Shelf Life Blog
In Train Dreams, Denis Johnson constructs a melancholy portrait of the U.S. frontier. Instead of focusing on the raw potential and opportunity most associate with the Western expansion, Johnson elucidates the isolation and stasis involved in “taming” a wild place. Johnson artfully constructs a non-linear account of Robert Grainier’s life on the frontier. Through Grainier’s perspective, we witness the rapid transformation of America – from railroad construction to the proliferation of sleek highways; from influenza epidemics to a random encounter with Elvis Presley. Despite the changes going on around him, Grainier remains a lonely outsider, observing the world’s expedited evolution from a distance.
Fittingly, Grainier’s first memory is of an iconic symbol of movement and progress: a train. As a child, he was sent to Idaho on the Great Northern Railroad to live with his cousins. The experience of locomotion erased all memory of his origins, leaving him with a vague and malleable sense of self: “The whole adventure made him forget things as soon as they happened, and he very soon misplaced this earliest part of his life entirely.
History, particularly popular history, need not be dull, something that Cormac O’Brien demonstrates readily in his book, The Forgotten History of America. Written in a conversational tone and broken into vignettes, old history is made new when written this way. Even so, it’s not the standard stuff taught in schools. It’s about wars and both sides in those wars, reaching back to the country’s colonial beginnings in the 16th century. With personalities writ large on both sides and a good understanding of the differences in modern and historical society, O’Brien leads his readers on journeys back in time:
It begins with the first permanent European settlement in North America:
Pedro Menedez de Aviles anxiously paced the deck of his flagship, San Pelayo. Two days earlier, off the coast of Florida, he had gone ashore and met with Indians who offered valuable information about the prey he was desperately seeking. Now, confident of success, he led his five vessels northward along the coastline, scanning the beaches for any sign of European settlement. The day was September 4, 1565, and Menendez was hunting heretics.
Bitterblue takes place eight years after the end of Kristin Cashore’s earlier novel, Graceling. At the end of that book, ten-year-old Princess Bitterblue became Queen of Monsea upon the death of her father, the vicious psychopath, King Leck. Bitterblue is still trying to help her country recover from the trauma of her father’s 35-year reign of terror. Leck held the kingdom in thrall by controlling people’s thoughts, changing their memories so they always believed he was a kind and caring ruler while he really terrorized the citizens. Because of her youth, Bitterblue has relied heavily on her advisors who promote what they call a forward-thinking agenda. They urge her to pardon everyone for any crimes committed during Leck’s reign and encourage everyone to simply forget that anything bad happened.
Over in the ocean
Far away from the sun
Lived a mother octopus
And her octopus one
In Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef, Marianne Berkes adapts the classic song, “Over in the Meadow,” to life in a coral reef. This counting rhyme explores ocean life from stingrays to puffer fish to seahorses. This engaging picture book invites interaction on many levels. The fun counting song includes many factual details about the coral reef habitat and the animals that live there with their babies. Whether they are squirting, puffing, jumping or skittering, the actions of each creature accurately reflects their real-life behavior.
Where is Heaven? How do we know there is life after death? What do you say to someone who doesn't believe in Heaven? All good questions, which the inexhaustible evangelist Billy Graham has answered over the course of his long life. In this brand-new, beautifully-packaged little book are gathered--and edited--the answers to these and many other questions on the topic of death and Heaven.
Part graphic memoir, part travelogue, A Year in Japan offers a unique perspective on everyday life in Japan. In this charming, whimsical book, Kate T. Williamson adopts a counterintuitive approach to travel writing. Rather than striving to represent the grand, monumental aspects of Japanese culture and history, Williamson focuses on capturing the minutiae--fragmented memories, experiences, and revelations that emerged during the year she spent living in Kyoto. As a Westerner, Williamson has an outsider’s perspective on Japan. But because she had the opportunity to live there and become enmeshed in another way of life, Williamson was able to glean insights and perspectives that would be invisible to your run-of-the-mill tourist. Williamson’s artistic talent also helps concretize her observations, creating an enchanting combination of vivid, unexpected descriptions and beautifully rendered watercolor illustrations.
Frank Gallows has some explaining to do. The burned-out ghost wrangler has just sent an innocent child into the world of the dead. The kid's name is Garth Hale. In the regular world, he's just your average boy...who also happens to have a terminal illness. But Garth discovers that he has some quite extraordinary powers in Ghostopolis.
No living souls have ever made it back to the regular world, so Mr. Gallows is losing his job for this big-time screw up. The fact that Garth didn't have much time to live in the first place makes the situation even worse. Gallows has to hang up hunting those ghosts who wish to remain in the land of the living. He'll never have the pleasure of capturing repeater offender Benedict Arnold. No, Gallows has to right this wrong. Luckily, his ex-fiancée Claire Voyant has a machine that can take you back and forth between the worlds. Frank is going to have to play nice.
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The Woman in White: "Generally considered the first English sensation novel, The Woman in White features the remarkable heroine Marian Halcombe and her sleuthing partner, drawing master Walter Hartright, pitted against the diabolical team of Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde. A gripping tale of murder, intrigue, madness, and mistaken identity, Collins's psychological thriller has never been out of print in the 140 years since its publication."
If you like The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, a classic of psychological suspense generally considered to be the first English mystery novel, you may want to read:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Conan Doyle's first collection of 12 short stories, "published in the Strand magazine between 1891 and 1892, and then published as a collection in October 1892. It includes some of Conan Doyle's best tales of murder and mystery, such as "The Adventures of the Speckled Band," in which the strange last words of a dying woman "It was the band, the speckled band!" and an inexplicable whistling in the night are the only clues Sherlock Holmes has to prevent another murder; and "The Five Orange Pips," in which an untimely death and the discovery of the letter containing five orange pips lead to a cross-Atlantic conspiracy." (catalog summary)
A Dangerous Mourning by Anne Perry
"No breath of scandal has ever touched the aristocratic Moidore family-until Sir Basil's beautiful widowed daughter is stabbed to death in her own bed, a shocking, incomprehensible tragedy. Inspector William Monk is ordered to investigate in a manner that will give the least possible pain to the influential family. But Monk, brilliant and ambitious, is handicapped by lingering traces of amnesia and by the craven ineptitude of his supervisor, who would like nothing better than to see Monk fail. With the help of nurse Hester Latterly, a progressive young woman who served with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, Monk gropes warily through the silence and shadows that obscure the case, knowing that with each step he comes closer to the appalling truth." (catalog summary)
In Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, by Eleanor Coerr, Sadako is a sixth-grade girl who loves to run in school races and spend time with her friends and family. One day she begins to have dizzy spells, which worsen until she ends up in the hospital. She is diagnosed with leukemia, or the “atom bomb sickness.” Sadako grew up in the aftermath of the atom bomb, dropped on her hometown of Hiroshima when she was just a baby in 1945. Many people got sick in the years after the bomb from its radiation.
“If war can ever be said to be just, then this war is so; it is action for a moral cause, with the most rigorous of intellectual underpinnings. And yet everywhere I turn, I see injustice done in the waging of it. “ - March
In Louisa Alcott’s Little Women, Mr. March’s largest role in the narrative is that his daughters are perpetually waiting for his letters home. In March, Geraldine Brooks traces his story as he enlists to become a Union chaplain, experiences many horrors of war, and eventually finds himself tutoring freed slaves (“contraband”) on a destitute cotton plantation. His cheerful letters home to Marmee contrast with the terrible details he confides to the reader but does not write home about: the pervasive racism; cruelty; and suffering that he encounters in a number of different encounters.