Category Archives: Reviews

On the shelf: ‘Until Tuesday’ by Fmr. Capt. Luis Carlos Montalvan

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main Branch


How does a dog, partially raised in a U.S. prison, save the life of a 17-yr. Army veteran?  Well–it’s a great story!


Luis Carlos Montalvan is a veteran and former captain in the army, with two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. But after two tours in Iraq, and the war wounds received there, he found his life unrecognizable. Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, along with other severe injuries, had turned his life into agony, and it stayed that way for a long time.


Meanwhile, Tuesday was a pup in a litter of Golden Retrievers, destined to become a Service Dog for the severely disabled, and tweaked to help veterans with TBI and PTSD. The day they met changed both of their lives.


This is not so much a book about a dog, as how a life that is almost destroyed, can be painstakingly put back together. Montalvan’s writing is powerful and engaging, and Until Tuesday packs a wallop in its slim 252 pages.




On the shelf: ‘The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection between Humans and Dogs’ by Jon Franklin

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main Branch


A man is haunted by a photograph. Taken at an archeological dig, at Ein Mallaha, in the Jordan Valley, it presents a puzzling tableau. Looking down into a grave site formed 12,000 years ago, the photo reveals the skeleton of a man reaching out to another, much smaller skeleton — a puppy.


The author can’t seem to push the question out of his mind.  Why is the old man reaching out to the puppy in his burial site, so long ago?  And why is he so interested in this particular question, when he isn’t all that taken with dogs anyways…


Being a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist, when a question really gets under his skin, Jon Franklin often ends up turning it into an article, a series, or in some cases, an entire book. And so it was that almost 20 years after contemplating the press release photo of the Jordan Valley excavation, The Wolf in the Parlor was published.


This is a great book for any dog lover, but it’s much more. Franklin ranges widely, and the book is like an evolutionary drama, a pre-historical mystery, and a neurobiological puzzle — all forming a Gordian Knot, unraveled by a master storyteller.


There is a delicious irony in the book, in that the man pursuing his scientific research ultimately ends up forming his hypothesis, through the quality time that he spends with his wife’s dog. A relationship that he had considered inconsequential at first becomes a key to not only his research, but to the very question that bothered him so much in the first place.


Why was the man in the grave reaching out to the puppy, as if his spirit needed the animal to complete him?





On the shelf: ‘The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir’ by Bill Bryson

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Not since Gahan Wilson’s masterful creation of, “The Kid”, who inhabited the comic strip Nuts, has the childhood of the ’50s been so horribly and hilariously portrayed. I laughed so hard, I was wiping tears away as I drove down the road listening to the author read his memoir with just the right pitch of nostalgia and incredulity over life in the 1950s.


If you were alive at any age back then, you’ve got to read this book. Not only for the unique history of an unusual age, but for your health! New studies have proven beyond a doubt that humor can be as good as medicine in some respects, thus putting the Thunderbolt Kid in the “extra strength” category.


Who was the Thunderbolt Kid you say? And were his powers used for good or ill?


He came out of the heartland: Des Moines, Iowa, conceived by a couple that he suspected were not his true parents for a time. He evolved at the “Kiddie Corral”,  (a haven piled high with the latest comics at the local grocery), where young Bill would be dropped off while his mom shopped. Nurtured at this comic book heaven, with its trove of amazing tales, one afternoon, while down in the basement, Bill discovered an old sweater with a Thunderbolt stitched across it, and the Thunderbolt Kid was born.


The heroes of the day were an eccentric bunch: “the Lone Ranger, who was already not the kind of fellow you would want to share a pup tent with, was made odder still by the fact that the part was played on television by two different actors… but the programs were rerun randomly on local TV, giving the impression that the Lone Ranger not only wore a tiny mask that fooled no one, but changed bodies from time to time.”


Bill’s super powers were not as awe-inspiring as most, but then, time and chance come to us in different ways. Just as other superheroes took a while to discover the scope and extent of their new powers, young Bryson finally uncovered the fact that his “Thundervision” was useful, but in modest ways: “…my superpowers were not actually about capturing bad people or doing good for the common man but primarily about using my X-ray vision to peer beneath the clothes of attractive women and to carbonize and eliminate people—teachers, babysitters, old ladies who wanted a kiss–who were an impediment to my happiness.”


There were many such impediments–but much exhilaration also.


It was an age of exotic inventions and everyday solutions: the cafeteria with atomic toilets, the totally cement nuclear bomb proof house, movie theaters with aw- inspiring Egyptian decor, rocket mail, toity jars, the zenith of the comic book, among others. A time when doctors lauded cigarettes for their “calming effects”, and a good squirt of DDT might be beneficial.


Who knew?  Anything seemed possible . . .


Bryson concludes, “What a wonderful world it was. We won’t see its like again…”



Review: Brad Mehldau Trio explores charted, uncharted territory at St. Cecilia

Brad Mehldau, in trio format, visited St. Cecilia Music Center Nov. 30. (Supplied)

By K.D. Norris 


Brad Mehldau Trio, Nov. 30, at St. Cecilia Music Center, Grand Rapids, Mi.


60-second Review


Pianist Brad Mehldau is often referred to as a “lyrical” jazz pianist. But there may be a better adjective for what he and his piano render from a chart of music.


While St. Cecilia’s Royce Auditorium regularly offers classical, jazz and even folk music, and Thursday’s visit by the Brad Mehldau Trio technically fit into the jazz series, the music might well have been its own sub-genre: “experimental”.


Yes, jazz is, almost by definition, improvisational. But Mehldau, along with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums, where in mostly charted — with sheet music in front of them — but still artistically uncharted territory. With the way Mehldau often closed his eyes and looked off to nowhere, and the way his piano often floated above Grenadier and Ballard’s foundational lines, I would guess that Mehldau’s charts are merely a suggestion.


The trio’s 7-song, roughly 75-minute set featured mostly original tunes, beginning with “Gentle John” — Mehldau’s ode to one-time musical partner John Scofield —  and maybe only one jazz standard, Sidney Bechet’s “Si tu vois ma mère” (I think that was the name of the Bechet tune … and the bluesy encore was unidentified from the stage, and may or may not have been a cover.)


My favorite tunes were two originals: “Bel and the Dragon”, which Mehldau said was being debuted at the concert and which felt a little like jazzy space music with the pianist taking several interstellar detours off his charts, as well as “Green M & Ms”, a tune which allowed Ballard to prove that drums can, in fact, be a lead instrument without rattling the ice cubes in one’s drink. (We will not mention the urban legend that green M & Ms are an aphrodisiac, but the music was pretty attractive …)


The bottom line is that, when it comes to innovative musical charts, and uncharted music innovations, Mehldau has few equals in the current jazz scene. And, as the Los Angeles Times wrote in another review, Mehldau is “one of the most adventurous pianists to arrive on the jazz scene in years.”


I could not say it better, so I won’t.


May I have more please?


Knowing my words give short-shift to the artistry of Mehldau, visit here for short YouTube video.


Mehldau, who last performed in Grand Rapids at St. Cecilia in 2010, was the second offering of St. Cecilia’s annual jazz series, which will include singers Gregory Porter on Feb. 22, 2018, and Kurt Elling on March 22, 2018. For  information on tickets and more information visit


Mehldau’s jazz trio work is also on my short list of “must-have” jazz trio recordings. For those looking for a deeper dive into the format, an essential acquisition would be the Oscar Peterson Trio’s 1963 recording “Night Train”, the Ahmad Jamahl Trio’s 1958 recording “But Not For Me – At The Pershing” and/or Mehldau’s “The Art of the Trio” series, re-packaged and re-released as a 5-Disc box set by Nonesuch in 2011.


And you probably have to look no farther than Grandville’s The Corner Record Shop for any of them.


Speaking of local jazz, visit here for an interview with, and video of, a local jazz trio at work.


On the shelf: ‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simison

By Mary Knudstrup, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main Branch


The idea of a multi-page questionnaire to weed out the unsuitable and find the perfect wife might seem terribly off-putting until you get inside the head of Don Tillman, a 39-year-old genetics professor who can’t seem to get past a first date. Don has, to put it mildly, a unique way of looking at life due largely to the fact that he has an undiagnosed case of Asperger Syndrome. Always socially awkward (he has only two friends), Don is searching for the perfect woman to complete his life, thus “the wife  project,” sixteen pages to weed out the smokers, drinkers, and late-arrivers.


Enter Rosie Jarman, a total washout as far as Don’s questionnaire is concerned but beguiling in her own way. And she has a project of her own: tracking down the identity of her biological father, the perfect assignment for a genetics expert like Don. What follows is Don’s increasing self-awareness as he loosens up his micro-managed life in his effort to help Rosie. Don’s literal and unsubtle observations often don’t play well with those on the receiving end, but fill his narration with good-natured humor and sly insightful truthfulness.


The Rosie Project is a GR Reads pick that will keep you engaged and entertained as you watch Don being nudged away from his spreadsheet approach to life and into the spontaneous and unpredictable world of a totally unsuitable woman.

On the shelf: ‘Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman’ by Jon Krakauer

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main Branch


Krakauer’s book is just what we expect from him and more, as he tackles another of his “enigma wrapped in a mystery” stories of the human heart going up against timeless, unforgiving odds. He’s the perfect author to tell Pat Tillman’s tale, weaving the personal story of the man, alongside the history of Afghanistan, and how the U.S. came to play a part in their politics, and the ensuing historical and political ramifications.


The book sorts through mountains of information, all indexed with their sources, distilling it into an intensely readable story with a Greek tragedy feel, where the characteristic that brings Tillman down is his heroic virtue. Krakauer gives us a “warts and all” portrait of Tillman, because that is what the man would have wanted above all. A man who was good, honest, patriotic and loathed deception.


But, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” The night of Tillman’s death, against standard operating procedure, his clothes, body armor, and his private journal were all ordered burned, “to prevent security violations, leaks, and rumors”. The two chief medical examiners refused to sign the completed autopsy, due to the fact that the missing uniform was considered crucial forensic evidence. This was just the beginning of a complex cover-up.   Tillman’s family was incensed at their treatment and determined to learn the facts, despite the additional pain and suffering it caused them.


Where Men Win Glory:” reveals why that would have been so important to Pat.




On the shelf: ‘Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir’ by Roz Chast

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main Branch


Chast’s graphic memoir focuses on a time in her parents’ lives, when, after living in the same apartment in Brooklyn for 48 years (not hip Brooklyn, but Deep Brooklyn), they have come to the point where they are, “slowly leaving the sphere of TV commercial old age … and moving into the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and not a part of this culture.” 


Going into their nineties, the trip they’ve shared together is about to hit rough seas. And reality wallops their only daughter in the form of an after-midnight phone call. From the hospital.


Fans of Roz Chast (I’m in the “rabid” category) will recognize the skewed wit and unique, pulsating, line style from her cartoons that have been featured in the New Yorker since the ’70s. But the depth of conflicting emotions, and the insights into human hope, love, and frailty are simply breathtaking, as she has taken her work to a whole new level.


The first few pages contain the clues to the Gordion’s Knot underlying the psychological gestalt of this family. No wonder people have been so anxious in Chast’s cartoons in the New Yorker for over 30 years.


The book’s scope  is daunting: one’s identity vis-a-vis one’s parents, the hopes and dreams that were not–could not–be met, and then, suddenly, the role-reversal of the child-parent relationship. It’s a pretty deep look at some of the toughest challenges of the human condition, and Chast handles the material straight on. The humor she finds in these situations (I often laughed out loud) is painful, but kind of therapeutic. Because despite the constant deluge from the self-help industry, a resonant theme in literature continues to involve our issues with the past.


Why do things happen? What could I have done differently? Why won’t the dead leave us alone?


Deeply moving, absurdly funny, it’s a book you just can’t forget.




Review: McBride and his youthful cohorts satisfy, surprise in St. Cecilia return

By K.D. Norris 

Christian McBride Trio, Nov. 16, at St. Cecilia Music Center, Grand Rapids, Mi.


60-second Review


Christian McBride (Supplied)

If you came to St. Cecilia’s Royce Auditorium Thursday night expecting a typical jazz trio, with bassist extraordinaire Christian McBride leading the standard group through the standard repertoire and his taking the lion’s share of lead in the standard solos, you were both beautifully satisfied and, yet, a little blissfully surprised.


McBride — a multiple Grammy-winning jazz man at heart but willing and able to play where the spirit moves him — is famous for his ability to slide into any musical genre where a bass of any form is at home, as he is for not only sharing the stage with young, talented musicians but showcasing them.


So it was McBride being McBride in his return gig at St. Cecilia when, along with young pianist Emmet Cohen and equally young guitarist Dan Wilson, he invited the audience to explore with him in a nine-song, roughly 90-minute musical conversation that ranged from the classics (“I’m Afraid the Masquerade is Over” and Duke’s “Sophisticated Lady”) to 1980s pop (Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed”).


My favorite conversations of the night — jazz songs really are a conversation among players who speak the improvisational “language of jazz” — were two tunes written by Cohen: “Three of Us” and “You Already Know”. I think that’s their titles; they are new and announced from the stage!


(The “language of jazz”, as an aside, is a term taught to me by no-less an authority than Ellis Marsalis Jr. — father of the Marsalis jazz family — when I interviewed him a decade ago and asked a dumb question about playing a new tune with musicians for the first time and he gently gave a reporter a brief jazz masterclass.)


Whether it was McBride fighting off a blister on a finger, as it appeared, or just his feeling like showcasing the very talented Cohen, the bassist gave the pianist not only got his fair share of  solos but the majority of the spotlight. The addition of Cohen’s second composition, in fact, was an admittedly unrehearsed decision which was musical proof of trio’s ability to speak the “language of jazz”.


McBride — blister, or whatever, and all — and Cohen were uniformly good in their fluid solos and able accompanying efforts, but Wilson’s guitar may have been the most unique part of the show — while his solos were tight and, often, experimental, his work as an accompanist gave the trio a rarely heard sonic landscape.


May I have more, please?


These days, an electric (or at least amplified) guitar is completely at home in the jazz genre — has been from the time of the classic Wes Montgomery (and anybody else you care to name), to the more modern George Benson and Russel Malone (and anybody else …), to the youthful Gilad Hekselman (and …)


But it wasn’t always so.


Jazz historians, an often argumentative lot they are, will often point to Charlie Christian as the groundbreaker for bringing the electric guitar to the jazz stage. In his short life — 1916-1942, a life cut short by tuberculosis in the years before any cure or even real treatment were known — Christian was a key figure in the popularity of swing jazz, the early development of bebop and, some argue, even the infancy of cool jazz.


His teaming of the guitar with amplification pushed the instrument out of the rhythm section of big bands and front stage as a solo jazz instrument. His day-job swing-jazz work with the Benny Goodman Sextet and his late night bebop sets in Harlem in the years before his death made him a legend among guitarists of all ilk — so much so that in 1990 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “early influence”.


Whatever. The man could, like McBride, speak the language of jazz.


McBride’s visit was the beginning of St. Cecilia’s annual jazz series, which will include the Brad Mehldau Trio on Nov. 30, and singers Gregory Porter on Feb. 22, 2018, and Kurt Elling on March 22, 2018. For  information on tickets and more information visit


On the shelf: ‘Toxic Charity’ by Robert D. Lupton

By Karen Thoms, Grand Rapids Public Library, West Side Branch


Using the kindheartedness of most Americans as a backdrop, Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity shows how the choices we make to express our compassion can have negative consequences on the very people we hope to help. It is a hard read because most of us who give have done some of the things he identifies as damaging. Yet he does not leave us to wallow in guilt or shame but quickly charts a course correction for givers that can make a restorative difference in the lives of hurting people.


Throughout the book Lupton walks us through actual situations where people or churches are giving time or money. Outcomes of these efforts are gleaned and measured. The stark findings command our attention: much of our giving is a Band-Aid and sometimes the results are disastrous! Lupton is able to turn our good intentions upside down to reveal pages of negative repercussions. We are brought up short story after story and then faced with the hard truth. There are no quick fixes when we are hoping to help people toward wholeness here or abroad. Being willing to consider Lupton’s assessments is a first step toward moving from hurtful aid to wholeness and development. 


Helping agencies and compassionate people will be challenged by the evidence in this book. Armed with this new knowledge Lupton turns the reader’s attention to the cure as he proposes an Oath for Compassionate Service, describes in detail what service with dignity looks like, and finally suggests steps to reaching the better outcomes we had hoped for in the first place. After reading Toxic Charity you will likely be changed in how you evaluate the use of your resources.

On the shelf: ‘Stitches: A Memoir’ by David Small

By Benjamin Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main Branch


I was born anxious and angry, my sinuses and digestive system didn’t work as they should have. However, dad was a doctor. He knew what to do. Dad prescribed the medicines for my frequent bouts with this and that. Dad gave me shots. And enemas. Dad put me on his treatment table and “cracked my neck,” our family nickname for the osteopathic manipulations he had learned in medical school. And it was dad the radiologist who gave me the many x-rays that were supposed to cure my sinus problems.


And so we are introduced to the terrifying childhood of Michigan author and children’s book illustrator David Small. In this illustrated memoir, Small tells and draws us the story of growing up in a household where he is subjected to his father’s scientific experimentations and his mother’s emotional manipulations. Eventually, due to excessive exposure to radiation, he develops a tumor and is diagnosed with throat cancer and left speechless. The young boy is helpless, alone, and silent. However, in his drawings and art he finds refuge.


With the simple lines of his drawings, Small takes his reader’s eyes through a roller coaster of memories and emotions. Furrowed brows, creased frowns, and skewed glances speak volumes. So much is told in so few words. This book will break your heart. Small’s memoir is a touching look at the silences many endure among people called family.


Stitches appeals to readers of character driven fiction and memoirs, and is also a worthwhile recommendation for teenagers who enjoy graphic novels.

On the shelf: ‘Roadie: The Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer’ by Jamie Smith

By Melissa Fox, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Part manual part memoir, Roadie serves as a personal introduction to the world of bike racing. Because the author is a self-proclaimed roadie, the information and advice he provides not only feels sound, but includes enough of a mix of personal anecdote and humor to come across as honest and genuine.


Readers will learn everything there is to know about bike racing, from the reasons why roadies shave their legs to the physics of drafting properly. The chapters on bicycles, training rides, and road racing are enough to motivate anyone to get out, purchase a road bike, and start pedaling. This book is an obvious fit for several different types of readers including those who are interested in getting started in the sport of bike racing, those who are already roadies, or those who live with a roadie and want to better understand their lifestyle and idiosyncrasies.


But, because of its lighthearted tone and the author’s individual voice and narrative, this book has wide appeal and is a great read for anyone who enjoys peeking into the secret world of others.

On the shelf: ‘Everyday Sacred’ by Sue Bender

By Karen Thoms, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Sue Bender has written a timeless book. Five years after her New York Times bestseller Plain and Simple, Bender admits she drifted away from what she had learned living with the Amish. In Everyday Sacred she chronicles how she got back on track again.


Bender, a deeply spiritual person, draws on various religious traditions to light her path away from her internal harsh judge to her gentle “enough”. Her journey begins with a phrase everyday sacred and an image, a begging bowl. She does not know what either mean; yet from the beginning of the book the reader understands that she is going to trust the process of finding their meanings.


“All I knew about a begging bowl was that each day a monk goes out with his empty bowl in his hands. Whatever is placed in the bowl will be his nourishment for the day. I didn’t know whether I was the monk or the bowl or the things that would fill the bowl, or all three but I trusted the words and the image completely.”


She had hoped to find a straight path but hers led in circles. 


“So it helps if you listen in circles,” said a Jewish friend. And listen Bender does. She listens to “the opening ceremony of my day”—the smiley face her barista swirls into her cappuccino. She listens as a friend with a hurt knee tells her all the things she discovered on her walk because she had to walk slowly. When feeling overwhelmed, she remembered a friend telling her to “phase things in.” She pondered her physical therapist’s statement that she had “self-corrected in the wrong direction.” Her friend Helen, who lost everything in a house fire, said the fire “fine-tunes my attitude about the remainder of my life.” Bender listened, watched and acted her way back to her center.


Each day Bender presented her empty begging bowl and daily an experience, or a statement, or a feeling appeared in the bowl. By the end of the book Bender has slowed. 


“Being empty is a beginning.” 


“Good deeds have echoes.” 


Instead of judging her inabilities and flaws, clarity dawns.


“Our imperfections are a gift, the very qualities that make us unique. If we make the shift to see them that way—we can value ourselves… just as we are.” 

Review: Ballet 5:8’s emotion-filled ‘Compass’ opens season of modern dance options

Ballet 5:8’s Antonio Rosario, front, was a focal point whenever he was on stage for the group’s “Compass” program. (Supplied/Lana Kozol)

By K.D. Norris 


Ballet 5:8’s “Compass”, Oct. 28, at The Devos Center for Arts and Worship, Grand Rapids Christian High School, Grand Rapids, Mi. 


60-second Review


This weekend’s visit of the Chicago-based Ballet 5:8 dance company, and its original modern ballet/dance program “Compass”, choreographed by Julianna Rubio Slager, offered a welcome addition to what is a quality if not-so-plentiful spectrum of modern dance opportunities in the Grand Rapids area.


The program of four one-act ballets, inspired by the challenges of personal navigation in a world of cultural tension and personal quandary, was consistent in its imaginative choreography by Slager — the troupe’s artistic director — as well as being accompanied by mostly well matched music and well danced by Ballet 5:8’s dancers.


Special note should be given to the on-stage presence and prowess of solo dancers Stephanie Joe and especially Antonio Rosario — the pair were perfect together in the second movement/Culture 4 segment of “All God’s Children”, the opening of the four one-act ballets. But Rosario’s stage power and personality was a focal point whenever he was on stage.


The most memorable — and emotional — of the one-acts, however, was the sparse, incredibly emotional “The Mother”, and the dancing perfection of lead dancer Lorianne Barclay. Based on an interpretation of a poem by Pulitzer Prize author (and Chicagoian) Gwendolyn Brooks, the dance — where in Barclay’s channelling of Brooks’s lament of “the abortion of decades past” is both raw and sadly tender but also hints (to me) at the ultimate acceptance of one’s life decisions and the consequences of those decisions.


The dance company’s mission, according to the program, is to engage in a “conversation of life and faith” through dance. And “Compass” did that very well, and with out being too preachy.


For more information about Ballet 5:8 visit


May I have more, please? 


As I said, the visit by Ballet 5:8 was a beginning and a welcome addition to the area’s fall/winter modern dance offerings.


Next up is Grand Valley State University’s modern dance offering, part of its Fall Arts Celebration, as Aerial Dance Chicago presents a free program, “Celebrating Originality: Defying Gravity with Aerial Dance Chicago”, on Monday, Nov. 6, at 7:30 p.m., in Louis Armstrong Theatre on the Allendale Campus.


The annual visit by a professional dance company is always worth the time and the short drive west.


And also worth the effort is the GVSU Fall Senior Dance Concert, scheduled for Dec. 9, at 7 p.m., and Dec. 10, at 2 p.m., at the Dance Studio Theatre, also on the Allendale Campus. The dance program, all choreographed and danced by students, is free.


For more information GVSU’s entertainment programs visit


The high-point of the modern dance season, of course, the annual presentation of the Grand Rapid’s Ballet’s Movemedia program, this season offering a series titled “Movemedia: Diversity” and presented on Feb. 9-11, 2018 (Movemedia I) and on March 23-25, 2018 (Movemedia II), both at the ballet’s Peter Martin Wege Theatre.


The program, according to the Grand Rapid Ballet’s website, includes “world-premiere works by some of today’s most important and influential choreographers.”


If past performance(s) is any indication of future expectations, I can’t wait to see what hits the stage early next year.


For more information on the Grand Rapids Ballet visit


On the shelf: ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke

By Amy Cochran, GRPL, Seymour Branch


Every time I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark, I find myself completely immersed once more. Despite numerous efforts, I have yet to find another novel that so perfectly mixes the elements I especially love in a story: Jane Austen-style English manners, British history and subtle fantasy. 


In early nineteenth century England during Napoleon’s heyday as a major threat, two magicians work to bring magic back to the world. Quiet, mousy Mr. Norrell and his increasingly successful and confident apprentice, Jonathan Strange find themselves beset both by their own competitive natures and long-forgotten powers that have taken an interest in the mortal world once more. 


Clark took took ten years to research and write this huge, complex story, and the effort shows in every intricately laid-out detail. She has painstakingly created a Britain where magic has been intertwined in politics and life for centuries, and gives plenty of fascinating hints to the hidden world that lies behind our own.


There is a sly and witty sense of humor in descriptions of situations and characters, and extensive footnotes fill in what we need to know about this slightly different, magical Britain. I happen to love footnotes, especially fictionalized ones, plus I find it difficult to resist any book that makes me feel as if I’m in an ancient, snowy wood where anything could happen.

On the shelf: ‘Romeo: The Story of an Alaskan Wolf’ by John Hyde


By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Breathtakingly beautiful photos of Alaska, and of a lone black wolf that made his home below the Mendenhall Glacier for almost a decade–John Hyde tracked and recorded the activities of Romeo, a very unusual wolf. Orphaned, but able to live in the wild (the author’s scat analysis showed a diet of mostly deer, lemming and beaver), he was very fond of dogs–as in “playing with dogs”. 


An Alaskan Wolf is a very large, powerful creature, with jaws twice the strength of a German Shepherd, yet Romeo became accepted by the townspeople as a winter visitor each year, enamored of their dogs. His canine dominant status is clearly apparent in shots of his romping with the town’s pets, and yet he’s acting as silly as a puppy, getting them to chase him. He towers over the Labs and Boxers he’s shown scampering  with, and you almost feel like yelling to the unseen  dog owners “no, no–this won’t end well!”,  but of course Hyde wouldn’t have produced “Romeo” if there wasn’t an exceptional story to tell. 


Kim Elton, Dir. Of Alaska Affairs, U.S.D.I., says of the book, “If wolves can’t inspire awe, what wild creature can?”, and Farley Mowat adds, “I envy John Hyde as I have never envied another human being.”   


Over 80 amazing photos will tempt you to book that cruise to Alaska.


Nice commentary too, with echoes of Aldo Leopold, and other naturalists, who continue to share their vision of the necessity of wilderness for all of us.

On the shelf: ‘A Stronger Kinship’ by Anna-Lisa Cox

By Tim Gleisner, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Every so often, I feel compelled to suggest a book solely not only for the skill of the author’s writing ability, but for its social importance as well. The book, A Stronger Kinship by Anna-Lisa Cox is just such a one.


A true story set in the town of Covert, Michigan during the latter half of the nineteenth century, A Stronger Kinship tells the tale of the town’s unique population. Covert is a small town of roughly 1,000 people in Van Buren County just outside of South Haven — a typical rural community in Southwest Michigan. People settled the area because the land was plentiful and could provide an income. Agriculture, in various forms, has sustained this community from the very beginning — first lumber then fruit farming. Families went to church, school, formed businesses; all in all a community within the norm of American life.


The quality that set this town apart was that the population of Covert was integrated at a time when America was not.


Building on the lives of runaway slaves, freed blacks, and abolitionist New Englanders the reader encounters a group of people who felt that one was equal regardless of color. This attitude was nurtured while the Midwest was experiencing racism in various forms. Families lived on farms side-by-side, as well as within the town. You learn of the first elected African-American official, of the town’s business leaders who came from both sides of the color line, and from families that were integrated and accepted by the populace as a whole.


What is remarkable is that to this day this community has stayed true to the original conviction of the pioneer generation. It conveys the sense that intentional community is not always impossible, and that ones morals can be lived out in ordinary life.


Anna-Lisa Cox is the recipient of numerous awards for her research. She is an active historian, writer, and lecturer on the history of race relations in the nineteenth-century Midwest.


On the shelf: ‘The Swan Thieves’ by Elizabeth Kostova

By Talulah Sievers, WKTV Citizen Reporter


When artist Robert Oliver brutally attacks a painting at the National Gallery of Art, psychiatrist Andrew Marlow, an artist himself, is called in to get to the bottom of Oliver’s motives. Oliver refuses to speak, however, except to offer a cryptic explanation: “I did it for her.” 


Marlow’s assignment has him traveling the world in search of “her.” Is the mystery woman Oliver’s ex-wife? The art student with whom he falls in love?


Oliver maintains his silence, communicating only by painting a beautiful, dark-haired woman whom no one seems to recognize. Breaking his own rules, Marlow digs deeper than he ever has in the life of a patient and finds himself at the center of a story that goes far beyond the mind of a disturbed artistic genius.


The Swan Thieves is a beautifully written story about art, obsession and the mind of a genius.

On the shelf: ‘Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer’ by Lynne Cox

By Mary Knudstrup, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main 


Lynne Cox has spent a lifetime breaking records in the water; at 15, she shattered the men’s and women’s world records swimming the English Channel; at 17, she broke the world record for the Catalina Channel; the next year she became the first woman to swim the Cook Strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. She has swum the treacherous Strait of Magellan, the shark-invested waters around the Cape of Good Hope, and the frigid passage across the Bering Strait as a way of opening the borders between the Soviet Union and the United States.  


But this book is no mere recitation of accomplished feats. Cox writes with the heart and ease of a true storyteller, taking the reader along on each incredible crossing, whether it’s riding in the slipstream of dolphins or dodging sewage in the Nile River. Her love of the water and the sheer joy she experiences when swimming reveals itself over and over. 


“I felt as if I were swimming through a black-and-white photograph of the sea at night. And in the phosphorescent ocean . . . silvery bubbles rolled out of my mouth, and as my arms churned the water, they etched a trail of white iridescent light across the shimmering black sea.”


However, it isn’t just her infectious enthusiasm for swimming that captures the reader. Cox’s story is one of overcoming obstacles with amazing patience, determination and good humor. She admits to fear and exhaustion but doesn’t let it defeat her. She warmly gives credit to the individuals and teams that assist her in accomplishing each goal.


No longer concerned with breaking records, she has turned her attention to using her talent to quietly foster good-will between countries. Whether it’s jumping from a wind-tossed boat, approaching a Soviet diplomat for permission to swim to Russian soil, or navigating her way through icebergs, her perseverance and can-do attitude is ever present. 


Swimming to Antarctica is a great adventure story to add to your reading list.

From Stockholm to ArtPrize: Meijer Gardens exhibit offers art worth talking about

As part of the Garden’s ArtPrize exhibit, “Rodin and the Contemporary Figurative Tradition”, Anders Krisár’s work — Untitled, from 2014-15 — both fits in and stands out among the works of 17 contemporary figurative artists. (Supplied)

By K.D. Norris


One of the grand things about Grand Rapids’ annual ArtPrize explosion of often-comfortable, and occasionally controversial, art is listening to people-on-the-street talk about what attracted — or befuddled — them.


Waiting in line at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum — traditionally a focal point of artistic entities eying public support by offering very accessible, if not very exploratory, art — my wife and I overheard a man talking about a modern figurative sculpture included as part of the current Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park exhibit.


The man, wearing a military service hat of some branch and looking very much like a visitor from Indianapolis so some other heartland city, was trying to convince the other man in his foursome of the absolute necessity that he see Swede Anders Krisár’s startling, almost surreal split body sculpture.


Not exactly the kind of art you’d expect to attract conservative artistic appreciation, but such is the world of ArtPrize dialogue.



As part of the Garden’s ArtPrize exhibit, “Rodin and the Contemporary Figurative Tradition”, Krisár’s work — Untitled, from 2014-15 — both fits in and stands out among the works of 17 contemporary figurative sculptors and video artists in an exhibition “influenced” by Rodin.


Anders Krisár            by Phil Poynter

The work is in keeping with the now Stockholm-based artist most recent works, which show people intentionally left incomplete or disassociated from themselves in various ways. Intentional or not, that vision of a lack of wholeness is something which runs through his art.


“I think not many people are whole,” Krisár said in an interview with WKTV. “We try to find ourselves through other people, find completeness through other people. And also, (other people) can help you become more whole and heal yourself.”


But that idea of creating art which offers what is sometimes called “empty space” for the viewer to fill in, that intentional invitation for interaction with the viewer, is not something the artist says flows consciously.


“It is not really a (part of his) thought process, emotional feeling process,” he said. “The thoughts come afterword, when I start to work more with my hands on, and after, when the work is done, I start to think about it more.”


Krisár, who has spent time in New York and has a foundation in photography to compliment his 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional installation art, described his artistic process this way: “First it is a human model, and then we cast the model, then we make a resin out of that cast and rework that cast. It is kind of a mixture of cast and sculpturing.”


In the case of the Meijer Garden’s exhibit, his final product is polyester, but he has worked in several mediums.


His work came to the attention of Joseph Becherer, Meijer Gardens vice president and chief curator, in a completely different form, however.


Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park chief curator Joseph Becherer. (Courtesy Ohio Today)

“I actually saw some of his works in print form first and I thought they were so interesting and so, sort of, singular, that they really merited being part of this exhibition,” Becherer said. “… I thought what he was doing, in terms of both technology and form, on one side. But also in terms of the content was pretty special.”


They also, apparently, deserve special discussion to even the most casual observer of ArtPrize offerings.


“Rodin and the Contemporary Figurative Tradition” is free to the public through the run of this year’s ArtPrize, through Oct. 8, and then will continue on display through Jan. 7, 2018.


The exhibit, after ArtPrize closes, will include an outdoor guided sketching event on Oct. 20 focused on Rodin’s “Eve”, one of the cornerstones of the Garden’s permanent  collection, and a discussion by Becherer on Nov. 5 titled “The Rodin Revolution, In and Out of Context”.


For more information on Meijer Gardens and its ArtPrize exhibit, visit


On the shelf: ‘Pirate Latitudes’ by Michael Crichton

By Tim Sage, Grand Rapids Public Library, West Side Branch


It can be a shock when your favorite author dies unexpectedly. So how would you feel if you stumbled upon a new book by the same author a year later? This recently happened to me when an assistant of Michael Crichton discovered a complete manuscript for a book called Pirate Latitudes.  


Crichton, author of books such as Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and State of Fear, had died of lymphoma a year earlier. In fact, he was so secretive about his work that not even his publisher knows when he worked on it and if Crichton even planned on publishing it.


Pirate Latitudes is set in the Caribbean during the 17th century. A Spanish ship full of treasure is forced to spend the season at the fort of Matanceros and the English Governor of Jamaica wants it captured. He conspires with Charles Hunter to round up the greatest “privateers” (pirates in other words) in port for a daring raid on the island fort. A classic pirate tale full of high seas battles, adventure and betrayal follows. 


All Michael Crichton books are well researched. Adept at weaving the historical information into the story, you hardly realize that it is happening. If you liked the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and are looking for a book with all of the action and a little knowledge thrown in check out Pirate Latitudes. Besides, how often do you get to read a book published from beyond the grave?

On the shelf: ‘Making the Rounds with Oscar: the Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat’ by Dr. David Dosa

By C. Davis


A small gem of a book by a geriatrician who works at Steere House, a nursing home. 


Dr. Dosa’s parents were both pediatricians, but he was always drawn to the opposite end of life. The careful observations that he shares, reveal that he chose his specialty well. Dr. Dosa has his own problems, and the nursing home offers an effective backdrop for rumination. Against our ultimate fate, what will serve us, what will last in the end? 


I found the book oddly comforting and hopeful. The recurring strand running throughout, is Oscar, who is not a medical diagnostician, but a cat. A specialist in his own way, the  staff couldn’t ignore the fact that Oscar would uncannily appear at the bedside of residents in their last hours, and stay by their side steadfastly.



On the shelf: ‘Empty Mansions’ by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.

By Talulah Sievers, WKTV Citizen Reporter


The rich really are different, and nothing proves it as much as Empty Mansions, the story of Huguette Clark, heir to the riches of her millionaire father, W.A. Clark, a savvy and ambitious businessman and politician, who made his money in copper mines and founded a town that later became Las Vegas.


Authored by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr., a cousin to Huguette, Empty Mansions  tells the story of a woman so wealthy she owned paintings by Renoir and Degas; Stradivarius violins; and several remarkable homes, including an estate in Santa Barbara, California, and three apartments totaling over 40 rooms at a posh Fifth Avenue address.


Despite her vast wealth, however, Huguettte chose to spend a large part of her life as a recluse, collecting dolls and abandoning her many opulent homes to live in a small and rather spartan hospital room even though she was not ill. A complex and mysterious individual, she was extraordinarily generous to people she hardly knew but avoided most of her family. 


Upon Huguettte’s death, her secluded life was thrust into the public venue as a legal battle over her $300-million-dollar estate ensued. Meticulously researched and filled with illustrations of her homes and possessions, Empty Mansions is an intimate look at an eccentric life. 

On the shelf: ‘Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life’ by Michael Moore

By  Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Library, Main


Love him or hate him — people aren’t usually lukewarm about Michael Moore. This is an “almost memoir” that leaves out all of the dull stuff and serves up anecdotal bites of Moore’s life.


Growing up in Flint in the post-war 1950s, Moore was a good Catholic boy who had planned to become a priest. Moore’s life trajectory is fascinating to follow, prompting one reviewer to comment that “Michael Moore is Michigan’s own Forrest Gump.”


Moore can be a tad self-serving (who isn’t), but he makes up for that by also being self-effacing, thoughtful, and funny. The portraits of his parents are poignant and especially well done. It’s also a great memoir from the ’50s, when things were a lot different for the average kid. This is a quieter, more thoughtful book than some of his previous works, and I totally enjoyed the audio version, which is read by the author.

On the shelf: ‘Monkeewrench’ by P.J. Tracy

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


The mother-daughter team known as “P.J. Tracy” pens a mean psychological crime thriller, with a cast of engaging characters, and intricate plotting. Their collaboration has produced a fresh voice in contemporary mysteries, with characters I loved, along with fast-moving story lines.


In their first book, the eclectic misfits that make up the computer geek squad known as Monkeewrench, become enmeshed in helping the police, when a series of murders are occurring that mimic their new, but unreleased computer game. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee police team keeps uncovering deeper puzzles involving Monkeewrench, while frantically trying to solve the increasing murders. Who are these people, really, and why are they so underground that even the FBI has lost track of them?

On the shelf: ‘Hannah Coulter’ by Wendell Berry

By Jenny Savage-Dura, Grand Rapids Main Library


A few weeks ago, I was listening to the radio while driving to work and became so captivated by a review of author Wendell Berry’s novel, Hannah Coulter, I actually couldn’t help but arrive to work a little late, stuck in the parking lot, hanging on every beautiful word the radio guest had to say about this powerful novel.


Let me say, this radio program certainly did not disappoint.


In this novel, author Wendell Berry explores the fictional small farming town of Port William, where many of his books take place, and where many of his characters’ lives intertwine and reappear. With sweeping narratives and character-driven dialogue, the story paints vivid pictures of the community and their rich, yet simple lives.


In Hannah Coulter, our twice-widowed heroine looks back on her life story, now in her 70s, reminiscent of where her now-unrecognizable Port William has gone, so far-removed from the way things used to be.


Hannah Coulter most clearly communicates to its readers a feeling of ambivalence between two changing worlds: the charming old farming community of Port William and the fast-paced outside world, into which many younger members of Port William are venturing. Hannah’s voice is slow and wise, and Wendell Berry’s writing packs a profound message into a short novel.


I highly recommend reading this beautifully written novel and any of Berry’s other short novels about the characters in Port William. There is no real sequence or series to his books, so you can simply pick up and enjoy wherever you choose.

On the shelf: ‘Eco-beautiful: the ultimate guide to natural beauty and wellness’ by Lina Hanson

By Kalista Castine, GR Public Library, Main


Here’s the book for those of us who don’t want to invest in all the oils, powders and equipment needed to make beauty products at home.


Starting off with the best foods for our inner beauty, Hanson guides the reader to find the truly “natural” or “organic” products. We must take the time to read the ingredients thoroughly to protect ourselves from the marketing labels. Natural makeup has no added synthetic ingredients like chemical preservatives, colors or fragrances. But, certified organic is better because the ingredients are grown without pesticides.


Recommended eco-friendly products are named and discussed in each chapter: cleansers, moisturizers, makeup, lipsticks, lip balm and more.


There is a chapter for men too.


In less than 200 pages, Hanson covers the subject concisely and also gives a resource guide to eco-friendly suppliers.

Review: Memories enough for most as Anderson offers Tull, other musical stories

Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson (with Anderson from yesteryear on video) made a stop at Meijer Gardens on Friday, Aug. 18, and did not disappoint the sellout crowd. (WKTV/K.D. Norris)

By K.D. Norris 


Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson, Aug. 18, at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, Mi.


60-second Review


Two preface points: First, when I say the Jethro Tull concert was rock ’n’ roll theater by a good ol’ dude for good ol’ dudes, I count myself as one of those dudes. (Empirical evidence of the audience’s majority was the fact that the line for the men’s restroom was longer than the for the women’s.)


Second, despite Tull’s heart and soul, Ian Anderson, having turned 70 earlier this month, we will avoid the easy review road by ignoring the band’s 1976 release “Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll; Too Young to Die”. (Didn’t like the song the year I graduated from high school, and I now avoid cliches whenever possible.)


As to Friday night’s sold-out concert at Meijer Gardens, Anderson and his band — the current line-up includes not a single other member of the original band, but now includes standout keyboardist John O’Hara and lead guitarist Florian Ophale — breezed through a 18-song, 2-hour  and 45-minute set that was just what the audience came for.


The current line-up of Jethro Tull, with Ian Anderson center. (Supplied)

Most of the songs were from the band’s very-late 1960s and ‘70s heyday, most mainstays of the “Classic Vinyl” music radio channels and record store record racks. From the opening song, “Living in the Past”, to the set-closing pre-and post-encore break offerings of “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath”, Anderson/Tull played the hits.


Having heard Tull’s hits almost ad infinitum, my favorite songs were lesser-known to me and maybe unknown to the casual fan: “Heavy Horses”; the more-modern social commentary of “Banker Best, Banker Wins” and “Farm on the Freeway” as well as the purely instrumental “Bourrée” and “Toccata and Fugue in D Major” (both Johann Sebastian Bach covers).


Aside from the songs, however, the two real pleasures of the night were experiencing what was, really, a video-driven rock show — with a large screen behind the band showing song-by-song videos apparently synched to the live music, or visa versa — and spending a great evening with Anderson, whose singing voice may have, ah, “mellowed” over the years but who can still make his flute whisper and scream as desired.


It was good to see, as Anderson sang in “Locomotive Breath”, with slightly changed lyrics: “You know I couldn’t slow down …” — even if many of the audience had, clearly, slowed down a little.


May I have more, please? 


Having been in the pop-music biz for coming on half a century now, Ian Anderson undoubtedly has new music and new stories that few interviewers want to hear or ever ask about. But being the polite, proper Englishman that he is, Anderson provides perfectly acceptable answers to stale answers on his website.


Under the heading of “All Too Frequently Asked Questions” he talks about the origin of the band’s name, the changing line-up over the years, and his on-again, off-again retirement and distance from his Tull.


But the most interesting pat answer, I think, is his response to the question “Do you listen to new bands and who are your favourites?” (Spelled in the English way, of course!) His answer:


“I receive rather a lot of unsolicited demo tapes and CD’s from would-be musicians as well as from more professional performers, so I listen to a lot of “new” stuff that way. The car radio and music television keep me as informed as I want to be. But I have never been a great listener of other people’s work. Even when I first started, I listened only to a few things which really caught my attention. My favourite music to listen to these days is that of Muddy Waters, Beethoven and Indian Classical and pop music.”


Quite an eclectic guy, in music and life, I would say. Would love to share a pint with him sometime.


On the shelf: ‘Sharp Objects’ by Gillian Flynn

By Amy Cochran, GRPL-Seymour Branch

Gillian Flynn’s disturbing and enthralling first novel delves into the dark heart of a small town and the complex relationship between a mother and her daughters. Camille hasn’t been back home in eight years and is eking out a meager existence as a reporter for Chicago’s fourth-largest paper. In search of a prize-winning scoop, Camille’s editor persuades her to return to her southern Missouri hometown and search out the connections between the murder of a girl the year before and the recent disappearance of another little girl. It’s not long before the missing girl is found dead in a manner strikingly similar to the first death, meaning there is a serial killer in the town.

Busy searching for leads, Camille delays going home as long as possible, but finally shows up on her mother’s doorstep, where she is given a half-hearted and vague welcome. She clumsily attempts to get to know her teenage half-sister Amma and becomes messily involved with the detective handling the investigation.

In one sense, the novel is a mystery, as the search for the girls’ killer provides the framework for everything that happens to Camille. But it is also a story of why certain families’ wounds never heal. Flynn only gradually unveils why it is so hard for Camille to go home and why she has chosen to live far away from her mother. There are hints early on that she is damaged—for example, she can only take baths because the shower spray gets her skin to buzzing and she has a specific coping mechanism that she keeps a secret. But the longer Camille stays in Wind Gap, the more her hard-won emotional distance slips away and she finds herself more involved with her family than she had planned.

Sharp Objects is appropriately named. It is not a comfortable book to read, but the sharp edges in both the characters and the setting add to the power of the novel. Flynn’s portrayal of Wind Gap is nicely full of details that highlight the setting of a small Missouri town and she paces out the revelations perfectly for a sense of suspense. This is a mystery that got under my skin and even missing a traditional happy ending has nonetheless stuck with me as one of the more thought-provoking reading experiences I’ve had this year.

Next, I’ll be checking out Flynn’s second novel, Dark Places, which also deals with past tragedies and the often bizarre interior world of families.

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.


Review: Elvis’ mostly ‘nothing new’ tour stop at Meijer Gardens embraces power-pop years

Elvis Costello’s appearance at Meijer Gardens this week dug deep into his late 1970s and early ’80s New Wave/Power Pop years. (WKTV/K.D. Norris)


By K.D. Norris 


Elvis Costello and the Imposters, July 17, at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, Mi. 


60-second Review


It is not unusual for musical artists with the long history of Elvis Costello to always trudge out a select few of their radio hits from bygone days, to play just enough of the “oldies but goodies” expected — demanded — by an audience paying dearly for the opportunity to “remember when.”


What is unusual, in the case of Costello’s appearance at Meijer Gardens this week, was that with the tight backing of his lean, mean band of Imposters, especially pianist Steve Nieve and vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Brianna Lee, Elvis dug deep into his late 1970s and early ’80s New Wave/Power Pop years, his “… and the Attractions” band years.


He embraced that place and time in his past, and that music. But that also meant he offered up songs known and relatively unknown to the audience during a 2-hour 30-minute, 31-song set.


Drawing heavily from his 1982 classic Imperial Bedroom release, such an approach to his past made the first half of the concert a little slow for an often nonchalant audience. The second half — after what seemed more a planned set break than a pause before encore —  had an much different feel, leading off with a sparse, memorable version of “Alison” with Kuroi and Lee sharing his single mic proved Costello’s aim is still true.


Prior to the set break, my favorites songs were the slow, soulful “Tears Before Bedtime” and Elvis’ fine lead guitar work on “Shabby Doll” (both from Imperial Bedroom), and a surreal version of “Watching the Detectives” complete with pulp fiction video stills and vocals through a bullhorn. After the break, with the audience fully engaged, my highlights were the new “Blood and Hot Sauce”, a politically/socially-charged song written for planned staged musical “A Face in the Crowd”; my all-time favorite Costello song, “Man Out of Time”; and a rousing, set-closing run including “Radio Radio”, “Pump it Up”, and a cover of “(What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”.


In the end, we all know Elvis has moved on from his “… Attractions” years. He mostly makes his home in New York City with wife/singer Diana Krall and family; he has explored Americana music with collaborations with Bill Frisell, Allen Toussaint and T Bone Burnett; and has recently worked with new artists the likes of Marcus Mumford (Mumford and Sons), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Rhiannon Giddens.


But in the end, a flashback to the Imperial Bedroom and other remembered rooms is probably good for him and certainly good for the Meijer Gardens audience.


May I have more, please? 


Talking about revisiting the past, I could not help but revisit the urban legend of Elvis and his famous/infamous December 1977 visit to Saturday Night Life (as a late replacement for the Sex Pistols, no less). Still in his punk rock early years, Costello was reportedly forbidden by NBC and SNL’s Loren Michael from performing “Radio Radio” — which basically trashed the commercialism of music of which SNL played its part in. But after starting to play “Less Than Zero”, Costello reportedly stopped the band and kicked into “Radio Radio”.


Legend has it that he was banned from NBC and SNL for years afterword — and more than one wiki refuses to debunk the legend — and it also established his British bad-boy status in America.


And, having been born with the name Declan Patrick MacManus, and hailing from a still emerging British punk rock scene, a geekish-looking, skinny young man who renamed himself “Elvis” needed something to, as they say now, establish his “street cred”.