While author Neil Gaiman might be best known as a fantasy novelist, he’s better described as a kind of writer-of-all-trades. His acclaimed Sandman series was one of the first graphic novels to make the New York Times best-seller list and he has published numerous children’s works to critical accolades. He’s a master of the short story. But his latest published work, The View from the Cheap Seats, is a collection of the prolific, versatile writer’s nonfiction pieces.
Gaiman is an unabashedly public figure who remains accessible to his many fans through his online journal and presence on social media. And while his built-in audience will be clamoring for this volume, it has much to recommend for those who have never read his nonfiction. The View features five dozen articles, speeches, introductions and essays on topics that are interesting and in some way important to the author.
He admits on his online journal: “It's a relief that it's published: I don't think I've ever been as nervous about a book coming out as I have been about this one. You can hide behind fiction. You can't hide behind things that are about what you think and believe.”
These thoughtful, insightful pieces are gathered under 10 categorized chapters, including “Some People I Have Known,” “On Comics and the People Who Make Them,” and of course, “Some Things I Believe.” Included here is his acceptance speech from the 2009 Newbery Awards, where he won the highest prize in children’s literature for The Graveyard Book, his Sunday New York Times piece “On Stephen King,” his introduction to the reissue of the final book in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series and the in-memoriam essay he wrote describing Lou Reed’s songs as the soundtrack to his life.
The View would make an excellent gift book, as it’s the kind of collection you can pick up whether you have 10 minutes to devote to reading or a whole hour. You can always count on him to entertain, but here he manages to be thought provoking and incisive as well. Gaiman is the erudite friend you’d want at your dinner party, always ready to start the conversation.
As a librarian, I must admit that my favorite piece in the collection is a lecture entitled “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a better advocate for public libraries than Neil Gaiman. This essay alone will inspire you to visit the library to find out for yourself just what keeps us relevant.
Stephanie Danler’s impressive debut Sweetbitter is that rare literary novel that’s a perfect poolside read. It’s the sticky summer of 2006, and 22-year-old Tess has $166 to her name and the promise of a room to rent in pre-gentrification Brooklyn. Naïve ambition and a need to pay the bills lead her to apply for a job at what her roommate tells her is the best restaurant in New York. Despite her lack of fine dining experience (she has a stint as a barista under her belt) and her utter ignorance when it comes to wine, the restaurant manager sees something in this bright young English major. As a back-waiter, she’ll ferry bottles from the wine cellar, deliver plates to the tables, prepare coffee drinks and support the servers.
Danler immerses Tess (and the reader) in the culture of fine dining, a world in which her coworkers are emotionally and intellectually invested. Everyone has a story, and most never expected they’d stay in the job as long as they have. She’s tutored by career server Simone, smart and driven with a personal life rife with secrets. Tess is immediately drawn to Jake, the enigmatic bartender with impossibly pale blue eyes and bad-boy charisma. But just what is Simone’s connection to Jake? The interpersonal politics at the restaurant are far more complicated than Tess realizes. Long hours at the restaurant are fueled by a passion for excellence, sexual tension and drugs, which stave off exhaustion. The staff works hard, and parties harder. As the story progresses, Tess gains confidence as an integral part of the restaurant team, even as she makes questionable relationship choices.
Readers will revel in the culinary details, from the hearty fare served at preservice family meal to the plates inspired by the seasonal ingredients collected at the Union Square Farmers Market. Tess expands her palate with the delight of a child and the seriousness of a scholar, savoring creamy, briny raw oysters even as she learns to identify myriad varieties by sight. She finds a personal preference for a rare, authentic dry sherry.
Sweetbitter is smart, compelling and compulsively readable. Danler’s characters are memorable and her writing cinematic, with the restaurant, food, wine and New York City itself in supporting roles. Danler’s debut is a succulent coming-of-age novel rich with descriptive prose and plot. Expect to be consumed by Sweetbitter from its opening pages.
Ask anyone the question “What is your favorite book?” and you have the beginning of an interesting conversation. But twist that question just a bit, and you get a glimpse into that person’s psyche. Editor Bethanne Patrick does just that in the essay collection The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People. She surveyed a broad range of interesting people, imploring them to share the titles that affected their existence in an important way.
From the poignant to the profound, these two to three page contemplations are fascinating; and just reading them makes you feel an immediate connection to that person. Singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny, names Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder as her life-changing book. Ma and Pa Ingalls demonstrated the day-to-day routines of a loving, dependable family, making Little House a comfortable reprieve for the modern-day Cash, raised in a spotlight of fame, instability and chaos.
R.L. Stine, known for the popular Goosebumps series of scary novels for kids, reminds us that the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi was the stuff of childhood nightmares and not the charming Disneyfied version. Many of the other essayists also chose a book from their childhood, including such classics as Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Margaret Atwood), The Little Prince (Jacob Hemphill) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Vu Tran).
Others name coming-of-age adult fiction they read as teens, from Gone with the Wind (Jodi Picoult), to The Bell Jar (Meg Wolitzer). Science fiction writer John Scalzi was a precocious reader who discovered The People’s Almanac when he was just 6. The book ignited his love for trivia and curating facts of all kinds, whether or not he understood them.
The Washington Post BookWorld editor Ron Charles’ choice, Straight Man by Richard Russo, was a literal life changer. Then a prep school English teacher, Charles picked up the novel from a table of newly published fiction at a local bookstore and decided to write a review, his first ever. He submitted it to The Christian Science Monitor, with more critiques to follow. He ultimately gave up teaching to become their full time reviewer, ultimately landing at The Washington Post. Charles says that newspaper readers “overwhelmingly prefer to read positive reviews...Of course, they want to know which books they should read instead of books they should not read — because they’re not going to read most books anyhow.” Consider this an overwhelmingly positive review of The Books That Changed My Life. What book changed yours?
Entomologist Justin O. Schmidt shares his lifelong passion for pain-inducing insects in The Sting of the Wild, recently published by Johns Hopkins Press. According to Schmidt, despite a universal, innate fear of stinging insects, only about 50 people a year die from the combined sting of all stinging insects, including wasps, honey bees and fire ants. The first half of this surprisingly entertaining book provides scientific theory and background, while the second gives in-depth looks at particular groups of insects. Schmidt encourages readers to skip around as they read; each chapter can be read as a stand-alone essay.
As a piece of anatomy, the stinger itself evolved from the ovipositor, or egg-laying tube, of the sawfly. Its ingenious three-part design — two sliding channels inside a third immobile tube — allow a tiny insect to impart a wallop of pain to its much larger victim. The addition of venomous fluid provides an additional layer of defense for most species, although sometimes that venom is used for capturing prey. If you understand that the stinger was once an egg-laying tube, you’ll know why only female insects sting. But Schmidt is quick to point out that while male bees and wasps lack stingers, they feature hardened genitalia which they use to “pseudo-sting” would-be threats.
Schmidt has a particular passion for harvester ants, and lucky for him his wife is also a zoologist who helps to collect them by the bucket load so they can study their venom. You really don’t want to be stung by a harvester ant. There are five things that make harvester stings unique: 1) delayed reaction to the sting, 2) sweating around the sting site, 3) hairs in the sting area stand up, 4) the lymph nodes nearest your sting become hard and tender and 5) the pain is excruciating, coming in waves that can last from four to 12 hours.
One of the most enjoyable features of the book is the inclusion of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, developed by the author himself. Schmidt allowed himself to be stung by 78 species of hymenoptera so that he could record the nature of the pain and rate it on a scale of zero to four. Don’t let anyone tell you that entomologists don’t have a sense of humor. The sting of the club-horned wasp, for example, is described as a .5 — “Disappointing. A paperclip falls on your bare foot.” While the warrior wasp rates a 4 for a sting that is “Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano.” Readers who share my fascination with the natural world, and particularly those who revel in unusual animal facts, will love The Sting of the Wild.
David Kushner’s early childhood was near idyllic. Born in 1968 to observant Jewish parents with liberal ideals, Kushner and his two older brothers Jon and Andy had license to roam free in their Tampa suburb. Days were filled with bike rides, games and exploration of the natural world that surrounded both their home and school. But one October afternoon, Jon took a solo ride to the 7-Eleven to buy Snappy Gator Gum for David and himself. He never returned. Alligator Candy: A Memoir is the story of the tragedy that affected not only the Kushner family, but the entire community.
David, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, a journalism professor at Princeton and an author of several nonfiction titles, tells this deeply personal story with candor and generosity. What does he remember about the last time he saw his brother alive, and can he trust that memory? Would Jon be alive today if almost-5-year-old David hadn’t asked for that gum? The rest of his life from that point forward, was marked by having a brother who had been abducted and murdered. Childhood was no longer safe; his bogeyman was real. Actually, he had two bogeymen — the men who had confessed to treating his brother in a way that was far worse than anything he’d heard from his old edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
How does a family move on? Kushner credits his parents for allowing him and his older brother the freedom to move beyond the fear, to continue to have as normal a childhood as possible. He acknowledges his Jewish faith, but most importantly the community that came forward to support his family from the moment Jon went missing. As he got older, he knew his memories of his brother’s murder were incomplete, and much of what he thought he knew was based on a combination of overheard conversations, conjecture and rumors. And although he craved answers to what was a mystery to him, he didn’t want to subject his parents to painful recollections.
At 13, he went to the library to request microfilm of The Tampa Tribune from October 1973. What he read satisfied his need for more information, but also led to further questions. One fact remained: He was becoming a man, a bar mitzvah, while Jon would forever remain a boy. Kushner talks about other famous cases involving missing and brutalized children, explaining how laws have come into being as a result. An existing legal loophole allowed for a parole hearing for one of Jon’s killers, compelling David and Andy to testify. The thought of this man possibly getting out into the world was stupefying. The family found justice and some solace in knowing the mastermind of the crime had been executed under the death penalty.
Alligator Candy is a memoir that marks a lifetime of remembering, searching and gathering. The processing will always continue. Kushner's evocative prose took me back to my own early '70s childhood, with just the right period details and nostalgia. Despite its difficult topic, Alligator Candy is compulsively readable and highly recommended.