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Picks and Pans Main: Books

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Too Much Happiness

by Alice Munro |



“When a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind,” observes a character in the title story of Munro’s affecting 11th collection. “A woman … carries everything that happened in the room along with her.” Which doesn’t mean, of course, that she knows what she’s got. Again and again in these 10 tales, women are shocked into rethinking events and interactions that have shaped them, discovering new, often devastating truths. In “Fiction,” a teacher sees how her selfishness during a long-ago breakup affected a student she’d barely noticed. In “Child’s Play,” a friend’s dying request makes an anthropologist face up to the shared crime of their youth. There are freeing realizations as well: Saving an accident victim enables the wife in “Dimensions” to finally cut ties with her husband–who’s in prison for the murder of their children.

The wisdom here, for the most part, is the kind that comes with age, and you can feel Munro, who’s 78, grappling with mortality. Of a summer camp in its waning days, she writes, “It had begun to crumple at the edges, to reveal itself as something provisional.” Not unlike life itself.

Ford County

by John Grisham |



Grisham’s first story collection is set in the Mississippi county he invented for 1989’s A Time to Kill. The area’s intrigue and sorrow fuel these fine tales, which are linked as well by Grisham’s sympathy for his characters. A vendetta-holding data collector, a mom with a son on death row, a man dying of AIDS: Each wins you over in surprising ways.

Last Words

by George Carlin |



In this posthumous memoir, Carlin, who died last year at 71, details his evolution from jokester to subversive comic whose “seven words you can never say on television” bit–said on television of course–was ruled indecent by the Supreme Court. Though he discusses his cocaine addiction and paints himself as a loner, Carlin mostly sticks to talking about his craft. Looking ahead, he proposes a one-man show featuring characters from his Harlem childhood. Sadly, the curtain fell before that next act.

Cherries in Winter

by Suzan Colon |



Perfectly in sync with today’s tough times, Colon’s slender memoir recounts how the women in her family used ingenuity and optimism to face down the wolf at the door. After losing her job as a magazine editor, Colon turned to her grandmother’s recipe collection, begun during the Great Depression, for ideas about economizing. But her Nana’s notes and recipes prove to be more than just artifacts from the bad old days–they offer “proof that we’ve been through worse than this and … come out okay.” As Colon cooks her way through history, she reconnects with her mother and long-dead grandmother. Cherries illustrates the difference between broke and poor, using recipes–simple, sturdy and inexpensive–as well as family wisdom to show that when poverty looms, your best weapon may be a well-nourished soul.


by Sandra Brown |



Inspired by Brown’s grandfather’s life in Texas in the 1930s, this novel is a warm, nostalgic detour from the suspense queen’s comfort zone. Ella Barron, a scrappy, hardened single mother of an “idiot savant” son, takes on a new tenant in her boardinghouse, David Rainwater. He’s dying of cancer, but that’s not the only reason his presence shakes her to her core: There’s the rapport he develops with her shut-off son, plus a romantic tension that keeps the plot simmering. It’s melodramatic (those thriller instincts die hard) but satisfying.

It Takes Two

by Patrizia Chen |



Just try to read this book without wanting to hop on the first flight to Buenos Aires. Filled with lush descriptions of the city’s old-world neighborhoods, sumptuous restaurants and milongas (tango clubs), the tale follows Francesca, a sexy, fiftysomething socialite and travel writer in a passionless marriage who goes to Argentina for a last-minute assignment. There she meets a colorful group of locals who introduce her to tango dancing and, naturally, a hot doctor who cures all that ails her and more. Breezy fun.