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NPR Arts & Life

This Week's 5 Must-Read Stories From NPR Books

A woman walks in front of a bookshelf at Turin's book fair on May 08, 2008.

1. Foodie Fervor

If there's one thing that trumps a great read for me, it's a great meal.

Photographer Dinah Fried seems to share my two obsessions — but she's figured out a constructive way to put them together. In this post on NPR's photography blog, The Picture Show, editor Laura Krantz says Fried's " 'Fictitious Dishes' re-create the food scenes from a range of books, largely classics like Moby Dick and The Bell Jar."

The clam chowder from Moby Dick has an especially lovely description: "It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt."

2. Naughty And Nice

There are appetites and then there are ... appetites. And for our series PG-13: Risky Reads, author Elissa Schappell wrote this essay about a time in her life where all she wanted were the "sexy bits" out of romance novels.

She liked books "whose covers featured beautiful wild-haired maidens, heaving bosoms barely contained in torn blouses, on stallions." Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, with its naughty cover, seemed like a good choice, but what Schappell read wasn't particularly titillating. Instead she found "a parade of totally unerotic sexual encounters."

At the time, she wrote off the book entirely. It made its mark on her psyche, though. "I didn't realize then," Schappell writes, "how depicting a woman with a sex drive like a man's and the freedom to act on her impulses without punishment was revolutionary." But it was — and years later when she had graduated to the world of real-life men and women, it was Fear of Flying's message of sexual fulfillment for women that "would ultimately serve me better than any romance novel," Schappell writes.

3. Mobsters And Murderers

From sex we move on, logically, to violence. In our exclusive First Read of Dennis Lehane's Live By Night, we see Boston the way the mobsters saw it during Prohibition. Car crashes, gunshots and the occasional act of arson punctuate these passages. And just for fun, there's a little romance in there, too.

Joe Coughlin is a self-described outlaw who got his start setting fire to newsstands: "One morning they'd take money from the Globe to burn down one of the Standard's stands. The next day they'd take a payoff from the American to torch the Globe's." In the course of these small-time jobs, Joe and his buddies get discovered by the mob boss Tim Hickey and taken under his wing. "When they worked a job Tim gave them, he set a flat price, but if they worked their own jobs, they paid Tim his tribute and took the lion's share for themselves. In that regard, Tim had been a great boss."

This excerpt begins when Joe gets word that Tim Hickey is dead — shot in the back of the head in a barber shop on Charles Street.

4. The Hypo In The Room

One of the best reasons to read Dennis Lehane's novel is that it gives you a surprising peek into someone else's thoughts. In a review of Noah Van Sciver's new graphic novel, The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln, Monkey See contributor Glen Weldon makes the case that graphic novels can do the same thing.

The book focuses on Abraham Lincoln before he became president and his growing depression, which he refers to in private as "The Hypo." Weldon writes that "as the book progresses and Lincoln's life grows darker — he sinks deeper into debt, his law practice dissolves, his relationship with Mary Todd founders — [the] sky lowers and grows increasingly oppressive."

In drawings, Van Sciver is able to express how oppressed Lincoln felt in his own life. Weldon writes that in Van Sciver's hands, "the sinuous patterns of ivy on a room's wallpapers take on the menacing appearance of choking tentacles."

Whether you're a lover of graphic novels or not, Weldon's argument in this piece is a powerfully persuasive one.

5. A Big, Red Anniversary

OK, time for a little nostalgic fun. Remember Clifford? How could you not? He's a dog about the size of a car, and he's bright red.

This year the giant pet turns 50, and to celebrate, NPR host Scott Simon sat down with Clifford creator Norman Bridwell and wife Norma to talk about how Clifford came about. It turns out, it was Norma's idea. Her husband was struggling to make it as an artist in New York when she said to him, "Well, you always wanted to illustrate children's books. Why don't you try that?" He did, and the result was a series of close to 90 books that have sold more than 126 million copies around the world.

Perhaps the most charming moment of this interview is when the conversation turns toward Clifford's readers. After he'd written a few books, Norman explained, kids started asking questions: "I got letters from kids asking, 'What was he like when he was born? Was he a giant puppy? [Were] his mother and father big dogs?' " Feeling they had to explain how Clifford got so big, the team decided to make him a very small puppy, who grew because he was loved so much by his human companion, the equally adorable Emily Elizabeth.

If you've made it this far and you're still looking for something delicious to read, check out this interview that Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep did with J.K. Rowling about her new novel, The Casual Vacancy.

Rosie Friedman is a member of the NPR Books team.

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