Monday, March 1, 2010

Bookviews - March 2010

By Alan Caruba

My Picks of the Month

With the advent of popular 24/7 cable news channels, Americans have become even more addicted to the news than ever before. Depending on one’s age, however, one is likely to perceive it in different ways. For the political junky, there is a very interesting look at the 1960s and how it shaped politics. Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush ($28.95, University of Massachusetts, softcover) examines the way “Ever since Ronald Reagan, U.S. presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, have battled over the collective memory of what the decade meant in an effort to advance their own agendas,” says historian Bernard von Bothmer. The decade heralded the growth of the conservative political movement. Former Senator Rick Santorum said in 2007 that “You can tell if you were a liberal or a conservative if you thought the sixties were a good or bad decade.” They turned a lot of young liberals into conservatives at the same time other young liberals were marching against the Vietnam War and embracing the counter-culture of the times. With a historian’s precision the author shows how that decade and the one that followed shaped the nation’s political choices.

Henry M. Paulson, Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush, has written an excellent account, On The Brink, ($28.99, Grand Center Publishing, division of Hachette) explaining the events surrounding the sudden imminent collapse of the nation’s financial system late into the second term. The former CEO of Goldman Sachs had assumed the job in 2006. Little did he know he would be at the center of “a perfect storm” to save the nation’s and the global economy. By all outsider accounts, that’s exactly what he did with the support of Congress and others in government, not the least of whom was President Bush who Paulson obviously respects. What makes this book so interesting is his candid story of the people and the politics that made it possible to draw back from the brink. Hachette has also released it as an audiobook ($34.98, 13 CDs, read by Dan Woren, approximately 15 hours.)

A clinical psychologist, Ellen Weber Libby, PhD, has written The Favorite Child ($18.00, Prometheus Books, softcover) based on thirty years of helping successful, often powerful clients in Washington, D.C., where outsized personalities abound. Based on more than 60,000 hours of therapeutic counseling her book looks at the advantages and disadvantages of being the favorite child. Having been brought up to believe they can do anything, being unafraid of challenges, they often suffer an array of personality problems from the pressure to maintain the façade at all costs. Their ability to tell the truth can suffer and their intimate relationships are often elusive. We have seen this over and over again when politicians are brought down by adulterous affairs and other bad behavior. I found this book provided powerful insights and, if you think you were a favorite child or a member of your family was one, you might well want to read this interesting book. From the same publisher there’s God’s Brain by Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire ($25.00, Prometheus Books) that takes part in the fractious debate about the existence of God and the nature of religion. What makes this book particularly interesting is that the authors approach the topic based on evolutionary biology with a focus on brain science. Tiger is a famed anthropologist and McGuire is a pioneering neuroscientist. The thesis they put forth is that the brain creates religion and its varied concepts of God and then, in turns, feeds on its creation to satisfy innate neurological and associated social needs. Not exactly the story you got from the Old and New Testament or other sacred text, but surely a fascinating exploration of how religion helps “soothe” the mind in a stressful world. One can see this at work when people with strong religious beliefs are able to cope with tragedy in a fashion that reduces the initial shock and guides them to a successful response.

The message of How Evil Works: Understanding and Overcoming the Destructive Forces that are Transforming America by David Kupelian ($26.00, Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon and Schuster) is stark and simple. There is evil in the world and the author believes that your defense against it is the belief in a higher power and the rules for a moral life that are found in the Old and New Testaments. Though Kupelian does base his book on fundamental religious values, the fact is that many Americans do believe in them even as they see forces at work in the nation to destroy it. The value of the book is the way Kupelian confronts and answers questions many Americans are asking. Why are New Age religions becoming popular along with atheism? Why do so many celebrities and public figures that “have it all” end up self-destructing? Why are Big Lies more believable than little ones? Why are boys doing worse in schools today than girls? Why do we think that the only treatment for mental, emotional, and spiritual problems like anger and depression are drugs? These and many other comparable questions about our society and how it is changing for the worse are addressed. You do not have to be “religious” to be concerned and the book is a tad preachy, but it is also a valuable guide to the evil forces at work in our society today.

Las Vegas has been in the news of late thanks to President Obama’s penchant for saying bad things about it. For an insider’s look at Sin City, there’s Under the Neon Sky: A Las Vegas Doorman’s Story by Jay Rankin ($14.95, Jay Rankin Publishing, softcover). I am breaking my own rule against self-published books because this one is worth reading. “If you step back and look at the marketing, it’s brilliant: the lights, the shows, the food, the entertainment, the rooms, and the views…the possibility of winning big, of getting laid, of doing drugs, and on and on. Even the rush of anticipation you get when you plan a trip to Vegas is addicting.” Las Vegas is a place where some people go to break the rules while others go to attend major conferences and events. I have always had an aversion to gambling, so the allure of that was lost on me, but having been there on business a number of times, I found Rankin’s book a fascinating look at a city that truly never sleeps.

March is the 20th anniversary of the publication of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried now released again ($24.00, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). It is regarded as a classic work of American literature for its ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling. It depicts the men of Alpha Company who fought in Vietnam and are recalled by O’Brien who had survived, returned home and began a family. From February 1969 to March 1970, he had served as an infantryman. For an entire generation or two, the Vietnam War might as well have been as long ago as the Civil War, but this excellent evocation brings it to life. O’Brien currently teaches creative writing at Texas State University.

Every so often I receive a unique book that meets a real need or problem. It only takes a few seconds to a minute for a child to go missing, whether in the woods while parents are camping or in a shopping mall. It is one of the most terrifying experiences for parent and child. J. Wayne Fears has written How to Lost-Proof Your Child as part of a survival series he has authored for Pro-Tool Industries ($8.95, softcover) This should be mandatory reading for parents because it is filled with excellent advice and recommendations regarding the many ways one can teach a child proper behavior with which to avoid getting lost, what to do if lost, and the many things a parent can do to prevent or respond to it. The book is available from www.protoolindustries.net.

The Lessons of History

Of all the topics books address, my favorite is history. It is a cliché to say that those who do not know history will repeat all of its mistakes, but it is true.

A World of Trouble by Patrick Tyler ($18.00, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, softcover) is a great book for those interested in both American politics and the on-going strife in the Middle East. It is subtitled “The White House and the Middle East—from the Cold War to the War on Terror.” Tyler has reported extensively from both the Middle East and Washington, D.C. for The New York Times and The Washington Post. He is a splendid historian, documenting how presidents from Eisenhower to Bush were continually confounded by events and personalities in the Middle East. Some had some experience to draw upon, others knew little of the region and its history. LBJ was distracted by the war in Vietnam, most tried and failed to resolve the hostility of Israel’s neighbors to its very existence. In sum, this book, page by page, is filled with the insider details of the Oval office and its advisors who grappled, year after year, decade after decade with a region operating from seventh century attitudes and practices. In a comparable fashion, I enjoyed Great Negotiations: Agreements that Changed the Modern World by Fredrik Stanton ($26.00, Westholme Publishing, Yardley, PA). There have clearly been and still are times when all the sanctions and negotiations cannot deter a nation hell bent on war or some other mischief. That said, history is filled with examples where negotiations have averted conflict or secured the end of a conflict. The author takes one on a tour of diplomacy in the modern area from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, back to the Treaty of Versailles after World War One that created many of the problems with us today. From Benjamin Franklin who secured vital French support for the American Revolution to Reagan and Gorbachev laying the groundwork to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons, the author explains what each party brought to the negotiating table, the stakes, the obstacles to success, and how they were overcome.

I am naturally partial to the books of the History Publishing Company, Palisades, New York. In a unique book, Custer Survivor, John Koster writers of “The end of a myth, the beginning of a legend” ($16.95, softcover) because, as it turned out, despite the commonly held view that all of the troopers of the five companies accompanying General George Armstrong Custer died at the battle at the Little Big Horn, it turns out that one of them did, indeed, survive, Second Sergeant of C Company, Frank Finkel. This is the story of how he escaped, his ensuing ordeal, and the subsequent years of his successful life. It is, admittedly, a tiny niche of history, but an interesting one. For those who find war reportage interesting, Operation Phantom Fury: The Assault and Capture of Fallujah, Iraq by Dick Camp ($30.00, Zenith Press, Quayside Publishing Group) offers 100 color photos and 10 color maps to enhance a compelling text about the November 2004 operation that, as in most military engagements, did not go as planned. A combined force of U.S. and Iraqi forces was, in fact, the second offensive into Fallujah and involved the most difficult house-to-house kind of combat. This firsthand account of the brutal reality of the war in Iraq is a tribute to those who fought it and those who lost their lives. The 188th Crybaby Brigade by Joel Chasnoff ($25.00, Free Press) is subtitled, “A skinny Jewish kid from Chicago fights Hezbollah.” It is a less than flattering look at the Israel Defense Force, still regarded as one of the most feared fighting forces in the Middle East. Seeking to prove something to himself, Chasnoff, a 24-year-old Ivy League post-graduate decided to volunteer to serve in the IDF, going from would-be warrior to disillusioned soldier who in the end discovers that, according to Jewish law, his mother’s conversation doesn’t really qualify him as a Jew at all. He can die for Israel, but he just can’t get married there! He is the lone American is a platoon of 18-year-old Israelis. This is an entertaining glimpse inside Israel that the tourist board would rather you not read.

A special look back at the U.S. Marines in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945 can be found in Eric Hammel’s Islands of Hell ($50.00, Zenith Press, Quayside Publishing Group.) It is a coffee-table, large format book, 300 pages filled with 567 black/white photos and seven maps that tells the story of the final stepping-stone battles that involved brutal combat in places like Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and finally Okinawa, the doorstep to Japan. The book, just out this month, is released in conjunction with HBOs new mini-series, “The Pacific” and it serves to remind the reader not only of the valor of these now legendary warriors, but of the contrast with today’s conflicts where casualties over a period of years do not begin to compare with those suffered in mere days and weeks in that now long-ago war against the empire of Japan. The text is spare and excellent, but it is the photos that tell the story.

Anybody remember the Cold War? Well, the Soviet Union may be history, but the Russians still operate on the same principles and The KGB’s Poison Factory: From Lenin to Litvinenko ($25.00, Zenith Press, Quayside Publishing) by Boris Volodarsky reveals how, since 1917, the Russian security services have regularly carried out “bespoke” poisoning operations all over the world to eliminate what it regards as enemies of the Kremlin. The most recent to gain notoriety was in November 2006 when Alexander Litvenko, a former Lt. Colonel of the Russian Security Service was murdered in London using a sophisticated poison. The author maintains it was just one episode in a chain of murders that continues to the present day. This is a very scary look at a ruthless regime. To gain an insight to how this came about, read Conspirator: Lenin in Exile by Helen Rappaport ($27.95, Basic Books), a vivid account of seventeen years of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s life spent on the run or hiding in Europe as he plotted the revolution in Russia that overthrew the czar in 1917 and initiated the Soviet Union, an experiment in communism that would kill millions of Russians. It is the arduous, lonely, and frustrating years in places that included London, Geneva, Paris, Krakow, Zurich, Copenhagen and Stockholm that are the focus of this historian’s examination of how this master conspirator and strategist planned and plotted to change history. It took extreme patience and persistence, a ruthless dedication, but Lenin made it happen. This is the stuff of great, if tragic, history. To understand Russia, one must understand Lenin.

Going even further back in history, you can read Thomas J. Craughwell’s The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History, that of Genghis Khan and the Mongols ($19.99, Fair Winds, Quayside Publishing, large format softcover.) Emerging out of the vast steppe grasslands of Central Asia in the early 1200s, the Mongols quickly carved out an empire that, by the late 13th century, included one-sixth of the Earth’s landmass, from Eastern Europe to the eastern shore of Asia. Extensively illustrated, the author brings that piece of history to life in a lively text. The focus on Asia since the end of World War Two has been on China and, in particular, the Peoples Republic or communist China. I doubt that anyone in the West can even grasp what it must have been like to grow up in that society whose “transformation” by Mao Te Sung and the party cost millions their lives and was irrationally disruptive. One of the best accounts of what it was like during those years is Red Circle: China and Me 1949-2009 by Stephen Songsheng Chen ($19.95, Author House). It is a story of a family branded capitalist exploiters and suffering the ordeal of surviving in the mad world of communist ideology. To understand the China that Richard Nixon “opened up” to the West and the turmoil of the years until Mao’s death, as well as the remarkable embrace of capitalist economic principles that followed, there is probably no better book available today.

Finally, for people who love the philosophical as well as the historical implications of things, there's The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter ($27.95, W.W. Norton & Company) in which the author “offers a comprehensive assessment of western ideas of race, beauty, and blood from antiquity to the present time, deftly demonstrating that all three are concepts evolved by dominant cultures rather than based on biological fact.” This is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it must be said it is not as boring as one might assume. There is surely something to be said for the Caucasians who proved to be the discoverers of scientific truth and the most innovative race in recent centuries. That said, the Chinese were writing poetry while our ancestors were still deep into the Dark Ages. No one race is “superior” to one another since we all share the same DNA. Weaving together all that we know at this point, this book challenges our presumptions.

Getting Down to Business (Books)

We are in parlous times thanks to several administrations and congresses that have ignored the laws of economics that say you cannot borrow your way out of debt and keep spending at the same time.

Master Your Debt by Jordan E. Goodman with Bill Westrom ($24.95, John Wiley & Sons) offers lots of detailed advice, based on the latest laws and new government programs and policies. You will find a variety of strategies to rid yourself of debt, along with reliable source information such as toll-free numbers, websites, association and government agencies, and vetted companies and services to help you implement your plan to dig out from debt. Goodman has authored a dozen books and, for eighteen years, he was the Wall Street correspondent for Money magazine, as well as on television and radio. Westrom is a consumer advocate and veteran mortgage professional who has become a critic of the traditional banking system. From the same publishing company comes How to Run Your Business by THE BOOK: A Biblical Blueprint to Bless Your Business by Dave Anderson ($24.95, John Wiley & Sons) that will appeal to anyone raised with religious values. In a time when surveys tell us that only 45& of Americans are satisfied with their work, an all-time low since the study was begun in 1987, unhappiness on the job, says the author, has some very real consequences. “Unhappy employees are unhealthy employees—psychologically, emotionally, and sometimes even physically,” says the author. Inspiring and motivating workers is job number one says Anderson. He identifies the bad habits owners and managers can develop in bad times and he offers some good advice how to improve life for everyone from employees to customers.

When Turtles Fly by Nikki Stone ($17.95, Morgan James Publishing, softcover) is subtitled “Secrets of successful people who know how to stick their necks out.” By recounting the stories of 40 people like designer Tommy Hilfiger, jazz musician Branford Marsalis, and NFL quarterback Steve Young, the author demonstrates that, in addition to their talents, they also were willing to take the chances necessary to win big in life’s lottery. There’s No Crying in Business: How Women Can Succeed in Male-Dominated Industries by Roxanne Rivera ($39.95, Palgrave Macmillan) takes a look at what it takes to succeed and does so from her own personal experience running her multi-million-dollar construction company. Then, to hammer home her message, she relates the stories of others like herself who made breakthroughs. Among those cited are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, country music star Taylor Swift, and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, but there are plenty more whose names are instantly recognizable such as former Governor and vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. This book will prove exceptionally inspirational to young women just beginning their careers. There are endless books about managing and some are better than others. Straight A Leadership: Alignment, Action, Accountability ($18.00, Fire Starter Publishing, softcover) by Quint Studer who is a firm believer in accentuating the positive. “Managing up is, in essence, positioning people well,” says Studer, and his book examines how to align a staff instead of dividing them, as opposed to a “we/they culture” in which employees feel the enemy is management. Discussed in full is managing your boss as well as your staff. For managers hitting obstacles too often, this book may well prove the breakthrough.

Every profession or business has its own tax issues and a related need for information, and this is no less true of the creative trades. A New Tax Guide for Writers, Artists, Performers & Other Creative People has been published ($18.95, Focus Publishing, R. Pullins Company, softcover). The 2010 edition by Peter Jason Riley, a CPA, is a complete guide to income and business tax forms and includes the 2009 forms for filing. In addition, the author provides some very useful advice. This publisher, a specialist in books for and about drama, also offers The Dramatists Guild Resource Directory ($18.95), The Process of Dramaturgy: A Handbook ($16.95), and Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically ($18.95). All are softcover editions.

There are two excellent audiobooks available from Hachette Audio. One is Burton G. Malkiel’s and Charles D. Ellis’s The Elements of Investing ($24.98), good for approximately two and a half-hours of introduction to the rules and principles of intelligent investing that can save you both time and money. Selling in Tough Times: Secrets to Selling When No One is Buying by national bestselling author, Tom Hopkins, ($24.98, six CDs) shares his experience to help you increase sales by tested and true techniques.

To Your Health

America must be one of the most health-conscious nations on Earth. It seems like health is a constant topic on the various news and talk shows. There are any number of programs on television as well including one devoted to autopsies! There are endless articles in magazines and newspapers, too. It was even a major political issue this past year.

When you’ve been a book reviewer as long as I have (don’t ask!) you see, from year to year, a lot of books that fall into familiar formulas; essentially repeating what many previous books have had to say. That’s why finding books with something new to say is the bonus for which I look. That’s why I am recommending Healing Companions: Ordinary Dogs and their Extraordinary Power to Transform Lives by Jane Miller, LISW, CDBC ($16.99, New Page Books, a division of Career Press, softcover). I have a friend who has always had dogs in his life. He currently lives in a rural cabin with a blind Malamute, Boris, for company. I have known him long enough to know that his dogs have brought him endless love and have been part of his family for decades. There are 65 million dog owners in America that know that dogs inspire confidence, nurture emotional well-being, and bring out the best in them. This interesting book examines how dogs can benefit survivors of emotional illness and mitigate agoraphobia, depression, and post-traumatic stress. It is filled with good advice on how to choose a dog and take care of one. The author is a clinical psychiatrist in private practice.

Surviving Your Doctors: Why the Medical System is Dangerous to Your Health and How to Get Through it Alive by Dr. Richard S. Klein, M.D., ($32.95, Rowman & Littlefield) points out that, “every year, at least 100,000 patients die in American hospitals because of malpractice.” Drawing on 38 years of experience in the healthcare industry and 20 years testifying in malpractice lawsuits, the author has a lot to say about things you should do to protect your health and deal with what he calls the “organized crime” of insurance providers and plans. When dealing with your physician, keep in mind he has allotted you about 15 minutes time for the visit, so Dr. Klein says you should make a list of all symptoms and questions you have. Then be prepared to question your doctor’s diagnosis and opinions. Do as much research as possible beforehand. Then get a second opinion. In sum, this book could, indeed, save your life by empowering you with a better understanding of what you’re getting into with a doctor’s visit or one to a hospital.

There are all kinds of specific injuries and illnesses. Successfully Surviving a Brain Injury: A Family Guidebook ($17.95, www.braininjurySuccess.org, softcover) by Garry Prowe provides a wealth of information about brain injuries, noting that each is unique, from mild to severe, and each affects the entire family and requires their participation in the recovery. Brain injuries are far more common than most people know and the good news is that the brain has the capacity to repair itself in many cases. I would have to say that this book is excellent in every respect. It has just the right kind of information and encouragement that anyone, the patient and the caregiver, would want to know and need to know. Cancer is as scary as it comes, but many recover thanks to modern medicine. Joi L. Morris and Ora K. Gordon, M.D., have authored Positive Results: Making the Best Decisions When You’re at High Risk for Breast or Ovarian Cancer ($20.00, Prometheus Books, softcover). It is a singular, comprehensive source of information and advice to help women who are at high risk because of family history and their genetic profile. It is one part memoir and three parts “how to” manual, providing in a clear and steady manner the myths and realities of the disease. It lays out all the options in easy-to-follow compassionate language. This book will provide a lot of peace of mind for those vulnerable to this disease and the encouragement to know it can be overcome. We all know that germs can cause or aggravate illness. Joni James Aldrich writes of her husband’s struggle against cancer in Saving Gordon: Lifelines to W-I-N Against Cancer ($19.95, Cancer Lifeline Publications, softcover).The focus of the book is how to eliminate germs as a means to enhance treatment of a cancer patient. Since the patient cannot live in a bubble, there are many factors to keep in mind and they are spelled out in this book to include surroundings in public and at home, as well as in medical facilities. To maintain an environment that minimizes the potential hazard from germs requires a lot of effort and knowledge, and this book provides a lot of knowledge. Chasing Miracles: The Crowley Family Journal of Strength, Hope, and Joy ($22.95, Newmarket Press, softcover) as the name implies tells of the determination of John F. Crowley, the author, and his wife, to save the lives of their two youngest children, keep their family together, and their marriage strong when 15-month-old Megan and 4-mouth-old Patrick were diagnosed as having been born with a rare genetic disorder called Pompe disease. Their effort was ultimately successful, but the story of how they coped will prove inspirational to others experiencing a similar struggle. Crowley walked away from his corporate job to set up a biotech company to focus on finding a cure and today their children, despite their special needs, are now 13 and 11 years of age.

As someone who was the caregiver for two aging parents, both of whom lived into their nineties, I found Feeding Mrs. Moskowitz and the The Caregiver: Two Stories by Barbara Pokras and Fran Pokras Yariv ($19.95, Syracuse University Press, softcover) a delightful experience. It is a candid and humorous look at aging. With 4.3 million Americans now taking on the role of caregivers to loved ones, there are plenty of stories to tell and share. The book is two novellas in which we meet Golde Moskowitz, an elderly Russian-born widow living alone with her memories and, in the second we visit a fictional upscale assisted-living facility in Hollywood and learn about it through the eyes of Ofelia Hernandez, a young Latina caregiver who relates the lives of those living there. It is well worth reading whether one is a caregiver or not, aging or not. This is a slice of life worth visiting. A Sacred Walk: Dispelling the Fear of Death and Caring for the Dying($15.95, A&A Publishing, softcover) by Donna M. Authers addresses the fact that all of us will die at some point and that all of us will be called upon to help a parent, spouse, friend or other loved one make the final journey. Helping them make the most of their last years, months or weeks can provide priceless memories, despite the fact that it will test you in every way. This is Authers’ personal story, but it is also ultimately everyone’s story when faced with this final stage of life.

Books for Kids and Teens

A torrent of new books for pre-school, early readers, and teens has arrived and this month and next we will be recommending some wonderful books to add to your child’s library. We learn best when we are self-taught.

Let us begin with books for pre-school and early readers, ages 2 through 7. From Kane Miller Publishing there’s Passing By ($15.99) written by Yona Tepper and illustrated by Gil-Ly Alon Curiel, a charming story of a little girl observing the street below her window as dogs, birds and people become part of her world. In Andy and Sam: Hide and Seek by Liesbet Slegers ($14.99), Sam the cat loves to hide and the fanciful illustrated pages of the book invite young readers to find Sam amidst many other objects. For the early reader, Francoize Boucher has created I Love Words ($14.99), an activity book for writing, drawing and just having fun while practicing the alphabet and discovering the fun of writing. Check out this publisher at www.kanemiller.com.

Another favorite publisher of mine is Kids Can Press. A Paddling of Ducks: Animals in Groups from A to Z by Marjorie Blain Parker and Joseph Kelly is marvelously illustrated and creates groups that include a “Bask of Crocodiles” and a “Skulk of Foxes” to reinforce the alphabet and introduce a young reader to all manner of creatures from Yellow Jackets to zebra in a very entertaining fashion. Melanie Watt created Chester the cat, a rather self-centered feline, and his latest manifestation occurs in Chester’s Masterpiece ($18.95) in which she admonishes Chester not to copy other people’s writings as he attempts to write his own book. Will he write humor, action, drama, suspense, horror, science fiction, or romance? The results will be hilarious to any young reader who will begin to think about writing their own book, too! An older reader, age 10 to 12, will surely enjoy Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton ($18.95) with an excellent text and extraordinary computer-generated images, illustrations and photos that demonstrate how various species evolved over millions of years. Any youngster showing an interest in science will love this one.
Check out this publisher at www.kidscanpress.com,

Tanglewood Press publishes books for the youngest readers that combine wonderful stories with memorable illustrations. A New York Times bestseller is The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn with illustrations by Ruth E. Harper and Nancy M. Leak ($16.95) that won a Distinguished Achievement Award for Excellence in Educational Publishing. School is starting in the forest and Chester Raccoon does not want to go. To help ease Chester’s fears, Mrs. Raccoon shares a family secret to give him the reassurance of her love any time the world feels a little scary. Published originally in 1993, it is a keeper! He reappears in Chester Raccoon and the Acorn Full of Memories ($16.95) by Penn and illustrated by Barbara L. Gibson. When Chester’s best friend, a squirrel, goes missing forever, Mrs. Raccoon suggests that Chester and his friends “make some memories” when they miss him. This book helps a youngster learn how to cope with the loss of a loved one.

Moving onto the older readers from 12 through 15, there is plenty of advice and fiction from Kids Can Press and a good place to begin is Think Again by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Julie Morstad ($16.95) that is filled with short poems, couplets that provide some very good advice for those approaching a new level of maturity. Along the same lines is Girl in the Know: Your Inside-and-Out Guide to Growing Up by Anne Katz, R.D., PhD and illustrated by Monika Melnychuk ($18.95) that I would surely recommend to parents of girls approaching and entering their teen years. It deals with a lot of topics parents can often feel uncomfortable discussing and does so with excellent advice. Fiction is well served in James Leck’s The Adventures of Jack Lime, L.M. Falcone’s The Midnight Curse, and Susan Hughes’ Virginia.

From Kane Miller there’s Ruth Starke’s Noodle Pie ($15.99) that tells the story of American-born Andy who returns to Vietnam with his dad, a former refugee returning for the first time to visit his relatives. Talk about culture shock, but it is also a valuable lesson in learning about Vietnam. There’s a lot of fun to be had in The Python Problem by Darrel and Sally Odgers ($4.99), a short book in the Pet Vet series told by Trump, a dog that lives with a veterinarian who tends to all kinds of animals. If you child shows an interest in animals, he or she will love this delightful story and learn a lot of useful things about animals in the process.

A book arrived from far-off New Zealand, Ben Brown and the Return of the Nephilim by Michael C. Thorp. It is the first in a “Ben Brown” series published by Free House Publishing and is a non-genre fictional story for young adults in which Ben is launched on many adventures when a space explorer vehicle crashes in his family’s Kansas wheat field. Any young adult will enjoy going alone as he voyages to the end of the universe to free an enslaved people. These days one can purchase just about any book published anywhere thanks to the Internet. The autobiography of a real young man, Matt Furey, The Unbeatable Man ($24.95, Gold Medal Publications, Tampa, Florida) recounts how, as a young fellow growing up in a rural Iowa town, Furey was a punching bag for his four brothers, but discovered he had a talent for wrestling. As a teenager he became an accomplished athlete in both wrestling and swimming, seeking and winning championships. Furey became a successful entrepreneur, but the lessons he learned as a young man were the key to his achievements as a teen and as he grew older. It is an excellent book for any teenage boy struggling to find out who he is and what he can become.

Novels, Novels, Novels!

In no particular order, let’s look at some of the fiction that has arrived at Bookviews Hq.

Dog Boy by Eva Hornung ($25.95, Viking) was inspired by the real-life story of a Russian boy who fled an abusive home and lived a number of years with a pack of dogs. This is not the first time this theme has caught the imagination of a writer and one need only think of Mowgli of The Jungle Book or Tarzan. In the aftermath of Perestroika, countless homeless children and adults roam the streets of Moscow and a four-year-old follows a stray dog to its home in an abandoned church cellar. He is accepted into the pack by Mamochka, the pack’s mother, and slowly abandons his human attributes to survive two fiercely cold winters, becoming the pack leader because of his skills as a strategist. The pack is constantly in search of food to survive and as they begin to prey on people, he attracts the attention of local police, street urchins, and, finally, scientists. This is an exploration of what it is to be human. It will make you think! Family is the heart of an excellent debut novel by Leslie Jamison. The Gin Closet ($25.00, Free Press) starts out in the 1960s when Tilly Rudolph abandons here middle class home and flees to the seedy underworld of Reno. She will spend much of her life without a family, but nearly three decades later her niece, Stella, a young cosmopolite from New York tracks her down and life changes for both of them as they move to San Francisco where they are joined by Abe, Tilly’s handsome and mysterious son. Told from the point of view of the two main characters, the fragile triangle between them soon breaks under its own weight. Is family enough to save someone from a transforming decision made years earlier? The novel asks and answers that question in a way that marks the author as someone to watch for future work.

Among the softcover novels are three worth noting. Life as a Sandwich by Eric Peterson ($15.95, Huckleberry House) looks at the “sandwich generation”, adults caught between raising children, tending to their careers, and caring for aging parents. Peterson gives us Wallace Noe who decides to leave his consulting career and stake everything on a start-up company and when everything goes terribly wrong. He is the product of a unique time in California’s history, a high tech boom when it seemed like everyone was hitting the jackpot. Wallace is one of those whose dream deflates very swiftly until he must reexamine his priorities in life. This is a real slice-of-life novel and well worth reading. The next is The Secret Keeper ($l5.00, Plume) and it takes us to a war-torn African nation, Sierra Leone, and a journalist determined to uncover the truth behind his former lover’s post-war murder. When he returns, he finds a different nation, one that is financially on the mend and superficially at peace. One follows his travails to the point where he must literally choose between his principles and his life. The third novel could not be more different from than the others. Harrison Slater has written Nocturne ($24.95, Editions Peabody Mason) published just in time for the 200th anniversary of Chopin. Artemisia Talbot, a photographer, gets an assignment to photograph Chopin’s Paris, finding unconditional love there in the form of a young, American musicologist, Matthew Pierce. She follows him to Warsaw where a diary that describes Chopin’s ill-fated love affair with a talented pianist and watercolorist has some disturbing parallels to contemporary events. An obsessive killer, bent on revenge, is on the loose. The combination of these themes makes for a very interesting story, particularly for anyone who loves Chopin’s music and the era in which he flourished.

Short stories are a great way to pass the time and there are two recent collections that have been published. Precarious by Al Riske ($16.95, Luminis Books, softcover) is subtitled “Stories of Love, Sex, and Misunderstanding.” That should provide a clue to the fifteen stories about the differences between men and women and the conflicts that inevitably arise between them. Riske has peopled his stories with some vivid characters and provocative scenarios. They range from rain-soaked Seattle to Malibu and Cape Cod. It is never boring! Other reviewers have long acclaimed Lady Caroline Blackwood’s literary skills whose marriages to artist Lucian Freud and to poet Robert Lowell, gave her a reputation for eccentricity and frequent flares of panic. Never Breathe a Word is a collection of her stories ($26.00, Counterpoint) spanning her long career and ranging between tragedy and humor. She must have been fairly terrifying in real life. She died in 1996 in Manhattan’s Mayfair Hotel, living as she said, in “grand squalor.” Fans of the short story genre are in for a treat.

I will break my rule about self-published books by noting my friend Joe Sansone’s Obama in Wonderland ($11.95, softcover, www.obamainwonderland.com) because it is a very amusing satire on the present political chaos. Just imagine Alice in Wonderland with a whole new cast of characters, all equally distanced from reality, as Obama tries his best to “transform” Wonderland with some hilarious and absurd results. This is a cautionary tale as well and one that the disaffected independent or conservative in your life will thoroughly enjoy. Available, too, from Amazon.com.

That’s it for March! Wow, three months have flown by. Come back in April and don’t forget to tell your friends and family about the only site for eclectic news of new books for all ages and all tastes, fiction and non-fiction.

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