My Picks of the Month; To Your Health; People (biographies and memoirs); Marriage and Parenting; Business books; Children’s and Younger Reader’s books; and new Novels
My Picks of the Month
For the best book on why the U.S. is in severe financial trouble. I recommend you read Dice Have No Memory: Bad Bets & Bad Economics from Paris to the Pampas by Bill Bonner (29.95, Wiley, hardcopy and e-Book). For more than thirty years, Bonner has analyzed and commented upon the challenges facing the U.S. economy as the president/CEO of Agora Publishing, one of the world’s largest financial newsletter companies. His newsletter, The Daily Reckoning, has six global daily editions and he has coauthored three previous bestsellers. This book is a collection of his columns since the new millennium, all just dead-on regarding the way the Federal Reserve and other central bankers have historically and currently created financial havoc for nations and individuals. Bonner writes with such a light touch, with humor, that the reader has to remind themselves how serious things are. This book will make it much easier to grasp that is happening and to make smarter personal financial decisions.
Regular readers of Bookviews know that I come from the “boost, don’t knock” school of reviewing. If I receive a book that I find wanting in some respect, it simply does not show up among the notice taken of those which I think will be of interest to readers.
I am going to make an exception for two books because they represent a genre I have seen now for decades. They are books that tell readers that everything around them is lethal or hazardous in some respect. They arrived about the same time that the Centers for Disease Control announced that life expectancy in the United States is an astounding 78 years of age on the average, the highest ever! You wouldn’t know that from reading The Healthy Home: Simple Truths to Protect Your Family from Hidden Household Dangers by Dr. Myron Wentz and Dave Wentz ($21.99, Vanguard Press, imprint of Perseus Book Group) that is just page after page of generally idiotic warnings against non-stick pots and pans, wrinkle-free sheets, and electrical appliances of all kinds. Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in the Age of Environmental Crisis by Sandra Steingraber ($26.00, Da Capo Press) is equally idiotic in its own paranoid way. To begin with, there is no “environmental crisis.” The Earth is 4.5 billion years old and doing what it has always done, sustaining life. To read this book is to be advised to forego all the advances of modern life, including bug spray, on the grounds that children are threatened by them. Take away the bug spray and all that’s left is the bugs, Nature’s most effective means of spreading disease. Avoid these books. Read poetry instead.
While on the subject of toxic books, another to avoid is Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future by Steve Hallett with John Wright ($26.00, Prometheus Books) that is surely one of the greatest collections of lies about energy to come along in a while. Having made enormous leaps forward over the past two centuries or so using coal and oil, the authors would have you believe that the Earth is running out of both these energy sources when is most certainly is not. The United States by itself is a huge storehouse of coal and oil, but access to it has been systematically denied, thus making the nation dependent on expensive imported oil and thwarting access to hundreds of years’ worth of coal reserves. The book claims that “global warming” exists when this hoax was exposed in 2009, advances the debunked “peak oil” myth, and throws in “wealth inequality” for good measure. The latter could have come right out of the Communist Manifesto. Avoid this book like the plague.
Since the 1980s we have been hearing about “global warming”, but in late 2009, the leak of emails between the small group of “climate scientists” whose data fed the fraud, based on reports by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore’s propaganda machine, drove a stake into the heart of it. The problem is that this bad science has been wired into our society from health to education, law, defense, international development, trade, and academic publishing. A clear-eyed look at this is found in Climate Coup: Global Warming’s Invasion of Our Government and our Lives, edited by Patrick J. Michaels ($24.95, Cato Institute). We continue to be flooded with apocalyptic scenarios when the real threats, earthquakes, tsunamis, and others are equated with the false ones. In chapter after chapter, the size of the fraud is described in this eye-opening book. Perhaps the most valuable instrument in the regulator’s toolbox is something called The Precautionary Principle which happens to be the title of Indur M. Goklany’s new book, subtitled “A critical appraisal of environmental risk assessment” ($17.95, Cato Institute). I grant you that this does not make one’s heart leap with anticipation, but it is surely worth reading if you want to understand why environmentalists and self-appointed consumer protection groups are forever seeking to ban everything critical to human health and other needs. The banning of DDT by the Environmental Protection Agency and subsequently by African nations led to the needless deaths of millions in Africa from Malaria and is credited for the plague of bed bugs that has occurred nationwide in the U.S..
In a world where the Middle East and the Maghreb (North African) nations are in a state of turmoil and the U.S. is engaged in two lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a stealthy participant in the effort to remove Libya’s despot from office, peace seems as elusive as ever. Douglas E. Noll has written Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts ($25.00, Prometheus Books). Since the dawn of civilization some five thousand years ago, I doubt that there has ever been a day when war and conflict has not existed somewhere, shaping history for good or ill. Noll brings his extensive experience as a professional mediator to the question of why peace talks and other issue-related negotiations fail. He posits that the international community is using a model of European diplomacy dating back to the 18th century to solve the problems of the 21st century. This strategy is based on the belief that nations will act rationally to resolve problems, but it is clear with a glance back on the last century that this is not true. Noll cites studies that demonstrate that emotional and irrational factors play a great role in the success or failure of a mediated solution. He has written an important book that should be read by diplomats, politicians, and all others engaged in the struggle for peace.
When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse ($26.95, Verso Books). From metal detectors to drug tests, increased policing to electronic surveillance, schools have been transformed in ways that have detrimental affects on students who must submit to this system of unprecedented restrictions on their rights, dignity, and educational environment. The author, Annette Fuentes, cites a CNN report that found that in New York City there are nearly 5,000 employees in its school safety division in contrast to about 3,000 counselors. This book is a real eye-opener. As For Me and My House: A GPS for Parents of School-Age Children ($14.95, Amazon.com, softcover) by Rose Marie Whiteside addresses the need for accountability by parents whose children are matriculating through what many regard as a seriously flawed public school system nationwide. You can learn more about the book and her views at www.as-for-me-and-my-house.com. All manner of problems faced by Americans and ethnic groups such as Latinos, Afro-Americans, and Asian Americans are noted, along with the responsibilities that come with the rights Americans assume are associated with government schooling. It is commonly said by teachers that parents are as much of the challenge of teaching children as any other and this book prepares parents to get the most out of their local education system.
With the growing population of single people, I have often wondered why cookbooks do not cater to this trend. Now one does. Cooking for One by Chefs Mark and Lisa Erickson of the Culinary Institute of America ($24.95, Lebhar-Friedman Books, softcover) addresses the many ways a single person can, season to season, prepare delicious meals for themselves. The book is enhanced with gorgeous full color photos by Ben Fink, but it is the recipes for everything from Cornish hen with chutney glaze to spiced halibut or roasted duck with orange sauce that will make your mouth water. While the recipes are scaled to the single diner, they can easily be adapted for a dinner for two.
I am a pushover for a book that approaches an interesting topic, especially if the author does a great job of describing it. This description fits Poison, an Illustrated History by Joel Levy ($16.95, Lyons Press, softcover), a short, very entertaining look at poison from Cleopatra to Mary Ann Cotton, from cone snails to cocaine. It is filled with fascinating facts such as ergot mold which grows on rye and other grains may have played a role in the 1691 witchcraft panic because it causes hallucinations. Nicotine, the addictive ingredient in cigarettes, is also a highly potent alkaloid neurotoxin used widely as an insecticide. Botulinum toxin is the most potent poison known to science. Little more than a cup of it would be enough to kill every human on Earth. I recommend a strong dose of this book for the sheer pleasure (and terror) of its contents. I am also fond of books that offer a look at the world in which we live in an entertaining fashion. The Indispensable Book of Useless Information by Don Voorhees ($12.95, Perigee, softcover) has lots of information and while much is trivia, there’s plenty of actually useful information as well. Voorhees delights in gathering bits of information and organizing to entertain the reader. He has three previous such books and they are a great way to pass the time. Having grown up watching the great western movies of the 40’s up to more recent times, I only later came to realize how the values expressed in those films influenced my own and always for the better. If you’re a fan, you will enjoy The Greatest Western Movies of All Time by the editors of American Cowboy magazine ($16.95, Two Dot, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). It’s a compendium of short essays about films that any fan will instantly recall, appealing to a wide variety of ages and preferences, from Shane to The Wild Bunch, High Noon to Unforgiven. The best of them—and they’re all here—were in fact real dramas despite the general formulas we came to understand and expect. It was, indeed, good versus evil. It was about taking responsibility and showing courage. This is just a dandy little book that is also filled with photos of many of my favorites. And, yes, I have seen most of those in the book.
To Your Health
Every so often a book on some aspect of health comes along that makes such good sense that you just want to shout “hurrah!” The Breakthrough Depression Solution by Dr. James Greenblatt, MD, is one such book ($16.95, Sunrise River Press, North Branch, MN, softcover). Dr. Greenblatt is a psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of children and adults experiencing depression and, with twenty years of experience, he says that “There are many factors involved in depression, ranging from diet and lifestyle to genetics. The good news is that patients can, indeed, escape the roller-coaster ride of frustration and cynicism caused by ineffective antidepressant regimens and their attendant side affects.” An assistant clinical professor at Tufts Medical School, Dr. Greenblatt has laid out a method for identifying and treating the physical contributors to depression and he does so in a way that a layman such as myself can easily understand. Bearing in mind that each depression is unique depending on the individual; their biochemistry, including physical factors such as nutrition, genetics, hormones, and stress, all of which can contribute to the severity of the condition. The bad news is that depression is strongly associated with heart disease, puts people at risk for alcohol and drug abuse, and is a major factor in suicide. There are, however, simple, effective strategies for sustained recovery and you can learn about them in this book.
Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life by Dr. Claudia Welch, Master of Science, Oriental Medicine, ($18.00, Da Capo Press, softcover) takes a very different approach and is directed at women and, in particular, those in the workforce who must juggle work and family life. She explores the counterbalancing effects of sex and stress hormones, and outlines strategies for self-care to help combat stress-induced medical problems from painful periods, mood swings, fatigue, insomnia, infertility, and other common health problems women encounter. The author lectures and teaches on Asian and Ayurvedic medicines that involve a complete lifestyle that is, in many ways, different from the one to which most American women are accustomed. A lot of it will raise questions such as advice to avoid storing food in plastic containers or plant and lawn care choices that are deemed “endocrine disruptors”, the all-purpose villain used widely to disparage beneficial chemicals that actually protect one’s health. So, proceed with caution if you choose to read this book.
Given events in Japan with its horrendous earthquake and tsunami what, in fact, would you do in a true life-threatening situation? Scott B. Williams has written an interesting guide, Getting Out Alive, ($14.95, Ulysses Press, softcover) that describes thirteen deadly scenarios and how others actually survived them. He lays out the three vital ways to cheat death when all seems lost by avoiding panic, knowing survival skills, and maintaining a relentless determination to survive. The book is filled with tactics such as building shelters, finding water, signaling for help, and much more. You never know when such knowledge will come in handy.
People, People, People
There is no question that Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the great figures in history and so famous that his first name is the title of Napoleon: A Biography by Frank McLynn ($19.95, Skyhorse Publishing, softcover). From cover to cover it runs 739 pages, but the subject of the biography more than lives up to them. McLynn tells the story of a man who was an existential hero, plaything of fate, an intellectual giant, and a deeply morally flawed man. The book is enhanced by the author’s analysis of the personalities around Napoleon that include his sprawling family and two wives. What emerges is a figure more closely resembling a Mafia godfather than visionary European leader. His life is a reflection of 18th century European history and I guarantee any lover of history a thoroughly gripping and enjoyable biography.
Iran, after the 1979 Islamic revolution that forced out the Shah and installed a vicious coterie of ayatollahs and mullahs, the nation descended into a hell that few can comprehend. During the summer of 1988, the Islamic Republic began to systematically kill its political prisoners, hanging thousands, estimated to be between 4,500 and 10,000, many of whom were in Evin Prison in Tehran. They did everything they could for two decades to hide this crime and the mass gravesites. Dr. Jafar Yaghoobi, a prisoner between 1984 and 1989, somehow survived and, in Let Us Water the Flowers ($19.00, Prometheus Books, softcover) shares his memoir with readers, describing the courage, resistance, camaraderie, and solidarity of the prisoners who did not give up hope. Others broke under the pressure and collaborated with their jailers. The book provides a powerful insight to the mindset of those ruling Iran and to the events of that early terrible period of time. Released from prison in 1989, he escaped to Turkey, joining his family in Germany and eventually, in 1990, moving to the United States. Since his retirement from the University of California-Davis, he has been active in bringing attention to human rights abuses in Iran. Today, Iran’s leaders are moving inexorably toward acquiring nuclear weapons and the failure to stop this could have catastrophic consequences for the region and the world.
A colleague of mine, member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Jerome Tuccille, has just had his latest book published, Hemingway and Gellhorn: The Untold Story of Two Writers, Espionage, War, and the Great Depression ($15.99, on sale for $11.51, Amazon.com, softcover). Hemingway had the good fortune to be born and to live through one of the world’s most exciting, challenging, and dangerous periods, including the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War that preceded World War Two and, of course, the war itself. Ernest Hemingway emerged from this era of turmoil as one of America’s greatest novelists, but his life reads like a novel as well. Turcille’s latest of more than twenty books deals with his tumultuous marriage to his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, along with their activities as spies for the U.S. government. Between Gellhorn’s political passions, her affairs, as well as Hemingway’s extramarital affairs that doomed the marriage, they were dramatic enough to merit an upcoming HBO special, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, based on the book!
Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex ($25.00, Council Oak Books, Tulsa, OK) is Richard Polsky’s story of putting his career as a private art dealer on hold in order at age 50 to pursue his childhood obsession with paleontology and embark on a quest to fine the bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex, a rare find even by those who devote a lifetime to it. In this entertaining account, Polsky sets out for the South Dakota badlands and discovers what he calls a lost tribe, the Boneheads, and becomes one of them, an oddball group of dinosaur hunters intent on finding the holy grail of those searching for this elusive skeleton. Fewer than fifty have been found, but one fetched $8.3 million at Sotheby’s. An offbeat tale, it says a lot about how, for fun and profit, some pursue this dream and why. In a similar fashion, Jake MacDonald tells of his own obsession with grizzly and other bears, In Bear Country ($18.95, Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, softcover). If you’re expecting a dry story about the life cycles of bears, this is not the book to read. If you’re in the mood for a collection of stories about bears, it surely is. Ironically, the more MacDonald studied bears, the less he felt he knew. To the question, what do you do if you meet a bear in the woods, he relates the advice of an old-timers who told him, “You can’t outrun a bear, so forget it. Just outrun the person you’re with.” For anyone who finds these creatures of interest, this is a great read.
We live in a culture that drowns us in useless entertainment, mostly provided by the now ubiquitous television set in every room of the house. Jan Lancaster has penned My Fair Lazy ($15.00, NAL, New American Library, softcover) that is subtitled “One reality television addict’s attempt to discover if not being a dumb ass is the new black or, a culture-up manifesto.” Lancaster relates how content she was to wrap herself in a blanket, eat grilled cheese sandwiches, and watch an endless stream of mind-numbing nonsense such as American Idol, Survivor, Wife Swap, The Biggest Loser, and the endless other “reality” shows. She admits it gave her a feeling of intellectual and moral superiority without requiring any effort other than moving the dogs to find the remote. If this is you or someone you know, I recommend reading it. Theatre Geek: The Real Life Drama of a Summer at Stagedoor Manor by Mickey Rapkin ($15.00, Free Press, softcover) takes the reader on a backstage tour of the lives of young drama queens. Before there was “Glee” or “American Idol” there was Stagedoor Manor, a theatre camp in the Catskills where Hollywood casting directors came to find the next generation of stars. It’s where Natalie Portman, Robert Downey, Jr., Zach Braff and others got their start in a breeding ground for Broadway and Hollywood. It is an interesting look at the world of young performers hoping to become stars. Long ago I did public relations for Actors Equity, learning what a difficult life it was for those who longed for the spotlight and how few ever achieved any success. Movie aficionados will enjoy Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley by Jeffrey Spivak ($39.95, The University Press of Kentucky), but it will help if you are particularly fond of films from his era of musicals, transforming the way dances were staged and filmed during the Great Depression. Surprisingly there is no star on Hollywood Boulevard, nor was there any Academy Award recognition despite his innovations. This book is devoted to his life and it was messy. He was married six times and his addiction—liquor—and behavior would derail his career as a choreographer and ultimately ruin his life, despite the fact that the techniques he developed are still in use today. Oddly, he had little training in dance. Indeed, most everything about Berkeley was odd and Spivak has done a first rate job of capturing his life. From the world of entertainment, a large format book, Queen: The Ultimate Illustrated History of the Crown Kings of Rock by Phil Sutcliffe ($24.99, Voyageur Press, an imprint of Quayside Publishing Group) will prove a joy to all who are fans of this fabled band. It is hard to believe it is now forty years after their debut. More than 500 photos and artifacts illustrate the book.
There is a deluge of memoirs these days. People, for whatever reason, feel compelled to tell their stories. Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses by Claudia Sternbach ($14.95, Unbridled Books, softcover) has a previous 1999 memoir and her new one tells of the kisses that shaped her life and uses them to tell of her search to get life right in a sharp, funny memoir, ideal for other women seeking the same thing. Into My Father’s Wake by Eric Best (www.intomyfatherswake.com) is one of many self-published memoirs. This one tells of the author’s solo, 5,000 mile Pacific journey aboard the 47-foot ketch as he sought to understand the way his father’s life shaped his own. There are some for whom the tossing waves and long hours on the ocean are a lure that must be explored and, for those, this book will prove of interest. A very different story is told in The House on Crash Corner…And Other Unavoidable Calamities by Mindy Greenstein, PhD ($20.00, Greenpoint Press, softcover) is the author’s entertaining memoir of a woman who leaves the world of a Yiddish-speaking, orthodox Jewish upbringing to become an expert gunslinger and prison psychologist, an Upper West Side mom, a therapist for cancer patients, and, ironically, a cancer survivor herself. This is about growing up in a home of Holocaust survivors, a mother who loves to gamble at the off-track betting parlor, a poker-playing father, a rebellious brother, and what it was like to be an over-achieving daughter.
Roy Rowen, a career correspondent and author, has written Never Too Late: A 90-Year-Old’s Pursuit of a Whirlwind Life ($19.95, Globe Pequot Press) shares the pleasures and potentials of old age based on a long life of adventure spend covering wars and revolutions around the world that took him into his eighties. For seniors, this is his advice to those who still enjoy good health and a career that keeps them young. He offers his views on the value of optimism, the fight to maintain independence as the years go by, and the necessity for seniors to start a second career or activity. For the many people who likewise are in their later years, this book will prove an inspiration and a reason to examine what it means to be old.
Marriage, Parenting, Etc
Let us begin with marriage and Gerald Fierst’s latest book on the subject, The Heart of the Wedding ($19.95, Parkhurst Brothers Publishers, softcover). Fierst notes that, while traditions like the tiered white cake, the Wedding March, and formal dress are still honored, there are all manner of new choices for the ceremony, the reception, music, and other elements. The book is filled with true love stories of real life wedding ceremonies, along with lots of common sense recommendations for making the day meaningful, memorable, and practical. The author is a Civil Celebrant who has officiated at more than 250 weddings over the past seven years.
After the marriage comes the fighting—just kidding! In The Good Enough Spouse: Resolve or Dissolve Conflicted Marriages ($14.95, New Horizon Press, softcover) Dr. William E. Ward addresses unhappy spouses and explains why their marriages are unsatisfying, dysfunctional, and deteriorating. Know a couple this describes? If so, this book might prove helpful to both as it explores the true, deeper causes that each partner must address. Then he outlines a proven strategy for partners to mend and revitalize their unions. Everyone brings a certain amount of personal “baggage” to a marriage and it is important to examine it and grow beyond it. Relations do evolve and change. The aim is to make it change for the better. One problem few couples will discuss is examined in Intimacy Anorexia: Healing the Hidden Addiction in Your Marriage by Dr. Douglas Weiss, Ph.D. ($22.95, Discovery Press, Colorado Springs, CO, softcover). The author is the president of the American Association for Sex Addiction Therapy and the clinical director of the Heart to Heart Counseling Center. A licensed psychologist, he has authored twenty books on addiction and relationships. The book grew out of a recognition by himself and his colleagues that they were seeing male sex addicts, usually engaging in masturbation or having sex outside of their marriage. What was notable was that they were often not having sex with their wife. They called this intimacy anorexia and the book addresses this behavior. The book will prove helpful to both the addict and his spouse.
There are many books on parenting, but while this is a priority for mothers, most men do not get much advice or help beyond having observed their own fathers. Perfect Dad: The Complete Do-It-Yourself Guide for Becoming a Great Father by Todd Cartmell ($12.99, Revell, softcover) is written in the language of dads, especially new ones, using short, entertaining chapters, humor, while providing a comprehensive look at what it takes to be a great dad. It offers advice on how to look at your children, how to talk to them, connect with them, act toward them, and provide the leadership they want. For the new father in particular, this is the perfect gift, but it will also work for the father feeling a bit overwhelmed. Though it “belongs” in the Bookviews section on novels, Parents Behaving Badly by Scott Gummer ($23.00, Touchstone) fits in here as well for its hilarious look at what occurs at the start of Little League season with all of its joy, passion, stress, and anxiety. It is a wonderful satire on the insanity of youth sports today and roasts the lunatic parents and overzealous coaches who all too often ruin it for the kids! Anyone who has a kid in Little League will recognize the truths exposed and way the game can bring out the worst in zealous parents. Check it out.
Getting Down to Business Books
In an alarmingly bad economy, it is perhaps not surprising that there aren’t that many new books being published to tell you how to succeed. Still, there’s always some author who wants to take a shot at it and Robert Mayer, with Peter Weisz, has done so in Without Risk There’s No Reward ($23.95, Seven Locks Press). After serving in the U.S. Air Force in World War II, Mayer began as a day laborer and from there became a builder, banker, businessman, hotel and casino operator, and world class entrepreneur. The book is essentially a memoir, the story of how he achieved his success; it took a lot of work on his part and that is perhaps the greatest lesson the book imports.
Leadership is Dead: How Influence is Reviving It by Jeremie Kubicek ($24.00, Howard Books, division of Simon and Schuster) acknowledges that “leadership” has been studied and redefined for decades. He concluded that too many people who claim to be leaders have abused their positions and lost their moral compass. He decided to free himself from the old self-centered view of leadership and embrace a broader, more positive view; that of the opportunity to influence people, have a positive affect on them, and bring them together for more than just displaying personal status, wealth, power or success. Essentially, he writes about values that are as much spiritual as managerial. For anyone who wants to reconcile success with service, this book will prove most satisfying. For those entrepreneurs wondering that the next big trend will be, Patrick J. Howie has written The Evolution of Revolutions: How We Create, Shape, and React to Change ($25.00, Prometheus Books). It is a blend of historical analysis and how-to knowledge that Howie, an economist, has come up with to help spot “the next big thing.” He holds a patent for analyzing the effectiveness of marketing strategies, so he has been studying this for a long time. Now he shares what he has learned with the reader.
Conflict 101: A Manager’s Guide to Resolving Problems So Everyone Can Get Back to Work is one of those titles that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the book ($17.95, Amacom, softcover). Susan H. Shearouse is about to save managers who read her excellent book hours and hours of trouble and the costs of conflict in the workplace which affects productivity and can lead to a world of related problems such as decreasing motivation, destroying morale, aggravating absenteeism, and worse. The author has more than 20 years as a conflict resolution professional so she knows what she’s writing about. Anyone in a management position will benefit greatly from this excellent book.
Children’s & Younger Readers Books
The marriage of Britain’s Prince William to Kate Middleton got lots of little girls thinking about what it must be like to be a princess. Goosebottom Books has a series devoted to six female leaders who are not well-known to American girls, but are part of the history of Egypt, Iran, Mongolia, Spain, and other places. For those aged 9 through 13, it is a great series called “The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses". Among the titles are Hatshepsuit of Egypt, the first female Pharaoh, Artemisia of Caria, a queen and admiral who earned the Persian Xerxes’ respect, Sorghaghtani of Mongolia, the daughter-in-law of Genghis Khan who consolidated her family’s control of a vast empire. Others include Qutlugh Terkan Khatun of Kirman, Isabella of Castile, and Nur Jahan of India. They are priced at $18.95 and, in addition to excellent texts, are all beautifully illustrated.
The story of a very different princess is told in Pretty Princess Pig ($9.99. Little Simon, a division of Simon & Schuster) by Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple, and illustrated by Sam Williams. Ideal for kids ages 4-6, it will have them laughing on every page as Princess Pig gets ready for a big party, redecorating the dining room, baking a cake, digging up flowers, and unknowingly making a big mess on every page, all while wearing her flowered party dress. Kristi Yamaguchi, the famed skating star, has written Dream Big Little Pig! ($15.99, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky). Illustrated by Tim Bowers, the mother of two children of her own, she based the theme of the book on her lifelong motto, “always dream.” Poppy the Pig provides a lot of fun and inspiration as she dreams of becoming a skating star, despite some early setbacks trying out other dreams. This is a great book for readers aged 5-10.
A spate of books about our feathered friends, birds, offers a variety of wonderful reading.
Ten Birds by Cybele Young ($16.95, Kids Can Books) is a numbers book for the very young, teaching them numbers, but doing so with some of the most extraordinary artwork I have seen in a while. Remarkable images will entrance the very young reader fortunate enough to receive this book. A nine-book series, “The Lima Bear Stories”, by Thomas Weck and Peter Weck, kicks off with The Megasaurus, with illustrations by Len DisSalvo ($15.95, Lima Bear Press) and a cover featuring three very nervous owls. Great for kids aged 4-8, this and the others in the series will teach the values of courage, tolerance, honesty, and other traits worth acquiring. This book, however, also entertains with its story of a monster in Beandom whose favorite food was beans! All manner of efforts to rid the kingdom are tried before they find one that works. For a taste of poetry there’s Birds of a Feather ($17.95, Wordsong/Boyds Mill Press, Honesdale, PA) with poems by Jane Yolen and some extraordinary color photos of various bird species by Jason Stemple. This will appear to kids ages 9-11 and may turn one of them into a future ornithologist with pages that feature kingbirds, waxwings, terns, and others.
A Norwegian folktale is retold by Ashley Ramsden and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist, Ed Young. Seven Fathers ($16.99, Roaring Brook Press) tells of a traveler seeking shelter in a snowstorm who stumbles upon a house and when he asks the old man on the porch if there’s a room where he can spend the night, he is directed to an older man who, in turn, directs him to one yet older. This is a mystical tale that is sure to enter into the memory of any youngster, ages 8 to 11, fortunate to read it.
Novels, Novels, Novels
Someone, I’m told, once said there are only seven plots in the whole of literature and, if you have read novels for fifty years or so, it’s easy to see why. There are, of course, the various genres such as suspense, mystery, romance, fantasy, and science fiction. In all novels, it seems, there must be a hero and a villain. In the end, it comes down to how well the story is told.
I recently received a review copy of a novel by Jonathan Bloomfield. It combines all the elements described and one more. It is so timely it will scare the pants off of you. It is Palestine ($17.97, http://www.silverlanepublishing.com/) and is about an attack on Israel that involves Iranian nuclear bombs and the coordination with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Why not call it “Israel” instead? Because Israel was called Israel before a Roman emperor tried to expunge that already ancient name by calling it Palestine. With the exile of the Jews to Babylon and their subsequent life in the Diaspora, two thousand years passed before they could reclaim it as their historic, national homeland. Barely the size of New Jersey, it became the focus of hatred for all Muslims, but especially for the Iranian ayatollahs who, in 1979, took control of Iran. To bring about the return of the Twelfth Imam, a Shiite legend, they intend to bring about Armageddon and that is where the novel begins in earnest as Israeli military and intelligence officers gather to confront the fact that they are 24 hours away from annihilation. The nation’s political leaders refuse to take action though. What follows is a coup orchestrated to save Israel from destruction. The story is actually told from the point of view of both Israelis and members of Hamas. Moreover, the details of the actions of all the characters suggest that only someone totally familiar with Israel’s capabilities could have written the book. This is heart-pounding suspense that could become a reality. Another novel has Judaism at its core and takes a page of largely unknown history as its theme. The Messiah of Septimania by Lee Levin ($16.95, Royal Heritage Press, softcover) tells of the medieval Jewish Kingdom of Septimania and its first king; one with three different names, a man hailed as the Messiah. During the reign of Caesar Augustus, veterans of the Roman Seventh Legion (Septimanii) settled in a land just north of the Pyrenees. There was, indeed, such a region, but it is not known as a Jewish kingdom and the author has “borrowed” it for his own purposes, noting that in 70 A.D., the Romans had conquered Jerusalem and allegedly took the Holy Menorah back to Rome. In 410, the city was sacked by Visigoths who were said to have taken it back to their capital, Rhedae, in Septimania. It vanished. Or did it? The novel is written with a strict adherence to historical accuracy and introduces us to a Jewish King, said to have been an uncle to Charlemagne and whose bloodline intermingled with the Carolingian kings of France. His army protected the southern flank of Charlemagne’s Frankish kingdom. The novel that Levin has woven from these strands of history will keep the reader entranced.
Kal Wagenheim has been writing books since before I met him many, many years ago. We were both born in Newark, NJ and have both pursued the writer’s trade in one fashion or another. From a biography of Babe Ruth to teaching creative writing at Columbia University and The State Prison in Trenton, Kal’s own creative juices keep percolating and that is evident in a very “grown up” novel, The Secret Life of Walter Mott ($16.99, http://allthingsthatmatterpress.com). And, yes, it’s a bit of a play on the famed “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber. The year is 1959 and Kal’s Walter has a dreary job in an insurance company. A bachelor, he secretly lives in his office to save money, retire early, and travel the world. Then he falls in love with a co-worker and all his plans go to hell. It is a ribald tale of misadventures spinning out of control. Laura Dave returns with a new novel, The First Husband, ($25.95, Viking) that more seriously explores the question, how do you know you’ve made the right choice? Annie Adams appears to have the good life with a career, a circle of friends, and live-in boyfriend, Nick. When Nick decides he needs to take a break from the relationship, Annie is shattered. While recuperating from the shock she visits a local restaurant where she meets the chef, Griffin, and falls for him big time! Three months later she marries him and finds herself living in Griffin’s hometown in Massachusetts. Life is full of surprises and questions.
For romantics, there’s Santa Montefiere’s new novel, The Mermaid Garden ($24.99, Touchstone, a division of Simon and Schuster), following the international success of “The French Gardener.” It is a complex and irresistibly compelling story set in both Tuscany and the coast of Devon, England. Spanning four decades, the novel threads together two separate stories. The garden is part of a palazzo in Herba, Italy. The year in 1968 and ten-year-old Floriana, a child of poverty, is befriended by the son of the villa’s wealthy owner. They become friends despite the odds She dreams that her destiny is in that garden, with him. Fast forward to 2009 and a charming old hotel by the sea. When its owner, Marina, hires a handsome Argentine artist to run it, sparks fly for her step-daughter Clamentine. Happy endings? You will have to read it to find out. Location often plays as great a role in a novel as the characters. In Philip Cioffari’s novel, Jesusville, ($18.95, Livingston Press, softcover) the two meld together when despair meets greed in a Southwestern desert. As Cioffari explains, “All the characters have in one form or another lost faith—in God or the Church or the social order or themselves.” Possessing empty lives, they are seeking some meaning to their existence. They are in great need of redemption.
For those who like their suspense straight, two novels amply provide it. In The Gods of Greenwich ($24.99, Minotaur Books, a Thomas Dunne Book) Norb Vonnegut (no relationship to Kurt Vonnegut) follows up on his initial success with “Top Producer”, a novel of Wall Street. He continues that theme with a new story of frighteningly plausible manipulations in the world of high finance to deliver a recession-era nail-biter about a super-powered hedge fun and a new employee who suspects a deadly secret behind its spectacular quarterly gains. Jimmy Cusack is trying to deal with investors who want out ‘now’ while Cy Lesser, a high-powered financial dynamo is in Iceland planning a shorting-scheme to bring down one its largest banks. Add in Rachel Whittier, a sexy nurse who has killed an aging millionaire in his Fifth Avenue apartment. Cusack jumps at the chance to work for Lesser in the Greenwich, Connecticut office of his hedge fund. Only a Wall Street insider like Vonnegut could have written this fast-paced thriller. It could not be more timely. In A Conflict of Interest ($25.00, Gallery Books) we enter the world of criminal defense attorney Alex Miller, the youngest partner in a powerful New York firm. He’s got everything; a loving wife, a beautiful daughter, and the dream job. At his father’s funeral he is approached by Michael Ohlig, a mysterious and nearly mythic figure in Miller family history. He asks Alex to represent him in a high-profile criminal investigation of an alleged brokerage scam that has lost hundreds of millions of dollars for its investors. As the novel unfolds, Alex discovers shocking secrets that threaten everything in which he believes. This is a strong debut for Adam Mitzner, its author. Fans of legal thrillers will have found a new author to read and follow.
Most of us could not find Serbia on the map if we had to, but David Albahari has put it on the literary map with Leeches ($24.00, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a darkly funny, complex murder mystery that reflects the uncertainty of life in the late 1990s Serbia. It begins when a single, pot-smoking columnist for a Belgrade newspaper sees a man slap a beautiful woman on the banks of the Danube. Intrigued, he tries unsuccessfully to follow her though the city’s tangled streets. Soon after, he received a mysterious manuscript comprising fragments on the Kabbalah and the history of Jews in Zemun and Belgrade. Wierdly, the manuscript’s contents seem to mutate each time he opens it up. Not your average thriller to be sure, but very interesting in its own way. Born in Serbia, the author emigrated to Canada in 1994. His reputation is growing. Finally, for those who love short stories, there’s Roddy Doyle’s Bullfighting ($25.95, Viking), a series of bittersweet tales about men and middle age, revealing a panorama of Ireland today. Doyle has a knack for capturing human moments, bravado and helplessness, as, in one story, four men take a vacation in Spain to drink and watch bullfights. The stories move from classrooms to crematoriums, local pubs to bullrings. It’s all about life and it’s all marvelously well told.