ANTHOLOGY

edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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For Scott Conant, it was the day hundreds of eels escaped their vats and thrashed through the kitchen during lunch service. For Dan Barber, it was being held in a headlock during a lecture from David Bouley. And for Anthony Bourdain, author of the raucous Kitchen Confidential (which spawned the new sitcom), it was the New Year's Eve when he cooked at a club where the kitchen was hideously chaotic: After hours without food, drunken customers began to attack the waitstaff as "twenty-three heavily muscled gorillas" working as security guards tried to hold them back.

With its crushing hours, bruising competition and hyperdeveloped egos, the world of haute cuisine is rife with drama. The 40 chefs who contributed to this collection of intimate, often hilarious essays about their culinary catastrophes cop to being adrenaline junkies; even if they don't exactly court disaster, they take pride in turning desperate situations into perverse triumphs. Floods, maggoty pheasants, a thousand spoiled lobsters? These authors have learned to fake it. Candid and self-deprecating, they take the reader backstage to see how they create, under fire, the illusion of perfection. In the end, Don't Try This at Home is as uplifting as it is amusing; it's a reminder that—in real life as in the kitchen—guts are as important as genius.

NON-FICTION

By Victoria Vinton

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In August of 1892 British writer Rudyard Kipling was living in Vermont, a place he had longed to visit since childhood. Already a literary success, he was at work on his Jungle Book stories, which feature Mowgli, an Indian boy raised by wolves. In her lyrical, elegant first novel, Vinton brings Joe Connolly, a farm boy whose father has little time for him, into the life of the author, who becomes his exotic new neighbor. Kipling, whose childhood had unhappy stretches, teaches Joe to ride a bicycle and delightedly discusses his writing with his young friend. That the author can conjure the jungle's sounds and colors and its fetid heat is wondrous to Joe. But what thrills him most is Mowgli—the character's skills as a hunter, his independence from adults—and it is Mowgli's self-sufficiency that tempts him to make a rash but ultimately wise decision. Even if you've never spent time with Kipling's writing, you'll savor making his acquaintance and meeting his compelling fictional neighbor.

NOVEL

By Brian Strause

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When 18-year-old Monroe Anderson finds his sister facedown in the family pool, he hauls her from the water and desperately attempts CPR. She falls into a coma, though, and curious things begin to happen: Rose petals rain from the sky, she develops stigmata, and sick people are spontaneously cured. As Monroe's mother drifts into rote faith and his father turns to booze, Miracle delivers an incisive portrayal of religion, family and the meaning of miracles in an era of spiritual disarray. First-time novelist Strause creates a work that is laugh-out-loud funny (there's a wild crash involving a statue of Christopher Columbus), provocative and unique.

By Mary Gaitskill

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Surely this is one of the first novels to use hepatitis C as a plot device. Gaitskill never specifies how Alison, the 46-year-old narrator, contracted the disease. But we learn enough about her past as a hippie chick and a coked-out model to plausibly imagine shared needles and louche living.

The irony, though, is that it is Alison's unlikely friend Veronica, a fussy, wisecracking copy editor she meets on a temp job, who has died of AIDS, infected by her bisexual boyfriend. This is not a cheery book. But it is a brave one that looks back from ravaged middle age on an era of blithe self-invention. "We were stupid, spoiled and arrogant," Alison concludes. "But we were right, too."

Mei Mei Little Sister

Of the hundreds of thousands of children in China's state orphanages, 95 percent are girls. Richard Bowen, a photographer whose two daughters were adopted in China, created Mei Mei ("little sister" in Mandarin) "because I think of girls who remain as their 'little sisters.' " He focused on subjects over 2 because at 3 or 4, finding a home becomes much less likely. "Every one of these girls," he says, "deserves the same kind of home my daughters have."

  • Contributors:
  • Michelle Green,
  • Vick Boughton,
  • Lisa Kay Greissinger,
  • Lee Aitken.