america farm to tableThe beautifully produced America, Farm to Table at times has the feel of being two different books sewn together. And that’s not a bad thing.

On one hand, celebrity master chef Batali comes through again with an inspired collection of appetizers, soups, main dishes, sandwiches, and desserts. Most of his more than 100 recipes, unsurprisingly, have an Italian spin. Standouts include a potato and salami cheesecake, black risotto with oysters and fennel, minestrone Genovese, and Batali’s grandmother’s fettuccine with sparerib sauce.

Complementing Batali’s pieces are the sections written by Webster, an editor at the Washington Post and self-described “culinary adventurer.” He has traveled to 14 cities across the country, interviewing a chef, and that chef’s supplier, in each. The result is a highly entertaining behind-the scenes look at the business of small farming. In Nashville, chef Erik Anderson of the Catbird Seat and chicken farmer Karen Overton colorfully explain the 60-day trip her chicks take from hatchling to entrée, snacking on oyster shells from the restaurant and listening to the radio in their barn (NPR, of course). And in Tampa, Webster meets chef Greg Baker and his pork producer, Rebecca Krassnoski, who coaxes her hogs to their final reward not by wielding an electric prod but by proffering blueberry doughnuts. (description from publisher)

last great walkIn 1909, Edward Payson Weston walked from New York to San Francisco, covering around 40 miles a day and greeted by wildly cheering audiences in every city. The New York Times called it the ” first bona-fide walk . . . across the American continent,” and eagerly chronicled a journey in which Weston was beset by fatigue, mosquitos, vicious headwinds, and brutal heat. He was 70 years old.

In The Last Great Walk, journalist Wayne Curtis uses the framework of Weston’s fascinating and surprising story, and investigates exactly what we lost when we turned away from foot travel, and what we could potentially regain with America’s new embrace of pedestrianism. From how our brains and legs evolved to accommodate our ancient traveling needs to the way that American cities have been designed to cater to cars and discourage pedestrians, Curtis guides readers through an engaging, intelligent exploration of how something as simple as the way we get from one place to another continues to shape our health, our environment, and even our national identity. Not walking, he argues, may be one of the most radical things humans have ever done. (description from publisher)

a nice little placeIn A Nice Little Place on the North Side, columnist George Will returns to baseball with a deeply personal look at his hapless Chicago Cubs and their often beatified home, Wrigley Field, as it turns one hundred years old.

Baseball, Will argues, is full of metaphors for life, religion, and happiness, and Wrigley is considered one of its sacred spaces. But what is its true, hyperbole-free history? Winding beautifully like Wrigley’s iconic ivy, Will’s meditation on “The Friendly Confines” examines both the unforgettable stories that forged the field’s legend and the larger-than-life characters – from Wrigley and Ruth to Veeck, Durocher, and Banks – who brought it glory, heartbreak, and scandal. Drawing upon his trademark knowledge and inimitable sense of humor, Will also explores his childhood connections to the team, the Cubs’ future, and what keeps long-suffering fans rooting for the home team after so many years of futility.

In the end, A Nice Little Place on the North Side is more than just the history of a ballpark. It is the story of Chicago, of baseball, and of America itself. (description from publisher)

follow the moneyWhat do you do if you want to really understand a country, to understand its people and feel its heartbeat? You can follow the rest of the tourists, or you can take the advice of Watergate reporter Bob Woodward’s source, ‘Deep Throat’, and ‘follow the money.’

Starting out in Lebanon, Kansas – the geographical center of America –  journalist Steve Boggan did just that in Follow the Money by setting free a ten-dollar-bill and accompanying it on an epic journey for thirty days and thirty nights through six states, across 3,000 miles armed only with a sense of humor and a small, and increasingly grubby, set of clothes. As he cuts crops with farmers in Kansas, pursues a repo-woman from Colorado, gets wasted with a blues band in Arkansas and hangs out at a quarterback’s mansion in St Louis, Boggan enters the lives of ordinary people as they receive – and pass on – the bill. What emerges is a chaotic, affectionate and funny portrait of the real modern-day America. (description from publisher)

longest roadIn The Longest Road one of America’s most respected writers takes an epic journey across America, Airstream in tow, and asks everyday Americans what unites and divides a country as endlessly diverse as it is large.

Standing on a wind-scoured island off the Alaskan coast, Philip Caputo marveled that its Inupiat Eskimo schoolchildren pledge allegiance to the same flag as the children of Cuban immigrants in Key West, six thousand miles away. A question began to take shape: How does the United States, peopled by every race on earth, remain united? Caputo resolved that one day he’d drive from the nation’s southernmost point to the northernmost point reachable by road, talking to everyday Americans about their lives and asking how they would answer his question. So it was that in 2011 Caputo, his wife and their two English setters made their way in a truck and classic trailer (hereafter known as “Fred” and “Ethel”) from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska, covering 16,000 miles. He spoke to everyone from a West Virginia couple saving souls to a Native American shaman and taco entrepreneur. What he found is a story that will entertain and inspire readers as much as it informs them about the state of today’s United States, the glue that holds us all together, and the conflicts that could cause us to pull apart. (description from publisher)

appalachian trailCompleted in 1937 by a small cadre of volunteers, the Appalachian Trail spans fourteen states from Maine to Georgia and is more than 2,000 miles long. Now, 75 years after its completion, the A.T. remains America’s premier hiking trail and is known as “the People’s Path.” Visitors from all over the world are drawn to the trail for a variety of reasons: to reconnect with nature, to escape the stress of city life, to meet new people, or to experience a simpler life. Out of three million annual visitors, almost 2,000 attempt to earn the distinction of “thru-hiker” by walking all five million footsteps in one continuous journey.

The only illustrated book officially published with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, The Appalachian Trail explores highlights of this legendary footpath with more than 250 spectacular contemporary images, historical photos and documents from the ATC archives, and detailed maps pinpointing each location along the trail. Readers can experience the trail as if their boots were on the path–passing by the iconic white trail blazes, taking in the surrounding wilderness at scenic overlooks, meeting other hikers at lean-tos or shelters, freezing at the sight of a black bear, moose, or other majestic wildlife.

With fascinating essays on topics ranging from the history of the trail to the hiking experience, this book is perfect for anyone interested in conservation, outdoor recreation, or American history, or for those who dream of one day becoming thru-hikers themselves. (description from publisher)

American Canopy is a fascinating and unique historical work that tells the remarkable story of the relationship between Americans and trees across the entire span of our nation’s history.

The history of trees in America is no less remarkable than the history of the United States itself–from the majestic white pines of New England, coveted by the British Crown for use as masts in navy warships, to the orange groves of California, which lured settlers west. In fact, without the country’s vast forests and the hundreds of tree species they contained, there would have been no ships, docks, railroads, stockyards, wagons, barrels, furniture, newspapers, rifles, or firewood. No New York City, Miami, or Chicago. No Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, or Daniel Boone. America – if indeed it existed – would be a very different place without its millions of acres of trees.

As Eric Rutkow’s epic account shows, trees are indivisible from the country’s rise as both an empire and a civilization. Never before has anyone treated our country’s trees and forests as the subject of a broad historical study, and the result is an accessible, informative, and thoroughly entertaining read. (description from publisher)

If the slowly lengthening nights and cooling winds have you longing for the perfect title to take with you under the covers, check out any one of these lush, engrossing novels.

In Amanda Coplin’s dense debut novel The Orchardist, an orchard farmer called Talmadge has been tending the same grove of fruit trees in the foothills of the Cascades for half a century. His life is changed forever by the appearance of two young sisters and the violent men who trail them. This turn-of-the-century America is as wild as it can be: a nation where solitude is genuine and there truly are places that the law just doesn’t reach.

The Crimson Petal and the White offers a lurid, intoxicating look at the oft-visited streetwalkers, orphans, and gentle ladies of Victorian England. From the high to the low, the people who make up this fabled society are brought together through the dreams of a surprisingly well-read young prostitute named Sugar. Author Michael Faber invokes the gas-lit ambiance of that era but tinges his narrative with an irresistible modernity that makes this novel unique.

Margaret Atwood is my favorite author. You probably know her for her famous dystopian masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale, but forget all about that and read The Blind Assassin instead. In this Booker Prize winner, Atwood traces the history of two sisters: Laura Chase, a novelist who dies mysteriously in her twenties, and Iris Chase, who recounts their story as an octegenarian. There is a novel within this novel, written by Laura; within Laura’s novel, there’s a novel within a novel within a novel: a science fiction tale called “The Blind Assassin” as told to Laura by her lover. It sounds impossibly convoluted, but it just works – Atwood’s genius isn’t just plotting, but stunning language: years later, sentences from this gorgeous book will still be rattling around in your brain. It’s unforgettable.

These true tales range from the funny and flippant to the gritty and gruesome. Give nonfiction audio a try! You may find that nonfiction (which doesn’t always have a strong narrative thread you need to follow) is ideal for listening in stops and starts.

  • Devil in the White City by Erik Larson; this gripping tale of a serial killer at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago is so spellbinding, you’ll want to extend your commute to hear more!
  • Bossypants by Tina Fey, read by the author: this book is shriekingly funny. Truly one of the best audio books around – Fey is witty and direct, never sappy, and always gut-bustingly hilarious.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; a universally praised book that mixes science with history and family drama.
  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns by Mindy Kaling Lexie reviewed the book, and I agree with her: this book is FUNNY. You’ll want to be best friends with Mindy by the end.
  • I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron: Ephron’s candid observations on life and getting older are enjoyable and crisply humorous.
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers: The gritty true story of the tribulations of Abduhlraman Zeitoun and his family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
  • At Home by Bill Bryson, read by the author: see my review for a longer rant on the excellence of this very excellent book.
  • The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell, read by the author: You know Sarah Vowell’s voice already – she vocalized for Violet in Pixar’s The Incredibles. You’ll also recognize the many luminaries/musicians/comedians/TV personalities who make cameos in her delectable book – Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert, for example. Oh, and it’s full of intelligent and interesting essays about history and American culture, too.

The quintessential boom-and-bust highway of the American West, Route 66 once hosted a thriving array of boom towns built around oil wells, railroad stops, cattle ranches, resorts, stagecoach stops, and gold mines.

Join Route 66 expert Jim Hinckley in Ghost Towns of Route 66 as he tours more than 25 ghost towns, rich in stories and history, complemented by gorgeous sepia-tone and color photography by Kerrick James. This book also includes directions and travel tips for your own ghost-town explorations along Route 66 as you explore the beauty and nostalgia of these abandoned communities along America’s favorite highway. (description from publisher)