Friday, January 1, 2010

Bookviews - January 2010

By Alan Caruba

My Picks of the Month

Something quite unusual occurred in December. After some fifty years of reviewing, I have long been accustomed to receiving three to five books a day, but last month there were often days that passed without a single new book arriving. It well could be that the economy has convinced publishers that sending review copies is a financial burden that required some reductions. I hope that is not so because I am looking forward to the seasonal springtime publication of new books. For this month, however, there are fewer books in the hopper for consideration.

It’s a bit of a tradition here at Bookviews, but I always welcome the opportunity to recommend readers pick up a copy of the new edition of The World Almanac® and Book of Facts whose 2010 edition is now available (12.99, softcover). In the era of Google, it might seem an anachronism to recommend this compendium of facts, but there is perhaps no better way to find the most essential information you need than in this annual book that contains so much information on national and international topics. Its statistics, concise data, and maps put it at your fingertips and for any student, writer, or just someone wanting to know more about what is occurring around the world, the Almanac is a quick, easy and informative source. I’m biased, but I think it should be in everyone’s home or office.

Americans have been taking to the town halls and the streets of Washington to protest changes to Medicare that would give the government control over one sixth of the nation’s economy. For even longer, they have resented being taxed and, indeed, the American Revolution was based on “taxation without representation.” Today’s Americans have very little idea how the government conspires to take away their income (as often as not to give it to others who do not work for it.) Bankrupting Joe the Taxpayer With No One to Bail Him Out by D. J. Golio ($24.95/$16.95, Authorhouse, hard and softcover) is a book I would unhesitatingly recommend to anyone and everyone because, even if you think you’re making too little to pay income taxes, you are being taxed in countless other ways. Just check your telephone or utility bills and you will discover the truth of this. My December monthly telephone bill included $14.00 in federal excise and other taxes, as well as a state tax! Every time you fill up your car’s tank, you are paying taxes. The proposed Healthcare “reform” ignores the fact that no one by federal law can be denied medical care at any hospital. Many younger, healthier Americans do not want to purchase health care insurance. Many real reforms such as tort reform to avoid billions in court judgments are ignored. The costs of illegal aliens in America are huge and astonishing. And the appalling waste of many federal and state government programs, in addition to huge pension payouts, must be curbed. The author is a Certified Public Accountant who has an undergraduate degree in accounting and a MBA in taxation. He has been an adjunct assistant professor in the Pace University Department of Accounting and Finance for a decade. He has written a brilliant, easily understood book on why you are being bankrupted by government at every level and with every purchase.

I am frank to say I was unaware of the problem, but Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind by Richard Whitmire ($24.95, Amacom) should inspire a nationwide discussion of a trend that must be reversed. The author documents how, at every grade level, in communities of every income level from Tennessee to Alaska, boys are falling behind girls in schools. He asks and answers how this happened and what the long-term economic, social and personal implications are. Importantly, he spells out what parents, teachers, principals, and policymakers must do to change what appears to be a dire situation. At the heart of the problem, says Whitmire, is a tougher curriculum that pushes boys to rise to literary challenges before they are ready. “The world has gotten more verbal; boys haven’t.” Moreover, men are fast becoming the minority in America’s colleges and universities. It is well known that the American educational system has been failing both genders, but this book which focuses on boys portends some very bad trends and outcomes unless this process is reversed.

I doubt that enough people will read Joris Luyendijk’s book, People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East, ($14.95, Soft Skull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint Press, softcover). That's a shame because it does an excellent job of exposing why we in the West can never get an accurate picture of what is occurring in the Middle East because (a) they are all dictatorships with the exception of Turkey and Israel, and (b) because it is virtually impossible for foreign correspondents to get anything other than what the dictatorships say or report anything other than what western news agencies filter for their readers and viewers. The truth swiftly gets lost under such circumstances. After spending a year as a student of Arabic at Cairo University, the young Dutchman was offered a job as a correspondent for a Dutch news agency. He had no experience as a journalist, but what he would experience between 1998 and 2003 was an education in itself and one he shares in a book that reveals how impossible it is for news reporters or news consumers to ever know the truth about the Middle East. No one comes away with clean hands, but the reader comes away with a far better understanding of the complete oppression that those who live there must endure and survive.

I have a special fondness for large “coffee table” books on any subject and their counterpart, smaller, compact books that offer tons of information and/or entertainment. Bubble Gum and Hula Hoops: The Origins of Objects in Our Everyday Lives by Harry Oliver ($12.95, Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Books, softcover) falls into the latter category. This history wrapped in humor and lots of fascinating facts. Its twelve chapters address topics such as leisure and fun, objects around the home, food and drink, medicine, and others that make for some surprises and an appreciation for those things we tend to take for granted. For those who have a twisted sense of humor (and you know who you are!) Grimmer Tales: A Wicked Collection of Happily Never After Stories by Erik Bergstrom (16.00, Plume) offers a different take on favorite children’s fairy tales but this time things go terribly wrong. The illustrations are the key and I guarantee you will never think of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the same again after you see how they end up. It will be a fun gift for certain friends and relatives. Fans of Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” will enjoy Decoding The Lost Symbol by Simon Cox ($14.99, Touchstone, softcover) that provides an A-to-Z guide to the real people, organizations, and themes featured in Brown’s latest novel. It is a most unusual guide to Washington, DC’s monuments and other related places.

There is no end to cookbooks, but occasionally an unusual one comes along that deserves more attention than the standard fare. In a Cheesemaker’s Kitchen by Allison Hooper celebrates “25 years of artisanal cheesemaking and cooking from the Vermont Butter and Cheese Company ($19.95, The Countryman Press, softcover). Allison, along with Bob Reese, founded the company based on her passion for cheese and butter made from milk of the highest quality. She learned her trade on a family farm in France before bringing it to Vermont. Artisanal refers to a particularly European way of making cheese. Their business has enjoyed great success, bootstrapping from a small one into one tapping the milk of twenty local farms and dairies. Anyone who loves cheeses will find this book of particular interest as it discusses all manner of them and offers some tempting recipes that feature them.

I am trying to lose weight. It’s not easy. I have friends who are diabetic and I can just imagine what they must go through to live a normal life. The good news is a new book, The Weight Loss Plan for Beating Diabetes by Frederic J. Vagini, M.D., FACS, and Lawrence D. Chilnick ($21.95, Fair Winds Press, softcover). Published in October, I suspect word of mouth will turn this book into a bestseller for the more than 1.6 million new cases of diabetes that are diagnoses, adding to the 57 million people faced with pre-diabetes and its complications. This book teaches how to remove all of the metabolic roadblocks that diabetes creates and provides specific recommendations for overcoming weight loss problems and managing diabetes based on a patient’s medical history and risk factors. The plan features a combination of low-glycemic foods, reduced carbohydrates, and a modified Mediterranean diet. There are lists of menus and meal options, plus recommendations for vitamins and supplements. This book is really good! And how about a really swell hallucinogenic drink called “Ayahuasca”? Okay, I am not recommending it, but I am suggesting a very interesting, albeit offbeat book by Stephan B. Beyer, Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon ($45.00, University of New Mexico Press). By almost any standard, from its price to its subject, this is clearly a very unique book. Its author went from being an attorney, a corporate litigator, to becoming one of the world’s foremost experts on sacred plant medicine and, in the process, provides a fascinating first-hand account of life among the Mestizos, Spanish-speaking descendents of Hispanic colonizers and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon jungle. Ayahuasca has been gaining fame thanks to various entertainers, artists, and even a tourism business that has developed around it. If your interest has been piqued about shamanism, this book will satisfy it.

Since readers often harbor a desire to be writers or already are, Now Write Nonfiction! edited by Sherry Ellis ($14.95, Tarcher/Penguin softcover) offers a quick course from some of the most famed writers around such as Gay Talese Madeleine Blaise, and Tilar Mazzeo, and other top ranked memoirists, journalists, and teachers of creative non-fiction. The book is filled with the kind of advice you would pay big bucks for if you were attending college, a summer’s writer’s clinic, or just spending time learning through experience. Learn how to organize information, why you recall certain things and not others, and how a simple highlighter can tell you whether you are driving the story along successfully or just telling it in a prosaic fashion. This one is worth many times more than its price.

Motivation, Inspiration, and Good Advice

These are times in which we could all use a bit of motivation and inspiration. Some good advice of any kind is always welcome. Here some books that offer advice.
The Shark and the Goldfish: Positive Ways to Thrive During Waves of Change by Jon Gordon ($16.95, John Wiley and Sons) that points out that many successful people and businesses have grown to prominence during even the worst recessions and economic downturns. Gordon has fashioned a fable about a goldfish who has always been fed and a nice shark who teaches him to find food. Do not dismiss this book because of its approach to the subject of surviving hard times because it has a very good message to share. In a similar fashion What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life by James Hollis, PhD ($16.00, Gotham Books, an imprint of Penguin, softcover) suggest that you must first ask yourself “What truly matters most?” when you make those New Years resolutions. In short, what are the values, relationships, and beliefs that, when fully embraced, make us the most content? The book provides advice on how to begin an internal exploration of self and how one can uncover a personal path to fulfillment. A lot of people have, for one reason or another, made this inner journey and this book will provide a map.

In these uncertain times, along comes Larry Myler’s Indispensable by Monday ($24.95, John Wiley & Sons) which is, in fact, not officially published until next month, but can be pre-ordered from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million. Based on decades of consulting and business ownership, this book answers critical question such as “How do I protect me job” and “If the company goes under, how will I find a new job?” And it’s not just about jobs. It’s filled with priceless, nitty-gritty recommendations on how to get and keep customers and much more. I have seen many business books and can spot a winner. This is one. Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin, and Robert B. Cialdini ($15.00, Free Press, softcover) is now out in paperback for the first time and it is testimony to the fact that it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Learn the hidden rules of persuasion and get more out of life. Whether you’re a salesperson, an educator, manager, parent or any other category of life, this book can and will put you on the path to being more persuasive. Have I convinced you? Then go get it!

For those contemplating marriage or a “committed relationship” that’s a bit shaky, there’s A Little Bit Married: How to Know When It’s Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door by Hannah Seligson ($15.95, Da Capo Press, softcover). The author takes a look at a major trend in dating these days, the long-term unmarried relationship. She provides the context for why young people are delaying marriage. A quarter of unmarried Americans, an estimated 23 million adults, say they are in committed romantic relationships. This is a kind of modern day marriage advice manual, but without interpreting marriage in purely legal terms and it is full of very good advice. Another book that will prove helpful is Michelle LaRowe’s A Mom’s Ultimate Book of Lists ($13.99, Revell, softcover). Honored as Nanny of the Year in 2004 and by the White House, the author who is now also a mom in her own right has compiled 112 of the most practical lists for moms to live by, sorting through the most reliable sources and tried-and-true recommendations for raising healthy and happy children. Organized in an easy-to-find format, it covers preparing for baby, the first year, the toddler years, pre-school, family life, health and safety information, and saving time, money and sanity. It will prove a terrific gift for the mother-to-be and for moms seeking solid gold advice.

Murder and Sex Crimes

There are a number of books devoted to murder, a crime that never ceases to cause a frisson of fear to run through our bodies.

I spent many years in Florida as a young man and while Florida is known for its beautiful beaches, warm weather, retirement communities and such, it is also been a breeding ground for some of the most savage criminals in the nation. Among its serial killers have been Bobbie Joe Long, Gerard Schaefer, and was the final killing round for murderers Ted Bundy, Aileen Wournos, and Andrew Cunanan. You can read all about it in Sun Struck: 16 Infamous Murders in the Sunshine State by Robert A. Waters and John T. Waters, Jr. ($ 24.95, New Horizon Press). Among them are the victim’s names that have entered into the nation’s cultural history such as Adam Walsh, Carlie Brucia, Jessica Lunsford, and Caylee Marie Anthony, all of which garnered national attention. The authors discuss the factors which make Florida more vulnerable to killers, not the least of which is the way much of the population are transients. The author’s empathy for the victims is evident, but the book is also a vivid reminder that there are some seriously evil people in the world.

Stacy Dittrich has written Murder Behind the Badge: True Stories of Cops Who Kill ($25.00, Prometheus Books) and it is an interesting look at the toll the job takes on some police officers, most of whom join with a wish to serve their community. This true crime narrative tells the stories of eighteen cops who killed in ways that range from the brutal to the bizarre, the senseless to the extreme, but all men and women who took a life and, with one exception, are paying the consequences. Some killed for love, others for money, and others for what appear to be trivial personality conflicts. The author is a veteran police officer with 17 years of experience so she brings to the text insights that others would not have. She is also the author of the CeeCee Gallagher thriller series about a female detective.

Betrayal, Murder and Greed: The True Story of a Bounty Hunter and a Bail Bond Agent by Pam Phree and Mike ‘Darkside’ Beakley ($24.95, New Horizon Press) is the story of their twenty-year partnership in the bail bond industry. It is a story of brutal hired hit men, vicious gang murders, terrifying shoot outs, dangerous drug deals, and even corrupt bail enforcement agents. It is also, of course, the story of how one catches a criminal and in addition to patience and smarts, it requires nerves of steel. This is a candid look at the dark underbelly of society and the book is an exciting, pulse-pounding journey. Phree is a bail bond agent and Beakley a bounty hunter who has spent twenty years tracking criminals in an industry that hovers between crime and justice. Over the past decade, bounty hunters have apprehended about 25,000 fugitives in the United States every year. They return to custody some 99% of the criminal defendants who skip bail.

It both repels and fascinates; the sex crime. Robin Sax is a former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney who specialized in prosecuting sex crimes against children and she has written It Happens Every Day: Inside the World of a Sex Crimes DA ($26.00, Prometheus Books). According to crime statistics from the Department of Justice, 67% of sexual assault victims in 2008 were juveniles and an astonishing 93% of these victims knew they attackers. Her book reveals what happens when law enforcement decides to prosecute a child sexual assault case and it does so in terms you will not read or hear about in the news. She discusses the strengths and weaknesses of our current judicial system, dividing her book into two parts, the investigation and the court process. Anyone interested in how the law deals with these most detested of crimes will find this book excellent reading.

Even a casual reading of history reveals that the past 5,000 years of human “civilization” have been filled with the most horrific cruelty and The World’s Bloodiest History by Joseph Cummins ($19.99, Fair Winds, Quayside Publishing Group, softcover) is testimony to that. Suffice it to say this is not light reading, but it does address questions such as why mobs become killing machines, the Nazis could craft a deliberate genocide, political ideologies become killing grounds, and all the worst aspects of human behavior, zealotry, prejudices, and animosities fuel the never-ending scars on civilization as it progresses from one event to another.

Novels, Novels, Novels!

As a non-fiction writer my whole life, I have always admired how others can write either short stories or an entire novel out of their imagination.

Elliot Pattison received raves for his last novel, “Bone Rattler” and he returns this month with Eye of the Raven ($26.00, Counterpoint Press), a sequel in which Duncan McCallum has begun to heal from the massacre of his Highland clan by the British with the aid of the Native American shaman, Conawago. The year is 1790 and tragedy stalks him when he and Conawago discover a dying Virginian officer nailed to an Indian shrine tree. To his horror, authorities arrest Conawago and schedule his hanging. McCallum begins a desperate search for the truth and finds himself in a maelstrom of deception and violence. This book will particularly please those familiar with early American history, but its pacing will keep any reader turning the pages as colonial Philadelphia comes alive with its mix of Quakers, Christian Indians, and a scientist obsessed with the electrical experiments of Benjamin Franklin. From the same publisher come the selected stories of the late Janet Frame in Prizes ($26.00, Counterpoint Press). This New Zealand novelist is perhaps best known for her memoir, “An Angel at My Table” that was adapted into a film. This is a comprehensive collection of her stories, chosen from four different volumes during her lifetime plus five more not published in her lifetime. They are an exploration of madness, isolation, and identity.

The winner of the Le Prix Concourt in 2008, The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi has been translated into English and has an introduction bo Khaled Hosseini ($16.95, Other Press LLC). You may likely learn more about life in Afghanistan from this heart-wrenching novel than all the scholarly studies, though the country is not specifically named. A man lies in a bed, brain-dead from a bullet in his neck. His wife sits beside him while outside the streets are filled with rival factions clashing and soldiers are looting and killing. The woman speaks of her life, of her fury at him for not resisting the call to arms, for sacrificing their marriage and their family to war. She speaks of how he ignored her desires for years and of a place where women are treated like animals. In Persian folklore, Sang-e Saboor is the name of a magical black stone, a patience stone that absorbs the plight of those who confide in it. This is the fate of women under Islam.
Another translation takes us into the world of strange, haunting tales as deep as the Danish winter night. Come Raw by Lars Rasmussen is a collection of twenty haunting tales by a Danish bookseller who has also written about South African jazz, golf, and other topics, among his several books ($10.00, Serving House Books, softcover). They will prove an entertaining way to pass a commute or an afternoon.

Closer to home, there’s further proof that the American South has gifted our nation’s body of literature with many excellent works by native authors. One such author is Nicole Seitz whose Saving Cicadas ($14.99, Thomas Nelson, softcover) is a story of redemption that is filled with unforgettable characters and is part road trip, part mystery, and thoroughly charming. When her mother learns she’s having another child, eight-year-old Janie and Rainey Dae, her seventeen-year-old sister with special needs are packed into the back seat of the family car on what seems the last vacation they will ever take with Poppy and Grandma Mona. The trip seems aimless, but Janie realizes that they are searching for the father who left them years before. When they cannot find him, they head for Forest Pines, the South Carolina home her mother hasn’t visited in years. It becomes a mixed blessing of hope, buried secrets, and family ghosts. The story is an awakening from innocence into the hard realities of life and the sometimes impossible decisions people are forced to make. Old-fashioned romance is well served in Jenna’s Cowboy by Sharon Gillenwater’s new novel. Set in West Texas where she grew up and where she created the Callahans of Texas series. In this story, Jenna Callahan notices that Nate Langley is back, the first guy she ever noticed and the one her father sent away many years earlier. After two tours of duty in the armed forces, Nate has some healing to do and with the help of friends, his strong faith, and a loving family, he will become the man Jenna deserves.

In The Brightest Star in the Sky, author Marian Keyes ($26.95, Viking) delivers a wry and life-affirming story involving a disparate group of neighbors who are forced by unusual circumstance to depend on each other in order to transform their lives. They are the occupants of 66 Star Street that have attracted the undivided attention of a sharp-witted and intuitive otherworldly spirit. They include newlyweds, a public relations manager for a struggling music label, an update on Bridget Jones, just turned 40, a snarky female taxi driver and two Polish roommates who alternately fear and lust after her. This book will be most appreciated by female readers and is a delightful page-turner. In sharp contrast is Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste ($24.95, W.W. Norton) that is set in Ethiopia, an ancient land and during its 1974 revolution. Taking place in Addis Ababa, it tells the epic and heartbreaking story of one family’s struggle to remain united in the face of stark upheaval. The main character is a prominent, but unassuming physician, his wife who is dying of heart failure, and their two sons. This is the face and reality of revolution. The author was born in Addis Ababa and was four years old when her family fled to eventually settle in America. It is a powerful story about the lengths ordinary people will go to in pursuit of freedom and the price many pay during a revolution.

For some listening pleasure, Hachette Audio has released another James Patterson thriller, Witch & Wizard ($22.98, 5 CDs) about a brother and sister thrown into prison and being accused by being a witch and a wizard by a ruling regime that will stop at nothing to suppress life and liberty, music, art and books, and just being a normal teenager. If this reminds you have some of awful things happening today, you will gain a better understanding of the forces of evil in the world. Nicholas Sparks, famed romance writer, is available with Dear John ($17.98, 8 CDs) in which a couple are torn apart by the events of 9.11. John, who has joined the Army, must choose between love and country. When he returns to North Carolina after a tour of duty, he discovers how love can transform us in ways we could never imagine. From the world of non-fiction comes Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession by Julia Powell, ($29.98, 9 CDs) the author of “Julie & Julia”, now a film that generated raves. Her latest book is a story of camaraderie from a butcher shop in the Catskills to a world tour that reveals an international brotherhood of butchers. This is a lot of fun!

That’s it for January 2010! Don’t forget to tell your friends about Bookviews. The coming spring holds the usual avalanche of new fiction and non-fiction, so you will want to stick around to get the inside track on many excellent books you may not read about anywhere else.

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  1. Dear Alan,

    I always have a mixture of nerves and excitement when something pops up in Google alerts about my newest book.

    Thank you for taking the time to review A Mom's Ultimate Book of Lists and to share such great feedback! I really do hope moms find it to be a valuable resource.

    Michelle LaRowe
    A Mom's Ultimate Book of Lists

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