Kent works the sales floor, helps out in the Publicity Department, answers store email, and is editor of the QuailMail. He loves to read history, biography and science.
In Daniel Wallace's new novel, Extraordinary Adventures, we meet dutiful, unassuming (and lonely) Edsel Bronfman, who is suddenly galvanized into action when he must find a companion in order to be eligible for an all-expenses-paid trip to the beach. Whether you see a bit of yourself in Edsel, or you know someone like him, you'll be routing for him as remarkable events and characters unfold. A funny, perfect read for the summer!
Of all the animals we consider intelligent, octopuses (and related cephalopods) took a different evolutionary branch from the rest. They are the alien intelligence we wish to study, but they are right here. In trying to understand the differences, the author finds he must go back to the very first animals, to figure out why consciousness of any kind arose, and it is fascinating. Unlike us, octopuses have puzzlingly distributed nervous systems, such that a tentacle may somehow operate independently. Are their color displays a form of language? Other aspects of their lives and behaviors, both idiosyncratic and poignant, are unveiled here.
I am captivated by two histories of American literature and the developing nation between 1850 and 1880: Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians by Justin Martin, and The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff. The respective stars of the books, Whitman and Twain, were both in their formative years, and each a member of a group whose writing was experimental, satirical, and aimed at challenging the Eastern, Eurocentric, literary establishment. Whitman's group (Rebel Souls) inspiried the later San Francisco group (The Bohemians), whose fortunes and aspirations were ironically boosted by the war, and who believed an original American literary voice could come out of the burgeoning West. Tarnoff gives us wonderful 'before he was famous' glimpses of Twain, and also showcases a collection of innovative and eccentric writers. Both of these histories are extraordinary accounts of singular American men and women struggling to make a mark amid the turbulence of their times.
The profusion of cookbooks, television chefs, and near-obsession with food preparation in our culture can make it easy to forget that this field hardly existed before pioneers like Julia Child came along. Her memoir, My Life In France (2006), is a wonderful account of how beginning in the 1950s, instantly enamored of French cooking, Child became determined to master that art and share it with the world. Child's grand-nephew, Alex Prud'homme (co-author of that memoir) has now written The French Chef in America: Julia Child's Second Act. He tells how Child, with her trademark fearlessness and indomitable enthusiasm, launched a food revolution in America. She wrote bestselling cookbooks, practically invented television cooking (and became a catalyst for the development of public television). Turning down all endorsements, which could have made her a fortune, but would have compromised her authenticity, she managed to evolve with new food trends while still retaining the essence of her training, and always kept the home cook in mind. Prud'homme's honest account shows a woman of only a few contradictions, who set us on the path to becoming the foodies we are.
Who knew that the American Revolution was not the first, groundbreaking revolution of its kind? Barone shows how, without England's 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688, there would have been no 1776. The English beheaded their king in 1649 and remained a republic until 1660. Even after restoring the monarchy, they remained wary, and in 1688 they sent the Catholic James II packing, and installed William and Mary as fresh monarchs with limited powers akin to what a US president has today. This is eye-opening history!
Writing with eloquence and wit, British natural history and science author, Colin Tudge, has a gift for making science literary. This is his best book. Tudge describes the incredible array of animals that covered the earth when our ancestors first emerged (much different from now), and then lays out the history of the human species. I've never heard a better explanation for how the planet shaped us, and why the trait of intelligence arose in humans. And he proposes the audacious idea that if we want to stay around on Earth, the next one million years is an appropriate political unit of time to consider.
I never stop recommending Thad Carhart's memoir of the second time he moved to France, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, which is a primer on the workings of pianos, and a sheer delight to read. Now, in Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France, Carhart goes back to 1954, when his family of seven moved into a charming old mansion near the Château de Fontainebleau (where his father was a NATO official), and immersed themselves in a France still recovering from WWII. His rich experiences as a kid alternate with chapters on the history of the chateau and the assorted French kings who inhabited it. And when he has returned to Fontainebleau as an adult, he gets to share in a restoration of the chateau, and retrace the steps of his childhood in a way we all sometimes wish we could.
Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian Jewish novelist and journalist; this is a collection of 64 travelogue/essays about European locales he visited between the World Wars. Each short piece is a pleasure to read. Roth describes everyday people he meets and occurrences matter-of-factly, yet somehow with language that is also superbly atmospheric and casually poetic ("The sea is calm, the clouds hang in the sky as though nailed there"). He observes political changes and growing anti-Semitism, portents of things to come.
Here are the transcripts of the 11 debates between the conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. and the liberal/progressive Gore Vidal, televised during coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions in the convulsive summer of 1968. As great as it is to watch these two titans of articulation go at it (see the documentary film Best of Enemies), what a treat it is to be able to slow it down and pick apart their arguments in print! An excellent introduction by the documentary's director Robert Gordon gives background and retrospection on the debates.
I love books that get at our nation's origins of religious freedom and tolerance. In Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry, the Puritans, including Williams, emigrated from an intolerant England to found their own theocratic society in Massachusetts. But the singular Williams dissented, and was exiled by the Puritans, so he founded the religiously tolerant Rhode Island. So it's all been from the start. Barry's picture of the Puritans is fascinating, and he shows how original a thinker Williams was, and how fundamental his influence on American politics has been.
Hal Crowther's short book is an incisive analysis of the impact and legacy of Henry Mencken, the Baltimore journalist and critic of religion and popular American culture, who was so influential and widely read in the first half of the 20th century. Mencken is hard to get at, but Crowther considers him from all angles and argues that while we can't excuse his appalling anti-Semitic and racist rants, we can't simply bury him and ignore how much he mattered to his times and the ways in which he is still relevant.
Esterly is a woodcarver who was picked to recreate a 17th century Grinling Gibbons masterpiece destroyed by fire in an English palace. Gibbons' work was Esterly's inspiration for dedicating his life to the art, and during the challenging year he spent recreating the carving he was forced to reckon with his own talents and motivations. What he learned is what it really means to make a thing well by your own hand. His story is plain-told, touching and lyrical.
An editor of Surfing magazine, Smith has covered conflict in the Mideast and Asia and he seems unhappy if he's not in danger. And Oahu's North Shore surfing culture provides that, with tension between Hawaiian natives and nonnatives, cut-throat competition for big-money sponsorship, and a unique code of conduct that's perilous to violate. Smith delves into the personalities of surfing's stars, and his gonzo journalistic account of his dangerous, yet exhilarating winters spent on the North Shore will shock, amaze, and entertain you.
In this semi-autobiographical novel, a starving and mostly homeless writer wanders the streets of 1880s Oslo, and we follow his inner thoughts. We're curious when he refuses charity, clinging irrationally, it seems, to an idea of respectability. Is he going mad, or is there an integrity here that will rescue him? Knut Hamsun has been credited with pioneering modern literature by portraying internal thought over realism, and that is on full display here, as we live so completely inside the protagonist's mind that we begin to lose our own objectivity.
The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti tells how a larger-than-life storyteller in Castile revived a great cheese from an old family tradition, and how that successful business fell apart in a strange betrayal. But also, this is the story of the author being beguiled by the cheese and the storyteller (and Castile), and dedicating himself to telling that story, no matter where the digressions take him. He finds that stories can vary by the teller, and may not have satisfying conclusions, but that as long as a story continues, one must continue to tell it. Rarely have I been so absorbed by a book.
City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan is a novel set in 1946 British Mandatory Palestine, where Brand, a Holocaust survivor and refugee, is part of a terrorist cell fighting the British who want to restrict Jewish immigration into the land. Though set right in the middle of events leading up to the shocking bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, this moody, noirish story is more about the inner demons of a man who's lost everything, and who isn't sure if love, land, or anything is worth fighting for anymore. The story had me searching for much more information about the formation of Israel.