Friday, January 03, 2014

Best Books of 2013: Non-Fiction

This is the Non-Fiction segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2013 feature. You can see our picks for the Best Crime Fiction here, while Best Cookbooks are here and Best Books for Children and Young Adults are here. Still to be posted are our selections of the Best Fiction published during the last 12 months. -- LLR

Jones Atwater is a musician, sports fanatic and struggling author. He lives in Ohio with his Fender Stratocaster, Pearl, and his cat, Rhea.

27: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse by Howard Sounes (Da Capo)
I’m still not sure if 27: A History of the 27 Club made this best of list for me because the book was so very good or for all of the emotion it churned up in me while reading it. Either way, this is one I’ll be thinking on and touching back on for a long time to come. Sounes’ book examines the lives and losses of the half-dozen artists who were, unfortunately, part of this group. London author Howard Sounes (Down the Highway, Charles Bukowski and others) finds the connections between these tragic figures. It’s a tragically wonderful read.

A North Country Life by Sydney Lea (Skyhorse)
Vermont poet laureate, Sydney Lea, puts both his talent and his love of the sporting life front and center in A North Country Life. This is not a politically correct look at the world out of doors. Lea is a lifelong hunter and fisherman whose appreciation for outdoor life is unhampered by contemporary social mores. So imagine Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, but overlaid with poetic language. And guns. It’s a reach. It’s a stretch. And provided you’re not a PETA sympathizer, it’s a lovely book.

Strange Rebels by Christian Caryl (Basic)
There are banner years. Years that make all the difference. Years that somehow count more than others and, according to journalist, scholar and all around brainy guy Christian Caryl, 1979 was the nexus. As Caryl points out, in 1979, after 37 years in his comfy chair, the Shah of Iran “got on a plane and left his country, never to return.” Also in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister just a few months after Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping had “heaved himself into the top job” in China. These and other things combined for irreversible change. As Caryl tells us, “Like it or not, we of the twenty-first century still live in the shadow of 1979.” Strange Rebels is both dense and staggeringly eye-opening. This is both a deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking book.

The Golden Age of Maritime Maps by Catherine Hofmann, Helene Richard & Emmanuelle Vagnon (Firefly)
Not everyone knows this about me, but I’m an absolute map geek. It goes back to childhood when I could spend hours on the backseat of the family sedan with a roadmap, imagining where all the roads led and how far they could take me. I had a similar feeling (a similar rush?) from The Golden Age of Maritime Maps. These, however, are very special maps. Charts, actually, of the Portolan variety. Portolan comes from the Italian portolano, which means related to ports or harbors. They came about during the 12th century and are drawn on parchment and crisscrossed with lines indicating compass directions. They were used by European sailors exploring the world right up until the 18th century. This is much more than a book of maritime maps. It is, in essence, a book of the art and charts of the European maritime community between the 13th and 18th centuries and it’s a wonderful thing, indicating magical lost and imagined places as well as what was known of the world at the time. I think I’ll be “reading” this one forever.

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Aaron Blanton is a contributing editor to January Magazine. He’s currently working on a book based on his experiences as an American living abroad.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (Little, Brown and Company)
Malcolm Gladwell is so well known, his name has pretty much become a household word. And, if not him, then his 2000 book, The Tipping Point, certainly has. Like all of Gladwell’s books, David and Goliath mixes up history, psychology, and even a touch of philosophy to force us to scratch our heads and rethink the way that we look at pretty much everything around us.

The Heir Apparent by Jane Ridley (Random House)
Published in the UK in 2012 as Bertie: A Life of Edward VII, this revisionist biography of the playboy prince is a fantastic and entertaining study of Queen Victoria’s misunderstood son. No stranger to terrific biographies (her previous efforts include portraits of Disraeli and architect Edwin Lutyens) The Heir Apparent gives a very good overview of European politics and Britain’s place in that. There are some real surprises here. Notably that the prince who was seen as an overfed and indulged dilettante was a surprisingly good king, though it was not properly recognized in his lifetime. The American publication of this book in the birth year of the new Royal heir seems too good a coincidence to pass up. Especially since the reading of one helps with the understanding of the other. Bertie was a colorful character whose life could be (and often has been) reduced to useless cliche. Ridley goes so much further and deeper here, revealing the foppish yet ultimately effective monarch he became.

Mr. Selden's Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer by Timothy Brook (Anansi)
The most surprising thing about Mr. Selden’s Map of China is that it didn’t see more light in 2013. This is an actual great book by the author of the ground-breaking Vermeer’s Hat (2008). This new book unravels the mystery of  a map of China created in the 1650s and discovered in the Bodleian Library at Oxford in 2009. The map was so modern-looking, it was initially suspected it might not be genuine. But it was no forgery. And, more, it showed some real surprises. Brook is a history professor who is the award-winning author and editor of over a dozen books about China. This one is slightly less accessible than his most famous work, but it his studious (yet lucid) approach that really satisfies.

Wilson by A. Scott Berg (Putnam)
For a long time I felt as though I didn’t know enough about Woodrow Wilson. Truly: as though there were just more to know. For me (and I suspect for many others) it takes a really terrific biography to get me going in deeper and that’s always been lacking in the case of the 28th president of the United States. No more. Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning author, A. Scott Berg, takes on this wonderful study of this much underestimated president with aplomb. As Berg points out, 90 years after his death, Wilson’s reputation only continues to grow even though, as Berg points out, “Everything about Woodrow Wilson is arguable, starting with the date of his birth.” This is a lush, insightful and startlingly complete portrait of a much misunderstood president.

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Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and editor. He lives in the Chicago area where he works in the high tech industry. He is currently working on a his first novel, a science-fiction thriller set in the world of telecommunications.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Heaven: (Or, How I Made Peace with the Paranormal and Stigmatized Zealots and Cynics in the Process) by Corey Taylor (DaCapo)
We already knew Slipknot and Stone Sour frontman Corey Taylor could write. Back in 2011 he wowed his fans with Seven Deadly Sins: Settling the Argument Between Born Bad and Damaged Good. Yes, that book was memoir. But it was more, as well. This new book takes that original concept and amps it up. Way up, in fact. Here again, Taylor himself is the lens, but we’re looking way beyond the man and his music now. In fact, we’re looking beyond this very life. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Heaven, Taylor takes us on a tour of his personal paranormal: the oddities he’s encountered, some unexplained things that have happened near him and how, in many ways, he’s made peace with the bizarre and unknown. It’s an odd book to try and categorize or even talk about.

Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch (Henry Holt)
This is, of course, a biography of jazz legend Charlie “the bird” Parker, but it also chronicles the trajectory of African American culture in early 20th century America. This is a tragic, joyous jazz biography by someone who knows this beat. Author Crouch is a poet, music and cultural critic, syndicated columnist, novelist and biographer. His other works include Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz and the novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome? This is not the first book on Parker but it is certainly the best.

Official Truth: 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera by Rex Brown and Mark Eglinton (DaCapo)
Official Truth is a proper rock biography, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Some readers will find it a little too gritty and a little too real and, certainly, the F-bomb gets thrown around sometimes more than one would ever have thought possible. But it’s a portrait, of sorts. And if you ever thought the world of a rock god was sexy and golden, read Official Truth and think again.

Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Journey Through Steampunk into the Future of Technology by James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson
Over a beer historian James H. Carrott and futurist Brian David Johnson ask themselves: What can steampunk teach us about the future? What happens when we look backward in order to look forward? Over the next couple of years the pair traveled the world asking that question. And, face it, if it should be anyone asking this stuff, it’s these two. Johnson is a futurist at Intel where he does “future casting” to “provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing.” Carrott, meanwhile, has brought humor and theater into his work as a historian and he was for a time global product manager for Xbox 360 hardware. They are geek princes, clearly. Exactly the correct duo to set upon this journey.

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David Middleton is the art director of January Magazine as well as a highly acclaimed photographer and graphic designer.

Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History
by Eduardo Galeano

What an extraordinary book. The author of Memory of Fire and Open Veins of Latin America has written tiny, resonant vignettes for every day of the year. This is the history of the world in prose, with obscure historical moments illuminated by a writer quite worthy of the task.

Love & Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality by Edward Frenkel (Basic Books)
Math at the same place in our minds and hearts as art? Music? Literature? How can that be? Yet that’s just what mathematics professor Edward Frenkel tries (pretty successfully) to convey. “There’s a secret world out there,” he says. “A hidden parallel universe of beauty and elegance, intricately intertwined with ours.” Will Love & Math change your life and worldview? Depending on the place you now stand, it really just might. My one wish? Where was this book when I was in junior high?

Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don't, and How to Make Any Change Stick by Jeremy Dean (DaCapo LifeLong) 
This is a much better book than you’re expecting. The title puts one in mind of pop psychology and change for the sake of change -- but really, nothing could be further from the truth. Author-psychologist Jeremy Dean is interested in the way we process things and why we love the things we love. Though Dean is currently working towards a doctorate in psychology, his voice is casual, friendly and smart. More importantly for a book of this nature, he knows how to break his material down and present it in a way that is not only logical, but also stays interesting and connected: quite often not the case with books of this nature. In the end, Making Habits, Breaking Habits is an entertaining and deeply interesting book. And a huge bonus for some readers: it actually has the potential to totally change your life.

Sign Painters by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon (Princeton Architectural Press) 
Sign Painters is about a once vibrant industry that has been sublimated by the sterility of the computer, but it also is about the resurgence of this once highly valued art form. How the men and women who do it, do it for the enjoyment of taking time to create and craft something that’s genuine and beautiful and at the same time functional. Filled with examples of their work, some simple some highly detailed and complex and all of them real art, Sign Painters is an ode to a bygone era that still has some teeth and to the men and women who are helping to keep the art form from being completely forgotten.

This Land Was Made for You and Me (But Mostly Me) by Bruce McCall & David Letterman (McLelland & Stewart/Blue Rider)
Yes. In case you’re wondering it is that David Letterman. Teamed here with artist-turned-writer Bruce McCall in an elegantly created and stated spoof of a travel book for the impossibly glamourous escapes of the monetarily overloaded. Subtitled “Billionaires in the wild,” it might also be “billions gone wild” with the world’s longest fireplace, a five star treetop restaurant in the Amazon, an artificial iceberg, a yacht fit for an ogliarch and a visit to Godlandia. And lots more. All shared in Architectural Digest-style complete with (sometimes crude-but-effective) illustrations of all this silly duo has conceived.

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Tom Nolan, who reviews crime fiction for The Wall Street Journal, is also the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography and Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times.

Beatles vs. Stones by John McMillian (Simon & Schuster)
Consumer culture has been fueled for eons by dualistic rivalries: Ford vs. Chevy, Fitzgerald vs. Hemingway, Artie Shaw vs. Benny Goodman, Dodgers vs. Giants -- and, as Georgia author John McMillian documents in this entertaining and informative study, Beatles vs. Stones. There’s pop history and world history here, trivia and philosophy, all seen through the prism of Liverpool vs. London. Here’s a post-Beatles quote from John Lennon to whet your appetite: “I would like to just list what we did and what the Stones did two months after, on every f----n’ album and every f----n’ thing we did, Mick does exactly the same. He imitates us.”

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout (Gotham Books)
Every great man, Orson Welles said, needs at least six biographers. Welles has had at least that many, and so has jazz titan Duke Ellington (a one-time Welles collaborator). So why the fuss over this newest life-story of the pianist-composer-bandleader written by Terry Teachout (whose recent Louis Armstrong book became the essential volume about that jazz icon)? Because Duke is, in its author’s words, “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis” -- an indispensable collation and reshaping of all previous studies regarding one of America’s most gifted, vexing, charismatic, and brilliant musical figures.

Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux by Boris Kachka (Simon & Schuster)
One could quibble with this book’s subtitle -- might not the firm of Knopf perhaps be even more celebrated than the esteemed FSG? -- but this reader would be hard-pressed to find any other fault with debut New York author Boris Kachka’s supremely readable account of the rise and rise of a publishing house as well-known and well-regarded in literary circles as the authors it prints (among whom are a great many Nobel Prize-winners). While the main players here -- including legendary editor Robert Giroux and aristocratically outspoken boss Roger Straus -- hold center-stage, their all-star supporting cast includes such leading lights as Susan Sontag, Edmund Wilson, Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, Jack Kerouac, Joan Didion and -- yesss! -- Tom Wolfe!

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon; foreword by Booker T. Jones (Bloomsbury)
The South has been producing great music journalists almost as long as it’s been making great music. One of the best is Robert Gordon, who has written a knowing, comprehensive, fact-filled, story-rich, thrill-thick history of the Memphis record-label Stax, whose “product” -- made by such artists as Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MGs, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes -- captured the sound and stirred the spirit of social change and sweet soul music in the 1960s and ’70s. Within these pages is an absorbing, sometimes jaw-dropping saga of inspiration, dedication, political segregation, creative integration, trust, betrayal, faith and perfidy that, once begun, is pretty darned hard to put down.

Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir by Linda Ronstadt (Simon & Schuster)
Singer Linda Ronstadt, a convincing and compelling performer who sold millions of records from 1967 into the 21st century, was a musical chameleon: segueing with apparent ease from folk-rock to country-rock to New Wave, the classic American songbook to traditional Mexican canciones, Cajun ballads to Gilbert and Sullivan. Her charming, unassuming memoir traces the singer’s many artistic enthusiasms back to a childhood in a gifted family where much music was heard and performing was encouraged. Everything she later did on stage and disc drew on that heritage of authenticity and honesty -- the same qualities which inform this lovely book.

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J. Kingston Pierce is the editor of The Rap Sheet, the senior editor of January Magazine and the lead crime-fiction blogger for Kirkus Reviews.

All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt by John Taliaferro (Simon & Schuster)
Indiana-born John Milton Hay experienced the most uncommon of lives. He was employed as one of the private secretaries to President Abraham Lincoln, published notable poetry and one novel, married into great wealth, served for years as editor of the New York Tribune newspaper and was eventually tapped as U.S. secretary of state under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Along the way he helped give Lincoln his public writer’s voice, was instrumental in the building of the Panama Canal, opened China to global commerce, became acquainted with such notable personages as Mark Twain and Henry Adams, was talked about at various points as an ideal Republican Party presidential candidate (though he was never interested in running) and kept more than a few secrets -- both governmental and personal. I’d been looking for years to find a proper biography of this history-shaping man; I am pleased to finally have happened upon Taliaferro’s.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin
(Simon & Schuster)

When President Theodore Roosevelt decided -- against pretty much all advice, save for his own -- not to run again for the White House in 1908, he thought he was turning over the Republican nomination to the ideal candidate: his friend the U.S. secretary of war, William Howard Taft. Indeed, Taft went on to win that year’s national contest. However, the notably hefty Taft soon disappointed Roosevelt for numerous reasons, and the two men found themselves on opposite sides during the 1912 presidential race -- their rivalry opening the door for Democratic New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson to slip through and become the 28th president of the United States. Drawing on myriad sources (including the diaries of two first ladies), Goodwin re-creates the bumptious Roosevelt and the comparatively sober Taft, and enriches her narrative with a look back at the “muckraking press” of that so-called Progressive Era, which was determined to institute the sorts of broad institutional reforms that had been endorsed by Roosevelt himself.

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman (Ballantine)
Journalism was very much within the male realm during the 19th century. Yet a widely publicized and much-promoted ’round-the-globe race was completely a women’s endeavor. The New York World’s best-known daredevil reporter, Nellie Bly (the pseudonym of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) departed Manhattan in November 1889 to try and beat the trip time imagined by Jules Verne in his novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Shortly thereafter, Cosmopolitan magazine assigned one of its own feature writers, Elizabeth Bisland, to head in the opposite direction about the earth in hopes of topping the travel records of both Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg and the manifestly corporeal Bly. As newspaper readers everywhere kept track of their often circuitous paths, these two women did their best to surmount obstacle after unexpected obstacle, and -- more in Bisland’s case than Bly’s -- appreciate the diverse cultures through which they were spinning headlong. Goodman (whose previous work, The Sun and the Moon, was among my favorite books of 2008) does an exceptional job here of presenting the two competitors as characters and of framing their adventure as an important landmark in the history of female journalists.

Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison by Michael Daly (Atlantic Monthly Press)
It’s truly a jumbo-sized yarn that Daly delivers here. By turns humorous, heartwarming and horrifying, it encompasses everything from the first elephant debarking in the United States in 1796, to the 19th-century rise of American circuses, the invention of “pink lemonade” (believe me, you don’t want to know its founding ingredients) and the zealous rivalry between pioneering electricity entrepreneurs Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. However, the thematic and emotional center of this book is occupied by a female Asian elephant, Topsy, who came to the United States in 1877. Over the years, she, like so many other imported proboscidians, was cruelly mistreated by handlers, one of whom actually broke her tail in a wrathful thrashing. Nonetheless, it was Topsy who was eventually (and quite unjustly) declared a killer, and whose fate -- she was electrocuted at Coney Island, New York, on January 4, 1903 -- marked a low point in American animal history.

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Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.

In Antartica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage by Jay Ruzesky (Nightwood Editions)
There is a sort of profound poetry of a spiritual kind in Jay Ruzesky’s memoir of arctic exploration. Poet and English professor Ruzesky connects his own Arctic journey with that of his distant cousin, Roald Amundsen who in 1911 became the first human to set foot on the South Pole. In 2011, Ruzesky followed in Amundsen’s path, and the book is about that, but also so much more. It’s about heroes and discovery and, yes, it’s even about literature. It’s a wonderful

The Girl from Station X by Elisa Seagrave (Union Books)
While her mother battled Alzheimer’s, Elisa Seagrave had the unenviable task of sorting through her mother’s things. Here she came upon diaries describing an unremarkable girlhood and a young adulthood beyond anything her adult daughter could have imagined. Marked by tragedy, shaped by war, and buoyed by a courage her daughter hadn’t known existed, the secret life that emerges from the diaries is shrouded in mystery and surprises. Seagrave’s treatment of the material is interesting. Rather than publishing the diaries intact, Seagrave comments throughout. What emerges is almost a conversation -- though clearly one for our benefit. But what does this mean, Seagrave wonders. Or, doesn’t mother do well here? What emerges is almost life a mother revealing herself quite fully to her child and presenting us with a surprising and bittersweet wartime adventure.

The Imperfect Environmentalist by Sara Gilbert (Ballantine)
Yes: the author is that Sara Gilbert: the actor who played the daughter on the hit comedy series Roseanne. This book has nothing to do with any of that. Less than nothing. Gilbert is a passionate environmentalist who has created a lucid, plain-language and eco-friendly guide to doing something for the planet, even if you can’t afford any time at all. Subtitled A Practical Guie to Clearing Your Body, Detoxing Your Home and Saving the Earth (Without Losing Your Mind), Gilbert walks us through all (and I mean all) of the basics in order to help us make informed choices about all of the possibilities in terms of the environmental concerns of the day. Composting, gardening, buying furniture, air travel, dental care… you name it. If it’s of environmental concern, Gilbert has probably covered it: lightly but intelligently and in a way you’ll understand. This is a book that may well make a difference.

Women of the Frontier: Sixteen Tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs, and Rabble-Rousers by Brandon Marie Miller (Chicago Review Press)
The book is part of the Chicago Review Press Women of Action biography series, intended to introduce “young adults to women and girls of courage and conviction throughout the ages.” And though the book is considered to be juvenile non-fiction, readers of all ages will enjoy these fascinating accounts of these female forebears who made a difference. I loved Women of the Frontier completely. Miller brings her subjects to perfect life, recreating a time when even simple acts could be difficult and have great impact. It’s tough not to feel inspired and uplifted by her stories.

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Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of a dozen books, the most recent of which is the mystery novel Death Was in the Blood.

Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas by Eric Fischl (Crown)
Much to my surprise, Bad Boy ended up being one of my reading highlights of 2013. Artist Eric Fischl’s memoir is touching, sweet, inspiring, sad, moving, more. It’s everything a memoir should be. Fischl’s art came of age in the turbulent, decadent 80s and the artist spends a fair amount of time with us in New York in that decade of almost violent artistic change: the drugs, the friendships and what it was to be a rising star in that place and time. Throughout the book, Fishchl’s own words are peppered by sidebars written by friends and family. His wife, celebrated landscape artist April Gornik, painters Ross Bleckner, Julian Schnabel, Bryan Hunt and others, writer/actor Steve Martin and even tennis great John McEnroe, with whom Fischl swapped tennis lessons for painting lessons for many years. Fischl emerges from this self-portrait as the truly great talent we know him to be. Fischl writes at one point. “If there’s been any theme uniting the stages of my life and my art, it’s been that theme of redemption -- the recovery of openness, intimacy and trust.”

Dead Interviews edited by Dan Crowe (Anansi/Granta)
The interview is a real and distinct skill. It calls on you to give the best of yourself in order to get the best from your subject. I’ve done more than my share but, unlike the contributors in Dead Interviews, I always had the advantage of working with living subjects. For these interviewers, that is never the case. Here then are 13 skillful interviews conducted by some of the most brilliant literary talents of our time with some of the most distinct historical figures of all time. Douglas Coupland chats with Andy Warhol. Joyce Carol Oates goes deep with Robert Frost. Michel Faber spends time with Marcel Duchamp and Ian Rankin has the pairing we would dream for him: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “However it happens,” editor Dan Crowe writes, “putting words into the mouths of someone who is no longer with us finds its way naughtily, inevitably, into the actual ‘life’ of the subject.” True or not, this is delicious stuff.

Free Magic Secrets Revealed by Mark Leiren-Young (Harbour)
There are certain voices that just resonate for each of us. Mark Leiren-Young’s is one of those that resonate in that way for me. I’ve said it before, but I go all fangirl reading his stuff. I just like the way he lines words up. His work almost always makes me smile and, more often than not, laughter springs forth at some point. Leiren-Young won the Stephen Leacock Medal for humorous writing for his debut work, Never Shoot A Stampede Queen. As much as I enjoyed that book, I liked this one even better. In some ways, Free Magic Secrets Revealed is a more universal coming of age story, albeit with a geeky bent. Here Leiren-Young is remembering his teenage years: yearning to be a writer and influenced by Heavy Metal, Star Wars and Doug Henning. Young Mark and a friend band together to perform Henning-inspired magic tricks in order to find success and get the girls. This is funny, poignant stuff.

How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields (Vintage)
This is one of those wonderful works about books and writing that feels life a conversation with a long lost friend. One part memoir and several parts essays about the books that have touched him, Shields (The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, Reality Hunger) gives us an earnest take on books, life and everything. If, as Shields posits in his opening line, “All criticism is a form of biography,” then there’s a lot of both in How Literature Saved My Life. Shields is a terrific writer, and he does quite a lot of that here.

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs by Ted Kerasote (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
In February of 2013 I lost my beloved canine companion, Jett, to arthritis and old age. She was 13. No matter how long I would ever have had with her, it would not have been enough time. I was gutted. The very week we said good-bye to Jett, Pukka’s Promise landed on my desk. Since (for reasons that now escape me) my pet name for Jett had long been “Pooka,” the arrival of the book at that moment seemed both an omen and an affront. I knew that this book by the author of Merle’s Door would be wonderful. I knew I would weep. For many months after Jett’s death I was ready for neither of those things. And then I was. And I found I had been correct.

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