The True Story of Ronald Reagan Middleton
Ben Gwin’s complex debut novel is based around a fictional reality television sensation, Clean Time, that has catapulted various interested parties—from pharmaceutical corporations to rehab centers—to unimaginable wealth. For a handful of addicts, time spent on Clean Time has resulted in exceptional fame, but none more so than Ronald Reagan Middleton. But now he’s missing. Gwin’s novel is set up as a record of two men’s search for the man behind the man Middleton has become.
Provocative and barbed, Clean Time uses hybrid structures to deconstruct reality entertainment and drug culture, both legal and illegal. From Middleton’s writing, critical academic research, and media footage, a picture emerges of a man who’s both a cipher and the culture’s pinnacle creation.
There’s further play in the novel’s objectivity and distance toward its subject. Insights into Middleton’s origins and motivations are largely obscured, and his ability to tell his own story is variously limited, threatened, and undermined. As his story is constructed and reconstructed, any sympathy is modulated by an equivalent suspicion. The underlying sense of emotional manipulation comes to fruition in the novel’s final revelation where even Middleton’s slight redemption seems dubiously placed.
Nonetheless, the novel’s foundations are inseparable from the reality media it critiques, and straddling that tension causes some strain. In its send-up of “reality” entertainment, the novel also appropriates a certain grittiness. It too benefits from trafficking in the fictionalized “real” experiences of addiction, drug crime, and upper-class dysfunction, even as it interrogates these tensions by telling Middleton’s story.
A deeply flawed hero who’s strung up and strung out, Middleton experiences a destructive spiral that puts him at the center of an unwelcome reality media blitzkrieg. Clean Time attempts to understand the making of these cultural devils and heroes in one person: Ronald Reagan Middleton, a modern Ulysses lost down the rabbit hole of American cultural privilege.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (April 27, 2018)
Don’t Believe It is a highly topical thriller, a work of pitched intrigue that follows a documentary filmmaker and crusading journalist, Sidney Ryan, who has exonerated several inmates convicted of murder.
Sidney agrees to take up the case of medical school graduate Grace Sebold, who has been in a St. Lucian prison for ten years since the murder of her boyfriend, Julian, who plunged to his death during spring break at a beach resort. Sidney finds more suspects, new evidence, and holes in the original investigation, leading authorities to reopen the probe. As her television series, “The Girl of Sugar Beach,” draws to its end and Grace gets released, Sidney discovers she might have been played, and could be in serious danger.
Don’t Believe It displays excellent craftsmanship, from the way sentences are constructed to the serpentine plot. The prose sings. Sentences are short and punchy. Word choices are specific and impeccable.
The story captivates. The central mystery unfurls in layer after layer of falsehoods and deception. It’s easy to get hooked on the book’s heady cocktail of highly rated television and high-stakes subterfuge.
Episode descriptions, interview summaries, and jury deliberations lend verisimilitude. The book displays a sophisticated familiarity with the modern media landscape, and comes across as of-the-moment. Twists and turns feel well plotted and earned, but still startle. This is escapism that feels grounded in research.
Don’t Believe It is substantive work. Its lead faces not only physical perils, but also moral ones: she must choose between the fame and fortune that accompanies “a ratings juggernaut” and the truth.
JOSEPH S. PETE (April 27, 2018)
Ferments, Desserts, Main Dishes, and More from Your Neighborhood and Beyond
A Culinary Institute of America degree armed Sara Bir with cooking expertise, but it’s her clever writing and inquisitive, experimental mind that make The Fruit Forager’s Companion so exciting. This hybrid cookbook/plant guide/DIY manual entertains as much as it informs.
Bir eloquently discusses why foraging is a satisfyingly sustainable, meditative way of collecting food, and of reconnecting to neighbors and to the natural environment. She provides reassuring information for novice and experienced cooks alike, dispensing advice on foraging etiquette (Don’t be a “scrumper”—someone who steals apples from orchards) and thoroughly breaking down methods of harvesting, storage, and preservation, from canning to fermentation.
Forty-one chapters on fruit species are packed with essays, photographs, recipes, and ideas for kitchen experimentation. There are also all-important tips on correctly identifying edible fruits and their poisonous look-alikes. While the book provides ample information on common fruits, the passages about unusual fruits, like sumac and loquats, are invaluable. Bir is well-versed in food history and foodways, leading to intriguing discussions of old-fashioned preservation methods and charming recipe ideas from “wild cherry bounce” to pontack, which is a sort of elderberry Worcestershire sauce.
This compendium delivers a wealth of Bir’s sassy opinions and and effervescent prose. Whether she is expounding on the importance of lifelong exploration, the dangers of monoculture agribusiness, or describing ground cherries (“I delight in their lacy little hulls, the berries like golden pearls in a filigree setting”) and rose hips (“If rose hips were women, the ones you’d want would look like R. Crumb drew them”), her writing exudes personality, wit, and intelligence.
Bir is a learned, inventive guide whose sly humor and playful voice will win many over to become dedicated fruit scroungers and recipe explorers. Perusing this book will have you playing around with your food in no time, whether it’s mahonia or maypops, mayhaws or pawpaws.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (April 27, 2018)
A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes
Todd Richards’s Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes is a thoughtful introduction to African American food, though it is only the launching point for Richards’s inventive cooking repertoire. Chapters begin with base recipes for food staples like stone fruits, pork, and corn; as heavy as these recipes are, they are just warm-ups for the maestro restaurateur as he crafts increasingly complex dishes, easily riffing to transform classics with global flavors, techniques, and unexpected ingredients like pea tendrils, beet powder, and sambal oelek.
Aside from being a well-illustrated, well-organized, and well-written cookbook, Soul defines Richards’s core philosophies about food, creativity, and society. His heartfelt opinions about race in America and the importance of sharing food at the table as an expression of love and fellowship infuse this book with extra meaning. He is also passionate about avoiding food waste and makes a tasty and persuasive case to save collard green stems for pickling, as well as for trying often-unloved products like gizzards, chitlins, and okra seeds.
Menus for a variety of festive events show off Richards’s virtuosity, from a homey fish fry to a fancy brunch fueled with such inspired dishes as Strawberries with Champagne Aspic, Whipped Cream, and Honey. It would take a family emergency (something really dire) to skip an invitation to the Chef’s Table menu at his house for some Smoked Catfish Dip with Parmesan Tuiles and dazzling Sea Urchin with Smoked Tomato Broth.
The simple titles belie the elegance and layers of flavor, color, and texture that Richards builds up in his recipes. He divulges many tricks of the trade, offering advice for home cooks on everything from how to rescue overdone calamari to a persuasive discussion of how to cook pork jowl. Recipes come with advice on appropriate side dishes and beverages, and the menus even have suggested soundtracks.
Most of all, Soul distills many years of cooking, improvising, and learning about different ingredients. Richards is a masterful chef who generously doles out his expertise and perspective in this inspiring book.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (April 27, 2018)
In Southernmost, Silas House’s story of destruction, faith, and accountability, the Cumberland River is about to break one man’s whole world, unmooring him from his small Tennessee town and all he once thought stable.
could hear the flood before he reached the top of the ridge. There he saw the massively swollen river supping at the edges of the lower fields … the roaring river, churning with trees and houses and animals.
It’s into this maelstrom that Justin, Asher’s beloved, tenderhearted son, runs in search of his dog. By grace, newcomers Jimmy and Stephen are down by the river and save Justin from the flood. Realizing these men have lost everything themselves, Asher invites them into his home and offers them hospitality.
It’s clear that these men are a couple, and Asher’s wife, Lydia, sees them as a threat. Like many in this community, Lydia believes it’s no coincidence that the rains started the same day that Tennessee legalized gay marriage.
As the preacher at the local Pentecostal church, Asher has long held the same beliefs. But in the flood’s wreckage, Asher’s grief over his estranged gay brother comes tumbling out, demanding equal parts restitution and destruction. In a desperate break from his present and his past, Asher lights out with Justin on a run toward a future so bold and different that he can’t even name it, except to say: it looks like Florida.
A journey of self-discovery, Southernmost dives into the familiar, troubled waters of toxic religion and masculinity to rescue a story of love between men—fathers, sons, brothers, and lovers.
House deftly shows there’s no place insulated from a necessary confrontation with the past. Plumbing the depths of love and judgment, this novel is surprising in the places it’ll take you. It’s an unflinching yet generous portrait of rural America that’s honest, refreshing, and complex.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (March 27, 2018)