“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

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The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller narrated by three women.  The main narrator is Rachel, whose heavy drinking has cost her both a  marriage and a job.  She unhappily shares a flat with someone she knew at college and, instead of letting her roommate know she lost her job, she keeps up the façade of her old routine by taking the same train into London every morning, sipping canned gins and tonic.  The train goes by her old house, where her ex-husband (Tom) lives with his newish wife (Anna) and their newborn baby.  The train also passes a house where a handsome couple (Megan and Scott) live; Rachel sees them breakfasting on their deck and projects a life of bliss:  a perfect marriage, perfect home, perfect jobs.  “He is dark-haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty, pale-skinned with blond hair cropped short.” She continues, “They’re a match, they’re a set. They’re happy, I can tell. They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.” Every day is the same – until it isn’t.  One morning, Rachel is shocked to see Megan kissing another man.  The next day she hears on the news that Megan has gone missing.  Rachel goes to the police, but, because of her drinking, is deemed an unreliable witness.  Rachel herself isn’t completely sure what she remembers or what really happened.  She gathers the nerve to go to Scott under the guise of being a friend of Megan’s and learns that Megan was seeing a therapist.  Rachel boldly books an appointment with the therapist to see what she can learn.  The plot thickens when Rachel learns that Megan has been babysitting Anna and Tom’s newborn baby.

Megan, the second narrator, is not anything like Rachel imagined.  She is restless with Scott and having an affair with her therapist.  She used to work in an art gallery and longs to be a free spirit, but feels out of place and confined in her suburban neighborhood.  Megan is bored, edgy, and unhappy, until the day she disappears – never to be seen again.

Anna, the final narrator, initially gloats about her victory in winning Tom away from Rachel.  Rachel is infertile, but Anna and Tom immediately conceive a baby.  As the story moves along, Anna and Rachel learn they have more than their love of Tom in common.

The author, Paula Hawkins, does a masterful job of portraying the story through the vantage points of the three women.  With changing timelines and alternating accounts, she spins a tight ,suspenseful tale.  I could not put this book down.  A movie adaptation, starring Emily Blunt and directed by Tate Taylor, is scheduled for release on October 10.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” show at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, October 5.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 5 for a discussion of The Girl on the Train at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan

girlsofatomic

At the height of World War II, men were off fighting and women were engaged in war efforts here in the states.  Detroit’s car plants were refashioned to build fighter planes, ammunition, trucks, and tanks.  The country was unified in its intense effort.

In eastern Tennessee, residents began receiving notices stating that their land and homes were no longer theirs and they would need to vacate.  The government cleared 59,000 acres of land and erected a secret city (not listed on any maps) in a matter of months to house 75,000 workers.  At the height of construction, houses were erected at the rate of one every 30 minutes.  These workers, mostly women, were recruited from the cities of the Northeast, farms of the South, and small towns in the Midwest.  The promise was good pay, housing, and an effort to end the war.  The price was blind obedience and sealed lips.  Only a few at the top really knew what was going on.  The average worker only knew her specific minuscule task and was forbidden to talk to neighbors or coworkers about it – they had an ant’s-eye-view of an elephant unable to fathom the big picture.

Only after the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did they reach a realization – they built the atomic bomb.

Denise Kiernan told the story through the eyes and voices of real women – some still alive: Celia, a secretary transferred from the Manhattan Project’s original offices in New York City; Toni, a secretary from neighboring Clinton, Tennessee – her aunt and uncle’s farm was seized by the government; Jean, a statistician-mathematician from Paris, Tennessee, who supervised a team of young women who crunched numbers to track production, and others.  Interviews, research, and notes from diaries were used to recreate this unique personal slice of American history.

Although the workers were equally unified in their dedication to the war effort, their treatment was still subject to the gender and race inequalities of the time.  Whites were put in dormitories, African Americans were housed in four-person, 256-square-foot “hutments,” each one “a square plywood box of a structure that had a potbellied stove sitting right smack-dab in the middle.” Kattie, an African-American woman, tells how she was not allowed to live with her husband, when white couples could.  Houses, impermanent as they were, were reserved for families.  A household was not a household, unless it was led by a man.

The purpose of the instant city was what happened in the plants.  However, to keep an orderly and happy workforce, efforts were taken to take care of the workers personal and social needs.  Churches, stores, movie theaters, recreational centers for skating and dancing were all created from scratch.  Social organizations thrived – there were even boy scouts and girl scouts for the kids.

The unity of government, industry, and individuals all working for one goal creates a stark contrast to the divisive climate today.  It’s unimaginable to think of 75,000 people uprooting, not knowing where they will be moving and not knowing what their jobs will be – all on blind trust in the government.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 6.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Tuesday, September 6 for a discussion ofThe Girls of Atomic City at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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“Challenger Deep” by Neal Shustman

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Challenger Deep is a young adult novel by Neal Shusterman that follows 15-year-old Caden Bosch.  He used to like to go to school, hang out with his sister, and create video games.  We see the world through Caden’s eyes, sometimes with brilliant imagery.  He describes his parents as “a single creature with four weeping eyes” and feels so distant that it’s as if he has cotton in his ears. We come to realize that Caden is toggling between two worlds – one that is real, and one that is real only in his mind. His parents become aware and alarmed when, over several months, Caden gradually loses his hold on reality, unable to focus on anything, skipping ball practice to walk, announcing that a kid at school wants to kill him, and claiming that he is being visited by an erratic, one-eyed pirate Captain. In the pirate world, the Captain seeks to explore Challenger Deep, the nadir of the Marianas Trench, at 6.8 miles is the deepest area in the world.

Caden agrees to go on this expedition, which is a metaphor for his illness. Caden exists both in his metaphorical pirate world, and the real world of family and school; sometimes even in a blend of both. At wits end, Caden’s parents commit him to Seaview Memorial Hospital for treatment. The scene where his parents turn and walk away listening to his protests is heartbreaking.  The pirate world expands and continues during his stay at the hospital.  The Captain tells Caden that there is no telling how deep the Trench, or Caden’s illness, may actually go. The Captain of the excursion is accompanied by a loud-mouthed parrot, a mental mirror for Dr. Poirot, Caden’s doctor at Seaview. All of the crewmembers whom Caden encounters onboard are mirror images of the patients he meets at Seaview. There is the navigator, Hal, who obsessively seeks to find patterns in maps and who serves as Caden’s roommate at the hospital; there is the beautiful but distant Callie who appears on ship as the wooden maiden; and there is Carlyle, the group therapist who appears on the ship as the deck hand.

Caden grows close to Callie who beautifully speaks to the struggle for clarity: “But if we endure it… I will find myself as I was before. We do, you know. Find ourselves. Although it’s a little harder each time… Then we squeeze ourselves back into the skin of who were before all this. We put the pieces back together and get on with things.”

The author develops a compassionate, haunting portrait of a schizophrenic teenager, thanks to input from his son Brendan, who had sailed the dark, unpredictable waters of mental illness.   The book includes Brendan’s drawings that show the inner turmoil and a means to communicate what words cannot.

Although there is no easy path, the book does offer hope, that through treatment and self-acceptance, mental illness can be managed.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 1.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m.Tuesday, August 2 for a discussion of Challenger Deep at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

As a young mawhenbreath.jpgn, Paul Kalanithi was fascinated with questions of philosophy – the meaning of human life and death.  He was the perfect product of his parents – his father an absent, over-worked doctor and his mother dedicated and intent on educating her sons in the classics.  At first, his fascination with philosophical questions led him to major in English Literature at Stanford.  Through literature he studied and gained insight into the wisdom of the human mind.  His studies led him to a further fascination with human consciousness and the brain.  He took more science courses and ended up with dual degrees in English literature and biology.  Although he vowed he never wanted to be like his absent father and the last thing he wanted to become was a doctor, he became increasingly convinced that the issues of morality and philosophy in which he was so interested could only be truly understood by confronting life and death through a medical practice.  He applied to medical school, and while waiting to enter, he went to the University of Cambridge, where he earned a master’s degree in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine before attending Yale Medical School.  After medical school, he returned to Stanford for his residency in neurosurgery.

He came to believe, he writes, that his simultaneous quests for meaning in life and for the relationship between the mind and the brain resulted in a “Conclusion” (read: wisdom, and/or insight), if he examined both the wisdom of the mind (as manifest in literature) and the function of the brain (as manifest in its anatomy and relationship with the rest of the physical body). He also writes about what might be described as a secondary quest: to examine and improve the general relationship between doctors and patients, exploring ways to make each interact more as humans with each other, than as functional components.  That relationship, his narrative suggests, could take into account that there is more to both than just a body and /or knowledge: there is also mind, spirit, and innate wisdom.

The irony of his quest is that in a flash his view transformed from an epistemological objective study to an ontological subjective one.  All the sudden, with a diagnosis of lung cancer, he was on the court with the meaning of his own life and death.  The terminal diagnosis forced him to grapple with his own priorities and values.

When Paul sent his best friend an email in May 2013 revealing that he had terminal cancer, he wrote: “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” It was a humorous way of dealing with the unthinkable, but also an indication of Dr. Kalanithi’s tremendous ambition. He had led a fascinating life and was not about to leave it unchronicled.  The result is this incredible, unforgettable book.

The introduction to the memoir was written by Abraham Verghese, a professor at Stanford Medical School and the author of numerous best-selling books, including the novel Cutting for Stone (2009).

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, July 5.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Tuesday, July 5 for a discussion of When Breath Becomes Air at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Haymaker” by Adam Schuitema

HaymakerHaymaker is a peaceful, picturesque town on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula nestled between the White Sable Dunes and lush forest.  Haymaker prides itself on its independent past – it arose from a tumultuous culture of lumbermen, “gamblers, prostitutes, and miscellaneous roughnecks”— every September, the town celebrates this past in “Boomtown Days.”  The town depends on tourists – the adventurous ones who visit in the winter for an opportunity to wrestle nature and those who visit in the summer to hike the dunes, soaking up the Lake Superior sun. The locals appreciate these tourists – their dollars and the fact that they leave.  Those that stay are challenged to an annual fist fight with local Donnie Sarver.  Even Roosevelt, an eccentric millionaire known as the Man in White, is still viewed as an outsider after living in Haymaker for thirty years.

In the Prologue, the author writes: “Take this town and suspend it in time.  Hold it with laced fingers, like the worker holds the trapped sparrow he’s found in the fireplace.  Then store the memory away.  This town’s about to change.”

The change begins when the libertarian organization called The Freedom Congress, after an in-depth search, identifies Haymaker as its utopian flagship community “where the self-evident truths of personal liberty can take root, growing and prospering to create the America our founding Fathers intended.”  Haymaker is ideal for several reasons.  First, it’s people:  they enjoy “elbow room” and the right to live as they see fit.  They come from hardy stock: lumberjacks, sailors, fishermen and miners – “they put the ‘rugged’ in ‘rugged individualism.’”  The Freedom Congress sees the populace steeped in libertarianism, even if it does not fully know it, and they naively believe that they would blend in with the existing community and be welcomed.  Second, its beauty: “[i]f you seek the kind of untouched liberty that our forefathers intended, we invite you to seek it in a place that’s equally untouched, as pristine as it was in 1776.”  Third, its freedom:  namely zoning laws – people’s property is theirs and the government cannot step in and “force them to have a deck inspected, or force them to participate in curbside recycling, or force them to remove an old Ford chassis from their backyard.”  Haymaker has lots of land to build and its small enough so it will nott take long for new libertarian voters to start putting their people in positions of power and voting for a libertarian agenda.

The plot of the book is the story of the migration of The Freedom Congress to Haymaker, its ensuing conflicts with the locals and the struggle for community, power, and freedom.  The climax is the mayoral election with the libertarian candidate opposing the local candidate and voice of reason: Roosevelt, The Man in White.

A perfect read for this election year, Haymaker delves into the question of the role of government in our everyday lives – its benefits, costs, and restrictions.

Adam Schuitema has a knack for vivid, memorable characters and lush descriptions of their environs – evident both in his previous collection of stories Freshwater Boys and this novel.  Both were named Michigan Notable Books by the Library of Michigan.  Adam earned his MFA and PhD from Western Michigan University and is an associate professor of English at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids.  He will be appearing at the Book Nook Book Club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, June 6 for a book signing and discussion of Haymaker – everyone welcome.  Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, June 6.   

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“The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George

LittleParisBookshopThere are two things that make the bookshop in The Little Paris Bookshop unique. The first is that, instead of a brick and mortar building, it is a floating barge on the Seine. The second is that the proprietor, Jean Perdu, considers it a “Literary Apothecary,” and he a literary pharmacist. He has the uncanny ability to strike up a conversation with customers and within a few minutes understand what is troubling their souls. And, after discovering their ailment, he “prescribes” a work of fiction that will cure their pain. He “wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in, because they are apparently too minor and intangible.” He has quite a regular following, along with perchance unsuspected one-time browsers.

Perdu has been living with a pain in his heart for 21 years, when the love of his life, Manon, left him suddenly. With the loss, he emotionally sealed himself off from others. Although he would connect with customers through literature, he built a wall and rejected any advances by neighbors and customers who sought to know him on a personal level. Until a new neighbor, Catherine, an attractive recent divorcee, arrives and sparks his interest. As he tries to connect with her, he realizes the healing of the past needs to be completed before he can commit himself fully in the present and future.

So, he decides to embark on a journey to find himself and heal. Interestingly, the name Jean Perdu means “Lost John” in French and finding himself is the overarching plot of the novel. Against Jean’s wishes, Max Jordon, a young author and neighbor, climbs aboard and insists on coming along. After his successful first novel catapulted him to fame, Max has lost his will to write – his “muse” that had been his raison de vivre has abandoned him. The two men are in the same boat – literally and figuratively.

Along the way, Jean and Max meet up with Cuneo, an Italian chef who has lost the love of his life after only one magical, spectacular night. As the three men journey on, they connect through their losses and form a pseudo-family to replace their mutual loneliness and despair. In doing so, they are able to support one another and allow each other to be open and honest when facing their solitary pain. The camaraderie, Cuneo’s cooking, and the wine and beauty of the French countryside all contribute to bringing the men back to life – back to their “senses.”

The major themes of the novel are love, loss, and literature. I love the idea that one can be healed through the power of literature. Perdu was not prescribing nonfiction self-help books, but classic fictional literature. When we connect with powerful stories and characters, we can relate vicariously and find hope. However, just like the old stories of the cobbler’s children without shoes and the doctor that smokes, Perdu wasn’t able to take his own medicine. Instead of literature’s healing him, it took acceptance of friends and fully experiencing the pain of loss to come out on the other side.

The author, Nina George, is a prolific author with 26 novels on her resume. She has created her own book apothecary online, where you can input your mood, and the website will recommend a book for you. Try it out at http://www.readitforward.com/book-apothecary and then support your local bookstore when you purchase.

Watch Rebekah Hendrian, book buyer for The Book Nook and Java Shop on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, May 2. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, May 2 for a discussion of The Little Paris Bookshop at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets the first Monday monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald’s debut novel, H is for Hawk, is a marriage of genres: a natural history, a literaryhisforhawk biography, a memoir, and a chronicle of grief. It also investigates the relationship between people and wild animals and takes a look at the intriguing subculture of falconry which, unbeknownst to me, is still alive and well all over the world.

When Macdonald, a historian and lecturer at Cambridge University, learns of her father’s sudden death (he was a beloved photojournalist), she withdraws from society and dives back into the great pastime and passion of her youth: falconry. This time around, however, it will not be with just any bird – she will train and hunt with the wildest of the wild – a goshawk – a bird she thought of as “things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets.”

While training her new goshawk named Mabel, Macdonald turns to one of the books that shaped her understanding of the responsibilities and craft of the falconer: The Goshawk by T. H. White, himself an amateur falconer and keeper of goshawks. In T. H. White’s most famous book The Sword in the Stone (the first book in The Once and Future King series), the wizard Merlyn, as tutor, transforms a young Arthur into a small falcon known as the merlin. In the short chapter focusing on Arthur’s adventures among the beasts of prey, he is both frightened and fascinated by the half-mad Colonel Cully, a bloodthirsty, raving goshawk. This scene illuminates some of the conventional wisdom surrounding goshawks. Macdonald quotes one falconry textbook that characterizes goshawks as developing “symptoms of passing madness.” Large, bloodthirsty, impossible to understand or relate to, goshawks are mysterious creatures in Macdonald’s book — and even more so in White’s.

Macdonald’s relationship with Mabel helps her grieve, initially allowing Macdonald to pretend she too is wild and therefore not subject to human emotions. “While the steps were familiar,” Macdonald writes, “the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life.” As she comes to spend more time with Mabel, though, she realizes that humans’ experience of loss — and their ability to reflect on it — is far more complicated than that of the hawk, which is really a plain and simple instrument of death. Macdonald aptly sums up bereavement and loss: “It happens to everyone, but you feel it alone.” She grows to discover that she needs more than a raptor counterpart to find herself truly human: “Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, April 4. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, April 4 for a discussion of H is for Hawk at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets the first Monday monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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