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Diary of a Mad Diva

Joan Rivers . Berkley, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-425-26902-2

Comedian, bestselling author (I Hate Everyone...Starting with Me), and award–winning TV host Rivers continues her tirade against the world in this farcical day-by-day diary. Delivering more of the same outrageousness she's known for, Rivers' satire touches on everything from slavery to the holocaust, eating disorders to immigration. While no topic is too taboo, the term "politically incorrect" undermines how far she's willing to go in her faux-bigoted act. Fat jokes, potty humor and raunchy gags abound in her celebrity-driven shtick, which picks on the same (mostly female) targets, old and new: Anne Hathaway, Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, Kirstie Alley and Barbara Streisand are all on the receiving end of her judgment. While some of her antics still zing, most of the routine here, which relies less on her wit than pure provocation, falls flat. No one rails quite like Rivers, but readers are advised to go slow lest the material stale fast. (July)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Green: The History of a Color

Michel Pastoureau, trans. from the French by Jody Gladding. Princeton Univ., $35 (240p) ISBN 978-0-691-15936-2

Pastoureau's engaging cultural history of the color green tackles art history and color theory, much like the author's previous books on Blue (2001) and Black (2008). With the look and feel of an artbook, this book holds equal amounts of substance of in the text. Pastoureau recalls green's "social, cultural and symbolic history in European societies, from Greek antiquity to the present." The chronological approach proves effective. The author begins by examining green in classical Greek sculptures and Roman mural paintings. The chapters on the Middle Ages and Age of Enlightenment focus more on the religious texts. Green is rarely mentioned in the Bible but when it is, Pastoureau notes, the color is nearly always about grass or vegetation, "never an object, fabric, or article of clothing." When something is "greenish," it is usually associated with death. His anecdotes are insightful, the references occasionally delightfully esoteric. Pastoureau gradually returns the conversation to the present-day, citing green's current associations with health, hygiene and the environment. In so doing, he gives this substantial discussion further contemporary relevance. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games

Michael Weinreb.. Scribner, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4516-2781-7

Veteran college football writer Weinreb (Bigger than the Game) grew up in State College, Pa., adoring Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions. The elegance and dexterity with which he explains his emotional attachment since childhood — even after Penn State's football program was rocked by a damning sexual child abuse scandal in 2011 — is only one reason why this cultural history of the game belongs on the shelf of every hardcore college football fan. His candor and passion are displayed on every page as he traces the sport's official beginning to Nov. 6, 1869, when Rutgers defeated Princeton by the baseball-like score of 6-4, and concludes with the 2013 Iron Bowl, when Auburn's Chris Davis caught Alabama's missed field goal attempt and ran the ball back 109 yards for a most unlikely touchdown and a berth in the SEC Championship Game. Weinreb assigns each chapter a so-called "game of the century" title and allows himself plenty of latitude to explain why "college football is fundamentally different than any other sport." By evoking sympathy for larger-than-life coaches Woody Hayes and Nick Saban, poking fun at Notre Dame and Michigan, and tackling "the incongruous notion of marrying amateurism with big business," Weinreb convinces readers he's right. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection

Michael Harris. HarperCollins Canada, $29.99 (236p) ISBN 978-1-44342-627-5

Staking a modest claim in areas explored at length by Nicholas Carr and James Gleick, Harris, a magazine journalist and author of the YA novel Homo, frets over what humanity is losing by tethering its work routines and leisure hours so closely to technology. Across nine sporadically engaging but meandering chapters, he asserts—but does not prove—that digital gadgetry is causing those with access to experience a downward qualitative difference in their lives. (As for the qualitative difference between, say, one schedule of television-watching and another of text-checking, the author does not provide comparative data.) In addition, he says the "straddle generation," who have experienced existence before and after the Internet, as well as those born later, are now plagued by the "end of absence," by which Harris appears to mean an inability to focus on a task such as daydreaming or reading without being distracted by texting and peeks at e-mails. Examining an assortment of interrelated subjects—from online dating to "crowdsourced culture" —the book serves adequately as an introductory survey of the questions it raises. Still, heavy reliance on personal anecdotes and an explicitly Couplandesque glossary suggests an author in the process of crafting a voice with something distinctive to say. Agent: Anne McDermid. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Boreal Feast: A Culinary Journey Through the North

Michele Genest. Harbour Publishing/Lost Moose Publishing (Partners Publishers Group, U.S. dist.), $28.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-55017-627-8

Genest (The Boreal Gourmet) serves up a fresh, fun and sophisticated northern feast that is anything but the typical vision of wintery cuisine. After all, summer does come to northern Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia, and culinary delights can be found anywhere if you know where to look. Juniper berries, anyone? Genest first divides her recipes into seasons then into thematic feasts for easy meal planning. Interspersed throughout are lovely essays about her food-driven adventures in northern climes, which have an earthy, nostalgic tone. The book includes a section on boreal pantry items, in case lingonberries and spruce tips are not normally on your grocery list. It outlines wild edibles by season, gives directions for foraging and provides instructions on making, gathering and preserving staples, from rosehip syrup to shaggy mane oil. Resources, such as books, guides, suppliers and travel companies are listed at the back. Despite usually containing specialty ingredients, most recipes become accessible to non-northerners with substitutions of readily-available products. That said, the recipes don't dilute boreal traditions to blend into the modern food landscape; they're the real deal. Genest's book stands out from the crowd with engaging writing, beautiful photos and eye-opening recipes, all firmly rooted in the far North. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Retronaut: The Photographic Time Machine

Chris Wild. National Geographic (Random, dist.), $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4262-1383-0

Wild, an avid collector of old color photos since childhood, graciously extends an invitation into his fascinating collection of over 350 images. Opening with a now-hilarious ad for CompuServe from 1982 that presciently promises email, up-to-the-minute news sites, and online gaming, along with of shots of the dashboard of K.I.T.T., the futuristic Trans Am from the ‘80s show Knight Rider, it's clear that the tone of the collection is one of celebration and shared nostalgia rather than cold, arch hipster irony. Some of the images are made even more remarkable by accompanying anecdotes: a tin and a Bible that both saved their respective owners' lives by stopping bullets; others are fascinating for their historical context: portraits of three women who fought as men during the Civil War; and some are just plain awe-inspiring: seriously twisted valentines from the 1930s through ‘50s. The are images of the first documented emoticons via Victorian typographical art from 1881, as well as flying cars, robot bands, and the first photograph of a human. Candid shots, such as the cast of Star Trek rocking some serious leisure suits at the dedication of the space shuttle Enterprise, Katherine Hepburn skateboarding, and Boris Karloff cutting his birthday cake in full Frankenstein makeup give the book added depth and warmth. With every page comes a surprise; this terrific collection never ceases to entertain. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Illuminated

Jackie Castle. CreateSpace, $12.99 trade paper (344p) ISBN 978-1-4811-9462-4

In the first of Castle's White Road Chronicles, 17-year-old Alyra begins to learn who she really is. Captured as a child by the ruthless king Darnel, she has no memory of where she comes from. Only when she meets with a man that Darnel has captured, a messenger of sorts, does she realize that she is somehow significant; she carries a medallion that is worn only by those who have "stood in King Shaydon's presence." Armed with this knowledge, Alyra determines to overthrow Darnel's rule and return to the land of her origin. The Christian allegory is obvious: King Shaydon represents God and Jesus Christ, and Darnel the Devil or forces of sin. Alyra's story is both heroic quest and spiritual journey, and Castle sets up the story well for the sequels. While the Christian allegory is solid, other elements are flawed. The story is set in medieval times, but the dialogue is peppered with contemporary slang, and the prose is stilted at times. This may satisfy allegory fans, but as fantasy fiction it brings little new to the genre. (Dec. 2012)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Chilled to the Bone

Quentin Bates. Soho Crime, $15.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-61695-330-0

Bates's third novel starring Icelandic Police Sergeant Gunna Gisladottir (after 2012's Cold Comfort) gives American readers the flavor of another place, but without a truly compelling storyline. Gunna is called in when the corpse of Johannes Karlsson, a haddock baron, is found in a Reykjavik hotel, tied to a bed. Bates reveals the reason for the bondage early on, showing an attractive con artist named Hekla luring another S&M client to a different hotel room, and stealing his money. Meanwhile news that three men and a woman who disappeared from Germany two years earlier have turned up dead in Libya reaches one of the minister's political advisor, leaving readers curious as to how these storylines connect. The author tosses in an ex-con muscleman nicknamed Bigfoot as well, but the ultimate resolution of the storylines is disappointing, and Gunna proves to be a rather bland lead. (Dec. 2013)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Tooth for a Tooth

T. Frank Muir. Soho Crime, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-61695-318-8

The plot of Muir's third mystery featuring Scottish Det Chief Insp. Andy Gilchrist (after 2012's Hand for a Hand) feels more contrived than the previous books. Right after Andy's ex-wife passes away, he is saved from awkward contact with the man she left him for by a professional call reporting that a woman's skeleton was found concealed in another's grave, with its skull was bashed in. As Andy begins to tackle this cold case, he is approached by the notorious American psychic Gina Belli who wants exclusive access to his life story for her next book. Belli tantalizes Andy with hints that her powers have yielded information about the death 35 years earlier of his older brother Jack in a hit-and-run accident. The storyline takes another improbable turn when his brother's initials are found on a cigarette lighter discovered near the skeleton, raising the disturbing prospect that Jack was her killer. The combination of this discovery along the entry of Belli and her supposed paranormal gifts into Andy's life will likely suspend disbelief too far for many readers, especially among lackluster writing and a poorly paced plot. (Nov. 2013)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Soy Realidad

Tomaz Salamun, trans. from the Slovenian by Michael Thomas Taren and Salamun. Dalkey Archive, $14.95 trade paper (124p) ISBN 978-1-62897-088-3

Salamun (On the Tracks of Wild Game) commands a tremendous dance along the border of reality and absurdity in this new translation of his 1985 collection. His atmospheres feel real and almost lived-in, constructed pinch-by-pinch through the incorporation of foods, languages, war scenes, and religious ritual—signs of history and culture with a cosmopolitan air; rooted in post-WWII Europe, but reaching beyond it. However, Salamun enlivens his sturdy settings with elements of the fantastical or surreal, elevating the work above what could otherwise read as a fragmented memoir. For example, in "Poppy," Salamun builds on stark hardship before making an unexpected twist: "Cover the people when I step in the area. /Throw on them blankets, tents, and powdered milk./ Dig them into the earth, I am a hamster." Or "Sierra Nevada," where Salamun presents the bizarre image of "father, the one who puts his body hair in their/ mouths, so that they can swallow thin, polished hits of pool balls." Salamun's interplay between the actual and the invented results in a graceful synthesis of the traditional and the contemporary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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