Tag Archives: Lisa Boss

On the shelf — ‘A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World’ by Susanne Antonetta

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main Branch


How would you experience the world if you were N’Lili, with multiple personalities — all of whom are young girls, though N’Lili herself is a physically large, tattooed male? What kind of teenager would plan very carefully to kill a young boy in a bizarre way, while making almost no attempt to disguise his guilt? How does someone go from being a suicidal heroin addict, labeled a hopeless schizophrenic at one point, to being a good wife, a gentle mom and a successful university professor?


These are the types of questions Antonetta raises in A Mind Apart, an extremely readable book which draws on a number of disciplines and sources to delve into the conundrum of human consciousness, especially the minds that seem alien to us. A great book for anyone who loves poetry and philosophy with their neuroscience.



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…”



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.




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: ‘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: ‘Willie & Joe: Back Home’ by Bill Mauldin

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Bill Mauldin was maybe the only regular infantry man to go up against General George Patton and win — twice. Mauldin was little and scrappy; part Apache, left a broken home at 14, and never graduated from high school– all of which may have contributed to his lifelong passion for the underdog. He fought in the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, receiving the Purple Heart.


His artistic talent was put to work for the armed services paper, Stars and Stripes, where he developed his iconic characters, Willie and Joe. Loved by the “dogfaces” at the front, the irreverent sketches were not as popular with the top brass. They so infuriated Patton, that he went after Mauldin, only to be told “hands off!” by Eisenhower.


America is experiencing the return of our armed forces personnel from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which set me thinking about the veterans of other American wars. Today’s consensus is that the WWII Vets were revered upon return, but Mauldin also shows the sometimes bitter reality that could await them.


Once I started reading all of Maudlin’s work, I was mesmerized by the man’s genius. Willie & Joe vols. I and II are essential, but go ahead and read them all — you’ll be glad you did!


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

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

On the shelf: ‘Push’ by Sapphire

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

By Lisa Boss

Grand Rapids Public Library


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


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


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


On the shelf: ‘In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War’ by Tobias Wolff


By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library


After reading Jon Krakauer’s new book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, (which is an excellent book!), I remembered that Tobias Wolff had also been in the Special Forces during the Vietnam era, and that both Tillman and Wolff were unusually honest in their thoughts about the military.  While Krakauer’s work about Tillman’s life trajectory from childhood to pro-football to Afghanistan is contemporary, Wolff needed a lot more time to distill the essence of his experience.


He begins his memoir at the wheel of his armor-plated truck, rolling along towards a chaotic street scene. He honks a warning — another one — and then, since the villagers do not get their bicycles out of the road, Wolff runs right over them.


“Seven months back, at the beginning of my tour, when I was still calling them people instead of peasants, I wouldn’t have run over their bikes. I would have slowed down or even stopped until they decided to move their argument to the side of the road, if it was a real argument and not a setup.    


“But I didn’t stop anymore. Neither did Sergeant Benet. Nobody did, as these peasants — these people — should have known.”


The parallels between then and now are thought-provoking, because while Wolff’s slim volume was written almost 30 years after his military experience of 1967-68, one wonders if it could be yesterday in Iraq or Afghanistan.


Wolff’s ultimate take on the Vietnam war was, “Here were pharaoh’s chariots engulfed; his horsemen confused; and all his magnificence dismayed.”  By contrast, Krakauer, an excellent writer and journalist, leaves us to draw our own conclusions, as to where we are headed in Afghanistan.


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

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



On the shelf: ‘America’s Boy: A Memoir’ by Wade Rouse

By Lisa Boss, GRPL Main

And heeeeeere’s “Miss Sugar Creek”!!

Summers in the late ’60s, with the extended family at the idyllic log cabin on Sugar Creek in the Missouri Ozarks, always include a special 4th of July beauty pageant. Wade, now age 5, has always been a judge, when what he really wants to be is a contestant. So, taking matters into his own young hands, when his family comes back from fishing he announces in all his finery, “I am Miss Sugar Creek!” He’s decked himself out in his grandma’s red heels, his mom’s bikini (fitted with duct tape), jewelry, and has a tin foil crown, sash and scepter.

“The moment my family comes in, I wave my scepter and graciously thank them for their decision. They stare at me, blinking in slow motion, trying to act like nothing is wrong, like it is perfectly natural for me to be standing there in a bikini and heels, like a tiny boy Phyllis George.”

Eventually, his adored older brother, springs into action:

“Todd, a true country boy, moves toward me, shaking his head, grabbing the scepter from my hands and motioning with it for me to walk the length of the cabin.

“There he is, Miss Sugar Creek,” he sings off-key.”

I liked Rouse’s memoir so much that I read it twice in one week. It’s a short book, telling the story of one of those families that are both ordinary and extraordinary.

You might be fooled into thinking it’s just a humorous book at first, because Rouse is just rib-achingly funny, but, much like Bill Bryson’s Thunderbolt Kid, it’s an extremely well-written look at another time in America, involving three generations and their interactions within their changing culture. I hate to say trite things like, “I laughed, I cried”, but that’s exactly what I did. A must read!

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

By Lisa Boss, GRPL-Main

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

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

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

‘An Unquiet Mind’ by Kay Redfield Jamison

an-unquiet-mindBy Lisa Boss, GR Main Library
A beautiful, compelling memoir about an exceptional life and a relentless disease, Jamison’s fast-paced story of her struggle and triumph over manic depression opens a window onto a mysterious and ever increasing diagnosis. If you have ever wondered why someone with a serious mental disorder won’t take their medication, Jamison hits this issue full-on, as she weighs the euphoric seductions of the hypomanias against the sometimes punitive and toxic effects of the drugs.

Her memoir is especially fascinating because she has a dual perspective; having studied and become an academic expert in Bipolar Illness and Mood Disorder, while experiencing the devastating effects of it in her own life. Oliver Sacks says about An Unquiet Mind, that “It stands alone in the literature of manic-depression for its bravery, brilliance and beauty.”

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

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

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

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

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

On the shelf: ‘No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels’, by Jay Dobyns

no-angelOn the Shelf Book Review
By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main

When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decided to infiltrate the Arizona Hells Angels and clean house they knew it wouldn’t be an easy job. Lengthy, complicated and expensive (think tax dollars), this sting holds one’s attention, as we wait to see what will ultimately be revealed when the nets are pulled up.

The most interesting part for me was the state of mind of the author/agent, as he descends into a violent, criminal culture that he finds increasingly attractive. We follow the transformation of Jay Dobyns, ATF undercover agent, into Bird, aspiring Hells Angel, over a 2-year period.

It raises the questions that police, military and even psychologists face, when they are trying to infiltrate or befriend “the enemy”. How much of our personality and our values are reflections of the culture we are in, rather than uniquely “us”? Where do the criminals stop and we begin… Dobyns invokes the lure of the free, macho brotherhood at first, but as time passes he shows us that it doesn’t really age so well.

Some of it was unintentionally funny. Who knew that there is a very strict, fussy code to get into the Hells Angels, and that their charters are filled with rules and “do’s and don’ts”. One crazy scene involves an impromptu opportunity for ATF, when the Hells Angels stay at a swanky Vegas hotel, supposedly arranged by Bird’s mysterious boss. ATF then needs an out-of-town police operative to play this “Mr Big”, and at the last minute they have to get a substitute, with surprising results.

Things are not as they would seem on the surface, but then, they never are.

On the Shelf Book Review: ‘When You Are Engulfed in Flames’, by David Sedaris

when-you-are-engulfed-in-flamesOn the Shelf Book Review
By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main

When David Sedaris, the famous humorist, was in Grand Rapids last spring, the Grand Rapids Press reviewer summed up his type of comedy as “NPR funny”— an excellent term, which perfectly describes an addictive style that touches on the poignant absurdity of life.

Along the lines of Woody Allen and James Thurber, with a bit of Jack Benny and Phillip Roth thrown in, Sedaris takes the melancholy and self-absorbed male to new heights. He’s honed an intense, but not mean-spirited voice over the years, and it is quite unique.

With a self-depreciating eye, he looks over topics like his childhood, family life, a checkered career path, being obsessive, being gay, travel, and his long-term relationship with his partner, Hugh, among others. If the topics seem a little mundane, it’s really about what he does with them.

If you haven’t discovered Sedaris yet, try a couple of his more recent works. One of my favorites is Dress Your Family in Denim and Corduroy, which has the small chapter, The End of the Affair, where David and Hugh take in a movie. It becomes clear to Sedaris that watching romantic movies is just plain dangerous, for reasons that may not have ever occurred to you. These four pages alone are worth the price of the book, and of course his works are available in print or audio at the library for free.