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“Life’s a journey, not a destination.” It’s a sentiment that we’ve all heard a million times before, this idea that where we wind up is less important than how we got there. And it’s a true one, albeit a bit of a cliché at this point.

Sometimes, though, we have no idea what someone’s journey actually entails until that person shares their story.

Erin French is known for her celebrated restaurant The Lost Kitchen, based in a renovated grist mill in the tiny Maine town of Freedom. She has received accolades from all over the culinary universe, with big names and big outlets all clamoring to shower her with praise for the amazing dining experience that she has built in her tiny corner of the world.

What you might not now is just how much she went through to get here.

“Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch” (Celadon Books, $28) is the story of French’s journey in her own words. It is a story of one woman’s voyage of self-discovery and the many dizzying highs and shattering lows that came along the way. It’s a work of reflection and at-times brutal honesty, dotted with revelations and confessions. There are tears aplenty, but also more than a few laughs as well; it’s a portrait of a sometimes fractured and always full life.

Through it all, the indomitable spirit of Erin French shines through. Even in those moments where she seems to be at her lowest, when her world is crumbling around her, that fortitude is obvious. This is a woman who took every shot that life could throw at her and simply refused to stay down. That resilience is on full display throughout this book, and it is only that resilience that allowed her to become the person that she is today.

Published in Style

One could argue that all literature has the writer opening themselves up to the reader. And that’s probably true as far as it goes. But very few writers can truly invite the reader in, laying bare everything and inviting our examination.

Haruki Murakami invites you in.

His latest is “First Person Singular” (Knopf, $28), a collection of eight stories that are all told – you guessed it – in the first person, tales of absurdity and magic and passion. Whether we’re getting accounts of talking monkeys or sweetly weird looks at first love or poems about baseball, it all springs from the same never-ending font of humanism, melancholic though it may sometimes be.

These are stories about being apart, being other. They’re stories offered up from the perspective of eight similar-but-different characters, only one of whom cops to the name that in truth they all fundamentally share – Haruki Murakami.

Published in Buzz

Ever since we became aware of there being something beyond the confines of our world, we have been fascinated by the idea of aliens. We are compelled by these thoughts of life on other planets, and in an infinite universe, that life is almost certainly out there.

But what form will that life take?

We have no way of knowing the specifics – the universe is too vast and varied for that – but one scientist argues that what we know about our own world can give us some general ideas about the life that may exist on others.

Dr. Arik Kershenbaum’s “The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens – and Ourselves” (Penguin Press, $28) is an attempt to use what we understand about the rules of this planet and apply that understanding to the potentialities of alien life. He does so through simple extrapolation, taking into account fundamental laws of nature and spinning them forward into general theories about the life that might be found elsewhere.

Published in Tekk

Of all American professional sports, baseball is the one that is most enamored of its own history. Celebrating the past is a big part of the game, looking back at the legends and comparing the players of today with those from previous generations.

The thing with history, however, is that it isn’t always good. And baseball isn’t immune from that reality; there are plenty of unfortunate truths scattered throughout the misty fictions of the game’s rose-colored retrospect.

Among the most scandalous of the pastime’s past times is the throwing of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago White Sox. Dubbed the Black Sox scandal, this was the story of eight players from the White Sox conspiring with gamblers to fix the Series in favor of the Cincinnati Reds. But despite rumors and whispers about the fix that began before that Series even reached a conclusion, it wasn’t until the fall of 1920 that the wheels of justice truly began to turn.

Eight players – first baseman Chick Gandil, third baseman Buck Weaver, shortstop Swede Risberg, utility infielder Fred McMullin, pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams and outfielders Happy Felsch and Joe Jackson – would ultimately be banned from the game for life for their actions, though they took varying degrees of responsibility; some confessed, some recanted and some professed their innocence until their dying day.

Baseball historian Don Zminda’s “Double Plays and Double Crosses: The Black Sox and Baseball in 1920” (Rowman & Littlefield, $36) offers an in-depth look at the White Sox during that 1920 season, digging into the details in an effort to illustrate how the looming shadow of the scandal may have impacted the team – both on the field and off – all while also addressing the other historic happenings of that season, from the cultural explosion of Babe Ruth’s record-breaking bat to the tragic death of Ray Chapman, the last MLB player to die from being struck by a pitched ball.

It’s also a look into the convoluted path that justice took, with backbiting and infighting among the game’s supposed guardians leading to sham investigations and other CYA behaviors that would ultimately result in the powers that be deciding that baseball needed an arbiter, thus leading to the creation of the office of the Commissioner, first occupied by Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, whose lengthy tenure would create ripple effects of its own.

Published in Sports

The world of fiction will always have room for fairy tales.

The genre fluidity that comes with literary fiction leaves plenty of space for writers to explore the vast expanse of fantasy and morality that springs from the classic fairy tale. And so when we see modern authors adapting the ethos and entities of those long-told tales, it can be engaging in ways both intellectual and visceral.

That’s the energy that Veronica Schanoes brings to her new book “Burning Girls and Other Stories” (Tordotcom, $25.99). It’s a collection of 13 stories, a baker’s dozen of fairy tale-inspired works driven by the dual powers of the fantastic and the feminist. It incorporates tropes of the fairy tale realm into stories of women fighting back against a society that devalues and others them; there are elements of punk rock and Judaism and revolutionary leftist political thought as well.

These disparate elements could have resulted in stories that were uneven and muddled, stitched-together Frankenstein’s monsters of overstuffed pastiche. Instead, Schanoes wields her razor-sharp craft like a scalpel, carving every one of these pieces into something distinct and idiosyncratic and undeniably powerful. Intellectually challenging and emotionally intense, it’s a collection packed tight with highlights.

Published in Buzz
Monday, 08 March 2021 16:52

You should read ‘Later’ sooner

Ghost stories are universal. One could argue that in some way, all stories are ghost stories. It’s all in the telling – and no one does that telling better than Stephen King.

His latest novel is “Later” (Hard Case Crime, $14.95), the author’s third release with the Hard Case imprint. It’s the story of a young man whose childhood is marked by an eerie ability to see the dead, an ability that leads him to help others in ways both honorable and ethically questionable.

What King has given us is a book that is part coming-of-age tale, part hard-boiled crime thriller and part paranormal ghost story. It’s an ambitious blend, to be sure, but one that King has long since shown capable of pulling off beautifully. His clear love of noir fiction joins forces with his horror bona fides and his still-strong ability to capture the fundamental truths about being a child, resulting in a lean and propulsive read.

Published in Style

What is love?

It’s a question without an answer to which we nevertheless try to respond. Artists have been seeking that answer since there has been art. And while we’ll never have a definitive answer – it’s not that kind of question – a lot of brilliant people have come up with a lot of brilliant responses.

Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro has a few of those responses in his bibliography. His latest is “Klara and the Sun” (Knopf, $28), and it too is a response to that existential question, though that’s far from the only building block of the human condition the book explores. It’s a book that deftly embraces speculative elements in service to the telling of its very human story, all reflected through the eyes of someone who may or may not actually be … someone.

Published in Style

Introspection is difficult. Looking within ourselves and asking questions about who we are is a challenge that the vast majority of us are unable (or unwilling) to face. One can pay lip service to the notion of self-examination, but the actual doing is hard.

Too often, memoirs trend toward the lip service side of things. That’s not a judgment – it’s tough enough to tell the story of your truth to yourself, let alone to the world. It just means that the autobiographical explorations that really dig into a person’s identity are vanishingly rare.

Derek DelGaudio’s “AMORALMAN: A True Story and Other Lies” (Knopf, $27) is such a rarity, a work of thoughtful, honest self-awareness that isn’t quite like anything I’d ever read before. And believe me – that’s a good thing. It’s a story of truth that is unafraid of untruth, which might sound contradictory, but when you delve into DelGaudio’s words, it makes perfect sense.

This book is magic in multiple senses of the word. It is magic because it is narratively transportive, a book that sweeps the reader up into the world being created, pages crammed with vivid storytelling. But it is also magic in the performative sense, in that it is also about the art of stage magic, specifically sleight-of-hand. And it is magic in that it allows its author to reinvestigate his own history, to use the perspective of the present to change his view of the past – a transformation of both the man he is and the man he once was.

Published in Style

I’m always leery when I engage with a creative work from an artist who is operating outside their usual purview. It’s not that I question the ability to branch out – I’m a firm believer in the artistic power of multihyphenates – so much as that I recognize how difficult it is to excel in one aspect of creation, let alone more than one.

And so it was with trepidation that I approached Ethan Hawke’s new book “A Bright Ray of Darkness” (Knopf, $27.95). Specifically, I’ve been burned by actors-turned-novelists before, so you understand my caution. Hawke has four books in the rearview (though distant – it’s been 20 years since the last one) but I hadn’t read any of them, so again – maybe the most interesting part of the book is the name attached to it.

I needn’t have worried. Hawke has crafted an engaging work of literary autofiction, a story clearly drawn directly from his own personal experiences, yet rendered in such a way as to not feel bound to his life as it was lived. It’s something that many writers – many talented writers – fail to pull off, but he manages it quite deftly.

This tale of an actor struggling with his shifting reality – moving from a world of movie stardom to the Broadway stage, torn between accepting his crumbling marriage and striving to reassemble it – and making sometimes questionable choices in the process is tightly woven and densely packed, a meditation on masculinity and the value – both external and internal – of the redemption he seeks through his art.

Published in Style

We’ve all heard the old saw “Write what you know.” However, we don’t all agree on what that actually means.

For a writer like Susan Conley, it means carrying a deep, fundamental understanding of the sorts of people and places that you’re going to bring to life. That understanding – that knowledge – is what makes her work so engrossing and compelling.

Conley’s newest book is “Landslide” (Knopf, $26.95), a thoughtful exploration of the demographic and economic shifts that have been taking place in towns up and down the Maine coast in recent years. It’s a story of struggles – the struggle to make ends meet, the struggle to find fulfillment, the struggle of married life and motherhood – marked by occasional small moments of personal victory. All of it refracted through the prism of one woman’s perspective.

Grasping the importance of connection is a hallmark of Conley’s work – see 2019’s excellent “Elsey Comes Home” for a prime example – and she continues along that path with this one. She sets up shop in her protagonist’s head, giving the reader a first-hand look at the inner strife that comes with experiencing changes that are largely unwelcome and more than a little frightening.

Published in Buzz
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