Dory L.'s blog

Butterflies in November


All stories, the saying goes, fit into one of seven basic categories: overcoming the monster, a rebirth, rags to riches, a journey, etc.

This quirky and funny novel combines the last two of these element in an Icelandic travelogue that is utterly delightful. 

A young woman’s husband leaves her for his work colleague, not only that but the two lovers are expecting a child any day, but the soon-to-be ex keeps coming back to his wife for more of their joint property and yet another bedroom tryst.

The narrator (the characters are mostly unnamed) works as a translator of 35 languages. She is fine with these end-of-marriage conjugal visits although she finds them rather odd, and when she runs over a goose, she decides that she must make her departing husband a last grand meal.  Creatively, she concocts a sauce to hide the tread marks. Read more »

Tales from Gombe


If you’re fascinated by some of our closest animal relatives, the chimpanzee, this delightful collection of photographs will delight and inspire you.

Gombe National Park in Tanzania is where Richard Leakey and Jane Goodall first studied these fascinating primates over fifty years ago. 

The married photographer pair, Shah and Rogers, made many trips over a period of ten plus years to the park. What makes this book special is to see how individual chimps changed over the years, from babyhood to young adult, to young adult to mature, from mature to old.

The photos show the chimps doing daily activities, hunting, food-gathering eating, grooming, nursing and taking care of their young, even displaying as powerful males and females do to show who is boss and on top of the hierarchy.

What I liked most were the family portraits, a line of chimps in a row, siblings and one or both parents.

For many years, scientists have named all the chimps in one family with names beginning with the same consonants for instance: Frodo, Freud, Fanni, Flossi, Faustino, etc. Representing the G family are Galahad, Gaia, Gizmo, and Google, among others.

It’s amazing how distinct the chimp’s faces are, just as distinct as those of humans.  Also, how intelligent and expressive their eyes are.  The book’s text describes the struggle for power in each community and how certain chimps are loners, while others go off and join other communities.

It also describes how they help each other, how siblings look after their younger family members, how even adults stay close to their parents.

Several photos document tool use by chimps, including the famous termite-foraging with long grasses that Dr. Goodall first discovered in November, 1960 that amazed scientists around the world.

This is a very beautiful book that will also fill you in on some of the latest chimp research in Gombe.  For more on Goodall’s fascinating work and life, try Jane Goodall: a Twentieth Century Life by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen.

Great Bear Wild: Dispatches from a Northern Rainforest


If one area of our continent calls to me more than any other it’s the Northwest, that region of coastal rain forests that extends from northern California to Alaska. 

This magnificent book of photographs covers one of the few unspoiled areas left there, the Great Bear Rainforest.

It’s located on the mainland slightly north of Vancouver and extends past Prince Rupert to the border with Alaska. Talk about wild: salmon, bear, wolves, sea lions, great Douglas firs and hundred-year-old cedars all thrive there.

Ian McAllister, who lives nearby and works as an ecologist, has taken many incredible photographs of the wildlife and the plants.  He also photographed the native people, including a few of the matriarchs of the Gitga’at clan.

The photos are thrilling including some of spirit bears—a bear I was not familiar with. They are white black bears (yes, that’s right) produced by a recessive gene. They are not albinos, so a spirit bear could have black-furred bear mother and siblings. Francis Kermode, a museum curator, first named them.

The chapter on sea wolves shows how tough making a daily living is for the wolves who have bred on this coastal area for centuries.  They must swim between islands to find food, and one young male, ostracized by his family is shown swimming away from all that he has known after his family boots him away because they cannot feed him.

In one charming photo, tens of curious stellar sea lion bob on the Pacific’s surface—only their heads showing. They stare straight at the photographer. McAllister reports that these wonderfully intelligent and agile creatures are making a comeback in the waters off the Great Bear.

If you’ve ever seen the starfish in the Northwest, you know that these echinoderms are huge and often bright orange. McAllister also takes incredible photographs of colorful underwater creatures: purple urchins and striking rose anemones. Some interesting shots focus on both above-water and below-water life in the same shot.

Like many pristine landscapes left in the world, McAllister reports that the area of the Great Bear Rainforest is under threat from oil drilling. Additionally, there are plans to create a large port in seas that are often stormy and dangerous. This motivated McAllister to publish these beautiful photographs. But the text of the book also provides much information about the creatures of the region. Read more »

The Girl on the Train


One of the things I miss from my East Coast childhood is riding commuter trains.

There is something about the feeling of time being suspended as you lean against the window and watch the world flow past: houses, schools, playgrounds, rivers, cars and those glimpses of people passing ordinary days. After reading this British thriller, I will never look at trains the same way again.

A young woman, Rachel, just past the bloom of youth, rides trains into London every weekday: the 8:04 a.m. into town and the 5:56 p.m. return. Every evening she drinks too much—small bottles of wine or canned mixed drinks.

One particular neighborhood--where the train slows for a crossing--captures Rachel’s complete attention.  In one of the backyards she often spots a young glamorous couple, whom she doesn’t know at all, but she names them Justin and Jess. She often sees Justin coming out to the garden with a mug of coffee or tea for his wife, and they exchange endearments.

Rachel even invents careers for them, a private life. Jess works in the arts, and Justin does something with computers. Meanwhile, Rachel’s career and married life have taken a horrible slide.

Her husband, Tom, left her for another woman, Anna.  He’s not only left her but then had a child with Anna after Rachel tried and failed for years to have a family with him. To make matters even worse, Tom and Anna live in the same house, Rachel shared with Tom. Guess where it’s located?  Yes, just off the railroad tracks, a few yards down from that of the fabled couple, Justin and Jess.

Even though Rachel has no reason to ride the train every day she continues. Now she goes to the library and works on her CV. But her drinking gets worse and worse. She calls, texts, and emails her ex constantly, driving Anna crazy.  Her landlady throws her out of the apartment after she has left a major mess once too often.

Then one morning, a different man joins Jess in the garden. At first Rachel thinks: a brother, a cousin, her husband’s friend. But no, he kisses Jess tenderly as the train slows at its normal spot.

Soon someone is murdered in one of the houses just off the tracks. The problem: Rachel got off the train that night and wandered through the train tunnel.  She was soused and cannot piece together what happened.  So many details were lost to the fog of alcohol. Also, someone hurt her that night. But whom?

This riveting book will keep you turning the pages. My advice: don’t start it on a week night unless you have an open calendar the next day. The characters, the story, the unexpected twists, will keep you guessing and enthralled.

Orphan Train


I had a personal connection to this novel because my mom was raised as an orphan in Chicago. Luckily, she never had to experience adoptions or sharing foster homes with unloving parents but she did start out on her own at age sixteen working as a salesgirl in the Chicago Loop.

This touching intertwined story of two orphans: one contemporary and one from depression era days, was a quick and touching read. It begins with Goth-looking Molly, a young, half-Native America girl from Maine who just got busted for stealing a book from the public library.  Really? Well not every detail in a novel has to be 100% authentic.   

In case you’re curious, Molly took the third and the most beaten-up copy of Jane Eyre. Read more »

Once in the West


Several best poetry lists of the year include this seventh title by Christian Wiman, former editor of the well-renowned Poetry Magazine, who now teaches at Yale Divinity School.

His interest in theology and his experience as a person with a terminal disease bring a unique focus to his writing as these lines attest: “A soul / extrapolated // from the body’s / need // needs a body / of loss.”  In another poem “The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians” he shows the power of the right words to hone in, “I tell you some Sundays even the children’s sermon / --maybe especially this—sharks your gut // like a bite of tin some beer-guzzling goat / either drunkenly or mistakenly decides to sample.”  

As he did in his memoir My Bright Abyss about life after a bone marrow transplant, Wiman dives deep. There is no surface skimming for him.  Several poems celebrate his Read more »

Deep Down Dark


Even though I knew the ending before I opened this book, this in-depth, emotionally and factually rich story of 33 miners trapped under the earth for sixty-nine days was a real thriller.

The book opens with a photograph of the 33 men who survived two months deep underground. Thirty-two were from Chile, and there was one young miner from Bolivia who had the amazingly bad luck to be stuck in a mine collapse on his very first day of work.

In his fourth book, journalist Tobar presents not only the San Jose mine but an overview of modern Chilean life. He begins with a rich description of many of the miners and their families, some of whom travelled almost the whole length of Chile for their jobs. Read more »

Claire of the Sea Light


This Sunday at 2 p.m. in Room 2B, join our Booksplus discussion about Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light.  In honor of Black History month, we will discuss this luminous book set in Haiti just before the cataclysmic earthquake of 2009.

Danticat, who emigrated from Haiti as a child, has won many awards including the MacArthur Award (nicknamed the genius award).

If you like folklore and learning about other cultures, Claire of the Sea Light is the book for you. It tells the tale of a young girl whose mother died just after her daughter’s birth. According to Haitian folklore, this makes Claire a revenan, a child who battled with her mother’s spirit and won.

On each of her birthdays, Nozias, Claire’s father, takes her to visit her mother’s grave. In the cemetery they meet Madam Gaelle, a fabric store owner and wealthy widow in town, who lost her own daughter on the same date as Claire’s birthday. Read more »

Everything I Never Told You


The story opens with the death of 16-year-old Lydia. Her family has gathered for breakfast on a busy May morning. It’s the usual chaos, two kids running in and out of the kitchen gathering homework and school bags and eating on the run.

It’s the 1970s and the father, James, is a history professor in a small town in Ohio; the mother, Marilyn, an unwilling homemaker.

Celeste Ng’s luminous first novel deals with issues of race, sex discrimination, and a parent who places burdensome academic expectations on a child. Read more »

Best Short Stories of the Year


I love anthologies, particularly of short stories. But I must confess I never follow the editor’s carefully thought-out arrangement.

Certainly, I hit pay dirt with this year’s O. Henry prize collection.  The very first story I dove into “Good faith” by Colleen Morrissey wowed me on first reading and ended up being my favorite.

What made it so good? Snake handlers, religion, a summer road-trip, girls coming of age, family conflict, romance, and camping out under the stars. It tells the story of a religious family travelling the south who meet two rich young men on the road.

That night the leading character Rachel does snake handling, not for entertainment, as she tells the more serious young man, Mr. Pattinson, but as part of her faith and religious practice. Read more »

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