As far as I’m concerned, you can’t go wrong with Elizabeth Berg. Her latest release is a collection of short stories that celebrates women and moments in their lives. Most of these moments start with a spark of discontent and blossom into something wonderful.
As a lifetime member of Weight Watchers (currently over my goal weight) the title story celebrated food and health and what we go through to maintain ourselves in order to live longer in a manner that I related to. Berg successfully takes the everyday events of our lives and somehow makes them more. Each character in this collection becomes you, someone you know, or someone you’d like to know. For new readers and regular fans, this book won’t disappoint.
Secrets. We all have them. Do we share them? Should we keep them? It was this concept that I found so I intriguing in Barbara Delinsky’s latest book, The Secret Between Us.
Deborah, a recently divorced family physician in a small New England town, and her daughter, Grace, are the principle characters in this deception. The story opens with a car accident during a torrential downpour on an unlit street, and spirals from there. Deborah went out in the rain to pick up Grace from a friend’s house and allowed Grace to drive home with her learner’s permit. The two are arguing when suddenly there is a flash of movement, a hideous thump, and events unravel from there.
While I could totally relate to the maternal instinct to protect your child at all costs, I don’t think this story could have worked without its setting. Everybody in a small town knows, or knows of, everyone else, which is what makes the keeping of secrets so tenuous. They all know each other’s business and each character naturally has something to hide. I found parts of the story to be somewhat contrived, but I was still interested enough to finish the book.
If you’re looking for an opportunity to sort through some small town family dynamics, this is the book for you.
When I started to read The Devil in the White City, I was surprised to discover that it was a nonfiction book. Larson skillfully alternates between two stories about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair: the story of the men who built the Fair, and the story of the serial killer who used the Fair to lure young women to their death.
I have always been fascinated with the Chicago World’s Fair, however I found the chapters on its creation to drag a little, and I often found myself skimming them so that I could get back to the fast-paced chapters about H.H. Holmes, the charming serial killer and his evil doings. I understand that the author was using the juxtaposition of the light and dark sides of Fair to create tension, but I found the dark side of the story more compelling.
The Devil in the White City is a fascinating read for history buffs and true crime fans alike. The book brings to life turn-of-the-century Chicago, the growth of a nation, and a frightening tour inside the mind of a killer.
Can a novel deliver entertainment and promise spiritual enlightenment? It can when served up by West Michigan pastor and spiritual director Sharon Garlough Brown. Packed inside her engaging story, Sensible Shoes, is a small non-fiction work on incorporating ancient spiritual disciplines into life. This 2013 Midwest Publishing Awards Show Honorable Mention book chronicles the friendship between four women who meet at a spiritual disciplines class, a class none of them initially wanted to attend.
The back cover of the book describes the women this way:
Hannah, a pastor who doesn’t realize how exhausted she is
Meg, a widow and recent empty-nester who is haunted by her past
Mara, a woman who has bounced from relationship to relationship and who is trying to navigate a difficult marriage
Charissa, a hard-working graduate student who wants to get things right
The book is structured around the development of the friendships, how the women are responding to the Saturday morning lessons given over three months, and what the practice of each discipline is dredging up from their pasts. Key to the development of the story and spiritual growth of the women is the seminar leader, Katherine Rhodes, and Charissa’s professor, Dr. Nathan Allen. The reader is set up to understand the conflict in the story by Brown’s effective use of short flashbacks.
Most chapters begin with the handout the women received at the start of a session, followed by the leader walking the women through the new discipline. Brown makes smooth transitions from the seminar to the lives of each woman, which she separates within the chapters. The story flows just like a typical novel.
Do not be deceived. Even if you skip reading the handout page or the explanation of the discipline you will not be able to escape the spirituality because the women share it with you, with either the personal reflection going on in their heads or in dialogue with each other.
At times, the dialogue itself will make the reader feel as if they are sitting with their own spiritual director. Take these examples:
“He (professor) placed his elbows on his desk, still clasping his hands together. ‘Your desire for control is keeping you from entrusting yourself to Christ, Charissa. And your desire for perfection is preventing you from receiving grace. You’re stumbling over the cross by trying to be good, by trying so hard to be perfect.’”
In the session on praying with imagination, the leader, Katherine refers back to the story of Bartimaeus asking for sight: “That’s a courageous thing to ask for, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s easier to remain in our darkness and blindness. But Bartimaeus wants to see.”
In the session about establishing a rule of life, Katherine gives an analogy: “Rules of life are like trellises … helping branches grow in the right direction and providing support and structure.”
Other practices Brown successfully weaves into her story include: Walking a Labyrinth as a Journey of Prayer, Lectio Divina, Praying the Examen, Wilderness Prayer, and Self-Examination and Confession.
Although I believe this book will find only a small audience in readers from West Michigan, readers of Christian fiction, and readers of Christian spiritual growth books, my hope is that others will pick up this gem and be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years — a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Taking us into a landscape most of us have never before seen, Barbara Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today — an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, in which radio and television dials are welded to the one government station, and where displays of affection are punished; a police state where informants are rewarded and where an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life.
Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors. Through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her six subjects — average North Korean citizens — fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we experience the moments when they realize that their government has betrayed them.
This is an outstanding work of narrative nonfiction that offers a never-before-seen view of a country and society largely unknown to the rest of the world. With remarkable detail and through a deeply personal look at the lives of six defectors from the repressive totalitarian regime of the Republic of North Korea, Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime in the world today.
The reader will find it heartbreaking, pitiful and with every page turn wish it not true.
By Karen Thoms, Grand Rapids Public Library-West Side Branch
The word ‘hospitality’ brings to mind dinners or parties with friends and family. Almost always being hospitable includes food and drink shared with people you know. If this description of hospitality resonates, you may find Christine Pohl’s discussion of the evolution of hospitality in Making Room an interesting read.
Weaving together Biblical texts and ancient philosophical writings, Pohl discusses the roots of hospitality. Initially people, especially members of the church, were hospitable to strangers in need. Gradually, the magnitude of these genuine needs caused people to think in new ways about meeting those needs. Hotels, hospitals and even our current mental health care system sprung up. As these agencies, businesses and non-profits became part of the social landscape, fewer individuals stepped up to aid the poor and outcasts of society.
Today professionals attend to those who need lodging and healing, making face-to-face encounters with people in need more difficult and less frequent. Pohl argues that the long-term effects of professionalizing hospitality contributes to those helped being disconnected from the community and feeling invisible. Her honest assessment includes how to engage with the disenfranchised instead of sending them to professionals or, if need be, to stand with them as they seek professional help.
Throughout this excellent work, which comes with a companion study guide, Pohl will guide you from abstract commitments of loving your neighbor to concrete expressions of hospitality to the marginalized. Read as a history you will be enlightened, read as a commentary on society and the church you will be challenged to think differently about what true hospitality is and provoked to actions that contribute toward community healing.
How did an upper middle-class family who went to the vet to euthanize their beloved elderly cat, end up taking home one of the newer “super-pit” breeds cropping up? Well- you’ll have to read the book to find out, and it makes for a fairly unusual tale, as Eli (Oogy) returns from an almost Biblical destruction to prove that ultimately “living well is the best revenge”.
Caution: dog lovers will not be able to resist this dog or this book.
In 1951, a poor, 31-year-old mother of five died of cervical cancer. Without her family’s knowledge, her cervical cells were harvested and used to create the first viable cell line, known to scientists and doctors as ‘HeLa’. Her cells are used all over the world and have aided doctors in many of the greatest medical discoveries of our century.
While her cells have had great success, Henrietta Lack’s family have never been compensated or recognized for their great gift to the medical community. Rebecca Skloot and Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, search for the truth and for Henrietta’s story, a remarkable narrative of faith, hope, science, ethics and journalism.
For those who have dreamed of true adventure, of exploring and of attempting perilous journeys and of living as a pioneer, The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert is a book you will not want to miss. Comparable to admired adventure books such as Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Last American Man follows the life of Eustace Conway, who at the age of seventeen left his family’s home to live in a teepee in the woods and wear skins from animals he trapped. He hiked the Appalachian Trail and set the world record for crossing the United States on horseback. Conway eventually purchased land in North Carolina and started the Turtle Island Preserve, which he built with his own two hands in the traditional way, and where he continues to hold camps and classes in survival and living off the land.
The Last American Man takes readers on Conway’s lifelong adventure in pursuit of his ultimate goal — to convince Americans to give up their materialistic lifestyles and return with him back to nature. Because Elizabeth Gilbert does an excellent job of writing his story, The Last American Man was a finalist for the National Book Award, and because Eustace Conway is a compelling character, it’s easy get lost in the adventure and feel oneself called toward the woods, to living a simpler life.
It’s been a long time since I was genuinely spooked by a ghost story, but only a few chapters into Heart-Shaped Box, I actually had to set the book down and take a short break. Hill’s first novel is a doozy, a ghostly revenge story that is highly effective in the chills and thrills department, with a bit of gore and some flawed but sympathetic characters thrown in.
It’s been years since two of Jude Coyne’s band mates died and he retired from a highly successful career as a death-metal singer and role model to Goths everywhere (think Alice Cooper and biting the heads off rats). Now he lives with his two devoted dogs, personal assistant, and an ever-changing procession of much younger female companions that he flippantly refers to by the state they are from.
Jude’s a collector of the macabre, and he is bored enough that he jumps at the chance to buy a supposedly haunted suit off an Internet auction. When the suit arrives in a heart-shaped box, he figures he’s been conned and doesn’t think any more about it until strange things start happening in the house. Current girlfriend Georgia (her real name is Marybeth) finds the suit on the bed next to her, smelling of decay, and Jude begins to catch glimpses of an old man with a swinging silver razor and a mysterious purpose.
I won’t give away any more of the plot, since half the fun comes in the discovery of how Jude’s past has literally come back to haunt him. Forced to confront his childhood, 54-year-old Jude finally starts to grow up, and his relationship with his girlfriend undergoes a just touching enough turn as a result of their ordeal. Jude’s dogs stay loyal to the very end (Warning to sensitive pet-lovers: keep away if you can’t take bad things happening to animals).
Hill is the son of Stephen King, a fact he kept hidden until just before the book was released, and he has inherited King’s gift for tweaking traditional horror elements into a narrative that is impossible to put down. This book is an excellent non-stop thriller that makes the traditional ghost story scary again.
The latest in a sequence of mysteries involving Torie O’Shea, Died in the Wool was the first of Rett MacPherson’s novels for me, but it certainly won’t be the last. I just happened to pick up MacPherson’s 2007 release, but now plan to start reading about Torie from the beginning of the series. I enjoy following a familiar figure through several books, like Janet Evanovich’s character, Stephanie Plum, and I think it won’t take long for Torie to become another one of my favorites. I found MacPherson to use humor in her story in much the same way that Evanovich does, but Died in the Wool lacked the slightly steamy scenes found in Janet’s stories about Stephanie Plum’s life.
Torie (short for Victory) O’Shea is a genealogist and president of the New Kassel, Missouri historical society and the main character in a series of short mysteries featuring a genealogical twist. She is a happily married, 40ish mother who also seems to have her hand in just about everything possible in her small town.
This story begins with an unusual introduction of characters in strong disagreement over the production of the town’s first annual rose show. Torie plunges through a tangle of interwoven events that are set in motion with the planning of the show: solve a mystery surrounding a ‘haunted’ house, investigate the apparent suicides of a prominent local family in the 1920s, and discover that all is not what is appears to be simply because of her interest in quilting.
Sound confusing? Not really. MacPherson does a good job of keeping the pace quick and the details from becoming overpowering. Though it all, she brings the reader into the world of discovering how the past reaches into the present by sharing secrets of successful genealogical researching. Died in the Wool is a very quick read at less than 300 pages, but with several more books featuring Torie O’Shea, it’s sure not to disappoint.
By M. Christine Byron, Grand Rapids Main Library and Thomas R. Dilley
This wonderful anthology brings together twenty-eight reflections on coming of age in Grand Rapids. These personal histories of young people who were seldom “seen or heard” document the social history of Grand Rapids from a fresh perspective. The earliest pieces date back to the 1830s and 1850s and the most recent describe coming of age in the 1960s through the 1980s. Half of the narratives in this volume are culled from existing books, journals and magazines; the other half are new pieces specifically written for this collection.
Gordon Olson, City Historian Emeritus, has gathered accounts of young people from historical sources. Reinder Van Til, an editor for William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, collected writings of living authors. As Van Til says in the preface, this volume represents “not only sharp personal writing by some of the best writers that Grand Rapids has produced but also a kind of impressionistic historical portrait of a community during a century and a half of its own coming of age.”
Albert Baxter and Charles Belknap write of past times when Grand Rapids could hardly be called even a one-horse town. Essays by Arnold Gringrich, Gerald and Betty Ford, John Hockenberry and Paul Schrader recount formative years and experienced here before they each would leave their hometown to make their ways in the world. Roger Wilkins, Levi Rickert, Al Green and Bich Minh Nguyen share their experiences growing up in a white community, and the racial inequities that are an indelible part of their memories. Edward Gillis and Max Apple write fondly of the strong ties to their ethnic communities. Poignant and memorable essays by Hank Meijer, Tom Rademacher and Kaye Longberg recall teenage years in the 1960s and 1970s, before the weight of adulthood had settled upon them.
Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Grand Rapids speaks to the remarkable diversity of experience that has made the city what it is today. This collection of voices gives each of us the opportunity to pause, look back and reflect on each of our personal histories.
Don’t judge this book by its cover! It might be cliché, but in this case, fitting. The outward appearance of The History of Michigan Law belies the interesting content inside. Editors Finkelman and Hershock have organized a series of essays by twelve different authors surveying Michigan’s rich legal past. Readers can pick and choose a topic of particular interest or read chronologically from ‘Michigan’s Territorial Heritage’, to ‘The Struggle Against Sex Discrimination in the 1970s’.
In each essay, the author describes how the law in this area has developed over time. The dynamic nature of the law becomes clear as the authors discuss how the people of the state have shaped the law, carrying their traditions and values through changing economic and social circumstances.
In ‘Blood on the Tracks: Law, Railroad Accidents, the Economy and the Michigan Frontier’, Hershock reviews an important legal controversy of the 19th century: Who was responsible for keeping livestock off the railroad tracks? The new economy and its emerging technology were running headlong into traditional agricultural practices and the result was literally blood on the tracks. Hershock explains that developing stock laws, which required the fencing in of animals was an important step towards a modern economy.
In ‘The Promise of Equality and the Limits of the Law: From the Civil War to World War II’, Finkelman discusses some of the most significant legal developments of the 20th century. One of the functions of the law is to reflect the aspirations of a society, to hold up an ideal as a goal to be achieved. And yet it is important to remember that the law has limits.
Finkelman concludes, “Racism in Michigan could not be eradicated easily or immediately through legislation, prosecution or civil lawsuits. On the other hand, the persistent efforts of the Michigan legislature led to greater equality and greater opportunity for African Americans than they had in most other states.”
This important volume provides excellent background and worthwhile reading for both scholars and citizens as we face the legal challenges of the 21st century.
I borrowed a library copy of Words Fail Me by Patricia T. O’Connor to fortify myself with the confidence I’ll need to write a book next year. I chose this book over others for its brief chapters, breezy, humorous style and perfect sprinkle of examples. Thirty chapters make for a perfect chapter a day reading plan, but I ran out of chapters in two weeks. Yes, a book on writing was that good!
The book is divided into three sections: ‘Pull Yourself Together’, ‘The Fundamental Things Apply’, and ‘Getting Better All the Time’. All three sections are necessary but can be read out of order.
I found ‘Pull Yourself Together’ the most inspiring because I was hoping to glean inspiration and courage to write again. Shortly into ‘The Fundamental Things Apply’ I knew I had to purchase the book because of the desire to highlight for future reference. I’m so glad I did because ‘Getting Better All the Time’ has great chapters on writer’s block and revisions. O’Connor’s pithy lines may give you just the push you need to begin or resume writing.
On having good organization:
“An idea in your head is merely an idle notion. But an idea written down, that’s the beginning of something … A writer with good material is one who never lets a useful nugget slip away … A tidbit doesn’t have to be earth-shaking to be worth saving. It only has to be useful.”
On having verbs that zing:
“So when you go shopping for a verb, don’t be cheap. Splurge.” Instead of saying, “experience that magic,” say “bask in that magic”.
On improving writing:
“You can’t maintain a clear point of view without a consistent tone.” “When you write indirectly — with passive verbs, pompous words, or corkscrew sentences — you turn away from the reader.”
While reading this book I learned and was reminded of rules, tips and pitfalls; yet I was curious to know if seasoned writers would similarly profit. A search of Amazon reviews confirmed they did. So in concert with their recommendations, Words Fail Me will be my go-to book.
I’m often resistant to books billed as being “inspirational”, “heartwarming”, or providing “life lessons”, but when I finally gave in and read Cooper’s book, Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned about Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat, I loved it. I figured that with her last book being, Diary of a South Beach Party Girl, which People Magazine touted as a “seedily thrilling world of mid-90’s Miami”, the cat book couldn’t be too sentimental…
In fact, Homer is anything but a poor, pitiful animal; his character is very bold and resourceful, drawing from a deep place of awareness without physical sight, since Homer is completely blind. Abandoned as a very young kitten, an infection took his eyes, and a veterinarian sewed the lids shut. When Gwen Cooper adopted him at 4 weeks, she realized that he was special, and others did too. Her (cat adverse) parents offer to take him in, if, “God forbid, anything should happen to you”. Her ex-boyfriend and his pals love to cat-sit Homer, explaining, “For he is El Mocho, the cat without fear!”
In one chilling chapter, Homer saves Gwen from an intruder in her house in the middle of the night. Living in the Manhattan financial district, the cats also survive the terrible days of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, where their apartment was only 5 blocks away.
The book works so well because the writing is crisp and funny, and the cat is so unusual and appealing, plus it’s a definite page-turner, and ok, it’s probably inspirational too.
By Elaine Bosch, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main
Jeannette Walls, best-selling author of the compelling memoir, The Glass Castle, follows up with a “true life” novel — Half Broke Horses. Going back another generation in her family tree, Walls expounds, with insight and energy, on the life of her grandmother Lily.
The spirit of the family so memorably captured in The Glass Castle has its roots in Lily. Raised on hardscrabble horse ranches in Texas and Arizona at the turn of the 20th century, tough, outspoken Lily does not want an ordinary life as a wife and mother. She wants education, freedom and independence. She begins breaking horses at age 6. At 15, she rides 500 miles alone on horseback through the desert to take her first job. She furthers her search for education and excitement by moving to Chicago in her early twenties. Eventually, heartbreak and family obligations send her back to her roots in the west.
This wonderful book reads like a historical adventure. The people, places, and events of the times are well researched and accurate in spirit. The characters are colorful and the narrative is rollicking. Lily faces life’s tribulations and tragedies with style and determination. She builds a legacy, both philosophical and financial, that will sustain her family long after she has gone.
While Half Broke Horses stands on its own merits, it will be best appreciated if read in tandem with The Glass Castle. If you are already a fan of the memoir, you will be captivated by the prequel.
The uncanny illness seemed to arise out of the WWI battlefields. In 1916, soldiers were evacuated from the trenches at Verdun, and in the field hospitals some were stricken with flu like symptoms just before they fell into a deep sleep. Some would eventually wake, and some would not. Those that did not die often awoke to a living nightmare of disability and/or psychosis.
As the “Sleeping Sickness” entered the general population, an increasingly frantic medical community strove to find a cause or a treatment. Five million people are estimated to have contracted it, and over nine thousand articles were published in the medical literature during its reign. But then the pandemic suddenly disappeared in the late 1920s, and it was forgotten. Encephalitis Lethargica had vanished into history again.
Crosby’s book, Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries, is a multi-layered medical mystery that re-creates the people, the times, and the newly developing science of neurology. It’s written in an engrossing lyrical style, as we trace the epidemic’s stages.
Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote his fascinating book Awakenings, (also a movie), about a group of patients that he treated in the sixties, who were all victims of that twenties epidemic, and he highly recommends Crosby’s work, calling it “A brilliant, deeply moving account.”
Mrs. Greenthumbs Plows Ahead: 5 Steps to the Drop-Dead Gorgeous Garden of Your Dreams by Cassandra Danz
By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library
Cassandra Dietz, alias Mrs. Greenthumbs, is one of a small number authors of gardening books that are actually fun and enlightening to read. Most gardening books are a lot like cookbooks — if you like the picture, you might want to try and reproduce the item. Mrs. Greenthumbs is more along the line of the PBS radio show, Car Talk with Tom and Ray Magliozzi — it’s very interesting, whether you know much about cars or not. She teaches gardening, designs gardens professionally, has a weekly radio show on gardening and even tours nationally as a gardening speaker.
With Mrs. Greenthumbs also, you can travel along as an armchair gardener, learning the odd fact about famous historical gardener greats, (Gertrude Jekyll was very short, very rotund, and also legally blind the last 40 years of her life), or about how much gardening can do for your sex life (after cutting through an acre of bamboo she remembers her husband with, “sweat glistening on his torso. I felt like Ava Gardener in Mogambo“). You learn many things to enrich your life that are related to gardening, but perhaps not in the usual Thoreau-type sense.
I still am amazed that with all the gardening books I check out every year; my favorite one, Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned a Boring Yard into a Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too, has no photographs at all. Just very minimalist sketches by Merle Nacht, who has a sly style, somewhere between Thurber and Gorey that perfectly matches the text. Maybe it is the fact that with Mrs. Greenthumbs, one is led along with her as she tackles projects that are easily imagined and accomplished. Or it could be that she makes it sound like so much fun, or even if one does not ever plan to garden ever, it’s a hoot to hear about her descriptions of the New York Flower Show, or reading her 10 rules of design.
By Carl Meyering, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main
Area 51 — An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen
No piece of government real estate has been so shrouded in government secrecy, yet has been the subject so much speculation by the public. Located 75 miles north of Las Vegas, Area 51 has had a part in almost every newsworthy event in the Cold War: from flying saucers, the U-2 spy plane, atomic bomb testing to military drones.
National security reporter Annie Jacobsen has researched the 60-year history of Area 51 heavily, having sifted through declassified government documents and interviewed 74 people with firsthand knowledge. She populates her book with many revelations from Chuck Yeager-style test pilots, base administrators and staff that brings credibility to her text.
Jacobsen reveals for the fist time numerous secrets about the base and writes of the many conspiracy theories connected with the base: the faking of the moon landing, space aliens and flying saucers. The reader must read through the epilogue to understand the full weight and ramifications of her revelations.
Winner of the National Book Award in 2011, Ward’s second novel is beautifully written and disturbing, with many “moral ambiguities” to consider. It would be a strong choice for book discussion groups and mature Young Adult readers.
The story begins and ends with a character as real as any of the humans — the pitbull China. China White, a loving, fighting dog, known for being a killer in the local pits of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, is in whelp for the first time, body convulsing, as she gifts her owner, 16-year-old Skeetah, with the new lives.
Esch, the only girl in a family without living women, will come to see China as a totem and an example of what being a female and a mother involves. Because even though Esch is only 15, she’s been having sex since she was 12, and nature has finally taken its natural course. Will her pregnancy go like China’s or take the darker path her mother walked?
With Mama nine years gone and no female relatives or friends, Esch tries to find guidance where she can. Lately, she has been framing things through the filter of the ancient Greek myths, where men and women, egged on by unseen forces, are tossed about by fate. In Esch’s life now, she’s longing for love but instead she’s visited with an obsession for an older boy almost as humiliating as Pasiphae’s or Medea’s. It’s telling that Esch is jealous, not of her man’s steady girlfriend, but of the care and devotion her brother and China share.
The author lets us in on a small world with unwasted, poetic prose. If you skip one sentence, you might miss the whole key to a character, and each member of this family is well worth knowing.
But it’s not a good time for men or dogs along the Gulf Coast now, twelve days out before the hurricane hits. Only Daddy Batiste senses the strength of the coming storm in his alcoholic bones and pushes his children to prepare. When Katrina finally arrives like Yaweh’s answer to Job or Krishna’s revelation to Arjuna, it’s with an incomprehensible power that leaves Bois Sauvage dumbstruck.
My only caveat with this excellent book is that while Ward’s style is unsparing about the most painful aspects of being human, there’s a terrible irony in the way that dog fighting is whitewashed as a cultural sport, almost like boxing.
Men We Reaped: A Memoir, is another not-to-be-missed read by Jesmyn Ward.
Full title: The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing, and the Science of Suffering
By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main
Most of us know someone with chronic pain, but we don’t really know much about the disease itself.
Why and how can it develop and how do doctors treat it? It’s a surprisingly intriguing subject, full of paradoxes and hope.
One day, after a long swim, Melanie’s life would change when she developed a severe pain in her neck, and it did not go away. Not after weeks, not after months; and thus began the journey into the labyrinth of chronic pain and its defeat. A writer by profession, she spent eight years of research visiting doctors and patients at our country’s best pain clinics. A fascinating and exceptionally readable book that seeks to answer the question, “What made the difference? Why did some people become better?”
Thernstrom’s book is a cultural, historic and neurological tour of this mysterious and misunderstood disease. Also a validating work for pain patients and their supporters, who are often dismayed as much by their treatments as their conditions. For instance, it isn’t your imagination — minorities and women often do receive quite different medical care from doctors.
Two other excellent memoirs are Paula Kamen’s, All in My Head : An Epic Quest to Cure an Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, and Only Slightly Enlightening Headache, and Lynne Greenberg’s, The Body Broken: A Memoir.
By Laura Nawrot, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main
The unique setting makes Water for Elephants a delightful read. The novel starts out in a present-day nursing home as a narrative of one of the residents, Jacob Jankowski. Although Jacob has some difficulty remembering whether he’s ninety or ninety-three years old, he can easily recall the time he spent as the veterinarian for a mid-sized traveling circus during the Depression. The story alternates between the past and the present, reflecting Jacob’s mind.
Jacob is a strong character, and author Sara Gruen maintains the integrity of his personality throughout the story, even when portraying Jacob at different ages. She also develops believable supporting characters in Jacob’s love interest, Marlena, and his nemesis, August. In addition, I liked the tension that was created as the story wove its way back and forth between the decades. The description was solid without being intrusive, although I would have enjoyed a little more texture through the inclusion of the various smells of a circus. Gruen explains in an extensive, but interesting author’s note how she came to write this story.
I recommend this book to multi-generational readers. It has wide appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction, drama, and romance, and touches on issues that cross generations: love and loss, following your dreams while earning a living, and the traumas of youth and aging.
A beautiful, compelling memoir about an exceptional life and a relentless disease, Jamison’s fast-paced story of her struggle and triumph over manic depression opens a window onto a mysterious and ever increasing diagnosis. If you have ever wondered why someone with a serious mental disorder won’t take their medication, Jamison hits this issue full-on, as she weighs the euphoric seductions of the hypomanias against the sometimes punitive and toxic effects of the drugs.
Her memoir is especially fascinating because she has a dual perspective; having studied and become an academic expert in Bipolar Illness and Mood Disorder, while experiencing the devastating effects of it in her own life. Oliver Sacks says about An Unquiet Mind, that “It stands alone in the literature of manic-depression for its bravery, brilliance and beauty.”
When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decided to infiltrate the Arizona Hells Angels and clean house they knew it wouldn’t be an easy job. Lengthy, complicated and expensive (think tax dollars), this sting holds one’s attention, as we wait to see what will ultimately be revealed when the nets are pulled up.
The most interesting part for me was the state of mind of the author/agent, as he descends into a violent, criminal culture that he finds increasingly attractive. We follow the transformation of Jay Dobyns, ATF undercover agent, into Bird, aspiring Hells Angel, over a 2-year period.
It raises the questions that police, military and even psychologists face, when they are trying to infiltrate or befriend “the enemy”. How much of our personality and our values are reflections of the culture we are in, rather than uniquely “us”? Where do the criminals stop and we begin… Dobyns invokes the lure of the free, macho brotherhood at first, but as time passes he shows us that it doesn’t really age so well.
Some of it was unintentionally funny. Who knew that there is a very strict, fussy code to get into the Hells Angels, and that their charters are filled with rules and “do’s and don’ts”. One crazy scene involves an impromptu opportunity for ATF, when the Hells Angels stay at a swanky Vegas hotel, supposedly arranged by Bird’s mysterious boss. ATF then needs an out-of-town police operative to play this “Mr Big”, and at the last minute they have to get a substitute, with surprising results.
Things are not as they would seem on the surface, but then, they never are.
There’s nothing like a cup of tea and a good book to warm the winter chill away.
An epic novel like “Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell fits the bill for that. I don’t know many people who haven’t read this true classic of American literature, but for those who haven’t, now may be the time to pick it up. Images of the Old South during the Civil War come to life in the pages and voices of the unforgettable characters of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Honestly, who has not associated the famous line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” with the vision of Rhett fixing his hat to his head and crossing the threshold into the mist?Which brings up another bonus to reading this novel; a quality movie version to watch upon completion of the book! Ah, Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable…
If the 1,000+ pages of Mitchell’s classic is just too intimidating, (reading this book would probably get you through to spring), there’s always the shorter choice of light romantic fiction. Some “fluffy” authors that come to mind are Danielle Steel and Jude Deveraux.
“Someone to Love” by Jude Deveraux is something I read recently and her writing style and story line immediately brought Danielle Steel to mind. While reading books by these ladies definitely does not require the same amount of time as reading “Gone with the Wind,” they could bring just as much satisfaction if all you’re looking for is an afternoon or two of simple diversion from the snow.
The dark, working man’s engine of the Rolling Stones comes across as a modern Odysseus, relating his memoirs. Looking back at 66, he doesn’t pull many punches. All the Stones gossip is here, and the great musical history, but there’s also a wealth of unexpected human experience that adds up to a compelling memoir.
Born in 1943 near London, Keith grew up a mum’s boy, an only child with a pet mouse for company, who sang soprano, and was a devoted boy scout. Surrounded by a bevy of women — mum, aunts, and girl cousins — he “learned about women” early on, much to his later advantage. His grandfather, Gus, a former band leader, used to take him on outings to escape all those females, and sparked his passion for music. Richards combines a unique voice with the storyteller’s art. His ghost, James Fox, did an excellent job of organizing the material, so the result flows like a personal conversation.
The way-of-the-rock-star is known for egregious excess of course, and there were a lot of casualties along the way. Maybe he came out alive, but the betrayal of the 60’s creed of the “free” life, including his struggle with heroin, and the death of friends, relationships, and even his infant son, could hardly leave Richards unscathed. Why he should be left standing is a mystery. He has his theories, but Richards lets his life speak for itself.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Godwin may be the most well-known name on the program for Calvin College’s January Series, the annual series of speakers and discussions on topics great and intimate.
But some lesser-known speakers — such as Eugene Cho, Lisa Sharon Harper, and the joint lecture by Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray — may well provide inspiration and challenge as much as information.
“I think Eugene Cho is great to have on the series,” Kristi Potter, director of the January Series, said in supplied material. “So often we talk about how we can make a difference, but are we actually doing it? … Cho will hold us accountable to take those steps to make a difference. In his book, he asks questions like ‘Are we in love with the idea of changing the world or actually changing the world?’ and ‘Do we just write a check or do we change our lifestyle to help change the world?’”
The January Series runs noontime January 4-24 and includes 15 speakers discussing topics ranging from systemic racism in America, the gender gap in technology, healthcare delivery and the cycle of poverty. Cho’s talk will be Jan. 18.
People with stories to tell
Cho is the founder and pastor of Quest Church, an urban, multicultural, multigenerational church in Seattle known for tackling societal issues head-on. Harper is an social advocate and, quite literally, a Sojourner. Skeesuck and Gray are friends who share a bond of adventure and service to other.
Skeesuck and Gray have shared a lifelong friendship, full of many adventures, including their 500-mile trek across Spain. But their story is much more than simply friendly adventuring. Skeesuck has a progressive neuromuscular disease and travels with a wheelchair. Together, the pair trekked the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, and detailed their adventures in the film and educational project “I’ll Push You”.
The pair, according to supplied information, live by the mantra that “Life is not defined by its limitations, it is defined by what is accomplished in spite of those limitations.” Their talk will be Jan. 12.
Harper, who will talk Jan. 16, works with Sojourners, a group started in the 1970s in Washington, D.C., that has grown and transformed to now have the goal to “inspire hope and build a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world.” Harper’s faith-rooted approach to advocacy and organizing has activated people across the U.S. and around the world to address structural and political injustice as an outward demonstration of their personal faith.
Other speakers include Gary Haugen, CEO and founder of International Justice Mission; Mark Desmond, co-founder of the Justice and Poverty Project and the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant”; violinist Taylor Davis, whose passion for gaming and film music has made her one of the fastest rising stars in the digital world with 1 million subscribers on her YouTube channel; and N.T. Wright, a world-renowned New Testament Scholar, who is back on the January Series stage for the fifth time.
Wright’s talk is also the Stob Lecture, an annual lecture co-sponsored by Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in honor of philosophy professor emeritus Dr. Henry J. Stob. Wright will also be a featured speaker at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium on Worship in late January.
The January Series runs from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, various days, in the Covenant Fine Arts Center on Calvin’s campus. Parts of the series will also via live video in 50 cities in the United States, Canada and Europe. In 2016, 45,000 people attended between the on-campus and remote sites, according to supplied material.
By Karolee Gillman, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main
Originally published in 1954, The Dollmaker begins with a very emotional scene of an Appalachian mother desperately trying to save her youngest son’s life, and the roller coaster of emotion doesn’t stop.
This book is very descriptive and worded so beautifully, you can see the story come to life. The book is very long and when the characters speak, they do so in the Appalachian dialect. I had to often read the conversations out loud to comprehend what was being said.
Gertie Nevels is a strong, compassionate woman, with a passion for whittling. Her one dream is to buy her own farm in the backwoods of Kentucky and live there with her husband and children. But World War II intervenes, and as a good wife she must take her children and follow her husband to Detroit, where he has been put to work in a war factory. In the city, Gertie fights desperately to keep her family together, maintain their rural values while they stuck in a Cracker-Jack-box housing development in a world far away from Appalachia.
Read The Dollmaker to see how Gertie handles tragedy and betrayal and makes the ultimate sacrifice to save her family. You will smile and cry right along with her.
By Amanda Bridle, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main
Fact is better than fiction.
Fictional portrayals of Cleopatra write her off as a mere seductress, not worth much more than her looks. In truth, Cleopatra wasn’t all that good-looking (we can tell from the portraits on coins she herself approved and from the snide comments made by her published detractors) but instead attracted the men in her life, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, with her brains. Author Stacy Schiff, reveals a portrait of a daring, complex and politically savvy woman in her new biography Cleopatra: A Life.
The well-researched book plunges us into another time and place with lush descriptions of lavish royal events and in-depth discussion of the culture and politics that shaped Cleopatra’s life. To understand her is to understand the how her Greek family came to power in Egypt and how they fought, intermarried and murdered amongst themselves.
To know her is to know the status of women in Alexandria and how shockingly different that was from Rome. To appreciate her life and her choices is to understand the power struggles and politics of Roman leaders as they attempted to gain control of more and more of the world and function, or dysfunction, as a democracy.
Painstakingly researched and beautifully written, readers will enjoy a book that is equal parts history, politics, romance, and tragedy.
When David Sedaris, the famous humorist, was in Grand Rapids last spring, the Grand Rapids Press reviewer summed up his type of comedy as “NPR funny”— an excellent term, which perfectly describes an addictive style that touches on the poignant absurdity of life.
Along the lines of Woody Allen and James Thurber, with a bit of Jack Benny and Phillip Roth thrown in, Sedaris takes the melancholy and self-absorbed male to new heights. He’s honed an intense, but not mean-spirited voice over the years, and it is quite unique.
With a self-depreciating eye, he looks over topics like his childhood, family life, a checkered career path, being obsessive, being gay, travel, and his long-term relationship with his partner, Hugh, among others. If the topics seem a little mundane, it’s really about what he does with them.
If you haven’t discovered Sedaris yet, try a couple of his more recent works. One of my favorites is Dress Your Family in Denim and Corduroy, which has the small chapter, The End of the Affair, where David and Hugh take in a movie. It becomes clear to Sedaris that watching romantic movies is just plain dangerous, for reasons that may not have ever occurred to you. These four pages alone are worth the price of the book, and of course his works are available in print or audio at the library for free.
The 27 stories in “For Keeps” remind me of the spontaneous, intimate conversations that can happen between women when we share experiences and discover common ground. The common ground here is our bodies. Body image and acceptance, illness, surgery, chronic pain, weight, depression, aging. If you’ve ever waited anxiously in an examination room, argued with your mother about clothes, dreamed of the perfect body, or simply hated your nose, you will feel a
connection to these stories.
Each memoir is short, personal and readable. Some are tragic: a debilitating injury or a diagnosis of cancer. Others are celebratory, such as, “Making Love and Joy in Seasoned Bodies,” a story of injuries, aging and happiness. Many fall within
the realm of common experience: finding clothes that fit, caring for a dying husband. A couple are downright provocative: the author of “Divorcing My Breasts” wrote, “I’d been unhappily married to my breasts for as long as I could remember.”
The stories all have one thing in common: they’re written by women with
the advantage of age and experience. There’s a thread of wisdom throughout as each author cultivates an instinct to separate the truly important from the merely
cosmetic. There is little “fluff” here; the details are plain-spoken, sometimes even blunt, and the insights are grounded and realistic.
Most readers will find themselves somewhere among these stories and perhaps,
like me, learn from them as well. Like life itself, they are painful, enlightening, humorous, and enjoyable.
Dancing. Music. Harry Potter-themed activities & a special giveaway. These are a few of the various things you’ll find at the Harry Potter Magical Holiday Ball.
Barnes & NobleGrand Rapidscordially invites customers of all ages to experience its first-ever Harry Potter Magical Holiday Ball on Friday, Dec. 9, starting at 7 pm at Woodland Mall, 3195 28th St. SE. Barnes & Noble’s Harry Potter Magical Holiday Ball will feature dancing, music, Harry Potter-themed activities and a special giveaway. Customers are encouraged to wear their most festive Harry Potter costumes and holiday attire to the special event as they dance the night away and celebrate all things Harry Potter with Barnes & NobleGrand Rapids.
Magical Harry Potter-Themed Activities & Giveaways
The Harry Potter Magical Holiday Ball will be complemented by special activities, featuring a designatedHarry Potter-themed Craft Making Station, where customers can create their own ornaments and owl fans, while supplies last. There will also be Wizard Charades, Trivia, a Word Search, and more, plus a coloring station for customers to enjoy, and a special photo-op station where they will be able to forever capture the magic of the Harry Potter-inspired celebration. Barnes & NobleGrand Rapidswill also feature delicious treats from the Barnes & Noble Café, including free samples of a festive sugar cookie and a caramel apple spice drink, available while supplies last.
Plus,Barnes & Noble Grand Rapids will offer a free giveaway of a specialHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Illustrated Editionposter, available while supplies last.
Additional activities that will take place at Barnes & Noble Grand Rapids include special guest DJ AB (Adrian Butler), kid friendly crafts, Quidditch games and a costume contest runway.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Barnes & Noble
Fans of Harry Potter can continue to relive the magic at Barnes & Noble this holiday season with a dedicated Harry Potter experience inside Barnes & NobleGrand Rapids.Customers can shop a unique assortment of books and gifts from J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world, includingHarry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts I and II,Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay, as well as Harry Potter wands, chess sets, music and DVDs, hats, scarves and so much more. For additional details, customers can visit Barnes & NobleGrand Rapidstoday.
For more information on how customers can relive the magic of Harry Potter at Barnes & NobleGrand Rapids this holiday season with Barnes & Noble’s Harry Potter Magical Holiday Ball, they should visitBN.com/MagicalHolidayBall. For more information on Barnes & Noble’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter with a unique assortment of books, toys & games and gifts, perfect for the whole family, customers should visitBN.com/HarryPotter.
This is a book that gets under your skin. The author’s sheer storytelling skill accomplishes the Herculean task of sparking interest in a subject many would rather ignore: Detroit. LeDuff is one of those native sons that couldn’t leave fast enough after high school, but like a comet was eventually pulled back home.
Starting at the Alaska “Fisherman’s Journal,” and then rising to the “New York Times,” the Pulitzer winning LeDuff had been gone for many years before he returned, taking a job with the “Detroit News.” He wanted to get to the bottom of what had happened to his hometown, and to his family, (two of whom died in Detroit, and not naturally). His intimate stories have a Rick Bragg/Hunter Thompson flair, as he goes about the city exposing malfeasance, and raining down brimstone on the politicians and others responsible. Embedding with various groups, high and low, to uncover just how Detroit unraveled, he uncovers some pretty remarkable stories. The haunting vignettes of good people in absurd (or worse, deadly) situations stay with you. They — we all — deserve better than what those who have torn the city apart have left there — a city that could rival Chernobyl in some respects. Not without ironic humor though, as when his brother steps way down the employment ladder, by taking an $8.50 hour job cleaning and boxing Chinese screws that “may be made in the U.S.” Or the odd Oprah/Gates Jr. moment when LeDuff discovers that he’s the “palest black man in Michigan.”
There’s plenty of blame to go around when they ask, “Who lost Detroit?.” How did the city that was rated the wealthiest in America, per capita, in 1950, sink so low? What LeDuff leans into is the fact that while the nation initially felt unconcerned about Detroit, now it is being scrutinized more carefully, as if it were a portent.
Anyone without a heart of stone will be moved by this brave boy and the fateful circumstances that brought Owen and the Anatolian together. Born with a genetic time bomb, Owen belongs to of one of those clubs that no one wants to join — those with very rare diseases.
Eventually diagnosed with Schwartz Jampel Syndrome, Owen’s muscles could not relax normally, causing pain and deformity.
At the same time that Owen was realizing the extent of his disability, withdrawing, and withering under the stares of strangers; not far away, a five-month-old puppy
was fighting for its life.
The puppy was the size of a large dog already, since he was one of the Turkish working guard breeds, bred for size, fearlessness, and the loyalty to never abandon their flock. A man had clubbed the puppy and left him for dead on some London train tracks. He was run over and grievously injured, but a series of incredible interventions saved him.
How the life journeys of these two fighters came together, along with the people, families, and institutions that supported them, really makes for a thoughtful, and incredible read. Yes, they’ve been featured on YouTube, and in several magazines, but you really want to read the whole story.
The book’s cover features a very small boy, holding on to a towering dog with gentle eyes, and Owen’s quote about his friend, “When Haatchi came, I wasn’t scared… he changed my life.”
I’m always afraid that a book with an animal on the cover will not offer more than a superficial helping of cuteness, so perhaps I was scared off from “The Good Good Pig,” imaging a type of “Green Acres” horror. But now I am kicking myself for waiting so long to enjoy such a wonderful read!
Part of the great appeal is the author’s style, then the wide ranging subject matter, and the rest is up to Christopher Hogwood himself, who carries a small memoir very well. Born a runt among runts, he was adopted out to the author and her husband when he was so small that he fit into a shoebox. But he was a pig with a powerful heart and will, and he grew up, fulfilling his dharma, and touching many lives in unexpected ways.
Fans of James Herriot, Temple Grandin, or Bill Bryson, may enjoy Sy Montgomery, as she combines a page-turning story with historic, scientific, and cultural
asides. A naturalist, author, and screen writer, Sy has gone to some of the world’s most unique areas to unravel ecological puzzles. She has passed through dark places in her life and travels, which makes her writing all the more insightful, and her love of her bucolic town in New Hampshire all the more special.