Tag Archives: on the shelf

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: ‘The Devil in the White City’ by Erik Larson

By Kristen Krueger-Corrado, GRPL-Main

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.


On the shelf: ‘Sensible Shoes…’ by Sharon Garlough Brown

By Karen Thoms, Main Library


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.


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: ‘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 Last American Man’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

By Melissa Fox, Grand Rapids Public Library-Main 

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.


On the shelf: ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ by Joe Hill

By Amy Cochran, Grand Rapids Main Library

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.


On the shelf — ‘Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Grand Rapids’

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.



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: ‘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: ‘Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale…’ by Gwen Cooper

By WKTV Contributor


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.

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.