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Picks and Pans Main: Books

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Half Broke Horses

by Jeannette Walls |



Raised by turn-of-the-century homesteaders in West Texas, Lily Casey Smith, the author’s grandmother, lived in a world where you had to do what you had to do. For her, that meant breaking horses, wielding a six-shooter and, at 15, riding 500 miles across the desert to take a job as a traveling schoolteacher. In a fictionalized biography written in Smith’s voice, Walls—whose memoir The Glass Castle chronicled the rock-bottom deprivations of her own childhood—pays eloquent tribute to a pragmatic heroine who grew up with the West. Walls’ protagonist races mustangs and trounces cowboys at the poker table; later, as a rancher’s wife, she nurtures a dream of becoming a bush pilot and plunks down $5 for a flying lesson. Her family is shocked at the extravagance, but Smith explains, “I could bring in cash dusting crops and delivering mail and flying rich people around.” (Instead, she staves off bankruptcy by selling hooch that she stashes under her son’s crib.) Like its subject, Horses is a powerhouse—fast-moving, fearless and impossible to forget.

But Not For Long



Set during a summer electrical blackout in a lakeside neighborhood in Madison, Wis., this atmospheric second novel by Wildgen (You’re Not You) revolves around three do-gooders who live together in a moldering cooperative house devoted to sustainable food and other trendy causes. Over the course of three days with-out power, tensions erupt between newcomer Greta, a strident college fund-raiser with an alcoholic ex-husband, and her more entrenched housemates: Hal, an employee at a nonprofit food bank, and Karin, a young reporter for Dairy Now magazine. An evocative look at the green movement that includes improbably interesting passages on everything from artisanal cheese caves to the joys of hunting for morels in a damp forest, But Not for Long is also a stirring meditation on modern angst and the meaning of selflessness.

Manhood for Amateurs

by Michael Chabon |



Chabon trains his twinkling novelist’s eye on the mirror in these essays, finding faults but also satisfaction and cause for laughter. There are tales of modern horror (he admits he carries a “murse”—a man-purse), reckoning with the unknowable (a piece on David Foster Wallace and his suicide) and entries on the comedy of raising kids (his are Dr. Who-saturated geeks). As always, Chabon’s prose acrobatics provide brainy entertainment.

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance

by Elna Baker |



When Baker—an adventurous Seattle native raised as a Mormon—chose NYU over Brigham Young University, her shocked mother pulled her aside. “Elna,” she said, “what would you do if a lesbian tried to make out with you?” With that, Baker relocated to the city her mom had once referred to as “Babylon.” She struggled to balance her free-spirit boldness with an unbreakable devotion to her faith: “While I say ‘no’ to certain things (sex, drugs, alcohol),” she writes, “I try to say ‘yes’ to everything else.” The “everything else” part—wearing sexy clothes after losing 80 lbs., having her first real kiss at age 22, falling for an atheist—is the soul of this wicked-funny debut. Baker is both self-absorbed and generous, whip-smart and naïve; she apologizes for none of it. “Whatever,” Baker thinks after a particularly steamy kissing session. “I’m not a saint, latter-day or otherwise.” If only we all had so much faith in ourselves.