“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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“A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman

oveOve (“oo-vah”) is done with life.  He sick of people – especially neighbors – who just don’t follow rules.  He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. During his daily inspections through the neighborhood, he calls attention to the infractions of the parking rules, the trash, and other resident association policies.  The neighbors view him as a cantankerous curmudgeon who spouts off about trivial matters – “the bitter neighbor from hell.”  The opening scene of the book, with Ove’s trying to purchase a computer, humorously shows his ongoing struggle with a modern world into which he has been begrudgingly dragged.  His highest value (besides owning a Saab) is to be of use; but, the modern world seems to have no use for him.  So he is done with life.  He can’t help it:  he’s still alive, but it isn’t for lack of trying.  Each attempt to take his own life fails for some reason or another, mostly interruptions from his new neighbors – a young couple with two young daughters.  Their acquaintance got off to a bad start when, on moving day, the husband backed the U-Haul truck into Ove’s mailbox,and crushed it.   With a sigh, and a complaint about the younger generation, he indignantly backs up the U-Haul for them to show how it’s supposed to be done.

The book follows a classic Rom-Com (Romantic Comedy) formula of a person stuck in life with a fixed behavior and point of view, who is disrupted by another (usually a romantic interest but as with Mary Poppins and Mr. Banks, not always) and in the end is transformed.  In this case, the neighbors (mostly the pushy, pregnant, and extroverted wife Parveneh) see past or ignore Ove’s rigid exterior to view and understand him as useful.  They bring him food and make requests for help – driving lessons, handyman chores, rides to the hospital – and eventually they uncover a hidden heart of gold.  A heart that has been severely broken and which the callous exterior is trying to protect.  The reader, through Ove’s reflections, gets to know the backstory of a handy, hardworking, determined young man falling in love only once and losing that love.  As with any good Rom-Com, it is humorous, heart-warming and life affirming – along with the laughs, there are tears.

Fredrick Backman, the author, is a blogger and columnist from Sweden. He never guessed that his debut novel, A Man Called Ove, would achieve the overwhelming success it has. He started writing it when a character on the blog proved hugely popular. Admittedly a tad grumpy himself at times, he could relate to the woes of a man who finds life sometimes isn’t going quite the way he wants it to. When an editor suggested he warm the character up a bit, Backman was having none of it. His instincts were right.  The book has now been translated into 25 languages.  When asked about creating Ove, Backman says “most people I have ever met are grieving something. Every human being has regrets and shame and sadness in them.”

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, March 7.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, Marcy 7 for a discussion of A Man Called Ove 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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“Fifteen Dogs” by Andre Alexis

Fifteen-DogsGreek gods Apollo and Hermes are enjoying an end-of-day drink at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in Toronto when the subject of humans comes up (what else would they talk about?).  Apollo claims that, if you were to give animals human intelligence and language, they would be unhappy.  But, Hermes disagrees.  A wager is made for one year of servitude.  They happen to be near a veterinary clinic with 15 dogs, and they bestow them with human language and intelligence. Only one of the fifteen has to die happy for Hermes to win the wager.

The dogs gradually begin to have unnatural thoughts.  Rosie the German Shepherd becomes melancholy when she realizes she doesn’t know where all the pups she had birthed are.  Atticus, a Neapolitan mastiff, is having his normal dream about chasing rabbits and squirrels.  But, when he bites down on his prey’s neck, he realizes that the creature must feel pain – it awakens him.   With their new intelligence, they are able to figure out how to open the gates and escape the clinic.  Three dogs are too scared to leave, but the dozen others head to the lake shore.

The first few days are consumed with vying for hierarchical order.  It used to be simply based on power and strength.  Now they can question conclusions.  They begin to realize their ability to be introspective, to problem solve, and as their language develops, the ability to communicate abstract ideas.

Not all are pleased with their new abilities.  Atticus, the deemed leader, says, “We must learn to be dogs again”.  Those that don’t forgo their new ways will be killed.  Two of the dogs escape: Majnoun, a black poodle and Prince, a mutt.

The story follows Majnoun, who is taken in by a couple, Nira and Miguel.  He becomes particularly close to Nira and develops the ability to understand and eventually speak English.

Prince revels in his new-found talents and becomes a poet.  Throughout the book, we see evidence of Prince’s creations.  They are a special kind of poem – a “poem for a dog.”  That is, in each poem the name of a dog will be audible – to the listener or the dog – if the poem is said aloud, though the name is not legible.  The example is a poem for a dog named “Flush.”  Buried in the lines of the poem are the words “rough, luscious,” and, between those two words, the dog can hear his name “Flush.”  There are fifteen poems in the book – each containing the audible name of a dog.

You will need to read the book to see who eventually wins the wager – no spoiler here.  The real insight of this novel is not what it says about dogs, but what it says about being human.  It is difficult to turn off our language and intelligence that is always running in the background – plotting, scheming, assessing, complaining, worrying, regretting – we fail to see and appreciate the present moment and thereby sacrifice happiness.  Dogs are always in the present moment and that is probably why we want them around – as a refuge from the clattering in our mind.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 1.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, February 1 for a discussion of “Fifteen Dogs” 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.  20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.


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“2015 The Best American Essays” by Ariel Levy

The Best American Essays – 2015 edition – edited by Ariel Levy

bestamericanessayAccording to the series editor, Robert Atwan, “The Best American Essays features a selection of the year’s outstanding essays, essays of literary achievement that show an awareness of craft and forcefulness of thought.”  Now in its 30th year, this popular series starts with hundreds of essays gathered annually from a wide assortment of national and regional publications.  These essays are then screened, and about one hundred are turned over to a distinguished guest editor (this year Ariel Levy, a staff writer at The New Yorker), who may add a few personal discoveries and who makes the final selections.  This year, the volume contains 22 essays covering a wide range of topics.

One big topic is aging.  In Roger Angell’s essay “This Old Man” from The New Yorker, underlying all his complaining is a current that mixes humor, sadness, cantankerousness, and wisdom.  He’s 93.  His essay starts: “Check me out.  The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the KGB…. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee.  Arthritis.”

We get a glimpse of his “oceanic force and mystery” of loss – he has outlived most of his friends, family, and contemporaries, including a daughter (who took her own life) and also his wife of 48 years.  The amazing thing about getting old, Angell tells us, is that the “accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but sill stubbornly gleaming.”

In Marc Jacobson’s essay “65” from New York, he gives us a view of aging of the following generation – that of the baby boomers.  There is no denying being old at 65, he writes: “Throughout my life, there has always been a number that sounded old.  When I was sixteen, it was twenty-seven; at twenty-nine, it was forty-two; at thirty-eight, it was fifty-two.  At sixty-five, however, it was sixty-five.  After all, sixty-five is a longtime bullet-point mile marker along the Interstate of American Life, the product of uncounted hours of congressional backroom dealing and insurance-company probability charts.”

His epiphany is that “ear hair and all, I remain resolutely myself.  I am the same me from my baby pictures, the same me who got laid for the first time in the bushes behind the high school field in Queens, the same me who drove a taxi through Harlem during the Frank Lucas days, the same me my children recognize as their father, the same me I was yesterday, except only more so by virtue of surviving yet another spin of the earth upon its axis.”

This year’s writers include Justin Cronin, Anthony Doerr, David Sedaris, Zadie Smith, Malcom Gladwell, and others.  They have crafted a wide range of pieces, covering topics like leaving an abusive marriage, losing your sanity to Fitbit, the difference between thugs of the early 20th century compared to thugs of today.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, January 4.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, January 4 for a discussion of “2015 Best American Essays” 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.  20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.



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