Tag Archives: Book review

On the shelf: ‘Packing for Mars’ by Mary Roach

By Mary Knudstrup, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main

Packing for your summer vacation? Be sure to take along Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars. Not exactly a travel guide, but an informative and often hilarious look at the arduous task of getting a human into space. This is not book about rocket thrusters and gaining orbit, but a look at the more intimate aspects of space travel that confound NASA scientists.

While reviewing the history of the space race, Roach unabashedly investigates some of science’s most delicate engineering challenges. Among her topics are digestion, and egestion in a zero-gravity environment and the problems that result from “two men, two weeks, no bathing, same underwear.” She revels about the joys of weightlessness; “(it’s) like heroin, or how I imagine heroin must be. You try it once, and when it’s over, all you can think about is how much you want to do it again.”

Her writing is smart, sassy and well-researched, loaded with footnotes that stand out as quirky entertaining side-bars to the main text; for example, did you know that guinea pigs and rabbits are the only mammals thought to be immune to motion sickness? Dogs, on the other hand, come by the old adage “sick as a dog” quite honestly. She also delves into the problem of taking a corned beef sandwich on a space mission and the contribution of cadavers to the space program.

While never losing sight of the heroic feats that astronauts perform, Roach probes fearlessly into the “ick factor” of living in space and in the end gives the reader an even deeper appreciation for what astronauts endure in terms discomfort and lack of privacy. Whether you are scientifically inclined or not, Packing for Mars will take you to places you’ve never been before.





On the shelf: ‘No Time to Lose…’ by Peter Piot

By Grand Rapids Public Library

Men are passionate about many things, and Piot’s memoir, No Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses is by turns, chilling and fascinating, as he reveals how a boy growing up in a small Belgium town, went on to pursue a consuming desire to help eradicate major infectious diseases, especially in Africa. People who are aware at a young age, of their calling — of some great work they must achieve, have always intrigued me. How do they know? Where does such an unselfish desire and drive come from?

As a child, Peter would pass by the tiny museum dedicated to a local man who had been a missionary to the lepers in Hawaii. He was incensed by society’s cruelty to people with a disease that brought such condemnation and isolation, and determined that he too, would serve those in great need.

Fresh out of medical school, in 1976 he was employed at a Belgium laboratory when a blood sample, thought to be a variety of yellow fever, came in. Routine tests were done on what Dr. Piot would later have the honor of helping to put a name to: Ebola. The most lethal and feared of all the hemorrhagic viruses to come out of Africa, with a 50-90 percent death rate.

After Ebola came another mysterious epidemic, slower to kill, but quicker to spread; and he realized how wrong his old professors had been, thinking that we had conquered the microbes. Piot would eventually go on to head up UNAIDS for fifteen years.

The author has a great storytelling voice — down home, funny, compassionate, engaging. He’s like a witty professor combined with a pirate with Bill Clinton, as he talks about working with political leaders and prostitutes, scary plane flights, irascible bosses, turf wars at the U.N. and more. A wonderful read.


On the shelf: ‘Deadline: [A Virgil Flowers Novel]’ by John Sandford

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main

D. Wayne Sharf slid across Winky Butterfield’s pasture like a greased weasel headed for a chicken house.” Criminal stealth and practice have readied D. Wayne with a center cut pork chop as part of his kit, and soon he is on the run with his victims. A hail of bullets from their frantic owner suggests to D. Wayne that there has to be a better way to make a living, but — what? “There was stealing dogs, cooking meth, and stripping copper wire and pipes out of unoccupied summer cabins. That was about it in D. Wayne’s world.”

Thus begins the newest Virgil Flowers thriller, and no sooner had I brought it home, than my husband nabbed it. Putting aside his historical studies, he decided he needed a break with some less taxing reading. Soon he was chortling away, as detective Flowers steps in to help a close friend find some missing dogs. All this is on the QT, since Flowers can’t tell his boss he’s working a dog-napping case. But soon after the BCA agent arrives, the quiet southern Minnesota town of Trippton is struck by a murder. And then another murder—

Flowers is soon on the trail of a very, very, bad school board, meth makers, killers, and worst of all, cold-hearted dog-nappers. If you are already a Sandford fan, you’ve already read this book (pre-ordered possibly!), but if you haven’t tried him yet, he writes a meanly humorous thriller. This one is just a little lighter than usual, but it was just as much fun.



On the shelf: ‘Oogy: The Dog Only a Family Could Love’ by Larry Levin

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main

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.


On the shelf: ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot

By Marie Mulder, Grand Rapids Public Library-Main

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.


On the shelf: ‘The Accidental Billionaires’ by Ben Mezrich

By Marie Mulder, Grand Rapids Public Library-Main

The Accidental Billionaires is the riveting tale of the creation of the international social network Facebook which has deeply changed the way many of us communicate and relate to each other.

The story is fraught with competition for college women, money, fame, recognition and power. Since the story is mainly told through the eyes of Mark Zuckerberg’s friend Eduardo, we often get the sense that we’re not getting both sides of the story. Did Mark really come up with the idea for Facebook, or did he steal it from his fellow Harvard students? Did he rip off his best friend and business partner?

The Accidental Billionaires is fast-paced, exciting, and hard to put down. Read the book, watch the movie based on the book, The Social Network and see if you can figure out the real story of Facebook.

On the shelf: ‘The History of Michigan Law’

By Marcie Beck, Grand Rapids Main Library

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.


On the shelf: ‘Words Fail Me’ by Patricia O’Connor

By Karen Thoms, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main 


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.



On the shelf: ‘Kushiel’s Dart’ by Jacqueline Carey

By Angela Black, GRPL Main

This fantastical tale set in the world of the D’Angelines, divine offspring of eight fallen angels, takes readers on an imaginative journey through Terre d’Ange, a French renaissance-like world. Lush with detail, from the mythology and angelic beings to the ruling monarchy and court intrigue and a deliciously evil “Machiavellian villainess” that would have made Henry the VIII blush.

Told in first person narrative through the eyes of Phedre no Delaunay, who, born into a poor family is sold by her parents as an indentured servant into the Court of the Night-Blooming Flowers. Marked from birth by a scarlet mote in her eye, she is considered an outcast and left to her own devices until a nobleman recognizes the true meaning of the rare mark and purchases her. The scarlet mote, named for its namesake Kushiel an angel of punishment, represents one who experiences pain and pleasure as one — a masochist.

The nobleman keeps his knowledge of Phedre’s ability a secret and devises a plan to use it to his advantage. He graces her with a lifestyle and education of privilege and trains her as a spy and courtesan. When she comes of age he offers her services as bait to the most powerful political figures so that she may find their secrets and report them to him. But the extortion game ends when Phedre uncovers a conspiracy so powerful she finds that it was best left hidden.

Though the backdrop is true to the fantasy genre, it’s the central character who makes this story unique. Ultimately it’s a coming-of-age, self-discovery, exile, and redemption story about a woman who lives life from the perspective of pain as pleasure: “When love cast me out, it was Cruelty who took pity on me.” Though some readers may be dismayed by
Phedre’s nature, her actions are not gratuitous sexual romps merely for shock value, as they are essential to the plot, add depth to her character and invoke an interesting perspective to the story. Each scene that expresses Phedre’s nature is tastefully written.

A talented writer, Jacqueline Carey succinctly packs this mystery adventure into just over 800 pages, and the results are clear. Its 2001 debut garnered several “best of” awards, including the Locus (Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers Award) for Best First Novel. Carey followed up with two companion books: Kushiel’s Chosen and Kushiel’s Avatar to complete a trilogy. All are still in print and have legions of fans.

Readers looking for a quality fantasy won’t be disappointed.

On the shelf: ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel

By Lisa Boss, GRPL Main

Heavens, this woman can write! I enjoyed the second book in her Cromwell trilogy as much as the first, and she has taken the coveted Man Booker Prize for each of them — in 2009 for Wolf Hall, and in 2012 for Bring Up the Bodies.

History is always written from someone’s point of view, and the story of Henry VIII has gotten plenty of ink and film credits. Mantel relished the challenge of writing about that tumultuous time from the imagined perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the notorious counselor to the king.

As always in politics, terrible crimes were committed to forward national and personal interest. Mantel is sparring with the gore, and her focus is on drawing one into the inner life and times of a fascinating man in a very dangerous job. It’s as if the author kept going deeper and deeper into the Hans Holbein portrait of Cromwell, to unearth the heart and soul beneath the butcher’s image.

One English reviewer concluded that Bring Up the Bodies was a “cracking good book”. I’m not an anglophile, but I agree — don’t miss it, it’s a cracking good read!

On the shelf: ‘The Magic Room …’ by Jeffrey Zaslow

By Amy Cochran, GRPL Seymour Branch

The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for our Daughters is a story of eight different brides and how they came to be looking for their dresses at Becker’s Bridal, a shop in Fowler, Michigan, that has been open since 1934.

I enjoyed reading about how Grandma Eva added a few wedding dresses to her in-laws’ general store and over the years slowly transformed the store into a bridal shop. As Eva passed the business to her son and daughter-in-law, and they passed it on to their daughter and granddaughter, every generation of owner has had to keep up with changing trends and buying patterns of brides and their families. They have also struggled with the price of pouring their hearts and time into keeping the family business alive and prosperous.

Zaslow intersperses the story of the shop with tales of brides whose journeys to marriage are not easy. There is the young woman who is in a debilitating car accident a week after getting engaged. There is the woman who lost her mother several years before and leans on her grandmother for comfort. And the woman who lost her first beloved husband to a heart attack and has now found a new man to share her life with, much to the dismay of her four daughters.

And the magic room? An old bank vault that current owner Shelley Becker-Mueller has turned into a softly-lit viewing paradise for finding the perfect dress.

This is an inspiring and interesting read with local flavor, since several of the brides are from Grand Rapids. The details Zaslow relates about specific relationships between mothers and daughters and fathers and family are truly heartwarming. And there is extra poignancy in the fact that the author, who talks about his own daughters and his hopes for them throughout the book, was lost in a tragic car accident just this past winter.

On the shelf: ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ by Ben Fountain

By Lisa Boss, GRPL Main

I had been coming to this realization for a couple of years that I didn’t understand my country. I felt there was this huge gap between the reality of what we were engaged in, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the way it was being sold to the American public. I thought there was a story there. ~ Ben Fountain

And it’s a great story! A finalist for the National Book Award, there’s enough craziness, extreme masculine humor, power struggles, fighting, money, and sex to cover all the raw major drives. It’s Fountain’s gift to take these unconscious forces and show how they can easily be dressed up and marketed to serve political ends. But he’s also given us a protagonist that we deeply care about, with Specialist Lynn.

Billy is an army private who’s just come out of a fire fight in Iraq, where his team took grievous casualties. Filmed by an embedded Fox News reporter, Bravo squad became instantly famous. Sensing that Americans need a self-esteem boost concerning the war, the Bush administration has brought the remaining Bravos back to the U.S. for a two-week Victory Tour. After the funeral of their sergeant, the Bravos are taken across the country, where they are endlessly lauded, feted and thanked. Now it’s down to the last day before going back to Iraq, and they are guests of the Dallas Cowboys for the big Thanksgiving Day game, where they will also participate in the halftime festivities, and hope to meet Beyonce.

A Hollywood producer is with them, pushing all the buttons for their big movie deal. The alcohol is flowing, and they are meeting the fans, the players, the cheerleaders, the owner’s cabal . . .

Dude, what could go wrong?

Fountain’s novel expresses hard and horrible truths about human nature, but he folds in so many more truths about love, loyalty, and incomprehensible bravery that we swallow the pill. The humor and warmth of the novel carry us along, even as Fountain holds up an often unflattering mirror to our collective narcissism.

On the shelf: ‘Half Broke Horses’ by Jeannette Walls

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.


On the shelf: ‘Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic …’ by Molly Caldwell Crosby

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


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.”


On the shelf: ‘Mrs. Greenthumbs Plows Ahead’ by Cassandra Danz

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.


On the shelf: ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ by Maria Semple

Mature Lifestyles Book Review


By Melissa Fox, Grand Rapids Public Library


Extremely funny and smart, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the kind of book you recommend to everyone you know. Told through letters, emails, other correspondence, and official documents collected by Bee, the daughter of the quirky and unusual Bernadette, this is a fast read, yet the story is slowly revealed, with each letter and email adding up to a larger picture that comes together in the end like a jigsaw puzzle.


The main character, Bernadette, is the kind of person you want to know and, in some instances, be more like. She hates Seattle and the culture of her daughter’s private school, she’s the weird neighbor, the not-like-everyone-else’s-mom mom. The kind of details and dialog the author adds to this book—they keep an Airstream parked in their backyard!—will keep any literary fiction reader happy, while the pacing and humor will appeal to those who are craving a good beach read, and the mother-daughter relationship in this book will draw every reader in.



On the shelf: ‘Area 51’ by Annie Jacobsen

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.



On the shelf: ‘The Forever War’ by Dexter Filkins

By Amy Cochran

Grand Rapids Public Library, Seymour Branch


The prologue sets us down in a Falluja street in 2004 with an invading Marine unit. All is chaos, Marines are falling, snipers are everywhere and it isn’t clear who is enemy or friend until they start shooting. New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins doesn’t pull any punches in his book The Forever War, an extraordinarily haunting account of his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. He highlights what a mad mess everything was—from the rise of the Taliban in 1998 to the deterioration of Iraq into civil war in less than three years.


Filkins has written a collection of in-the-moment vignettes loosely organized by date. From a story on the Taliban court of justice to an exploration of the history of torture and murder in Iraq, he profiles an astonishing number of individuals and situations that illuminate the bigger picture of war in the region. In Iraq in particular, we meet individuals who try to hold back chaos, but fail over and over again when up against their neighbors’ overwhelming urge for revenge of past wrongs. These stories effectively demonstrate how the euphoric early days after the fall of Saddam Hussein could deteriorate into widespread violence and divisiveness.


Filkins leaves political views and history lessons out of his narrative and lets the situations speak for themselves. The personal Iraqi and American experiences are by turns horrifying and hopeful. Give yourself plenty of time to read this powerful book, to ponder and digest and recuperate before moving to the next chapter.

On the shelf: ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ by S. J. Watson

By Grand Rapids Public Library

S. J. Watson spins a tale of mystery and suspense in his debut novel, Before I Go To Sleep.


Christine wakes up every morning not knowing where or who she is. She believes she’s a 25-year-old, single woman. It turns out she is a 40-something, married mother of one. Her memories disappear every time she falls asleep, the result of a mysterious accident that made Christine an amnesiac. Her husband, Ben, is a total stranger to her, and he explains their life together on a daily basis. With the guidance of her doctor, Christine starts a journal to help jog her memory every day — a journal Ben knows nothing about.


One morning, she opens it and sees that she’s written three unexpected and terrifying words: “Don’t trust Ben.” What her husband now says is questioned. How did Christine become an amnesiac? Who can she trust? What part does the doctor play in Christine’s life? (A doctor Ben knows nothing about.)


The book moves at a fast pace but is written very well. I could see in my mind how things were playing out. I wanted more and more time to read, but real life always interferes!

On the shelf: ‘The Last Men: New Guinea
’ by Iago Corazza

By Rebecca Near

Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, has a complicated history. To start, it’s divided into two halves: the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua in the west, and the eastern half is the independent country of Papua New Guinea. Amazingly, the 7 million people on the island are divided up into almost 1,000 different tribes and languages, making it the most linguistically diverse spot on the planet.


Corazza’s book focuses on the unique photographic depiction of these endangered cultures, with succinct commentary. Some of it seems truly bizarre, as if the author had dropped in on another planet altogether, but maybe that’s what they would say about us! In any case, Corazza provides unforgettable images for the armchair traveler.




On the shelf: ‘Salvage the Bones’ by Jesmyn Ward

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


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.


On the shelf: ‘The Pain Chronicles’ by Melanie Thernstrom

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.


The message is always, “Never give up!”.

On the shelf: ‘Water for Elephants’ by Sara Gruen

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.

On the shelf: ‘Hack’ by Melissa Plaut

By Kristen Corrado, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


At age 29, Plaut, fed up with her desk job, decided to start living life as an adventure. She started working as a New York City cab driver. Hack chronicles her two years driving a cab in a city where 99% of cab drivers are men. She details her unusual passengers, avoiding run-ins with the police and crazy drivers and the challenges she faced in a male-dominated profession.


Throughout the book, readers see New York in a different way and gain a new respect for those who drive cabs: the long hours they work, how little they make, the dangerous situations they encounter. Often the book read just like a scene out of the TV show, Taxi. Hack is not only a fast and entertaining read but also a great behind the scenes look at an industry most have used, but few understand.

On the shelf: ‘Bloodmoney: A Novel of Espionage’ by David Ignatius

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


When is revenge fulfilled?


Bloodmoney is a masterful spy thriller that zips along like a bullet train. Although fiction, the plot eerily echoes several recent news stories involving the CIA in Pakistan. The authentic touch comes from the author’s in-depth knowledge garnered as a journalist covering foreign affairs for decades.


Interesting characters inhabit his novel, and we are never sure till the end how many sides they are playing. Their moral ambiguities, woven into the plot, often reflect back our own conflicted foreign policy. A key player, the duplicitous General Malik, head of Pakistan’s ISI, articulates an ongoing thread when he remarks, “Americans did not like lying to others. It made them uncomfortable. Their specialty was lying to themselves.” 


The story is modeled on the archetypical Death Wish/Mad Max type. A good man, who does everything right, suffers an unspeakable loss, and out of his despair and outrage a new creature is born; one who will avenge his family. This man becomes known to his friends and enemies alike as “the ghost”.


By the end, I found myself wondering, as the ghost does, “When is revenge fulfilled?”

On the shelf: ‘Are Your Prescriptions Killing You?’ by Armon B. Neel, Jr.

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Are Your Prescriptions Killing You?: How to Prevent Dangerous Interactions, Avoid Deadly Side Effects, and be Healthier with Fewer Drugs


Hopefully not! But there’s trouble in Pillville, and the author has penned an incredibly useful and lively book addressing the problem. Armon Neel, PharmD., has been a “consulting pharmacist” for over 30 years, helping institutions, caregivers and patients with medication reviews. Many meds that might be ok for a younger person can cause havoc in those over 60. Why? Well, no matter how “healthy” we are, our internal organs experience a natural “decline in physiological reserve” over time.


So by 60, we have a lot less capability in our liver, kidneys, digestive system, than we had in our twenties. This natural diminution in enzymes etc., effects our bodies ability to take in, use and eliminate medications. Some meds don’t mix well; some may be causing more problems than they are supposedly fixing; and worst case, many deaths are caused by medications each year.


A realist who has lived through decades of  medical history, Neel goes into some of the statistical tricks that are used to “sell” new (and expensive) drugs and explains terms like “medication cascade”, “exponential effect of polypharmacy”, NNT (number needed to treat). A writer for AARP, Reader’s Digest and Prevention, Neel sorts out complex material and presents it in a commonsense way.


Filled with anecdotes from the author’s long experience, I found it absorbing enough to read cover to cover. His message is not that we should forgo medication (he’s a pharmacist after all), but that we need to be be careful. Neel’s book is also a timely read, as our country faces a health care crisis, and we are all looking for answers to create better care at less expense.

On the shelf: ‘Things I’ve learned from dying: a book about life’ by David R. Dow 

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Before counselor Dow sees a new client, he reads through the case carefully. Six years back, four young men went on a week-long crime spree that ended in the murder of an 84-year-old woman in her home. One of the gang shot Miss McClain in the head, and Dow’s client took the gun and shot her again, stating, “That’s how you smoke a bitch.”


Dow’s clients are all on death row in Texas. Many are not sympathetic types. Discussing his new case with his father-in-law, Peter asks him, “So, why do you want to save this man?”, and Dow answers that he doesn’t know yet.


There are a lot of surprises in this book, starting — but not ending — with Dow. Although he’s a professor, a death penalty lawyer and the founder of the Texas Innocence Network, he tells us that, “It’s important to understand that people who defend murderers aren’t necessarily opposed to killing.”


An avid shooter, known as “Grudge” at the range, due to his habit of pinning photos on his targets, Dow’s wife convinced him to give most of his guns to a friend after their son was born. 


“But I kept the shotgun. I’ve got a family to take care of. If anyone ever climbs our stairs at night and doesn’t turn and run when he hears the whoosh of the pump chambering a shell, I’ll know that if the dog doesn’t kill him I’m going to have to.”


OK, so he’s not a pacifist. We have to piece together his reasons for his strong commitment to his clients as the book goes along, but he isn’t shy about revealing the legal and political machinations that go into a death case, and his opinions on them.


Anybody who tells you the criminal justice system is an even playing field has no idea what she’s talking about. Rich people can make it close to even. Poor people—which is to say, everyone on death row—don’t have a chance.”


It’s not all about death row though, and what sounds like a depressing treatise, Things I’ve Learned… reads more like a medical, legal and psychological thriller, shot through with dark humor and hope.


The book intertwines three lives and deaths as part of a whole, pulsing web of life, where each twitch ripples out to affect the immediate family, friends and finally the whole ecosystem of society. There are no “minor” characters in these true stories. The themes of mortality are deep as the wise friend, beloved dog, even the remorseful client, confront our oldest mystery.


It is, as the title promises, a book about life, and a strangely beautiful one.


On the shelf: ‘Kitchen Table Wisdom’ by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen

By Karen Thoms, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


If I were sitting across the table and complaining to Rachel Remen about something going on in my life, I’m certain she would give me a pearl of wisdom wrapped in a story. Not only am I wiser for Kitchen Table Wisdom, I am more human.


This book contains approximately 80 short stories from Remen’s counseling practice, primarily with cancer patients. Many passages left me with tears in my eyes. And although the stories were about her patients’ and coworkers’ “aha!” moments, it was I who was illuminated. I cried over my negative attitudes.


In order to be a successful female doctor in the early 1960s, Remen covered over her own tenderness with clinical expertise. Through turns of circumstances interspersed in the book, she recaptures much of the softness her Jewish grandfather had instilled in her. Her transparency about her own journey is refreshing, which in turn suggests to the reader that they, too, may have something to discover about their own life.


I was particularly moved by a story of a male patient in the final stages of cancer. What he loved more than anything about seeing his oncologist, he told Remen, were the conversations they would have at the end of his appointments. This doctor was the only person in his life who he felt completely understood what he was going through.


Eventually his doctor said there was nothing more he could do, though additional chemotherapy might prolong his life. He did not want more chemotherapy, so the doctor released him from his care. He was devastated; yet he resumed treatments just to have those short conversations! Remen is also the counselor of the man’s oncologist. This doctor came to Remen because he felt his life did not matter. He believed if he died no one would miss him.


In three pages, I have been given a beautiful story. Inside the story I see  clearly the value of listening to others with an open heart. And although Remen could not tell the oncologist of the great impact he was making on one man’s life, she told me that, even if I cannot see it, my life is significant to someone.


Kitchen Table Wisdom is a must-read for everyone who desires to expand their capacities for loving, understanding and accepting others.


Thank you, Dr. Remen, for many hours of  counseling.


On the shelf: ‘The Highest Tide’ by Jim Lynch

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Newsflash: the Old Book Curmudgeon LOVED The Highest Tide. Ok, I wasn’t so sure at first. I can be a little hasty  about books, and the plot involves one 13-year-old boy’s summer on Skookumchuck Bay. I wasn’t sure if I would be interested in a 13-year-old boy no matter HOW many excellent reviews the book has gotten.


However,  it didn’t take long before I began to like the boy and the book very much. Jim Lynch writes with a subtle touch, the characters slowly revealing themselves. Things that might seem obvious at first, are revealed in much more depth later on, with just a few words, a couple of sentences.


Initially, I was entranced by the descriptions of the sea life on the tidal flats of Puget Sound. I loved going along with Miles as he turned over rocks (replacing them exactly the way they were) on his rounds across the flats. It was like listening to a marine biologist, only a young, humorous one.


Our protagonist, is a small-for-his-age, “almost 14”-year-old. He is the only child of parents who seem seriously mismatched, and his best friend so far in life, Florence, is a very old and  disabled lady who used to have a modest business as a psychic. He has a crush on his neighbor, who is spiraling into mental illness and is also an entrepeneur with a budding sea life business. No wonder he has trouble sleeping nights.


Miles O’Malley has a rich inner life, a passion for the sea and for Rachel Carson, and he is gifted with the capacity to think and act in ways that are out of the ordinary, in the sense that he thinks of others, even other life forms, more than he thinks of himself. So you might call Miles an “old soul”, except that he’s also an unintentionally very funny old soul.


Miles is an insomniac, which he blames on Rachel Carson:


There is no drop of water in the ocean, not even in the deepest parts of the abyss, that does not know and respond to the mysterious forces that create the tide.” (Rachel Carson)


“How do you read that sentence, yawn and turn out the lights?” Miles asks us, and then goes on to explain that he also makes his best discoveries on moonlit nights when he can’t sleep and prowls the flats of Skookumchuck Bay at low tide. One night his ears pick up a faint, but very different sound from across the vast, dark mudflats and gravelly shore: “It was an exhale, a release of sorts, and I instantly wondered if a whale was stranded again.”  He approaches cautiously and finds the unbelievable: an Architeuthis, a giant squid. It will later be confirmed by Dr. Kramer, his mentor, at a huge media event, and thus begins a summer of notoriety for Miles.


Other discoveries follow: about sea creatures, about himself, Florence (his elderly friend), Phelps (his unlikely paid associate, whose obsessive interests are more typical: girls and rock ‘n roll), his parents, his love interest. As in most “young adult” novels, the protagonist faces changes and grows to meet them.


Some of the experiences are pretty rough and Miles often turns to the sea for help:


“…it was hard for me to feel fear or sadness at dawn on that bay… the water was so clear I could see coon-stripe shrimp in the eelgrass near the tavern and the bottomless bed of white clam shells pooled across the sunken tip of Penrose Point.


“Those shells, as unique and timeless as bones, helped me realize that we all die young, that in the life of the earth, we are houseflies, here for one flash of light.”


You certainly don’t have to be 14 to relate to  this book. The themes resonate well with people (like the Old Book Curmudgeon) who are at the opposite end of their own timeline.


What might happen if we really paid attention to life? What might we discover about the world and ourselves if we just looked a little closer and a little longer? We’re swept along by the tides of time whether we will or nil; so much of life seemingly out of our control. Maybe at a certain point the changes don’t look so good as we are drawn inexorably out to sea. And yet, the way Lynch frames things, it doesn’t sound so bad.


Miles draws strength from Rachel Carson’s philosophy. He especially admires that she was not “intimidated by time”.  When she looked at the ocean she summed up that:


“In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutations, the dead husks of the same life. For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.” Rachel Carson


This book would be a gold mine for book clubs. Lots of material for thoughtful discussion here.


Don’t let the liberal use of the “F” word throw you off or you might be too hasty and miss a great little work that illuminates the best in us.

On the shelf: ‘The best of James Herriot: favorite memories of a country vet’ by James Herriot

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” (Cecil Alexander)


Great books are like musical pieces, with chords and leitmotifs that resonate in our hearts and help us to cope with a painful world. As such, new ones are not necessarily better than older ones, and personal favorites may bring the comfort and wisdom of time-tested friends. I re-visit a few of the Herriot books every so often, and feel the better for it. James Alfred Wight (1916-1995) — pen name, James Herriot — grew up in Scotland and graduated from Glasgow Veterinary College, going to work at a small rural practice when he was 23. A self-confessed “city boy”, he soon fell in love with the wild, spacious countryside of the Yorkshire Dales and its inhabitants.


The semi-fictionalized tales of his eccentric partner, Siegfried, with his devil-may-care brother, Tristan, and a larger cast of town characters, have been the bedrock of an enduring legacy. Memoirs of a time and place that don’t exist anymore; Britain between the great wars and on into the forties and fifties, when a great transition was taking place from tiny farms powered by draft animals to a more industrial form of agriculture.


To dip into these reminisces is to visit a quieter time, but not an easier one, for vets or their patients. A time before the “miracle” drugs were yet to appear, leading the author to remark, “Those old black magic days with their exotic, largely useless medicines reeking of witchcraft. They have gone for good and though as a veterinary surgeon I rejoice, as a writer I mourn their passing.”


Wight wanted to preserve that unique time, and when he started writing his memoirs in his fifties, he imagined a small book of humorous anecdotes, but the books soon grew into a whole world with all its joys and sorrows. Not just about animals, but more about how all the components of work, relationships, love and duty fit together to form healthy communities.


And like many compassionate people, the author himself did not always have an easy time of it. He endured a chronic physical ailment and could suffer bouts of depression (possibly from Brucellosis), which one might never guess from his books, except that there is much more depth and understanding of the human condition than a quick glance might reveal.


Loved for over 30 years, they are true modern classics.

On the shelf: ‘Still Alice’ by Lisa Genova

By Julie Tabberer, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Still Alice is the story of Alice and her journey through early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. I initially heard about this book from a friend who works at a local retirement community and told me that Still Alice was a bit hit with their reading club.


Alice, 50 years old, is a professor in Harvard’s psychology department and a woman who defines herself by her ability to think intelligently. As we enter her life, Alice is forming a vague suspicion that something might be wrong. The story follows her through diagnosis and into the full-blown takeover of her mind by the disease.


The novel parallels Alice’s journey: after her diagnosis, there is no path for her other than dementia. As you read, you hope that somehow the plot will be derailed — the diagnosis is wrong, a treatment is found, Alice somehow defies nature.


This book connects strongly with the reader on an emotional level, but also offers an opportunity to learn. The author, Lisa Genova, has a PhD in neuroscience and bases the story on her research. Still Alice seeks to tell the truth about Alzheimer’s disease as much as it seeks to tell Alice’s story. The book succeeds on both levels, offering the reader insights into the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on individuals, family and friends.


Still Alice is a great read, and not just for those who are dealing with Alzheimer’s disease in their lives. With a discussion guide at the end of the book and numerous themes to discuss, it is also well-suited to a reading club.

On the shelf: ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


The year is 1123, England is full into the Middle Ages, and a routine event is occurring in the town square: a man is being hanged. There’s something odd about this particular execution though. The man is unknown to the people.  He sings in French before his death, and the crowd becomes uneasy, absorbing the unrest of the officials at hand. Suddenly, a young woman appears, cutting the throat of a cockerel as she utters a terrifying curse, and throws the blood spattering bird directly at the three men responsible for the stranger’s death. Shock momentarily paralyzes the populace, and she disappears into the forest.


This is the heart of the mystery that pulses at the center of the numerous plot lines: who was this man and why was he killed?


The Pillars of the Earth is a riveting, epic work, with a cast of real, engaging characters, living in times that will definitely take your mind off your 401K.  Written in 1989, it has always enjoyed a place on “great reads” lists, and was chosen as an Oprah Book Club pick in 2007. Like all epics, the author celebrates the continuous struggle of Good against Evil in this work, and how human nature can be so easily inclined either way. I loved (or hated) the characters. Listening to it on audio, I found that I was constantly making excuses to drive somewhere to find out what was going to happen. I was hooked after the first few minutes, actually sobbing out loud as one early drama (probably very commonplace back then) unfolded. So, there’s plenty of emotional connection to the characters, and the plot is filled with unexpected twists and turns.


Follett begins his tale with a brief reference to a great historical disaster for the English Crown that occurred in 1120: the wreck of the White Ship. King Henry I, (1068-1135), who was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, had one son. On a fatal night in November 1120, the White Ship set out from France to England, carrying this son of Henry; but it foundered on the rocks, and all aboard perished in the sea, save one man.


The end result of this disaster was the lack of an obvious inheritor to the throne. Henry arranged for his daughter, Matilda (Maude) to succeed him, but his nephew, Stephen, also had factions supporting him, and civil war broke out. Later known as “the time of anarchy”, chaos and lawlessness broke out, lasting almost 20 years until another undisputed king was crowned.


During this time, wars are fought, political alliances are formed and betrayed, bishops are created, men and women live and die, and life in Kingsbridge increases and wanes, according to the whims of the larger forces that seek power, and the fierce spirit of human creativity and growth.


Follett was well-known for writing intricate, popular thrillers before this work. He said that Pillars of the Earth grew out of his fascination with the history and architecture of the great cathedrals. He began to imagine the men that built them, the mathematical discoveries that informed their advance into new building forms, resulting in the creations that would inspire and awe for generations to come. If you’ve ever walked into an old cathedral, you’ll appreciate this book all the more. Follett said that he wanted to tell their story, but in a way that would convey everything that was put into them and going on around them. If you’re looking for a long, absorbing historical novel that’s also a total thriller, this is for you!

On the shelf: ‘Push’ by Sapphire

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


“Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.” ~ The Talmud


Push is a beautiful, strong novel that reads like raw poetry. The narrator, Claireece Precious Jones, speaks right to our heart, in an original, spare, untouched way. Physically, mentally and sexually abused by both of her loathsome parents, she has “slipped through the cracks” of myriad social welfare systems and finds herself pregnant with her father’s second baby at age 16. Illiterate, obese, friendless and despairing; half crazed from her torturous home situation, Precious experiences times of fading into and out of awareness.


One incident is going to bring about seismic changes in her life though —


This author grabs us by the neck and makes us think and makes us mad.  When did incest, child abuse, institutional failure and depraved people lose the power to shock us? The saddest part is that it’s one more look into the “banality of evil” and our fascination with it. As one of the girls from Precious’s new alternate school, “Each One Teach One” says, “Everybody likes to hear that story. Tell us more tell us more more MORE about being a dope addict and a whore!” But there’s a lot more to the story than that, and the end is well worth the beginning. If it seems a little gritty at times, remember that former First Lady Barbara Bush highly recommends it.


Sapphire reminded me of Charles Dickens, writing about the deplorable conditions of his time in Victorian England. Both authors want to move us to action with their unforgettable characters and fast-paced plot. This isn’t a book anyone will put down midway.


We may not want to see what Sapphire shows us in her mirror, but we look anyway. It’s good that we do, because everyone will take away something different and something valuable from this short volume.


On the shelf: ‘Feed Your Pet Right’ by Marion Nestle & Malden C. Neshiem

By Steve Maesen, Grand Rapids Public Library, Van Belkum Branch


Within the “I didn’t know I needed it until I read it” genre Marion Nestle and Malden C. Neshiem’s Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding your Dog and Cat is an informative overview on pet nutrition as well as an interesting look inside the multi-billion dollar a year pet food industry.  Investigating both the widely available commercial foods and the less common, though growing, holistic/organic/natural/raw pet food movements, what they discover about what goes into our pet’s food is surprisingly comforting.


Throughout the book the authors provide detailed descriptions of the different kinds of pet foods, treats and supplements on the market: where they come from, why they are used and whether or not they should be used in pet food. Looking into such controversial ingredients like animal by-products the reader may well be surprised by their conclusions. Acknowledging the various issues many people have with feeding their pets “commercial” grade food, they engage the reader in a discussion about what roles personal ethics and morals play in selecting pet foods.


Worth the read, if only for the brief but fascinating history of pet food in America, the book also serves as an informative and objective reference for any pet owner who wants to make sure they are doing the best they can for their four-legged friend.


On the shelf: ‘My Cross to Bear’ by Gregg Allman

By Lisa Boss

Grand Rapids Public Library


Born in 1947, Allman looks back on a long life, having beaten the odds, so to speak. In a career field where sex and drugs are ubiquitous, he stood out with six ruined marriages and decades of heroin, coke and alcohol addictions. In 1995, after an embarrassing speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Gregg went into his last rehab. In 2010 his liver had deteriorated so badly from the Hepatitis C that he received a transplant. But wait, it’s not all bad news!


His memoir is a fascinating chronicle of the twists and turns of the Allman Brothers band, forging a new sound back in the sixties — “southern rock”, a mix of blues, rock and country. It’s also an honest, revealing look at a man remembering a life filled with triumphs and failures. Some of the material about his mom and brother Duane is just kind of heartbreaking, and the photos underscore the sense of love and loss.


An interesting twist for me was that when I had finished the book, I checked out the library’s collection of Allman Brothers music, and found that I really liked the CD, Low Country Blues — that Allman recorded at the age of 63 — best. He went back to the blues roots that he loved, and the tracks have that haunting, powerful sound. So, maybe getting clean and finding religion was the best thing he ever did musically…