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It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History

Jennifer Wright. Holt, $21 (256p) ISBN 978-1-62779-286-8

Journalist Wright debuts with this delightful, high-concept collection of essays. Presented as a self-help manual for the newly single, the book consists of funny, irreverent entries, each devoted to a different famous breakup, from ancient Rome (Nero and Poppea) to the 20th century (Liz Taylor, Debbie Reynolds, and Eddie Fisher). The grim personal details, presented to hilarious effect in pieces with titles like “If You Were Dumped, Read About Edith Wharton and Morton Fullerton,” will make the reader want to delve further into the history, especially when they learn that Anna Ivanova, Empress of Russia, forced her jester to dress like a chicken and pretend to lay eggs when visitors arrived. According to the author, the past is “not that different and certainly not any better” than the present, relationship-wise. Most people go through breakups during which they feel and act terribly. Looking to history provides reassurance that this “is almost never the defining moment of one’s life.” The book teaches even as it entertains, and applies modern psychology to the behavior of its subjects, providing both amusement and consolation to people likely in need of both. Agent: Nicole Tourtelot, Kuhn Projects Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 05/29/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Crazy Dumplings

Amanda Roberts. Two Americans in China, $6.99 e-book (176p) ASIN B00OVTRWKC

Roberts’s eclectic dumpling cookbook covers a variety of fillings, from traditional pork to tacos and cheesecake. She is an American expatriate who has been living in China for four years; her recipe attempt to respect local traditions and the foods she has come to love while recreating her comfort foods from home. In this manner, she shows readers how she can turn almost anything into a dumpling filling and make a tasty meal for two. By providing a single dumpling wrapper recipe, she frees herself (and her readers) to consider non-traditional fillings, as well as a variety of sauces. Roberts makes readers think about the versatility of dumplings in a new way. However, readers are bombarded with so many different recipes, most of which are requests from Kickstarter backers, that they have no idea what is worth making and what is not; and the recipes all start to blend together, especially with her overly succinct directions. She provides good notes on metric conversions and some of her research around dumplings, but there is very little of the theory of what makes dumpling fillings work (or not), so readers will likely feel a little overwhelmed. Roberts covers a lot of ground, but she does it without much depth. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/29/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Art of the Burger: More Than 50 Recipes to Elevate the Burger to Perfection

Jens Fischer. Skyhorse, $19.99 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-63220-508-7

This English adaptation of Michelin-starred chef Fischer’s German cookbook retains the inventive recipes of the original but offers little additional information for Anglophone readers and cooks. Opening with a surprisingly cursory introduction, Fischer moves immediately to hamburger buns, which range from the basic (simple burger or brioche rolls) to the painfully complex, such as curry chili or squid ink. Offering that specificity so early in the book might turn readers off, and every recipe tests one’s patience as well as eyesight, but those who stick with it—and, most importantly, those who can overlook the book’s wild obtrusive typography and design—will find some terrific ideas that manage to be both inventive and tasty without being arch (for the most part). The Camemburger, marrying watercress, cranberries, and fried cheese; the Italian Job, with smoked brisket, ham, burrata, roasted tomatoes, and arugula; and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with bratwurst, eggs, cheese, and bacon, are straightforward and rewarding. However, dishes like the Smoker’s Empire, a basic beef burger smoked with beech chips and finished in an oven, may be too labor-intensive for those looking for a simple riff on the basic Saturday night burger. (June)

Reviewed on 05/29/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Bake Happy: 100 Playful Desserts with Rainbow Layers, Hidden Fillings, Billowy Frostings, and More

Judith Fertig. Running Press, $27.50 (240p) ISBN 978-0-762-45379-5

Veteran cookbook author Fertig poses the question: How can baking contribute to a happy life? Her answer: 100 recipes for cakes, cookies, puddings, and more. Bright, cheery-looking recipes include rainbow cake with yellow, pink, orange, and green cake layers and bright blue frosting, and Razzle-Dazzle Éclairs, where pink raspberry icing tops the choux pastry and is then decorated with edible pansy flowers, sprinkles, and an assortment of candy dots. Off-the-beaten-dessert-path recipes, such as the pandan leaf papaya with sweet coconut cream or the sweet potato pone with bourbon pouring custard, are sure to entice even the experienced sweet tooth. Annie Hall would approve of the La di Dahs, white meringue “apostrophes,” and the Black-and-Whites in Color, which give a fun twist to the famed New York City cookie. An exceptional design makes up for the small number of recipe photos, and inspiring quotes from Iris Murdoch, Louisa May Alcott, and Jane Austen, among others, are sprinkled throughout. This is a perfect title for boutiques and gift shops. (June)

Reviewed on 05/29/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Dear Hannah: A Geek’s Life in Self-Improvement

Philip Dhingra. Nuclear Elements, $14.99 trade paper (254p) ISBN 978-1-5003-9224-6

App developer Dhingra is fluent in the language of self-help texts, as his epistolary memoir of self-improvement shows. At 14, he received a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People from a classmate, and used it to improve how he socialized and negotiated early professional experiences. He concluded that if one book could do that, more would be even better. The next 15 years were devoted to a repetitive and somewhat self-destructive process: discovering a new self-improvement technique, relaying it to his friend Hannah with enthusiasm, and then feeling his interest wane and his frustration with his work and love life redouble. After taking up meditation and sticking with it for multiple years, however, he decided to write a book collecting his letters to Hannah, in hopes of helping other self-help devotees. Reading about Dhingra’s past self-improvement efforts can be difficult, since his obsession with self-analysis borders, as even he admits, on the obsessive-compulsive—he has an apparent need to put every aspect of his life in a spreadsheet. While Dhingra presents some useful ideas about meditation and mindfulness, the book’s tone comes off as at once relentlessly self-analytical and un-self-aware, making it unlikely to appeal to readers seeking their own path to self-improvement. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/29/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Number One Songs: The First Twenty Years

Larry Irons. Black Hills, $15.95 trade paper (218p) ISBN 978-0-9907-6360-4

Irons, a former radio disc jockey who landed his first job in Reno in 1967, decided to parlay his love of radio into a long-form poem consisting of one rhyming verse about each #1 song in the U.S. from 1956 through 1975, occasionally including . interesting biographical details about the artists. Readers will have to really love music to tolerate Irons’s epic. The rhymes are trite, albeit sometimes whimsical, and the whole piece would have benefited from very serious editing, particularly when Irons loses focus and veers off on autobiographical tangents. Twenty years of songs also isn’t a strong theme to organize a book around—and therefore the collection feels unwieldy. Readers may want to skip this altogether and go straight to Irons’s source, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, to learn about the music itself. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/29/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Next Next Level

Leon Neyfakh. Melville House, $16.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-61219-446-2

Expanded from the author’s N+1 Magazine feature article of the same title, this combination of memoir and biography focuses on the musical stylings of Wisconsin-born rap-rocker Juiceboxxx. Neyfakh, a culture writer at Slate and the New York Observer, details his own very personal history with “Juice” and the niche DIY music scene both of them grew up with. From Juice’s first outing at a Unitarian Church concert to his viral fame and world tours, Neyfakh shadows his down-to-earth idol—sometimes from afar, sometimes via lengthy in-person interviews and show recaps—in an attempt to nail down what makes the rapper’s music so intriguing and authentic. Unfortunately, Neyfakh also spends a great deal of time wallowing in fascination with his own life, definitions of art, and several previous attempts to evangelize on Juice’s behalf, anecdotes that bog down the narrative. Neyfakh may reel in a few Juiceboxxx fans and even some interested newcomers, but his narrative is a touch too self-involved to yield a completely successful biography. (July)

Reviewed on 05/29/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Slice Harvester: A Memoir in Pizza

Colin Atrophy Hagendorf. Simon & Schuster, $23 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4767-0588-0

Hagendorf’s popular Slice Harvester blog chronicled his quest to eat and review a slice of cheese pizza from every pizzeria in Manhattan. In this entertaining memoir, he mashes up that journey with the topics of addiction, family, punk rock, nostalgia, and love. Hagendorf’s love affair with pizza and New York City started when his father brought him to the Lower East Side in the 1990s to buy his first pair of Doc Martens, and ever since then the two had been intertwined in his mind. Fifteen years later, after completing a two-year odyssey of pizza-eating, Hagendorf turned his affection for his adopted hometown and his taste for cheese, sauce, and crust into a personal self-improvement plan. Full of drinking binges, colorful characters from the punk scene, and random asides like comparing a slice to Anthony Kiedis, the narrative takes readers on a roller-coaster ride that leaves them wondering whether Hagendorf can continue this fast pace, or find a positive way to harness all his frenetic energy. Thankfully, with the help of his friend Christina, who has a “shaved head [and] dark eyes” and “dressed like a total freak,” he is able to get his act together and complete his culinary adventure. Along with his own story, Hagendorf nicely captures the evolution of some of the city’s neighborhoods and their pizza joints. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/29/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert

Gertrude Bell, edited by Georgina Howell. Penguin, $17 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-14-310737-8

This tantalizing collection of excerpts from letters, diaries, and other assorted publications provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of Gertrude Lowthian Bell (1868–1926), one of England’s most famous adventurers. Biographer Howell (Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations) grounds the selections with a family chronology and a narrative introduction of Bell’s unconventional Victorian life. Bell’s own words, especially when presented in generously sized selections, showcase a personality and intellect that glittered like the sun-drenched Arabian sands. An Arabist and linguist, she developed a facility for six languages, including Arabic and Persian—skills that allowed her to write fine translations of Persian poetry. But mostly Bell was an adventurer, and readers will accompany her on some of her most daring exploits: climbing the Swiss Alps, journeying through the Syrian desert, and digging for archeological treasure in Iraq. She documented and mapped her travels for the British Foreign Office—information that became crucial with the outbreak of WWI in 1914—and worked at the Arab Intelligence Bureau in Cairo with T.E. Lawrence, aiming to rebuild the Arab world with repercussions that would reach far into the next century. This is a nifty little volume that illuminates a remarkable life. Maps. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/29/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii

Susanna Moore. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-0-374-29877-7

Novelist and memoirist Moore (The Life of Objects) takes inspiration from her childhood in Hawaii to craft an insightful history of the archipelago, from its first wave of settlers in the 6th century through its annexation by the U.S. in 1898. She focuses largely on the tumultuous years following Capt. James Cook’s 1778 discovery of the islands and how contact with the outside world disrupted everything. As cultures clash, several major narratives emerge. The first is the effect of trade and commerce: “The chiefs acquired new desires, which demanded a different kind of labor from their people.” Though island culture was transformed through industry, it was radically upended with the introduction of Christianity: “The fixed world of the Hawaiians, governed by a hereditary ali’i and priesthood with a distinctive system of kapu [taboo], suddenly became one of flux, if not chaos.” Moore is honest about the peculiarities of the old ways—“to be Hawaiian before the overthrow of the old gods in 1819 was to live in an unending state of terror”—and she’s equally upfront about the devastation wrought in the aftermath. This is a fascinating and well-balanced look at how a unique culture came to be and the heartbreaking manner of its end. Illus. Agent: Stephanie Cabot, the Gernert Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/29/2015 | Details & Permalink

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