Tag Archives: GRPL

On the shelf: ‘The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted…’ by Elizabeth Berg

By Laura Nawrot, Grand Rapids Public Library

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.


On the shelf: ‘The Secret Between Us’ by Barbara Delinsky

By Laura Nawrot, GRPL-Main

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.

On the shelf: ‘Nothing to Envy’ by Barbara Demick

By Jen Andrews, Grand Rapids Public Library-Main 

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.


On the shelf: ‘Making Room’ by Christine Pohl

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.


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: ‘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: ‘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: ‘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: ‘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: ‘Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Meth Addiction’ by David Sheff

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Before Nic Sheff became addicted to crystal meth, he was a charming boy, joyous and funny, a varsity athlete and honor student adored by his two younger siblings. After meth, he was a trembling wraith who lied repeatedly, stole money from his eight-year-old brother, and lived on the streets.”  (Book jacket)


What’s different about Meth? Why is it worse than, say, cocaine or heroin? Why did all the drug recovery experts sigh so deeply when they heard that the “drug of choice” was Meth?  David Sheff found his answers to these and many other questions concerning one of the latest drug scourges to reappear.  Like a medical thriller, the story weaves many plot and research lines into a complex tapestry.  And like a horror story, the drug takes on a persona:  a vampire feeding on its willing victim, who seeks out the source that is draining them of life.


Drug addiction of any kind can bring families to their knees, leaving wreckage far beyond the principal player.  Al-Anon has their 3 C’s: You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.   The author, resistant at first, finds the family support groups an unbelievable source of comfort.  Who else will understand when a parent says that they are happy that their child is in jail?


Sheff’s work grew out of a piece that he wrote for the New York Times Magazine, “My Addicted Son”,  which won the American Psychological Association’s award for “Outstanding Contribution to Advancing the Understanding of Addiction”.


To tell the truth, I didn’t know if I’d like it so much — it sounded like a real downer. Once I started, though, I found it an extremely compelling book. It’s not just about one family’s tragedy, but it connects to every aspect of our own lives. Sheff constantly involves all of us in his Dantesque journey — seeming to ask, without putting it so bluntly, “so you think this does not, will not, ever touch you?”


As an example, while the author is staying at yet another hotel, waiting for yet another rehab visit with his son, he begins reading the epigraph from Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster, “Every little trifle, for some reason, does seem incalculably important and when you say of a thing that ‘nothing hangs on it’ it sounds like blasphemy. There’s never any knowing–how am I to put it–which of our actions, which of our idlenesses won’t have things hanging on it for ever.”


The author ponders this late at night, “I read it and read it again…. I am almost shaking. I think, ‘How innocent we are of our mistakes and how responsible we are for them.’”  


The narrative alternates with his research into every aspect of drug addiction: the rehab industry, support groups, crime statistics, environmental damage and the neuroscience of the brain physiology.  And the history — Meth was synthesized from amphetamine in 1919 by a Japanese pharmacologist. It was commercially available and marketed as a bronchodilator for asthma or an appetite suppressant, among other things. Ads featured slogans like, “Never again feel dreary or suffer the blues.”  Used by the military in World War II, mild formulations were still sold over the counter until 1951, when it was finally upgraded to a controlled substance.  Well, who knew…?


If you ever buy “Sudefed” for allergies, you’ve experienced how diligent the selling, signing for, and tracking of, this product has become — due to its main ingredient, pseudoephedrine. Here’s a real surprise though. According to the author, while he is laying out how the mom and pop labs have been essentially preempted by international drug cartels, operating their own “super labs”:  “Only nine factories manufacture the bulk of the world’s supply of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, but pharmaceutical companies — and legislators influenced by them — have stopped every move that would have effectively controlled the distribution of the chemical so they could not be diverted to meth super labs.”


Meth seems to be a particularly unfortunate drug, since while all the drugs of abuse affect the dopamine reward circuit; Meth quickly causes more serious harm to the brain. The dopamine system becomes so ravaged that it takes months for partial recovery, and a full two years for an almost normal brain PET scan. In the meantime, in the first weeks of recovery attempts, when a Meth user is without the drug, the areas of the brain that light up are the ones that are active when people experience intense pain.


At one completely chilling point in the story (and there are many of these) another parent tells him that the only thing that will get him through is God; and the author says he’d like to believe, but he’s just never been able to. “Before this is over,” they reply to him softly, “you will.”


The cover quote by Anne Lamott says, “This book will save a lot of lives and heal a lot of hearts.”


If any book could discourage a person from trying drugs, this would do it.



On the shelf: ‘Agent 6’ by Tom Rob Smith

By Lisa Boss, GRPL-Main

The final novel of Tom Rob Smith’s Soviet trilogy (Child 44, The Secret Speech), Agent 6 spans the time from the Cold War through the Soviet Union’s disastrous invasion of Afghanistan. Smith’s combination of a lightning plot and a cautionary tale, added to the history and psychology, create an engrossing read.

Leo Demidou, former KGB agent, has tried to put past regrets behind him, and now lives for his wife and daughters. When they take part in a goodwill trip to the U.S. and his wife is the victim of a terrible incident, Leo vows to find out the truth. His attempts to get to the bottom of this deep-rooted scheme entwine throughout the rest of the book, although he has been banished to Afghanistan.

The complicated plot races along, with Leo reminiscent of a Camus or Kafka anti-hero struggling in his bleak universe. The irony of Leo’s Afghan assignment is that he is to help create a secret police force for them when he has come to believe in the malignant harm it does to a society. He sees his younger self in the idealistic young woman who is his chief aide, and believes fully in the destruction needed to create a new order.

On the shelf: ‘The Alzheimer’s Family: Helping Caregivers Cope’ by Robert B. Santulli

alzheimers-familyBy Lisa Boss, Main Library 
Many of us are close to a friend or relative with Alzheimer’s these days, and over the years, as my relative’s spouse has gone from “mild cognitive impairment”, to a more drastic descent through the middle stages of AD, I’ve become more concerned and worried. What exactly is happening, and why?

I liked the tone and the way Dr. Santulli presented the information in this book. It fel like a compassionate, wise friend/expert was there to help chart a course in frightening waters. A geriatric psychiatrist, and Director of the Dartmouth Memory Clinic, he’s distilled over 20 years of specialization in treating Alzheimer’s patients into his guide. He explains how the different symptoms are tied to physical pathology, and thus certain strategies will be more effective in each case.

The Forgetting: Alzheimer’s: Portrait of an Epidemic by David Shenk is another book I found helpful, as was The Last of His Mind: A Year in the Shadow of Alzheimer’s by John Thorndyke. Olivia Hoblitzelle’s memoir, Ten Thousand Joys and Ten Thousand Sorrows: A Couple’s Journey Tlast-of-his-mindhrough Alzheimer’s is one not to be missed, applying a culturally different understanding of illness, through Tibetan Buddhism. Each loved one, their support system and disease manifestation, will be unique, so it’s natural that some writers will resonate more, and a wide choice of knowledgeable authors is preferable.

ten-thousand-joys-sorrows-book-coverAs I often read, “when you’ve met one person with Alzheimer’s, you’ve met one person with Alzheimer’s”, and that is probably true for most medical and mental health conditions. With Grand Rapids Public Library’s large and in-depth medical and caregiver collections, there will be sure to be ones that speak to you, if or when needed.

On the shelf: ‘Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness’, by Alexandra Fuller

cocktail-hour-under-the-tree-of-forgetfulnessOn the Shelf Book Review
By Lisa Book, Main Library

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness completes a cycle that the author began with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, and Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier, spanning a time from the last throes of white-rule Rhodesia, to majority-rule Zimbabwe.

Cocktail Hour comes full circle, and instead of a child’s point of view of the family’s struggles, it’s the author as an adult, looking back on her parent’s long journey. How and why did they come to Africa? Did they really think that there was a place for them there?

“…[T]hose who shed our ancestry the way a snake sheds skin in winter… We white Africans of shrugged-off English, Scottish, Dutch origin…”

There were accidents, assaults, near death and actual death, all against the backdrop of the implacable African landscape, and laced with an extraordinary amount of alcohol.

If you like memoirs like The Glass CastleAngela’s Ashes or All Over But the Shoutin’, this is another one of those rare tales of family hardship and pain, but also of love and courage, with a generous amount of black humor.