A gathering of honest, luminous essays on home and travel.
“Place is identity, style, faith, cosmology,” writes Frank (All the News I Need, 2017, etc.) in her latest book, the winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. From this assured, thoughtful view, the author reveals how traveling as an older adult has brought shifting perspectives. In a piquant opening essay, Frank considers First-World complaints on the inconvenience of going anywhere paired with the still-held romantic belief in travel's worth. A humorous piece on shopping for the right bag morphs into memories of childhood, linking present and past through ideas of containment, organization, and portability. The sights of Firenze, Italy, inspire separate impressions that show the city as a place both marred and upheld by tourism. Frank skillfully uses the ordinary aspects of traveling to segue into wide-ranging insights on belonging, longing, and home, with occasional familiar laments. These include the embarrassing behavior of Americans and timely comments on the current Trumpian moment (“when surroundings dazzle, Blue-leaning humans romanticize. We assume that a landscape’s loveliness seeps into its inhabitants”). It's the autobiographical essays, though, that linger the most. The aching standout, “Cave of the Iron Door,” features a return to the author’s hometown, Phoenix. Frank overlays a familiar yet alien, desert landscape with memories of her parents' strained marriage. The nostalgic, elegiac movement from childhood magic to hindsight about her mother's isolation in the 1950s is heartbreaking, and the essay culminates in her mother's death from a barbiturate overdose. For all its attentiveness to beauty and loss, this wise and humorous collection is also a moving record of anticipation and expectation. Each place, taken on its own terms, yields up its own flavors and character, but everyone is bound by one eloquent fact: "time is the vastest real estate we know."
Philosophical, sophisticated literary forays that are a pleasure to dwell in.
Whimsical illustrations meet quirky prose in this tag-team reinvention of the iconic 1933 book.
An award-winning New Yorker illustrator, designer, and author, Kalman (Swami on Rye: Max in India, 2018, etc.) takes on the challenge of illustrating Stein’s iconic “auto” biography of her longtime companion Toklas. Even though it’s not as ambitious as Zak Smith’s Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow (2006) or Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures (2011), Kalman’s 70-plus color illustrations, rendered in her distinctive playful and Fauve-esque style, perfectly reflect the artistic and intellectual world of Paris in the 1920s and ’30s. In a short afterword, written in Kalman’s distinctive script, she describes the book as a “love story” about how “two people, joined together, become themselves. They cannot breathe right without each other.” An accompanying illustration shows them sitting together at a table, Stein reading a book (aloud?), Toklas looking on (listening?). On the final page of the book, Stein notes that Toklas probably will not write her autobiography, so “I am going to write it for you….And she did and this is it.” On first meeting Stein, Toklas said there are a “great many things to tell of what was happening then….I must describe what I saw when I came.” With the current volume, we see what Kalman saw. Here’s Stein sitting in a bright yellow chair at her popular Paris home at 27 rue de Fleurus, Picasso’s famous portrait of Stein on the wall behind her. Luminaries came and went, all beautifully captured with Kalman’s bright brush strokes: Toulouse-Lautrec; Seurat, who “caught his fatal cold”; the “extraordinarily brilliant” Guillaume Apollinaire; William James, Stein’s former teacher; Marcel Duchamp (“everybody loved him)”; Isadora Duncan and Nijinsky; James Joyce and Sylvia Beach; Hemingway; the “beautiful” Edith Sitwell; and of course, Toklas, wearing one of her hats with “lovely artificial flowers” on top.
A sparkling, imaginative rendition of a literary classic.
A leading dealer in historical documents and artifacts delivers a delightful account of his business.
Raab, who writes the “Historically Speaking” column for Forbes.com, begins with an account of his education under the guidance of a father whose fascination with antiquities persuaded him to give up a prosperous legal career. “I had found my way to the emotional yet intangible heart of this trade in history,” he writes. “I came to understand what binds people to the physical traces of our history and its great men and women, why these artifacts and pieces of paper have such power. This isn’t an easy lesson, and no one can teach it to you. You have to learn it yourself.” The author emphasizes that it’s not a career for the faint of heart, requiring a scholar’s knowledge of history, a keen nose for fakes (a thriving industry), genuine-but-not-priceless items (many famous people’s letters were signed and often written by a secretary), and a sense of what will sell to collectors. A Benjamin Franklin letter discussing the Constitution brings a king’s ransom; another apologizing for arriving late for a meeting would attract far less interest. As skilled in satisfying readers as clients, Raab knows how to tell a story, chronicling how descendants of great historical figures invite him to their homes and reveal treasures. A survey report signed by the young George Washington looked like a bonanza until Raab’s research turned up another, identical including the corrections—and then another. An undistinguished collection of John F. Kennedy memorabilia included a tape of lost recordings from the plane carrying Kennedy’s body to Washington, D.C., after his assassination. In that case, the author’s joy was cut short when a government lawyer called him to demand it. The book also contains plenty of sad tales about certain family heirlooms, preserved for generations, that turned out to be reproductions.
Though the anecdotes are unconnected, they are unfailingly entertaining.
The story of an unrepentant birds’-egg thief who found a lucrative market for rare wild falcons on the Arabian Peninsula.
In his latest page-turner, Hammer (The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race To Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, 2016, etc.) explores two reckless and ultimately disastrous obsessions of people of a certain class and sense of entitlement: egg collecting, which gained currency during the Victorian era, and falconry, pushed to new competitive heights by Arabian princes. The author compellingly chronicles the exploits of Jeffrey Lendrum—who was arrested several times during the last two decades attempting to transport rare, endangered peregrine falcon eggs and others with intent to sell to rich Arabian clients—whom he portrays as a destructive combination of knowledgeable bird-watcher and destroyer of “the fragile, symbiotic relationship between man and the wild.” Early on during his youth in Rhodesia, Lendrum’s father passed along his passion of observing wildlife. As a young boy, he was enlisted to raid the nests of wild birds so that the eggshells, emptied of their yokes and dried, could be added to his father’s collection. Despite the risk and illegality of the enterprise, Lendrum learned to hike and scale great heights—in Wales, Canada, and even Patagonia—to attain peregrine eggs, which many members of the royalty in Dubai covet for their lucrative racing games. In this well-written, engaging detective story that underscores the continuing need for conservation of rare bird species, Hammer delineates the trials of Andy McWilliam, the retired policeman who grew admirably to serve in his capacity as officer for the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which helped prosecute Lendrum and others. Throughout, the author beautifully renders this tale “of human obsession and nature’s fragility, of man’s perpetual insistence on imposing his will upon the wildness of our world, and of the tiny handful of investigators, most unrecognized, working to safeguard the environment’s bounty and wonder.”
London-based chef Eagle, a contributor to various culinary journals, makes his book debut with a thoughtful meditation on the craft, chemistry, and cultural history of cooking and the “inexorable currents of history and economics” that influence taste.
Winner of the Debut Food Book at the Fortnum & Mason’s Awards, the author’s unusual cooking manual lacks specific recipes, although he does devote several chapters to the process of making a rabbit stew. He dismisses the idea that recipes are “more-or-less scientific sets of instructions,” seeing them “more like short stories—about history, about politics, and about love.” Instead of emulating other cookbooks by presenting an “inaccurate account of the various things that have been done before,” Eagle offers reflections on techniques—such as curing, boiling, pickling, slicing and dicing (including specific directions for onions)—that can be applied to a variety of cooking situations. “A recipe,” he maintains, “is a work in progress, one outcome of a long, silent conversation between cook and cooked, which started before anyone alive today thought to pick up a knife.” Once a cook knows how to make a stew, for example, complex recipes “from across the globe and the ages” are not necessary; instead, the cook would benefit more from “terse suggestions” that can be adapted to ingredients at hand. Eagle emphasizes the importance of salt, which should be added “sometimes with abandon, sometimes judiciously” at the beginning, middle, and end of cooking. Besides bringing out flavors, salt is integral to the movement of water. “The elemental act of cooking,” he writes, “is chiefly the act of moving water from one place to another.” In curing meat or fish, we draw water out; in boiling pasta, rice, polenta, gruel, or grain, we rehydrate. Although Eagle does not extol cooking as an art but rather a craft, he celebrates the ephemeral pleasure of eating, “where a forkful comes together with a sip and a word to produce something beautiful.”
A graceful, enlightening contribution to food writing.
Having written about milk, salt, oysters, and frozen food, Kurlansky (Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas, 2018, etc.) turns his pen to an iconic fish on the brink of extinction.
“How many species do we lose when we lose a salmon?” asks the author toward the end of this handsomely illustrated work of natural history and environmental advocacy. The answer is that we do not know for certain, but the salmon is part of a chain of life that ranges from tiny insects to large mammals and birds. Every species, then, unlocks the door to many other species, and allowing any species to diminish is to threaten the whole web of life. So it is with the salmon. Kurlansky covers all the bases, from life cycle and reproductive history to the fact that the salmon is particularly vulnerable precisely because it spends part of its life in salt water, part in fresh water. The author observes that ideal salmon habitat includes rivers that run clear and clean and that are undammed, which are increasingly rare except in very remote places such as the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, which may turn out to be where salmon make their last stand. Certainly it won’t be on the Columbia River, where Lewis and Clark saw a horizon of flashing fins two centuries ago, whereas “by 1975, a total of 14 dams were blocking the main Columbia River, 13 were on the Snake [River],” numbers that don’t begin to take into account the thousands of smaller dams along the tributaries. Kurlansky offers a dauntingly long list of things that need to happen if the salmon is to be saved, ranging from dismantling dams to checking climate change, restoring forests and apex predators, ending the use of pesticides, and removing homes and roads from riverbanks in favor of galleries of trees. “If we can save the planet,” he writes, “the salmon will be all right." And if not, we must conclude, not.
In championing a critically important part of the natural world, Kurlansky sounds an urgent alarm that commands our attention.
A Jewish “matrilineal love story” uniquely narrated by a voice from beyond the grave.
TV writer Kalb employs an unconventional yet highly effective and charming narrative device, channeling the voice and personality of her now-deceased grandmother Bobby Bell. Outspoken and persnickety, Bobby snares readers’ attention right from her first comments about how “degrading” and boring being dead actually is and how “the worst part was the dirt.” Drawn from both a generous selection of family images and a text very much grounded in the family’s Jewish heritage, the narrative skillfully captures Bobby’s wit, worldly advice, well-intentioned meddling, and enduring love for her granddaughter. Bobby describes her mother as an “enormous Russian immigrant in a falling-down house” who arrived in Brooklyn speaking no English. Bobby also comments on her near-fatal bout with meningitis, her marriage to the author’s grandfather, and her lifelong friendship with Estelle, her sorority sister and fellow Jewish Brooklynite. Kalb sharply reimagines her grandmother’s inner thoughts and feelings as she regales readers with anecdotes about her life and remembers her biting yet fiercely nurturing criticism of the author’s choices in men (“is he Jewish?”), her appearance (“you’d be gorgeous if you went a little blonder”), and her relocation to the West Coast (“no serious person moves to San Francisco”). The true heart and soul of their relationship is reflected in the frequent phone exchanges between grandmother and granddaughter, most of which are hysterical. Readers familiar with the Bobby in their own families will appreciate how well Kalb embodies the classic stereotypes of stoic overprotectiveness and frequent exasperation that come with being a parent and grandparent. As the book progresses, the story becomes both sad and poignant as age and illness catch up to Bobby, and though she pokes fun at her situation, the photos and the imagined conversations make for sometimes-heartbreaking reading. Through interviews with her mother and grandfather, voicemails, and nostalgic memorabilia, Kalb commemorates her beloved grandmother, honoring her legacy and inimitable character.
An endearing, bittersweet, and entertainingly fresh take on the family memoir.
Auto racing takes on the von Clausewitz–ian guise of war by other means.
Early on in his reign, Hitler decided that it would be a key point of national pride to win the Grand Prix, with the Nazi propaganda machine obliging by developing the slogan, “a Mercedes-Benz victory is a German victory.” Hitler’s regime cultivated two drivers in particular, Bernd Rosemeyer and Rudi Caracciola, showering them with favors. France would have none of it, fielding a car, the Delahaye 145, that had an unlikely source, for the small firm that built it specialized in heavy trucks rather than fast cars. It had an unlikely patron, too: an American woman who loved to race and who selected as her driver a young man, René Dreyfus, who had been excluded from many races “because of his Jewish heritage.” When he was allowed to race, he soared. Bascomb (The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War, 2018, etc.) recounts an early race in which Dreyfus piloted a fresh-from-the-factory Maserati, his pit crew none other than the car’s namesake. Those early cars were dangerous: In a race from Paris to Madrid, more than a dozen drivers and onlookers were killed, and “there were too many injured to determine a casualty count with any accuracy.” Bascomb writes vigorously of the race at the heart of the book, with heart-pounding set pieces: “In the twelfth lap, Rudi crept up to René’s side, and the two almost locked together as they zigzagged around the course, neck and neck, neither giving way to the other.” René won, and Hitler was furious. René, now in the army, was sent to the Indy 500 to represent France in 1940 but was stranded in America when Germany invaded his homeland. One of the first acts of the invaders was to sweep up every bit of archival material related to his victory, hoping to rewrite the past.
A luminous book of sports history that explores a forgotten corner of the history of the Third Reich as well.
In a book that is more memoir than how-to manual, Moezzi (Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life, 2014, etc.) chronicles her effort to apply Rumi’s 13th-century poetry to her 21st-century life.
Some readers may be surprised that the bestselling poet in the United States is a Muslim mystic who died nearly 750 years ago. Moezzi, however, isn’t the least bit stunned that Rumi’s words resonate with contemporary Western readers; it just took her a while to embrace them herself. She grew up in Ohio “dodging dead Persian poets” because her father “is a tried-and-true Rumi addict, and like most children of addicts, I grew up resenting the object of my father’s addiction.” But as an adult, the author decided to mine the Sufi mystic’s poetry to seek remedies for some of her own modern maladies—e.g. anxiety, fear, etc.—and found his words life-changing. Each of the chapters begins with a diagnosis and ends with a prescription, featuring stanzas of Rumi’s work that Moezzi translated and studied with her father. Though Rumi's poetry and its impact on her life are noteworthy, there are two narrative elements that stand out more. First, the author’s prose offers an intimate, endearing look at her relationship with her father. Second, Moezzi weaves throughout the narrative discussions of her interminable efforts to destigmatize both Islam and mental illness—not in a self-promoting way but as an advocate for herself and others; the book could shatter a variety of prejudices and stereotypes. Furthermore, the author’s translation of Rumi’s poetry will appeal to many readers because it’s well distilled and reads much like a series of aphorisms. Moezzi doesn’t claim to fully understand or precisely apply Rumi’s ancient wisdom; she’s simply telling the story of how his body of work has influenced her life.
A heartening narrative of family, transformation, and courage.