Winter Reading

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Too Much Happiness

By Alice Munro

Knopf, 320 pp., $25.95 Alice Munro, acclaimed Canadian writer and recipient of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize, has delivered something dark and exquisite with her new collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness. In it, Munro continues to explore the complexities of relationships and self-awareness, all with a precision and shrewdness about the worlds she creates. Each story reads smoothly, even as it sometimes tears at something violent and disturbing.

From the opening story, the collection has an air of tragedy: A woman loses her three children in unusual circumstances and is faced with an unthinkable emotional dilemma. Then: A recently widowed woman takes on a surprising role to save herself from an intruder. A dying man is the object of conflicting desires. An estranged son betrays the shortcomings of a marriage. A woman recalls a shocking and sinister act she committed as a child.

Munro has spent a lifetime writing short stories, which explains her mastery of the genre where her forceful simplicity reigns supreme. But she seems to be aware of how the genre is sometimes perceived — as a stepping stone to the longer form (and greater art?) of the novel. In one humorously self-referential moment, one of her characters says:

"[It] is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in and of itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book's authority, making the author seem like somebody who is hanging on the gates of Literature rather than safely settled inside."

Perhaps here Munro is only proving her vast ability to write from multiple, even opposing viewpoints. Her stories cover eras and countries. They take on genders and generations. They give voice to a betrayer and the betrayed. For these reasons, and for many others, Alice Munro has secured herself a place inside those gates. — Hannah Sayle

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The Humbling

By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin, 160 pp., $22

The protagonist of The Humbling, Philip Roth's latest book, is Simon Axler, an aging stage actor who has lost the trick of being someone else. It's not exactly stage fright that has him frozen and fearful; it's an inability to believe in the process of acting, illusion. He cannot escape Simon Axler.

Left to himself (after a stay in a sanitarium and after his wife has left him), Axler moves to a secluded house to end his days in isolation. But he can't escape his self-absorption and it turns into poison, so much so that he is contemplating the ultimate exit: suicide. Into this solitude comes the daughter of old friends, a lesbian college teacher named Pegeen. An unlikely affair blossoms between them, temporarily staving off Axler's darker imaginings.

Roth's writing here has a wildness to it, as if he's writing in a fever. Perhaps Roth himself feels that way. The Humbling is a meditation on mortality, and as with all of Roth's writing, he is fearless, even in the face of the final question. Roth tears at his themes with unblinking honesty and stripped-down prose. Perhaps Roth, now 76, is writing according to his own sensibility. Gone are the bed-hopping miscreants of his earlier novels, replaced here by an introspective older protagonist, who is staring into the abyss.

Not to say that Roth eschews the sexual element. Axler does okay for a man who considers himself dried up. Roth has always plumbed the carnal side of his characters, and, like Updike, he does so with unflinching frankness. But Roth also treats his protagonist here with empathy and authenticity.

Readers of Roth understand that he takes risks other writers circumvent. It is this daring that defines Roth and places him in the front ranks of the novelists of our time. — Corey Mesler

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It's a Gift

Like the story it's based on, Joel Priddy's new

graphic adaptation of The Gift of the Magi

(It Books/HarperCollins, $14.99) is deceptively

simple. You may well remember the O. Henry

tale from grade school: Christmastime, a married

couple struggles with what to gift each other on

such mean savings and wind up exchanging presents that are ironically and heartbreakingly inappropriate. But it's the loving thought that counts. Cut, print, preserve.

Not so fast. Priddy — who teaches illustration and cartooning at the Memphis College of Art — revivifies the chestnut and finds in it volumes of wordless charm. The cartoonist emphasizes the emotions of each moment, in each panel, suffusing them with such meaning that the gotcha ending becomes less a startling plot point and more a symbolic embodiment of the couple's love.

Priddy packs a punch. The visual centerpiece is luxurious golden hair flowing across several pages — a lively illustrative presence like one of Beto Hernandez's skies.

The Gift of the Magi can be bought separately or as a stocking-sized holiday gift set with an illustrated version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Fir-Tree (adapted by Lilli Carré) and L. Frank Baum's A Kidnapped Santa Claus (adapted by Alex Robinson), also from It Books. — Greg Akers

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Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt, 560 pp., $27

Hilary Mantel was amazed when she won the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Her Wolf Hall was a critics' favorite. "They say the favorite never wins," she explained to me by e-mail, but Wolf Hall was favored for a reason: A good man is hard to find.

That man is Thomas Cromwell, born in Tudor London, a commoner whose rush to power makes a king, Henry VIII, declare him Earl of Essex. As Henry's chief adviser, Cromwell boasts a usefulness that never keeps his hands quite clean enough for courtiers.

This novel, Mantel's 10th, is peopled with historical figures: Ann Boleyn, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas More. It shows us Cromwell's rise to stand among them. Historically, Cromwell led a public life where secrets die crying, but fiction fills the gaps. Mantel writes of "the intimacies of politics" that muscle a blacksmith's son to a king's can-man. You want the world? Cromwell delivers and asks, "What color?"

A buoyant wit lures us into Cromwell's domain. Thanks to Mantel, we come to know a living being. As the author said last year of Wolf Hall, "There's a man in there!"

Watch him skirt the fall of his first master, Cardinal Wolsey, with an ease that aims him where Wolf Hall ends. Mantel leaves her man some five years shy of his end: an ax on July 28, 1540. "So now I have the next one to write, you see," Mantel says.

Cromwell's climb from soot to king's supper is Wolf Hall. His tumble from the Tower is in the offing. Know the outcome? No matter. Mantel specializes in resurrection.

I met Hilary Mantel on the subject of Robespierre on a 28th of July, the date Robespierre's head fell in 1794. But that's the stuff of synchronicity, other stories. For the present, crack Wolf Hall. Cromwell's in there. He wants out.

Alice Long

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By 1974, Ruth Lockwood had logged a dozen years producing The French Chef for WGBH in Boston, working alongside Julia Child, the show's unflappable host. Despite a hectic schedule — sometimes taping four shows a week — Lockwood said Child never lost her temper. Except once. A dish towel and pot holder caught fire on the set, and the cameramen stopped shooting. Child was furious. She wanted the mishap filmed to show viewers what to do if the same thing happened at home.

Lockwood's story is one anecdote among many in an article by Calvin Tomkins first published 35 years ago and reprinted in a remarkable collection of food writing from The New Yorker called Secret Ingredients (Modern Library, $18). Edited by David Remnick, the magazine's editor today, the tell-alls, essays, memoirs, cartoons, and short stories are a welcome reminder that Americans were passionate about food and drink long before reality television.

At The New Yorker, distinguished food writers have helped steer the magazine's content throughout its history, beginning in 1935 with A.J. Liebling, who in his essay "A Good Appetite" wrote, "Each day brings only two opportunities for field work, and they are not to be wasted minimizing the intake of cholesterol."

In all, more than 50 contributions make up this celebration of writing and food. Some stories are poetic, like M.F.K. Fisher's lament (in "Secret Ingredient") for the "witches of yesterday" who zealously guard their favorite recipes. Other pieces are rich with conversation and memory, like John McPhee's portrait of forager Euell Gibbons, one of the fathers of the natural foods movement.

"What the editors who created The New Yorker understood is that a magazine travels not only with its mind but also, like an army, on its stomach," Remnick writes in his introduction to Secret Ingredients, an evaluation applicable, as well, to the lucky readers who discover this book, first published a couple years ago but issued in paperback in November. — Pamela Denney

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Last Night in Twisted River

By John Irving

Random House, 554 pp., $28

John Irving is up to much more than remarkable storytelling in his 12th novel, Last Night in Twisted River. In a seeming effort to tease those eager to read autobiographical synergy into his fiction, Irving goes one further.

The novel distills the author's previous themes and motifs (bears, death, missing limbs, sex with older women, tragedy and hope); demonstrates his usual acrobatic performance with syntax and grammar (there are actual discussions about the semicolon); displays his sheer mastery of timing (the tantalizing dropped detail leading provocatively to a full-blown narrative); and chronicles his own education and literary craft — even the order of his novels — through one of three central characters: the "famous writer" Daniel Baciagalupo (nom de plume: Danny Angel).

Danny, whose father Dominic begins his career in a New Hampshire logging camp, is baptized as a writer not by his beloved but short-spoken father but by a profanity-spewing, maniacal logger named Ketchum whose stories capture the young boy's imagination and whose love proves as powerful as the man himself.

One night in the cookhouse on Twisted River, Danny, age 12, mistakes the cook's lover for a bear and kills her, thus setting father and son in motion. Under the guidance of Ketchum, the two begin a series of moves hoping to stay ahead of the murdered woman's boyfriend, a New Hampshire sheriff more heinous than any criminal.

Thankfully, Irving's humor provides a cushion for the tragedies stalking the characters. "The Cook," Irving writes, "had an aura of controlled apprehension about him, as if he routinely anticipated the most unforeseen disasters."

The death of a beloved child — Twisted River has two — answers Dominic's trepidation. Irving commented tellingly in a recent interview, "I'm in terror of losing a child. It's never happened to me, but I am clearly compelled to write about it over and over again, and in a way I think, psychologically at least, this says more about me autobiographically as a novelist than the fact that Danny Angel goes to the Iowa Writers Workshop and has Kurt Vonnegut as a teacher, which I also did."

As Dominic insists, "There were not enough bends in Twisted River to account for the river's name." The same cannot be said of this abundant novel where Irving accepts his characters' obsessive fears of loss and loneliness while granting them warm-hearted appreciation for lives fully lived. — Lisa C. Hickman

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Strength In What Remains

By Tracy Kidder

Random House, 304 pp., $26

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder, is the true story of not only what happens during a genocide but what it takes to survive one.

Deo was a medical student doing an internship in rural Burundi in 1993 when civil war broke out. The Hutu president had been assassinated, and in retaliation, Hutu countrymen began killing Tutsis. Deo escaped being massacred by a Hutu militia and, keeping away from the roads, made his way to Rwanda and a refugee camp. A few months later, however, the same racial violence erupted in Rwanda, sending Deo fleeing back into Burundi.

Neither place was safe, and a friend from medical school helped him get to New York, where he arrived alone, with $200 in his pocket and knowing no English.

With hard work, perseverance, and a little luck/fate/divine intervention, Deo went from sleeping in New York's Central Park to taking classes at Columbia University. His goal: to become a doctor and build a clinic in his village in Burundi.

Whereas accounts of genocide can sometimes blend into an overwhelming wave of numbers and atrocities, the focus of this account on a single individual makes it all the more heartbreaking. At Columbia, for example, Deo takes philosophy classes to try to understand how neighbors could kill neighbors, priests their parishioners, and teachers their students.

This gripping book examines roughly the same question. The first half is told from Deo's point of view as he experienced it. The second half includes interviews with the people who helped him and with an older Deo.

There are no answers in genocide, but Deo's story shows there are ways to create peace. I never wanted to put the book down. — Mary Cashiola

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Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer

Edited by Anthony DeCurtis

Scribner, 452 pp., $30

Author of Deep Blues and indispensable histories of the Rolling Stones and Jerry Lee Lewis, Robert Palmer is a complex and contradictory figure in music criticism. As a Southerner, he grew up the only white kid at soul and R&B shows in Little Rock; as a musician, he jammed with Ornette Coleman, U2, and the Master Musicians of Jajouka; and as a functioning junkie, he developed a habit that would hasten his death in 1997.

Those facets contributed to his writing, in which he sought out the sincere, the passionate, and the transcendent in a range of musical styles and traditions. Palmer emerges as irascibly opinionated, obsessively fascinated, yet soberly matter-of-fact in this new collection of interviews, articles, reviews, profiles, and other short pieces.

The breadth of genres and artists covered in Blues & Chaos can be astonishing. He humanizes Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Muddy Waters, albeit with subtle fawning in his prose. He engages more closely and critically with artists of his own and subsequent generations, including the Band, Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, and, in particular, John Lennon.

Despite its shortcomings, Blues & Chaos refuses to gloss over Palmer's faults but instead portrays him as a man with deep blues of his own.

Stephen Deusner

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The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

By John Ortved

Faber & Faber, 352 pp., $27

John Ortved's The Simpsons has a few things in common with the animated series whose story it tells. It begins as a risky curiosity that may or may not fly, grows into an engaging soap opera, then wears out its welcome long before there's any end in sight.

Ortved's oral history of television's longest-running animated series is emphatically historical. It's not a lesson in comedy writing or an insider's guide to making a hit TV show, and it's never particularly funny. The cast of characters, however, ranges from media mogul Rupert Murdoch to Deborah Groening, the ambitious ex-wife of Simpsons creator Matt Groening, and they are every bit as over-the-top as the inhabitants of Springfield.

"Rupert Mudoch, Barry Diller, Mad magazine, Saturday Night Live, Fox, and Bill Cosby all had a hand in making The Simpsons," Ortved wrties. "As did all the crappy sitcoms it was responding to, as well as the conservative culture that produced them."

The Simpsons history offers plenty of trivia for fans. But Ortved is at his best when he channels the spirit of his subject matter: "We thought we were writing these really funny, smart, special shows," writer/producer Jay Kogen is quoted as saying. "And then someone showed us this study Fox had done. The number-one reason people liked The Simpsons was 'all the pretty colors' and they liked it when Homer hit his head." — Chris Davis

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The Simple Little Vegan Dog Book: Cruelty-Free Recipes for Canines

By Michelle A. Rivera

Book Publishing Company, 80 pp., $9.95 (paper)

As a vegan, I avoid meat, eggs, and dairy. I don't wear leather, silk, or wool. So you can imagine the conflict I face every day as I feed my dog and six cats pet food made from ground, processed meat. Although commercial vegan pet food is available, it's out of my price range.

Enter The Simple Little Vegan Dog Book by Michelle A. Rivera, a cute volume of homemade entrées, biscuits, and special-occasion treats for canines. According to Rivera, dogs, like humans, are omnivores and can get their nutrients from meatless meals.

My dog Datsun certainly didn't miss the meat in Snoopy's Great Pumpkin, Rice, and Beans (canned pumpkin, brown rice, and red beans), and he begged for more Barking Barley and Wheat Surprise (a casserole of lentils, barley, and whole-wheat flour). Each night, I reward him with a homemade Yeasted Gourmet Dog Treat, cut into bone shapes using a cookie cutter.

Rivera explains that most commercial dog foods are loaded with slaughterhouse byproducts and "4D meat (meat from animals that are dead, diseased, dying, or disabled)." It's meat unfit for human consumption, so she argues that we shouldn't pollute our pet's health with leftover scraps.

Rivera also provides succinct lists of which plant foods are beneficial to dogs (like pumpkin and beans) and which ones they should avoid (like chocolate and onions). As for cats, Rivera warns against switching them to a meat-free diet. As obligate carnivores, she says felines aren't able to get the proper amount of taurine from a vegan diet.

Although I'm not comfortable switching Datsun over to a full-on vegan diet yet, I've begun supplementing one of his two daily meals with a home-cooked vegan dinner from Rivera's book. The best part? Since his meals are totally vegan, we can share. — Bianca Phillips

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Odds/Ends: Xmas '09 Edition

In this age of the Kindle (1 and 2) — and the Sony Reader and the Nook and the forthcoming QUE — you remember that printed product with pages that you not only sit with and think through but dog-ear and mark the hell out of: books. And yes, they're still making them — in record numbers (the more crowd-pleasing the author writing them, the bigger the number printed of them) but at a price — a crazy-low price thanks to big-boxer Walmart and competitive online retailers.

The alternative: Screw it. Don't download the book. Support your bookseller. And see here if it's bookish ideas you need this Christmas and if the person on the receiving end is the literary, arty type. Caution: The following come with a price.

For that literary person on your list: A New Literary History of America (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press). It's got Greil Marcus (hipster central) as an editor. It's a thousand-plus pages. It's $49.95. And it's alternative. How alternative? There's an entry for the National Football League. Sylvia Plath? Not so much.

Pop: the '60s art movement that will not die. And how could it with Warhol dead for decades but still inspiring every rising generation of art kids who are 1) fed up with American commercialism but 2) ready to cash in on American commercialism. See then: Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol (HarperCollins) by Tony Scherman and David Dalton, for $40. Tony Shafrazi is crazy about this book. You don't know who Tony Shafrazi is? Never mind.

Weird: beauty pageants. Real weird: child beauty pageants. Simon Doonan, a celebrated window dresser, is ga-ga — about child beauty pageants. So ga-ga about them that he's written the foreword to High Glitz (powerHouse Books, $49.95) by Susan Anderson. Is this the same Susan Anderson who authored Porn for New Moms and Itty-Bitty Toys: How To Knit Animals, Dolls, and Other Playthings for Kids?

Weirder still: the life of Nicky Haslam, and he writes of it in Redeeming Features (Knopf, $30). Claim to fame? Among a ton of other unessential stuff (including partying and decorating): sex with Lord Snowden (before Snowden married Princess Margaret), and in the '90s, he surgically reconstructed himself to look like a biker (rough-trade division). BFFs include: Mick Jagger and painter Lucien Freud, who's a friend of ...

Frank Auerbach, the English painter with paintings so dense with paint the paint has trouble staying on the canvas. Doesn't matter. Auerbach's a rarity: a great artist in the great tradition of English portrait painting. He's now, finally, really getting his due. The book's called Frank Auerbach (Rizzoli) by William Feaver. But it'll set you back 150 bucks.

That's nothing. The limited-edition, signed, custom-slipcased Alex Steinweiss: Creator of the Modern Album Cover (Taschen)? It's a whopping $500. Steinweiss' album covers, beginning in the '40s and covering three decades? They were back then, they still are: the locus classicus of "cool." — Leonard Gill

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