Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Watching the first two episodes of the new HBO series “Girls,” I chuckled, cringed and laughed out loud. That was when 24-year-old Hannah announced to her parents that she believed she was “the voice of her generation,” or at least “a voice,” and needed $1100 a month for the next two years to finish her collection of essays. Her mother sputtered, “That’s ridiculous!”

Present-day me agrees with mom. But long-ago me recognizes the confident bravado of the young writer when everything is bright and shiny and possible. Still, as Hanna’s gynecologist asserts in the next episode, “I wouldn’t be 24 again.”

I can’t speak for Anna Quindlen (more on that in a moment), but I imagine that she would have a similar reaction to “Girls.” Her new memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, reminded me that Quindlen is the voice of my generation, beginning with her “Life in the Thirties” column for the New York Times 25 years ago and continuing through her books. Like many other women of a certain age, I find myself nodding in agreement as I read her new one.

Early on, she writes, “There comes that moment when we finally know what matters and, perhaps, more important, what doesn’t, when we see that all the life lessons came not from what we had but from whom we loved, and from the failures perhaps more than the successes. … We understand ourselves, our lives, retrospectively.”

How true. As are her observations on collecting “stuff,” the choices that bless and burden our generation of women, how much of life is surprise and happy accident, the importance of girlfriends, “the joists that hold up the house of our existence.”

I could continue quoting, but you should have the pleasure of discovering what Quindlen has to say on your own. It’s like an ongoing conversation with your BFF about books, men, mothers, kids, work, aging. I can’t speak for Anna Quindlen, but she sure speaks for me.

Open Book: I’ve never met Anna Quindlen, but I feel like I know her through her books and novels, and having looked at a series of pictures of her at different ages in the current issue of More magazine, I know we sort of look alike, except for our noses.  And having read her over the years, I know we share remarkably similar interests and views. So much so that after reading a NetGalley digital copy of Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House), I bought two hardcover copies — one for my college roommate for her birthday, and one for me just because.

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“Wow.” Prosecutor Jeff Ashton mouthed the word of disbelief as the jury handed down its verdict in the Casey Anthony case last summer. He wasn’t alone at being stunned at hearing “not guilty” on the three felony counts.

I know I was among the many Orlando residents who had followed the case for three years who were left shaking their heads. Maybe Casey Anthony wasn’t guilty of first-degree murder of her toddler daughter Caylee, but surely she was responsible for Caylee’s death? But the jury didn’t connect the dots the way we had. Did we just think we knew more?

I’m still asking myself that after reading Ashton’s new book, Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony, written with Lisa Pulitzer. It’s a detailed account of the case against Casey from the insider’s point of view, and Ashton’s preaching to the choir as far as I’m concerned. Reading it all together  in black-and-white — the initial 911 calls and conversations with law enforcement, the transcripts of jail house meetings and calls, the depositions, the expert testimony —  reinforces what I had heard previously.

What was new are Ashton’s opinions, although he telegraphed his distaste for defense attorney Jose Baez throughout the trial. So, it’s not surprising to see Baez described as “smarmy” and compared to a character in My Fair Lady, “oozing charm from every pore / he oiled his way across the floor.”  Casey’s mother Cindy Anthony comes across as the queen of denial in “a lethally toxic codependent relationship” with her daughter. Father George, whom Casey accused of sexually molesting her and of drowning Caylee in the family pool, appears to be a decent enough guy bewildered by tragedy.

As for Casey herself, she is an accomplished, habitual, fluent liar. She was constantly, boldly reinventing her story as circumstances forced her hand, one lie leading to another and another. Every now and then she would reach “the end of the hall” — as she did when she took investigators to her nonexistent workplace at Universal Studios — and was forced to admit something wasn’t true, but more lies would inevitably follow.

The jury found reasonable doubt with the prosecution’s case. The duct tape didn’t work for them as the smoking gun.

Ashton writes: “Part of interpreting a crime scene is eliminating things that don’t make sense. You hope to convince jurors to use their common sense as well. So is there any reason someone would put duct tape over the nose and mouth of a dead child? … People don’t make accidents look like murder unless they are covering something up.”

Still, he didn’t buy duct tape on Caylee’s nose and mouth as some sort of cover-up. The only reason that made sense to him was that it was placed there to keep her from breathing — “premeditation, plain and simple.”

But very little is plain and simple about the Casey Anthony case except that a beautiful little girl died in unknown circumstances. We may speculate that it was murder or an accident, but we’ll never know. Casey Anthony is a convicted liar, and any scenario she outlines and/or details will always be suspect.

Open Book: I’m still conflicted that I watched the Casey Anthony trial, the biggest reality show in town. Maybe because it was local, because I knew many of the print and broadcast reporters covering the trial, because the judge shops at my Publix, because George Anthony was a security guard at the Sentinel when I worked there. Maybe it’s because I’m still a newsie. The publisher sent me a copy of Imperfect Justice by Jeff Ashton (William Morrow). Now I don’t want to hear or read anymore about this sad story. I think.

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The importance of Ernest Hemingway hasn’t faded in the 50 years since his death. His works still are read and analyzed, his eventful life dissected, his oversized personality discussed, the myth and the man reimagined.

 Award-winning writer Paul Hendrickson (Sons of Mississippi) is quick to say the world doesn’t need another traditional Hemingway biography. So he takes an unconventional tack with Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved, and Lost, 1934-1961, focusing on the last 27 years of the writer’s life. He anchors the engaging narrative of Hemingway riding the waves of fame and fortune — the high tides, the stomach-churning swells, the swirling depths – to Hemingway’s love for his “fishing machine,’’ Pilar.

            Hendrickson describes his mission in a long, entertaining prologue: “So it’s about such ideas as fishing, friendship, and fatherhood, and love of water, and what it means to be masculine in our culture (as that culture is rapidly changing), and the notion of being ‘boatstruck’ . . .and how the deep good in us is often matched only by the perverse bad in us, and – not least — about the damnable way our demons seems to end up always following us.’’

Hendrickson, forgoing the terse, laconic style of Hemingway for his own looping elegance, acknowledges those demons as both arising from Papa’s past (his father’s suicide, for instance) and the flaws in his character. Yes, he could be – and often was – selfish, egotistical, “gratuitously mean.’’ He cheated on his wives, belittled his friends, dealt awkwardly with his sons, especially the third, the troubled Gregory (Gigi).

  But oh, Hemingway could write. Hendrickson does not forgive the great man because of his great talent, but he does show “amid so much ruin, still the beauty,’’ and  how he bravely engaged with life and was often at his best on Pilar, the middle-aged man and the sea.

 Hendrickson interviewed Hemingway’s three sons, read the thousands of letters Papa wrote, and, of course all the books, and he quotes liberally from these sources and others to emphasize Hemingway’s complexities and contradictions. I wasn’t sure I could read another 500-plus pages on Hemingway, but I found Hemingway’s Boat fascinating and revealing. Not as boatstruck as either author, I did skim the complete guide to boat building and Pilar’s specs. Still, in the end, Hendrickson also sent me back to Hemingway’s books and the stories, which is a good thing.

I already had reread Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast in the spring when The Paris Wife, Paula McLain’s best-selling novel came out. Written from the perspective of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, The Paris Wife is a romantic evocation of their meeting and courtship in Chicago in 1920, and then the next five years in Jazz-age Paris among the fabled “Lost Generation.’’

Many of the incidents in the novel – first encounters with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, Ernest’s struggles to claim his own voice, Hadley’s loss on a train of her husband’s manuscripts – were recounted by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, and I suggest a tandem reading.

 Hemingway was a great believer in finding the truth in fiction, and McLain’s sympathetic voicing of Hadley feels authentic. She was passionately in love with her younger husband, but her traditional upbringing and values were no match when the poisonous Pauline, soon to be the second of four Mrs. Hemingways, literally moved in on her marriage. She reluctantly retreated with young son Jack, and, yes, she had regrets, but she also felt that they would always have their Paris. “We got the best of each other.’’  

If you read A Moveable Feast, you’ll know Hemingway felt much the same near the end of his life. In Hemingway’s Boat, Hendrickson writes that it was because Hadley “was his truest love, or at least his truest marriage’’ that Hemingway’s subsequent marriages were doomed from the start. Then again, Hadley didn’t have to compete with Pilar.

Open Book: I read the digital galley of Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat (Knopf), which the publisher provided through NetGalley. I bought a hardcover copy of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (Ballantine) so I could present it to my book club. When I couldn’t find my old paperback of  Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, I borrowed a copy from the Orange County Library.

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Don’t look now, but we’re surrounded. And vastly  outnumbered – about two hundred million to one.  So much for escape. Bugs are everywhere:  crawling, slithering, squirming, sucking, munching, mating, buzzing, biting.

Amy Stewart’s creepy new popular science book, Wicked Bugs, notes that many bugs are beneficial, necessary to the cycle of life and  the food chain. But she’s more interested in the dark side of the relationship  between humans and nature, as readers of her previous best-seller Wicked Plants well know.

This volume is just as witty and informative,  illustrated with detailed etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs  that make most of the subjects —  African bat bugs to the zombie–like jewel wasp — look as if they starred in ‘50s horror flick about radiation gone wrong. (Remember the monster mutants in Them!)

Of course, a number are downright deadly, full  of poisonous venom that paralyses the nervous system (certain spiders,  scorpions, and the well-named assassin bugs). Parasites hop along for the ride and infiltrate innards. Flies, fleas and cockroachess carry  filth  and disease. As Stewart observes: “Flea vomit is the true culprit in a plague  epidemic.’’

Her curious anecdotes often have a high ick  factor.  Body lice helped bring down  Napoleon’s army. A man woke up with a nose full of maggots after a fly laid its  eggs in his nostrils. And, yes, roaches will crawl in ears. Euwwww.

If you think staying inside is going to help,  well, consider bed bugs.  They dine on  you. Silverfish eat books. Weevils flourish in meal. Termites chew on wood.  What’s that tick-tock sound in your wall? Oh, just the death-watch beetle.

Florida is paradise for bugs. The Mediterranean fruit fly. Fire ants. Roundworms. Deer ticks. And what Stewart considers the  most wicked bug of all – mosquitoes, whose saliva transmits hundreds of fevers  and diseases, “making them the world’s most deadly insect. Malaria is believed to have killed more people than all wars combined.’’

Now you know. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…!

Open Book: I received an advance reading copy of Amy Stewart’s Wicked Bugs from publisher Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. It arrived with a stuffed bookworm that looks like a giant deformed banana with huge googly eyes. Terrifying.

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I am gorging on Florida strawberries, but I am studying okra and dreaming peaches. Let me explain.

SIBA — Southeast Independent Booksellers Alliance — recently announced its dozen “Okra Picks: Good Southern Books Fresh off the Vine” for the spring season as selected by its indie members. The fiction and nonfiction look appealing, but, yum, three books for foodies and cooks are on on the list,  High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America by Jessica Harris (Bloomsbury), The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers’ Markets, Roadside Stands, and CSA Farm Boxes by Sheri Castle (University of North Carolina Press) and A Southerly Course: Recipes and Stories from Close to Home by Martha Hall Foose (Crown). Harris’ history of African-American cusine culture was published in January; the other two will be released in April.

I am especially looking forward to A Southerly Course because Mississippi chef Foose wrote Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook, an all-time favorite with its surprise take on traditional Southern fare — Sweet Tea Pie, dontcha know?!

My family (namely, my mother and the Caroline Cousins) tend to forget that just because I don’t cook much anymore doesn’t mean I don’t know how. How insulting is it when your nearest and dearest ask if you remember how to make a white sauce?! But even if I don’t spend time in the kitchen, I spend lots of time reading about food, especially Southern food. Why just the other day I talked my friend Jackie out of her new Southern Living because of the pound cake recipes. She graciously handed over the magazine with a hunk of her fresh-made banana nut bread, which I ate for breakfast.

The cover of Foose’s new book instantly drew me in with its picture of peaches tumbled together in an apron. Regular readers of this blog know that peaches are my favorite food. I have a large orange cat, the Giant Peach, and when I lived in the Midwest years ago, I stirred Peach Jell-O on the stove in winter just to smell its fragrance and remember summer.

The new Okra Picks —  http://www.sibaweb.com/okra — also reminded me that I signed up for my fellow book blogger BermudaOnion’s Okra Challenge back in the fall. You moved up the food ladder by reading a certain number of books and blogging about them. Four to six, for example, and you’re a Tater. To be an Okra, you have to read nine or more. I signed up to read seven to nine so I can be a Peach, of course.

I made it because I recently sat in a bookstore and read the only cookbook on the fall list, Southern Plate: Classic Southern Food That Makes Everyone Feel Like Family by Christy Jordan (HarperCollins). A home-grown Alabama cook with a wonderful blog, www.southernplate.com, Jordan offers family recipes, many as easy as pie (or cobbler). It was sort of like thumbing through my mama’s recipe box, or going through the cousins’ collections. Macaroni and cheese. Fried okra. Frozen cranberry  salad. Coupled with the color pictures, the recipes make for a mouth-watering volume. I haven’t bought it yet because I told someone I wanted it, and I’m hoping they didn’t think I was kidding.

Just writing this has me hungry and homesick. I’m pretty sure I’ve got some okra, corn and tomatoes in the freezer, so I’ll just go put some rice on. And, no, I don’t use that minute stuff. Honest.

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The empty swing on the cover of Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America provides an arresting image of a lost child, but what I’ll always remember is the photo of the grinning, freckled six-year-old in a red baseball cap.

 Still, Adam Walsh, who was abducted from a Hollywood, Fla. shopping mall on July 27, 1981, didn’t become the country’s most famous missing boy overnight.

Because this was before Amber Alerts and milk cartons, before America’s Most Wanted and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It was just two distraught parents, John and Reve Walsh, looking for their son with the well-meaning help of family, friends and law enforcement departments at a loss without centralized communication.

Two weeks after Adam disappeared, fishermen found his decapitated head in a canal more than a 100 miles away. By then, the case had captured public attention. But the kidnapper/killer was never officially captured, and the rest of Adam’s remains have never been found.

A serial killer named Otis Toole eventually confessed to the murder,  but he confessed to a lot of murders, and he recanted more often than not. He died in a Florida jail in 1996 without detectives having verified his stories. It wasn’t until  December 2008 that the Hollywood police department announced that it had concluded that Toole was indeed the killer and it had made mistakes in the investigation.

In Bringing Adam Home, noted Florida writer Les Standiford and Joe Matthews, a retired Miami Beach detective and experienced polygrapher, detail those mistakes in devastating detail, such as lost bloodstained evidence crucial for DNA testing and valuable time wasted on less promising suspects. Matthews was hired by the Walshes to conduct an independent investigation to determine that Toole was the killer, and he spent frustrating years retracing leads, interviewing witnesses and verifying Toole’s whereabouts in order to do so.

Intertwined with this true-crime chronicle (Toole was one sorry career crook) is the important story of how Adam’s abduction turned his parents into powerful advocates for crime victims and how law enforcement across the country changed its response to missing children cases. Now, there are toll-free numbers, national databases, registries of pedophiles, fingerprinting programs, trained search-and-rescue teams.

Over the years, John Walsh kept Adam’s case in the spotlight, “not knowing {the truth} was torture.” The Hollywood police said it hoped that Toole’s positive identification brought some closure to the Walsh family. The book quotes John Walsh: “It’s not about closure; it’s about justice.”

Open Book: I reviewed a digital advance copy of Bringing Adam Home by Les Standiford with Joe Matthews (HarperCollins) through NetGalley so I didn’t see the eight pages of pictures. But I remember them.

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I had my first sip of champagne when I was a young teen at a grand wedding.  The taste was tart, tingly, unexpected. 

In her Encyclopedia of The Exquisite: An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights, Jessica Kerwin Jenkins writes that “a good champagne is feathery with small bubbles and complex, revealing a taste that is tart like a green apple, flowery with roses and violets, sweet like roasted pineapple, and toasty as a golden brioche.” 

At 14, I got the “tart” part right, but I was still years away from my first brioche. All I knew was that I liked, loved, champagne. Even in a plastic flute, it embodied sophistication and romance. (Again, my first champagne headache from the cheap stuff was years away.)

Kerwin’s book is a bit like a sophisticate’s version of Julie Andrews trilling “My Favorite Things.” Modeled after the exoctic encyclopedias of the 16th century, it’s a jewel box of trifles so delightful I dare you to read just one entry at a time. Two pages on “Fireworks” lead directly to “folly” and then to “frilly lingerie.” Ooo-la-a! 

Of course, it’s idiosyncratic. I always thought Cupid was cute rather than elegant. But Jenkins’ entry on “Amorini and putti” –Cupids, cherubs and baby angels — provides colorful context for the pudgy pink infants of the Renaissance, whose origins date to antiquity when winged boys delivered messages for the Greek gods.

Speaking of those mythical creatures, turn to “Nectar and ambrosia,” the sweet drink and food of the gods. Some historians, Jenkins writes, have concluded that both are actually forms of honey, either fermented or fresh. Sweet.

Chocolate, which I consider an indispensable food group, inexplicably didn’t make the book, although the expensive spice saffron receives its due, as well as a recipe for Catalan Chickpeas with Tomatoes and Toasted Almonds.    

Red lipstick. White paint. Black. Truffle. Fan. Unicorn. Love notes. Boudoir. Pentimento. Did you know that Cleopatra’s bling was faux jewels, and that rich and poor alike have enjoyed opulent glass emeralds and amethysts? Sequins go back to Venetian gold coins first issued in 1284. When the currency became obsolete, enterprising women pierced the “zecchino” coins and embroidered their clothes, “igniting the bedazzling fashion.” (Too tacky for words if carried to excess IMHO).

About the illustrations. They look like sepia clip art of old-fashioned drawings. Some sumptuous color would not be out of place. Indeed, a book that celebrates the exquisite and elegant deserves better. I also could do without the blurbs by Michael Kors, Sarah Jessica Parker and Tory Burch. Then again, Jenkins used to be an editor of W and now writes for Vogue.

But these are minor complaints — ants with alfresco. And it’s Jenkins’ book, so I forgive her a few sins of ommission — trompe l’oeil, blue and white china, old lace, valentines. But those are among my favorite things.

Besides, both Jenkins and I share a love of “far niente” in Italian, or sweet idleness, “the languorous sweetness of doing nothing at all.”

Open Book: I received my copy of Encyclopedia of the Exquisite by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins (Talese/Doubleday) as a Christmas gift from my friend Laura. (Which reminds me to add presents and thank you notes to my list of elegant delights).

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