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Book Notes From The Underground: May 2014



American Innovations by Rivka Galchen

Following her masterful debut novel Atmospheric Disturbances (2008), Galchen returns with a set of ten stories that are at once surreal and believable. A woman wakes up having grown a third breast on her back; another woman develops a crush on a time-traveler who may or may not be her son from a future marriage; a third woman watches the contents of her home—chairs, utensils, lamps—get up and walk out. These are just a few of the situations that make up Galchen’s eerily droll stories.



Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown

The author is clearly a fan of both pro wrestling and Andre The Giant as his lovingly rendered (yet unsentimental) graphic biography will attest. Mixing myth and fact (much like a dime-store western), Brown tells Andre Rousimoff’s story with the help of recollections of his friends and contemporaries. A man of immense size (and an appetite for food, drink and sex to match), Andre the Giant—despite being ridiculed and not taken seriously—was also, according to Hulk Hogan “a gracious person with a kind heart.”



Next Life Might Be Kinder by Howard Norman

Twice nominated for the National Book Award, Norman returns with a novel about a brief, intense marriage that ends in the wife’s murder. In his grief, widower Sam Lattimore begins seeing, and talking to, his wife on the beach every night. However, after he sells the movie rights to her shocking murder story, things begin to unravel very quickly.




The Life of the Automobile: A History of the Motor Car by Steve Parissien

For the car completist, this is a soup-to-nuts (or nuts-to-bolts) history of the development of the automobile. From its start as a glorified bicycle in the 1880s to the development of alternative fuel cars of today, Parissien covers the high points (the “chrome age” in the 1950s) and the low (“the DeLorean”) in this entertaining, enthusiastic history of all-things car.



The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art by Donald N. Thompson

Welcome to the Wild, Wild West of the world of art—or so economist Thompson seems to imply as he explains how art is bought and sold. In a high risk, high-cost market, what makes a piece of art worth millions instead of thousands? “In thinking of prices, remember that the operative part of the word contemporary is ‘temporary.’ “ A fascinating look at how the art market mirrors (sometimes in a funhouse way) the financial world.



All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

OK. I have to admit that a novel about a sheep farmer living on a bleak island off the coast of England doesn’t sound like a page turner. But what if I tell you that someone (or something) is gruesomely killing her sheep? And aren’t you curious as to why her back is horribly scarred? Wyld has written an eerie, intense novel that will draw you in and keep you riveted until everything is revealed.



Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America by Donald L. Miller

How fast did Manhattan grow in the 1920s? Well, during that period, a new building was constructed in New York (on average) every hour. Historian Miller vividly conveys that hustle and bustle which created the city that defined modernity in the 20th century. Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Jimmy Walker, Helena Rubenstein, Duke Ellington, Flo Ziegfeld, and Elizabeth Arden are just a few of the people that are profiled in this paean to the birth of the New York City that we know today.



Snow in May: Stories by Kseniya Melnik

A debut collection of nine inter-linked stories all set in Magadan, a remote Russian port city. The stories are set in different decades and involve different protagonists—former Gulag prisoners, witches, KGB officers, and mothers—yet they all reflect the isolation and dire poverty of Russia’s Far East. Melnik beautifully captures this stark, forbidding world.



Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Manmade World by Mark Miodownik

Beginning with a photo of himself drinking a cup of tea on a London rooftop, Miodownik (who is the director of the wonderfully named “Institute of Making” at University College London) proceeds to examine ten objects in the photo and, with humor and insight, tell us why we should care about the physical properties of steel, concrete, chocolate (which by the way, he considers to be “one of our greatest engineering creations”), glass and several other materials. Miodownik is a gifted storyteller who makes complex science sound as fascinating as it actually is.


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