Books

Good Reads to Give and Get

From local history to stories of race track phenoms, books make the perfect gift.

LOCAL INTEREST

Humorist Frank Sullivan made his name writing on-point observational pieces for publications like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The Saturday Evening Post from the 1920s to the 1950s. He often wrote fondly of his hometown, Saratoga Springs, where he worked at the race track as a boy and later at The Saratogian newspaper. A collection of humorous and wise pieces by the “Sage of Saratoga” are found in Frank Sullivan at His Best, the 2017 pick by Saratoga Reads, the community-wide reading initiative.

Saratoga Springs has had a long history of having been a haven for gangsters dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the city’s high-stakes gambling clubs attracted notorious mobsters and other criminals. Saratoga’s chief of police, Greg Veitch, pored through historical archives to write All the Law in the World Wouldn’t Stop Them: Crime, Corruption and Gambling in Saratoga Springs, 1821 to 1921. Veitch lays bare Saratoga’s seamier side with tales about murder, extortion, theft and corruption linked to the city’s rich and colorful past.

The Lovings: An Intimate Portrait is a touching tribute to Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple whose interracial marriage led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision 50 years ago, striking down anti-miscegenation laws. Photojournalist Grey Villet, who lived locally in Shushan in Washington County at the time of his death in 2000, captured intimate images while visiting the couple’s home for Life magazine; the photos were later uncovered during the making of an HBO documentary and are presented here with moving text by Villet’s wife Barbara.

Also noted: Renowned Adirondack photographer Carl Heilman II’s latest book The Adirondacks: Season by Season captures Adirondack scenes photographed throughout the year in a stunning tribute to one of America’s great wilderness areas. 

NON-FICTION

Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, spent the last six weeks of his life writing his memoirs at a summer cottage a few miles north of Saratoga Springs, now a state historic site open to visitors. Learn all about one of the nation’s most compelling, complicated and oft-misunderstood leaders in Grant, an illuminating new biography by Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow, whose Alexander Hamilton was the inspiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical Hamilton.

Saratoga Springs resident Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine, raises the alarm about rapidly rising sea levels in The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. As the polar ice caps melt and temperatures steadily rise from global warming, we move closer to a flooded world. Goodell’s eye-opening and well-researched book offers the definitive account of the coming deluge, what it will mean for the planet and how we can prepare.

For some Americans, the 2008 Recession led to a new kind of “retirement” plan: one that found tens of thousands of older citizens traveling the country in late-model RVs and vans to form a community of nomadic laborers working seasonal jobs. Author Jessica Bruder tells their stories in Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Bruder traveled the country in her own secondhand vehicle to get to know her subjects more intimately. She wrote some of the incisive book during a stay at Yaddo, the Saratoga Springs art colony, and discussed her eye-opening perspective on the American workforce at a Northshire Bookstore event in November. 

Also noted: An orange cat named Cooper, the mascot and designated vermin-catcher at the Capital Region’s Albany Distilling Co., takes a star turn in Distillery Cats: Profiles in Courage of the World’s Most Spirited Mousers by Brad Thomas Parsons, an enjoyable look at the felines who provide pest control for some of the world’s top distilleries.

FICTION

Author Lisa Ko mingled with local fans during a special author lunch at Hattie’s restaurant in November, where Ko discussed her commended debut novel The Leavers, a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award. The moving and beautifully written book bases its premise around the morning Deming Guo’s mother Polly — an undocumented immigrant — leaves for her job at a nail salon and never returns. The book is especially salient today, given the recent immigration raids in cities like Saratoga Springs that are seemingly snatching people off the streets with little public fanfare.

A mysterious artist and single mother arrives in the placid community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, bringing a shadowy past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend the carefully planned suburb in Little Fires Everywhere, the engrossing new book by Celeste Ng that is shaping up to be one of the bestreceived fiction novels of the year. As is Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, an oddly fantastical and very inventive novel (that won the Man Booker Prize this year) about ghosts inhabiting the cemetery where the son of Abraham Lincoln rests.

Also noted: The Devil’s Room, authored by Saratoga Living scribe Jeff Durstewitz under the name Joe Fegan, is an Irish Gothic comedy-mystery based on a real-life premise: Ireland has a tax exemption for writers, which leads the main character – an author modeled after Durstewitz’ college professor – to settle there in a brooding old house, which is the site of strange “manifestations.”

KIDS

Whether a Saratoga Springs chef named George Crum was the very first to invent the potato chip is a matter of historic debate, but few doubt he did popularize them while cooking at Cary Moon’s Lakehouse, an upscale Saratoga Springs restaurant that catered to wealthy Manhattan families. A new picture book, Mr. Crum’s Potato Predicament, for children in the preschool to third grade range, relays the legend through rich illustrations by Felicita Sala and text by author Anne Renaud, telling the inspiring story of Crum, a trapper of mixed Native American and African American descent, who succeeded against the odds to become a successful chef and restaurateur. 

A boy’s father takes him on a character-building wilderness adventure along the Lewis and Clark Trail in The Courage Test, a young adult novel (9-12 years) by acclaimed local author James Preller that blends American history, exciting action and personal discovery. The boy senses that something about this trip isn’t quite right; in the end, he faces his own life-changing test of courage along with new thrills like whitewater rapids and wildlife encounters. 

Also noted: Hudson Valley resident Iza Trapani, author of the best-selling children’s book The Itsy Bitsy Spider, is back with a winsome picture book for 2-to 5-year-olds; Old MacDonald Had a… Zoo? retells the classic “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” with a twist, delighting readers with appearances by a wayward kangaroo, elephant and zebra.

Kirsten Ferguson is the arts editor of Saratoga Living.

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