Summer months are the perfect binge-reading time. While many people gravitate to their favorite author’s latest novel, it’s a great time to pick up high-interest nonfiction too. Consider the topics of Monopoly, Beanie Babies and the alphabet as great poolside reading. In The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, New York Times sports reporter Mary Pilon uncovers the true story behind one of the country’s favorite long-lived pastimes. Popular belief says that Monopoly was invented during the Great Depression by an unemployed man from Pennsylvania who made a fortune by selling it to Parker Brothers. In fact, the game’s roots go back to the early 1900s and an unmarried, independent feminist named Lizzie Magie. Politically active and strong in opinion, Magie sought to spread the doctrine of Henry George, a proponent of “land value tax” or “single tax” — the belief that land should be the sole thing taxed, if it had to be owned at all. Magie created The Landlord’s Game in 1904 as a tool to demonstrate the consequences of land grabbing. Pilon follows the evolution of a game that began as “a darling among left-wingers” as it became a fraternity house sensation and then a fascination of wealthy Atlantic City Quakers before being marketed by a Philadelphia businessman and rejected by both Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers. Modifications happened all along the way. But that’s far from the end of this story of greed and intellectual property. Reading Pilon’s fascinating history of an equally fascinating game is as entertaining as playing the game itself.
Zac Bissonnette follows the rise and fall of an unusual line of collectibles in The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute. If you lived through the '90s, you likely owned at least one of the floppy PVC bead-filled animals with the heart-shaped TY name tags. Beanie Babies were the brainchild of plush toy salesman turned entrepreneur Ty Warner. Originally retailing for $5, they were designed to be an inexpensive impulse buy that children could amass. A creative perfectionist, Warner obsessed over his line, which he saw as “more than a business.” Despite unorthodox practices like demanding payment in full up front from retailers, the company took off. A manufacturing issue with a popular Beanie lamb named Lovie led to its “retirement,” and the beginning of a strategy that propelled the plush toys as in-demand collectibles worthy of investment. Bissonnette captures the excitement of the launch and rise of the Beanies as they became an unlikely American obsession. Bissonnette tells not only the story of the media-shy Warner, but those of employees, retailers and legions of “investors,” making The Great Beanie Baby Bubble a compulsively interesting read.
Think of Michael Rosen’s Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story as an ABC book for literary-minded grownups who love language. Make no mistake, this is no “A is for apple” primer. Rosen, a poet, children’s book author and host of BBC Radio’s Word of Mouth, presents 26 chapters of anecdotes, history, personal observations and insights into what he refers to as “a stunningly brilliant invention.” In “C is for Ciphers,” he begins a discussion with crossword puzzles before looking at the roots of modern day codes and encryption. “M is for Music and Memory” notes that the ABC song was copyrighted by a Boston music publisher in 1830, and that mnemonics are another musical or chanted way to use letters. “X Marks the Spot” begins with the bold assertion that the letter X isn’t really necessary at all. A three-page preface to each chapter covers the history of the letter and its lowercase, as well as the pronunciation of its name and the letter in context. Rosen’s interest and enthusiasm in his subject matter is infectious; readers can’t help but be moved to share “did-you-know” bits with those around them. Alphabetical is a book to borrow from the library — until you buy your own copy.
We have become a food-obsessed society, and no wonder. Besides providing necessary sustenance, the right meal has the power to transform, transport, unite, comfort and even show love. Three new memoirs center on very different culinary experiences. In Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America with My Fork, British expat Simon Majumdar ventures near and far from his adopted hometown of Los Angeles to find out more about Americans through food.
Majumdar, a food writer and frequent face on the Food Network, uses his impending naturalization as the impetus to embark on an authentically American culinary tour. Each chapter of his book describes a different food-related experience, from fishing in New Jersey to making cheese in Wisconsin. As the husband of a Filipino wife and a transplant himself, he is quick to point out the influences of immigrants on our national table. He cooks traditional Filipino fare under the tutelage of AJ, the head chef at Salo-Salo Grill in West Covina, California; and “tours Mexico” by eating his way through an array of diverse food stands in South Los Angeles. Majumdar is an affable host, and readers will enjoy his journalistic efforts, which are liberally dosed with historical facts to provide background. Fed, White, and Blue is an enjoyable, distracting read.
Graham Holliday looks back to his experiences working and eating in Vietnam in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Eating Việt Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table. British-born Holliday travelled to the country to teach English, eventually becoming a journalist. It doesn’t take him long to realize that some of the most delicious, authentic, vibrant food to be had was found off the path beaten by tourists. The term “adventurous eater” doesn’t even begin to describe Holliday, as he takes on all manner of offal from stalls, restaurants and makeshift kitchens that know nothing about health code. He enters the world of blogging with noodlepie, a blog dedicated to the street food of Saigon. From duck fetus eggs to the more approachable banh mi and pho, Holliday’s prose celebrates the country’s distinctive dishes in a way that will make you eager to seek out a stateside Vietnamese restaurant.
Writer Sasha Martin is well known for Global Table Adventure, a blog dedicated to virtual travel around the world. Martin spent four years cooking and sharing approachable recipes from 195 countries in her Tulsa, Oklahoma, kitchen. When she began writing a book intended to chronicle that undertaking, Martin found herself on a journey of introspection that resulted in Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family and Forgiveness. Hers was far from an idyllic childhood, raised in poverty in working-class Boston by a single mother who struggled in myriad ways to take care of herself as much as her children. When her mother failed, she did so dramatically — leading to visits from social services and ultimately the decision to put her children in the hands of family friends in order to give them what she thought would be a better life. The thread that runs through the poignant, heartrending story of Martin’s early life is the anchoring, inspiring power of food — learned from her erratic, mercurial mother — and eventually passed on to her own family.
Paul Gude’s picture book A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant highlights the close friendship between a silent, thoughtful giraffe and his constant companion, an enthusiastic, loquacious elephant. The second outing for this dissimilar pair, Surprise features three funny, knowing stories that manage to distill the essence of what true friendship entails. In the first, Giraffe struggles to find the right time to play his alpine horn. The second depicts Giraffe working through the night to honor Elephant’s wish for a toboggan. The final story finds Elephant diligently preparing to throw her friend the perfect surprise party. Gude’s simple yet expressive line drawings and bright, zingy color palette are immediately appealing to young readers.
BTC: Congratulations on the publication of the new Giraffe and Elephant book. I understand that this duo has been around for quite some time. Tell us their origin story and a little bit about their history. And why a talking elephant?
Paul Gude: My standard line when people ask me why Giraffe doesn't talk is to say, "You're less surprised about the talking elephant?" So, you've beaten me at my own game. My hat is off to you. Giraffe came first. I would draw little pictures for my friend with little captions. I drew one that said, "Here is a giraffe eating some leaves!" She made some comment like, "I like giraffes almost as much as I like elephants!" I drew another picture with a giraffe and elephant eating ice cream cones together with a caption like, "You don't have to choose! Giraffes and elephants are friends!"
I had this crazy idea of just drawing the giraffe and elephant doing all sorts of things together. So I kept at it. The very next thing they did was steal a van. Then Elephant shot Giraffe out of a cannon. They invented new words. Every day it was something new. That was in 2000. In 2001, my friend KMO at C-realm.com gave me space to publish them. This was before Tumblr and its ilk, so having a place to put an archive of comics was kind of a big deal. I just kept doing them over the years, until I amassed almost a thousand.
I flirted with publishing a collection of them in the mid-2000s, but nothing came of it. Later on, a friend of the editor who had been trying to get someone to publish the book asked her if she knew anyone who might need representation. She put him in touch with me and that's how I got my agent.
We sent out the collection, and the feedback was, "We like the characters, but can they be involved in a story?" At one time I would have taken this to mean, "We don't like your book," but I had matured enough by then to know it meant, "We like the characters, but can they be involved in a story?" My agent was smart enough to make sure I understood that this wasn't a brush-off, and set me to work telling the stories. That became When Elephant Met Giraffe, which my agent sold to Disney/Hyperion. That's kind of how they solidified into the personalities that they are today. Granted, they're drawn a bit better now as well. Years of practice can help in that regard.
BTC: What medium do you use to create your art?
PG: While I like pen and ink just fine, Giraffe and Elephant were born as crudely drawn characters using a mouse and Photoshop. They've been mostly digital from then on, although I do experiment from time to time. The artwork for both When Elephant Met Giraffe and A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant was done on an iPad 2 with a program called iDraw. It was actually the cheapest option and I was short on funds.
BTC: When I read the Giraffe and Elephant books, I was reminded of both James Marshall’s George and Martha and of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie. Did they come to mind as you were writing the books? Which children’s authors or illustrators inspire you?
PG: I love Mo Willems. I was lucky enough to interview him back when that was part of my day job. He's very friendly and super funny. It's worth noting that he and I are both published by Disney/Hyperion and he was there first. So, I'm hoping the fact that we both have characters who are elephants will stop being a sticking point for some folks eventually. Your question was very polite, but others have been quick to criticize as though my elephant is derivative. I think it's a little unfair. First of all, his elephant's name is Gerald. Elephant's Gerald. Say it out loud, and you get what kind of a genius that man is. Second, anyone who reads Mo's books and mine knows that his are mostly dialog-driven, whereas mine are more narrative. In short, they are much more like George and Martha. More of what I was reading as a kid, I suppose. Maurice Sendak was a big one for me. Also, I loved Shel Silverstein. Other favorites from my childhood include the Ann Trompert and John Wallner book Little Fox Goes to the End of the World. So many others I know I'm forgetting. In these modern times I'm a big fan of Zoom and Re-Zoom by Istvan Banyai and Jon Klassen's hat books. Again, I know there must be more. I'll have to check my daughter's bookshelf.
BTC: One of the things I loved about both When Elephant Met Giraffe and A Surprise for Giraffe and Elephant is that they’re picture books adults also enjoy — they’re droll, and not preachy or sappy. How does being a parent affect your work?
PG: The funny thing about the publishing world is that it moves so very slow. When I was writing When Elephant Met Giraffe it was a little too advanced for her. By the time it was published, she had already outgrown it. She's 9 now, way outside of the target demographic. Still, she's the one looking over my shoulder when I'm working. So, I suppose in a way that's a big reason why I throw in humor that everyone can enjoy. I want my kid to still think I'm funny. In a more pragmatic sense, the parents are the ones who are going to have to read the book over and over again, so I try to make it as painless as possible. Very few words. Funny pictures. You can't go wrong. Well, you can go wrong, I suppose. It depends on who you ask.
BTC: One "quirk" of Surprise mentioned by a major review publication is the fact that Giraffe uses an acetylene torch to build a toboggan. Were you surprised by this bit of criticism?
PG: Oh, boy. Yes. This was brought up as the book was in production, and I was like, "No, no, they can be wood or metal. I know. I had a metal one." Apparently I am one of the few people who remembers these types of toboggans that had metal scoops on the front, though. If you look for pictures of them online, the curved part at the front is almost always wood. I kept searching and searching until I found a picture of one. I thought I was going crazy. They exist, though. I've seen them. I've linked to one on my blog. It's odd to me that people leap to the idea that Giraffe is erroneously using a torch on a wooden object rather than the thing he's constructing being partially made out of metal. I assume they simply don't have the design skills of a giraffe.
BTC: I recently followed Giraffe on Twitter. I’ve enjoyed having a look into his psyche. What prompted him to get on social media? What kind of device does he use?
PG: It's always been in the back of my mind that Giraffe has a very rich inner life. When Elephant isn't distracting him from his studies, he's pursing art and science through his own self-taught methods. As an offshoot of this, I had an idea that Giraffe has built himself this amazing contraption that allows him to communicate on Twitter via Morse code. There's a pressure plate he uses to tap out words, and then this complex series of switches turns it into text. Where does he get his Wi-Fi service though? Giraffe keeps secrets even from me.
February has been an excellent month for the short story. Highly anticipated collections from three renowned authors have found their way to library shelves. British writer Neil Gaiman is known for blending reality and fantasy in a way that can be both comforting and unsettling. His often dark, well-crafted prose enticingly draws the reader in, providing just enough familiarity and knowing humor before changing the game entirely. Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances represents the writer’s work at its best. Standout pieces include “The Thing about Cassandra,” in which a thirtysomething young man comes face to face with the young woman whose name he wrote over and over again on the covers of his high school notebooks — his first love. The twist? He made her up in order to deflect questions from his friends and his mother over his lack of a girlfriend. In “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” Gaiman offers a mashup retake on “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” imagining the two stories taking place at the same time. He turns these traditionally passive women into active participants in their own fairy tale lives, with their own agendas. A lengthy preface to the collection provides “trigger warnings” for each piece, explaining a bit about their genesis. Readers who want a spoiler-free experience would do well to treat the preface as an afterward.
Consider Kelly Link, the Massachusetts cousin-once-removed of Neil Gaiman, who Gaiman once referred to as “a national treasure.” Get in Trouble is her first collection for adult readers in a decade. To enter the world of Kelly Link is to suspend all disbelief and any preconceived ideas of what a story might be and where you might end up. Get in the passenger seat, buckle up and let Link drive you into the dark corners of her imagination, where reality and fantasy live intertwined. These are bedtime stories for readers who are still intrigued by the possibilities raised by myths, magic and fairy tales. In the opening story, “The Summer People,” teenager Fran is home sick from school, yet she still has the responsibility of gathering provisions for the incoming vacationers who stay in the houses her father maintains. He’s an alcoholic, and their hardscrabble life isn’t a pleasant one. Fran can’t even dream of getting away; she’s bound by magic to the powerful and creative unseen guests who dwell in one of these abodes. Don’t expect to be done with a Kelly Link story just because you’ve reached the end. Tales like “Light” — replete with a world filled with Chinese-owned “pocket universes” and a Florida overrun with iguanas and invasive mermaids and a protagonist born with two shadows, one that grows into her twin brother — will leave you wondering what hit you.
If you prefer realistic fiction, pick up Charles Baxter’s There’s Something I Want You to Do, a collection of 10 interrelated tales set in his native Minnesota. Baxter is considered a modern master of the contemporary short story, and in these wryly intimate, nuanced pieces he comments on human nature and the complexity of relationships. The protagonist of “Loyalty” finds that the ex-wife who left him and their infant son well over a decade ago has returned. What will he do with this woman, clearly in poor mental health, who looks like “she has gone through a car wash?” It says a lot about Wes that he opens his house to her, and his family helps to set her right. But after all, it was his new wife, one of her best friends, who encouraged her to run off in the first place. In “Gluttony,” an overweight pediatrician is forced to endure a lecture about his morally faulty parenting from the overtly religious parents of his son’s girlfriend. His stress-induced eating leads to a near tragedy. Fans of the work of Raymond Carver and Alice Munro will enjoy the storytelling of Charles Baxter.
As the calendar year comes to a close, it’s become common to compile best-of lists to share, discuss and widely recommend. Here are 10 of my favorite fiction titles, in no particular order, published in 2014. What lands a book on my best-of list? All of these novels feature quality writing, stories with an intriguing plot hook and memorable characters. They make the reader reflect on bigger issues, and ultimately on the human condition. We want to read books we can connect with, often in ways that are far from obvious. While I want to be entertained as I read, I want to be thrilled by the author’s craft. I look for a poetic turn of phrase, descriptions that make me pause, reread and reflect. This list reflects a variety of fiction subgenres, including realistic, historical, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic and mystery.
The eye-catching cover of Lily King’s slim novel Euphoria, depicting the inner bark of the native rainbow eucalyptus, slyly reveals the story’s setting of Papua, New Guinea. Loosely based on events in the life of brilliant, pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria’s Nell is a headstrong researcher both aided and hobbled by her partner in life and in the field, her Australian husband Fen. As the book opens, the two are fleeing the brutal tribe they had been observing for a number of months, frustrated and hoping for a new opportunity. Fate connects them with the previously isolated English anthropologist Bankson, who welcomes a chance to work with the dynamic couple in studying a female-centric tribe, the Tam. Intellect, connection and understanding (or lacks thereof) spark passions among the anthropologists and the tribe itself, leading to both internal and external discovery.
“I was strong and he was not, so it was me who went to war to defend the Republic.” Thus begins Laird Hunt’s Civil War nod-with-a-twist to Homer’s The Odyssey, Neverhome. Here Penelope goes proudly off to battle while Odysseus tends to the home fires. Told in a first person narrative, the story follows “Ash” Thompson, a young Indiana farmwife hungry for honor and adventure, who passes as a man in order to join the Union army. Ash soon finds she has a strong taste for battle and a remarkable talent with a gun. Hunt takes readers through the harsh realities of war in the Civil War era, seasoning the story with the kind of small details of daily life that fascinate readers and make history come alive.
Mark Watney has the dubious distinction of being the first astronaut accidentally stranded on Mars in Andy Weir’s The Martian. A biologist and mechanical engineer, Watney was left for dead after a violent sandstorm caused flying debris to pierce his spacesuit and sent him flying down a hill. This event triggers the sudden evacuation of the rest of the crew of NASA’s third manned mission to the red planet. But Watney has suffered only minor injuries, and pure dumb luck and a little science keep his suit from being totally breached. He soon realizes his dire circumstances, setting the survival plot in motion. Author Weir has created a smart, funny, self-deprecating geek in Watney, a guy you can’t help but root for as he solves problem after problem with determination, grit and pure knowledge of math and science. Told in a series of log entries interspersed with chapters that depict the scientists and suits at NASA working on a way to rescue the man whose plight has become an international cause, The Martian is a pure sci-fi page-turner.
A team of four women make the twelfth expedition to Area X, a lush overgrown landscape teeming with wildlife and cut off from civilization for decades after The Event has begun. The team is comprised of our narrator, known only as the biologist; the surveyor; the anthropologist and the psychologist, whose penchant for hypnotizing the others makes her immediately suspect. Annihilation, a smartly packaged original paperback, is the first installment in The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, whose volumes have all been published in 2014. Mysteries abound in this unsettling, intellectual sci-fi thriller, as the party discover a feature of the landscape heretofore undocumented — an underground tunnel (or tower, as the narrator prefers to think of it) that descends deep below the surface. Who or what has left the message on the walls, written in living, pulsating vegetation? How is the narrator changed when she accidentally inhales spores that have been released? And what exactly happened to those who came back from previous expeditions, irrevocably damaged?
“Irrevocably damaged” also serves to describe the characters who populate Phil Klay’s stories of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Redeployment. The winner of this year’s National Book Award, Klay’s stories plumb the emotional and psychological depths of what it means to serve, and the aftershocks that reverberate throughout the bedrock of life after homecoming. Justly compared to Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried, Redeployment will surely maintain its place on must-read lists for decades to come.
The other titles that round out the list have been previously reviewed by my colleagues here on Between the Covers: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia, Station Eleven by Emily St. John-Mandel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas and The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.