Friday, January 31, 2014

Bookviews - February 2014

By Alan Caruba

My Picks of the Month


The new “hot” book of 2014, debuting last month, and likely to remain newsworthy through the November 2014 midterm elections is Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates ($35.00, Alfred A. Knopf). As one reads this book, what becomes evident is that he writes, not just about Iraq and Afghanistan, but about the various “wars” he fought as he became the only Secretary to serve two Presidents, Bush and Obama, both with very different personalities and policies. One of the wars was a political war with Congress every day he was in office. He describes “the dramatic contrast between my public respond, bipartisanship, and calm, and my private frustration, disgust, and anger.” Gates arrived at the job having served for more than two decades in the Central Intelligence Agency where, under President George H. W. Bush, he was its director. Under George W. Bush, he had to direct the latter years of a conflict in Afghanistan that continues to this day as efforts were made to introduce democracy, Western values regarding women, education, and the training of an Afghan military almost from scratch. If this wasn’t enough, Bush43 undertook a war with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein that led to his removal, but also led to fierce fighting ably led by General Petraeus. While the media has emphasized what appeared to be conflicts with Obama, he points out that he fulfilled Obama’s objectives that included a surge in Afghanistan and the coming withdrawal by the end of this year. The withdrawal from Iraq when it refused to agree to ways in which the U.S. forces were to be treated has led to a renewed conflict as al Qaeda has returned to seize portions of the nation. What impressed me was the candor with which Gates wrote of his experience, providing insight into the incredible challenges of the job. What is most inspiring, though, is the reason he shouldered these responsibilities and endured so much political conflict. Simply put, it was his love for the troops and his sense of a personal responsibility for them. On his last day in office in 2011, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. He earned it!

A new book takes a look at Vladimir Putin, the Russian republic’s version of Stalin. Kicking the Kremlin by Marc Bennetts ($16.99, Oneworld Publications, softcover) takes a look at Russia’s new protest movement composed of those who want to see Putin removed from power, but it is also an excellent look at the way he came to power, his biography before that occurred, and how he has exercised it. As 2011 came to a close, 100,000 took to Moscow’s freezing streets to protest his election victory. A few months later, Pussy Riot, a girl band, was arrested from their anti-Putin demonstration in a Russian orthodox cathedral. As the book makes clear, opposing Putin can get you arrested and even killed. A series of assassinations of Russian journalists and protest leaders is far more than just a coincidence. Despite his protestations that the Russian constitution which protests free speech and public protests, doing so has become hazardous at best and Russia has no history of such activity, having been run by dictators from the czars to the communist dictators who replaced them. It is a good book to read as we get ready for the Winter Olympic Games, but it is worth reading to understand more about Putin and Russia whose economy is heavily dependent on its exports of oil and natural gas. Bennetts is a British journalist who has reported from Russia, Iran and North Korea for many years and, from late 2011 through early 2013, he worked for RIA Novosti, the now dissolved Russian state-run news agency. Suffice to say Putin controls the media.

 
The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class by Fred Siegel ($25.99, Encounter Books, imprint of the Perseus Books Group) may sound like some boring political or historical treatise, but, if you want to understand how we have reached this point in our society where Socialism has given us the disaster called Obamacare, then this will prove to be an interesting, easy-to-read re-write of history of much of what you may have come to believe about Socialism. For example, it did not begin with Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressivism or Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Siegel tells how it began after World War I in the 1920s when a group of writers and thinkers—intellectuals—disillusioned with American society began to call themselves liberals as they adopted the hostility to the bourgeois—the masses—that was already in vogue among European intellectuals. Liberalism was born among a new class of politically self-conscious intellectuals who were critical of mass democracy and middle-class capitalism; you know, the values that made the U.S. the greatest economic power the world has ever seen! Well worth reading!

An interesting book about an aspect of history that is generally unknown is Nicholas Johnson’s Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms ($19.95, Prometheus Books). A professor of law at Fordham Law School where he has taught since 1993, Johnson chronicles the underappreciated black tradition of bearing arms for self-defense that reaches back to the pre-Civil War era. From Frederick Douglass’s advice to keep “a good revolver” handy as a defense against slave catchers to the armed self-protection against the KKK, it is clear that owning firearms was commonplace in the black community. He also addresses the issue of young black men with guns and the toll that gun violence takes on many in the inner city.

The Home Book: The Complete Guide to Homeowner and Homebuilder Responsibilities ($49.95, Building Standards Institute, Sacramento, softcover) is intended to show homeowners what to expect with any new or remodeled home. It covers every possible condition referencing homeowner and homebuilder maintenance, providing 380 residential workmanship guidelines that are presented in are easy-to-read. Most homeowners don’t know where to find answers when they discover a defect in their new or remodeled home and this is particularly true if they aren’t detected right away. What, for example, are homeowners to do when the roof of their new home springs a leak? Or kitchen cabinets sag? Or they smell mold in the bathroom? The book was vetted by more than 70 industry professionals as well as government building officials, trade organizations, and consumer interests groups. It is the real deal and will no doubt save homeowners a lot of grief if they read it and keep it handy.

I enjoy what even I admit are “silly” books, but that is because many are written to entertain as well as inform. A good example is Scared Stiff: Everything You Need to Know About 50 Famous Phobias by Sara Latta ($12.99, Zest Books, softcover). We are generally aware of common phobias such as fear of heights, acrophobia, or confined spaces, claustrophobia, but there are others that include fears of insects, dogs, cats, mice or rats, to name a few. And let’s not leave out fear of germs. The book helps readers understand that they are not alone in have extreme fears. Ms. Latta comes from a science background so the fears noted in the book are treated seriously and she includes helpful information on how to cope with phobias, although some must surely require professional counseling when they interfere with living a normal life.

The baseball season is around the corner and for fans of the Boston Red Sox, Lew Freedman has authored The 50 Greatest Players in Boston Red Sox History ($17.95, Camino Books, softcover) that takes a look at its 110-year history that had it share of great players like Cy Young, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Carlton Fisk and David Ortiz, to name some of those that come to mind. Freedman has authored more than sixty popular sports books and this one will be a must-read for fans of this ball club. In addition to examining the personal stories of the best-known players, Freedman studies the careers of some of the excellent athletes who represented the club so long ago as to be nearly forgotten.

Getting Down to Business Books

In addition to having been a business and science writer for decades, I have largely earned my living as a public relations counselor, so I know something about PR. It is an essential element of success for entrepreneurs, corporations, the government, associations and individuals seeking to call attention to their causes and achievements. That’s why I am happy to recommend Christina Daves new book, PR for Anyone, ($14.95, Morgan James, softcover). Proof of the good advice she offers to small business owners is the fact that she has appeared on more than fifty media outlets in less than one year! It is filled with easy, actionable tips that would make that possible for anyone who reads her book. Public relations is an essential element of marketing one’s products and services, but many are unaware how to put it to work for themselves. Her book will open doors and create the “buzz” that lifts one’s business into public view, the kind of thing that can increase sales and achievement. It’s also a good reason to consider hiring a PR professional if you lack the time to do it yourself. Knowing the process helps you judge their success.

Another excellent book for entrepreneurs is Tom Panaggio’s The Risk Advantage ($14.95, River Grove Books, softcover). We all approach risk from our personal point of view and clearly some people are greater risk-takers than others. For those less inclined to take a risk, this book will prove very helpful as it explores our inclination to do so or not. As the author says, “The unexpected edge for entrepreneurial success starts with identifying a worthy risk and then having the courage to take it. It is the story in part of how Pannagio and his partners created a thriving American business and he uses his amateur racing exploits as a metaphor. “By viewing risk as just another challenge when opportunity presents itself, you’ll grab that edge—and win!” That’s true, but he also addresses how to deal with the failure than might occur from taking a risk and that’s an important part of being ready to risk again. This is fundamentally a book about the choices and judgments that anyone engaged in business must make and, after reading it, you will be better prepared to do so.

Advice on How Live More Wisely

There is virtually no aspect of life that someone has not written about to provide advice on how to cope, how to succeed, and how to make it better in some respect. As 2014 begins, here are some of the latest.

Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work by Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein ($24.95, Da Capo Press) runs counter to what we are told about never giving up and thinking positively. Sometimes those negative thoughts about our habits, our relationships, or our jobs are the right ones and should be acted upon. As the authors say, “Quitting is a healthy, adaptive response when a goal can’t be reached or when a life path turns out to be a blind alley. Simply putting quitting on the table—seeing it as a possible plan of action—is a necessary first step to changing your perspective.”  They argue that the most satisfied people have mastered the art of disengaging from unproductive goals and creating better ones to move them in a new direction. Grounded in the latest research, the book examines why people persist when they shouldn’t and how to fully disconnect from unproductive goals, cope with emotions caused by quitting, and form, prioritize, and implement better objectives to move people forward.
 
The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success by Megan McArdle ($27.95, Viking), a Bloomsberg columnist, examines how to find success by how quickly and nimbly we learn from our mistakes. A Libertarian, she makes a case for the way America is unique in its willingness to let people and companies fail, but also in the determination to help them pick themselves up afterword. She argues effectively that we have become too risk averse and that it is bad for ourselves and our children, as well as for enterprises that fail to compete effectively. The nation is in an era of “bailouts” that tap taxpayer dollars and may not serve as well as a trip to the bankruptcy court. Drawing on new research in science, psychology, and behavioral economics and insights from many who have experienced failures, she offers good advice on how to learn to make better decisions and break bad habits in business and life.

Another book about transforming our lives is I Like Giving: The Transforming Power of a Generous Life by Brad Formsma ($14.99, WaterBrook Press, softcover). If you feel that you’re not as generous as you should be, you’re not alone. We have been told that it is better to give than receive and Formsma is on a mission to change the way we see generosity as he challenges us to give wherever they are and in whatever manner they can. He wasn’t always that way, but a number of experiences convinced him of the truth of this. He is a successful entrepreneur and a philanthropist who, in 2007, sold his business to helping others.

Two problems that some encounter are addressed in Cheating Parents: Recovering From Parental Infidelity ($14.95, New Horizon Press, softcover) and Facing the Finish: A Road Map for Aging Parents and Adult Children (15.95, Bascom Hill Publishing Group, softcover).
The former, written by Dennis Ortman, PhD, a clinical psychologist, reflects his more than 35 years of counseling experience working with individuals suffering from the trauma of parental infidelity and examines how that affects their lives, especially when they too become adults. It affects their ability to have intimate relations, often cheat on their partners or marry those who cheat on them or are emotionally disengaged in their relationships. In a society where nearly forty percent of men and twenty percent of women in all economic stratus admit to having affairs during marriage, this is a very big problem. Their children often end up as walking wounded. Like so many others these days when parents are living longer lives and encounter the problems of old age, I could have used Sheri L. Samotin’s book on how adult children and their parents can address those problems. No one wants to think of their parent’s death and this includes the parents as well. Her book tackles the issues involved, offering advice on choosing the right caregiver, choosing to live at home, with family, or in the perfect senior housing community, as well as the fear of outliving one’s money or living on a fixed income when the cost of everything is rising. If this book reflects your present situation, I would strong recommend reading it.

We all have concerns about our health and fitness, and Ken Blanchard, the co-author of the bestseller, “The One Minute Manager”, and Tim Kearin, a fitness coach, have teamed up to write Fit at Last: Looking and Feel Better Once and For All ($24.95, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco). It has been lauded by both fitness experts and those in the business world, but Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen summed it up saying, “In the Army, teamwork and discipline are key to building successful teams and leaders.” In their book, “Ken Blanchard and Tim Kearin team up to deliver a disciplined holistic formula laced with personal challenges and successes that many of us have experienced in our quest to maintain physical fitness. This book will inspire you to not only begin but persevere toward the sheet job of being fit—at last.” The book is filled with excellent advice and I agree that it will change your life for the better after you have read it. And, for those with a big tummy, pick up a copy of 21-Day Tummy: The Revolutionary Diet that Soothes and Shrinks Any Belly Fast by Liz Vaccariello ($25.99, Readers Digest). Based on the latest research on the importance of eating anti-inflammatory and carb-light foods, the book is enhanced by more than 50 recipes that are delicious recipes to make weight loss easier, as well as inspirational stories and advice from those who found success with its recommendations. It’s about healthy eating and we all can benefit from that.

Memoirs

For many, the desire to set down the details of their lives and what they have learned from them results in writing a memoir. We can often gain some insights from them.

The Hero Among Us: Memoirs of an FBI Witness Hunter by Jim Ingram with James L. Dickerson ($19.95, Sartoris Literary Group, Brandon, MS, softcover) is filled with Ingram’s personal experiences with some of the events of his career. Ingram passed away in 2009 after having served as well as Mississippi’s Public Safety Commissioner. It sheds light on some of the notorious cases of the modern era such as the assassination of President Kennedy, the “Mississippi Burning” civil rights murders and bombings, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the murder of Federal Judge John H. Woods, the FALN bombings by Puerto Rico separatists, and the FBI counterintelligence operation known as COINTELPRO. It is about the remarkable career of a remarkable man.

Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir by Penelope Lively ($26.95, Viking) has an intriguing title as one might expect from a successful author of many books for both adults and children, including the Man Booker Prize-winning novel “Moon Tiger” and others. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012. It is a reflection on old age and, if that describes you, then you may find it of interest. It spans many years of her life from a childhood spent in Cairo and later at an English boarding school when her family was forced to leave due to the turmoil that occurred in Egypt and led to the seizure of the Suez Canal. I must confess I was unaware of the author’s career and books, but it must be said that she tends to ramble at length throughout so I suspect it will be of greater interest to those who are fans of her books and interested in the subject of old age.

The Most Beautiful Girl: A True Story of a Dad, a Daughter, and the Healing Power of Music by Tamara Saviano ($16.95, American Roots Press, softcover) has a foreword by Kris Kristofferson, the singer and actor. Saviano has achieved remarkable success and happiness in the music industry as an award-winning producer of albums. In 2012, she won the Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year award for tribute albums, but growing up she lived in fear as the frequent victim of her father’s abuse when he was under the influence of alcohol. When he wasn’t drunk, he was an adoring father who was her staunchest ally. The title of the book comes from the famous song of the same name. Now a 52-year-old woman, she shares her story and anyone who loves country music and may have experienced a similar childhood will find it of interest and value.

Antoinette Tuff put her life and her faith on the line when she confronted a young school shooter and talked him back from the brink of killing students at the school in Atlanta. She tells her story in Prepared for a Purpose ($24.99, Baker Publishing Group). This memoir will inspire those who share her faith in God. She averted a tragedy while demonstrating courage. This is a story as well of how she faced up to and overcame tragedies in her own life. The account of her confrontation with the shooter is worth reading as is her life.

Novels, Novels, Novels

The deluge continues. For every novel mentioned there are many others, but since reading fiction is a great way to relax or gain insights that may not be addressed in a non-fiction book, I am happy to recommend a few of those that have arrived.

I have been reading and reviewing Lior Samson’s novels now for several years and enjoying each one. He has a special talent for taking issues and events from real life and turning them into fictional suspense and action. This is true of his latest novel, Gasline ($14.95. Gesher Press, an imprint of Ampersand Press, Rowley, MA, softcover). Samson is comfortable addressing science and technology, but they are the background to the plot which, in this case, involves a safety engineer for a company that owns natural gas pipelines. Kat Gaudet in the field and Len Bergen, a technician in the company’s control center are drawn into events that involve a cyber-attack that could set off a huge explosion. It is so real because the events in the book reflect those that have occurred and, as he says in the author’s afterword, “The threat is real. Many parts of our natural gas transmission pipeline system are controlled by networks that are wide open to intrusion and to sabotage by relatively simple methods. Having written “Web Games” Samson knows his way around the technical aspects involved, but this new novel takes it to a new level of riveting storytelling.

Novels reflect real life or potential risks and Todd M. Johnson addresses what would happen if a nuclear facility that turned out plutonium during the Cold War suddenly has a huge explosion. Critical Reaction ($14.99, Bethany House) focuses on the fictional Hanford Nuclear Facility’s poisoned buildings that must be guarded by men from sabotage as they monitor the building which they have been told the dangers are under control. The main character, Kieran Mullany, survives the blast, but is met with threats and silence when his attempts to discover what really happened are raised. He reconnects with an old friend, an inexperience lawyer, Emily Hart, and both are convinced that those in charge are hiding something, concluding they will not get far in the courts. Emily’s estranged father, Ryan, has the courtroom experience they need and, together, he digs for answers and, as he does, the court case gets stranger and more dangerous for them. This is an excellent debut novel.

I liked “Miss Peregine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs when it was published in 2011 as a unique fantasy story paired with haunting vintage photography. Though a “young adult” novel, it could be equally enjoyed by older readers and it spent more than 60 consecutive weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Film rights were sold to Twentieth Century Fox with a release date of July 2015. A sequel arrived in January, Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregine’s Peculiar Children ($17.99, Quirk Books) and begins where the first book ended, opening as Jack and the other peculiars are on the run from “wights” posing as soldiers. Desperate to reach London before it’s too late, the children hope to find a cure for their beloved Miss Peregine who is trapped in a bird form! Along the way they encounter a menagerie of peculiar animals. The story doesn’t let up until the end and the sequel is likely to be another bestseller. One has to wonder what Riggs has in store for book three.
 
We can welcome the debut novelist, K.C. Woodworth who has authored Cutting Off A Whale’s Head ($14.95, Page Publishing, softcover) whose intriguing title is just the start of a fast-paced story that introduces us to Cree Quinn, a victim of the recession that has wreaked havoc on his adult-novelty business and other investments. He finds himself facing a vast financial loss that threatens to take away the family home and the fund for his young son’s college years. Suffice to say he is desperate until he learns of a decomposing carcass of a killer whale near the Golden Gate Bridge and, even though it is against the law, decides to cut off its head and sell it. Sounds bizarre? Yes, but that’s just where the fun begins. This novel will make you laugh and make you root for Quinn right up to when he is arrested and becomes a public hero of sorts. I won’t tell you how it ends. Along the way you will encounter a variety of wonderful characters.

I am a bit late in taking note of To Sleep…Perchance to Dream, an October debut novel by Donald A. Grippo ($24.00, Turn the Page Publishing) as a sexy, psychological thriller starring an Eurasian beauty, Mai Faca, who plots to marry Jake Warden, a successful oral surgeon forbidden to her because of family honor. In a bizarre scheme a fellow surgeon falls victim to Mai’s seduction as she and Jake play a cruel game in order to be together. Jake acts with surgical precision to clear the path to Mai’s happiness that threatens lives, including his own. The novel has a dense plot that will keep you turning the pages.

William F. Nolan, the author of “Logan’s Run”, notes that there have been more than 450 books written about the Kennedy assassination, but that John A. Gaetano’s novel, America’s Deceit ($23.40, WD Murray, softcover) “is the only one to explore the full truth regarding the death of our thirty-fifth president” noting that it is backed by thirty years of research that dismantles the “lone gunman” theory. Gaetano is convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill JFK! At close to 700 pages, it is a novel “that conspiracy buffs have been waiting for”, calling it “a mind-blower.” It fully fits the description of being an epic novel and it is one whose author is convinced that the government has engaged in a cover-up. That catch is, of course, this is a work of fiction about a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist whose life is changed by his investigation into the assassination. Gaetano was an active member of the Screen Actors Guild from 1977 through 1988 and is a skilled story-teller.

Two softcover novels from Langdon Street Press debuted in December. The Last Ferryman by Gregory D. Randle ($14.95) is set in Millerville, Minnesota, a ferry town and Buck Shyrock is certain it will stay that way. A local ferryman, his livelihood, like his father’s and grandfather’s before him, depends on it, but there are rumors that a bridge is coming to cross the Wabash River, though he dismisses them as gossip. It isn’t and as the construction begins, his family tried to help the old man accept the unstoppable progress. This isn’t just a story about progress, but also its impact on people’s lives and that of the community in which he lives. Randle grew up on the Wabash River in southeastern Illinois. This is his debut novel and a very good one. Here By Mistake: The Secret of the Niche by David Ciferri ($14.99) is about Brandon and his friends, Stephen and Sarah, who sneak into his Aunt Faye’s basement that is filled with antiquated treasures. They find more than they were looking for. It is a trove of gold coins, a knight’s armor, a stuffed grizzly bear on a pedestal and a mysteriously decorated niche. As they read the Latin inscription they leave New York 2005 and are transported back to another time and place, New Orleans 1965. They find the niche again, but gain a new perspective, not only about their history, but about the lives of people they think they know best. It is an intriguing story.

That’s it for February! Tell your book-loving family, friends, and co-workers about Bookviews.com so they too can enjoy its eclectic report on books, some of which are bestsellers, but which focuses on books that may not receive the attention they deserve.

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