As part of our Best Books of 2014 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
How does a Southern Baptist boy from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, become an enthusiastic proponent of LSD and the countercultural voice of the 1970s? Tom Robbins connects the psychedelic dots in a mind-blowing memoir that reminds us why we love his hilarious, colorful and utterly unique voice.
Though she died in 2008, controversial NFL owner Georgia Frontiere is still making news—with the publication this month of her first mystery: Horoscope: The Astrology Murders.
According to Frontiere’s two children, Lucia Rodriguez and Chip Rosenbloom, the “virtually complete” manuscript of the novel was found with their mother’s papers after her death. “We knew that she was writing a book, and she often read sections to us over the phone or at dinner, but we didn't know how far along her book was,” until the manuscript was discovered, Rodriguez and Rosenbloom said.
Frontiere became the first woman to control an NFL franchise when she inherited ownership of the Los Angeles Rams after the death of her sixth husband in 1979. She moved the team to St. Louis in 1995, drawing the wrath of California fans, and was at the helm when the Rams won the Super Bowl in 2000. A former singer, dancer and model, Frontiere had many interests beyond football, including astrology and psychology. She combined these two fields in creating her novel’s main character: Dr. Kelly York, a celebrity astrologer and psychologist, who is tapped by the police to help track a serial killer with a horrifying hallmark—he carves astrological signs into the skin of his victims.
Frontiere does a capable job of building suspense as York wrestles with the terrifying case—and with the threatening anonymous caller who seems to know details about her practice. Through it all, Frontiere weaves in details about the astrological signs and charts of her characters.
“[Our mother] was basically an astrologer in her own right but would consult with professional astrologers. She also read advanced astrology books and had her charts done by professional astrologers. She did charts for us and other family members, which were surprisingly accurate. While astrology didn't control her life, she did believe that the stars had an effect on people's lives, and she would pay attention when she saw that something was off in our charts,” Rodriguez and Rosenbloom said.
So, maybe it wasn't an accident that Frontiere's book was located—in a plastic storage box—after her death? Perhaps her posthumous career as a writer was written in the stars.
Happily married writers
In Hollywood, marriages between actors are almost commonplace (think Brangelina). But in the publishing world, it’s still a bit unusual to find two authors who are married to each other. Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon and Cassandra King and Pat Conroy are among the examples that come to mind.
Add to that list Tasha Alexander and Andrew Grant, who merged their households and their occupations when they married in June 2010. Grant, who was born in Birmingham, England, had published his first thriller, Even, earlier that year. Alexander grew up in South Bend, Indiana, the daughter of two college philosophy professors, and published her first Victorian mystery, And Only To Deceive, in 2005.
Both Grant and Alexander are currently busy promoting their new books, Run and The Counterfeit Heiress, published this month. In a Q&A with BookPage, they explain what it's like to share the so-called "lonely occupation" of writing. The two admit to having very different working habits, but say they each use the other as their first, and most trusted, reader of every new book. Readers can learn more about “what it is like to have two writers in one house” in their joint Q&A, “A marriage made in publishing heaven.”
Karen Trotter Elley has always been a writer, turning her everyday experiences into inspirational essays that have appeared in many magazines and newspapers. She has also tried her hand at writing books, in genres ranging from inspirational stories for children to paranormal romance. Formerly a production designer at BookPage, Karen has been able to devote more of her time to writing since retiring in 2011, and is now working on a memoir.
Much of Karen’s writing deals with inspiration, faith and motivation, so we weren’t surprised to learn that one of her essays has been selected for inclusion in a new Chicken Soup for the Soul collection: Touched by an Angel. This uplifting volume includes “101 Miraculous Stories of Faith, Divine Intervention, and Answered Prayers.” In powerful stories, various contributors describe being touched by strangely coincidental reminders of friends and family who have died, receiving “urgent but gentle” commands from unseen voices or finding solace in final gifts from loved ones.
In a Behind the Book essay, Karen describes for BookPage readers how pluck and persistence (and maybe a little divine intervention!) helped her achieve her goal of becoming a published author. Any aspiring writer who’s struggling with rejection notices and unreturned calls will want to check out Karen’s inspiring story here.
For many writers, especially the authors of memoirs, it can be hard to predict where and how readers will make the strongest connection to their stories. For Richard Blanco, whose The Prince of los Cocuyos is one of our favorite memoirs of 2014, the part of his book that seems to be attracting the most attention is especially surprising: It involves a can of Easy Cheese.
Growing up in Miami in a family of Cuban immigrants, little Ricky Blanco accompanied his cantankerous abuela (grandmother) to Winn-Dixie, a rare incursion onto the turf of los americanos. Blanco yearned to fit in with his American schoolmates, so he asked his abuela to buy a can of that uniquely American food, Easy Cheese. ("What? Queso en una lata? she questioned, unable to fathom the idea of cheese in a can. But I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was intrigued.") We won't spoil the story by telling you what happened next, but it's clear that the anecdote is making an impression on readers.
Blanco, the inaugural poet at President Obama's second inauguration in 2012, recently began a tour to promote The Prince of los Cocuyos. During one of his first stops, at Brookline Brooksmith in Massachusetts, a reader presented him with a very special gift—you guessed it: a can of Easy Cheese.
Will the gifts become a trend? No Easy Cheese was evident during Blanco's weekend appearance at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, but we have a feeling that Blanco might end up with a lifetime supply of canned cheese before his book tour is over.
To learn more about Blanco and his tender and keenly observed coming-of-age memoir, check out our Q&A with the author.
Unless you love to cook (and even then) the dinner question can be a tough one. Making a special meal or a recipe you’ve been dying to try can be exciting and fun. Putting dinner on the table night after night after night, not so much. Especially if there are busy, stressed parents and picky young eaters in the family. (And aren’t there always?)
Jenny Rosenstrach first reached out to the dinner-challenged among us with her popular blog, Dinner: A Love Story, and followed that with a 2012 book of the same title. Her latest entry is Dinner: The Playbook, on sale today. Though it contains 80 recipes, The Playbook is more than a cookbook; it’s an action plan for doing everything necessary to get an appetizing, healthy meal on the table EVERY NIGHT FOR A MONTH. Yes, you read that right. If the very idea of cooking a well-planned meal every night for a month fills you with terror and dread, this is the book for you.
Rosenstrach suggests many strategies you've probably heard before: Plan all your meals for the week, shop for groceries only once a week (stopping at the store every night after work is a no-no) and don't be afraid to add new recipes to your repertoire. What's different here is that she gives you an action plan for making it all work so your family can settle into an enjoyable new nightly ritual.
Ready to take on the 30-day challenge? Choose your favorites from recipes like Chicken Parm Meatballs and One-Pot Roasted Pork Tenderloin, make your meal plans and get ready to feel dinner-dread slipping away.
Sunday, August 24 will mark the 200th anniversary of the night British troops set fire to the White House, the only time other than 9/11 when the U.S. capital city sustained a direct attack. First Lady Dolley Madison had fled the building just hours before the redcoats arrived, famously exclaiming "Save that painting!" and ordering that a precious Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed from the wall and carted off to safety, along with the red velvet curtains from the White House drawing room.
British journalist Peter Snow gives a stirring account of that fateful night, as well as the days before and after, in When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington. The book was published in the U.K. last year to glowing reviews and was released this week in the U.S. by Thomas Dunne Books.
Snow keeps the action moving and adds immediacy by citing the letters, diaries and other accounts of those who witnessed (or participated in) the attack. As the British advanced, Americans on horseback sounded the alarm to the fearful residents of Washington, D.C. "Fly, fly! The ruffians are at hand. If you cannot get away yourselves, for God's sake send off your wives and daughters, for the ruffians are at hand." Under the command of Admiral George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross, British invaders set fire not only to the White House, but to the U.S. Capitol building as well. "Never shall I forget my tortured feelings," one resident recalled, "when I beheld that noble edifice wrapt in flames, which . . . filled all the saddened night with a dismal gloom."
If you've always been a bit hazy about what led to the War of 1812 (and why it was still going on two years later), Snow's excellent account of these crucial events in U.S. history will sharpen your understanding—and make you surprised and grateful that the U.S. today counts Britain among its staunchest allies.
The book currently near the top of Amazon's Movers and Shakers list is one you may not have heard about — and we hadn't either, until today.
The surprise title is The Most Dangerous Animal of All, which had been kept under wraps by publisher HarperCollins until today's release date. Author Gary L. Stewart, writing with co-author Susan Mustafa, asserts that a search for his biological father led to a disturbing conclusion: Stewart's father was the notorious Zodiac Killer, who murdered at least seven people in an unsolved crime spree in Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. The killer's murderous rampage inspired the 2007 David Fincher film Zodiac, as well as several documentaries. While many suspects have been mentioned, no conclusive proof of the killer's identity has ever emerged.
A HarperCollins spokesperson told New York magazine that the book had been vetted by company lawyers who concluded it was "legally sound." The company says Stewart, who was adopted and now lives in Baton Rouge, began his search for his father at the age of 39 after his birth mother contacted him for the first time.
Expect much controversy in the coming weeks as experts on the mysterious case debate the merits of Stewart's evidence.
Occasionally, a work of nonfiction comes along that completely changes the way we look at a problem—or brings an issue into focus for the first time. Such was the case with Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss, first published in May 1994 and now available in a revised and updated 20th anniversary edition. Author Hope Edelman was only 29 years old when the book was released, and as she notes in a recent blog post, promotional events like an appearance on the "Today" show left her terrified. Despite the author's inexperience, the book went on to sell more than a half a million copies, prompted considerable thought and discussion, and was translated into 11 languages. Motherless Daughter support groups sprang up to help women deal with the lifelong after effects of growing up without a mother's love and guidance.
Motherless Daughters grew out of Edelman's own experience of losing her mother to breast cancer when she was 17. Using skills she honed at the Medill School of Journalism and the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, she began to investigate what happens to girls and young women whose mothers die. After reviewing scientific studies and conducting hundreds of interviews with women, Edelman concluded that a mother's death can have lasting repercussions in many areas of a daughter's life, including her sibling relationships, her romantic relationships and her relationships with her own children. "Losing my mother wasn't just a fact about me," she writes in the book's introduction. "It was the core of my identity, my very state of being."
After Motherless Daughters was published, hundreds of women wrote to Edelman with their own stories of grief and healing. Excerpts from these personal accounts were compiled in Letters from Motherless Daughters, a companion volume also available in an updated edition with new letters. In addition, Edelman's book has inspired a new HBO documentary, The (Dead Mothers) Club, which follows three young women dealing with the deaths of their mothers. The film debuts May 12 on HBO and includes interviews with Rosie O'Donnell, Jane Fonda and Molly Shannon, who all lost their mothers early in life.
Edelman's groundbreaking work stands the test of time, offering not only comfort and understanding to mother-loss survivors, but also valuable information for anyone coping with devastating loss and grief.
How popular was Shirley Temple among Americans in the 1930s? "Within a year of her breakthrough in 1934, hers was the second most popular name in the country," John F. Kasson writes in his upcoming book, The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America (Norton, April). In fact, Shirley Temple was popular not only in America, but around the world, becoming a global sensation on a scale that could make even Justin Bieber envious. From 1935 through 1938, Kasson reports, "she was the most popular star at the box office both within the United States and worldwide, a record never equaled." Among the countless fans who treasured portraits of Temple was Anne Frank, who kept a picture of the child star in the room where she hid from the Nazis.
Shirley Temple Black's death last week at the age of 85 will likely prompt a re-evaluation of her life and legacy, and Kasson's timely volume is a first step in that process. A professor of history and American studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he focuses on Temple's boundless optimism and its effect on the Depression-weary public. Both insightful and filled with interesting details about Temple's career (her "preternatural talents" fostered persistent rumors that she was an adult midget), The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression is a case study of the interplay between celebrity and culture. Look for it in bookstores and libraries on April 14.