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.
When considering our founding fathers, we often think of them in grandiose terms; great men of sterling character who rose above petty conflicts in order to form a perfect union. Thomas Fleming presents a portrait of these men as all too human in The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation.
The creation of this new nation weathered a major storm between two factions: the Federalists, who believed that in order to survive we must have a strong central government to unite us, and the Democratic-Republicans, who feared the engulfment of the states into a dictatorship. Serving as a constant reminder of previous servitude was the British government’s policy of kidnapping American sailors and impressing them into Great Britain’s Navy. Another source of controversy was the ongoing revolution in France, with the Democratic-Republicans rejoicing over the “triumph of the people” and the Federalists aghast at the liberal use of the guillotine.
Thomas Fleming’s brilliant portrait of the men and their times serves as a reminder of the miracle of independence, self-governance and the balance of powers. He explores the evolution through the eyes of George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as their friendships ebb and flow with the political tide. These are not the stiff portraits hanging in the White House, rather, they are all too human, replete with petty jealousies, personal agendas and political ambitions. The origins of their arguments still resonate in our political landscape today.
A prolific writer, Fleming’s works include Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge, Now We Are Enemies and A Disease of the Public Mind. He has also contributed to PBS series The Irish in America and Liberty: The American Revolution. He has served as president of the Society of American Historians and is an honorary member of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati.
Finding Zero: A Mathematician’s Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers by Amir Aczel is about a man’s love of numbers. Actually, it is much more than that, but numbers are at the heart of this story. Aczel is not just your average mathematics scholar. He's an adventurer, part Indiana Jones and part Isaac Newton, who is relentless in his pursuit of the origins of numbers. While most of us probably have not considered just how our numeric system — particularly zero — came to be, Aczel has been obsessed with numbers since he was a young boy.
Aczel’s odyssey began when his teacher asked his first grade class what they would like to learn in school. His response was “Where numbers come from,” which set him on a course that would take him around the world. For the most part, Aczel’s narrative is aimed at the average person, and he limits the use of mathematical jargon to terms that most anyone can understand. While Western society uses what are commonly called Arabic numbers, Aczel points out that this name is misleading. True Arabic numbers do not resemble our digits ranging from 0 to 9. (You can view an illustration of Arabic numbers.)
So, how did our modern Anglo-European numbers evolve and where did they originate? While Aczel attempts to answer these questions, he encounters some interesting obstacles along the way. His odyssey is an intriguing one and, at times, seems to involve more questions than answers. Still, for anyone who enjoys a book that gives the reader ideas to ponder, Finding Zero offers plenty of mental exercise.
Stephen Kurkjian is a man on a mission. The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist from The Boston Globe revisits what remains the largest property crime in U.S. history in his new book, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist. It's a detailed accounting of the events, suspects and stalled investigation that has mired Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in a 25-year-old mystery. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kurkjian has his own theories on who-done-it and why, after all these years, the crime remains unsolved.
The FBI’s website calls art theft “stealing history.” Indeed, the 13 stolen works taken in the wee hours on March 18, 1990 by two men wearing fake mustaches and disguised as police officers represent a distinct and priceless collection by a few of the world's true masters, including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Degas.
Kurkjian, with his fast-paced narrative and plethora of research, aims to crack this case. There are brief descriptions of all the players at the beginning of the book. Readers will need the list, as Kurkjian lays out a web of who’s who in the Boston underworld, from low level crooks to mob bosses. And just when you think the author is getting repetitive, Kurkjian offers up intriguing bits of the sometimes strange efforts to recover the paintings. He also expresses pointed frustration over the FBI's mishandling of the investigation from the get-go. He notes that there hasn't been a single confirmed sighting of the works. He calls it a "disgrace."
For those who enjoy the logistics of the chase, Master Thieves has plenty to offer to both nonfiction and fiction readers. Written in an accessible journalistic style that includes several interviews with key figures, Kurkjian brings his 20-year obsession to his readers, who will ultimately form their own opinions on why this crime remains unsolved today.
Can’t get enough of the beach? Bring the sand and surf home with three new books dedicated to embracing this casual lifestyle.
Coastal Living Beach House Happy: The Joy of Living by the Water by Antonia Van der Meer offers a glimpse into how to incorporate the ease of beach living into readers’ own homes. The Coastal Living editor revisits 21 homes previously featured in the magazine which she felt were imbued with a happy energy. With almost 200 color photographs and interiors ranging from country to modern, there is something which will appeal to every connoisseur of the seaside way of life. Renowned designer Jonathan Adler wrote the forward and exclaimed, "This beautiful book is my new happy place. Dive in!"
The Nautical Home: Coastline-Inspired Ideas to Decorate with Seaside Spirit by interior designer Anna Ornberg is bursting with ideas for bringing the quiet beauty of beach living to your home. Follow her advice and any space can be turned into a beautiful nautical nest. Projects include wooden lampshades, placemats, beanbags and pillowcases. This title has something for everyone and will inspire those at home reinventing single rooms or tackling bigger projects to create their very own oasis of calm.
Nautical Chic by Amber Butchart shares the impact seafaring style continues to have in the world of high fashion. This historical survey of nautical panache is a beautifully photographed testament to the iconic looks and perpetual popularity. Each chapter traces a current nautical trend and include, “The Officer” which focuses on the epaulettes, brass buttons and braiding which became Balmain and Givency staples and “The Fisherman” with its look at the classic blue-and-white Breton stripes which were favorites of Chanel and Audrey Hepburn. This lavishly photographed and comprehensive book concludes with “The Pirate” and its homage to Captain Hook, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen.
It's one thing to be able to describe a debilitating chronic illness; it's another to do so in language so contemplative that the words seem to hover over the page for their raw honesty. Anna Lyndsey (pseudonym) has written her illness-inspired memoir Girl in the Dark about living with a rare light sensitivity so severe it plunges her into a self-imposed darkness. "How do you write about having to live entirely in the dark?" she asks. Lyndsey does it by sectioning her narrative thoughtfully, giving readers a brief cast into her physical and emotional daily, personal life that is as candid as it is hopeful and full of love.
To say Lyndsey's illness has isolated her would be an understatement. The former British civil servant was fine until one day about 10 years ago she realized she could no longer tolerate light. It starts with the computer screen, which makes her face burn like “someone is holding a flamethrower to my head.” Eventually, her whole body is affected until she is left with no choice but to make her footprint smaller, something easier said than done. She refers to her bedroom as her lair. “I slipped between the walls of my dark room with nothing but relief,” she says. Life is a constant adjustment. Doctors can’t help, nor can her supportive mother and brother. Her rock is her companion-turned-husband Pete who never wavers, bringing her talking books and melding into the new normal.
Lyndsey’s story is not so much about the unusualness of her illness as it is about living as humanely as possible with it. Eschewing strict chronological order, Lyndsey instead delivers up short, poetic essays on various subjects. For readers drawn to the fragility of the human condition, Lyndsey’s remarkable storytelling becomes a fertile ground for resiliency when the impossible becomes possible.
The Golden Age of Hollywood introduced us to luminary icons of the 20th century whose influence radiates to this day; perhaps none more than Audrey Hepburn. Edward Epstein’s new biography Audrey and Bill focuses on Hepburn’s brief affair with the “Golden Boy” of Hollywood, William “Bill” Holden.
Unlike today when we are inundated with facts about celebrities every time we turn on our TV’s, computers or phones, the publicists of the 1950s worked overtime to insure the personal lives of the studio’s stars did not invade the public consciousness. And while Audrey and Bill’s whirlwind romance that blossomed when they met on the set of the Billy Wilder classic Sabrina was well-known in Hollywood circles, it was kept largely out of the public eye.
Epstein sheds light on the fact that their affair, though brief, shaped many of both Audrey and Bill’s relationships and marriages moving forward in their lives. Both actors, however, never really turned out to be very happy in love despite their tremendous professional successes.
There’s plenty more gossip about some of the biggest names of the 20th century in this book that will not disappoint the curious: Humphrey Bogart hated both of his costars! Nancy Reagan tattled to Bill’s wife about his numerous affairs! Bill dated Grace Kelly! Audrey sang to JFK on his last birthday to take away from the intense scrutiny from the Marilyn Monroe version the year before!
At times, the book reads like two separate biographies, following each actor through their career missteps and triumphs, through other relationships, children and illnesses. Holden’s death in 1980 due to liver disease and Hepburn’s death in 1993 due to cancer are also chronicled.
Perfect beach reading for those who are fans of either star, or just interested in the Hollywood glamour of a bygone era, will find this story of Audrey and Bill a compelling look into the romantic lives of two of Hollywood’s greatest stars.
There is a certain kind of mad science that takes great joy in things exploding, imploding, melting, burning and otherwise flying around violently. If that sounds exciting, Randall Munroe's What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is for you. The answers are fast, easily understood and amusingly illustrated.
A former NASA engineer, Munroe has made his name as the creator of xkcd, one of the most successful webcomics. Three times a week he releases a strip, or something like a strip, (there have been some really wild experiments on the art form that will never be printable in any meaningful way). He covers science, mathematics, engineering, computer programming, romance, language, pop culture and velociraptors. As a public figure who is recognized as being good at science, he gets a lot of questions on scientific ideas, and has compiled quite a few of those questions into a book.
Questions answered here include:
- Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns?
- If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?
- From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked by the time it hit the ground?
Munroe then proceeds to answer most of these questions with three to five pages of information, full of gleefully horrifying explosions, scientific laws, formulas and an explanation of how he got the answer based on experiments people have done before. Also included are the surprisingly complex stick figure drawings he uses to illustrate his webcomic. The result is quick, smart and guaranteed to make you the life of the party.
And for a palette cleanser, also included are several of the questions that didn't make it into the book, such as:
Would it be possible to stop a volcanic eruption by placing a bomb (thermobaric or nuclear) underneath the surface?
What if everyone in Great Britain went to one of the coasts and started paddling? Could they move the island at all?
Apparently, there are questions so ridiculous that they don't need answers.
Martin Short is a comedic icon known for his zany characters and frenetic humor. Whether he's portraying the unctuous Jiminy Glick or the lovable loser Ed Grimley, Short’s genius lies in his ability to find the absurdity in life. In his biography, I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend, Short candidly shares stories about his private and public life which help to explain how he evolved into a comedy legend.
Short was born and raised in Canada, the youngest of five children in an Irish Catholic family where humor was a major part of life. Two things Short enjoys doing are relating humorous stories and dropping names. For instance, Short, Steve Martin and Tom Hanks hold a bi-annual male bonding ritual of sorts. They gather together on the evening before their perspective colonoscopies to play poker while cleansing their lower GI tracts. This odd ritual, which Short has dubbed “Colonoscopy Eve,” helps the men to endure a rather unpleasant ordeal, and the next day they are “toasting our good colorectal health over margaritas.”
Besides this one story, the book is not scatological in nature, but an homage to Short’s friends, colleagues and family. Actually, considering the list of celebrities that he either knows or is friends with — including Martin, Hanks, Eugene Levy and David Letterman, to name a few — this book reads more like a who’s who of comedy legends. A few of his stories are poignant, but he never gets maudlin even when faced with some of life’s greatest challenges.
Whether you are a Martin Short fan or not, I Must Say will give you insights into a world that is pretty much like anyone’s life. There are ups and downs and plenty of laughter, but the big takeaway from Short’s biography is that celebrities are human, too. They just have a lot more money.
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.