vulnerable, very self-aware, and insightful.  I both learned and was entertained.

 

Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Beverly Daniel Tatum| Nonfiction, 1997/2017

453 pages

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Oh my, I thought I was in real trouble when I started reading this book.  The first many pages were statistics and I kept falling asleep.  Most of these statistics I already knew, but more important, they were boring to read.  I finally wised up on page 44 of the 73(really?) page prologue to the new edition and flipped to the book itself.

I breathed a great sigh of relief.  Here was the psychologist, the educator, the writer, the woman with a sociological perspective who wrote about people.  Now I could engage with what she was saying.  Beginning with differentiating between (individual) prejudice  and (systemic) racism, Tatum sheds light on many nuances of racism, from how do you explain slavery to a four-year-old and an analysis of the voices in The Lion King to racial identity, Affirmative Action, and White Supremacy.

In the end, I went back and finished the prologue.  The only reason to read the prologue first is if you are uncertain systemic racism exists and you need to be informed and convinced before you would care to read the book itself. Otherwise, save it for last.

I don’t want to recommend this book specifically.  There is a plethora of books to read on this topic of racism, activism, identity, history.   A library full.  And I suspect you will find what I found.  On a topic I feel I know something about, there is much, much, much more for me to learn.  I don't care what you read.  But if you do choose to read something, inspired perhaps by the murder of George Floyd and protests in most every town in our country and beyond, please tell us about it here.

 

 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Alix E. Harrow | Fiction 2019

371 pages

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I read a lot.  I guess that is obvious if you are reading my blog.  Sometimes, oftentimes, I will get into a book and then want to rush through to see what the next magic is in that pile from the library. When I find a book that invites me to slow down and savor every word, well, I simply fall in love.  Such is my experience with The Ten Thousand Doors of January.  I read it slowly, one chapter at a time.  I didn’t want to rush.

January is a girl and young woman living in the early part of the 1900’s, who has a special connection to doors.  She learns that doors are portals to “elsewhere.”  Her father is off chasing artifacts around the world, while January is raised by a benevolent benefactor.  But, of course, all is not as it seems.

This is another debut novel that delights.  What is it about debut novels?  There is something so fresh ... a new voice, a new intention.  I usually have the sense that debut novelists choose every word and write every sentence very carefully.

I happened upon this book through one of those “if you liked that book, you will like this book...” references, with “that book” being The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern.  The Ten Thousand Doors of January has less magic than Morgenstern’s books do, so I know that Harrow’s realism will appeal to some of my blog readers.  I became a bit confused about what was happening around pages 250-300, but recovered by the end, and I sincerely recommend.

 

Normal People

Sally Rooney | Fiction, 2018

273 pages

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This is the story of Marianne and Connell.  We witness four years of their lives in Ireland, from school through university.  They move in and out of each other’s lives, always good friends, sometimes lovers, sometimes not seeing each other for months.  But yet, they understand each other.  Deeply.  In school, Connell was popular and well liked and everyone ignored Marianne.  In University, the tables turned and Marianne came into her own, while Connell struggled with shyness and uncertainty.  Both, by the way, are brilliant, which perhaps explains much of their attraction to one another.

I sometimes complain about lack of character development, and so I must give credit where credit is due.  Sally Rooney has created two immensely rich and well-developed characters, both with flaws, both with gifts.  The story is frustrating, as they cannot land on what relationship they want with each other.  Sort of like a new jazz improv band that hasn’t figured things out yet.  When they come together and play in unison, the music is good.  Not yet great, but good.  But when they spin off and do their own thing, nothing really clicks, everything is imperfect and out of sync.

My memory of my discovery of this book is indelible. It was March 15 and my friend Carol and I were in Dudley’s bookstore downtown for a cup of tea.  We were sitting far apart and didn’t hug and yes, the next day Oregon went into lockdown.  On this, my last excursion into the world for a long time, Normal People was propped open on a shelf with a recommendation from a Dudley’s staff member.

I didn’t know how I was going to rate this book until the last page.  I give it three hearts.  It comes with my recommendation, with a bit of hesitation.  It is well-written and an interesting read, but is ultimately unsatisfying in some way.  Oftentimes relationships do not fall into easy, explicable molds.  This is true for Marianne and Connell.  Normal People will make you think.

 

Know My Name

Chanel Miller | Nonfiction 2019

368 pages

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On January 17, 2015, Chanel Miller (known to the public as Emily Doe) was sexually assaulted outside a fraternity house at Stanford University.  This is the true story of the next four years of her life, as told by Chanel.

Wow.  I have not been sexually assaulted.  I thought I knew intellectually what it was probably like to be living with this experience.  What I didn’t know could fill a book. Literally.  This book is powerful, educational, and a page-turner.  It is an amazing crafting of a memoir.  Chanel’s mom, a Chinese immigrant, tells her at one point, “Good and bad things come from the universe holding hands.  Wait for the good to come.”  (P 138).  This statement foretells a long, difficult journey.

Miller’s victim statement was read aloud in the US House of Representatives. Miller was interviewed on 60 Minutes, and Know My Name graced the NYT best seller list, Washington Post’s Top Ten Books of 2019, and “best-selling books” in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

The story is not easy to read, truth be told.  And her story must be read.  It is important, compelling, and engaging.  One reviewer called it “Unapologetically large.”  I highly recommend Know My Name.

 

The Big Oyster

Mark Kurlansky |  Fiction, 2006

307 pages

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A Review in two words: discombobulated and boring.   I finished it only because it is a book club read.  I kept telling myself I “should” enjoy this more.  The title, The Big Oyster, is a play on the nickname, The Big Apple, which is a dead giveaway about the topic of this book.  While I adore oysters, Kurlansky’s book is really the story of the history of New York, which is among the more boring topics I can think of.

A number of professional reviewers gave it high ratings. But I also like to peruse Goodreads, which is filled with reviews by regular people, not book reviewers.  The Big Oyster has a pretty low overall rating on Goodreads, at 3.9.   The readers who liked it became fascinated by the topic and were pulled in.

The one, two, and three star reviews on Goodreads were very similar to my assessment.  Unfocused, with digressions stemming off from other digressions. This is more a history of New York through the lens of the oyster, than the story of the oyster itself, which would have been shorter, more pointed, less wandering. And IMHO, less boring.

The moments I DID like were the oyster recipes.  Here is a bit from one of the oldest recipes in the book, from an anonymous writer, mid-1600’s.  (Page 68).  “Shelle oystyrs into a pott and the sewe therwith.  Put thereto fayre watyr; perboyle hem.  Take hem up; put hem yn fayre watyr.  Peke hem clene.  Blaunch ...”

Clearly, I cannot recommend this book.  However, if you are fascinated by the history of New York City, you might love this book, for it tells the history in quite a unique manner.

 

The Outdoor Girls

Laura Lee Hope | Fiction 1913

212 pages

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Laura Lee Hope is the pseudonym for a group of authors who wrote The Bobsey Twins, The Outdoor Girls, and five other multi-book series for children. When my Aunt Helen died in 2009, I found a box of The Outdoor Girls in her basement. She had 19 of the 23-book series, published between 1913 and 1933.  She signed them “Helen Sigetich” and often included a date, 1926 in the first one, or her address, 6550 McGraw.  I bought three more to fill in the gaps, but have not yet put my hands on the rare 23rd volume, The Outdoor Girls in Desert Valley.

I read three of them over the last few days, to see what these century-old stories were like.  I am impressed with the number of adventures the girls find themselves in, from discovering a lost $500 bill with a note attached, to finding the truth about the white ghost with chains on Elm island. The authors use big words like obdurate and auspicious, and, even as a mature adult in another century, I did not feel talked down to.

It was fun to explore this series of books, set in a time when telephones were not yet in every home, much less any other technology.

I am most curious to know if any of you read this series while a young person?  I read The Hardy Boys religiously, and an occasional Nancy Drew, but never anything by Laura Lee Hope.  What do you remember?

 

The Mezzanine

Nicholson Baker | Nonfiction, 1986 & 2010

142 pages

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It was funny!  Yes, this is not a guest blogger!  I, Andrea, found this book funny.  It is allegedly the story of one escalator ride up to the Mezzanine where our narrator works, but of course that in and of itself would not create a book.  So, instead, he goes back to his past, his childhood, to relay stories about the most mundane things.  He begins by exploring the CVS bag in his hand, which has shoelaces inside and takes him back to learning to tie his laces.  We move on to explore a multitude of items and actions, including, but not limited to, glass milk bottles and the brilliant discovery of coated cardboard with a little V that you make at the top; learning how to turn a t-shirt right side out; the grooves of LP records, and the grooves made by ice skates; how to put on deodorant when you are all dressed; Lorna Doones in the vending machine; the evolution of drinking straws, etc., etc.

We first learn his name when someone greets him as he is peeing at a urinal in chapter 10.  It is Howie.  Howie is OCD, analytical, and/or has an amazing memory for the little, intricate, repeatable stuff of life.  This is all about the little stuff of life.

The Mezzanine has many footnotes, which were quite enjoyable, except a bit hard to navigate in an ebook. Because there was no plot, but only rambling observations, the book became a little tedious for me.   Still, Baker is quite a clever writer.  And I did laugh often!

Book # 20 during stay-at-home.

 

The Glass Hotel

Emily St. John Mandel |  Fiction, 2020

320 pages

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As The Glass Hotel opens, we meet Paul.  We follow Paul from Toronto to a very small town (Caiette) on the very tip of Vancouver Island BC, and back again.  And then the time changes.  What year are we in?  Mandel switches locations, time, and, most important, characters, in a manner that is scratch-my-head confusing.  About page 100, I was ready to give up.  But I persisted.

For a significant portion of the book, (maybe one-third?) we follow Vincent, Paul’s half-sister. Vincent is the most interesting character in The Glass Hotel.  Or, more precisely, she finds herself in the most interesting circumstances.  She leaves The Glass Hotel in Caiette, where she works as a bartender, with its wealthy owner, Jonathan Alkaitis, to go to New York and enter the “kingdom of money.” She and Jonathon pretend they are married for three years, until Alkaitis receives a 170-year prison term for designing and managing a Ponzi scheme.  Later, Vincent decides to be a cook on a cargo ship.

Her circumstances are interesting, but I don’t think Mandel does a good job of developing characters.  Her work with Vincent is the best, but I don’t know much about Vincent’s personality or her feelings or her inner thoughts.  We only see her actions.  And Alkaitis is just a caricature of a sweet rich guy running a Ponzi scheme.

It feels like Mandel’s book is making a statement, rather than writing a story.  However, I am at a loss. The intention of the book in unclear to me, though some reviewers say it points to the capriciousness of life, and so is particularly appropriate for these times.

It wasn’t boring or particularly hard to get through.  I just found it rather vapid.  I can’t recommend it, I must admit. Though, as always, I look forward to hearing from those of you who loved it!

From The Atlantic, Ruth Franklin:   The Glass Hotel is a jigsaw puzzle missing its box. At the book’s start, what exactly it is about or even who the major figures are is unclear…

 

The Salt Path

Raynor Winn | Nonfiction 2018

270 pages

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I love reading journeys of people who walk long trails, whether one of the big three here in the US, in Canada, the Gobi desert, or the Via Francigena.  But this is a different kind of long trail journey.  There was no hiking with bricks in the backpack to get ready, no planning, no packages of food sent to stops along the way, no farewell party.

Ray and her husband Moth, in their 50s, decide to travel the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path in England when they lose the home and farm they had restored and where they raised their two children, due to a failed investment with Moth’s best friend. They used up all their savings fighting for their home for three years, but ultimately lost the battle.  Suddenly, they were penniless and homeless.  But four days before that fateful day when the bailiffs arrive to take their home, they had worse news.  Moth was diagnosed with a debilitating and terminal disease.

This is their true story as they embark upon a journey to figure out what is next in their lives.  And it isn’t a pretty journey.  They are neither physically nor psychologically prepared, and they had only the mere basics of backpacking supplies, purchased from eBay.  But they had grit.  Boy, they had grit.

The Salt Path shifted again my view of homelessness.  To a person (almost) the people they meet physically back away the moment Moth or Ray tells them they are homeless.  As though it is catching.  As though they must be drug addicts or lazy, or as one man says, “tramps.”

I thought Ray Winn’s words were a little long at times, as happens when someone writes their own story.  But they were also beautiful, descriptive, artful even, especially as she describes in vivid detail the land, the birds, and the people they meet.

On page 268 I gasped aloud when a small monumental thing happens.  I was moved by this book.  It will stay with me for a while.  It is a story of challenge, devastation, hope, deep love, truth and, of course, grit.  Thank you to my wonderful friend Mary for, once again, recommending a real winner.

 

Befiore We Were Yours – reread

Lisa Wingate | Fiction 2017

352  pages

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I just reread this book in preparation for book club.  (Earlier review below).  Loved it the second time through.  Book # 16 during stay-at-home.

Earlier review:

The Tennessee Children’s Home Society operated a black market adoption agency in the first half of the 20th century, often kidnapping indigent children, glorifying and misrepresenting their pasts, and selling them for a huge profit to wealthy and often famous adoptive parents.  This much is known to be true.

Before We Were Yours tells the fictional, though representative, story of five children who lived on the riverboat Arcadia and were kidnapped from their home in 1939 by the Tennessee Children's Home Society.  Rill Foss, 12, is the eldest child.  And, it tells the story of modern day lawyer Avery Stafford, the daughter of a US Senator, who discovers there may be some hidden secrets in her well-to-do and politically successful family.

This is an extremely well-told story that will hold your attention in the alternating chapters about Rill and Avery. It is sad yet ultimately hopeful.  I recommend Before We Were Yours enthusiastically.

Harry Potter

JK Rowling | Fiction

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I have been rereading Harry Potter.  Delightful in this time of seriousness and sadness and challenges.  It feeds my soul.

I reread the first four and will now take a break and enjoy some other written adventures before embarking on the last three long books.  Maybe the next time we are staying at home again (this summer, this fall?) I will reread Outlander for more good escapism!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  1997, 309 pages.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  1998, 341 pages.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban.  1999, 435 pages.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  2000, 754 pages.

 

The Lost Man

Jane Harper | Fiction 2018

352  pages

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I read the four-page prologue to Jane Harper’s novel The Lost Man and, though I was sitting in my reading chair with my dogs at my feet, I was transported to the Australian Outback.  I was slightly disoriented; her writing was so powerful, I was there, in the Outback.

Brothers Nathan and Bub Bright meet each other at the fence line separating their cattle ranches in the Outback of Australia, to find their third brother Cameron dead at the stockman’s grave.  What was he doing out here, his Range Rover nine kilometers away, in a land where you can barely be outside your car during the heat of Christmas week and survive?  How did he die?  Why did he leave his car?  Was it suicide?  Something more nefarious?

The scale of the land and the scale of the story both impressed me.  It takes four hours to drive from one end of Cameron’s land to the other, and Nathan’s land, not as large, abuts it.  It is a very lonely place with dirt tracks for roads.  The driveway to the family home where Cameron lives with his wife, two children, his mother, a longtime manager, and his younger brother Bub, is 29 km, 12 miles long.

The narrative is about family dynamics and the discovery of what happened to Cameron, but there is so much more in the story than Cameron’s ill-fated journey.  Harper explores love, loyalty, family abuse, and the unique art of living isolated in very rough land, hours away from others.

One reviewer’s words: “part family drama, part indelible ode to the Outback.”  I can’t help but recommend this book. Yes, I am enamored by the Australian Outback, which made it doubly pleasurable for me to read.  Yes, there is mystery.  Yes, it is a gripping story with wonderful rich characters.  Yes, it is worth your time.

 

 

The Cruelest Month

Louise Penny | Fiction 2007

311 pages

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As with my other two Louise Penny reviews, Still Life and A Fatal Grace, I enjoy the village of Three Pines near Montreal and it’s delightful residents, and Armand Gamache, the Chief Inspector who shows up for every murder; but I don't find her stories quite compelling enough.  They are sweet mysteries.  Again, I will use the word “gentle.”  If you are a Penny fan, and I know some of you are, The Cruelest Month is as good as Penny delivers ... you will enjoy.  There is an important denouement in this book.

This is my 11th book completed in the time of quarantine.  I am looking forward to picking #12.  I still have my (dwindling) pile of unread books stacked with their spines against the wall, so this afternoon I will pick at random my next read!

 

 

 

Nonfiction in the Time of Pandemic

Lest you think I am just whiling away my shelter-at-home reading hours consuming delightful novels, I thought I would share the three non-fiction books I have read so far.

Reverse Mortgages by Wade Pfau, 2018, 142 pages

I have been considering a reverse mortgage for years.  But now, with my retirement accounts down 16%, I am getting serious.   I have been educating myself and found a really good resource that is not written by a mortgage broker or loan officer.  Wade Pfau is a PhD, Professor of Retirement at the American College of Financial Services. His book debunks many of the myths associated with reverse mortgages and explains them in (mostly) lay-person language. The money available to us in retirement consists of our retirement portfolio + social security + pensions + home equity.  Home equity has a large role in this equation for many of us, and need not be ignored. I am now definitely taking steps to initiate a reverse mortgage.  This book is useful for any US homeowner.

Watercolor Without Boundaries, by Kathryn Holman, 2010, 176 pages

This is my second Holman watercolor book, and I must admit I like her style.  Watercolor Without Boundaries is dense, with a lot of technique in it.  The second half includes quite a bit about adding collage papers, etc., which I am not ready for yet, but I have a plethora of painting ideas to try from her lovely work!  Only a few of my readers will find this book appealing.

Chess for Dummies by James Eade, 2016, 391 pages

I am really glad Marian and Lois and I decided to learn chess at Chess.com, as the lessons are visual, instructional, and interactive.  Chess for Dummies, however, is great to have as a reinforcement and a reference, when you forget what a pin, a fork, and a skewer are.  Only for those very few of you who have “learn chess” on your bucket list.

I own all three of these books, so if you want to borrow one, please let me know!

 

 

When All is Said

Anne Griffin | Fiction 2019

336 pages

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This is our Deschutes County community read for 2020.  As always, the selection committee did a fine job.  This is the 17th year we have had a community read, and I haven’t missed one.  When All is Said is a short book, and a very sweet read.  I cried at the end of the first chapter, and again at the end of the last.  I think it is quite a testimonial to the author to have imbued such caring in me, the reader, that after just one chapter, I am emotionally affected.

This is Maurice’s story. 84 years old, each of the five middle chapters in When All is Said is a toast to someone very important in his life.  Through these toasts, we learn his history and the history of his family.  The toasts are to:  his older brother Tony; the baby he and Sadie lost, Molly; his sister-in-law Noreen; his son Kevin; and, of course, his recently deceased wife, Sadie.

His life, which is in Ireland, is not all that extraordinary or unusual, yet Griffin tells it with such grace and sensitivity, it is moving.  A beautiful and insightful book about grief, love, legacy, and joy.

This is another astounding debut novel.  I wonder what will be next from Anne Griffin.  She was supposed to present here in Bend in early May, flying over from Ireland.  I know that will not happen now.  I look forward to seeing what we substitute.  I hope there is a video or a Zoom with her.

Highly recommended.

 

Circe

Madeline Miller | Fiction 2018

393 pages

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Circe is born to Helios and Perse as an odd child.  She seems a god without power, without beauty, without much to make her attractive to her family or the sea of nymphs and gods who surround her as she grows up. But she discovers she is a witch and learns to love mortals who love her back.  To resolve a feud, Helios and the great god Zeus create a pact, and a part of that pact is Circe is banished to the isle of Aiaia, where she is to live alone, amidst lions and pigs and laurels and flowers.  It is here she really hones her occult skill of casting spells.

Of course, she is exiled, but that doesn’t mean she cannot have visitors.  She crosses paths with many of mythology’s greats ... the Minotaur, Daedalus, Icarus, Hermes, Athena, and a central figure of this period of her life, wild, wise, and violent Odysseus.

This is a beautiful, intoxicating, and brilliant book, extremely well-written and a page-turner.  Miller is an exquisite author.  My only regret is that my book club did not select this book last year; it was recommended by Linda.  Absolutely, Circe is a meaningful and powerful mythological read, and a tale of women's power.  I recommend it highly.

Book #5 of the quarantine time.

 

 

The Second Biggest Nothing

Colin Cotterill | Fiction 2019

254 pages

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Dr. Siri Paiboun is the National Coroner of Laos, retired.  In this book, set in 1980, Dr. Paiboun and his wife Daeng are first threatened through a note attached to the tail of their dog Ugly.  It is written in English, so it takes a few days for them to find a translator.  Suffice it to say, Siri, and everyone he knows and loves, could lose their lives to someone seeking violent revenge in the next two weeks.

But who wants him dead?  To search for the answer, we travel back to Paris in 1932, Saigon in 1956, and Hanoi in 1972, though we spend most of our time in Vientiane, Laos, where Siri lives.  Life goes on as usual.  He and Daeng run a noodle shop, and Siri’s best friend Civilai, as well as the chief of police and other important characters, all work to find the revenge-seeker.

I like Cotterill’s writing!  His story is good, well-paced and interesting, and his writing is captivating.  I actually laughed a few times, and this isn’t designed as a funny book ... it is designed as a mystery.  Here is one of my favorite examples of Cotterill’s writing, “It’s called brainstorming,” said Siri.  “You just say things for no apparent reason until you accidentally stumble upon a truth.  It’s like politics.”  (pg. 153)

So, why three hearts instead of four?  My fault, really.  I didn’t realize this was the 14th book in a series!  There isn’t enough character development or context for me to really understand the nuances of the relationships, their history, and the town.  If you are interested in exploring the Siri Paiboun series, you might want to start with the first book, The Coroner’s Lunch, written in 2004.

 

The Rosie Project

Graeme Simsion |  Fiction, 2014

295 pages

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Don Tillman is an Australian genetics professor who is obsessed with measurements, numbers, a high need for sameness and predictability, and schedules.  He times and plans everything to the minute.  The inference is that he is a highly functioning person with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Since his interpersonal skills are very poor, a fact which he fully recognizes, he cannot find and hold on to a romantic partner.  And so he creates a questionnaire in his “Wife Project,” designed to eliminate women who do not meet his exacting standards for a wife, and, surely, to find some good candidates.

Predictably, he meets Rosie, who does not meet the criteria ...

While I acknowledge that this novel provides hope for people on the autism spectrum, I am hard pressed to recommend it for the typical reader.  I found it rather unimaginative.  The professor laughs at himself and his faux pas over and over and over again.  I might call it, well, “cute.”  The outcome is fully present in the unfortunate title, so you know from page one what is going to happen.  Now, I laughed once, so I suspect this book may be entertaining because it is funny.  But, regular blog readers know me ... if it is funny, I can’t tell!

My apologies to my friend who recommended this.  Life is interesting ... I am glad our tastes differ at times!

 

 

The 19th Christmas

James Patterson & Maxine Paetro | Fiction 2019

344 pages

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Well, wasn’t this fun!  I took my nine books from the library and put them on the counter, spine side to the wall, so I couldn’t read the titles.  And then I picked at random. Monday’s pick was this New Women’s Murder Club Mystery, what fun!

As always with Patterson & Paetro, this was a very light read. A little murder and mayhem to brighten your day.  The women in the Women’s Murder Club, and their spouses, are always heartwarming and delightful.  In this mystery, a Christmas Day heist was in the making.  The mastermind behind it, Willy Loman (yes, puns were intended) facilitated the placement of many false leads, driving the detective team, Including Lindsay Boxer, all over San Francisco, in their attempt to discover and head off the heist.  Of course, in the end, the good “guys” win.

This is my third “isolation” book.

 

 

Girl, Woman, Other

Bernardine Evaristo | Fiction 2019

452 pages

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This is an homage to what it means to be black, British, and female.  It is an astonishing and daring novel, both in style and content.

Stylistically, each chapter is the story of one woman.  Their lives overlap, but that isn’t really the core of the novel.  (Though the magic of the overlapping does shore up the end.) The core is each woman’s life, and her challenges, joys, struggles, successes, and failures with education, friendship, love, sex, career, race, and family.

Evaristo uses no periods or beginning-of-sentence capitals. She claims it makes the novel a hybrid of poetry and prose, a nod to how we communicate on the internet, and a more lyrical way for the characters to interact ...  Truth be told, I think she is correct.  There is something freeing and flowing about this style.

The content, however, is what makes Girl, Woman, Other so powerful.  Some reviewers marveled at how Evaristo presented different voices for her 12 main characters.  I didn’t it experience it that way.  I experienced it more as one voice, with many nuances, but an astounding number of similarities.

I think what made this book so intriguing for me ... and may make it so for you ... is that her characters barely overlap with my life experience.  And so, it was fascinating.  All(?) the major characters are black.  Their ancestors came from Africa or the Caribbean to London.  They are mostly feminist (that point I can relate to!) Some are very radical feminist.  Most are lesbian, although a couple were only experimenting.  Many became mothers.  Most, though not all, are not terribly successful in careers.  All had significant challenges to overcome with regard to race. Yes, there are also Muslims, trans people, and men in the stories! The character’s lives span a century, though most are set in the modern day.

Some reviewers call this book “hilarious.”  I only laughed once, but you know me, this book may have been quite funny, and I could have easily missed it.

I wasn’t sure while reading it who might like this novel.  I finally concluded that it is possible everyone, regardless of gender, orientation, race, or age, might find something to love.  I sure did.

Washington Post, Ten Best Books of 2019

 

A Pilgrimage to Eternity

Timothy Egan | Fiction 2019

367 pages

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I am an atheist with an unhealthy aversion to history.  So, how is it I could like Timothy Egan’s A Pilgrimage to Eternity at a three-hearts level?  Because it is superbly written!  And if you like history, you’ll give it four hearts.  If you have a particular passion for the history of Catholicism, well, you will be in seventh heaven (yes, pun intended).  I gave the other Timothy Egan I attempted, The Big Burn, a single heart, so this is real progress.

Timothy Egan takes off on the 1200 mile Via Francigena, from Canterbury to Rome, in search of his own spiritual beliefs.  This is a trail of sorts, like the Camino de Santiago, only much less well-known. Egan walks most of the route, stays often at monasteries, and sees an inordinate number of statues, churches, Cathedrals, relics (yes, those are bones of saints), plaques, stones, arches, bridges, cadavers, and assorted other items that tell various tales of Catholicism and Christianity.  You will read about battles and beheadings, popes and princes, intellect and instability.

And what kept me enthralled is how he mixes his experience of this ancient pathway with his current life.  He connects his learning with our modern-day struggles and tells tales from his youth.  Even more intriguing to me, he talks about the food he encounters along the Via Francigena, and the difficulties and joys his body experiences in (mostly) walking 1200 miles.  So, it is a sort of long-hike travel journal, and we witness blisters and turning back when the weather becomes extreme and the joy of a stunning view. We read about pastries and cappuccinos and, of course, wines, as he travels England, France, Switzerland, and Italy. To give you a flavor, on page 138 he describes the items on a menu on Langres, France, which includes “frogs ... not frog legs, but the whole slain amphibian … and duck terrine with ‘trumpets of death’ “  All this and, too, we bear witness to Egan's search for his spiritual and religious beliefs.  What does he believe?  And why?

An essential message appears on page 64 and again at the end.  It comes from Labre, the patron saint of wandering souls, “There is no way.  The way is made by walking.”

Thank you to Ralph from water aerobics class for this interesting recommendation.

 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Ottessa Moshfegh |  Fiction 2018

Some found it amusing, some bemusing.  Let’s face it, this is a dark book about a privileged woman who is severely clinically depressed and designs her life so she can spend a year sleeping and popping an extraordinary number of pills prescribed by an irritating and unethical psychiatrist, who is devoid of values.  The narrator’s sometimes boyfriend and best friend are nearly as dysfunctional as the psychiatrist.

I came back from yoga class this evening and couldn’t even pick it up.  It was simply too depressing, and also too unrealistic.  I was hoping the psychiatrist would be the real thing, and we would watch her attempt to help our narrator.  Instead, the psychiatrist is a caricature, and the narrator takes advantage of this.

Someone recommended this to me, but I can’t for the life of me remember who, which is probably good.

 

 

 

Olive, Again

Elizabeth Strout | Fiction 2019

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Crosby, Maine is a small bucolic town right on the ocean.  Olive, Again tells the story of many of the people who live there.  If you read Olive Kitteridge, you will recognize the style.  Olive, Again is actually the sequel.

As in the earlier book, there is no plot as such, but there are 13 stories of people in Crosby.  Olive Kitteridge is the thread that ties these stories together.  She is central in some chapters, an important character in others, and makes only a fleeting cameo appearance in some.

Caustic, witty, sad, kind, insightful, mean, opinionated, gleeful, loving, discounting, sometimes a deep listener, sometimes she doesn’t listen at all; we follow Olive as she ages from 73 to 86 in this book.  Her edges have softened from the original Olive Kitteridge.

Strout’s tales are fascinating.  The characters who live in Crosby Maine are not all that quirky or original, and yet they are each totally fascinating.  We have Andrea, a former Poet Laureate of the US; a Somalian woman, Hamila, who works as a home health worker; Kayley, a teenager who cleans houses and allows an old man to see her breasts; a couple who have lived together for 42 years, but for the last 35 have used yellow duct tape on the floor to divide her space from his space and who talk with each other by making comments to their dog; a guest at a baby shower who goes into labor herself during the shower and has her baby in Olive’s car before the ambulance arrives.  And of course we have Olive’s second husband Jack who gets a speeding ticket for driving his sorts car too fast and cannot understand why his daughter is lesbian.   There is also a dominatrix and a few people who have gone “dopey-dope.”

As Olive and her connections in Crosby have aged, there are also quite a few widows and widowers, including Olive herself.  Their stories left me feeling hopeful.  They live normal, if lonely, lives.

This is a wonderful book.  Sprout is a gifted and brilliant writer who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge and has written five other well-regarded novels.  Yes, definitely read Olive, Again.

 

A Fatal Grace

Louise Penny | Fiction 2006

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No one in Three Pines liked CC DePoitiers.  But someone hated her enough to electrocute her in the middle of the Boxing Day curling match out on the lake.  Armand Gamache is called upon to solve his second murder in the enchanting Canadian town of Three Pines.  CC is an arrogant self-appointed guru who believes enlightenment comes from burying all emotions.  No wonder she left enemies everywhere she went.

Once again, I found Penny’s writing fun and delightful.  I read the entire novel as I was traveling from Bellingham Washington to home, a 14-hour trip, on Amtrak and a bus.  Her writing is light.  Maybe too light, given the plethora of books waiting to be read.  This is the second novel in the series. I think I will read one more.

Unfortunately, I thought it was clear from the beginning who the murderer was, even though the reveal doesn’t come until the last couple of pages.  Penny’s hints were too obvious to me.  Of course, that doesn’t hurt the charm of the characters in Three Pines or the wittiness of the victim and why she was murdered.  But the suspense was dampened.

Your choice!

 

The Guise of Another

Allen Eskens | Fiction 2015

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The Lexus jumped the median In Minneapolis and crashed headlong into a Porsche.  That’s what happens when you are busily having sex and driving at the same time.  When the Highway Patrol arrived at the scene, they found the two occupants of the Lexus half-naked but still alive.  The poor guy in the Porsche, James Erkel Putnam, was driving in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He was dead.  Only, it turns out, he was not actually James Putnam.  Who was he?  That’s when the mystery begins.

Detective Alexander Rupert was recently demoted to the Fraud unit, due to his suspected theft of cash from his dealings with dealers in Narcotics.  But this juicy case lands in his lap, as he tries to figure out who was masquerading as James Putnam.  And why Putnam was so rich.

The story is good; Esken’s writing again engaging.  I read the whole book while Amtraking up to Bellingham, Washington.  I marked it three hearts instead of four because the bad guy killed people gratuitously.  There was just more murder than necessary.  For example, he needed to get Putnam’s girlfriend out of their house for a day, so he killed her mother.  To me, it felt like Eskens was simply being lazy.  He could have had the assassin break Mom’s hip or some such.

All In all, a good story with a diabolical plot.

 

Recursion

Blake Crouch | Fiction 2019

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I learned a new phrase in reading about Recursion, “speculative fiction”.

The book opens on November 2, 2018, when Detective Barry Sutton arrives to the 41st floor of a New York City skyscraper and attempts to stop the suicide of a woman whose legs are dangling over the edge.  Ann Voss Peters has FMS, False Memory Syndrome, and she can no long cope with the life in her false memory.

And then we meet Dr. Helena Smith, in October of 2007.  She is a brilliant scientist whose mom has Alzheimer’s, and Helena is trying to build a machine that will allow Alzheimer’s patients to revisit and retain memories.  Eventually, she builds such a machine, but it does more than expected.  It allows patients to visit the memories and change them, with, of course, disastrous unintended consequences.  And so we enter the world of speculative fiction.  To enjoy this tale, you’ll need to be able to suspend your current reality and believe this alternative reality.

Over time, as we vacillate between current days and ten years ago, we discover that someone can change the past, but then, on the day they do so, they suddenly recall all the various paths they have created in their memories.  Very disorienting.

So, though it was hard work sometimes to keep track of what year, and what memory path, we were in of our primary characters, Barry and Helena, I liked this book.  It is smartly written, and it made me think, both because of the structure of the novel, but also because of the issues it raises about technology, values, consequences. It has suspense, terror, fear, love, and triumph amidst its fast-turning pages.

Recursion will soon be a Netflix movie and tv series but read the book first.  If you can be intrigued by speculative fiction, pick this one up.  It is a winner.

A "Top Pick of 2019" by AARP Magazine.

A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles  |  Fiction 2016

I really want to like this book, but I keep falling asleep or getting distracted, or picking up my iPad to see if anyone emailed me in the last ten minutes.  I am 100 pages in, which represents a significant commitment, and I think I must close the book and return it to the library.

I keep thinking that I "should" like it, and if only I were a more mature reader who could revel in the rather heavy-handed writing style, I would be a better person.  There IS humor and some fascinating visual descriptions, but the theme .... a Count who is under house arrest in a hotel in Moscow in 1922 ... is boring.  The inner flap tells me he will meet some interesting people, but he hasn’t yet.

An interesting review was written by Bill Gates.  He said you do not have to be a Russophile to like this book.  I think maybe you do.

I am surprised, because my dental hygienist Julie and I consistently agree about books we like and don’t like. I hope she remains gentle with my mouth when she discovers I abandoned this recommendation from her.

 

 

The Rent Collector

Camron Wright | Fiction 2012

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This is a GREAT book.  I am moved and hopeful.

Sang Ly, her husband Ki Lim, and their ill young son, Nisay, live in a shack at the edge of Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in Cambodia.  They make their living sorting through the trash the trucks bring every day, finding valuable scraps to sell to sometimes unscrupulous buyers.  Yes, The Rent Collector reminds me of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers.  The Rent Collector, however, is above all, a book of hope.

While this is a novel of life and death at the dump, the story line is about Sang Ly and her discovery of literacy and literature.  It is as much a tale of the role of literature in our world as it is a tale of hardship, friendship, and love in the dump.

Here is a sample of the intelligent and visual writing by Camron Wright.  “I always tell Ki that it’s a dangerous thing sending me to work at the dump, not because I’ll get run over by a truck, burn my legs and feet, or fall into a pool of toxic sludge—though all these are possibilities.  It’s dangerous because my thoughts get away from themselves.  Mixed with emotion, they pile up like the garbage that surrounds me.  They stack layer upon layer, deeper and deeper, month after month—crushing, festering, smoldering.  One day something is certain to combust.”  (pg 25)

Mary—my good friend from high school—recommended this book to me.  Once again, Mary, you are spot on.  I will recommend The Rent Collector to my book club for 2021 because it is not only an excellent and enlightening read, but also because of what we can learn about literature.

Yes, blog readers, you might want to read this book.  I recommend it without hesitation.

The Life We Bury

Allen Eskens | Fiction 2014

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Joe Talbert is a college student with an English class assignment to interview a person and write their biography.  With no living relatives other than his dysfunctional mother and a younger brother who has autism, Joe goes looking for someone interesting to interview.  He finds Carl, a Vietnam-era war hero and an accused rapist and murderer who, after 30 years in prison, has been released to a care facility to die from cancer.  Soon Joe is embroiled in Carl’s story and, believing Carl to be innocent of the rape and murder, he embarks upon a search to find the actual perpetrator and clear Carl's record and reputation before he dies.

This novel is fast-paced and an interesting twist on a suspense novel.  Allen Eskers is a criminal defense attorney with an MFA in creative writing and writes excellent suspense.  My friend Charlene recommended Eskers to me.  She said he is one of her current favorite authors, and I can see why.  I have already put another Esker’s book on my library list.  Charlene recommended The Life We Bury to me, and I in turn recommend it to you.

 

How to Make Your Money Last

Jane Bryant Quinn| Nonfiction 2015

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Fortuitously, this book crossed my radar on the same day I took my very first payout from my retirement funds.  Yikes!  So, I decided to read it.  And I am grateful that I did.  I know Jane Bryant Quinn is the financial-advice-in-print wizard.  Somehow, this book felt right at this time.

The book is well-designed.  Quinn and her publisher provide excellent bold titles to every section, so you can pick and choose what to read.  I skipped the section on when to take your Social Security, because that decision I have already made.  I passed over the “implications if you are married” parts, because they are now irrelevant.

Yes, she does address preretirement planning, but she also writes a lot about post-retirement and how to plan your withdrawals and RMDs and re-balancing to ensure the greatest benefit.  Two strategies I am quite intrigued by now are immediate-pay annuities and taking a reverse mortgage as a credit line very early in retirement, but not tapping it for a few years.

You will find something of value in here, if you peruse based on your own age, circumstances, and needs. I recommend a pause to reflect on your finances, with How to Make Your Money Last.

 

One Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong | Fiction 2019

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On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a 20-something to his mother who cannot read.   This book is emotionally difficult to consume ... it tells a painful story of being Vietnamese immigrants in this country, of family violence, and of mental illness unrecognized and untreated.  Little Dog, the son, uncovers and shows us much about his mom and grandmother coming to America, with him in tow.  It tells a personal story of a family, and not so much about the American culture or the society in which they struggled.

Vuong’s writing is like a big open flower. He uses beautiful words.  You get the sense each and every word is chosen carefully.  It is obvious this author is a poet.  Here is a random example:  “Being sorry ... is worth every self-deprecating feeling the mouth allows.”  I loved reading his words.  He engages us deeply and powerfully in a bruised story.

The one fault I find in On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is the author’s digression into OxyContin.  This  large section (about 20% of the book) reads like a book within a book.  It was as though Vuong went on an OxyContin rage.  If he meant to connect it to the Vietnamese-in-America theme, I believe he failed.  His victim to the opioid epidemic was not Vietnamese.

I took the liberty of reading some of Vuong’s poetry.  His writing is stunning, and I look forward with anticipation to Vuong’s next novel.

Selected as one of the ten best books of 2019 by The Washington Post and by Book Riot.

 

The Starless Sea

Erin Morgenstern| Fiction 2019

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I really enjoyed this book, the second book by the author of the highly successful The Night Circus.

There is a story line, a plot of sorts, though it is loose.  Zachary Ezra Rawlins walks through a door and down into an entire world beneath the surface of the earth, having no idea that a new story has begun.  This inner-earth world is mostly about stories.  Everything and everyone is a story.  There are stories that are people, and stories that are books, and stories that are folded pieces of paper.  While we follow Zachary through his journey in this land of the Starless Sea, we also read many stories.  There are threads that tie these stories together, and there are symbols that appear in all of them.  Swords, keys, and bees are constant friends and mysteries in the stories, but also cats, rabbits, and owls.  And ribbons and lanterns.  And, above all, there are doors.  Doors that open.  Doors that are locked.  Doors that simply appear.  Doors that disappear.  Doors that are drawn.  Doors that are built. This world-beneath-our-world is Alice-in-Wonderland-esque.

To engage with The Starless Sea, you must be prepared to disengage with reality.  I don’t know quite what to call the essence of this book.  Fantasy?  Magic?  Imagination?  And I wonder how she wrote the book and kept it all together ... I imagine she has created a big map of this land that Zachary is exploring, with rooms, and hallways, and caverns, a sea, stairs, characters, and doors.

I haven’t a clue who among you will enjoy this adventure, and who will find it too much of a suspension of reality.  All I can say is I sincerely loved it and am delighted to have read it.

Novel of the week by The Week.

 

 

 

Uncanny Valley

Anna Wiener | Nonfiction 2020

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What a phenomenon!  This book was published on January 14 and immediately the author was interviewed on NPR; Uncanny Valley was named book of the week by The Week; the SF Chronicle did an article on her; the book was reviewed by the NY Times, the New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly.  And today is only Jan 22!

Uncanny Valley is written by the niece of a colleague, so right from the start, I was a little nervous.  I knew I would be completely honest in my blog posting, and I could only hope I wouldn’t find myself dissing this book or being brutal.

Never fear.

In the first chapter (or is it the second?  I must admit to some level of irritation with books that have no chapter numbers or names), Ms. Wiener was incredibly naive, and I became scared.  She never heard of eating snacks at work, of “ask forgiveness, not permission,” or of designing your own job.  “Oh no,” I thought, “some millennial writing about corporate America who has spent all of five days in it.”  Ahh, but that rapidly dissipated.  She proceeds to communicate a smart, bright, funny, refreshing, and illuminating view of Silicon Valley and her first jobs in very small startups filled with young men in hoodies and company-logo t-shirts, traveling around the office on One Wheels.

One reviewer remarked positively about her short sentences.  I, on the other hand, found myself actively watching for her long, complex, verbally staccato sentences, like this one,  “In the other direction was Valencia Street, a living diorama of late-stage gentrification:  third-wave-coffee shops selling paleo lattes, juice bars hawking turmeric shits, waifish Australians clutching branded paper bags from spartan boutiques.” (P 90). I adored these sentences!

In the second half, the section called “Scale” I thought her writing lost speed.  It was like hiking partway up a mountain and losing momentum.  The wondrous enjoyable hike becomes a bit of a slog.  What she writes about when she joins a new high tech company in “Scale” is more serious (the company was trying to recover from a gender discrimination lawsuit), but it also feels like the author became jaded and less enamored by the crazy creativity and weirdness she is writing about. She writes more seriously about misogyny, racism, and meritocracy.  It feels as though she is looking to solve a problem ... is Silicon Valley a problem?  ... but with no real definition of the problem or vision or parameters for a solution.

“Scale” pushed my rating from four hearts to three, I am sorry to say.  She will be speaking in Bend in a few days, and I will be interested to hear what she has to say about her energized colorful writing, and her duller, more frustrated(?) writing.  I am sure she doesn’t think of it that way, but I will be curious nonetheless to hear what she has to say about the second half.

 

Meg & Jo

Virginia Kantra | Fiction 2020

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I did some research and found the largest bookstore in the Miami airport, Books & Books.  They didn’t have either of two upcoming book club reads, so I had to punt.  I settled on this fun read, Meg & Jo.  Yes, it is a modern-day version of two of the Little Women.  It was fun to read, and Kantra provides more depth of characters than I was expecting.  This is about sisters Meg and Jo, in their late 20’s, navigating careers, relationships, and, of course, family.

I was glad I saw the movie Little Women over the holidays, or I would have missed ALL of the call-backs to the original book by Louisa May Alcott.  For example, here’s one I caught.  In Kundra’s version, instead of Amy burning Jo’s manuscript, she deletes a letter Jo is working on.  Modern twists and turns imbue this novel with a sense of realism and relevance.

The further I read, the more I appreciated how the author developed real characters for Meg and Jo.  Depth, intimacy, personality, sadness, introspection, and a lot of humor.  While it is not the East of Eden of 2020, I recommend Meg & Jo if you want a read that will entertain you, while you gaze outside at the snowy streets.  And I will keep my eyes open for her next novel, Beth & Amy (the other two sisters).

Women Rowing North

Mary Pipher  |  Nonfiction 2019

Washington Post “100 Books for the Ages” Age 76 (and various friends)

It just didn’t interest me very much to read about the challenges of women growing older, even when the author threw in a few ideas for solutions.  I don’t really want or need a self-help book at this juncture.  I look forward to hearing perspectives from those of you who love this book!!

 

 

The Dutch House

Ann Patchett | Fiction 2019

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The Dutch House is about siblings Danny and Maeve, as told by the younger Danny, over five decades of their relationship.  And it is about the quirky Pennsylvania mansion that defines their family relationships and, to some extent, their demise.

Maeve and Danny are close, loving, interwoven, and highly connected.  It is truly a beautiful partnership to behold.  With resilience, they maneuver their way through all the Dutch House throws at them:  parents, step-mom and step-sisters, death, love, careers, expectations, disappointments, successes...

I found this book to be interesting, but not astounding.  I give it three hearts ... it might tickle your fancy, but I make no promises.

 

 

East of Eden

John Steinbeck | Fiction 1952

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East of Eden is the definition of a “classic.”  Timeless.  A story with depth, meaning, interest and intrigue.  Excellently written.  Worth every moment of its 800 pages.  A book to re-read.

 

 

 

The Hazel Wood

Melissa Albert | Fiction 2018

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Alice Crewe Proserpine is seventeen and lives with her mother Ella as nomads, moving from place to place around the country for all her life.  She never understood why there was constant upheaval, and why she lived in studio apartments, or converted barns, or someone’s couch, or other unsavory places until one day, suddenly, her mom would move them on.

And then Alice’s grandmother Althea dies, who has lived in an old beat up mansion called Hazel Wood.  Alice learns that Althea has a cult of fans who latched on to the one book Althea wrote.  But the book, Tales from the Hinterland, is impossible to find.  It is as though it is destroying itself. Alice has been searching for it for most of her young life.

One day Ella disappears, and Alice takes off to find Hazel Wood, the one place her mother told her never to go.  The adventure begins, as Alice enters Hinterland, the dark fairy tale land.

I found Hazel Wood on a list from Book Riot.  The list was “ten books you might enjoy if you loved The Night Circus.”  Well, I loved The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern) and I picked one that sounded like an enjoyable mix of reality and fantasy.  I enjoyed Hazel Wood, though I didn’t fall in love with it.  I particularly liked the first half, where the real world and the fantasy world were interspersed, and we traveled from one to the other.  Around page 200, just over halfway in, Alice bridges the gap to the fairy tale world and we are there for most of the rest of the book, until the resolution at the end.  I didn’t care for the Hinterland story quite as much as the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality as told in the first half.

You might like this, if occasional magic is your thing.  Albert is a good writer.  Her pace is quick and sharp.  She has a predilection for metaphors that sometimes don’t make sense to me, but that is a small complaint.

 

The Topeka School

Melissa Albert  |  Fiction 2019

Time liked it and so did the Washington Post.  I will have to take a pass on this one.  I made it to page 80, but couldn’t bear another moment.  To me, I read a compilation of words from a profession presented as ridiculously ego-maniacal .... psychiatry and analysis; psychiatrists, psychologists, and analysands. Characters were defined not by their qualities or values or even behaviors, but by what they said in analysis and how they described their dreams and their emotional outbursts.  There is still no plot at 30% in.  I am moving on.

Did you read this and enjoy it?  I’d love to hear!

 

 

Pachinko

Min Jin Lee | Fiction 2017

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Pachinko follows one Korean family through two World Wars, and their life in Japan as it evolves, away from their beloved homeland.  It is not a story of a particularly tragic family, or a wealthy or powerful family.  It is just a family.  A poor family who lost their home in Korea during WW2 and made a life for themselves. You will follow this family through four generations and 80 years, and they will touch your heart, as well as teach you something about our world history.  They endure catastrophe, tragedy, poverty, discrimination, and they manifest wisdom, joy, passion, laughter, and a powerful sense of self.

The word is difficult to find … but we will settle on “saga.”  Pachinko is a 500-page tale of this small family and is an eminently readable saga.  You will come to love the characters and cheer for their triumphs.  I quite like this quote by award-winning author Darin Strauss, “Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a great book, a passionate story, a novel of magisterial sweep.”

I do recommend this book.  It is simply a good story.  Yes, it is long; I read it over the first half of the Christmas break.  A nice time to read such a tale, while it is cold outside.

 

 

The Language of Flowers

Vanessa Diffenbaugh | Fiction 2011

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I often read a book with a desire to move through it, to soak it up, and move on to the next interesting tale.  But this book, The Language of Flowers, I wanted to savor. The writing, the story, and the exploration of flowers and their meanings all created a delicacy to enjoy slowly.

Victoria is a foster child, experiencing the worst of the foster system, traveling from a group home to a private home to a group home over and over.  Then, at age eight she meets a possible new mother, Elizabeth.  Theirs is a fast and deep bond.  But the fates work against this relationship.  While at its apex, Victoria learns from Elizabeth all about flowers – how to tend, harvest, and arrange them, and above all, the meaning of each flower.  She is a fast learner and this learning is the most fulfillment she has experienced in her young life.

But circumstances interfere and Victoria leaves Elizabeth’s house to finish out her final youthful years in a group home until she is “emancipated” on her 18th birthday.  With no skills and no family, Victoria becomes homeless, until Renata, a florist, discovers how brilliant Victoria is with flowers.  Of course, Victoria has no reason to trust anyone. She doesn’t even know what trust is, much less love.

The book follows two journeys, one when Victoria is eight and living with Elizabeth, and the other when she is 18 and out on her own.  And flowers and their meaning are at the center of both journeys.

This is a beautiful book, another debut novel.  It is finely crafted and hard to put down, even though it wants to be relished.  I highly recommend it.

 

The Girl Who Lived Twice

David Lagerkrantz | Fiction 2019

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Lagercrantz took over the Dragon Tattoo series with Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist after Stieg Larsson died in 2004, so you may very well already be familiar with the primary characters in The Girl Who Lived Twice, Lisbeth and Mikael.

I believe Lagercrantz does quite a good job of carrying forward the Larsson legacy.  That’s a hard task!  The Girl Who Lived Twice is fast-paced, interesting, a mystery and thriller.  I enjoyed it, especially the author’s ability to move the story forward at a good pace.

There are two plots that interweave.  One is Lisbeth’s hate for and revenge for her sister, who Lisbeth THINKS she wants to kill.  The other is Mikael’s search for the identity of, and the story behind, a homeless man who dies on the streets, but has a colorful Everest history!  The Washington Post couldn’t resist this statement in the opening line of their 08/23/2019 review, “Salander irons an abusive husband's dress shirt with him in it.”  Piques one's interest at least!

However, Lagercrantz has too many characters and not quite enough of Lisbeth and Mikael.   He put a character list at the beginning of the book, but unfortunately, only included major characters.  It is not the major characters that the reader has trouble keeping track of!  So, I was confused at times.  Hence, three hearts.

 

Tin Man

Sarah Winman | Fiction 2017

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

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

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

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

 

A Single Thread

Tracy Chevalier | Fiction 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Metropolitan Stories

Christine Coulson  |  Fiction 2019

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

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

These chapters were absolutely delightful!

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

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

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

 

Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home

Heather Anderson | Nonfiction 2019

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

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

Heard on OPB.

Never Have I Ever

Joshilyn Jackson | Fiction 2019

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

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

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

 

Evvie Drake Starts Over

Linda Holmes | Fiction 2019

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

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

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

Read this for fun, not for a big message!

 

 

Sourdough

Robin Sloan |  Fiction, 2017

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

 

The Testaments

Margaret Atwood | Fiction

2019

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

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

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

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

 

Once Upon a River

Bonnie Jo Campbell |  Fiction, 2011

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Washington Post “100 Books for the Ages” Age 17

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

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

 

Find Your Artistic Voice

Lisa Congdon

Nonfiction, 2019

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

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

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

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

 

The Reckoning

John Grisham

Fiction, 2018

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

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

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

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

 

 

Before We Were Yours

Lisa Wingate | Fiction

2017

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

The Tennessee Children’s Home Society operated a black market adoption agency in the first half of the 20th century, often kidnapping indigent children, glorifying and misrepresenting their pasts, and selling them for a huge profit to wealthy and often famous adoptive parents.  This much is known to be true.

Before We Were Yours tells the fictional, though representative, story of five children who lived on the riverboat Arcadia and were kidnapped from their home in 1939 by the Tennessee Children's Home Society.  Rill Foss, 12, is the eldest child.  And, it tells the story of modern day lawyer Avery Stafford, the daughter of a US Senator, who discovers there may be some hidden secrets in her well-to-do and politically successful family.

This is an extremely well-told story that will hold your attention in the alternating chapters about Rill and Avery. It is sad yet ultimately hopeful.  I recommend Before We Were Yours enthusiastically.

Careful What You Wish For

Hallie Ephron | Fiction

2019

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

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

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

Recommended by Jamie Lee Curtis in Time magazine

 

 

Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders | Fiction

2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended by Sara in book club and reconfirmed by Janet.

 

Ayesha at Last

Uzma Jalaluddin

Fiction, 2018

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

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

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

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

 

The Friend

Sigrid Nunez

Fiction, 2018

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

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

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

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

Unsheltered

Barbara Kingsolver |  Fiction, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

 

Past Tense

Lee Child | Fiction

2018

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

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

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

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

 

Still Life

Louise Penny | Fiction

2005

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

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

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

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

Charlie Parker Played Be Bop

Chris Raschka, 1997

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

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

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

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

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

 

Black is the Body

Emily Bernard

Nonfiction, 2019

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

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

Yes, definitely four hearts.

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

 

A Wolf Called Wander

Roseanne Parry

Fiction, 2019

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

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

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

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

 

The Intuitionist

Colson Whitehead |  Fiction, 1999

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

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

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

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

Lost & Found

Jacqueline Sheehan|  Fiction

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

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

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

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

 

My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante | Fiction

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

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

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

The Truths We Hold

Kamala Harris |  Nonfiction

No Rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow.

 

Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve

Ben Blatt |  Nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Color of Law

Mark Gimenez |  Fiction

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

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

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

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

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Mildred D. Taylor |  Fiction

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Washington Post “100 Books for the Ages” Age 12

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

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

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

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

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

Aging: An Apprenticeship

Nancy Narboe, Editor |  Nonfiction

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

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

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

Some of the places we visit to look at our age

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

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

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

Comics for Choice

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

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

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

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

 

Little Bee

Chris Cleave |  Fiction

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

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

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

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

Walking to Listen

Andrew Forsthoefel | Nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Marten

Brian Doyle|  Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crashing Through

Robert Kurson|  Nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

Nine Perfect Strangers

Liane Moriarty |  Fiction

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From the sublime to the absurd.

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

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

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

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

John LeCarré |  Fiction

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

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

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

 

Where the Crawdads Sing

Delia Owens |  Fiction

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

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

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

The End of Night

Paul Bogard |  Nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

Seventh Heaven

Alice Hoffman | Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rocket Men

Robert Kurson |  Nonfiction

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

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

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

The Dry

Jane Harper | Fiction

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

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

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

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

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Steven Galloway |  Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

Margareta Magnusson | Nonfiction

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

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

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

American Marriage

Tayari Jones |  Fiction

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

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

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

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

How Green Was My Valley

Richard Llewellyn |  Fiction

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

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

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

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