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Oct 13 , 2011
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Fifth annual Fall Books Guide

Fiction

“Jak Barley – Private Inquisitor and the Temple of Dorga Fish Headed God of Death”

By Dan Ehl

Rogue Phoenix Press; 338 pp; $17.95

Growing up in small-town Iowa, I was eager to read Dan Ehl’s weekly newspaper columns. He wrote about interesting, out-of-the-box ideas, and his stories sometimes shocked small-town readers. And although I enjoyed his yearly hitchhiking adventures the most, I was intrigued when I heard he had a new fantasy adventure. At first glance, “Jak Barley – Private Inquisitor and the Temple of Dorga Fish Headed God of Death” seemed like two or three different stories, so I wasn’t sure if I was going to read about Jak Barley – Private Inquisitor, the Temple of Dorga or a Fish Headed God of Death. Luckily, all were included in this intriguing fantasy thriller, and I soon forgave the lengthy title. Readers will become immersed in mystery, as our hero, Jak Barley, searches for the real killer of “Master Tgnatys, the richest guildmeister in Duburoake.” And what starts as a seemingly straightforward story twists and turns throughout, engaging readers to find the truth. Although this is geared toward fantasy readers, mystery fans might also enjoy Jak Barley’s adventure. — Jared Curtis

“This Is Not Your City”
By Caitlin Horrocks
Sarabande Books, Inc.; 169 pp; $15.95

“This Is Not Your City,” a collection of short stories by Caitlin Horrocks, is uncommon. Uncommonly good. These are unique stories — completely different from each other and likely completely different from anything else you might have read. Each of the lead characters is female, and each story is written boldly and clearly, as if Horrocks was recording fact, not fiction. While these stories are inventive in their story lines, they seem quite genuine. Some are written as first-person narratives, while others are in third person. Each story is saturated with enough detail to ring true and plenty of emotion to satisfy. While these stories are quick-yet-complete, there is enough of an ending to satisfy a reader. The plots run from a childhood friendship to a mail order bride. Though the stories do end, it is clear that each of these memorable women must continue. These stories show very different lives that are often difficult. This collection of stories will surely have you grateful that Horrocks is not telling your life story. You will want more of “This is Not Your City.” — Karen Ericson

“Imperfect Birds”
By Anne Lamott
Riverhead Books/Penguin Group; 317 pp; $15 
The “Imperfect Birds” of Anne Lamott’s seventh novel are members of a small family and their closest friends. The book spans a few months of their lives in California, highlighting 17-year-old Rosie, who acts like she wants out of the nest yesterday. Her mother and stepfather strive to manage Rosie’s — and their own — patterns of flying, falling and trying again. Their friends variously enable and confront the family’s imperfect, very human behaviors. I didn’t expect to like this book. Its portrait of a family’s struggles with substance abuse, teen sexuality, control and depression kept reminding me of hard years employed as a social worker. But I did enjoy it, although not as much as the other books by Lamott I’ve read. While “Imperfect Birds” lacks the humor common to most of Lamott’s writings, it has phrases so well-written that I winced or smiled upon reading them. The characters are likeable, and there’s enough hope with the heartaches to make this book worth reading past the first dire strait. There’s more to the story in prequels “Rosie” and “Crooked Little Heart,” but “Imperfect Birds” easily flies on its own. — Kathy Ericson

Non-fiction

“Seven Deadly Sins”

By Corey Taylor

Da Capo Press; 272 pp; $24

To some, Corey Taylor is a god; to others, he’s just the mask-wearing frontman of Slipknot. But no matter which side you fall on, it should be clear that Taylor is no author. His book, “Seven Deadly Sins,” is a muddled mess of true-life stories combined with never-ending rants based on the subject of sin. While some of the book works, especially the random stories Taylor tells of growing up and partying in Des Moines, they’re hidden few and far between. As a reader, I wanted to know more about these stories. I wanted to read more about house parties and back stage debauchery and read less of his thoughts. I’m guessing fans of Taylor’s music will enjoy this book, as it’s a chaotic mess of fact and fiction. But if you’re looking for a wild rock and roll memoir, you’ve come to the wrong place. — Jared Curtis

“Yoga Bitch”
By Suzanne Morrison
Three Rivers Press (Random House); 336 pp; $15
The book title, “Yoga Bitch,” caught my eye, but it was the blurb on the cover that intrigued me enough to read it — “One woman’s quest to conquer skepticism, cynicism and cigarettes on the path to enlightenment.” Who among us hasn’t sought self-improvement as well as answers to some of life’s big questions? Like most of us, Morrison thought she had life pretty well figured out when she was a teenager. Then Sept. 11, 2001, happened. A first-person memoir, “Yoga Bitch” is written from the author’s 10-year old journals supported with recent reflection. While Morrison had tried yoga once or twice, it never stuck. In the fall of 2001, however, she gave yoga a genuine try and fell in love. Soon she was packing her bags and heading to Bali for an extended yoga retreat. Funny, sarcastic and honest, this book covers big themes (God, life, death, love) and seeks to answer some smaller, decidedly more yoga-centric questions. “Yoga Bitch” is part love story, part travel book, and while yoga is covered throughout, it’s not just meant for yoga practicers. It is an entertaining and thought-provoking read. — Karen Ericson

Photos

“The Rock & Roll Alphabet”

By Jeffrey Schwartz

Mojo Hand LLC; 60 pp; $14.95

Filled with iconic band photos from rock photographer Chuck Boyd, “The Rock & Roll Alphabet” is a great way to practice your ABCs while getting an eye-catching lesson in rock and roll. The book runs through the alphabet, highlighting one act per letter. From the opening letter, “A is for Aretha, oft referred to as the Queen,” to its final letter, “Z is for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention,” the book takes readers on a magical trip through the 1960s and ’70s. Although the standards are all there — B is for Beatles, K is for Kiss, L is for Led Zeppelin, Q is for Queen and W is for The Who — I enjoyed the lesser-known acts getting attention like H is for The Hollies. And even though one letter is a stretch — X is for T. Rex — I was glad it was included. Although it’s a quick read, I could analyze the photos for hours. “The Rock & Roll Alphabet” is the perfect gift for a new parent who is musically inclined or anyone who loves classic rock. — Jared Curtis

Self Help

The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life (Go Away!)”

By Megan Rowland and Chris Turner-Neal

Adams Media; 224 pp; $14.95

When reading a book, it’s nice to get away from everyone and lose yourself in the story. “The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life (Go Away!)” is the perfect book to read alone because it promotes living a shut-off life from the idiots overrunning society. Consider it instructions for a curmudgeon. The book sets its hilarious tone from the opening pages with a definition — Misanthrope, n.: 1.) One who hates mankind; a curmudgeon; a loner; 2.) The guy in your office who responded to your email of baby photos with “D-. Passing, but not college material”; 3.) A Realist — and doesn’t slow down until the end with chapters like “Planes, Trains, Automobiles and Sons of Bitches,” “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere: Does That Mean I get to Go Home Now?” and “If A Man’s Home Is His Castle, Why Can’t I Get a Moat.” So roll your eyes or scoff at the idiot in front of you and enjoy “The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life (Go Away!).” You’ll be annoyed if you don’t. — Jared Curtis

‘The Universal Code of (Formerly) Unwritten Rules’

By Quentin Parker

Adams Media, 227 pp., $13.95

Thank you, Quentin Parker, for finally writing them down. “The Universal Code of (Formerly) Unwritten Rules” is an ironic stroke of humor and veracity. Opera fans have lauded Dr. Phil for “telling it like it is,” and everyone loves to hate the sinister Simon Cowell, “American Idol’s” villainous judge, for the same trait. So we might as well throw author Quentin Parker in there, too. Though we may not want to hear it, and we might never admit it, all three of them are telling us the simple, brutal truth. Deal with it, Parker says. And I agree.

His book of “251 uncompromising laws of common civility that we wish everyone knew” tells it like it is officially. Now there’s a rule book, so no more excuses for being jerks. Without taking itself too seriously like a typical self-help book, this one is about being accountable for your own decisions and actions and their consequences. The book will make you realize it’s not just your world you live in; what you do affects the world around you, too.

From the (formerly) unwritten rules of the road to those of the workplace, Parker’s observations and advice are thoughtful, necessary and kind of mean. But, as they say, the truth hurts. Throughout this book, every man and woman will undoubtedly find at least a dozen things he or she is guilty of and should probably change in order to be a better person. If you don’t think you have personality, social or behavioral problems, you haven’t self-diagnosed with this book. — Amber Williams

Food

“Oh My Gosh! I’m in College and I Never Learned to Cook”

By Hollis Ledbetter

Tate Publishing; 220 pp; $22.99

Last decade, several colleges began reporting that the majority of their incoming freshmen no longer knew how to cook anything at all. Author Hollis Ledbetter heard that same message in phone calls from all three of her daughters. So after cooking for them and making sure they ate nutritiously for 20 years, she shifted her attention toward teaching them how to do the same for themselves. This book starts out simply, with scrambled eggs, tuna melts and guacamole. By the end it progresses to scratch-made soups, fritters and ginger chicken. Every recipe fits easily on a single page, most on half a page, with fonts large enough to comfort a college student’s grandmother. — Jim Duncan

“Heartland: The Cookbook”

By Judith Fertig

Andrews McMeel Publishing; 304 pp; $35

Some 20 years ago, Alice Waters was interrupted at James Beard House with a scolding: “That’s not cooking, it’s shopping.”

“You’re finally starting to understand,” she replied.

Since then, America has learned that great cooking begins with careful shoppers. This is the best exegesis of Midwestern cuisine since Betty Fussell’s “I Hear American Cooking” 25 years ago. Like Fussell, Fertig sought out artisans, farmers and chefs who still do the hard work of preparing foods the best, rather than fastest, way. Like Fussell, she keenly chose dishes and products that define regional histories. Unlike Fussell’s book, Fertig’s is gorgeously illustrated thanks to photos from two superb photographers, Jonathan Chester and Ben Pieper. It updates Fussell by visiting many new food artisans who have revived old methods, including several Iowans Cityview has been touting for years. — Jim Duncan

“The Bonne Femme Cookbook”

By Wini Moranville

Harvard Common Press; 432 pp; $24.95

Wini Moranville demystifies American trepidation about French cuisine. Her book, subtitled “Simple Splendid Food That French Women Cook Everyday,” takes a Rachel Ray approach to preparing popular French foods without fuss or pretension. The 250 recipes represent both the old and the new France with classic comfort foods like Coq au Vin and Beef Bourguinon sharing the pages with colonial imports like Moroccan Spiced Chicken. Moranville also lightens the intimidation factor that has scared so many American cooks away from French cuisine with lighthearted prose and a hearty appreciation of distinctly French beverages like Kir, The Sidecar and French 75. — Jim Duncan

“The Food of a Younger Land”

By Mark Kurlansky

Riverhead Hardcover; 416 pp; $27.95

Mark Kurlansky is America’s best food scholar. His “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World” and “The Big Oyster: History on a Half Shell” turned seemingly microcosmic subjects into earth shaking studies that read like thrillers. Subtitled “A portrait of American food before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional and traditional - from the WPA files,” this new book is far from his best work. It’s barely his work at all as it’s mostly the collected works of writers commissioned in the 1930s to compile a never-completed book about regional food. The Midwest gets slighted — “Nebraskans Eat the Wieners” is one chapter, and Chicago is omitted, although we are told that the great Nelson Algren submitted nearly 100 pages on Windy City food. — Jim Duncan

Memoirs

‘The House of Yes, an Erotic Memoir’

By Susan Jay

Smith Publicity Inc., 132 pp., $22.95

Nothing will make you lick your lips and blush quite like reading “The House of Yes,” by Susan Jay. The title says it all. This erotic memoir is as confessional, arousing and sexy from front to back as the author herself. Though she claims to have written it for men as a way for them to understand the sexual female creature, it’s undoubtedly a good read for anyone who is interested in human relationships, especially sexual ones. It’s not a smut piece or a trashy romance novel. It’s a true story of a woman and her own sexual experiences — good and bad.

As a woman, you can relate (whether or not you’re bold enough to admit it), and as a man, you can be relieved as Jay derails the common misconception that women don’t like to get just as down and dirty as you do.

She calls herself a mistress, which doesn’t mean “the other woman” to a married man; in fact, adultery goes against one of her few sexual rules. But rather, she is a lover to a selection of men whom she respects and molests all in the same breathtaking paragraph. Her take on sex is honest, practical and real. She views it not only as an orgasmic activity and expression of love, but also as a learning experience as she unscrambles the unique erotic needs and desires of the individual men she explores.

Whether you’re reading it alone or with a lover, this memoir is a universal aphrodisiac. — Amber Williams

‘Truck, a Quarter-Life Crisis Handled Poorly’

By Eric Hall West

Outskirts Press, 272 pp., $18.95

The drag of realizing you’re not a kid anymore hits us all at different times in life, and as with most things, it’s probably best to take it in stride and keep your sense of humor. Eric Hall West manages to do so in his sadly amusing memoir, “Truck, a Quarter-Life Crisis Handled Poorly.” Stuck in the tedium of corporate America, at the age of 25, West whimsically decides to shuck the slavery of his mundane cycles of routine and become an over-the-road trucker.

Although he pays most of his attention to the quirks and oddities of his classmates in trucker school, West surprisingly passes the course and is ready for the road when he realizes his only experience in actually driving a manual stick shift he gained from the local arcade. Some of his descriptions of other lowly truckers he encounters and his own follies, such as when he gets caught in the noose of his seatbelt, might bring you to tears with laughter, while other parts are more pointed and intriguing about the trucking industry in general.

Traveling with West through his tale of becoming a trucker is just as thought-provoking and informative as it is amusingly pitiful and entertaining. You’ll be surprised by what you learn of the demands of the occupation and likely find yourself feeling more sympathetic toward truckers on the road as a result. It’s a confusing mix of excitement and overwhelm, as West takes you with him on his quarter-life crisis. The fact that it’s so relatable to every other common person and ordinary life experience is the sad realization that hits you midway through the book. It’s amazing what people will do to try to break the monotony of the day, though in the end, I wouldn’t advise becoming a trucker. — Amber Williams

Historical

‘Images of America: African Americans of Des Moines and Polk County’

By Honesty Parker

Arcadia Publishing, 127 pp., $21.99

As you may have guessed, most of central Iowa’s African American residents are here because their ancestors were runaway slaves fleeing along the Underground Railroad. Looking back, Des Moines and Polk County townships can boast tolerance and acceptance despite a time of racist prejudice and oppression, but even its history is riddled with victory and defeat, opportunity and loss, freedom and slavery.

Those tales are told in “African Americans of Des Moines and Polk County,” by Honesty Parker, as part of the Images of America non-fiction series. Armed with old black and white photographs dating as far back as the early 19th century, courtesy of the now obsolete Des Moines Tribune and Iowa Bystander, as well as local family albums, Parker offers an inspiring celebration of the area’s first black residents — who they were, how they got here, where they came from and what they did.

Anyone who enjoys history would be pleased to fan through the pages of this book, as it is eye-catching and easy to read. The story is told in photo captions, making it the kind of book that you can just pick up, open to any page and learn something interesting and new about Des Moines and Polk County heritage. It’s a proud read, too, to see how far we’ve come from where we were. — Amber Williams CV



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