Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bookviews - August 2011

By Alan Caruba
Founding Member of the National Book Critics Circle

My Picks of the Month

Occasionally one receives a book for review that is simply astonishing for its lack of candor and common sense. Clean Energy Nation by Rep. Jerry McNerney, PhD, and Martin Cheek ($27.95, Amacom) is subtitled “Freeing America from the tyranny of fossil fuels.” What tyranny is McNerney talking about? The entire world runs on coal, oil, and natural gas. All transportation depends on gasoline or diesel. Fifty percent of all the electricity produced in the U.S. depends on coal and the U.S. is often described as the Saudi Arabia of coal because we have such vast reserves of it. We also have over an estimated trillion worth of untapped barrels of oil. To argue that this should be abandoned in favor of solar, wind, or biofuels energy, none of whose producers would exist without large government subsidies backed up by mandates for their use is a kind of willful ignorance or insanity.. Suffice to say, this is an extraordinarily silly book.

America is often called a Christian nation based on its historical roots and majority population of Christians, so one can only imagine what a chilly reception The End of Christianity, edited by John W. Loftus, ($11.99, Prometheus Books, softcover) will receive. Loftus is a former minister and now recognized as a leading spokesperson for atheism. The contributors to this book are also noted atheists. What makes the book interesting, however, is its historical review of how Christianity came into being, what religious beliefs preceded it in the ancient world, and how, theologically, it challenges believers to accept some extraordinary beliefs on pure faith. This book is not some screed decrying Christianity, but rather a studied effort to understand its roots, its spread, and the assertions on which it is based. As such, it makes for some very interesting reading. We all need our beliefs challenged on occasion to determine the strength of one’s faith. By contrast, Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life by Kate Braestrup ($15.00, Free Press, softcover) offers practical suggestions on how to incorporate prayer into one’s life for all occasions and situations, as well as the role that parents can play in instructing children in faith. A chaplain to the Maine Warden Service that engages in search-and-rescue, the author shares her experiences and insights.

There are currently more than 6,000 languages spoken around the world and yet one can say “hello” anywhere and be understood. The English language is the lingua franca of the world, required for everything from business and science, diplomacy and education, and entertainment. In China, more people speak English than in America as it taught in its schools to prepare Chinese to go out into the wider world. The English is Coming! How One Language is Sweeping the World by Leslie Dunton-Downer ($14.00, Touchstone, softcover) takes the reader on a journey across commerce and culture, war and peace, to show how everyday English words have become a shared piece of understanding and the way people around the world communicate with one another. This is a wonderful book for anyone who loves words and loves the language that has gone global.

Compared with the work involved in writing a book, fiction or nonfiction, getting it published is often as arduous and difficult as task. Literary history is filled with now famous writers being rejected over and over again. Mike Nappa has written 77 Reasons Why Your Book was Rejected (and how to make sure it won’t happen again!) ($14.99, Sourcebooks, softcover). It is often brutally honest, but this is made more palatable by the humor he brings to this awful task. A literary agent, Nappa knows most of the reasons given for rejection as well as the ones never expressed. The fact is that, with the invention of the computer, just about everyone has become convinced they can and should write a book. In addition, there are many affordable outlets that will publish it for you, for a fee. With thousands of book proposals flooding agents and editors, it would be useful for the aspiring writer or one who has been rejected to know why one’s book simply cannot find a publisher. I suspect Nappa grew tired of explaining over and over again why a book was rejected. Now he need only hand them his new book and, if you have a book you want published, you should read it!

While wandering the aisles of the Book Expo, I came across Urban Farming: Sustainable City Living in Your Backyard, in your Community, and in the World ($24.95, Bowtie Press, softcover) by Thomas J. Fox. I confess I am not enamored of all the tree-hugger talk of sustainability because it often masks an agenda to control people’s lives, but this book offers a lot of information about how to grow healthy vegetables and fruits in an urban setting. It is a practical guide filled with how-to advice, enhanced by many handsome full-color photos. Our little backyard in New Jersey always had space set aside where Mother would plant a variety of items that graced our dinner plates with fresh vegetables throughout the spring, summer, and into early fall.

Dog owners are a special breed—no pun intended—and some write wonderful books about their furry companions. Stanley Coren has established himself as an expert with two previous books on “How Dogs Think” and “How to Speak Dog.” His latest is a delightful memoir, Born to Bark: My Adventures with an Irrepresible and Unforgettable Dog ($16.00, Free Press, softcover). Coren writes “For Christmas the woman who would become my wife bought me a dog—a little terrier. The next year her Christmas gift to me was a shotgun. Most of the people in my family believe that the two gifts were not unrelated.” The dog was Flint and this psychologist’s memoir will provide lots of laughter as he relates his experience with an extraordinary, willful pooch and those that had preceded it.

Getting Down to Business (Books)

Those in the field of marketing are always searching for answers to why we purchase what we purchase. In interesting book will help answer that question. The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature by Gad Saad ($25.00, Prometheus Books) answers what it is that all successful fast-food restaurants have in common. Why women are more likely to be compulsive shoppers than men, but men more likely to become addicted to pornography. How the fashion industry plays on our innate need to belong and many other questions that involve the underlying evolutionary basis for most of our consumer behavior. While culture is important, says Dr. Saad, a professor of marketing at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, there are deeper forces at work in our psyche that range from survival to reproduction to kin selection. All of which makes this a very interesting book to read for any reason whatever. In a somewhat similar fashion Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us in and Hold Us Spellbound by Scott Rigby and Richard M. Ryan ($34.95, Praeger) explores the heart of gaming’s powerful psychological and emotional allure. Indeed, it is no longer just kids and teens who are hooked on them, but adults as well. Parents, researchers, and those who love these games will find this book of interest, particularly if there’s someone in the family or a friend who is addicted to them. Both authors come to the subject with backgrounds in psychology and related research, so this is a serious book about an entertaining topic.

It’s a topic that politicians, business executives, celebrities, and many others find of great interest, Elements of Influence: The Art of Getting Others to Follow Your Lead ($26.00, Amacom). Terry R. Bacon says it is not some kind of magic power, but rather something that we do all the time whenever we want someone to do something, to believe something, to agree with us or to behave differently. While it is not possible to influence anyone to do anything, it is possible to develop the skills necessary and the author explains how influence really actually works, ethically, consensually, and productively, in business, in everyday life, and in a world of cultural diversity. It does, however, require “a great deal of adaptability, perceptiveness, and insight into other people” says the author. Backed by decades of research, I have no doubt that this book would prove useful to anyone seeking to improve their ability to influence those around them. In the world of business, the best result is leadership.

On a lighter level there’s Dumbemployed: Hilariously Dumb and Sadly True Stories About Jobs Like Yours by Phil Edwards and Matt Kraft ($13.00, Running Press, softcover) that is filled with more than 800 short paragraphs that demonstrate you are not alone if your workplace sometimes resembles a madhouse. Divided into five chapters, bosses, customers, just dumb, overtime and weird shift, it is a chronicle of every workplace misery you could imagine, plus some you can’t. These short takes will make you laugh (or groan) from page to page.

Let’s Get Cooking

Cookbooks come in all sizes and varieties, but one especially good idea is one that comes in a five-ringed binder that permits the cook to lay it flat on the counter top and, when you add in tabbed sections, the ease of use is matched by the quality of its recipes. This is the case of the Taste of Home Baking: All-New Edition ($29.95, Taste of Home Books) that is officially due out this September. It offers 786 recipes that are accompanied by more than 730 color photos in 510 pages. This is a hefty book that is likely to serve its user for a lifetime with its comprehensive collection of recipes on just about every kind of baked item from cakes to breads and everything in between. It would make an ideal gift for the newly married homemaker who wants to bake but does not want to deal with often daunting recipes. Instead, if offers all the tips and advice one could want for a beginner, but plenty of recipes for the most advanced baker.

Put your order in now to get your copy of All About Roasting by Molly Stevens ($35.00, W.W. Norton) due in the bookstores in November. If I could only eat food prepared in one fashion, it would be “roasted” because it brings out the taste of meats. The author describes when to use high, moderate or low heat to get the best results in juicy, well-seared meats, caramelized drippings, and concentrated flavors. There are 150 recipes that include beef, lamb, pork and poultry, as well as herb-roasted shrimp and basted broccoli. Suffice to say this is a book for anyone who is really serious about producing meals that will linger in the memory of family and guests for years after. The author has won both the James Beard and IACP cookbook awards, and is a contributing editor at Fine Cooking magazine. It will become a treasured reference and guide on the bookshelves of those who purchase it.

From Da Capo Press come two food-oriented books, two of which are devoted to the vegan lifestyle. Just out in July is Vegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet by Jack Norris, RD, and Virginia Messina, MPH, RD ($17.00, softcover) and Sinfully Vegan: More than 160 Decadent Desserts to Satisfy Every Sweet Tooth by Lois Dieterly ($18.00, softcover). The former book addresses how difficult it is to give up meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and all other animal-derived ingredients and it acknowledges that “many new vegans can suddenly find themselves suffering from deficiencies of fundamental nutrients like protein, calcium, and iron.” That a warning sign worth considering insofar as the human body, over millennia is designed and intended to eat meat. There are teeth in everyone’s mouth whose purpose is to chew meat. For those who, for whatever reason, intend to become vegans, this book will be helpful, but I personally do not recommend the vegan diet. As for vegan desserts, you will find plenty in the latter book.

Women have their special needs and an interesting book, Eat to Defeat Menopause: The Essential Nutrition Guide for a Healthy Midlife---with more than 130 Recipes ($19.00, Lifelong Books, softcover) by Karen Giblin and Mache Seibel,.MD. The midlife “change” is subject to myths, uncertainties, and some trepidation. It makes sense that what one eats can have good or bad effects on the body’s changing chemistry. The good news is that black bean and rice salads, lobster and duck chow mein, and chocolate mouse pie are among the many ways to satisfy every craving or mood swing. You will learn why eating foods that contain phytoestrogens, such as soy and garlic, combat hot flashes, mood swings are stabilized by eating omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B. There is a lot of excellent and interesting dietary information in this food.

I have seen so many diet books over the years that I am wary of most, but Timothy S. Harlan, MD, has penned Just Tell Me What to Eat! The Delicious 6-Week Loss Plan for the Real World ($25.00, Da Capo Press). It addresses the fact that there are an estimated 145 million Americans, aged 25 and up, who are overweight. After hearing from patients complain how confused they were by all the various diet plans, he decided to write one of his own. It is not a fad diet, nor a typical diet plan because it not only tells the reader what to eat, but why to eat it. The recipes reflect a variety of cuisines from Italian and French to Spanish and American. It even discusses convenience food alternatives when there isn’t time to prepare a meal. It is an informed and informative book about dieting that should prove helpful to take its advice and stick to it.

Science & Math Stuff

As someone who has difficulty with sums, I am in awe of those who can do them in their head and actually think math is fun! For them, there’s Here’s Looking at Euclid by Alex Bellos ($15.00, Free Press, softcover) “From counting ants to games of chance, an awe-inspiring journey through the world of numbers”, says the subtitle. The book is full of interesting information such as the fact that numbers of not innate to humans, but came into use about 8,000 years ago. There’s a tribe in the Amazon that can only count to five. Apparently they need one hand to count the fingers on the other. Who knows? If you love numbers, odds are you will enjoy this book. Even more arcane is The Wave Watcher’s Companion by Gavin Pretor-Pinney ($15.00, Perigee, softcover) that will appeal to anyone who has wondered about the motions we call waves, from brain waves to sound waves, infrared waves, to all manner of comparable patterns that appear to have a similarity. This book isn’t just for those into science, but also natures, history, and even surfing.

There has been controversy about the theory of evolution since Charles Darwin put it forth and, indeed, a friend of mine, Robert W. Felix, disputes it in his book “Magnetic Reversals and Evolutionary Leaps” that correlates such phenomenon with mass extinctions and the sudden emergence of new species. The Fact of Evolution by Cameron M. Smith ($18.00, Prometheus Books, softcover) asserts that evolution is, well, a fact. He offers all manner of real-world examples to show that not only does it happen, but that it must happen. Suffice to say this is some very deep scientific writing about things such as “phyletic gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium.” Don’t ask me what any of that means. You will have to read the book to find out, but I have my doubts about anything that has to come up with arcane, undecipherable language to describe its views. From the same publisher comes The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us by Victor J. Stenger ($28.00, Prometheus Books). Stenger is a physicist who goes after the view that the universe was the creation of God and why nature is not part of a divine plan. A great deal of effort is expended in this effort and, if you’re an atheist, you will find comfort in the author’s conclusion. If you’re not, reading it will not likely change your mind. I doubt the universe really cares what anyone thinks.

National Issues

As the 2012 election begins to loom in the minds of Americans who will be tasked to select a President and Congress, it is not surprising that there are books offering to provide information and a point of view on national issues.

People who self-identify as patriots, members of the Tea Party movement, and other groups devoted to the U.S. Constitution and national values are being derided regularly these days by those who want to change America into something it was never intended to be. If you would like to learn what that is, I recommend that you read The Patriot’s History Reader: Essential Documents for Every American ($17.00, Sentinel, softcover). The editor, Larry Schweikart, first came to notice with his book, “A Patriot’s History of the United States”, and other books based on history, a subject he teachers at the University of Dayton. This new book contains a whole range of reading matter from the original Articles of Confederation (that were replaced by the Constitution) to Barack Obama’s “A New Beginning” speech in 2009. There are many such documents from our history that provide valuable insights to the choices we made and the nation we became.

Dr. L. Lynn Cleland, Ph.D., has authored Save Our System, subtitled “Why and how ‘We the People’ must reclaim our liberties now.” We know that too many Americans have passed through the educational system without receiving the knowledge they need to understand the Constitution and what it was the Founding Fathers had in mind when they fashioned the federal government, a republic composed of separate republics, the States. The book ($16.95, Two Harbors Press, softcover) is not a diatribe against either political party, but it does identify the nation’s systemic problems, along with their causes, evolution, solutions, and actions citizens can take to return the nation to its fundamental principles. You will learn what effect “career politicians” have on both creating and distorting the answer to problems, government systems that are near failure, and much more in this excellent “textbook” to bring any reader up to speed to make important decisions about the future at election time.

Adrift: Charting Our Course Back to a Great Nation by William C. Harris and Steven C. Beschloss ($25.00, Prometheus Books) brings together Harris, the president of Science Foundation Arizona and other science-related organizations, and Beschloss, a journalist who was a Pulitzer Prize nominee. The authors offer their diagnosis of what they deem to be critical systemic weaknesses plaguing America. The blueprint they propose leans a tad to liberal solutions, but their proposals are worth considering.

There’s considerable irony that all the proposals offered by President Obama during his 2008 campaign and first year in office regarding issues involving the programs put in place by former President Bush were abandoned in their favor and continued maintenance. In National Security, Civil Liberties, and the War on Terror ($21.00, Prometheus Books, softcover), those issues are hotly debated in a collection of essays edited by M. Katherine B. Darmer, a professor of law at Chapman University School of Law and an assistant US Attorney in New York, NY, and Richard D. Fybel, an associate justice of the California Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, CA.

Novels, Novels, Novels

Novels arrive daily and my office table has more than forty of them in various stacks during any given month. They come from the mainstream publishers, large and small, some university presses, and self-published authors. (See my Pick of the Month book on why most authors have their books rejected.) Humans are story-telling creatures from the days they huddled around fires in caves.

One of this year’s most exciting new novels reflects recent headlines that the Pentagon has been under cyber attack from a foreign nation. Its timing could not be much better. If I could, I would want everyone in the White House, the Congress, the Pentagon, and the business community to read The Chinese Conspiracy by John Mariotti ($22.95, iUniverse, softcover). It is a thrilling novel of cyber war whose author has established himself as a successful writer of nine non-fiction books, as well as a contributor to blogs on the Forbes and American Express websites. The story begins with a scenario of America’s vital communications and elements of its infrastructure system, including the Pentagon, shut down by an unknown cyber enemy. Imagine the chaos if all the traffic lights in New York turned green at the same time? Mariotti uses his extensive knowledge of commerce and computer technology to envision an America in which no one can talk via their cell phones or access the Internet. It is one in which millions of computers have been invaded by a “worm” that controls their use. This may, in fact, be the way a future war will be fought, but for now this novel offers a globe-spanning story that will remind you of novels by Tom Clancy. If you read just one thriller this year, make sure it is this one. The best place to purchase this novel is via Amazon.com.

The itch to write a novel is one that so seizes some people that it would be better described as an addiction. The authors that amaze me are those who managed to put thousands of words on page after page. The only rule I apply is whether they manage to hold your attention. This was the task before Sam Djang who spent eight years and traveled to many nations—Russia, China, Mongolia, among others—to research the life of Genghis Khan. To the extent that Genghis Khan: The World Conqueror (Volumes I and II) is 90% factual, held together by a skein of fiction, he has more than succeeded in capturing the life, the times, and the impact of a man who, in his lifetime, conquered more land than Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, or the size of the Roman Empire, surely makes him a worthy topic. By 2010 A.D., the Mongol Empire measured 13,754,663 square miles, the largest in history. Volume One and Volume Two are both 420 pages in length ($29.95/$19.95, New Horizon Books, hard and softcover editions.) Khan’s was the age when human civilization gained knowledge of the compass, paper, gun powder, astronomy, mathematics, and developed techniques to make glass. Anyone who loves history will thoroughly love this book.

If you are in the mood for a courtroom thriller, pick up a copy of Margaret McLean’s Under Fire ($24.99, Forge) who has already been hailed as one of next new faces of Boston crime fiction with her debut. On a tragic night, a Boston firefighter is shot and killed in the line of duty while rescuing Amina Diallo and her 15-year-old son, Malick, from their burning store. A Senegalese Muslim immigrant, she is arrested for arson and murder, facing a likely conviction given Boston’s unease with its growing immigrant and Muslim population. Her defense attorneys are facing more than just prejudices, but attacks on their client and key defense witness. Ms. McLean, a former prosecutor, trial attorney, and currently a professor at Boston College, joins a well-worn path from attorney to novelist with her first novel and does so in ways that will keep you turning the pages.

Another debut novel is Luke Williams’ The Echo Chamber ($25.95, Viking) that was published in Great Britain in May to rave reviews and is available now in America. The reader is invited into the world of Evie Steppman, born in 1946 during the dying days of the British Empire in Nigeria. Evie has acute hearing and, to her, the world is a loud, cacophonous place. She is too young to make sense of all the sounds, but she hoards them in a vast internal sonic archive. The novel is narrated by a 54-year-old Evie, now living in Scotland, sorting through an attic filled with objects from her past. Her powers of hearing are beginning to fade and she sets out to record her history before it disintegrates on her. Family, empire, and memory coalesce in a novel that is an amazing feat of imagination. This one is surely worth reading. And still another novelist makes his debut with The Butterfly Cabinet ($22.99, Free Press). Bernie McGill has spun a tale based on a true story of the death of the daughter of an aristocratic Irish family at the end of the 19th century. It begins with a former nanny, now in her 90s, who received a letter from the last of her charges that evokes a secret she has been keeping for more than 70 years about what really happened on the last day in the life of Charlotte Orman, the four-year-old, only daughter in a house where she was employed. If you’re thinking of the recent Casey Anthony trial, this novel suggests that such events have a way of repeating themselves.

Cheryl Crane, the daughter of movie star, Lana Turner, gained fame when in 1957, at the age of 14, she stabbed to death one of her mother’s lovers, a Hollywood hoodlum, who was threatening to kill her mother. She has written a number of books and has authored The Bad Always Die Twice ($24.00. Kensington). It goes on sale officially on August 30. This novel draws on her own life in real estate and debuts a Nikki Harper series based pm a realtor-turned-amateur sleuth. It closely reflects her own life as a realtor to the stars. It begins with a frenzied call from Nikki’s business partner, Jessica Martin, saying that a TV has-been, Rex March, has been found dead in Jessica’s bed. Especially shocking is that, as far as anyone knew, Rex had died six months earlier. It’s obvious that Jessica is being framed and Nikki knows she must act swiftly to find out who the killer is. This is a very lively, fast-paced thriller that is sure to please fans of this genre. You Never Know by Lilian Duval ($21.95, Wheatmark, Tucson, AZ) explores what happens when extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. The author is a survivor of the 9/11 attack and lives in New Jersey where the novel’s protagonist, Tobias Hillyer, has a life filled with both tragedy and extraordinary luck. This is a novel in which the characters intertwine in an ever-changing landscape of events, capped by Hillyer’s win of a MegaMillions lottery that, despite the millions involved, evoke a whole new set of problems. It an intriguing story filled with unexpected twists and turns.

There are scores of softcover novels. Just out this month there’s The Whole Package by Cynthia Ellingen ($15.00, Berkley) who makes her debut with a novel about three women approaching forty who find that even though things haven’t gone according to plan, their friendship and resourcefulness present them with the perfect opportunity for a new venture, a restaurant staffed exclusively by handsome men. Women, of course, will enjoy this one. There’s love and lust to spare in Francine Thomas Howard’s novel, Paris Noire, (14.95, AmazonEncore) about African American and Caribbean immigrants to France as the U.S. Army liberates Paris in 1944. The widowed mother of two young adults is concerned as they embark on their romances and contemplates a new one for herself in a story that explores race, sex, and a vivid time in history.

That’s it for August and ahead are the many new books that are published each autumn. Be sure to come back to Bookviews as we select from the torrent, leaving the bestsellers to the mainstream media while we mine for lesser literary gems. Tell your book-reading friends and family members about Bookviews, bookmark it, and come back in September.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alan,

    Thanks for this dense catelogue of recommendations. I will have to delve this month into some of your suggestions.

    I'm amused by your interesting juxtaposition of fossil fuels as not being tyrannical while admitting the dominance it has global energy consumption. And at the same time you cite sustainability as a tree-hugging agenda of control!

    I applaud the bravado of your sentiments despite the shaky premise on which both are based.

    I look forward to sampling Bookviews August fare.

    Yours,
    Fellow Literature lover

    ReplyDelete