NONFICTION

by Julie Powell

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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When Julie Powell turned 29, she realized that her life had taken a tragic turn. Married for four years, the transplanted Texan was living in Brooklyn, doing "soul-sucking" temp work. Instead, she writes, "I was supposed to have spent my 20s...hammering away for 90 hours a week at some high-paying, ethically dubious job, drinking heavily and having explosive sex," or maybe working as an artist, rising at noon to "[shake] off the effects of stylish drugs and tragically hip clubs and explosive sex."

As chronicled in Julie & Julia (subtitle: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen), Powell's eureka moment comes when, as a half-joke, she decides to tackle every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking—and to document her progress in a blog. On Aug. 25, 2002, she blithely begins with Potage Parmentier; one year later—battered but triumphant—she finishes with Paté de Canard en Croute. The darkly funny Powell, her sweet husband and eccentric friends embark on the journey together, and her accounts of learning to dissect live lobsters are interspersed with the sort of gossipy stories heard at her dinner table. Though it's a tribute to Child as well as an account of Powell's transformation from cog to author, Julie & Julia is a book that doesn't overreach. Bracingly original, it's clearly the work of a writer who has reclaimed her soul.

FANTASY/NOVEL

by Gregory Maguire

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A decade after Wicked, Maguire's bestselling backstory to The Wizard of Oz, the author revisits the Emerald City and life after the demise of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Now ruled by the ineffectual Glinda the Good Witch, Oz is awash in corruption and everyday cruelty: The sentient Animals once championed by Elphaba continue to be enslaved or eaten, while young human residents are savagely murdered to suppress dissent. Amid the anarchy a badly beaten young man, rumored to be Elphaba's son, arrives; once healed, he sets out to learn the truth of his own identity—and perhaps to redeem the beleaguered realm.

Maguire's captivating, fully imagined world of horror and wonder illuminates the links between good and evil, retribution and forgiveness and the banal decisions that lead to casual brutality. Although in Oz graffitied walls declare that Happy Endings Are Still Endings, Maguire cannily—and happily for readers—leaves open the door for a return to the magical kingdom.

NONFICTION

by John Berendt

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In the 11 years since his bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was published, John Berendt has been living part-time in Venice, whose eccentricity matches Savannah's. Berendt's Venice is filled with quirky natives, secretive aristocrats and rich expats who gossip while dashing between masked balls. After Berendt arrives in 1996, the destruction of the opera house in a mysterious fire prompts him to launch an informal investigation that slowly reveals the secrets of high society. The best bits are his portraits of characters such as an outrageous painter and an American who talks to aliens from his luxe palazzo. But the book seriously bogs down when Berendt begins examining politicking among his odd and wealthy acquaintances. Until then, it's truly a magical mystery tour.

NOVEL

by Liza Palmer

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For spinsters of Jane Austen's day, poverty was a near-fatal flaw. Singles compete in other ways now; with apologies to Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a plus-size figure must be in want of a total body makeover. Take Maggie Thompson, who hides behind loose clothing, a menial job and her friendship with fellow fat girl Olivia Morten. When Olivia deserts her after having gastric-bypass surgery, Maggie's sister urges her to become a butterfly too. Kudos to Liza Palmer for tackling the life and loves of a "before," striking a breezy tone without being trivial.

NOVEL

by Michael Parker

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Like Huckleberry Finn, the 14-year-old narrator of Michael Parker's persuasive new novel, If You Want Me to Stay, has a serious problem with his father. Joel Junior's dad is mentally ill; when his craziness finally gets too frightening, the teenager leaves his brother Carter to an uncertain fate and hits the road with his younger brother Tank. As their odyssey brings them full circle toward a harrowing conclusion, the boys meet a rogue's gallery of indelible characters, most notably their spirited, foul-mouthed older sister Angie. But what fuels the story and keeps us reading is not plot so much as Joel Junior's enduring and knowledgeable passion for soul music, his intensely individualized language and the bracing experience of seeing the world from inside his lively, energetic young mind.

The Last Place on Earth
The Last Place on Earth is a spectacular two-book set from National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols and ecologist Mike Fay, who spent over a decade exploring rain forests in Gabon and Congo. One volume is comprised of Nichols's powerful photos, another of Fay's dramatic journals. Says Nichols: "It's about feeling, not just intellectual expression."

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: The Final Resting Places of Rock's Legends, by J.D. Reed and Maddy Miller. This photo book from the late Reed, a writer, and Miller, a photographer and photo editor, highlights sites from Jim Morrison's grave in Paris to Rufus ("Walkin' the Dog") Thomas's plot in Tennessee.

  • Contributors:
  • Michelle Green,
  • Lisa Greissinger,
  • Ed Nawotka,
  • Maria Speidel,
  • Francine Prose.