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.
Don’t judge this book by its simple cover; the stories contained within Arthur Bradford’s collection Turtleface and Beyond are highly original and situationally hilarious. Turtleface and Beyond features a series of stories starring Georgie, a hapless, lackadaisical fellow who seems to be a magnet for the bizarre.
In the titular "Turtleface," Georgie is canoeing down a lazy river with his friend Otto and their girlfriends, when Otto spies an imposing cliff and wants to leap from it. Against Georgie's advice, Otto scrambles up the mountainside and dives into the river below, where his face meets a meandering turtle. Georgie is racked with guilt not because of Otto's foolish accident, but because the turtle's shell is fissured.
"Lost Limbs" is the story of Georgie's unrequited interest in Lenore, a woman with a prosthetic arm. Lenore interprets Georgie’s lack of interest in her prosthesis as self-absorbed and ignoble, but poor Georgie didn’t even realize her arm was fake until their second date. Lenore breaks things off with Georgie, who is content with her decision until months later when he gets his leg caught in a wood chipper. As his calf is mangled in the machine, his first thought is, "Hm, I should call that lovely girl with the fake hand."
Georgie works the graveyard shift in an attorney’s library in "217-Pound Dog," where he meets Jim Tewilliger, a partner at the firm whose life is beginning to unravel. Sensing Georgie's kind nature, Jim asks him for help acquiring some marijuana. Georgie senses Jim is a man in need of a rare kind of help, so he acquiesces. Jim's behavior around the office becomes increasingly erratic, and Georgie, left vouching for him in a whirlwind of unfinished work and fast food wrappers, wonders what his acquaintance’s endgame entails.
Arthur Bradford’s imagination illuminates Georgie’s misadventures in Turtleface and Beyond, a collection genre lovers will find funny, laconic and clever.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s romance inspired the scrumptious The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. Indeed, in their forward, they thank the royal couple for having the second royal baby right when their novel hits the shelves!
In this enjoyable glimpse at the improbable path from American coed to princess, fashion bloggers (Go Fug Yourself) Cocks and Morgan replace William with Nicholas and exchange American Rebecca “Bex” Porter for Kate. The novel opens with Bex, anticipating their wedding, retelling their story and reflecting on the sacrifices this love affair has already demanded and the future pressures she anticipates.
Bex was the practical twin, unlike her sister Lacey, who never met a love story she didn’t embrace. But when Bex goes to Oxford and finds herself in the same dorm as the charming and handsome Prince Nicholas, a fast friendship quickly turns to romance. Dating the future king of England is glamorous, complete with ritzy trips and dinners at Kensington Palace. While she truly loves Nick, at times the accompanying baggage is overwhelming. Between the phony friends, prickly family members, competitive ex-girlfriends and ubiquitous tabloids, Bex struggles with the burden of royal perfection. This witty unmasking of life behind the palace gates is an entertaining romance with a dynamic yet relatable couple. The equally diverting supporting cast, from school friends to snarky royals, are all sharply drawn and intrinsic to the story. And never fear, Prince Harry is definitely in attendance in the form of Nick’s dashing yet disreputable brother Freddie, while paparazzi favorite Pippa is easily discernable in Bex’s slightly self-centered twin Lacey. This happily-ever-after boasts a strong sense of humor and just a dash of reality to create a picture perfect contemporary fairy tale.
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.
Two lives, seemingly unrelated, converge in unforeseen circumstances in Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone. Two events haunt their victims: the brutal murder of six movie theater employees, and the disappearance of a beautiful young woman. The ghosts from the past simply will not let go of the living.
Wyatt, the only survivor of the movie theater massacre, escapes Oklahoma City through his work, moving from one state to the next. Infamous for that single event, Wyatt changes his name and becomes a private investigator. A favor for a friend will start him on a path to the past to confront the one question that was never answered: Why was he spared?
Julianna worshipped her older sister, Genevieve, who took her to the fair and then disappeared forever. Genevieve left Julianna with $10 to buy food and told her she would be back in 15 minutes. In many ways, the now-37-year-old Julianna is still sitting on the bench at the fair waiting for her sister to return. Julianna is willing to sacrifice her career, her security and even her life to discover what happened to her sister that day.
As Wyatt works to discover the identity of a vandal determined to destroy his client’s business, he also uncovers the layers of denial that have dominated his life. As Julianna risks her sanity to uncover her sister’s fate, she must explore the demons that drove Genevieve to leave her that night.
Told in alternating voices, Berney twists his tale of obsession and corruption, of power and greed. Thoughtful, complex and absorbing, this character-driven novel is sure to please fans of intrigue. Berney’s unique plotting intertwines the characters’ stories deftly, proving that we can touch one another’s lives in wholly unexpected ways.
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.
There are few tragedies capable of eliciting tears from a man in his early 30s. The death of a beloved pet, the dissolution of a marriage, maybe; or more realistically, the death of a beloved Xbox, the dissolution of a favorite band. In Adam Rapp’s Know Your Beholder, narrator and central character Francis Falbo bears his soul while marinating in his overlord’s bathrobe and cultivating his newly sprouted beard.
In snowy Pollard, Illinois, Francis Falbo’s rising indie rock band, The Third Policeman, feels the heat of rapid ascension and cinders into nothingness almost exactly as his wife Sheila Ann abandons him for another man. With nothing going for him other than a few new bristles encroaching on his face, he moves into the attic of his childhood home, which his father bequeathed to him before uprooting and fleeing to Florida after the death of his wife. Clad in a bathrobe and two pairs of thermal pajamas which eventually graft to his skin, Francis decides to become an amateur landlord and converts the spacious dwelling into a couple of apartments. He assembles a colorful cast of tenants, including a family of former circus performers looking to settle down, an ice-fishing enthusiast with an incredibly rotund stomach and his ex wife’s burnout brother.
Francis chronicles his woes day by day on an old typewriter and gradually realizes he has become agoraphobic, but he disguises his fear as a personality quirk as he accomplishes various landlording tasks like collecting rent and unclogging sinks. As winter passes, the Falbo house embraces the thaw and collectively hopes the spring will bring reprieve to their lives bereft of happiness.
Know Your Beholder is about overcoming heartbreak and is perfectly balanced, with the weight of tragedy elevating wry and witty humor laced with culturally relevant references to the indie music, art and literary scenes.
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.
The excitement of the art scene in 1860s Paris is the lush setting for Maureen Gibbon’s new novel Paris Red. When we meet 17-year-old Victorine, she is wearing bright green boots to set her apart from all the other women walking down the street. It is a fashion choice that pays off, as she gains the attention of a mysterious stranger.
The stranger reveals that he is an important artist, and he strikes up a flirtation with both Victorine and her roommate, Nise. Victorine feels compelled to choose between her best friend, who she feels as close to as a sister, and this charming artist. But once she models for the artist, she knows her future is secured. She becomes not only his lover, but his most important muse.
Jealousy and financial insecurity mars their relationship, but within the confines of the artist’s cramped studio, Victorine is secure that they are creating art that will provoke and shock the outside world. So moved, she begins to paint on her own, at first timid, but then confident in her own talent.
The mysterious artist is none other than Edouard Manet, one of the most celebrated artists of the 19thcentury. His work is considered to have given birth to modern art. Victorine Meurent is the face in many of his celebrated works, most notably his controversial masterpiece Olympia.
Fans of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, books that tell the story behind legendary great art, will find this book a sensual treat.