Literary largesse

Nov 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

Real Life & Liars
by Kristina Riggle
Avon A-HarperCollins, $13.99, pp. 327

Playing off the opening line of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina — "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" — Grand Rapids-based Kristina Riggle sweeps readers into a family drama in her debut novel, Real Life & Liars.

Rich in detail and dryly humorous, Real Life starts with Mirabelle Zielinski's marijuana-induced mental maunder: "My tea tastes so fresh, and this joint is so fine, I might melt right into the red velvet cushion and run down the walls into a silvery pool on the floor. Sure, I'm a little old to be toking up. ... So sue me. It's been a couple of rough weeks around here."

Just when it seems as though everything has fallen into a happy little place for Mira — a job she loves, a successful, doting husband, children grown and out of the house, a lovely house near the beach in Charlevoix, a sufficient supply of weed and good friends — all hell breaks lose. 

It's the eve of Mira and Max's 35th wedding anniversary and Mira, an aging free spirit, is less than thrilled: "The kids — actually just my oldest, the other two are dragged under the wheels of her train — are throwing us an anniversary party. By tomorrow night, they'll all be here, with spouse, children, suitcases, plus the usual petty arguments and festering resentments."

Mira's life as she knows it has been turned upside-down by a devastating secret she doesn't want to reveal. Little does she know, she's not the only one with a practiced facade: Grosse Pointer Katya, the eldest child, strives to maintain perfection; no luck in love, or life, Ivan keeps falling just short of finding success; and free-spirited Irina, the Zielinskis' late-life "accident" baby, is in the midst of an identity crisis. They're all hiding their own truths.

Nimbly flitting between four different viewpoints — Mira's first-person perspective grants her more weight than her offspring who are rendered in third — Riggle gives readers a voyeuristic look into the family's inner workings. 

Balancing sentimentality and humor, Real Life and Liars is a truly enjoyable, thought-provoking and self-reflective read. —Christa Buchanan

The Christmas Cookie Club

Ann Pearlman
Atria Books, $24.99, 274 pp.

Nothing quite says Christmas like cookies — crispy or chewy, nutty, spicy, fruity or chocolaty, the quintessential holiday treat. Ann Arbor-based Ann Pearlman brings new meaning to this simple source of solace in her fiction debut, The Christmas Cookie Club.

Best described as "fusion literature," The Christmas Cookie Club boasts a medley of recipes, their culinary history, their significance to mankind and members of the eclectic club, and how all these relate to "head cookie bitch" Marnie's life.

Armed with her set of rules — e.g. no chocolate chip cookies; cookies must be in attractive containers; if you can't attend and don't send cookies, you're out; no more than 12 members are allowed; everyone must make a baker's dozen so that they can take the extra cookies to a local hospice — the head cookie bitch is the glue that bonds 12 women from all walks of life.

On the first Monday in December, the Ann Arbor club gathers to ring in the season in what Marnie calls, "A ripple effect of delicious nibbles in the darkest time of year. A ripple in our lives of the joy of each other." The women reconnect, let loose, share their innermost secrets, desires, fears and heartache — a ritual reminder that joy can be found even when things are at their bleakest. 

In its 16th year of "ebb and flow," the club's membership has evolved, with open positions filled by "cookie virgins" — typically women whose friendships mark a chapter in Marnie's life, women met while she was a young hippie, a widow, a single mother, a recent divorcee and now a grandma-to-be.

As guests arrive with dishes, bottles of wine and 13-dozen gorgeous packages of homemade cookies, Marnie relays each woman's backstory and present predicament: the loss of a child, a job, a spouse, a friendship, a house; fear of being in love, of motherhood, of secrets coming to light and of betrayal.

Each chapter is enhanced by that particular woman's recipe and reasons for making it, along with an interesting history of a key cookie ingredient, adding depth to Pearlman's notion that "the most important ingredient is love." —Christa Buchanan

You Better Not Cry
Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin's Press, $21.99, 206 pp.

If the words "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" make you want to scream, Augusten Burroughs is sure to make your yuletide a little happier.

As chronicled in his autobiographical novels A Wolf at the Table and Running with Scissors, Burroughs grew up with an alcoholic father, a mother prone to psychotic episodes, and their insatiable need to rip each other apart. Later a raging alcoholic himself, Burroughs knows plenty about dysfunctional holidays. 

In fact, his seven poignantly funny and perverse vignettes make the average shitty holiday seem like nirvana. 

What's refreshing, though, is that even through all his horrible holiday mishaps, Burroughs still finds joy in the little things: placing a clove on the ham, befriending a lady bum. —Christa Buchanan

Moregasm: Babeland's Guide to Mind-Blowing Sex
Claire Cavanah and Rachel Venning
Avery Books, $23, 271 pp.

Warning: As far as sex books go (advice/manual, not literotica) Moregasm is more vanilla than it should be, but it's not a complete bust. From America's largest sex boutique comes a book that couples and singles lacking coitus creativity should pick up and use like a tool. From maximizing self-love to approaching anal positions, rubbing down and strapping on, the book, if anything, is a good jumping-off point. Hey, there's even a "rim job recipe" for those with wilder appetites, but it doesn't delve into the darker corners of kink. It's a fun read that assumes nothing of the reader, and if the photos inside aren't enough alone to get the juices flowing, the textual images you can read aloud to your partner should do the trick. But if it fails to do that, at least you'll learn how some girls squirt and why semen smells like bleach. —T.R. Wright

The Batman Vault

by Robert Greeberger and Matthew K. Manning 
Running Press, $49.95

This hefty coffee-table compendium bills itself as a "Museum-in-a-Book," and that ain't hyperbole, the book's loaded down with six decades worth of archival goodness, enough swag to fill your own bat cave with memorabilia. You get inside many re-creations of all kinds of cool artwork, movie posters, concept sketches and even a cutout bat mask for you to patrol your neighborhood in style. And the text packs a punch too; with insights into the creation of the caped crusader and his dastardly villains including the Joker, the comely Catwoman, boy wonder Robin, and enough trivia to knock out the competition. —Corey Hall 

The Skeptics Guide to Conspiracies
by Monte Cook 
Adams Media, $14.99

The truth is out there somewhere, and Monte Cook does his level best to untangle the mess of mysteries, hoaxes, rumors and cold hard facts that fuel the raging fires of conspiracy debate. The book covers all the familiar hot points, including JFK, Roswell, N.M., the Nazis, plus a host of other weirder shadowy stuff such as the Illuminati, MK-Ultra mind control and whacko theories that the moon is hollow and that aliens work with the mob. Cook helpfully rates each theory on such criteria as plausibility and high strangeness, and there are ranting lunatic sidebars from his fictional "co-author" scribbled in red ink. These jabs are meant to debunk the wilder conspiracy notions, but, with his level-headed approach and wit, Clark does a credible job of exposing missed evidence and drawing strong connections to tragic and unsolved mysteries to keep you up at night. —Corey Hall

The Book of Cool: What is It? Who Decides It? And Why Do We Care So Much?
by Marianne Taylor
Running Press, $20

It could've been easy for this self-styled Book of Cool to be anything but. 

Astonishing as it is though, the book — which takes on such subjects as "try-too-hard giveaways" (pre-mutilated clothing), the historical incarnations of the modern straight-leg jean, geeks vs. emo, asymmetrical haircuts and the "science of want" — is witty and right on. Of course, Cool doesn't try too hard, which makes it one of the best pieces of shit lit (that is to say, books to enjoy while crapping) of the year. As author Marianne Taylor writes in her dedication: "that which truly cramps style is not the fanny pack or sweater vest, but the deep seated fear of looking like an idiot." — T.R. Wright

The Book Genesis: Illustrated
by R. Crumb 
W.W. Norton & Co., $24 

Despite his past penchant for shockingly honest confessional comics, Crumb has bucked the current trend toward graphic memoir and chosen to illustrate, complete and unabridged, the first 50 chapters of the Bible. It's hard to say if his Book of Genesis is a good place to start for readers unfamiliar with his work, but for his longtime fans it's a revelation. Forty years after his head comics heyday, and in a market more saturated than ever with graphic novels, Crumb again shows himself to be not just among the very best cartoonists working today but a wholly unique artist as well. He treats the text not as "The Word of God" but the work of men, and gives an endearingly humanistic take on this sometimes confusing, sometimes funny, sometimes repulsive collection of myths. Throughout, Crumb's rendering of the facial features, costumes and daily routines, as well as the dreams, schemes, drama and emotions of the hundreds of characters in the book, make these ancient people feel very real — maybe too real for the comfort of some readers, believers and skeptics alike. —Sean Bieri

The Book of Beer Pong
by Ben Applebaum
Chronicle Books, $16 

It used to be a game for guys who used the word "strange" to describe their weekend conquests, men more literate in the bevy of Greek acronyms than they are proper English sentence structure, bro-dudes who get erect crushing cans of Natty Light on their craniums (or just watching other boys do the same). But beer pong (also known as Beirut in some circles) has grown up and reached out. And like any game, as it gains momentum, the official story, rules regulations and techniques get vague. So next time someone tries to pull a fast one ("home rules, bro") impress your fellow drunkards by citing (or even pulling out!) the Book of Beer Pong. All hail the red plastic cup! —T.R. Wright

News, Nudity and Nonsense: The Best of VICE Volume 2 (2003-08)
PowerHouse Books, $18

Here are a few tidbits of genius covered in this must-own societal collage for warped minds and plaid button-ups: How to pick a good tranny for a one-time romp, British cuisine, stalking for beginners, why heroin is better than Kaopectate for loose stools, what Juicy Couture sweat suits and laziness have in common with eating disorders, methodone, vanilla extract and yawning. There's a great piece on the Arabic alphabet, and another — a blind test — on which sex claims better fellatio facilitation. In these pages you can find bunch of insightful Q&As, including a few conversations with couples right after orgasm, a heart to heart with a Vice writer and his coke dealer, and one with 74-year-old Japanese porn star who's still kickin' ... er ... pumpin'. The nine-hour test to find out if acid or 'shrooms are a better trip is a great read, as are the articles on post-Katrina refugees, New York gangs our grandfathers ran with, and an unflinching look inside life in Sudan. Of course if those heavier topics and all those words make you nauseous, you can read the unequally insightful research piece on "Whose farts really smell worse, meat eaters or vegetarians?"—T.R. Wright

Deaf Sentence
by David Lodge
Viking Adult Press, $25.95

Hear's one that's good for the geezer on your gift list. Unless, of course, he just won't hear of it! 

In later middle-age a phenomenon of foreshadowing can occur: Friends a half-dozen or dozen years older show the path of future infirmity or serenity. Parents rarely age-ucate their children, telling, say, what it's like to be 60. But David Lodge ... this vet Brit novelist portrays a linguistics prof and his dad, both well on in years and hearing loss, with all the low-key humor he can muster.

Desmond Bates, mid-60s, retired, is sort of an ear-bud non-stud stumbling into harmless scrapes in his North England academic town. Vice chancellor's parties, art openings (red wine galore), e-mails with an attractive post-grad student keep him interested. Except his increasing hearing loss leaves him lost nearly everywhere but in his lip-reading class. The tricks and wiles of the near-deaf are detailed with humor and resignation. "Why do the hard-of-hearing envy the blind? They get canes and dogs; we get plastic earhole covers."

Lodge mostly employs self-effacing, small humor, as when lampooning a green spa-waterworld-park he's roped into attending New Year's week, or relating his maddening troubles with hearing aids. His several bad puns can be forgiven; especially when one is in the ditch of rut-irement. But some pages move too slow, as they drag to the point.

The meditation on deaf becomes a meditation on death as Desmond sees his dad from house to hospital to, well, the grave. A visit to Auschwitz provokes reflection in him, and the simultaneous birth of a grandchild stirs wonder and confusion. 

Deaf Sentence is a full picture of an old guy — his sideways humor, moments of doubt, all perhaps caused by deafness. But it's the whole package. Can you hear me now? —Dennis Shea

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography
by Mitchell Zuckoff

Knopf, $35

Clocking in at 500-pages plus, Zuckoff's sprawling oral history of the iconoclast director is a fitting tribute; a book as brawny, exhilarating, and exasperating as it's subject. Like Altman's best flicks, the book is a cacophony of overlapping voices shouting the epic story of an outsized life, the collective memory of a man who could be a genius, a fool, a gentleman and a jerk, often at the same time. As the tales of Altman's hard drinking, womanizing and cantankerous creativity get redundant, the legend of his many masterworks and noble failures only grow. —Corey Hall

King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records
by John Hartley Fox

University of Illinois Press, $29.95

Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography
by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with David Ritz

Simon and Schuster, $25.95

Writer Nick Tosches once theorized that Jewish culture could lay as much claim to the invention of rock 'n' roll as black or white; for Jews were so often the ones who recorded, released and promoted the new music — as well as the hillbilly, R&B and gospel that birthed it. King Records' Sydney Nathan was a perfect example. "We're in the mid-West," proclaimed the cigar-chomping Cincinnatian, "and we are not contaminated by New York, Los Angeles or Chicago." Making records for "the Little Man," he placed his product in locales that other labels never bothered with, like inner-city ghettos and the most remote reaches of Appalachia. Nathan's staff — like his musical vision — was fully integrated, which is why black A&R man Henry Glover was producing country and western artists in the '40s, years before Nashville was a dot on the musical map. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, another cultural revolution was beginning. Two Jewish high school students, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, were penning songs like "Kansas City" and "Hound Dog" for their blues-singing idols Little Willie Littlefield and Big Mama Thornton. By the mid '50s they were scoring hits for Elvis Presley, though their most monumental moments came with the Coasters, whose ongoing hard-luck tales had commenced with the prison opus "Riot in Cell Block #9." Back in Cincinnati, Nathan had signed James Brown and the Stanley Brothers, insuring that his stable of artists represented the absolute essence of American musical brilliance. Chock-full of first-hand accounts and intimate portraits of everyone from rockabilly evangelist Brother Claude Ely to jazz stalwart Earl Bostic, King of the Queen City is as entertaining and dynamic a story as the music that inspired it. Like Leiber and Stoller's conversationally candid Hound Dog, its beauty lies in that you need not be familiar with the music to enjoy this most American of stories. —Michael Hurtt

Light: On the South Side (1 book, 2 LPs)
Numero Group US, $60

Introduced with an essay by Brit author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity), On the South Side is really all about photographer Michael Abramson's photo documentary. Abramson takes us on a visual trip through the clubs of Chicago's South Side circa 1975-77. Making the experience complete is Pepper's Jukebox, a double-LP, 17-song compilation of vintage Chicago soul and blues. Pimps, players, hustlers, hoes, drunks, movers, shakers, stoners, cars and club fronts all make appearances. A collection for music lovers as much as it is history buffs. —T.R. Wright

6 Sick Hipster
Kensington Books, $15

Though I've been labeled a "hipster" (more than once), I'll admit that the cooler-than-thous can be a pretty annoying bunch of self-obsessed know-it-alls, and that their mecca of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is tainted with snooty Pitchfork perversion. In Rayo Casablanca's satirical whodunit, set in the aforementioned neighborhood, hipsters are being gruesomely murdered off one at a time and it's up to Wolfgang and his Whole Sick Crew to catch the murderer. It's a light, fun read for the knitting, vinyl-fetishizing, Salvation Army-donned indie kids. —T.R. Wright