Miranda July is an extraordinary artist capable of channeling her creativity into any medium, and her debut novel The First Bad Man surpasses the ambitiousness of her fantastic short collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. In The First Bad Man, July makes a mockery of relationship conventions and proves through her quirky, heavily flawed characters that for love to exist, it simply needs to be felt.
Manic, obsessive, middle-aged Cheryl works from home for a nonprofit women’s self-defense studio. Her bosses Carl and Suzanne are looking for a volunteer to shelter their obstinate daughter Clee who is in desperate need of a change of scenery, but they’re met with little enthusiasm around the office. So when Clee shows up on Cheryl’s doorstep with her stuff, neither she nor Cheryl is prepared for how violently their disparate worlds are about to collide. At first, the two avoid each other when they’re both home, but once they’re forced to acknowledge how weird this is, the avoidance devolves into nightly wrestling matches inspired by the self-defense exercises constituting their livelihoods. Ritual gives way to shame, which cycles back to anger between the estranged housemates, and it takes a grounding realization for Clee to feel open to reconciliation with Cheryl. Will their relationship bloom into something even more complex and beautiful, or break down like everything else in their lives has?
Cheryl and Clee waver between the roles of optimist and pessimist, offsetting the absurdity of their situation with a sense of “I guess it could happen” realism. With a supporting cast including a pair of psychiatrists with more problems than their clientele and a philanderer who needs a spiritual permission slip to do his thing, The First Bad Man is a strangely perverse, endearing and memorable warping of the tale of two people united by calamity.
Have you ever wondered how Beyoncé stays so thin? Or what is Victoria Beckham’s secret to her svelte frame? Well, so did Rebecca Harrington, and in her book I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures in Celebrity Dieting, she dishes up some interesting insights into the nutritional habits of the stars. In order to discover how effective her subjects' diets were, Harrington tested each one herself. Granted, her approach was not scientific — she only spent about a week on each diet and often times did not stick to the regime — but her compilation of her experiences makes for some entertaining reading.
The celebrities profiled range from the contemporary to the classic, and the diets range from the fairly sensible to the extraordinarily weird. Among the ones that seem not too off-the-wall is Gwyneth Paltrow’s — who Harrington gushes about throughout the book — vegan lifestyle and recipes which are palatable, if expensive to prepare. Then there is the yeast-centered diet of Greta Garbo or Dolly Parton’s Cabbage Soup Diet or even Victoria Beckham’s Five Hands Diet. As Harrington explains, Beckham apparently advocates eating five handfuls of food a day and “then for some unknown reason you declare yourself full.”
Harrington’s witty comments and occasional barbs are the real heart of the book. She doesn't really offer any serious insights into which diet is the best or the worst, instead she points out just how obsessed our culture is with trying to emulate celebrities. Harrington’s book may not cause you to lose any weight, but it will offer you a light and amusing read.
When do we know the people we love best? When things are easy or when life doesn't turn out as we expect? In Alex Shearer’s new novel This Is the Life, we meet two brothers who have been estranged for some time. When one of the brothers, Louis, is diagnosed with a brain tumor, they are reunited under difficult-to-navigate circumstances. Our narrator discovers Louis, whom he thought he knew, is so much more, but is the Louis in his brain a better version of the man himself?
Loosely based on his own life experience when his brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Shearer may be writing about himself as the brother who frequently gets frustrated with Louis’ situation, treatment and odd behavior. Shearer uses a jumping timeline to compare the Louis of the past and the Louis of the present — the stark contrast between the functioning Louis and the Louis in the hospice highlights how quickly and devastatingly cancer can render someone so helpless.
This is not a sentimental look at family members going through illness together, but a brutally honest account of the “little things” that no one reveals when confronted with terminal illness. Day-to-day operations such as haircuts, grocery shopping, paying bills and cleaning become almost impossible; further down-the-line tasks like writing a will and long-term hospice care are even more daunting. It's this honesty that makes the book successful. There are no punches pulled here. Each frustration and set back is out in the open. It reminds us that while those who are sick will of course receive the most attention and care, there exists a network of caregivers who may also be suffering and need resources.
Those who are looking for solidarity in a character navigating the hardship of caring for someone, or fans of Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing or We Are All Welcome Here by Elizabeth Berg will find a captivating story in the pages of this novel.
In the vacuum following the series finale of Breaking Bad, it stands to reason that the show’s addicts will scramble for another fix wherever they can find it. For some, Better Call Saul is enough. For this particular addict, that scramble led unexpectedly to the pages of Baking Bad: A Parody in a Cookbook by Walter Wheat.
A sweet journey through some of the show’s most classic episodes, the recipes in Baking Bad are generously garnished with references to those more compelling moments in the series that first hooked its audience. Including recipes for Meth Crunchies, Mr. White’s Tighty Whitey Bites and Fring Pops, the desserts produced are unmistakably unique, calling forth specific people and scenes in the show.
Replete with clever puns, tongue-in-cheek references throughout each recipe and some exquisite illustrations of the completed desserts, Baking Bad is definitely deserving of a prominent place on any Breaking Bad enthusiast’s coffee table. But is it a must have in the kitchen as well? As a distinctly amateur cook and an even more hesitant baker, I wondered if the exquisite works of art bedecking the pages were actually achievable without sacrificing my sanity. Steering clear of any recipes requiring an abundance of fondant or special tools like sugar thermometers, I put some of the simpler recipes to the test. My best result? (See picture to the right.)
Ricin Krispies Squares: The results were mighty tasty and surprisingly true in appearance to the results predicted in the book.
Those hoping to find inspiration for a Breaking Bad-themed party will definitely find what they’re looking for. While most of the recipes are complicated enough to merit look-don’t-eat centerpiece status, Baking Bad does also include a few higher-yield recipes like the above-pictured that should satisfy guests with an appetite.
At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen is a deeply poignant story of love, friendship and the true rewards of life.
Madeline Hyde is a member of high society, and as such, it is expected that she and her husband deport themselves with at least a little dignity. But Maddie and her husband Ellis, along with their best friend Hank, enjoy an extravagant lifestyle filled with parties and pranks. One fateful New Year’s Eve night in 1945, they go too far and the disgrace is too much for Ellis’ parents. Maddie and Ellis are thrown out of the parent’s palatial home and forced to live on a pittance. Determined to get back into his father’s good graces, Ellis plots to redeem his father’s reputation. For Colonel Hyde has a scandal of his own; he claimed to see the Loch Ness Monster, and all of his evidence was later proved fraudulent. Designated physically unfit for military duty, Ellis and Hank are free to pursue their mad scheme, achieve fame and work their way back into Ellis’ fortune.
Ellis, Maddie and Hank endure a perilous sea voyage and arrive at a remote Scottish village to encounter the reality of war-torn Europe. Abandoned by Ellis and Hank for weeks at a time, Maddie discovers rationing, shortages and “making do or do without.” Left to her own devices, Maddie is enlightened to some harsh truths and forms genuine relationships. She also discovers that not all monsters are at the water’s edge.
Sara Gruen is a magical storyteller, immersing the reader in visions of extreme privilege and desperate hardship. This is a riveting tale of self-discovery, an examination of female friendship and the effects of of war on a small community. Sara Gruen is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Water for Elephants, Ape House, Riding Lessons and Flying Changes.
The Sound of Music had its film debut 50 years ago and The Sound of Music Story by Tom Santopietro is the book for any fan of this beloved Rogers and Hammerstein movie musical. Details abound about filming in Austria and Hollywood, and the book also includes new interviews with production insiders.
As is appropriate, Santopietro starts at the very beginning with an insider’s view of the filming of the opening shot of the movie. While viewers recall the spirited Julie Andrews singing “The Sound of Music” while traipsing through the lush mountains of Austria, readers learn what it took to capture that magical moment, including Julie Andrews being blown to the ground by the crew helicopter! In detailing the behind-the-scenes machinations, Santopietro immediately highlights the financial and logistical challenges inherent in this production. Indeed, as intolerable as it is to imagine, this was a movie that almost didn’t make it to the big screen thanks to the flop that was Cleopatra.
Santopietro’s exhaustive examination of this cherished film includes the real life story of Maria von Trapp and the musical’s Broadway success. But it is the insider information from the movie which is most appealing. Picture if you will Angie Dickinson or Grace Kelly as Maria. How about David Niven or Bing Crosby as Captain von Trapp? Santopietro also studies the movie through the lens of history as the movie opened during the turbulent 1960s — there were strong questions about its appeal during an era of cynicism and protest. But succeed it did, as it was received well by the critics (Pauline Kael, be darned!), garnered 10 Oscar nominations, was the highest-grossing film of 1965 and is entrenched as a favorite thing to countless aficionados of all ages.
Author, journalist and former editor Judith Flanders has recently released A Murder of Magpies. This cozy London-based mystery has Flanders trading her more typical nonfiction writing for a witty whodunit novel.
Sam, an editor for a publishing house, finds that her pleasantly humdrum lifestyle has been turned upside down when her favorite gossip writer brings her a salacious manuscript. The book cites the illicit behaviors of the rich and famous. Shortly after receiving a copy, Sam’s life takes an unexpected turn for the worse.
When a bike courier is run down while carrying a copy of the manuscript, Jake, a handsome detective, seeks out Sam to see how the two are connected. After someone close to Sam goes missing, she puts on her sleuthing hat and works with Jake to find the culprit. Between the heat of adrenalin and the time together spent digging for clues, a romance ignites between Jake and Sam. Will Sam save her friend and get her banal life back?
A Murder of Magpies captures an even mix of effortless wit and downright detective spirit that will have you trying to figure out the mystery — if you pay enough attention, you just might. The novel is a colorful mashup of Bridget Jones and Sherlock Holmes.
The United States of Europe needs oil, so it’s off to the New World for Eddie Cantrell, his wife Anne Catherine, a company of Irish mercenaries and the local Dutch fleet. Welcome to the Ring of Fire Universe, where a small West Virginian town was dropped into the middle of the Germanies in the Thirty Years’ War, founding the United States over a hundred years early. It is a massive shared universe in 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies by Eric Flint and Chuck Gannon.
When Eric Flint wrote 1632, it was a simple lark — throwing modern machinery and freedom of religion in Europe, hitting blend and seeing what amusing anachronisms popped out. The universe runs off of three main rules. First, modern technology runs into Arthur C. Clarke’s Superiority paradox. It may be superior, but if it can’t be repaired or replaced easily, it’s no good in the long term. Second, history books have given all the major players an idea of who’s going to matter over the next few decades, and they can alter their plans accordingly. Third, small people can change the course of empires too, especially as Europe struggles with the ideas of democracy and freedom of religion. To add the kind of depth this premise is capable of, Flint threw open the doors, allowing other authors to first write short stories and collaborative novels. The universe got even bigger, and now there are over 20 novels focused on a wide variety of plot threads, and anthologies of meticulously researched fan stories. Quite a few authors got their starts writing for the Ring of Fire universe. It is living history.
1636 takes place around the Tar Lake of Trinidad, one of the more easily accessible oil fields of the world. Real politik leads the Wild Geese of Ireland, late of Spain, to found a new Irish Kingdom. Expect lengthy explanations of technology and politics, often more than plot or forward momentum. But that’s a big part of the reason the universe exists: to watch things being built in different directions.
Follow a year in the life of Lauren Cunningham, a single 28-year-old looking for change, in Love by the Book by Melissa Pimentel. She moves from Maine to London, leaving a serious relationship behind, and embarks on an active social life consisting of casually dating a multitude of sexy Brits.
Despite her declarations of liberation and wish for sexual adventures, her partners are disbelieving and disappear even as Lauren insists she is not interested in a serious relationship. Lauren decides to approach the problem analytically and resolves to follow a different dating guide each month of the year to learn the spicy secrets behind becoming a successful siren. Once those lessons are learned, she knows she will be more appealing to those men looking for plenty of sex without any relationship drama. From modern manuals such as The Rules to the Victorian-era Manners for Women, and even a handbook intended for guys, Lauren applies the tenets of each guide to her potential paramours such as “Top Hat” and “Sleepy Eyes” and journals the outcomes. The comic results are entertaining as Lauren documents some colossal failures, surprising successes and insightful life lessons from each experiment.
Pimentel’s debut is a humorous look at a fresh and likeable young woman longing to embrace independence and sexual freedom. Humorous and realistic, this frothy fun will appeal to fans of Bridget Jones and HBO’s Girls.
For Lady, Vee and Delph Alter, suicide runs in the family. Now, the clock is ticking for the three sisters in Judith Claire Mitchell's dynamic turn-of-the-century family saga A Reunion of Ghosts. The Alter siblings believe their fates are sealed and have selected midnight, December 31, 1999 as the date they, too, will end their lives. But first, they want to chronicle the story of four generations of Alters in a sort of tell-all group memoir that is also their suicide note.
The Alter sisters come from a long, complicated line of suicidal tendencies going back to their great-grandmother, Iris. Iris was married to Lenz Alter, a Jewish Nobel prize-winning chemist who ironically developed the poison gas used by the Germans in World War II. Eventually, the scientist, their son Richard and his children (including the sisters' mother), also killed themselves. (Readers will find it helpful to refer to the detailed family tree included in the front of the book to keep track of who's who.)
Now, the Alter siblings are stuck. "The truth is, we all fell through the cracks, and that's where we've stayed," they said. They even live in the same inherited Upper West Side apartment, complete with a "death and dying room" no one has slept in for years. Lady, divorced and miserable, has already attempted suicide once. Vee, whose husband died, is facing a cancer recurrence. The youngest Delph contemplates what being cursed really means. They want to hasten what they feel is the inevitable course of events.
Mitchell has crafted here a stylistically complex, intertwining narrative through the unified voice of the three protagonists. It is their pragmatism and wry, dark humor that lend this family portrait its memorable quality. While Ghosts is about an imaginary family, Mitchell does use some historical material. The German-Jewish scientist Fritz Haber and his first wife, Clara, were the inspiration for Lenz and Iris Alter. Readers interested in Mitchell's research will find a thorough bibliography at the end of this achingly elegant story.