Beach Reads > edition of May 11, 2012

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Every Step You Take. By Jock Soto. Harper. Ballet dancer-turned-chef Jock Soto grew up the gay son of a macho Hispanic father and artistic Navajo mother. In his teens, the self-described “half-breed” fled the Arizona desert for New York, where his talent propelled him to the top at George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. Soto’s rise was swift but not simple; a natural dancer but unsophisticated and naïve, he used dance “as an emergency-escape from the messy turmoil” of his insecurities, faced occasional rejection and jealousy from his peers, fell in and out of love, struggled to reconnect with his family, and ultimately became the principal dancer for the NYCB under Peter Martins. Interspersed among the tales of disappointment and triumph are encounters with the greats – “Mr. B,” Jerome Robbins, Darci Kistler, Jacques D’Amboise and others. Soto also includes some favorite recipes: spicy guacamole, penne Polonaise, and Grandma Rachel’s Navajo fry bread among others. A rewarding memoir, and memorable depiction of the artist as a young man.


Fifty Shades of Grey. By E.L. James. Knopf Doubleday. With her much-ballyhooed first novel, James has sparked the same kind of buzz that befell another unknown, multi-initialed British female scribe some 10 years ago. Due to the subject matter, however – “Fifty Shades” is the blushingly graphic tale of a couple that bonds over bondage and S&M – James is the anti-J.K. Rowling. Here’s the improbable premise: a virginal young woman named Ana becomes besotted with charismatic rake Christian Grey, who introduces her to kinky erotica. You can almost see the steam rising from each page, but it’s effectively quenched by Ana’s tendency to cry out things like, “Holy cow!” in the heat of passion. James’s writing makes Danielle Steel seem like Dostoyevsky, and it’s a mystery why this puerile attempt has become so hot – except that it’s so hot. Think “Story of O” by way of “9 ½ Weeks” and you’ve got the formula. Alas, this thing is headed for the big screen, and it’s already a series, with all three installments (Fifty Shades Darker, Fifty Shades Freed) on the bestseller list. Expect not only more of James, but James copycats. Holy cow!


Calico Joe. By John Grisham. Knopf Doubleday. Aside from apple pie, there’s nothing as American as baseball, and baseball stories are often at heart about fathers and sons. John Grisham departs from his usual courtroom dramas to tell the story of a grand-slam rookie, Joe Castle of Calico Rock, Arkansas, who joins the Chicago Cubs of 1973, hits a record-breaking .488 in 38 games, and then is hit in the head with a ball thrown by Mets pitcher Warren Tracey. Grisham has said that all baseball stories are sad, because they’re about unfulfilled potential and broken dreams. It’s true of both players in this story, who are compelled, decades later, to give and receive forgiveness. Told through the eyes of the pitcher’s son, Calico Joe is a real home run, sentimental at times but without the schmaltz of “Fields of Dreams.”


It’s So Easy (And Other Lies). By Duff McKagan. Touchstone. The life story of Duff McKagan, a founding member of Guns N’ Roses and later Velvet Revolver, follows the predictable rock-and-roll template: modest beginnings followed by staggering fame and money followed by monstrous addictions followed brutal consequences and redemption. You have to wonder why such an obviously bright fellow would torment his body with dozens of bottles of booze a day, along with massive amounts of cocaine cut by tranquilizers. Of course McKagan paid the price for such wretched excess: his pancreas burst, after which he got wise, got into martial arts and extreme sports, found love, and raised a family. His story departs from the norm when the tattooed punk rocker goes back to community college and gets a degree in business and economics; it’s fun to read the guy from Guns N’ Roses extol the wonders of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” which he dog-eared while writing his admission essay. A great read.


Valley of the Dolls. By Jacqueline Susann. One of the greatest potboilers of all time, this mid-60s classic tells the story of three ambitious women who “climb Mount Everest” – Susann’s phrase for chasing success in New York and Hollywood. The central character is idealistic Anne Welles, a Yankee beauty from a glacial New England family who goes to Manhattan in search of career and romance. She finds both working for a show-biz agent, then falls for a charming but beastly Brit named Lyon Burke, the one man who can live without her. The other two characters are upstart singer Neely O’Hara and gorgeous showgirl Jennifer North. All three claw their way to the top, only to find that, yes, it’s lonely up there, and happiness remains elusive. The “dolls” of the title are prescription drugs, which create problems for everyone. Reportedly the book was line-edited and virtually rewritten by Susann’s editor, and the result is some really good trash. Susann really knows her way around the world of the theater, and “Valley of the Dolls” rings true even today.

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