“Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line” by Michael Gibney (Ballantine, $16)
In “Sous Chef,” you (author/chef Michael Gibney writes in second person) spend a day working in the kitchen of an upscale New York restaurant (the name of which is never revealed). You smoke a lot of cigarettes; sometimes you get in trouble for taking unauthorized smoke breaks. You salt the boiling water until it is “like the sea.” You emote over cheese. You cook. At the end of the long day, you have a whiskey (and another cigarette). Gibney’s deft descriptions put the reader right in the scene, and his short, terse sentences keep things moving. By the end, you will feel like you’ve really worked there. And even if you’ve never smoked, you will definitely want a cigarette.
“Raising Demons” and “Life Among the Savages” by Shirley Jackson (Penguin, $16 each)
Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery,” “The Haunting of Hill House”) was the master of literary macabre, but I first knew her through her memoirs of motherhood, which I read when I was a kid, and laughed — and laughed, and laughed. First published in 1953 and 1957, “Life Among the Savages” and “Raising Demons” are about raising a brood of kids with her husband, writer and critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Jackson’s scenes will stick with you: the refrigerator full of poison gas; the madcap driving lessons, the bug-eating, squabbling, precocious children. Jackson, cynical, wry, always on the verge of throwing in the towel, is a genius at finding the quirky humor in everyday life.
“Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee” by Charles J. Shields (St. Martin’s Press, $18) and “The Mockingbird Next Door” by Marja Mills (Penguin, $17)
Time now to bone up on the life of Harper Lee before the publication next month of you-know-what. “Mockingbird”--now in its 10th printing--tells of the writer’s early life, her friendship with Truman Capote and her work on her famous one and only book (until “Go Set a Watchman” comes out July 14). Charles Shields’ writing is easy, and his anecdotes entertaining. In “The Mockingbird Next Door,” we get to know the present-day Lee, as well as her sister, after Marja Mills, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, moves to their Alabama town. The book raised controversy when it was published, with Mills claiming that it was authorized and Lee contending (through her attorney) that the author had betrayed her privacy.
“First Jobs: True Tales of Bad Bosses, Quirky Coworkers, Big Breaks, and Small Paychecks” by Merritt Watts (Picador, $16)
A harrowing anthology of nonfiction stories, collected from people who, thankfully, all have better jobs now than they once did. One woman was fired from a deli for not knowing how to fry bacon (she grew up in a kosher home). A man worked as a busboy in a restaurant where the owner stole lettuce from the grocery store dumpster next door and ran it through the dishwasher to clean it. Another woman worked at McDonald’s at a shopping mall, where “all the tasks were my least favorite tasks.” These stories are entertaining, poignant and sometimes gross. The lesson, says potter and designer Jonathan Adler, who worked typing lists and sending faxes in the years before computers: “Chill a bit. People are way too careerist.”
“A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman (Washington Square Press, $16)
Ove is the quintessential cranky old man — doesn’t understand modern life, doesn’t want to, just wants to be left alone. His wife has died; he has been forced into retirement, and, dagnabit it, it’s time to die. And then a family moves in next door, a family with children, and — yes, you know. This is a sweet book, but it’s also funny; schlocky, but heartwarming. A bestseller in Sweden (it’s translated from Swedish by Henning Koch), it swiftly became a bestseller just about everywhere else.
“Spoiled Brats,” stories by Simon Rich (Back Bay Books, $15)
To read these stories is to peer into the lives and minds of the coddled: the children who were reared believing that they were special and could not fail, and who are now grown and unleashed on the world, egos, smugness and all. Fortunately, author Simon Rich has a great sense of humor and pitch-perfect tone. He doesn’t settle for straight sarcasm, but plays with the stories, setting one in the far future, populating one with ghosts, telling one from the point of view of a guinea pig named Princess Jasmine. (“I am a male, so this name is humiliating.”) Reading these stories reminds me how fun it is to laugh out loud.
“Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey (HarperPerennial, $16)
Darkly comic, poignant and haunting, “Elizabeth Is Missing” is narrated by Maud, an elderly woman whose memory is failing fast. She can’t hold a thought for more than a minute or two, and so she writes herself notes (and then wonders what the notes mean); she’s trying hard to hold onto the present even as her mind slips and slides into the past. Her elderly friend Elizabeth has disappeared, and Maud is determined to find her (even though she herself cannot always find her way home from the park anymore). The mystery of Elizabeth dovetails in Maud’s mind with the 70-year-old mystery of Maud’s older sister, who vanished shortly after World War II. Healey’s vivid, unusual details of postwar London and her amazing ability to see life through the eyes of a stubborn, failing old woman make this a truly remarkable book. Winner of the Costa First Novel Award.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @Stribbooks