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Rita's Picks



 
Book Cover for The Forest Feast Gleeson, Erin
The Forest Feast

Nonfiction
Our shelves are full of detailed cookbooks for true gourmets, with recipes calling for 20 or 30 steps and just as many ingredients, most of which can't be found at the grocery in my neighborhood. I'm certain the resulting culinary delights are worth all the trouble; however, I admit that I'm too lazy and parsimonious to attempt such recipes in my own kitchen.
With The Forest Feast, Erin Gleeson has come to the rescue of the stingy and lethargic. Most of her vegetarian recipes call for about four - or even three - ingredients. If she can rustle up a vegetable plus a starch or a cheese, perhaps adding an egg or two, you can bet she can launch something beautiful and delicious in less than 20 minutes. For instance, her chocolate mousse recipe, made with ricotta, is the easiest I've ever seen. Her leek medallions sound fancy, but require only an egg, breadcrumbs, and leeks, and zero panache. If you usually decide what to take to your friend's potluck an hour before departure, her chapter on appetizers will provide you with quick, fresh, colorful starters. Throughout, her instructions are simple to follow and beautifully displayed.
Recommended November 2014

 
Book Cover for Mason Jar Salads Mirabella, Julia
Mason Jar Salads

Nonfiction
Never did a salad look so delicious or easy to make as in Julia Mirabella's new book. Preventing lettuce from getting soggy or cheese from getting soaked is simple if you layer your salads and dressings in a jar according to the author's instructions. These recipes are full of ingredients you likely already have in your fridge or pantry, with healthy and delicious toppings such as white beans, corn, blueberries, or pears. If you want to cut back on the money you spend eating out, or if you'd like to swap a more nutritious lunch for your usual slice of pizza, this is all the colorful inspiration you need. (And if you're hooked on salads, don't miss another delectable book: Salad of the Day by Georgeanne Brennan.)
Recommended September 2014

 
Book Cover for Top Secret Menner, Simon
Top Secret: Bilder aus den Archiven der Staatssicherheit = Images from the Stasi Archives

Nonfiction
At a time when the National Security Administration is under scrutiny for gathering information on everyday American citizens, it's worthwhile to contemplate Simon Menner's new collection of Stasi photographs from the Cold War era. The Stasi, the state security arm of the German Democratic Republic (known to most Americans as East Germany), comprised a huge staff including secret agents, garbage analysts, and wiretappers. Found in the Stasi Archives, these images include surveillance of mailboxes and private residences, instructional photos on how Stasi personnel should disguise themselves, and contents of confiscated postal packages. Some images are downright humorous, with secret agents modeling absurd wigs and outfits, while others are disturbing, such as photos of bedrooms belonging to teenagers suspected of pro-Western leanings (posters of Madonna and an American flag seem to have warranted secret house searches). Menner found little or no information attached to the photo files, so most are mystifying. The reader is left to imagine what happened in each scene, or why it was worthy of state interest. This collection pairs perfectly with the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film of 2006, The Lives of Others, in which a Stasi officer surveilling an innocent couple begins to have misgivings about his task.
Recommended June 2014

 
Book Cover for How to Travel the World for Free Wigge, Michael
How to Travel the World for Free

Nonfiction
A more accurate title for this book would be How I Traveled the World for Free instead of How to Travel the World for Free. Yes, author Michael Wigge travels from Berlin to Antarctica without a cent, but he has a leg up on us average travelers. More than a few times, he's able to bypass costs - such as tickets for a boat tour of Niagara Falls or a 9-hour bus trip - simply by explaining to agents that he's a reporter trying to make his way to the end of the world or by regaling them with funny travel stories. He also has some tricks that lots of readers just aren't going to try, and are often illegal. For example, Wigge goes dumpster diving for food or avoids conductors by hiding out in the restrooms or bike compartments of trains. Wigge is plain lucky sometimes: a friend's father gives him an airline ticket from California to Hawaii, countless shop owners and vegetable sellers offer him free food and drinks, or strangers offer him sleeping accommodations in their homes. (Many of these generous folks have far fewer means than the author has during his non-traveling life.) Not to mention, some of Wigge's pursuits - hitchhiking, couchsurfing, or sleeping alongside a homeless man in a park - just wouldn't be advisable for some women traveling alone. But a misleading title should be no deterrent; I heartily recommend this funny, fast-moving travelogue. Humanity's generosity, especially south of the equator, is awe-inspiring, and there are some truly practical travel tips along the route.
Recommended March 2014

 
Book Cover for Leaving Mother Lake Namu, Yang Erche and Christine Mathieu
Leaving Mother Lake

Nonfiction
Yang Erche Namu grew up in the 60s and 70s in a remote mountainous region of China, near the Tibetan border. She was raised in the Moso community, a matrilineal society in which property is passed through women and in which adult men, including fathers, live with their mothers, siblings, aunts, and cousins instead of with a partner and their children. According to Namu, "women and men should not marry, for love is like the seasons - it comes and goes." At night, a woman of age meets with her lover in a private room in her mother's house, and hangs the lover's bag outside the door when she no longer wishes to meet with him. If she has a child, the child will live with her, raised by an extended family including the child's grandmother, aunts, and cousins. Namu includes such details in Leaving Mother Lake, but this is far more than an anthropological study. Namu shares the beauty of Lake Lugu and the surrounding hot springs and mountains, the happiness of butter tea and New Year festivals, and the years she spent in near isolation tending yaks with her uncle at high elevations. One day this insular world, free of modern conveniences, is visited by outsiders - representatives from the Cultural Bureau who have come to record traditional Moso songs. Namu is selected to travel to the city to participate in a singing contest. She goes, she wins, and moves on to a larger competition in Beijing, which she also wins. When she returns to Lake Lugu as a celebrity, she finds her surroundings dull, her suitor infuriating, and her new job interminable. Based on this, and an ever-weakening relationship with her mother, she makes a life-altering decision. (I chanced upon this memoir while reading Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, who use the Moso as an example of a society that doesn't foster monogamy, and is perhaps better for it.)
Recommended February 2014

 
Book Cover for Design Brooklyn Hellman, Anne
Design Brooklyn

Nonfiction
Brooklyn has undergone a renaissance lately, for better or for worse. This book puts issues of gentrification aside and focuses on the restoration, renovation, innovation, and industry taking place in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Mike D, of the Beastie Boys, grew up in Brooklyn during a decade when its streets were remarkably different from today. He opens Design Brooklyn with an interview about the borough's evolution, the role of art in his life, and how he and his wife decided to return to Brooklyn and design a townhome, including their own wallpaper featuring people and places from the neighborhood. (Yes, Biggie Smalls' mug figures into the paper's rose-tinted toile design.) Along with Mike D's home, dozens of other renovated brownstones are displayed in full-page photos, showcasing the craftsmanship, art, and furniture of past and present Brooklynites. Bars, restaurants, Navy Yard buildings, artists' studios, and other re-imagined edifices are shown, and the authors were careful to include a range of design styles. Victorian, mid-century modern, stark contemporary, and industrial chic all figure into this diverse Brooklyn.
Recommended January 2014

 
Book Cover for March Lewis, John
March: Book One

Nonfiction
Arriving just in time for the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, this is the first in a trilogy by the illustrious congressman from Georgia, who was once a member of the "Big Six" - the most prominent leaders of the African-American civil rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This illustrated story, found in our graphic nonfiction collection, is much more than just an account of the march. It begins with Lewis's childhood, when he defied his parents in order to attend school and advance himself in many ways, despite poverty and racism. Through a series of flashbacks, Lewis matures as a student, a public speaker, and an advocate for social justice, taking us from the bloody 1965 march across the Selma Bridge, to earlier lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, to the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. The illustrations by Nate Powell are remarkable; if you enjoy his style and the subject of civil rights, don't miss the graphic novel The Silence of Our Friends.
Recommended December 2013

 
Book Cover for Harvey Pekar's Cleveland Pekar, Harvey
Harvey Pekar's Cleveland

Nonfiction
Harvey Pekar, the graphic novelist known at least nominally to many Americans thanks to Paul Giamatti's role in American Splendor, was a lifelong resident of Cleveland. This book is not just Pekar's autobiography, but an ode to his city and the many transformations it endured over a 70-year stretch. Cleveland's image has been smudged by the fiery Cuyahoga, an empty city core within a ring of populous suburbs, and the faux YouTube tourism videos that blurt "At least we're not Detroit!" Pekar touches on these stains, but shows that living in Cleveland had its priceless joys: street fairs, enormous bookstores and music stores, midnight movies, and world-class libraries and jazz and symphonies. When he wasn't entranced by the stacks, Pekar was writing or reading or listening to Diane Rehm. He enjoyed helping his wife in the garden, shooting the breeze with good friends, and chatting with the fans who knocked on his door. Such a portrait at once reminds us that Cleveland is so much richer than its tarnished image, and that life depends less on where you live and more on how you cultivate yourself and the folks around you.
Recommended October 2013

 
Book Cover for Come In, We're Closed Carroll, Christine
Come In, We're Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World's Best Restaurants

Nonfiction
I've often been told that while on their breaks, the staff of Chinese restaurants in the United States eat a markedly different meal than anything on the menu. I was curious about this, wondering if it was out of necessity, lack of time, or personal preference. While on break from waiting tables at an old-fashioned soda fountain, I would order unhealthy food right off the menu, sometimes made it myself, and always ate solo: a grilled cheese, tuna on rye, and a chocolate coke or milkshake. What happens at gourmet restaurants is a different story, and one that's not usually told in book form. Christine Carroll has gone behind the scenes at serious establishments all around the world to show us what's prepared and eaten by staff who work at both the front and back of the house. These meals are sometimes created by interns to showcase their skills, or by employees whose sole job is to prepare staff meals. Perhaps most important is not what is eaten, but when and with whom, illustrating that folks who eat together probably work better together. Recipes and shiny photos included.
Recommended September 2013

 
Book Cover for We Sinners Pylvainen, Hanna
We Sinners

Fiction
Two parents and their nine children each get a chapter in which to tell their story in this debut novel. All are members of a conservative Finnish-American church in the contemporary Midwest and struggle to follow their community's rules about music, television, movies, and dating. Pylvainen, who grew up in the church and left it twice (the second time for good), reaches a sort of catharsis by fictionalizing that experience. She writes so marvelously and convincingly about domestic life, you'd think she had a spouse and children of her own. Recommended for readers who enjoy inspirational fiction, but want a fresh alternative to Amish tales and Christian romances.
Recommended August 2013

 
Webster, John
Recipes for Disaster

DVD
This documentary film affected me in the same way that Cradle to Cradle, Forks Over Knives, and Fast Food Nation did, by inspiring me to make demonstrable changes in my lifestyle. John Webster, an English speaker living with his wife and two boys in Finland, commits his family to a year without petroleum. That means no car or boat (until Webster discovers biofuels), no store-bought toothpaste, no food in plastic packaging, no new mascara, and lots of limits on other things previously taken for granted. (Webster does allow the family to keep plastics that had already been purchased, such as a toy or dishes.) Despite all of the family's sacrifices and the film's depressingly true statistics on climate change, there is great humor in this story, such as when Mom sneaks out of the house one night to purchase illicit snacks (packaged in plastic). Granted, it's probably easier to go petroleum-free in a country like Finland, but the family's ability to cut their usage by half is enough to spur Americans to take small but significant steps. The best reward is that the family spends much more time with each other and outdoors.
Recommended April 2013

 
Book Cover for Young House Love Petersik, Sherry
Young House Love

Nonfiction
If you're acquainted with the Young House Love blog, there's no need to read further: you're already a devotee of Sherry and John Petersik's exceedingly attractive yet budget-friendly tricks for home remodeling and design. This husband and wife, young as they are, have transformed not one, but two outdated Virginia ranch homes with the aid of fresh coats of paint, wise thrift-store shopping, key splurge purchases, and a lot of creativity. They love saving money so much and are so good at landscaping that they even had their wedding in the backyard. Most of the projects require zero special tools or expertise, and can be done in a few hours or a day. I don't buy books (I borrow them) but this one might make me break my rule.
Recommended March 2013

 
Book Cover for The Postcard Age Klich, Lynda and Benjamin Weiss
The Postcard Age: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection

Nonfiction
Billionaire Leonard Lauder, son of cosmetics legend Esteť, began his love affair with postcards at a young age. A formidable arts patron and a collector of Klimt and Picasso, he also amassed a historical collection of postcards numbering in the tens of thousands. His late wife, to whom The Postcard Age is dedicated, had joked that Lauder had a mistress; she was referring to his postcard trove. Lauder has promised it to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where several hundred of the cards are now on view. For those who can't make it to Boston, this book offers an annotated slice of the archive. The focus is on European cards produced in the late 19th century through World War I, an era when the postcard was often the fastest form of communication, arriving in a few days or sometimes even in a few hours. Postcards were also a canvas for advertisements, political propaganda, fashion statements, and promotion of the fine arts. Included are postcard puzzles that were sent to the recipient in increments, cards mailed from the top of the Eiffel Tower, and cards sent from the trenches. Art history buffs will devour this fascinating book, though it's a delight for anyone with an aesthetic bent.
Recommended February 2013

 
Book Cover for Flannery O'Connor O'Connor, Flannery with Kelly Gerald (editor)
Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons

Nonfiction
Flannery O'Connor once wrote, "I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both." While O'Connor's literature is renowned, her visual art is mostly unsung. As a high school and college student in Georgia, her irritation fueled a large body of cartoons - usually one-panel linoleum prints - that appeared in the newspaper, yearbook, alumnae journal, and other publications. The cartoons aren't notable for any artistic prowess, but they capture a southern all-girls school in the 1940s and reveal the young woman who would eventually write masterpieces such as Wise Blood and "Good Country People." Fans of O'Connor and the Southern Gothic will appreciate this book, as will readers who are interested in quotidian stateside life during World War II.
Recommended January 2013

 
Book Cover for Netherland O'Neill, Joseph
Netherland

Fiction
Up to a point, protagonist Hans van den Broek's trajectory mirrors that of his creator, Joseph O'Neill. Both men have led an international life, residing in the Netherlands as children, later in England, and then at the Chelsea Hotel in post-9/11 Manhattan. Hans' wife, for vague reasons, edges away from him and returns to London with their young son. Hans is left practically friendless, so he takes up cricket, a sport from his youth. While he is an accomplished equities analyst, his fellow cricketers are working-class folk from places such as St. Kitts, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The reader is introduced to one cricketer, a Trinidadian named Chuck, when his remains are dragged from the Gowanus Canal at the beginning of the novel. As Hans narrates the story, Chuck seems articulate and driven: an entrepreneur of sorts yearning to elevate cricket to professional status in the States. Chuck insists Hans accompany him on his stops along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, quickly revealing a shady side to his business dealings. This is not a murder mystery, however, nor a book chiefly about 9/11 or cricket, but a novel about immigrants of all stripes at a unique moment in New York's history.
Recommended December 2012

 
Book Cover for The Darlings Alger, Cristina
The Darlings

Fiction
When the 99 percent learn about the Bernie Madoffs and Ken Lays of the world, we're justifiably filled with anger and disbelief. Those whose jobs, pensions, or life savings evaporated because of a single CEO may never grant forgiveness. But what if that CEO is your spouse, father, or best friend? Would you cut him out of your life or allow him to make amends? Would you become his confidante or a whistleblower? New Yorker and former Goldman Sachs analyst Cristina Alger imagines such a scenario in Manhattan and the Hamptons, playing out around the time of the actual subprime debacle. Carter Darling, a billionaire hedge fund CEO, is implicated in massive fraud, though speculation abounds about how deeply he was involved. His clan initially rallies around him, but as details of his dishonesty and adultery are revealed, family dynamics begin to shift. The unexpected death of Darling's good friend, another wealthy investor, will keep readers guessing until the last chapter. If you enjoyed watching the mortgage crisis unfold from the inside in "Margin Call," or if the Oscar-winning "Inside JobĒ leaves you yearning for a less depressing version of the financial collapse, try The Darlings.
Recommended November 2012

 
Book Cover for Hack Samarov, Dmitry
Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab

Nonfiction
Cab driving is a profession that few people aspire to join. Dmitry Samarov needed the money, though, and it was a chance to earn a living without being under the constant gaze of a supervisor. Many hours of waiting for fares also allowed him to continue painting, which he had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Night after night, year after year, Samarov ferried all sorts of characters across the Windy City and its environs. Some said nothing, some talked incessantly, while other customers smoked, vomited, or engaged in heavy petting. "Cabdrivers catch people at the most revealing moments," Samarov writes, "not when they have their game faces on, but with their guard down, unable to pretend." In a series of brief vignettes, Samarov gives readers a glimpse of these riders and their diverse personalities. This slender volume is a quick read - sometimes sad, sometimes funny - enriched by Samarov's watercolors and sketches of street scenes and clients.
Recommended October 2012

 
Book Cover for A Bad Idea I'm About To Do Gethard, Chris
A Bad Idea I'm About To Do: True Tales of Seriously Poor Judgment and Stunningly Awkward Adventure

Nonfiction
Thanks to a prominent forehead and an unfortunate last name, Chris Gethard was the target of many a childhood joke. As he stumbled through adolescence in suburban New Jersey, his quick temper, lead foot, and fear of girls led to further humiliations. Many of us prefer to wipe such periods of disgrace from our memories, but Gethard bravely resurrected them and transformed heartbreak into humor. He became a comedian, joined the Upright Citizens Brigade, and now hosts his own TV show in New York City. Gethard (pronounced geth-ARD) chronicles many of his early growing pains in this collection, including stories about adopting a goat for college credit, and a brief but embarrassing stint in a semi-professional wrestling ring. This is not highbrow humor - there's too much pyromania, puke, and adolescent sex for that - but Gethard's knack at turning calamity into hilarity evokes catharsis.
Recommended September 2012

 
Book Cover for The Beekeeper's Lament Nordhaus, Hannah
The Beekeeper's Lament

Nonfiction
Honey bees have had a hard time in recent years, not just in the United States, but around the globe. Scientists aren't sure what's to blame for Colony Collapse Disorder, which has left thousands of hives empty, save for their confused queens and some honey. Some say mites, fungus, or malnutrition are the culprits, while others point the finger at pesticides and the stress of migratory beekeeping. Why are vanishing bees a problem, aside from making honey a bit more scarce or expensive? Bees and their keepers aren't just responsible for producing honey; they also help pollinate acres and acres of crops, especially almonds, apples, and other fruits. Over several years, Hannah Nordhaus treks around the country following John Miller, a migrant beekeeper and colorful character whose family's history of beekeeping goes back generations. In a detailed but engaging journalistic style, Nordhaus reports on how essential bees are to our economy and food supply, and how labor-intensive and heartbreaking their tending can be. She suggests ways the general public can help support bees, such as decreasing pesticide use and planting more native flowers.
Recommended May 2012

 
Book Cover for Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn Haeg, Fritz
Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn

Nonfiction
Have you ever thought of grass as a crop? It does require loads of water, lots of pesticides, tons of fertilizer, and much tending. But as crops go, it's pretty worthless and unappetizing for humans. In this collection of inspirational essays and practical garden examples, Fritz Haeg show us how to turn our thirsty lawns into lush, communal spaces that provide much tastier crops: juicy tomatoes, crunchy sweet peas, red raspberries, and the like. The regional planting calendars in the back of the book will have you drooling.
Recommended January 2012

 
Book Cover for In Case We're Separated Mattison, Alice
In Case We're Separated: Connected Stories

Short Stories
These stories link family members and places in a chain reaching from the 1930s to the Reagan years. An adulterous cousin from one story appears as a protective mother in another, a doting son as the somewhat controversial cousin in another, and various sisters as flirts and gossipers throughout. As they pop up in story after story, characters are seen from more and more perspectives, making them more nuanced than in an ordinary novel. Mattison writes literary fiction with populist appeal that deserves more attention. Poets will be delighted by "A Note to the Reader" at the end.
Recommended December 2011

 
Book Cover for The Paris Wife McLain, Paula
The Paris Wife

Fiction
Real life events portrayed in fiction make me nervous. "Did she truly say that?" I wonder. "How did the author know what he was wearing?" I worry that history will be muddled by prose and I'll never be able to extricate it. So it was with trepidation that I started reading Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, a fictional version of Hadley Hemingway's life with her infamous husband. After a few pages, my fears disappeared. McLain had snuck into Hadley's head so completely and written such compelling conversations that I no longer cared about historical accuracy. McLain gives nuance to Ernest's philandering and betrayals, as well as to his first wife's all-too-frequent forgiveness, without painting either as a total tyrant or victim. Anyone fascinated by the Paris scene of the twenties will also enjoy the eccentricities of Stein, Fitzgerald, Pound, and other expatriates.
Recommended September 2011

 
Lonely Planet
Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011

Nonfiction
Your boss might not recommend this book. After a few pages of the lush, full-color photos, you'll want to call in sick permanently so you can depart for Lonely Planet's top-ranked locales. This veteran publisher of travel guides has picked the best destinations for 2011, including old standards (Italy and Hawaii) as well as places that some folks might not have considered (Syria and Namibia). The editors aim for affordable travel, but throw in some over-the-top extravagances like an underwater hotel and double-bed airline suites that go for $6,445 a flight. Don't miss the top-10 lists in the back of the book, such as Best Places To See Red (Soviet-themed destinations), Best Places for Dance Fever, and Fieriest Foods.
Recommended March 2011

 
Book Cover for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian Lewycka, Marina
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Fiction
Don't be misled by the titleóthis not a foreign-language guide to combines, but a hilarious novel. Two years after Nikolai's wife dies, the 84-year-old marries a mail-order bride less than half his age. His daughter is hardly enthusiastic, but tries to stifle her resistance. When the Ukrainian wife arrives with her son and berates and abuses Nikolai, the family unites to take action. Recommended for children who have been parental caregivers, readers with Ukrainian roots, or anyone seeking comic relief.
Recommended February 2011

 
Book Cover for In Other Rooms, Other Wonders Mueenuddin, Daniyal
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Short Stories
The Western worldís perception of Pakistan often comes from news reports about violence, Kashmir disputes, or natural disasters. Thatís why itís so refreshing to read this colorful volume of short stories about ordinary life and love in both rural and urban Pakistan. Mueenuddin takes us inside the head of jealous siblings, corrupt bureaucrats, a maid leaving her drug-addicted husband, and a father defending himself against a motorcycle robber. Each piece focuses on a new character, but one wealthy landowner leaves his mark in several stories.
Recommended December 2010

 
Book Cover for Zeitoun Eggers, Dave
Zeitoun

Nonfiction
Back in August 2005, if you had lived in New Orleans when Katrina was about to hit, would you have hightailed it or hunkered down? As the storm was nearing the city, a successful small-business owner and landlord known as Zeitoun decided to stay home and keep an eye on his properties. His wife wasnít hot on the idea, obeyed the mandatory evacuation, and took their daughters inland. Through daily phone calls with her husband, she learned that Zeitoun survived the storm and used his canoe to bring others food, water, or to safety. Abruptly, Zeitounís wife loses contact with her husband, unaware that his Syrian background and Islamic faith have been used against him. Dave Eggers, after months of interviews with the family, chronicles Zeitounís arrest and his familyís reaction. If you like nonfiction that reads like a fiction story, check this out in audio or in print.
Recommended November 2010