Nov. 21 2013 12:00 AM

Politics, with a poetry chaser


I'm told that by the time this week's Notes finds your inbox, it'll be snowing here in Grand Rapids. It's late enough in the year now that it makes more sense than last weekend's thunderstorm. A pile of books is next to my chair, the fireplace is ready to go - let it snow. Here's what we're reading:

Double Down
- Mark Halperin & John Heilemann.
From the guys who gave us Game Change a few years ago, here's the big political book of the season. If you've been following the news, you've probably heard some of the dishy quotes - the president reflecting that he'd become good at killing people, vitriol from the Mitt Romney/Jon Huntsman feud, more Newtisms than you can shake a microphone at. But how's the book aside from the gossip, you might be wondering?

I was pleased and relieved that the book is far less sensational than I had feared, and works as a real page-turning example of contemporary history. The 2012 presidential election was a heck of story from the primary season onward and the authors tell it concisely and well. A big chunk of pages are given to the free-for-all Republican primary season, which would undoubtedly make a great book by itself. All of the fun times you remember are here: Gov. Romney's "47%" remarks, Gov. Perry's debate flameout, Donald Trump's disruption of both parties, President Obama's disastrous first debate, Clint Eastwood's improv at the Republican convention (which was inspired by his hearing Neil Diamond's "I Am, I Said" on the radio a few hours before, supposedly), Bill Clinton's convention-stealing speech (which was not much like the version he had cleared with the POTUS staff). If the book is to be believed, a key battle of 2012 was the president's experienced and efficient re-election team vs. a Romney team that was far less organized and often at odds with each other. The authors make a pretty good case for that scenario.

The Novel Cure - Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin.
Pun intended, this is a novel idea for a book. It made me wonder why it hadn't been done before (and why I hadn't thought of it first). The authors compiled an A to Z list of life's hardships and illnesses and offer the perfect work of fiction for each to help the reader cope with and/or cure the malady. Some are no brainers - if you're dealing with too much guilt, you want Crime and Punishment; going through a divorce? If you're a man, there's probably no better read than The Sportswriter.

There's a large element of tongue-in-cheek to this book, which makes it great fun to read. It's possible a toothache can't be cured by Anna Karenina, or over-spending solved by Breakfast at Tiffany's; and if you were already having feelings of nameless dread, would you really want to spend your time lost in Something Wicked This Way Comes? Ultimately, a guide to some wonderful reading choices, wrapped in a highly entertaining format. One of the sleeper should-be hits of the season.

The Way We Ate - Noah Fecks & Paul Wagtouicz.
The authors are a couple of bloggers obsessed with the food photography, writing and recipes of a bygone era. Several bygone eras, actually, and a visit to the "The Way We Ate" blogsite is a delightful trip through advertisements, cookbooks and food magazines from the past.

So how to turn the popular blog into a book? They decided to block out 100 years, from 1901 to 2000, and invited 100 chefs, writers and food personalities to create a dish or cocktail somehow reflective of each year. If you're a fan of cooking shows, books or magazines, you'll recognize most of the contributors. They were given wide latitude in connecting their creations to a particular year, and the explanations are as fun and intriguing as the recipes are appetizing. A valuable collection of recipes that's also a blast to read - I call that a win-win.

Aimless Love - Billy Collins.
Last week I mentioned Garrison Keillor's O, What a Luxury collection of comic poetry from A Prairie Home Companion, a wickedly funny collection. I'm going with a poetry book again this week because a new Billy Collins collection is big news. Mr. Collins has been our country's Poet Laureate, the state of New York's Poet Laureate, and is one of a small handful of living poets whose books sell in large numbers. Aimless Lovereprints the cream of a few previous collections, as well as offering a generous fifty-one new works. If you're familiar with Mr. Collins' writing, you're already sharing my excitement. If not, the author's playful, witty and profound wordplay is waiting for you, and I envy you your first discovery. I can't recommend this collection highly enough.

Thanks for the many responses to my open-ended question from last week. The ambition and size of the want-to-read lists you shared made me think you should all be working for a bookstore or library. You think just like we do.

Until next week,


NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.