Need a new page-turner? Try these fiction, nonfiction, and cookbook selections reviewed by Whole Living editors. Check back each month for new additions.
If, as a child, you saw Halloween as a chance not to indulge your burning desire for Mounds bars but to wear a gingham sun bonnet, you must read Wendy McClure's "The Wilder Life," an exploration of the author's own obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books. The series is so beloved that McClure could have gotten away with merely inviting us to scramble back with her to a time when our tiny 20th-century selves were as bewitched as 19th-century pioneer girls by the occasional and thus totemic beauty -- intricately carved butter molds and pristine lawn dresses -- that studded Wilder's otherwise rugged life. But McClure isn't interested in just a nostalgia trip; she also delves into the probable reality behind the stories, pointing out that Pa likely squatted on Indian territory and that Rose Wilder Lane, Laura's daughter, might have shaped some of the "Little House" narrative to reflect her libertarian views. "The Wilder Life" is an often poetic tribute -- impressively grown-up in its conclusions -- to the way we dive deep into imaginary worlds as children.
An idealistic college student and an impoverished boy learn together how to become the men they always wanted to be.
The 18th century, with its mile-wide skirts and sky-high pompadours, can seem the remotest of centuries. But by focusing on prominent figures' relationships with the natural world, two new books -- Andrea Wulf's charming, learned "Founding Gardeners," and "The Paper Garden" by Molly Peacock (next slide) -- bring the hearts and minds of that period into very sharp, very inspiring springtime relief. Wulf explores the Founding Fathers' love of nature and charts the country's evolving sense of itself as a resource to be cherished, as both natural asset and font of democracy. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison come to life here, as when Wulf sketches a touching account of the friendship between patrician Jefferson and fusspot Adams, who wrote this to the former when inquiring if they might resume talks: "You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other."
"The Paper Garden" is poet Molly Peacock's biography of Mary Delany, the British woman who invented the art of collage in 1792. At age 72, looking for something to occupy herself after the deaths of her second husband and sister, she began to arrange intricate cut-paper copies of flowers. Peacock fell in love with Delany during a chance visit to a museum, and she makes us fall for her, too, in this terrifically romantic portrait of the artist as a tenacious and patient dreamer. This is a woman who, at 8, when her uncle asked her if she might one day play the spinet as well as his friend George Frideric Handel, said, "If I did not think I should, I would burn my instrument!" We call for the Oscar-worthy costume-drama version starring Rebecca Hall, stat.
In this novel, left unfinished upon his suicide in 2008, Wallace itemizes the crushing boredom experienced by the staff of an IRS tax-processing center in mid-'80s Illinois. Only Wallace, gifted with a colossal intelligence and possessed of a heart that bled sentences full of the ache of existence, could crack open such a subject into an unforgettable read.
When a new drama teacher arrives at a suburban New Jersey high school and decides to mount a production of "Lysistrata" -- the Aristophanes play about women withholding sex to keep their husbands from going to war -- female teachers and students experience an inexplicable loss of libido that causes couples all over town to reexamine their relationships. Wolitzer's sprightly novel is a warm, hopeful corrective to the half-baked messages women receive about monogamous desire.
"Had I started to forget the value of things, like everybody else?" asks the protagonist of Jonathan Coe's "The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim," which tells the story of a separated 48-year-old Brit who, finding himself at a lonely crossroads in life, takes a sales job that involves a road trip through an England suffering from existential heartburn induced by reststop panini, Facebook, and unlimited text messaging. On his trip Maxwell confronts his past as a feckless husband and son, with his voice alternating with narration from his father, his wife, and a childhood friend. What begins as a plaintive confession of befuddlement at the speed of modern life ends as a moving, almost tragic meditation on longing, denial, and missed opportunities. The book gathers momentum as Maxwell tries to find a way out of his perplexity by orchestrating a reunion between his father and a mysterious long-lost lover.
Coe, best known in the United States for his coming-of-age-in-the-'70s novel "The Rotters' Club," unspools his story in subtly commanding prose that slips effortlessly between precise psychological insights and perfectly timed, perfectly British asides. His sentences are never showy, but consistently musical (even when he's just laying down stage directions), and as these sentences accrue,one gets the sense that Coe finds great satisfaction in the old-fashioned act of storytelling and wants his readers to have that satisfaction, too. It's hard to come by novels that tell a straightforward tale with energy, intelligence, and, most important, humor -- and Coe's book is a generous gesture for those who seek just that.
Even if you're familiar with Gandhi's story, Joseph Lelyveld's "Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India" offers an opportunity to wonder again at this superhuman effort of spiritual will. An almost novelistic charting of Gandhi's rise from young lawyer in a South African outpost organizing Indian immigrant resistance to leader of the movement for independence from Britain, the book depicts Gandhi in cocksure impudence, high-handed censure, and murmuring, gnawing doubt.
"Great Soul" is a compelling story about the process of political revolution. It's also a bracing portrait of politics undertaken out of love for country -- and a reminder that hatred, however fierce an engine of activism now, was once, and so may be again, weaker than love.
In her emotionally gripping debut memoir, "The Source of All Things," Tracy Ross, an award-winning journalist and contributing editor for Backpacker magazine, writes with plainspoken grace and, commendably, without a vengeful spirit about the years of childhood sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her beloved stepfather and of the outdoors that saved her.
"Poser," Claire Dederer's memoir about how she learned to love yoga, is a spiritual account for those who have also thought that finding the divine within "would only ever be a reality for other people, like Vuitton bags or a tidy spice drawer." Dederer, a Seattle writer and mother, had a "longtime policy of never entering a structure adorned with Tibetan prayer flags" and viewed her peers' sanctimonious yogic fervor as "white female self-indulgence." But when breast-feeding caused her to throw her back out, the pain made her willing to try anything to calm the nerves pinched by not only nursing but a lifetime of people-pleasing.
While investigating her evolving relationship to yoga, Dederer gently but firmly critiques her generation's perfectionist parenting -- hipster Stepford-wifery that is, she suggests, a reaction to the way she and her peers were unwilling passengers on the bumpy rides to self-realization their parents chartered in the '70s. It's yoga that allows her to see how soul-killing it can be to always try to get everything right. "Somehow I had to believe that doing some work, in a wrong way," she writes, "was better than doing no work at all."
What Dederer eventually realizes while apprehensively, then optimistically, putting her body in positions she never dreamed possible -- and giving herself permission to get them wrong -- is how to be a better wife, mother, sister, friend, and daughter. It's a testament to Dederer's charm as a writer that she realizes this without ever sounding full of white female self-indulgence herself. She's written an unusually welcoming and unpretentious spiritual memoir, one in which love is the measure, and yoga just one of several ways to find it.
"Love takes up where knowledge leaves off," Thomas Aquinas wrote. As "Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love" shows, when great minds get romantic, knowledge -- of adultery laws, moral codes, and simple decency -- indeed leaves off. And how. If you're in dutch with your sweetie, give him Andrew Shaffer's book, which recounts the tortured love lives of 37 thinkers. Compared to them, you'll look as saintly as St. Thomas himself -- who, Shaffer tells us, once chased a prostitute out of his room with a hot poker.
In 1952 Julia Child sent an appreciative note from Paris to the journalist Bernard De Voto, who had written a column on the toothless travesty that was the American stainless-steel knife.
His wife and secretary, Avis, responded with warmth from Cambridge, and over the next decade the two women crafted a friendship and tended to the birth of what became "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Their collected correspondence, "As Always, Julia," is a pleasure both culinary and literary.
It was Avis who persuaded a New York publisher to look at a book she believed was destined to be a classic. These letters would be compelling for that story alone. But they're also a record of the domestic and political scene of the '50s, chronicled by two women with beguiling authority and spirit. Julia derides the gastronomic obscurantism of her beloved French ("But that is so damned typical, making a damned mystery out of perfectly simple things just to puff themselves up"), and Avis pledges to champion without cease ("Well you know I do think that except for me the book would be dead, perhaps not as dead as a codfish "). Listening to them exchange opinions on MSG and McCarthyism is a lesson in how to become an American original. This, plus a recipe for pommes duchesse? As Julia might have said: "C'est trop!" And in the very best way.
British writer Niki Segnit, tired of slavishly following recipes, wanted to cook more by instinct, so she compiled "The Flavor Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook." It's a cheekily erudite, endlessly fascinating master list of flavor pairings both familiar and surprising -- asparagus and peanuts, for instance, "might seem as incongruous as playing darts in a ball gown, but the rich, meaty flavor of asparagus" complements the nuts. The entries get you dreaming of both exotic feasts and after-work comfort foods. Very English, that.
British printmaker and illustrator Angie Lewin's depictions of her native woodlands and waters manage to be both beautiful and invigorating at once. "Plants and Places," a color-saturated collection of her prints, textile designs, collages, and sketches, is full of the captivating tension between the wildness of bramble and the clean, insistent lines Lewin uses to capture that wildness. It's as if Morris prints got a spring cleaning through a sprightly, antic 1950s abstraction. Graphic design geeks, armchair home-decor historians, and artists (frustrated or otherwise) will be inspired and charmed by taking a stroll through Lewin's landscapes.
In his latest novel, "By Nightfall," Michael Cunningham does again what he did so memorably in "The Hours," his Pulitzer Prize-winning reimagining of Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway." Here, too, his lyricism elevates the daily and domestic to the visionary, and gives us the reward of traveling with a deeply investigated consciousness as it weighs danger against security. The consciousness here belongs to Peter Harris, and the story centers on him and his wife, Rebecca. A happy couple in their mid-forties, they've built themselves comfortable lives in New York City's SoHo. When the novel opens, we find Peter and Rebecca on their way to a party, reveling quietly in the intimacy afforded by long association. "The point of the party is having gone to the party," Cunningham writes. "The reward is going to dinner afterward, the two of them, and then home again."
Into this calm strides Rebecca's brother Ethan -- otherwise known as Mizzy, or "the mistake," the result of a surprise pregnancy. He's a beautiful 23-year-old with a talent for seduction and a weakness for drugs, who shows up at the Harrises' hoping they can find him a job. He doesn't earn gainful employment, but he does manage to exert a planetary pull on Peter, who, waking up to his own mortality and that of the ones he loves, finds himself fixating on the youth and brash confidence of this self-destructive boy. What will Mizzy's beauty exact from him? Cunningham's prose is similarly seductive: He knows how to create drama and summon the erotic from a chain of small, painstakingly drawn moments -- a finger on a jawline, an overheard conversation. And
he deserves praise for a sympathetic, hopeful portrait of contemporary marriage that neither hymns its safeties nor damns its constraints.
If your iPod has gone fallow, pick up Alex Ross's "Listen to This" and you'll hear Mozart, Radiohead, and other greats in an entirely new way. Only Ross, a music critic for the New Yorker, could make a suspenseful story of how an ancient Spanish dance made both Bach and Led Zeppelin slaves to the bass and give us a passionate, unpretentious education in the ways music stirs our hearts and minds.
"The Curious Gardener" by Independent gardening columnist Anna Pavord will make doers out of dreamers. Pavord offers advice on what and how to plant, along with meditations on the pleasures of growing. Her crisp but lush prose turns the guide into spiritual exercises for those who find working with their hands a dependable way to calm the heart.
For nearly two decades, Gish Jen has been chronicling the experience of immigrants in America with a sure hand and an amused, affectionate eye. Her ability to inhabit varied minds and hearts without drawing attention to her efforts evokes the compassionate omniscience of George Eliot. Jen's latest novel, "World and Town," recalls the tone and scope of Eliot's "Middlemarch," with its focus on the intertwining fates of the residents of a quiet village.
The book's protagonist, 68-year-old Hattie Kong -- the daughter of two missionaries, one Chinese and one American -- takes up residence in a small New England town, thinking she'll settle down to a quiet widowhood of bamboo painting and walking-club outings. But she's drawn into the lives of her Cambodian neighbors, whose troubled teenage children she finds herself mothering. Then the neuroscientist who was her first love, as well as intellectual kindred spirit, plunks himself down in her vicinity, causing her to revisit old wounds. In the midst of all this, Jen subtly but incisively inquires into the moments when belief, whether Buddhist or Christian, slips from being a comfort into something irrational and destructive, and love becomes too long-suffering.
Author and illustrator Maira Kalman is celebrated for her bright, spirited gouache paintings -- think Matisse if he came back as a Manhattan flaneur --captioned with prose that combines the philosophical with the whimsical. In "And the Pursuit of Happiness" Kalman tours Mount Vernon, the Supreme Court, and other sites to explore what it means to be an American. It's a moving and witty meditation in which we learn that George Washington had a dog named Sweet Lips, and some of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's lace collars come from a shop in Paris. Kalman's ability to juxtapose the big questions ("Who can handle the contradictions?" she asks of our war machine and the pure-hearted soldiers who man it) with reverence for simple pleasures, such as cafeteria pie, makes her a national treasure.
Bill Bryson never met a topic too broad. One of his recent books, "A Short History of Nearly Everything," apprehended the cosmos. With his newest, "At Home," he uses the rooms of his Victorian parsonage as a window into the past. As he leads us from the bedroom to the nursery and beyond, he excavates details on Benjamin Franklin's bathing habits and the meaning of the word "boudoir" (a room to sulk in). It's an effortlessly erudite history of the world in 19 chapters.
"For me," the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has said, "psychoanalysis is only one among many things you might do if you're feeling unwell. ... I don't believe [it] is the best thing you can do, even if I value it a great deal."
It's this combination of skepticism and faith that has made Phillips one of the most original thinkers on the dogma-bound topics of love, sex, family, and desire. In his latest book, "On Balance," Phillips analyzes, among other things, suicide bombers and fairy tales to explore what we mean when we say "too much." With each piece, Phillips wants us to ask ourselves just what it is we're afraid of when we become addicted or excessive. It may be, he suggests, that we wish we, too, believed in something passionately enough to die for it or would act courageously to protect ideas or people we love. Or we may feel frustrated because we can't quite imagine seeking pleasure, sexual or otherwise, without punishment.
"Balancing acts," he says, "are entertaining because they are risky, but there are situations in which it is more dangerous to keep your balance than to lose it." And when should we lose it? Phillips's wry and learned probing never leads to prescriptions, and while this may be maddening, it's also liberating: He is giving us an invitation to consider how we might act in the best interests of our desires, while keeping in mind we may never know for sure what those desires are. "Clearly, we can never trust ourselves, we can only risk ourselves," he writes. Which, his book suggests, may be a less-daunting prospect than we fear.
Laura Lippman's "I'd Know You Anywhere" tells the story of Eliza Benedict, a wife and mother sought out by the man who kidnapped her at 15. You'll never get an overheated Lifetime treatment of crime and punishment with Lippman -- she's as good at evoking the sustaining dailiness of domestic life as she is at spinning a gripping plot.
Jonathan Franzen thinks that family is its own crime, considering the way members constantly rob one another of autonomy and dignity. But he also believes that it's what protects us against the world, which makes "Freedom" even more affecting than his novel "The Corrections." And funnier: He's playing around, not proving himself. With Patty and Walter Berglund, a husband and wife who met in college, he's created an excruciating, hilarious, and high-stakes love story -- one that argues, like Lippman's book, for the surprisingly unending pleasures of the people who know us best.
In "American Terroir," James Beard Award winner Rowan Jacobsen makes the case for pride of place where American harvests are concerned. By examining iconic foods such as maple syrup and cider, he proves that France might have created the idea of "taste of place," but our own country is unexpectedly rich in exceptional lands, waters, and gustatory romance.
British novelist Salley Vickers's "Dancing Backwards" is a quieter kind of summer fiction -- perceptive, astute, suffused with melancholy. But what it lacks in potboiling it makes up for in crisp prose, a compassionate eye, and the author's compelling ability to suspend her characters in triangles and couplings that illustrate the blurred lines between sexual attraction and friendship.
In her sixth novel, Vickers sends Violet Hetherington, a middle-aged widow, on a transatlantic cruise from London to New York with the hope of recovering a friendship she thinks she destroyed decades earlier. During the six days on the ship, Violet wanders through her memory to see if she can piece together what it was that led her, in the late '60s, to befriend Edwin, a prickly, charismatic poet, and to marry, disastrously, his mercurial, charismatic friend Bruno. She then drifted into marriage a second time, her own poetry writing becoming a figment of her imagination. Vickers knows how to tell a love story that isn't confined to male-female romance; she also provides hope to her heroine -- a heroine who's not afraid to be tart, to deflect, to charmingly sigh inside when she thinks a suitor is feeding her a line -- without giving her suspicious amounts of happiness.
Hovering here is the spirit of E. M. Forster, who was always ready to admit some suggestion of the divinely inspired and unexplained into his liberation of the diffident. Readers who have taken pleasure in his radiant novels will find the same sustaining pleasures in this book.
Despite the fact that she was inspired to write her book after her own divorce, New York Times reporter Tara Parker Pope argues that "in many ways, the marital bond is stronger and better than it ever has been." Perhaps the most compelling bit of research she offers to back up this sunny premise is that divorce rates have steadily dropped since the 1970s. Among college graduates, she notes, the 10-year divorce rate for people married in the '90s is only 16 percent; it's 23 percent for those who married in the '70s.
However, Pope also presents evidence that points to the subtler conflicts of long-term commitment. Couples with children in the '90s and the 2000s, she says, "experienced a drop in marriage satisfaction twice as large as that reported by parents in the 1960s and 1970s." Pope thinks this may be because they have less help from family than in previous generations, and have higher expectations for marriage to begin with. More of us marry for companionship now, and when parenting takes us away from it, we're more sharply disappointed.
This book is an optimistic account of current research with straightforward advice -- marry after 25, she says, make sure your spouse isn't your only friend, and try not to roll your eyes.
Author Rachel Cusk's novel offers a more somber look at the ambivalences and disillusions of modern marriage -- specifically, the marriage of Thomas Bradshaw and his wife, Tonie. Thomas is 41, "the age when a life comes out of its own past like something out of a mold; and either it is solid, all of a piece, or it fails to hold its shape and disintegrates." He has stopped working to play the piano and take care of their daughter; Tonie, recently promoted at her university job, is now the sole breadwinner. By bucking convention, the two are forced to deal with today's dilemma of never quite knowing who wields the power in the family. As a result, they brood quite a bit over where they stand in relationship to each other.
Meanwhile, Thomas's older brother, Howard, and his wife, Claudia, who have three children, have made a fortune off Howard's eccentric business schemes. While these two display a disgruntled affection for each other, they take pleasure in the distracted, rambunctious happiness they've built. (Although Cusk notes that Claudia has "a painting studio at the bottom of the garden, a kind of memorial to her forsaken career.") Interestingly, Cusk seems to support Howard and Claudia, who have taken a more conventional approach to marriage, in the novel's intriguingly punitive conclusion.
Cusk suggests that accepting both difficulties and rewards can lead you into compliant intimacy. Nobody really lives happily ever after, she implies, but maybe provocatively challenged is enough.